Sacred Art – Its Fate When a Catholic Church Closes Its Doors

A subscriber recently asked me about the process of the movement of sacred art from a local church or cathedral into a secular or religiously affiliated museum and is there a specific “Rite” of the Church that applies to this situation?

Before I answer the question allow me to provide a quick review in reference to the word “Rite/rite.”

When a capital “R” is used it refers to specific Rites, such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Rite of Baptism, the Rite of Anointing of the Sick, etc.

Also, a capital R is used when referring to the Rite of the Western (Latin/Roman) Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Rites in union with Rome (there are 5), and the liturgical subsets of these five Eastern Catholic Rites. These liturgical subsets, which are all in union with Rome, number more than twenty specific cultural groups.

If the word “rite” is not capitalized it refers to the basic definition, which is: “the ceremonial practices of a Church governing the words and actions for a specific liturgical ceremony.

We may also look at the basic question from three different angles or categories.

In reference to the question asked by the subscriber: The first category is when a piece or pieces of sacred art is owned by one, or many, dioceses and are collected to be shown in a secular or religiously affiliated museum. The local Roman Catholic Bishop may allow this because the sacred art is  considered an opportunity and expression of beauty and catechesis for its viewers. This is especially important  since numerous faithful might never see the art because of personal circumstances or its public availability. An example of this was the opportunity I had to view some of Fra Angelico’s extraordinary paintings in Boston during the late winter and spring of 2018.

I posted some of my observations of these masterpieces in the exhibition “Fra Angelico – Heaven on Earth” that were loaned to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I would have never been able to see many of these paintings if they hadn’t been loaned to that Museum. That viewing, presented in a very respectful way by the Museum staff, became a spiritual and artistic experience for many people. It provided an opportunity to appreciate Fra Angelico’s enormous talent and the paintings ability to express Scriptural and Traditional truths of the Church. I am not aware of any blessing “rite” that occurred prior to their removal and/or reception as a loan to the Gardner exhibition, however, if the paintings were part of a specific diocesan collection, here or abroad, the local Bishop/Cardinal, may have supported such a blessing.

In another case, if a particular piece of sacred art was desecrated as a result of a museum’s irresponsibility or their insufficient security, I am sure the sacred art in question would be blessed prior to its being reinstalled in its original diocesan location. A specific blessing may be used; such a blessing may be found in the Roman Catholic “Book of Blessings” (numerous blessings for specific occasions). It would be given by the local bishop or his designee in a specified and prescribed form.

The second category is the sacred art that was/is created for a specific patron. This art is created to be venerated or simply enjoyed by the patron and his/her family and friends.

For the last 1,500 years wealthy patrons throughout the world  have commissioned and placed sacred art in their private chapels or rooms dedicated to it. Kings, queens, and other wealthy secular patrons (such as the Medici) may have had a deacon, priest, or normally the bishop bless the sacred art. The bishop may have used a particular blessing current at that point in history, or in contemporary times, within the “Book of Blessings” or other manuals, that every diocese possesses and its bishops, priests and deacons use.

Upon the death of the original patron the piece would probably be passed from one family generation to another until funds were needed and it was sold to another secular patron, or the piece was sold or donated to the Church or a museum.

There is a third category. If a diocese or a cleric commissions or purchases sacred art to hang within their basilica, cathedral, or parish church and uses diocesan or parish funds to do so, and eventually that cathedral or church is, for whatever reason closed, then, as in all of the above categories the question can be asked, “What happens to the sacred art?”

The answer is straightforward and the following process would normally occur (note well, the local bishop must always agree to the process undertaken whatever form it may take):

1. If a specific diocesan cleric commissioned the art for their parish church (legally a religious corporation) that parish, within a specific diocese, is the legal owner of the sacred art. It is not owned by the individual cleric but by the parish and diocese as a whole. If it was received by the parish or diocese as a gift  from the sacred artist it would normally receive a blessing when it was installed in the cathedral or parish church.

2. A privately or museum owned piece of sacred art would not fall under the category of requiring a Church blessing since it was probably blessed when it was in the possession of a Catholic patron, or a Catholic church that used it within a liturgical or sacred setting. If a secular museum, or non Catholic patron, acquires a piece of sacred art the Church would not require the non Catholic patron or museum to have the art blessed.

3. In the case of a church being closed, the local diocese would in turn transfer the art, based on need, to a parish church within their jurisdiction. Normally, it would never be sold to an individual; however, in a financial crisis the Bishop might sell a particular piece(s) to another Catholic diocese outside of his jurisdiction or a secular museum.

4. Diocesan pastors would be notified of the closing of a particular church and the distribution of its sacred items such as crucifixes, liturgical vessels, sacramentary, lectionaries, monstrances, thuribles, sacred paintings, sculptures, etc. These items would be available based on the need of another diocesan parish church. I am aware of such transfer of items having occurred within my own diocese from a parish church that closed to an active church.

5. Each case, especially when the sacred art is of great value (such as gold chalices, ciboria, stained glass, etc), has to be appropriately evaluated by the Bishop and/or individuals within his chancery office. The local bishop must always agree to the process undertaken.

Copyright © 2011- 2020, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

The Assumption by Fra Angelico
One of Fra Angelico’s reliquary paintings. This small segment, greatly increased in size, shows the detail of the Virgin Mary entering Heaven at the moment of her Assumption. It was part of the very large poster that a visitor would first see as they entered the 2018 exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The reliquaries on display all showed different scenes of the Blessed Virgin. They are stunning to behold.
One of Fra Angelico ‘s reliquary paintings – The Dormition and Assumption of Mary – on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2018. It shows the Dormition of Mary (her “falling asleep” at the end of her human life), her Assumption into Heaven and being welcomed by God. You can see the image of the Blessed Virgin greatly increased in size in the above poster. The reliquary is small, approximately 2 1/2 ft high.

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