What happens when devotional objects—a mask, a reliquary, a prayer wheel—are separated from their original context, purchased by a collector, and land in a modern museum collection? What becomes of their stories? What power do they possess?
These questions and others drove student inquiry in Objects of Devotion, an interdisciplinary seminar taught last spring by Professor of Religious Studies Natalie Gummer. Students were invited to see, think about, and interact with religiously significant objects and reflect on the colonial systems of valuation and collection that drew them into museums. Delving into current debates in museum studies, they also considered ethical and aesthetic questions about the status, treatment, and display of religious objects in art and anthropological collections.
A weekly lab session drew their focus to objects in the college’s collections, mainly in the Wright Museum of Art and the Logan Museum of Anthropology.
After each student chose an object to investigate, they collaborated with one another and museum staff to produce a Web-based exhibit, followed by two traditional exhibits—one in each museum—which interpreted and communicated the multiple and fraught ways these objects can be seen, interacted with, and valued.
The result is “The Sacred Lives of Objects: Seeing and Being Seen in the Modern Museum.” After an inaugural showing in the Logan last spring, students created a new exhibit for the Wright Museum of Art, which ran from Sept. 5 to Nov. 10.
“Little did we realize that our objects would soon become our obsessions,” the class wrote in the exhibition catalog. “Given their current locations in museum collections, it might be tempting to view these objects as only art pieces or artifacts,” they wrote. “By moving them from hidden collections to public viewing, we have begun retelling their stories.”
Reliquary Bust of a Woman
17th or 18th century
Switzerland or Germany
Selected by: Claire Aichholzer’16
This reliquary’s origins are mysterious but may be a depiction of St. Ursula, a 4th century princess, or one of her 11,000 virgin companions, who were brutally murdered in Cologne, Germany, after a journey that involved a miraculous storm and the appearance of an angel who foretold Ursula’s martyrdom. In the 12th century, a burial ground was discovered in Cologne that contained human remains believed to be the bones of Ursula and her companions. St. Ursula’s cult grew rapidly as these bones were distributed as relics. This bust contains a fabric-lined drawer in the back designed to hold a relic.
Aichholzer: “A reliquary is the shrine in which the relic is held and is often richly decorated to commemorate the importance and holiness of the saint. Reliquaries, like this bust, sometimes depict the person whose relic they house, providing the worshipper an image of the venerated saint.”
Why she chose it: After months of working in the Wright Museum, and before enrolling in the Objects of Devotion class, Aichholzer felt a constant draw to this reliquary. “When we were asked to choose an object, I picked her without hesitation. Perhaps what fascinates me most is the fact that she once held the relic of a saint and was actually venerated by devotees.”
Vintage Gorham Altar Cross
Early 20th century
Selected by: Lily Zeich’15
This mass-produced cross once symbolized the presence of God during Christian worship services in Eaton Chapel, when Beloit College was affiliated with the Congregationalist Church.
Zeich: “ … in the process of becoming a secular campus, objects of devotion like the vintage Gorham altar cross have been removed from social spaces. Now it resides in the humble storage room behind the chapel’s organ, among the sound equipment, left in the dark with fingerprints and cobwebs. Inside the little room, it is sometimes placed respectfully upon a table, yet other times it will be found on the floor, until someone raises it again. There is such agency displayed by this cross, all depending on the religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the different people who enter and exit the room.”
Why she chose it: While planning an Easter service in Eaton Chapel with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship club last year, Zeich discovered the altar cross stashed in a chapel back room. “I felt that this object, from a former building used for worship, would add a new element to the exhibit. I wanted to bring attention to a hidden treasure on this campus, the beautiful, and rich history-embraced Eaton Chapel.”
Ming or Qing Dynasty
Selected by: Sarah Morgan’13
This sculpture is of Guanyin, the Chinese Buddhist goddess of compassion, and is carved with a small notch in the back to hold a relic. Once the relic was placed there, the icon was considered to be a living version of the goddess who could grant wishes, traditionally associated with women and specifically with Miaoshan, a princess who devoted her life to ascetic Buddhist meditation and charity. The child she holds suggests Guanyin’s power to grant fertility.
Morgan: “This icon was probably used in a temple before a traveling Christian scholar brought her back to Beloit. … Today, the notch on the figure’s back is empty; someone has removed the relic keeping this Guanyin alive. What can we make of this image now? Is she still powerful, a compassionate wish-granter? Has she died?”
Why she chose it: “I was drawn to the ambiguity of the Guanyin reliquary. She used to contain a relic that made her a living Buddhist goddess. Now that someone has removed the relic, what can we make of this image? We are used to defining life in terms of a heartbeat, brain activity, movement, or growth. Guanyin challenges our notions of life and death.
Nepalese Prayer Wheel
Prayer wheels like this one, when turned in people’s hands in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, release the mantra written on paper inside, a series of sacred syllables that create “merit” when spoken aloud. Merit is the positive result of good deeds, prayer, and many rituals, and allows for happiness, eventually enlightenment. Each time the paper inside the wheel turns, it is equivalent to a mantra recitation.
Thulson: “The treatment of the wheel in the museum is evidence of a very different kind of devotion from its traditional use. In Nepal the wheel was in motion as the means to an end; a way to quicken the coming of enlightenment. At the Logan, there is a reverence in the use of gloves and controlled humidity, but the value of the object has changed. It is an artifact, no longer a tool. Yet the mantras are still inside, and they still rotate around the spindle. It is possible that while traveling to this exhibit, up steps, through multiple hands, in a truck or airplane, the mantras were turning inside of the box.”
Why she chose it: “My eyes were initially drawn to the prayer wheel by its worn beauty, but I was further intrigued by the idea of an object able to alter the spiritual nature of the world on its own. The wheel may turn regardless of who or what is moving it, and as it turns, merit is produced for the world.”
Tikhvin Mother of God
18th or 19th century, Russia
Selected by: Mary Cimakasky’15
An icon offers a window into the divine in the Russian Orthodox tradition, providing a way for believers to access a real and living presence, even though the icon itself is not believed to have a life force. This icon is a copy of the famous miracle-working Tikhvin Mother of God, one of hundreds if not thousands of copies believed to have the same power and history as the original, which has been stolen, transported across continents, and thwarted multiple attacks.
Cimakasky: “As a copy of a miracle-working icon, this Tikhvin icon acts as a mirror, reflecting the grace of the original but not diminishing its light in any way. When people pray with this icon, it establishes the same particular connection with the divine as the original had.”
Why she chose it: Cimakasky chose the icon for its connection to the Orthodox tradition and a personal interest in Marian objects. “Orthodox Christianity has a very particular way of viewing the connections between icons and the saints they represent. … It is a very different way of seeing things from the way many of the cultures we dealt with, and quite frankly I think it’s pretty awesome.”
Christ Loaded with Cross (1922-27) and Christ on Cross (1925-45)
By Georges Rouault, France
Selected by: Hope Doucet’15
Georges Rouault was one of the few religious artists painting in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His art challenges traditional depictions of religious imagery and attest to his belief in Jesus’ humility and suffering.
Doucet: “Almost all of Rouault’s work depicts harrowing figures—skeletons, contorted nudes, and prostitutes—because Rouault was obsessed with the suffering nature of humanity. As Jesus did, Rouault believed it was his mission to walk in the shoes of the suffering, to feel their pain.”
Why she chose them: Doucet spent weeks in an art history course viewing 15th century “kingly” depictions of Jesus Christ, which left her own relationship with Christ unchanged. Rouault’s paintings were a different matter. “Rouault depicts Jesus as an abstract, deconstructed man on the cross, rather than lofty and out of reach. Rouault’s Christ—both the style and the subject matter—spoke to something inside of me. I think all good art should aim to encourage the viewer, reader, or listener to consider the creator’s perspective with the hope of re-evaluating one’s place in the world. I chose Rouault’s pieces because they reveal the humble spirit of Christ and encourage self-reflection.”
Mexican Painted Retablo, 1942
By Gregorio Navarro, Guanajuato, Mexico
Selected by: Jordan Friedman’13
Friedman: “The retablo [a Mexican votive painting] was painted and dedicated in gratitude by a man who recovered from an unspecified injury, perhaps with the help of others who prayed for him, as suggested by the painting. …The object is designed to encourage hope for the possibility of healing, especially if the retablo is displayed in a hospital chapel. As an item on a home altar or shrine, the painting can be a votive offering by itself, perhaps as an offering of artistic creativity and a visual ‘reminder’ of a desired future miracle as well as a thanksgiving offering for miracles past. In this way, the tin retablo invites the prayers of people and the response of God.”