The Eyes of a Scholar, the Eyes of a Believer

Thomas Ingmire, The Ten Commandments, Copyright 2006, The Saint John’s Bible, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

In 2009, I co-curated (along with Kathryn Gerry) an exhibition on the Saint John’s Bible at the Walters Art Museum. The Saint John’s Bible, if you don’t know it, is a very large, extensively illuminated manuscript bible made by a team of scribes and artists under the direction of the calligrapher Donald Jackson. I have to confess that I don’t particularly love all the art in the book, but some of it is pretty brilliant, like Thomas Ingmire’s deconstruction of the Ten Commandments.

Nonetheless, seemed like a great opportunity to feature the Walters’ glorious collection of illuminated manuscripts alongside a modern manuscript that has aroused some interest among the general public. And yet, the exhibition touched off a vigorous and rather difficult discussion among the staff about the very appropriateness of showing contemporary religious art within a public museum. Even though the great majority of works in the Walters are religious in nature, they are also entirely historical. No one would think that the artifacts on display in the museum constituted an endorsement of Mithraism or an inducement to use enemas spiked with psychoactive substances to access the Mayan spirit world (even if that would allow us to settle this whole “2012” thing once and for all). Even those works from living traditions (Buddhism, the Abrahamic faiths) had been largely de-consecrated, denatured by time, and displaced from their religious settings to become art objects.

Perhaps naively, I didn’t see why exhibiting the SJB should be any different, but some on the staff felt that, in showing contemporary Christian art, the Walters was allowing itself to become a platform for evangelism. In response to these anxieties, we tried to direct attention away from the spiritual themes of the book by looking at how it was made, by comparing its scripts to earlier calligraphic traditions, and by setting it in a global religious context (we had a Koran front and center in the first room). “See? It’s just another work of art. Don’t worry, it won’t infect your mind.”

Missal (The “St. Francis Missal”). Assisi, Italy, 1172-1228. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. W.75, f. 166v.

When the show went up, the reaction to its religious content was mixed. Many people came because they were interested in the artistry and calligraphy. Some Jewish museum members admitted to me that they went to the show primarily out of a sense of obligation, but found themselves pleasantly surprised. So the ploy to de-sanctify the art apparently worked. But then I also witnessed people praying in front of the Saint John’s Bible, and in front of some of the older books. A group of Franciscan monks came to see a missal that is recognized as a relic of St. Francis. To them, this absolutely was a religious show. The setting couldn’t obscure the divinity of these objects.

Most of the art I study was made by and for medieval Christians, and I end up spending a lot of time exploring questions of dogma and theology. I absolutely love the material, even though I am thoroughly agnostic and wholly uncurious about whether or not a god exists. I suppose I enjoy it primarily as a spectator. This stuff isn’t mine, it isn’t me; I’m just an historian trying to understand what these things are. I’m certainly not in the minority in cultivating this mindset. I think, generally, that most scholars feel that they need some sort of “necessary distance” to do good work on a topic.

But the Saint John’s Bible exhibition (and a recent book chapter I wrote on the manuscript) recently inspired me to wonder if I’ll ever really get the art I work on. I worry that maintaining emotional, philosophical, and spiritual distance entirely misses the point of religious art. Is it possible for me to really understand something that is meant to provide a connection to the divine if I don’t claim to know if that divinity exists? If seeing Jesus on the cross evokes no particular sorrow (or gratitude) in me, am I in any position to try to interpret that work of art? At what point does the “necessary distance” become a chasm?

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20 Responses to “The Eyes of a Scholar, the Eyes of a Believer”

  1. Martha Easton October 15, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    I struggle with the same issues. The other day in my survey class we were talking about the pilgrimage roads, relics, and reliquaries, and as a non-Christian teaching at a Catholic university (where 70% of the students self-identify as Catholic), I’m always very aware of how I present this material. I get around the issue of authenticity, which always comes up, by referencing Chaucer and his ‘pigges bones’ — it’s somehow more palatable if a contemporary figure raises doubts. And on the other hand, I have other students who say that they knew pilgrimage existed in Islam, but had no idea that the phenomenon was present in Christianity as well. And then, of course, there are those for whom this whole topic is an opaque, creepy mess.

    And yet, I should also say that ‘authenticity’ is not something I’m really interested in discussing — but the students definitely are. Sometimes I realize that I’m barreling along in class by detailing martyr legends, miracles performed by relics, and the like, without any sense of historical distance whatsoever, and then I wonder if I need to pull back and situate myself, or them, in relationship to medieval beliefs. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. So they either think I’m an extremely observant Catholic, or a completely godless heathen. Or a secular humanist. Or just a professor.

    • Ben Tilghman October 15, 2012 at 10:14 am #

      I’ve had students think the same of me: either that I was incredibly devout or a heathen, which I’ve mostly taken as a sign that I’m hitting the balance about right. But it has prompted me to say something early in the course about Christianity and respect, basically saying that they’ll hear me talking about the incarnation as fact because it was for the people we’re studying, and also saying that I’ll occasionally make jokes about medieval religious practices because, well, they can be kind of funny.

      Pulling out Chaucer is a good idea. Now that I think about it, I probably should read a bit more about how “religious” medieval audiences may have been. I’m sure they weren’t all perfectly devout, but I don’t really know much else beyond that.

  2. Jennifer Borland October 15, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    Great post, Ben, and thought-provoking questions at the end. I’m inclined to think that you can still have a moving emotional or intellectual response to images even if you don’t have a “religious” experience or believe in the religion from which they derive. Indeed, I wonder how many medieval viewers responded to images for wholly unreligious reasons. An image of the torture of St. Agatha, for instance, moves me greatly despite my lack of belief about the miraculous nature of her healing. You’ve also got me thinking some of the responses by students in my intro class to Carol Duncan’s “The Art Museum as Ritual.” She argues we have created a kind of ritualized experience in museums, and several students made a point of saying that they never had that experience in a museum, or that they didn’t really see how it could be the same as what they do/feel at church. Maybe the best a place like the Walters can do is offer a welcoming, open space for many kinds of responses, and accept that some will be religious, and others, not?

    • Ben Tilghman October 15, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      I generally agreed with that approach to museums in the beginning, but I gradually came to think that, if a museum really wants to encourage a multiplicity of reactions, it needs to facilitate them. Most people in the gallery (though not all) will default to the Accepted Norms of Museum Behavior. Which is fine, but perhaps there should be moments when select groups are allowed/encouraged to interact with the art in more spiritual ways.

      • Jennifer Borland October 15, 2012 at 11:36 am #

        Maybe! I will need to think more about that. :)

  3. Emily Gephart October 15, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Great post, Ben. What I like about this discussion has to do with the fairly wooly term ‘spiritual.’ I use it all the time in reference to the secular but nonetheless somehow spiritually engaged American art I work on from the turn of the 20th century, as the artists in question were trying to convey some measure of psychic enchantment that had formerly been associated with traditional faith. The pervasive cultural trend of that moment towards secularism did not mean their desire for some kind of deeper, or maybe higher, connection had dissipated. However, the language they used (pictorial and verbal) was often very vague or confused, as the terms for expressing faith had undergone such profound change. Many of them came up with answers in their work that seem misguided, if not hopelessly silly, to us from the vantage point of our ‘enlightened’ moment. But it seems, nonetheless, that we find ourselves in a similar state, too, as so many people still seek compensatory experiences (such as those offered by art ) that approximate spiritual fulfillment. This makes me wonder: What were—or are, or will be—the most satisfying ways to address that desire without invoking authenticity and belief? How do I manifest my own peculiar ‘religion of art history’ when I teach?

    • Jennifer Borland October 15, 2012 at 11:45 am #

      Good question! It brings to mind an experience (probably embellished over time) I often tell myself about my childhood/upbringing and its relationship to what I study. The Episcopalian church I grew up going to was a gorgeous late-19th-century wood church in Fargo (very old for those parts!), painted white on the outside, with stained-glass windows, dark wood carving inside, etc. It burned down when I was in 9th grade (as a result of restoration work gone awry! It still pains me to think about), and I never felt the connection to the congregation’s later buildings that I did to that structure. It made me wonder, was it the space, the art, rather than the religion, that made me so enjoy being in that space? And has a desire to find that again been partly responsible for leading me to the “religion of art history” of which you speak? Maybe.

    • Ben Tilghman October 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

      I think part of what makes it so tricky is our notion of “taste,” and how the spiritual intensity (or lack thereof) in a work affects our decisions of what is good art, consciously or unconsciously. One woman’s spirituality is another man’s kitsch. I wonder if the unabashed spirituality of, say, Maxfield Parish or Andy Goldsworthy is one of the things that prevents them from being more intensely studied (although I think the fortunes of both have improved in recent years).

      One of the reasons I moved away from working on Contemporary art was that I hated getting caught up in arguments based on taste (“Don’t work on him – everyone thinks his art sucks”). With so little medieval art surviving, we don’t have that luxury. But perhaps we (or maybe just I) end up so inclusive that all the art becomes only so much data.

  4. J J Cohen October 15, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    Great post. I often think about this question of belief and *getting* medieval materials because I work mainly with texts derived from Christian tradition, and I’m not Christian. I wrote on my dissertation at a time when reading medieval texts and artworks via reference to the PL in order to show how all cultural productions were allegories derived from Christian exegesis was still a powerful interpretive mode — so that’s possibly a reason I was drawn so theory, as more secular mode of approaching materials steeped in religious affect. On the one hand I’m aware that the abiding emphasis on nontheologically theorized worldliness in my scholarship (most recently my work on objects and ecologies) is untrue to the Middle Ages — but then again, I think the Middle Ages were untrue to themselves, meaning that reading like a Jew or reading like an observer to whom questions of possibility were not the same as questions of doctrine was always a possibility.

    • Ben Tilghman October 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      I think you’re right that we shouldn’t feel handcuffed to only read things as some sort of idealized medieval reader would have done. But there is the danger of overcompensating; we run the risk of over-de-emphasizing faith. The idea of a secular Middle Ages might be just as illusory as a hyper-spiritual one.

    • J J Cohen October 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      Wow, what an illiterate comment I left. Here it is in actual English:

      Great post. I often think about this question of belief and *getting* medieval materials because I work mainly with texts derived from Christian tradition, and I’m not Christian. At the time I wrote my dissertation, reading medieval texts and artworks through reference to the PL to show how all cultural productions were allegories derived from Christian exegesis was still a powerful interpretive mode. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to romance with its worldly vectors. That theological bent to interpretation was also a reason I was attracted to theory, as more secular mode of approaching materials even when steeped in religious tradition. On the one hand I’m aware that the abiding emphasis on the nontheological and the worldly in my scholarship (most recently my work on objects and ecologies) is untrue to the Middle Ages — but then again, I think the Middle Ages were untrue to themselves. Reading like a Jew or reading like an observer to whom questions and possibilities were more important than answers and doxa must always be conceivable. People are and always have been a lot more complicated than we sometimes assume

  5. Nancy Thompson October 15, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    Ben, this is a really nice piece. I’ve had similar thoughts. I’ve also wondered lately if the concept of vibrant matter is so appealing to me (and to us??) because it fills in a spiritual “void” that an atheist or agnostic person might feel when studying Christian art.

  6. Allan Mitchell October 15, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    So intriguing, Ben, this behind-the-scenes curatorial business. I also tend to think doubt could be a way into religious material that works so hard to vanquish it. MIght it be that your supposed distance, like mine, is something already anticipated by a work?

    I recommend the discussion that is all over this topic in a recent special issue of Religion &Literature, “’Something Fearful’: Medievalist Scholars on the Religious Turn in Literary Criticism” (Spring-Summer 2010), Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Jonathan Juilfs. My colleague Adrienne Boyarin Williams (one contributor to that) and I have been talking quite a lot about the “museum” as it might relate or stand in contradistinction to temple, church, etc. That it should be a kind of neutralizing space is one of the points another contributor makes to R&L, and I really wonder what you would make of that notion.

    • Ben Tilghman October 16, 2012 at 9:09 am #

      Thanks for the reference, Allan – I didn’t know that issue. Also, see Cyn’s comment below. Perhaps this is a future Kalamazoo topic?

      I love the idea that medieval makers were aware of, and perhaps directly addressing, feelings of doubt or ambivalence. Certainly the idea that art existed to reinforce and deepen faith was current in the Middle Ages (especially later). It makes me thing of Alfred Gell’s characterization of art as a “technology of enchantment.” Certainly it’s very difficult to walk into a cathedral and not feel enchanted (especially if there’s actual, erm, chanting happening).

  7. Asa Mittman October 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Wonderful discussion, folks. I spent a summer working at the Cloisters, and we would frequently get folks genuflecting before works, there. The church-y setting makes that sort of response more likely, I suspect, though often the veneration was somewhat misplaced — reliquaries that had been emptied of their contents, for example (though this does make them still contact relics, I suppose).

    I’d push back against the necessity any sort of “spiritual” response to works — I don’t believe I’ve ever had such a thing, and am more than content with my interactions with works of art. Intellectual, emotional and aesthetic responses are plenty to keep my cup runething over, as it were.

    Regarding the overlapping of faiths and discussions, I once had a Muslim student who told me that she and her mother got into a big argument when she told her mom that she had cried when looking at Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar. I’ve always taught it as a work that ANY human can respond to as a *human.* It is a heartbreaking image of the torture and destruction of a human body, and I’d be pretty concerned by a response that would posit “I’m not a Christian, so I feel nothing for that guy, because he is Jesus.” Of course, a medieval (or modern) Christian might have different responses that I would, but we can all respond to works, without belonging to the group out of which they arose. This does not invalidate our responses. Medieval Jews and Muslims spent a lot of time in churches, it turns out, and surely saw lots and lots of images of Jesus, though few such responses are recorded.

    We have to accept discussing works of art without person involvement in the religious content of the works. Otherwise, we’d have to toss in the towel entirely on discussions of, say, dead religions. Nobody worships Zeus anymore, but this doesn’t mean we have to stop talking about it.

    Further, I’d argue that medieval Christianity (and its art) is a religion every modern person is distant from. It is a different religion than any of the many modern Christianities. This is a concept some students have trouble with — they want it to be the same, but it just isn’t. I strive to make this point, right at the outset of my medieval courses. I say “Unless you believe in elves and ogres and orcs, unless you think that carving runes into your arm will stop the dwarves from messing with your dreams, this is a different religion than the one you practice.”

  8. Cyn Hogan October 15, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Friends/colleagues of mine shared it with me as my dissertation examines the authorizing discourses which first allowed religious material culture to be collected and treated as art (c. 18th c.), and continue to resonate today in art museum practice.

    You may already be aware of a focused work on the treatment of religion and/in the art museum in a colloquy directed by Carolyn H. Wood and Amanda Millay Hughes at the Ackland Art Museum (UNC-Chapel Hill), published in *A Place for Meaning: Art, Faith, and Museum Culture: Learning from the Five Faiths Project at the Ackland Art Museum,* (2009). Wood and Hughes call upon not only scholars, but members of various local religious communities to discuss a host of questions related to the role of interpretation, presentation, and reception of religious material culture as well as contemporary religious art in art museums. I’ve found their work invaluable as I formulate my own questions and hope that others — who may not be aware of it — will find it helpful as well.

    • Ben Tilghman October 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Cyn, I don’t know that essay, but it sounds great and I’ll have to check it out. The Walters certainly isn’t alone in dealing with this. A curator at the Getty once told me that they expected, and were prepared for, lots of kneeling in front of icons during a special exhibition there, but that no one had anticipated that people would also take their shoes off. They felt they were on holy ground in the presence of the icons. It totally freaked out the guards at first, but I think they decided to allow it.

      Your dissertation sounds fascinating – I’ll look forward to hearing more in the future.

  9. Rachel Dressler October 16, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Read the post and really liked it, as like so many others I have struggled with this. I have had evangelical Christians object to “my” medieval Christian exegesis after I have tried to explain an object; I have also had Muslim students get quite upset at seeing, for example, a 7C golden wine bowl, or figural Persian manuscripts. I emphasize the idea that what we are seeing and talking about are medieval interpretations, not my own beliefs or those of most contemporary religious people.

    I do think we can “get” a good deal of the impact these objects had on their medieval viewers, for I think most of us, at some point in our lives felt ourselves searching for something beyond day-to-day life. Not necessarily what any institutionalized belief system offers, but something beyond ourselves. I try to tap into that from my own life in looking at some of these works.

  10. Ashby Kinch October 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    Thanks, Ben, for stimulating a good conversation, and giving us all another instance of why we need to keep re-tuning our sense of the ethical responsibilities to our objects of study, to our students, and to ourselves. I think about this question a lot, and most trenchantly of late through exploration of one of those fundamental mysteries, death, which has driven the need for both religion and art for at least 30 millennia. It’s a lot easier to argue god away than death. We crave an affirmation in the face of this debilitating threat, which religions have systematically and efficiently displaced or co-opted into other threats and their corresponding promises. Art plays such an important role on both sides of that ledger (of fear and of hope) but I do think that being in the presence of captivating objects–literary and visual and living-breathing–has the capacity to enrich our understanding of the most basic human experiences, regardless of what religious “truths” we find in them or extract from them (or invent for them). We humans crave meaning, and we’ll accept a fiction as long as we can safely ignore its invented origins (religion), or we feel reasonably certain that we can participate in its construction (art and art criticism). I’d be lost as a teacher if I could not, when occasion required it, evoke some notion of medieval belief, and I have found myself, more often than not, doing so when I look, along with my students, at beautiful art. Do we live in post-ironic times, where we can have our doubt and eat it, too?

  11. Paul Moffett October 18, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    What a thoughtful post and interesting discussion.

    I think the scholarly impulse toward necessary distance in general is complicated and often misplaced. On the one hand scholarly engagement seems to necessitate at least an attempt at objectivity, but on the other hand that objectivity is not really possible. I think the critical impulse of the 80s to always explicitly state bias quickly became tedious, but I think it was in many ways a good impulse.

    The problem with necessary distance, from my perspective, is that it is so often disingenuous. It is used, usually unwittingly, as a way to normalize cultural bias.

    And I do think we miss something, as scholars but also as emotional beings, by affecting a cold detachment from the objects of our study. I don’t think you need to be a Christian to look at the Saint John’s Bible, but I do think that to be “wholly uncurious” about the questions that most deeply moved the artist and its audience means a somewhat impoverished engagement with the art.

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