Heritage United Kingdom

Where is holy?

Where can an object which was created as a pointer to the “transcendent mystery of God” be best experienced in “faith and adoration” today?

Should the St Cuthbert Gospel return home to Durham Cathedral?

Some years ago, I inherited a small, silver gilt chalice, which was made in Spain in the last quarter of the 15th century. To lift the chalice in the celebration of Mass is a profoundly moving experience as one senses a metaphysical link with the intentions of those who have used it throughout the five centuries of its existence.

But I have a dilemma. The chalice is increasingly fragile and can now be used only on rare occasions: the rest of the time, it is locked away in a safe. Should I keep it there and reserve it for the use it was intended, albeit increasingly infrequently, or should it be offered to a collection where it can be put on public display for others to admire the craftsmanship and speculate as to its history?

The British Library’s current appeal for £9m to acquire the St Cuthbert Gospel (even though it is intended it will be shared on a 50/50 basis with Durham’s Unesco Heritage Site) puts my own dilemma in a broader context, and invites the same basic question—should religious artefacts be kept within the context for which they were created, or is there justification for their display within a secular environment?

That question leads to another with a sharper edge—should objects that have been acquired by secular institutions be returned to the religious venues where they were originally housed, and, specifically, would it not then be better for the British Library to raise money so that the Book of the Gospels might be returned to the tomb of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, where it was uncovered in 1104?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this insight to offer: “Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation, evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God.”

There, perhaps, is the solution of my personal dilemma, and a means of answering the wider questions about religious artefacts. The concern should not be centred on the place of exhibition, but on the intention behind the choice of venue. What we should be asking ourselves is: “Where can this object, which was created as a pointer to the ‘transcendent mystery of God’, be best experienced in ‘faith and adoration’ today?”

There can be, I would suggest, no catch-all solution: each piece of religious art has to be considered within its own context, taking into account its provenance, the donor’s wishes and its current iconic status. Place alone is not the determining factor. T.S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding”, would seem to have shared this view:

“You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.”

Wherever an object best communicates a sense of the transcendent, there is its home. All this, I think, means that the Victoria & Albert Museum will have to wait a year or two longer before my chalice appears in one of its display cabinets.

The writer is rector of St James’s Catholic Church, Spanish Place, London

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