Art in the Cathedral: The Blurring of Sacred/Secular Space

Some years ago, Winchester Cathedral hosted an exhibition called Light, featuring artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Marc Quinn, and Darren Almond. As a result of this exhibition, Rev. Charles Pickstone, a regular contributor to debates on contemporary art and religion in the UK, broached the subject of the sacred as it relates to ecclesiastical and secular spaces.

In the past Pickstone has claimed, rightly or wrongly, that cathedrals are one of the few places where works of art can get a good showing.[1] But on this occasion he made a rather different claim, principally that the White Cube (specifically Jay Jopling’s gallery rather than the gallery form in general) is not only ‘the perfect place for art’ but has ‘something almost of the sacred about it,’ such that, like a cathedral or chapel, it ‘resonates.’[2] With what does it resonate and why should it be the perfect place? It soon becomes clear that it is ‘the sacredness of the space’ that resonates, ‘hinted’ at by its uncluttered emptiness, which bespeaks both a ‘spirituality of Modernism’ and ‘a Puritan spirituality’ which ‘does away with inessentials’ and provides a visually purified space so utterly removed from the visual paraphernalia of the world outside its walls.

The difficulty for us is, of course, what makes this sacred as such. Brian O’Doherty’s famous critique of the white cube as institutional paradigm is perhaps partly to blame, in drawing a parallel between the medieval church and the sanctified space of the gallery.[3] The repositioning of a Protestant ethic and aesthetic within the bare walls of the modern white cube gallery is a familiar move, inaugurated by a Modernist ethos which itself assumed the aura of spiritual authority for an art that no longer had need of any religious trappings to imbue it with a sense of otherworldliness.  As Simon Morley once noted,

the art gallery or museum appropriates aspects of the religious symbolism of Protestantism, but replaces an uncluttered contemplation of the transcendent God by a cool and detached contemplation of the artwork.[4]

To make his point Pickstone selects a series of works already encumbered with religious overtones: Damien Hirst’s itinerant exhibition, Beyond Belief. Whether or not one agrees with Pickstone that Hirst’s works are ‘pompous’ and ‘ridiculous,’ given their religiously-inspired titles and pseudo-religious content, he contends that within ‘the sacred space of the White Cube’ they acquire a gravitas worthy of their ‘quasi-religious’ context.

So what happens when we shift our focus to Winchester Cathedral, the location for the lecture and the Light exhibition? Light was typical of the kind of cathedral-based exhibition with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, composed of a number of ‘ostensibly secular’ works lacking any ‘specifically religious meaning,’ placed throughout the cathedral. The paradox that these two examples of exhibition spaces reveal, Pickstone says, is that on the one hand we have the secular gallery, in imitation of a chapel, hosting a series of works bearing explicitly religious titles and content; on the other, the medieval church, as exhibition space, showing secular sculptures. Yet must we assume that there is a paradox at all?

There are implicit assumptions throughout Pickstone’s lecture that sacred and profane, religious and secular, need no longer be seen as antithetical in the light of contemporary crossovers: the gallery has been sacralised by the continuing presence of religious concerns and the church has been colonised by the secular. Pickstone suggests that while the sacred and secular have historically been separate, artists are amongst those who can disturb this division and encourage a greater parity of, or communion between, the two. In other words, we should question the conventional wisdom that would place religious art and secular art in different and opposing camps. This would seem to allow more latitude for diverse experiences of sacredness, beyond monolithic religious categorisations.

Do you agree? Is the artist best placed to bridge the sacred/secular divide? What does this mean for art in Christian churches?

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has recently completed a Ph.D. at Goldsmiths College on the subject of contemporary art in ecclesiastical spaces.


[1] Charles Pickstone, ‘Bold Acts of Patronage: Images of Christ,’ Apollo 138 (377), 1993, p. 49.

[2] Unless otherwise identified, all quotes come from the lecture, Faith in Sculpture, by Rev. Charles Pickstone, Winchester Cathedral, 2007.

[3] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press, Expanded Edition, 1999, p. 15.

[4] Simon Morley, ‘Holy Alliance,’ Tate Magazine 16, 1998, p. 52.

1 Comment

  • Lewis Braswell says:

    Dear Jonathan Koestlé-Cate,
    This is an intriguing area of study in which you are researching and writing. I would love to contact your email address, if that is possible.
    Kind regards

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