Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

Extreme Weather: AHA tutor Richard Stemp goes on a pilgrimage to find a relic, a sculpture and a curious tradition whose origins are frozen in time.

The English are internationally famed for talking about the weather. Personally, I think this is the effect of English politeness: one isn’t supposed to talk about religion, politics or money, the weather is all that is left to us. But the weather in the British Isles is remarkably varied, and, as has become all too obvious, can be appalling. But however much water has fallen from the sky in the past month or so, it has been remarkably mild. The same cannot be said of the winter of 1962-63, famed for its heavy snows (and a corresponding boom in the birth rate in the following autumn).  But if we thought it was bad in England, it was worse on the continent: around Lake Constance in South West Germany (the Bodensee to the locals) the temperature was below zero from November to March, and in February it settled around -22°C. So cold, in fact, and for so long, that the lake froze over.

 

It wasn’t the first time that this had happened: the earliest recorded occurrence was in 875, by which time Benedictines had settled on what was (usually) the relatively inaccessible island of Reichenau, further west, on another part of the lake. Seegefrörni – the local dialect word (plural) for the freezing of the lake – gradually increased in frequency, peaking in the 15th and 16th centuries: the lake froze over seven times in each of these centuries. At some point – and nobody is entirely sure when – a curious tradition developed: a relic of St John the Evangelist was taken over the ice from one side of the lake to the other.

 

St John the Evangelist, attributed to Jakob Russ, early 16th Century. By now, the reliquary is back in Switzerland in the Abbey Church of Münsterlingen. The abbey closed long ago: its buildings now house one of Switzerland’s major psychiatric hospitals.

In the early 16th century a reliquary bust was carved and painted to contain a bone of Jesus’s favourite disciple. It is attributed to Jakob Russ, a sculptor active in Ravensburg, less than 30km from Hagnau on the Bodensee, one of the relic’s homes. Like the work of other Northern European painters and sculptors – think of Rogier van der Weyden or Tilman Riemenschneider (and if you don’t know his work, look him up!) – Russ is not happy to settle with the generic idealised faces so favoured by the Italians, who portrayed their holy subjects with an almost geometric perfection. He modulates every surface, giving the sense that the face was modelled in clay rather than carved in wood. He’s not a pretty boy, and would never be confused – as Dan Brown notoriously did – for Mary Magdalene. His intense presence, with a repressed sorrow in the eyes, suggests that Russ was imagining a detail from the crucifixion, and John’s suffering vigil at Christ’s left hand.

 

The first recorded example of the procession took place exactly 441 years ago, on 17 February 1573, although the tradition may well have begun earlier. The reliquary bust was carried in procession from Münsterlingen, on the Swiss side of the lake, to Hagnau, on the German side, accompanied by 100 people. The event is recorded on the base of the reliquary bust, although the inscription is far more recent, including, as it does, a reference to another ‘translation’ of the relic during the French War of 1796 (think Napoleon), when it was restored by F.X. Faivre. On the back (not illustrated!) it also mentions the procession of 1830. Although there was a seegefrörne in 1880 the ice was not hard enough – or thick enough – to warrant a procession.

 

The inscription on the base of the reliquary

The last procession took place just over 51 years ago, on 12 February 1963, and news even reached the British press. A report was published in The Sphere (an illustrated weekly newspaper published between 1900 and 1964) on 2 March. There was no Twitter then, and news could take two whole weeks. Rather than the 100 faithful who followed the procession back in 1573, this time there were over 3000: a contemporary photograph shows them winding away into the distance, leaving the German shore of the lake to walk a 9km route across the ice. Borne aloft on the shoulders of two of the faithful, the relic has remained in Switzerland ever since: with climate change who knows when the lake will ever freeze again?

 

12 February 1963, the sculpture of St John the Evangelist is carried across the ice.

I had been wanting to see this relic of an ancient tradition ever since I first visited the Bodensee three years ago, and finally made a pilgrimage to Münsterlingen last month. It wasn’t there. It seems that, with climate change, the locals have given up on the possibility of another seegefrörne, and to mark the 50th anniversary of its last translation, the relic had been taken around the lake by road. Or maybe it crossed on one of the two regular ferries that transport modern traffic 24/7 (even they had to stop in 1963). So last week, I went to Hagnau, where I finally found it, boldly eyeballing the visitors to its own exhibition.

 

An aerial view of Hagnau in 1963, with pilgrims disappearing into the distance at the top left.

I can’t help thinking the locals are being a little impatient – I mean, fifty years? It’s not that long. It was 113 years between the last two seegefrörni, so there’s a while to go yet. And ‘climate change’ does not have the same implication as ‘global warming’. One impact is likely to be an increase of more extreme weather events, and that could include more winter snow and extremely low temperatures. I’d start stocking up on jumpers now if I were you.

 

 

‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.