Museums & Exhibitions Sacrality Visual Art

LECTURE OUDE KERK: Picturing the Divine

On 21 June, I gave a lecture during the symposium “The Resurrection of the Lost Image” in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. This symposium was organized on occasion of the installation Anastasis by Italian artist Giorgio Andreotta Calò. In addition to an interview with the artist, the other speakers during the evening were Dr. Marc de Kesel and Prof. Marcel Barnard. Our complete lectures can be found on the website of the Oude Kerk. I have also posted my lecture below.

photo: Matthijs Immink


remembering saskia
On August 2, 1612, in Leeuwarden, the capital of The Netherland’s northern province of Friesland, a girl was born. She was named Saskia. Her parents were Sjoukje Ozinga and Rombertus van Uylenburgh. Her father was the major of Leeuwarden and one of the founders of the University of Franeker. This university could have been the second oldest university of The Netherlands today, after Leiden University, if Napoleon Bonaparte had not decided to dismantle the university in 1811.

Franeker is one of Friesland’s eleven cities. This year, each of these cities received a new fountain, created by an internationally acclaimed artist. This happened on the occasion of the art project 11 Fountains, which took place in the context of Leeuwarden-Friesland being the Cultural Capital of Europe 2018. The Franeker fountain is created by a Frenchman, Jean-Michel Othoniel, whose creation is an homage to the world famous astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort, who was born in Franeker. Oort observed that around our solar system, a cloud consisting of billons of comet-like objects is moving. This means the Milky Way rotates, and as such, the sun cannot be at its center, as was the conviction till then.

In the year that Jan Hendrik Oort was born, the year 1900, an asteroid was discovered by the German astronomer Max Wolf. Initially given the provisional name 1900 FP, the asteroid was later called 461 Saskia. Indeed, after that girl, born in 1612, Saskia van Uylenburgh.

We still know of Saskia today, because on June 22 (in 2018, 384 years ago) she married a man who would become one of the most iconic Dutch painters: Rembrandt van Rijn. They would remain married for a little under 8 years, until Saskia died of tuberculosis at the age of 29 on June 14, 1642. 5 days later, June 19, she was buried here, in the Oude Kerk. While due to financial troubles, Rembrandt officially sold Saskia’s grave in 1662, today there is still a marker of her historical presence here. In the map, provided at the entrance of the Oude Kerk, drawn by Jan Rothuizen, it is stated that after Anne Frank, Saskia is the most famous dead woman of Amsterdam.

In this little browsing session back and forth through history, via the fields of art and science, from Amsterdam to Friesland and back, one consistent feature is apparent: the attempt to preserve that which has gone, that which has disappeared, or that which has been destroyed. It is a kind of preservation by giving new shape, new form, and new content: through the reinstallation of a gravestone, the naming of an asteroid, or a newly created artwork, which allows us to tell stories about that which has been lost. As I will argue in this talk, these types of preserving practices can be understood as practices of sacralization, which very well fit contemporary culture.

the sacred
In the scholarly disciplines of religious studies and theology, the sacred is a much-debated concept. Some approach it as the ineffable core of religion, characterized in terms of power, mystery, and the divine. These are substantive approaches to the sacred, characterizing it as an independently existing force or power. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the situational approach to the sacred. Scholars subscribing to this approach see the sacred as the result of human activity. For them it is a marker of value, of non-negotiable and ultimate character, and attributed through certain practices – practices that set-apart, cherish, celebrate, and protect from harm.[1]

Not only the sacred itself, but also its position in modern culture is a topic of interest. With institutional forms of religion undergoing significant transformations, it has been said we live in disenchanted times.[2] For long, theorists on the secularization of modernity argued that religion would fade away and would be replaced by something else.[3] For example, this argument has been prevalent ever since the emergence of the public art museum. From the late eighteenth century onwards, museums were described as new churches, as temples or cathedrals of modernity.[4] This implied that artists became the new priests, museum visitors the new pilgrims, and art as such a new religion. Religious experiences were equated with aesthetic experiences, deemed to suffice in the spiritual needs for modern citizens.

However, it is not as simple as that. By now, it is safe to say that museums have not replaced churches, nor have they become identical institutions. Each type of institution serves its own particular goals and audiences. However, what is very interesting is that they increasingly start to borrow from each other’s repertoires. For example, churches hosting art exhibitions in their liturgical spaces – with the consequence that the Sunday services are co-inhabited by these works. And museums incorporating religious architectural elements in their exhibition designs or hosting alternative Sunday morning services where the museum director or other invited guests hold a sermon for a broad audience. This is where it gets really interesting: where the categories of religion and the secular begin to meet and merge, merge into new forms which defy initial categorization. With the prime example staring us in the face: this place here, the beautiful Oude Kerk.

If I look at our secularized 21st century society, I identify the sacred in exactly these practices: the way artworks are treated embodies, to me, is essentially a treatment of sacralizing nature. The objects, ideas, and histories that are embodied by visual art, is what is set apart, celebrated and protected from harm. We do that, because we feel these objects say something about us, in our current state, about our past, and also very much about what we want to pass on about ourselves to future generations. These set-apart objects or sites embody that which may be lost later on: historical practices, ideas, or beliefs.

Therefore, I think that practices of the sacred are at the heart of today’s theme: the resurrection of the lost image. The loss suffered here in the Oude Kerk, and in many other former Catholic sites, is not just a loss resulting from time passing by, from history doing its work. More brutal forces have been at play. It is a loss through Iconoclasm. During these summer months the Oude Kerk embodies an impressive and overwhelming attempt of preserving, restoring, and reminiscing that which has been lost. It is a poetic, artistic reminiscence by means of color and the interplay of light. In doing so, the artist not only reinstates what is lost. He simultaneously adds something new, something of his own imagination and his own making. He adds this to how we experience the church building as a whole, in how the congregation celebrates its Sunday service, and, quite literally, he is going to create a work that will become a fixed part of the church building. As such, his window in the Heilige Grafkapel will become a direct part of the history of violence and turbulence that took place here, as well as the current practices of worship and musealization.

collections as intermediary
This is what the museum affords: objects embody histories, which through the materiality of the objects, are linked to the present. Philosopher Krysztof Pomian famously theorized the, according to him, essentially human tendency for collecting: for establishing collections, pursuing desired objects, and displaying these, for smaller or larger audiences.[5] Collections of objects fulfil the role of the intermediary: set-apart objects are intermediaries between the physical and the invisible, between the material and the immaterial, between the earthly and the divine. To designate their special status, Pomian coined a term: semiophore. This term refers to objects without any practical use, but representative of the invisible. And as such, they are carriers of special meaning. Think about historical objects, like the relics of saints, the first locomotives, or Rembrandt’s Nightwatch.

Pomian takes it a step further: he states that the invisible, to which this special meaning is attributed, is produced by language. He writes, “It is language that produces the invisible. Language provides individuals the opportunity to exchange imaginations. As such it transforms the inner conviction, of having been in contact with something that will never actually be seen, into a social fact.”[6] Language affords to discuss the past as if it were the present and to bring those who have passed away, back to life. In the register of asteroids, in the Oude Kerk map by Jan Rothuizen, and on the gravestone here in the church, it is language that realizes Saskia’s presence amongst us here today.

It is a valuable exercise to approach the Oude Kerk as a collection, to see which parts work as semiophores and how language produces the invisible. First and foremost, the most important and dominant part of the collection is the building itself, the remains of the stained glass windows, the various chapels, and its interior. The choir, the altar, the organ. Since 2013, over the years that the Oude Kerk has been an arts organization, this collection has been expanded. With chairs with embroidered seats by Sara Vrugts’ her project Stof tot nadenken (2014), which have gained permanent presence, and currently, the overwhelming color red, as created by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, from which, as said before, one window will remain permanently present in the Heilige Grafkapel. By having their work become part of the collection that is the Oude Kerk, these artists contribute to the special meaning that is carried by this place. They contribute to its status as semiophore, just as much as the congregation does in its use of this church as its place of worship. The color red and the Sunday services establish, celebrate, and protect the immaterial, the invisible, the divine. 

photo: Mattijs Immink

of fascination and fear
This brings us to one more scholar who can further our understanding of how the sacred takes shape here in the Oude Kerk today. It is a scholar who published his most famous book a little over one hundred years ago: Rudolf Otto – a German theologian who defined the holy, or the divine, as that which causes fascination and fear at the same time.[7] Although he subscribed an independent power to the sacred, which can be debated as a theoretical concept, I think his description of the experiential character still holds today. Encounters that we classify as sacred evoke awe, in both exciting and trembling manners.

While these types of encounters are rare, I think Anastasis is a remarkable contemporary embodiment of this classic approach to the holy. The work offers an overwhelming, not to say mind-blowing experience – which causes both trembling and fascination: upon entering, the shock is real, invading and surrounding both your mind and body, taking time and effort to get used to. But, upon entering, you are immediately prepared to deliver this effort. Despite the shock, it fascinates. And while you spend time in the installation, this fascination remains with you. Because your mind, body, eyes; they grow accustomed to it, by slowly but seriously transforming your sensory perception. This strongly impacts how you perceive the architectural elements, the organ, the paintings on the ceiling, the model ships – they require you to shape a new narrative, because what you knew before no longer suffices.

And this transformation does not only take place within the church building. Once you leave it, walking back into the streets, especially during the daytime, your senses have to transform again – back to the ordinary world. From the moment you leave the building, you try to recount what you just experienced. Because it is so fundamentally different from what happened inside. But, notably – this is hardly possible. Where Pomian provided language with a crucial position in the established relation between the visible and the invisible, Anastasis seems to take all language away. Words do not seem to suffice to capture what occurs when you’re inside of it.

As such, I would argue, it is a rather appropriate form of reminiscing the period of Iconoclasm. The depth of this historical episode of such violence and rage is impossible to evoke with words. It is a history that trembles and fascinates. With Anastasis, Giorgio Andreotta Calò relates to the experiential dimensions of this history, which is still present in war-torn parts of the world – where iconic religious sites are always the first to be destroyed or looted. Not for what they look like or for their practical relevance, but primarily for the meaning they carry. Destruction of this kind of heritage is an attack on semantics, on meaning, in an attempt to break the power of the invisible, of which this heritage is the physical embodiment.

setting apart
In the Oude Kerk, which remains standing firm and tall as oldest building of the city, several layers of its heritage have been destroyed over time. Giorgio Andreotta Calò found an inventive, experimental, and above all, poetic way of establishing a relationship with the lost, historical, and divine elements of the building. In doing so, he embodied and visualized vital, but invisible parts of the site. His installation embodies a sacralizing practice of dual nature. With his installation, the artist sets apart the invisible parts of the Oude Kerk its history and present.

But the church just as much sets apart the artist’s work. Without the religious and historical dimensions of this particular place, the work would not function the same. It would not be able to establish the same bridge between the invisible and the visible. If we think of immersive experiences offered by, for example, James Turell in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Or the work by Daan Roosegaarde, in which he virtually projects water levels across big squares in Amsterdam or Leeuwarden. These works may look similar in appearance, but function as completely different types of semiophores. The strength of Anastasis is it’s direct engagement with the religious context of the Oude Kerk. It reinterprets the divine qualities of this specific site.

This is an important dual dynamic, which deserves much more research: the artwork setting apart the religious setting, and the religious site setting apart the artwork. This dual dynamic is, to me, exemplary for contemporary culture – of diverse and multi-interpretable nature, defying the categories of religion or secular, but very much adhering to the notion of the sacred.

[1] Arie L. Molendijk, ‘The notion of the ‘sacred.’ In: Paul Post, and Arie L. Molendijk (eds.).Holy Ground. Re-inventing ritual space in modern western culture. Leuven: Peeters. 2010. 55-89.

[2] For the context of this term, see: Jason A. Josephson Storm, The myth of disenchantment. Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017).

[3] See the work of influential thinkers such as August Comte, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Emile Durkheim.

[4] See: Carol Duncan, ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’, in: Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London, New York: Routledge, 1995) pp. 7-20.

[5] Krysztof Pomian, De oorsprong van het museum, Over het verzamelen (Heerlen: De voorstad, 1990 [1987]).

[6] Idem. p.40.

[7] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. An Inquiry into the non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958 [1917]).

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