By: Rachel Himes
Art museums, from the most modern of New York City galleries to the most ancient collection of historic treasures, seem to be universal in atmosphere— one hears the whisper of hushed voices and muted footfalls, one feels a quiet appreciation for human achievement. A good word for this atmosphere might be reverence, a term which may certainly be applied to many places around the world where art is displayed, but is particularly relevant to the Creamer Medieval Gallery of the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design. While all the art gathered in the RISD Museum is, in a sense, sacred, the galleries which display religious art have, through careful arrangement of art objects and architectural choices, introduced a ritualistic aspect to the experience of viewing the art. In her book Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, Carol Duncan equates ritual— here defined as sets of practices which induce a transcendent experience— with the experience of viewing art in a museum. The selection of artwork and the placement of art pieces within the Creamer Medieval Gallery, as well as the architecture itself and the overall ambiance of the room creates an experience for viewers which is in fact a religious ceremony, providing museum-goers with the chance to experience religious art in the same context as its historical practitioners. The sacred space created in this gallery is not only appropriate to the art it contains, but lends itself to an apprehension or appreciation of the concept of the divine, facilitating a museum experience which leaves the visitor not merely a detached viewer, but an involved devotee.
The Creamer Medieval Gallery is first visible upon entering the European Paintings Collection. At the end of the long royal blue salon, its walls covered floor to ceiling in paintings,you see it—a massive crucifix, framed by an arched stone doorway, its sombre grey a striking contrast to the rich blue of the previous gallery. Encompassed by the 12th century French Romanesque portal, viewers see the artwork Crucified Christ much as it would have first been seen in 11th century France, immediately visible above the altar, centered at the front of the church. In this context, if the placement of the crucifix creates an imagined altar and chancel in the gallery space. The European Paintings Collection becomes an area in which you prepare yourself to enter a sacred place—the narthex of the ‘church,’ a transitory space between the secular and the sacred. The historicity of this setting gives museum-goers the sense that this is a place removed from the modern world. We are transported to the Middle Ages, where we enter a gothic church with the hesitant sense of an imminent encounter with the divine.
The impression of sacred space becomes stronger within the Creamer gallery. Viewers must crane their necks to look up at the “Crucified Christ”, much as the people who saw it in a church or cathedral in the Middle Ages would have done. This placement of this artwork is a glance heavenwards, despite the enclosed space of the room. The entire piece is raised on a dais and separated from the rest of the gallery by a molded iron grille. This deliberate placement, in conjunction with the architecture of the room, implies an altar screen and the raised step platform of the altar, upon which practitioners would kneel. In this way, viewers see these pieces of art in the same context as they were originally intended to be viewed, and understand the same sense of the sacred they were intended by their creators to convey. Thus,a greater understanding of their purpose is gained.
The main medieval gallery is flanked by two smaller rooms. Found on either side of the ‘altar’ created by the tableau of the Crucified Christ, they can be interpreted as dual transepts, features of the European medieval church. These transepts create the same cruciform shape typical of period churches, adding another historic layer to the sacred space this gallery implies.
One of the doorways to these smaller, transept-like rooms features a 12th century Gothic tracery arch, an architectural element common to medieval churches. The symmetry of the room, the central aisle, the pediments and pilasters—all are features of liturgical architecture. The very architecture of the room leads to a ritual experience because of its visual likeness to a place where rituals are truly enacted. The atmosphere of this room in the museum requires the same devotion from museum-goers as a holy building would from church-goers.
The idea of ritual experience is of course enhanced by the actual artwork displayed in the collection. Precious objects of devotion—illuminated manuscripts, leaves from holy missals, stained glass, painted altarpieces—all reside in glass cases or rest upon pedestals. It is impossible to forget that the very objects laid before you were created to inspire religious devotion. An especially lovely 13th century French pyx resides in a glass case in front of the central crucifix. If the tableau of the crucifix is understood to be the ‘altar’, the placement of this pyx, a receptacle designed to hold communion wafers is especially relevant, implying as it does the rite of holy Eucharist, the most important ritual of the Christian church.
All about the room, statues and icons of saints—Peter, Anthony, George, James, and unnamed apostles—their faces stark with silent majesty, gaze down upon museum-goers from their pediments and pedestals, their height implying a palpable sense of their holiness and power. In addition to the central tableau of the altar and crucifix, there is to the right side of the gallery another deliberately placed scene of religious significance. A carved wood Italian statue of the Angel of the Annunciation is placed directly across from a Virgin Annunciate, their proximity creating a tableau of the exact moment at which the Virgin Mary was told of the coming of Christ by the Angel Gabriel. The viewer is forced to walk between these two pieces of artwork to enter the adjoining room, effectively becoming a participant of the scene. Museum-goers are completely immersed in this religious ritual. This is important, because the original intent of the creators of these pieces was to endow practitioners with a sense of the very real presence of the sacred in churches, to enhance devotion and religious experience, an experience now communicated to modern viewers in a secular setting. While Duncan argues that art museums generate exclusively secular experiences, and, are indeed “temples of the secular”, the Creamer Medieval Galleries proves otherwise. Despite their enclosure in the secular environment of a modern museum, the artworks of this gallery seem to emanate a palpable sense of religiosity and the divine.
Upon entering the smaller medieval gallery which adjoins the Creamer Gallery, viewers are immediately struck by the centrality of another crucified Christ, this time in the form of a 13th century Spanish painting. This centrality of Christ is an important part of the layout of the room. Christ becomes the focus of the exhibit, just as He would be the focus in a church.
Interestingly, this adjoining gallery also subtly implies the Stations of the Cross, a devotional practice which uses icons representing different scenes from the Passion of the Christ. Beginning with a beautiful carved linden wood Pieta from Germany, in which the dead Christ is cradled in a grieving Virgin’s arms, visitors circumambulate the room and eventually arrive at a 14th century Italian painting of the Risen Christ, freed from the bonds of death. The timeline of the life of Christ is implied, as viewers pass representations of the crucifixion, encounter Mary Magdalene, and experience other scenes. Whether intentional or not, this interesting configuration is heavy with ritualistic implication for the observant visitor. While in a non-religious exhibit, this sort of circumambulation would be a secular ritual, here it becomes a religious procession, fraught with Christian connotations.
Even the most subtle details of this gallery give the impression of ritual. Scarcely noticeable at first, strains of song can be heard in the Creamer Gallery; period music is being played. Recordings of early medieval plainsong, composed specifically for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, as well as madrigals, enhance the experience of the gallery. The soaring choral arrangements which fill the room give a definite sense of not only time, but place, reminding viewers of the intent of the gallery. Occasionally discernible is a ‘Domine Deus’ or ‘Christus’—strongly evoking the memory of the religious audience for which such compositions were intended, as well as the purpose for such music: to glorify and praise God. Even the dim lighting in the Creamer Gallery seems like that of a medieval church, lit only by candles and sunlight.
In this day and age, where it seems that we are slowly losing all opportunity of experiencing the transcendent–as nature is slowly destroyed and modernity and technology encroaches upon holy and historical places–it is wonderful to be given a chance to step outside of today and visit a place where such things as bulldozers and bluetooth were unheard of. The Creamer Mediaeval Gallery, and countless other museum spaces, provide us with just such an opportunity, and it is up to us to take advantage of them.