Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Cardinal and The Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca (ca.1422-1492)
Baptism of Christ
Tempera on panel, 167 x 116 cm
National Gallery, London

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, says that The Baptism of Christ, painted in the 1440s by Piero della Francesca, should be displayed in a religious setting such as Westminster Cathedral.

In a lecture as part of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust’s Roots of Faith lecture series supported by Sky Arts, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the Cardinal said:

“I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”

Originally it was painted for the chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Camaldolese abbey (now cathedral) of Piero's native town, Borgo Sansepolcro. The town, visible in the distance to the left of Christ, may be Borgo Sansepolcro.

It is painted on poplar and is so delicate that it is never lent out. It must be kept in very controlled conditions otherwise it will be destroyed.

The costs of maintenance and security would be astronomic.

At the moment it is kept in precisely those conditions which allow many people access to this great work of art. To admire it and perhaps to be inspired by it.

One wonders how many people would be able to see it as now if it was retained at some distance on an altar.

One of the commenters on the articles does have a point: the Vatican with its countless works does not exatly display its treasures to best effect. The last time I was in St Peters, it was impossible to see Michelangelo`s Pieta as there was a a huge crowd shoving and jostling to glimpse the work situated far behind the security glass panel.

One wonders if the effect which the Cardinal requests could be obtained by a copy or reproduction of the masterpiece on an altar ?

For one person`s view on the controversy, see Rachel Campbell-Johnston: in The Times The Cardinal does make an important point, however. Should a great work of religious art simply be displayed on a blank wall in a room amongst other works of art, secular and otherwise ? Does it detract and undermine the work ?

Some museums are taking this on board and sometimes do exhibit important works of art in a special setting. For many years, for instance, the National Gallery in London used to exhibit Leonardo`s cartoon of Mary the Virgin, St Anne, St John the Baptist and Christ in a special area which was almost prayerful. However that was before a deranged person decided to attempt to destroy the work and almost succeeded.

The British Museum does exhibit some the Elgin and Grecian marbles in special rooms and attempts to allow the viewer to relive the experience of seeing the friezes on a Greek temple or building. The effect is quite profound.

One does wonder if the National Gallery could convert one or some of its rooms into recreation of ancient churches and hang such works of religious art there.

The Cardinal is correct. Religious art is a distinct branch of art. It has always been different from secular art. To ignore the religious aspect of religious art is to detract from the artist and his work.

However even the recreation of ancient churches in a public building with areas set aside for Christian prayer may not be acceptable to some people who are of the view that there should be a strict separation of Church and State.