When Religious Art is Displayed, Secular Museums May Become Sacred Spaces

Desert News
by Menachem Wecker, January 3, 2014

Even on the opening day of the Baltimore-based Walters Art Museum’s 1988 exhibit of Greek icons and frescoes, museum staff quickly realized that they had a kissing problem on their hands.
When visitors reached the end of the show, which culminated in a masterpiece from the museum’s permanent collection, many viewers kissed the Plexiglas over the work — the 1585-1590 painting “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (“El Greco”).
“Every day, after the exhibition closed, somebody would have to go through with Windex and get the kissing off this Plexiglas,” said Gary Vikan, who recently retired as the director of the Walters and helped curate the exhibit “Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece.”
“And not just lipstick; men did it too," he said.
Speaking on a panel titled “Sacred Objects in Secular Museums” on Nov. 24 at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature 2013 Annual Conference in Baltimore, Vikan underscored how significant it was that Orthodox Christian viewers were kissing that particular painting. Not only had the El Greco painting been prominently displayed before without being orally venerated, but the subject matter ― even in its fresh context ― was an unusual choice for Orthodox reverence.

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