Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 22

Beyond blasphemy or devotion:

art, the secular, and Catholicism

in Paris
Elayne Oliphant New York University

In this article I explore the relationship between the secular and cultural Catholicism in France
through the lens of a contemporary art exhibit displayed at a new project of the French Catholic
Church. Visitors varied responses to the exhibit, I argue, ultimately reinforced the organizers claim
that the activities that occur within this non-religious space of the French church are self-evident
aspects of a broadly recognizable and secular French or European culture.

On 12 September 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a crowd of approximately 700

in a newly renovated space in the centre of Paris, the Coll`ege des Bernardins. In his
closing words, he explained to the intellectuals, artists, and politicians assembled that
what gave Europes culture its foundation the search for God and the readiness to
listen to him remains today the basis of any genuine culture.1 The pontiff pointed to
the medieval building in which he spoke as exemplary in this regard. In the thirteenth
century, Cistercian monks had constructed a space for monastic learning on the site.
During the revolutionary period, the state expropriated the building. It served a variety
of purposes over subsequent centuries, including a fire station. Then, in 2001, the
French Catholic Church purchased it back from the City of Paris to create a site of
culture, rather than religion. Members of Frances famously secular public responded
enthusiastically to the Popes claim at the inauguration that the activities that occurred
within late medieval monastic spaces such as the Coll`ege are foundational to the very
culture they produce and administer.
A number of narratives recounted to me during the two years I spent at the Coll`ege
between 2008 and 2010 similarly tethered to the present the medieval religious forms this
reappropriated Christian space appeared to embody. These accounts often described
the project underway at the Coll`ege as one of renaissance (rebirth), implying that not
only the thirteenth-century building, but also its intended purpose, had lain quietly
buried beneath layers of the citys history, awaiting resurrection. According to such
narratives, the church had simply brought back to life a cultural and intellectual project
latent in the city and its inhabitants. Thus, the framing of the project underway at the
Coll`ege rests on the appeal of the medieval in the present. The most popular exhibition

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 353

of contemporary art displayed at the Coll`ege in its augural years, Suite Grunewald,
similarly played with the place of the medieval Catholic past in contemporary art
production through its direct citation of a late medieval altarpiece. The Popes speech
demonstrates how connections between the medieval past and contemporary culture
support arguments about the Catholic Church as a self-evident site of European culture.
Given that accusations of medievalism lobbed at Muslims in France and elsewhere today
imply all that is irrational and threatening, how the Catholic Church in France is able
to connect itself with the medieval past in ways that connote such positive valences is a
puzzle that requires our attention. In this article I ask: how does this ambitious project
of the French Catholic Church force us to rethink the distinction between religion,
culture, and the secular in France at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
These efforts by the former pontiff and the French church to position the Catholic
faith beyond isolated and privatized beliefs and practices and to identify its place in a
broader French and European cultural history correspond in interesting and perhaps
uncomfortable ways to current debates within the social-scientific study of religion.
Such assertions, that is, align well with critiques such as those made by Talal Asad (1993)
that the modern propensity to malign religion as mere belief overlooks its expressions
in social practices and the complex co-production of religion and the secular alike with
various expressions of power. The project underway at the Coll`ege, furthermore, sits
well alongside trends in studies of the secular that question the distinction between
the categories of religious and secular. Rather than a space in which religion is absent,
argue the philosopher Charles Taylor (2007) and the sociologist David Martin (2005),
secularism is, in fact, the product of theologies and histories in the Christian West. At
the Coll`ege, that is, the French Catholic Church can be seen as taking up or enacting
a variety of critical analyses that work to dismantle the boundaries between religion
and the secular. In so doing, however, the church also naturalizes its place in French
and European history, potentially and powerfully excluding those associated with other
religious identities.
In critically exploring attempts to naturalize the place of the church in the secular
present, following Asad (2003) and others, I approach the secular as the normalized
structures, practices, and assumptions that background social life in France and Europe
today. The secular may encapsulate but it also precedes narratives of secularization
(a perceived process of decline in religious participation) or secularism (a legal
determination aimed at separating religion and politics, and religion and culture).
As Charles Hirschkind (2011) has argued, anthropologists of religion often focus on
the onerous social and cultural work required to maintain a religious self. The secular,
in contrast, is often seen as a space of both freedom and absence where the body and
mind express themselves more naturally. Hirschkind argues that the secular, too, must
be learned, and it is the task of anthropologists to uncover the processes through which
secular bodies are formed. Taking up this challenge offered by Hirschkind, I explore how
the church is encouraging particular modes of art viewing that may produce subjects
as, potentially, both secular and religious. In Paris today, that is, the Catholic Church
may also produce secular spaces and bodies.
In what follows, I first explore how an analysis of an art exhibition contributes to
broader debates on the intersection between religion, culture, and the secular. Next, I
describe the production and display of Suite Grunewald, a work of contemporary art
displayed at the Coll`ege in the spring and summer of 2009. I then analyse the distinct
responses expressed by visitors to the artwork, noting how the publics (as they were

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
354 Elayne Oliphant

referred to by employees at the Coll`ege) variously enacted and resisted these tacitly
secular-Catholic practices of art viewing. If, at the Coll`ege, the Archdiocese of Paris
has created a space that can simultaneously be described as secular and Catholic,
contemporary and medieval, the artwork displayed within similarly straddled such
divides. Suite Grunewald parallels the temporal contortions found at the space in which
it was exhibited. To conclude I return to Pope Benedict XVIs speech to address the
inclusions and exclusions imposed by the collusion of Catholicism, culture, and the
First, however, I want to pause to address briefly my use of the term culture. As
anthropologists well know, the culture concept has moved far beyond the grasp of
the discipline to circulate in the world in ways that are often worrisome.2 Culture is
the term that allowed the Coll`ege to be categorized as something other than religious.
Representatives of the church hierarchy were successfully able to categorize the Coll`ege
as cultural and not religious (in French de culture instead of de culte) in order to
receive approximately 20 million euros from local, state, and national governments in
France. Had the site been deemed a religious space, the secularism laws of 19053 would
have prohibited the French state from supporting it financially. The sites focus on art
and intellectual pursuits, rather than liturgy, allowed it to be categorized as cultural
and positioned it beyond the bounded private space of the religious. The distinction
between religion and culture was taken on, however, precisely so that it could be effaced.
That is, while the autonomous sites of religion and culture were required in order for
the secular state to fund the Coll`ege, the work underway here aims to demonstrate how
contemporary French culture and (particular visions of) Catholicism are always already
intertwined. At the Coll`ege, a very particular notion of culture one of high culture
is presumed. Catholic culture is that which is found in museums and intellectual
debates, and is in high demand on the art market.
In explaining his magazines persistent production of images of the Prophet
Muhammad that clearly offended many Muslim French,4 the editor of Charlie Hebdo,
Stephanne Charbonnier, once declared that we have to keep at it until Islam is as
banalized as Catholicism (Ternisien 2012). While Charb, as he was known, recognized
an inequality between Muslims and Catholics in France, like so many, he did so by
implying that this inequality was a Muslim problem. As less than modern citizens,
Muslims, we are told, are excessively religious, inappropriately linking this autonomous
site with politics and culture. Slogans such as the Je suis Charlie campaign following
the tragic shootings at the newspaper on January 7, 2015 take up Charbs call. It
is the true citizens of France such narratives claim that must discipline these
unruly immigrants, by demonstrating how blasphemy is a fundamental right. The
right to blaspheme, like the secular, begins from the false assumption that there exists
an equal ground from which to critique, banish, or regulate religion, that somehow
the public sphere is a blank slate from which satire can be mounted. My research on
the production and reception of visual culture in France interrogates this supposed
equal ground, exploring how the power to disconnect and re-establish connections
between religion and culture is a sign of the privilege of Christianity in secular

The visual culture of the secular

Following a lengthy fundraising campaign, the Archdiocese of Paris raised
approximately 60 million euros (from a combination of corporate, private, and public

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 355

funds as well as a significant debt) to renovate the space of the Coll`ege and transform it
into a site devoted to contemporary art exhibitions, intellectual debates and colloquia,
a research centre, and a space for a seminary and theology school. The renovations
completion in September 2008 coincided with the Popes visit to France.5 According to
its website6 and pamphlets, at the Coll`ege mankind is explored in all its dimensions:
spiritual, intellectual, and sensible. It is its emphasis on art viewing that I focus
on here, as such practices offer a unique opportunity to explore how transforming
practices of Catholicism are made to be indistinguishable from those of a secular French
Scholars from a variety of disciplines have charted the ongoing presence of
Christianity in presumably secular institutions in Western Europe. Many have identified
how nation-states require surprisingly religious forms. One common example of a
secular temple is the national art museum, with the art-viewing practices found within
identified as the nations secular rituals (see Duncan 1995). Historians have pointed
to how the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century production of European national
identities relied on the nostalgic desire for religious pasts and claims to rootedness
in religious histories.7 Social theorists, anthropologists, and theologians have revealed
the complex intermingling of European social theory and Christian theology.8 Others
have highlighted the influence of Catholic doctrine in the administrative organization
of European nation-states and the European Union.9 And yet, it is Europe and France
in particular that continues to stand as the site of the secular par excellence in popular
discourse within and outside of the continent. How are we to account for the staying
power of this reputation? I argue that part of this resilience resides in the presumption
that the European and French art historical canon represents the story of the secular.
The concept of the artist is key to such narratives. In her study of Indian modernist
artists who variously work through ethical formations of the secular (in part through
the use of Hindu and Muslim imagery) in their artwork, Karin Zitzewitz describes how
present-day notions of the artist presume a particularly modern, secular conception of
subjectivity and individual creativity. Zitzewitz highlights how even theorists such as
Foucault are attracted to the possibilities art held for a truth independent of authority,
whether political or religious (2014: 6). According to art historian Hans Belting (1994),
attention to the skills of painters and sculptors arose only with the Italian Renaissance.
In addition to the powerfully individuated artist liberated from authority, the overall
decline in Christian images in the art historical canon may also appear to tell the story
of the secular. James Elkins (2004) argues that while explicitly Christian signs may still
be found in contemporary art production, in order to achieve the category of art,
these works must also express a certain distance from or critique of this imagery. Only
those critical of religion, or which attempt to burn away its external trappings to
find its universal or sublime core are able to occupy any space in the modern and
contemporary art canon.
Despite this supposed distance, however, as Zitzewtiz argues, religious language
continues to abound in describing the work artists do. Museums are described as
temples and we tend to stand with reverence before works created by modern
magicians. The vision of the artist as a modern, secular agent whose work may allow
us access to something like the transcendent helps, perhaps, to explain the French
Catholic Churchs interest in practices of contemporary art exhibition. Contemporary
art, like the Coll`ege, may be both cultural and religious without having to declare its
status one way or the other. This ambiguity, furthermore, forecloses questions about the

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
356 Elayne Oliphant

secular status of contemporary art, no matter its relation (in the intentions or practices
of artists, the manner in which works are viewed, or the organizations that serve as
patrons or exhibitors) to Christian institutions.
There are fascinating parallels between the project of the Coll`ege and the advocacy
projects of the Bible Society of England and Wales as described by Matthew Engelke
(2013). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, members of the Bible Society worked
to make the Bible available at a low cost. Today, their mission has shifted to reminding
modern secular publics of the Bibles ongoing relevance. While there are significant
contrasts between the two organizations,10 they both turn to activities they describe
as cultural in order to help make their case for the relevance of Christianity in the
present. In Swindon in 2008, for example, members of the Bible Society commissioned
an artist to design abstract angels to hang above an outdoor shopping complex during
the Christmas season. Engelke describes this action as intended to create an ambient
faith that could both fly under the radar of secular sensibilities and gently remind
shoppers of their knowledge of the religious roots of the Christmas season (2013: 37-
63). This ambiguity between religion, the secular, and culture, as I will demonstrate,
similarly defines the activities underway at the Coll`ege.
Here, employees are working to create a site that will become one of numerous spaces
of culture in Paris that, as in Craig Calhouns account of the secular, appear normal,
natural, and tacit (2010: 38). Rather than the particularities of dress and ritual connected
to other religious identities in France (especially those associated with Islam), the
Coll`ege offers high cultural practices that can be taken up as unmarked and
sophisticated and therefore secular modes of being in Paris. I provide an
ethnographic study of practices of art viewing in France precisely because signs of
Christianity appear to move so fluidly between the categories of religious, secular,
and cultural in this secular ritual (to borrow a phrase from Duncan). Shifting
between these categories, however, requires what anthropologists describe as social
and cultural work. It is that work I now turn to in my description of encounters with
Suite Grunewald. During two years of ethnographic research in which I worked as a
mediator for art exhibitions at the Coll`ege, I charted how employees and visitors alike
worked to position the site as a natural part of, in the words of one employee, the
Parisian cultural landscape. To naturalize practices of contemporary art as Catholic
and secular, however, also required the disciplining of many of its visitors to engage
with contemporary art in very particular ways.

Suite Grunewald
Art viewing has a long history within the Roman Catholic Church, one marked by a great
deal of ambivalence. Amidst the institutions powerful role as patron, figures such as
the thirteenth-century Cistercian monk St Bernard (after whom the Coll`ege is named)
worried about the power of fine materials and images that might distract Christians
from their reflections on the word of God. Belting (1994) argues that, in fact, the long
history of image creation prior to the Italian Renaissance can only be categorized as
art if we overlook the nature not only of image production, but also of its reception.
He contends that, in gazing upon these images, Christians through the medieval period
experienced awe at the presence of God they made available. As reproductions of Gods
presence, relics, images of saints, and depictions of the crucifixion allowed for irregular
and limited access to the divine on holy days, when such objects were paraded through
the streets or held up for adoration in churches.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 357

unewald, Isenheim Altar, 1512-16, The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der
Figure 1. Mathias Gr
Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

One remarkable work that sits at the cusp of this time of transformation from images
to art is the Isenheim altarpiece, created by Mathias Grunewald between 1512 and 1516
(see Fig. 1). It is this work that is the focus of Suite Grunewald.11 At the time of the
production of the Isenheim, attention tended to focus on works of the emerging Italian
Renaissance rather than those of the late medieval tradition. The Isenheim took on
renewed life in the nineteenth century. Historians of medieval Europe have argued that
much of what we assume to know about the Middle Ages in Europe is, in fact, an
invention of the nineteenth century.12 Following the upheaval of the post-revolutionary
period, urban planners and artists in France found inspiration in medievalism.13 In
this context, many identified the particularly grotesque depiction of Christ on the
cross in the Isenheims central panel as a compelling example of the richness of the
period. Lesions, cuts, and thorns mark the entirety of Christs taut pale skin stretched
between the corners of the cross. The nineteenth-century novelist and art critic Joris-
Karl Huysmans (2008 [1908]) described the Isenheim as a sight that viewers are unlikely
to forget.
Dislocated, almost ripped out of their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed trammelled by the knotty
cords of the straining muscles. The laboured tendons of the armpits seemed ready to snap. The fingers,
wide apart, were contorted in an arrested gesture in which were supplication and reproach but also
benediction. The trembling thighs were greasy with sweat. The ribs were like staves, or like the bars
of a cage, the flesh swollen, blue, mottled with flea-bites, specked as with pin-pricks by spines broken
off from the rods of the scourging and now festering beneath the skin where they had penetrated.14

The admiration of these nineteenth-century writers subsequently made the Isenheim

available to art viewers of the twentieth.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
358 Elayne Oliphant

Numerous modern and contemporary artists have reproduced Grunewalds Christ,

including George Grosz in Shut up and do your duty! (1927) and Silence! (1935-6), and
Sue Coe in Gray rape (1983) and Its not safe! (1987).15 Groszs pieces take up Christs
sacrifice as conveyed by Grunewald in order to question the obligations of young men
as wartime soldiers.16 Coes terrifying drawings use this representation of suffering
to depict sexual violence against women. In turning to a medieval account of pain
to explore the suffering of modern, private subjects, however, these artists overlooked
important distinctions between the two experiences. As Talal Asad (2003) has described,
the depiction of the pain of martyrs and Christ on the cross in images and writings of
the medieval period could represent triumph rather than passive defeat. For medieval
Christians, explains Asad, public suffering made a difference not only to themselves (to
their own potential actions) as members of a new faith but also to the world in which
they lived (2003: 89).17 Viewing images of suffering could have similarly broad effects.
The decline in this approach to pain, Asad argues, is one of the outcomes of the rise of
the secular modern subject, whose individuated suffering implicates his or her psyche
and body alone, rather than the broader social world. These artists tell a particular
story of the secular, incorporating Grunewalds images in ways that transform signs of
communal triumphant pain into individuated, psychological, and embodied suffering.
Note how the secular here is characterized not by the absence of Christian imagery,
but by its transformation.
Thus, in Suite Grunewald, the French artist Gerard Titus-Carmel is working well-
trodden ground.18 Suite Grunewald is a single work that includes 159 drawings and
one large oil-on-wood painting. Titus-Carmel created the work between 1994 and 1996
but did not exhibit it until its display at the Coll`ege from 19 March to 9 August 2009.
Originally planned to end in June, the exhibit received such a positive response that the
organizers were inspired to extend it through the summer. The favourable reaction to
Suite Grunewald can in part be explained by the fact that both Titus-Carmel and the
Isenheim are well known in France. Titus-Carmels works are part of the permanent
collections of a number of contemporary art museums in France, and he represented
France at the 1997 Venice Biennale.
According to an interview with Titus-Carmel available on the exhibits website,19 he
became acquainted with the Isenheim in reproductions found in a black-and-white art
history dictionary. Thus, he was particularly affected when he saw the work in colour
still as a reproduction for the first time. Already impressed by the retables significance
and its drama, he was surprised to discover that the work was actually marked by, in his
words, an immense economy of color. Essentially, black, red, and white were the only
colours to be found in the central tableau. In the mid-1990s he visited Colmar for the
first time. The museums director offered him the chance to visit the work alone, after
the museum had closed. This intimacy gave him the opportunity, as he explains in the
video, to become, not friends with the tableau, but almost. It was someone I could go
and see outside of opening hours, in complicity.
As he was busy with other projects, a year and a half passed before Titus-Carmel
returned to the many drawings he had created at Colmar and found himself doing
a quick sketch of Mary Magdalene (see Fig. 2).20 Upon completing the drawing, he
wondered why, of the five characters in this tableau, did he begin with her? Mary
Magdalene, he realized, intrigued me technically. First of all, the folds of her robe,
her crimped hair and so forth. But also, he described, it is in Mary Magdalene that
one finds movement in the tableau; it is she whose emotive hands, kneeling figure,

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 359

Figure 2. Suite Gr
unewald (Number 6), lead pencil, G erard Titus-Carmel, 1994. Photo taken by the
erard Titus-Carmel: 
author. G C 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

and supplicating gestures mount upwards towards Christ. In contrast, the figures of
Christ, St John the Baptist, and St John holding the Virgin Mary appeared static. Mary
Magdalene, explained Titus-Carmel, is where the tableau called out to me a phrase,
by the way, that I detest. In other words, he responded to the work in terms of its formal
and expressive elements, rather than through its situated moment of production and
earlier practices of viewing.
Following six drawings of Mary Magdalene, Titus-Carmel went on to address each
of the other figures in the work. In subsequent series, he examined the hands of the
core figures the praying hands of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin, the pointing
finger of St John the Baptist as he intones illum oportet crescere me autem minui
(he must increase but I must decrease), and Christs hands, feet, and thorax. The
artist repeated the figures and objects numerous times using different materials and
techniques, including acrylic, collage, pencil, ink, sanguine, and watercolour. Some
drawings are highly detailed copies of sections of the altarpiece; others are more
schematic (see Fig. 3). The repetition of various forms throughout, however, prevents
these abstractions from being non-representative. In the context of these repetitions, a
black triangle, for example, can clearly stand in for the body of Christ. Suite Grunewalds

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
360 Elayne Oliphant

Figure 3. Suite Gr
unewald (Number 46), acrylic and collage, G erard Titus-Carmel, 1994. Photo taken by
erard Titus-Carmel: 
the author. G C 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

one large oil painting reproduces the central panel of the triptych in full (see Fig. 4).
At the Coll`ege, the painting hung at the apex of the exhibition, which followed a
circumambulatory path similar to that found in many of the Neo-Gothic churches that
dominate the Parisian cityscape.
Visitors to the Coll`ege who knew of Titus-Carmels other works were surprised
by Suite Grunewalds explicitly Christian theme. It is indeed the only work among his
oeuvre to include such allusions. According to Titus-Carmel, the subject of the work was
neither his primary source of fascination, nor an element that could easily be dismissed.
In the video, he describes how his interest in the Isenheim began with its composition,
the distribution of space, and its formal devices. He acknowledges, however, that the
altarpiece did not depict a piece of asparagus or a bowl of flowers. I could not entirely
abstract away from the subject matter. But the content was, in his words, on the same
level (au meme titre) as the altarpieces form. For Titus-Carmel, the adventure of his
work was situated here, in the interstice between the subject matter and the formal
accomplishments of the altarpiece.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 361

unewald, acrylic on canvas, 256.6 332.6 cm, G

Figure 4. Suite Gr erard Titus-Carmel, 1994. Photo
erard Titus-Carmel: 
taken by the author. G C 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Thus, Titus-Carmels use of Christian themes appears somewhat incidental. While

he acknowledges that the images found in the work were of a particular nature, his work
did not make any explicit claims about Christian iconography or the Isenheim. It is an
example of contemporary art that engages Christian themes in ways that are neither
explicitly critical of the faith, nor created in the service of worship. This space between
blasphemy and devotion in contemporary visual art offers an intriguing glimpse into
the transforming visual symbols and practices of Catholicism in Western Europe. Suite
Grunewald is hardly the first artistic work to occupy this space. The interstice, however,
has received scant attention in theological and art historical writings.21 Scholars who
have examined, in Elkinss (2004) words, the strange place of religion in contemporary
art tend to point to instances where the use of Christian imagery has been interpreted as
sacrilegious or blasphemous,22 or devotional, as a spiritual exercise that can expand
the experience of faith.23
At the Coll`ege, the question of whether Suite Grunewald should be viewed as
blasphemous or devotional, as secular or religious, remained decidedly open. In
the context of Catholic art as culture, as with the Coll`ege itself, such questions appeared
superfluous. Employees at the Coll`ege did not insist upon any single reading of Suite
Grunewald. Those of us who worked with the exhibits were called mediators, rather
than guides,24 in order to emphasize the non-didactic nature of our work. There was no
single reading we were required to impart to visitors. Instead, we were there to answer
questions and assist in their individual approaches to the work by offering our own
or other viewers readings. While the institution refused to determine how the work
ought to be interpreted, viewing Suite Grunewald in the space of the Coll`ege inevitably
influenced the manner in which the work was perceived. What are the implications

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
362 Elayne Oliphant

and potential limitations of an attempt to create a space between blasphemy and

devotion if it is one that is hosted by the Catholic Church? Because Suite Grunewald
and the Coll`ege share challenges of interpretation, the space itself and the narratives
that accompany it could both promote and confound different readings of this complex
work. Both the work and the space include elements that are precise copies of earlier
works (the fifteenth-century altarpiece and the thirteenth-century building) as well as
contemporary or modern forms. In contrast, however, while the artist did not claim
that Suite Grunewald was a repetition of the Isenheim, as I described above, a number of
narratives at the Coll`ege work to position the space as the rebirth of a medieval project.
In the absence of particular claims about what may be accomplished by the citation and
reimagining of a particular iconographic image by the artist and institution alike, the
question of how Suite Grunewald was viewed becomes all the more pressing. I will now
turn to the responses of the visitors who came through the doors of Coll`ege during the
exhibiting of Suite Grunewald in order to assess the potential effects of reading Christian
images in highly particular ways.

The art-viewing publics

Visitors expressed a diversity of responses to Suite Grunewald. Over time, however, I
discerned certain patterns in the modes of viewing performed and reactions expressed
(see Fig. 5). In exchange for allowing me to conduct research while working as a
mediator, managers at the Coll`ege asked me to assess as an anthropologist the
publics I observed and their reactions to the exhibitions. I have decided to retain
the term publics, which I used along with my colleagues in our daily work at the
Coll`ege. While our engagements with visitors were often more direct than the abstract
reading public described by Michael Warner (2002), the broader task of imagining a
larger public also informed our work. Common points of discussion among employees
included lamenting the limits of the more religious publics who often came through the
door and wondering how to attract a public more accustomed to contemporary art (and,
therefore, presumably more modern or secular). A great deal of work by fundraising
and marketing staff aimed to imagine, produce, and discipline a contemporary public
(more on this below).
The general distinction between publics made by many of the mediators and
employees was between Catholics and everyone else. I found this dichotomous division
difficult to apply. How does one recognize a Catholic? This division, moreover, took
for granted a hard-and-fast distinction between religious and secular that I felt
overlooked many of the nuances in the desires, remarks, and art-viewing practices I
observed. Consequently, in one meeting with managers at the Coll`ege, I offered an
alternative way of categorizing the visitors.25 Rather than attempting to discern their
religious orientation, I distinguished between them by using their motivations for
coming to the space and the activities they engaged in while there. I explained that I
had identified three different publics: contemporary, classical, and spiritual.
The contemporary public was made up of those who frequented contemporary art
spaces and had come after reading positive reviews of the exhibit in the press, were
friends with, or had previous knowledge of, the artist. They were unlikely to participate
in any other offerings at the Coll`ege (such as conferences, debates, or theology lectures).
Nor, however, were they particularly affected by the fact that the space was owned and
operated by the Archdiocese. The classical public came to the Coll`ege first and foremost
for the stones. That is, they came to see the medieval building in as pure a state as possible

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 363

Figure 5. Publics viewing Suite Gr

unewald (1994) at the Coll`ege des Bernardins, 2009. Photo taken by
erard Titus-Carmel: 
the author. G C 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

and generally resented anything that blocked their access to its historical authenticity.
They presumed that the exhibitions should have a direct relationship with what they
often called the aesthetic of the building. Finally, members of the spiritual public often
came to the Coll`ege, they claimed, par hasard (by accident), implying that a force apart
from their own volition had brought them there. Others in this category came to the
space in order to see and experience Pariss newest, in their words, spiritual space, or
to attend a theology class.
Of course, many visitors I met displayed more than one or none of these
characteristics. These classifications, therefore, like the categories of secular and
religious, should be seen as provisional attempts to account for a more complex
reality. My choice of contemporary, classical, and spiritual attempted to complicate any
clear distinction between religious and secular dispositions, as many visitors similarly
confounded any simple divisions. Members of the contemporary public, for example,
often explained that the medieval vaults of the nave and sacristy heightened their
experience of this work, whose contemporaneity contrasted with and yet was perfectly
at home in or well suited to this space. Many, although certainly not all, members of
the classical public wore visible markers of their Catholic faith or identified themselves as
such in conversations with the mediators. However, to assume that these signs (whether
visual or verbal) could easily be read to imply that they regularly attended mass or that
what they sought at the Coll`ege was a deepening of their faith would be a far from
accurate assessment. I found members of this public to be particularly intriguing, for
while they strongly advocated for the importance of the restoration of spaces such as
the Coll`ege, they were often less interested in engaging in conversations about faith. On
the other hand, members of the spiritual public, who were generally more interested in
engaging in conversations of this sort, did not always identify themselves as Catholic.
Some members of this public (such as those who declared themselves to be of a Catholic
heritage) explicitly refused the word religious in favour of the term spiritual.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
364 Elayne Oliphant

One observation I made about all of the publics I encountered was that almost
everyone who came through the doors was white. Furthermore, the majority seemed to
be middle or upper class, an observation that was confirmed by my co-workers. As I have
described, not all of the visitors could be easily identified as Catholic. However, only
rarely did the people I met at the Coll`ege wear visible signifiers of, or declare themselves
to be affiliated with, other religions. The following account of the responses of these
publics to Suite Grunewald is an attempt to synthesize hundreds of conversations I
recorded in many pages of fieldnotes, of experiences recounted to me by other mediators
at the Coll`ege, and of comments left in the Livre dor (Comment Book or, literally, Book
of Gold) that accompanied the exhibit. I have tried to encapsulate these interactions by
using terms I heard visitors utter frequently, and providing examples of how their visits
tended to proceed. I argue that while the differences between the practices of viewing are
significant, all of these divergent practices ultimately contributed to the authorization
of the rather particular project underway at the Coll`ege. Despite this broad support,
in subtle ways employees at the Coll`ege sought to discipline visitors to take up more
contemporary modes of art viewing.

The contemporary public

In general, members of the contemporary public responded positively to the exhibit.
In early July 2009, I encountered a man who told me that he had visited the exhibit
four times already. Knowing that it would close in a month, he wanted to take every
opportunity to appreciate the work. A few weeks prior, two young women who identified
themselves as artists explained that they knew of Titus-Carmels work. Following their
careful tour, they left remarks in the Livre dor that could have been written by critics
in Frances contemporary art magazines. This is a liberated and flamboyant work that
will stay in my spirit, wrote one. A magnificent exhibition that shows the surprising
faculty of creation, day after day, without ceasing to be renewed, remarked the other.
They included their names next to their comments.
Members of this public were easily identifiable because they, more than any other
public, refused the services of the mediators. They understood what it was they were
seeing, or at least needed no assistance in their demarche (approach) to the exhibit. In
fact, they often explained that they could not have their experience of the installation
altered by our remarks, which might change the relationship between them and the
work. This desire to be left alone was, at times, articulated explicitly. One contemporary
visitor responded to my inquiry as to whether she had any questions with a breezy,
No, Im discovering. At other times, visitors body language could speak volumes. On
a warm day in the middle of the summer, I smiled at two men, both in their forties,
who entered into the space. In my notes, I recognized them as potential members of the
contemporary public owing to the fact that they did little to acknowledge my presence.
Picking up on this body language, I did not immediately approach them. They took a
pamphlet displayed next to the exhibit and, after looking through it carefully, began a
long, slow, and careful tour. I eventually approached them to tell them I was available to
answer any questions they might have. Forcement, (obviously), they replied, making
clear their displeasure with my refusal to read their signals correctly. They pointed
and whispered to one another, took pictures, and eventually paused before the large
oil tableau. They scanned the brochure, flipping it over again and again. I was seated,
writing my fieldnotes just off to the side. Finally, they approached me to ask the meaning

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 365

of the Latin phrase inscribed on the painting. After I translated the phrase into French,
I left them alone again to stare at the painting for some time.
In addition to refusing interactions with the mediators, this public sometimes
declined even to refer to the reproduction of the Isenheim available in the accompanying
brochure, often preferring to take a copy only as they departed. While they often
understood that the piece was a reflection on the Isenheim, they felt that to see this
source would alter their appreciation of Suite Grunewald on its own terms. For this
public, one purpose of their visits seemed to be expressed in their capacity to identify
the techniques and materials that Titus-Carmel had used in each drawing. When they
did approach the mediators, it was often to settle a debate about the technique used.
Significantly, it was this question that the Coll`ege had best prepared us to answer as one
of the few documents employees provided was a detailed list of every technique in each
of the drawings in Suite Grunewald, a point to which I will return below.

The classical public

Members of the classical public often described their taste as classique, in order to
explain why they could appreciate an exhibition like Suite Grunewald, but also to
express hesitance at accepting it wholeheartedly. For them, the term explained why they
still preferred more traditional paintings to the one before them. In response to my
rather lengthy account to one visitor of how the work was produced, she explained:

I admire the techniques but I find it difficult to feel a connection to it; there are some classical pieces
which, when one stands in front of them, one is completely taken in, seized by the force of the work,
those that require too much discussion in order to be understood can never be appreciated in the
same way.

In general, classical visitors responses to the artist and his work improved when
they understood the relationship between Suite Grunewald and the Isenheim. If, for the
contemporary public, the experience of viewing the exhibit was shaped by their capacity
to identify the various techniques used in its production, Suite Grunewald became more
comprehensible for the classical public when they were able to identify the links between
it and the Isenheim Altarpiece. The experience of viewing Suite Grunewald often became
one of finding these correspondences by making the circumambulatory tour with the
reproduction in hand and pointing to the recognizable connections between the two
works. They would often criticize the Coll`ege for not having a larger reproduction
in colour of the original piece, a problem that I and other mediators occasionally
resolved by offering them copies of images from the central panel (which, in contrast
to the list of techniques provided by employees, we had procured ourselves), or from a
glossy book about the Isenheim Altarpiece sold in the Coll`ege bookstore.
One day in early July, two women in their seventies arrived. They made it clear that
they were here to see the magnificent restoration. Nevertheless, they allowed me to
explain a bit about the exhibit, and became fascinated by the link to the Isenheim. I
left them with an image of the altarpiece to complete the tour. When they reached the
first of the more abstract series, they sought me out to explain what it was they were
seeing. There was a linkage between the drawings and St John the Baptists pointing
figure, but I hesitated to point it out to them, worrying that I would be crossing a line
as a mediator by determining how the images ought to be read. As I pointed to St John
the Baptists finger on their picture of the altarpiece, they expressed relief at the sight
of recognition. One just has to stand back a bit, they remarked as I moved away. The

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
366 Elayne Oliphant

women, however, soon became nervous that they would miss their guided tour of the
space and so abandoned the exhibit promptly thereafter.
At times, members of the classical public remarked on the obsessive nature of the
work in ways that expressed concern about the reliability of the artist. One woman
surprised me with the remark, What a pity. When I looked at her quizzically, she
explained that he must have been obsessed, in a fervour to produce a work this large,
obsessed by the material, all those hands praying and pleading. Another member of the
classical public was astounded to learn that a single artist had created all 159 drawings.
Appearing discomfited at the thought, he turned the conversation in another direction,
remarking that he was equally astounded by the magnificence of the renovation and
then asked me for details about the building.
Generally, members of this public preferred the more figurative images a term
they used frequently and the meaning or success of a particular drawing often resided
in its capacity to most effectively appear as a copy of the original work. On occasion,
members of the classical public claimed that Titus-Carmels work helped them better
to appreciate abstraction because they could see that he had the ability to really draw.
They often insisted that it was necessary for artists to start with copies in order to
perfect their skills; it was particularly necessary, however, for abstract artists to begin
with such work in order for their abstraction to be called art. One must begin with
the figurative before arriving at abstraction, one man insisted, or abstraction loses any
meaning. Some of the more tepid remarks about Suite Grunewald from the classical
public came in the form of a positive contrast with an installation work that had been
exhibited earlier at the Coll`ege (it contained no Christian imagery and was rather
negatively received by the classical and spiritual publics in particular). An interesting
exhibition in any case, a signed comment in the Livre dor read. At least better than
[the previous exhibit at the Coll`ege]! A little more effort towards the sacred for the next
one! Other members of the classical public offered positive reviews of the exhibit, while
still maintaining the primacy of the space. Could there be a more beautiful screen for
such a work than this Coll`ege des Bernardins?, one visitor inquired.

The spiritual public

Finally, members of the spiritual public often expressed how they were entranced by the
piece. They admired how the artist demonstrated a very strong, in their words, spirit.
These individuals often remarked that Titus-Carmel must have really been inside his
work in order to produce something so large and repetitive, seeming to suggest a mode
of action lacking in volition, similar to the accounts of their own arrival at the Coll`ege.
In contrast to the classical public, members of the spiritual public admired the notion of
the artist obsessed with the work. Some described the experience of viewing the work
in spiritual terms. A few weeks before the close of the exhibit, for example, a soft-spoken
man wearing a cross around his neck expressed how lucky he felt to have come on a
quiet day, so that he could appreciate the work as it was intended, in complete silence.
Later he asked me if we sold any posters of the exhibit; I explained that we did not have
the right to reproduce the images, but that they were available in the catalogue. I added
that he was welcome to take pictures. My camera is here, he replied, pointing first to
his head and then to his heart.
Many members of this public were familiar with the images in the work. They
could easily point out the various figures depicted within. Members of this public were
intrigued by the images, however, not as interpretations of those created by Grunewald,

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 367

or as evidence of a particular technique, but as representations of the iconography of the

crucifixion more broadly. Instead of looking for the correspondences with the Isenheim,
or identifying the various methods used by Titus-Carmel, members of this public often
searched for hidden religious meanings in its repetitive forms. At times, they would
suggest symbolic explanations for why there were seven drawings in the first series, six in
the second, and so on. They would focus on the details to which Titus-Carmel had paid
particular attention, seeing in the different expressions of the hands of Mary different
modes of prayer; some even attempted to divine a particular meaning in the colours
chosen by Titus-Carmel in each drawing. When I would explain that the artist had,
quite simply, restricted himself to the colours found in the Isenheim, undeterred, they
like believers in witchcraft according to Evans-Pritchard (1976 [1937]) would offer an
explanation along the lines of but why this particular colour of those available in this
particular image? For these visitors, the complex relationship between the Isenheim
and Suite Grunewald was insignificant; they often saw little merit in separating the
iconography associated with the crucifixion and the particular representation of the
crucifixion by Grunewald that was the subject of Titus-Carmels work. In conversations
with the mediators, the roles were often reversed as this public preferred to educate
the mediators about Christian iconography, details of which the mediators often knew
relatively little.

Disciplining publics
What can we learn about the co-mingling of religion, the secular, and culture by
analysing the various modes of viewing brought by visitors to Suite Grunewald? There
are clear distinctions between how different publics responded to the work. I have also
demonstrated, however, that these variations do not fall easily along religious versus
secular lines. Recall the comments in the Livre dor left by the contemporary visitor
who described how the work would stay in her spirit, or the slightly negative remark
by the member of the classical public who acknowledged that the piece was better than
the installation work, but still encouraged the Coll`ege to move a little more towards
the sacred in its future exhibits. Did his use of the term sacred imply a more religious
or spiritual exploration, or did he desire to see art whose classical status rendered it
sacred in spaces such as the Louvre? Given the slipperiness of these categories, I argue
that despite the different viewing practices brought by art-viewing publics, their effects
render them not as far apart as they might appear. To my mind, the practices and
responses of all three publics, in different ways, helped to bolster the broader project
of the Coll`ege.
In their engagements with Suite Grunewald, the classical and spiritual publics
expressed admiration for Titus-Carmels citational practices. In other words, their
account of what they admired in the piece came close to a classical concept of artistic
beauty as semblance (Hansen 2012: 115). This desire for semblance despite important
differences in the source or original (a fifteenth-century altarpiece or Christian
iconography more generally) brings these two modes of viewing together in important
ways. They expressed a desire for a certain form of viewing that many would argue is
no longer available to viewers in the present. According to Miriam Hansen, in his
essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin (2002
[1936]) used the concept of aura as beautiful semblance in order to insist upon the
auras irreversible decay, its historical index of pastness (Hansen 2012: 115).26 Thus,
whether admiring Suite Grunewald for its capacity to repeat the medieval past or

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
368 Elayne Oliphant

timeless iconography, I argue, the classical and spiritual publics expressed a desire for
this pastness in ways that reinforced the Coll`eges vision of medieval Catholicism as a
key source for contemporary culture.
In his essay Some motifs in Baudelaire, Hansen describes how, for Benjamin, the
aporetic element in the beautiful semblance marks the object as not just absent in the
work but always already lost. The admiration that is courting [the] identical object
is a retrospective one: it gleans what earlier generations admired in it (2012: 116).
This desire for that which earlier generations admired was expressed, time and again,
in visitors engagements with the work and space alike. By admiring Titus-Carmels
capacity to copy or reproduce medieval or iconographic images from the past, that is,
viewers inevitably pointed to that which was absent, as well as that which was present.
The Coll`eges claims to repeat the medieval past in the present similarly benefits from
a desire for what earlier generations admired in ways that both justify the project of
the Coll`ege and establish the present as necessarily lacking the past in ways that allow
the space to stand both within and above the contemporary (and contemporary art).
Here, I am gesturing towards the political implications of the claim by viewers that
both Suite Grunewald and the Coll`ege are examples of repetition of the medieval that
also acknowledge their distance from that past. The reproduction will always be found
lacking that aura, which then becomes the object of a desire situated at the foundation
of the project of the Coll`ege. In the classical publics admiration of a contemporary
artists capacity to copy precisely a classical artwork, one can find correspondences with
an account of Europe (or any genuine culture) that takes for granted the heritage
of Christianity and its unfortunate lack in the present. Similarly, interpretations of
the piece that saw little distance between the artwork and iconography connect in
interesting ways with proponents of the Coll`ege who describe it as a renaissance of its
thirteenth-century predecessor. Both situate the past in and above the present, but in
ways that cannot easily be defined as religious or secular.
But what about the contemporary public? Do these visitors not stand apart from
these processes of authorization? While they may not have admired the piece for its
beautiful semblance, the effects of the practices the contemporary public brought to
bear on Suite Grunewald, I argue, also reinforced the vision of the Coll`ege in two ways.
First, in the contemporary publics refusal of the very possibility of mediation, these
unlikely visitors to a project of the Archdiocese denied the previous culturally situated
experiences of viewing (including the viewing of Christian art) that informed their
capacity to appreciate Suite Grunewald. In needing no contextualization, that is, these
viewers suggested that the images and techniques found in this contemporary work
were self-evident. In so doing, they supported the Archdioceses efforts to naturalize
the place of Catholicism in contemporary France and its art forms. Second, as I noted
above, the form of viewing the Coll`ege had best prepared the mediators to facilitate
that of identifying the various techniques used in each piece was, in fact, that enacted
by the contemporary public. It was this public, more than any other, that the Coll`ege
imagined and discursively produced through its advertising, brochures, and website.
By working to draw them into the space, the Coll`ege sought out and succeeded in
capturing an elite public in order to (like the Bible Society in Britain) remind them of
their Catholic heritage. Thus, by their very presence, the contemporary public helped
to authorize the project underway at the Coll`ege.
In the tools they provided to the mediators, employees at the Coll`ege worked to
discipline classical and spiritual publics to engage in modes of viewing closer to those

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 369

taken up by the contemporary public. They worked to establish modes of art viewing
developed in museums and galleries as practices appropriately applied in Catholic
spaces and in response to Christian images. In other words, they were working to
discipline their visitors in the art of secular art viewing. In constructing a space for
secular art viewing, the Archdiocese of Paris has created a site in which art production
and consumption that is not of the church may occur under its purview. Participating
in practices at the Coll`ege can be both secular and Catholic in ways that similarly
to Titus-Carmels citational practices do not require one, ultimately, to declare (or
decide) which one is doing. This tacitness has political implications, as one is able to
engage with Catholicism without defining these actions as religious and therefore, in
France, as inappropriate in the public sphere.

Conclusion: Catholicism as the root of secular Europe

Seated in the space that would later be occupied by the large oil-on-wood painting by
Titus-Carmel, Pope Benedict XVI explained that he intended to speak about the origins
of Western theology and the roots of European culture (see note 1). He gestured to the
massive nave in which the audience was seated. The place in which we are gathered is in
a certain way emblematic of these roots of European culture, he explained, which are
monastic. The Coll`ege is a space where, in its original form, the treasures of ancient
culture survived, and where at the same time a new culture slowly took shape out of
the old. It was not, however, the intention of the monks at the Coll`ege to create a
culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more
basic. Their goal was: quaerere Deum [to seek God]. This journey of monasticism, he
explained, involved the study of the Word, which eventually produced the disciplines
of social science.
To describe monasticism as the roots of Western culture and civilization prevents
questions about the place of Catholicism in secular France and Europe. The two, the
former Pope implicitly argued, are always already intertwined in ways that cannot easily
be extricated. Similarly, the Coll`ege did not need to appropriate Suite Grunewald as
a religious image in order for it to contribute to the project of equating Catholic
history with that of Europe and France. The slipperiness of the categories of religious,
secular, and cultural, particularly in relation to the place of Christian images in the
art canon, meant that this work could be accomplished tacitly and, therefore, all the
more powerfully. In addition to effacing a great deal of the violence of this history,
the Popes speech masked the politics of such a claim. Linking medieval history for
which the Coll`ege is a symbol to the present in Europe creates an irrefutable cultural
and public (i.e. not just religious and, therefore, private) space for Catholicism in the
French public sphere. The implications of projects such as the Coll`ege are subtle but
powerful: while Islamic signs must be regulated for their excessive religiosity, Catholic
signs may move freely and flexibly in the French public sphere. The Coll`ege, that is,
cannot be threatening, as it is nothing more than Europe itself.
The implications of the cultural work accomplished at the Coll`ege for the
anthropological study of religion and the secular are equally significant. While much
attention has been paid to the broad social expanse of the religious and the ideological
power of the secular as well as the slipperiness between the two more attention
needs to be paid to the exclusionary effects of the collusion of the secular, religion
and culture. In scholarly attempts to highlight the ongoing power of religion in social
life, in other words, we must also pay heed to how this intertwining may also produce

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
370 Elayne Oliphant

highly unequal effects. Here, I have charted practices of art viewing that co-produce
the secular, Catholicism, and culture in diverse and very particular ways. My research
demonstrates the work required to situate Catholicism in secular terms. Through this
work, the Coll`ege offers a significant transformation in the source of authorization of
the churchs projects. Rather than legitimating these processes vis-`a-vis liturgical or
doctrinal texts, the power and legitimacy of this project is situated in the sphere of
culture. If culture rather than the divine authorizes this particular expression of the
church, I argue, its power is in fact all the more exclusionary. Rather than a single
religious institution creating a space for specific groups and individuals to deepen their
faith or seek salvation, a project such as the Coll`ege insists that the activities that occur
within are a perfectly secular way of being French.

I would like to thank Alex Blanchette, Tatiana Chudakova, Kathryn Goldfarb, Caroline Schuster, and
Danilyn Rutherford for their insightful comments on numerous drafts of this article. Two anonymous
reviewers at JRAI provided generous feedback that clarified the stakes of this article and vastly strengthened
the argument. All remaining limitations are my responsibility alone. All translations are mine unless
otherwise noted. The Social Science Research Council generously provided funding for this research through a
Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (2007) and an International Dissertation Research Fellowship
(2008-9). The writing of this article was supported by a Postdoctoral Fellowship from Brown Universitys
Department of Religious Studies and Cogut Center for the Humanities.
1 Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with representatives from the world of culture, Vatican website, 2008

20080912_parigi-cultura_en.html, accessed 18 February 2015).
2 See Michel-Rolph Trouillots essay Adieu culture: A new duty arises (2003: 97-116) for a critique of the

use of culture in ways that imply race.

3 See Jean Bauberot (2004) for more on the laws and their interpretation.
4 I take the term Muslim French from Mayanthi Fernando. She encourages the use of both nouns in

order to unsettle as much as possible this grammatical qua ontological exclusivity (2014: 63) whereby one
identity must always take precedence over another. The term is provocative in part because it highlights how
uncomfortably these two particular identities sit together in the present.
5 As far as I know, the project of the Coll`ege is unique within Europe. The presence of the Pope at its

opening, however, suggests that it has received high-level approval.

6 http://www.collegedesbernardins.fr.
7 Medieval historian Patrick Geary (2002) has demonstrated how, in the eighteenth and nineteenth

centuries, elites of emerging nation-states in Europe selectively carved out discursive connections to historical
and often religious identities.
8 See, for example, Fenella Cannells (2006) introduction to her edited volume The anthropology of

Christianity, historian Bruce Holsingers (2005) account of the place of medieval Catholic exegesis in post-
Second World War French theory, Webb Keanes (2005) important text on the Protestant assumptions
underlying modern notions of subjectivity and their accompanying semiotic ideologies, theologian John
Milbanks (2006 [1990]) radical theology, and anthropologist Marshall Sahlinss (1993) account of the
Judaeo-Christian cosmology underlying capitalist ideologies.
9 See Paul Rabinows (1989) genealogy of the role of Catholicism in nineteenth-century French social

modernism and Douglas Holmess (2000) ethnography of the place of the Catholic concept of subsidiarity
in the architecture of the European Union.
10 One key distinction resides in the intended audiences of each organization. While the Bible Society aims

to produce a mix of broadly popular, political, and public intellectual programmes, the work of the Coll`ege
focuses more exclusively on an elite populace.
11 While visitors to the Coll`ege often lamented that the two works had not been displayed together, the

altarpiece cannot leave the museum. It was housed in the part of France annexed by Germany during the
Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. The Treaty of Versailles included a provision that Germany would return
the altarpiece to France. During the Second World War, the Isenheim once again found its way to Germany.
After its return to France at the end of the war, the two nations agreed never to move the altarpiece again.
For more on this history, see Stieglitz (1993).

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 371

12 For an account of this historiographical problem, see Van Engen (1986).

13 Historian Elizabeth Emery (2001) has described the turn to medieval aesthetics in the production of
nineteenth-century French urban spaces.
14 I have taken this translation from an on-line copy of the text on a publishers website (Eldritch Press):

Huysmans on Grunewald (http://www.eldritchpress.org/jkh/grunewald.html, accessed 8 February 2015).

15 For more on these pieces and their relationship to Gr unewalds work, see Meyer (1997) and Moxey
16 Interestingly, Grosz was charged with blasphemy and defamation of the German military by the secular

German state in 1928 for a series of drawings that included Shut up and do your duty!
17 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing to this distinction.
18 The work shares the most, perhaps, with Homage to Gr unewald (1975) by James Rosen, in which the
central panel of the Isenheim is re-created as a shadowy fading away of the original.
19 A video recording of the interview, Gerard Titus-Carmel au Coll`ege des Bernardins, can be

found at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xf09bb_gerard-titus-carmel-au-college-des_creation (accessed

18 February 2015).
20 For reproductions of images of the work, see the archived summary of Gerard Titus-Carmel/Suite

Grunewald on the Coll`eges website (http://www.collegedesbernardins.fr/fr/evenements-culture/arts-

plastiques/programmation-arts-plastiques/gerard-titus-carmel-suite-grunewald.html, accessed 18 February
21 There are important exceptions to this trend. Fred Myers (2002) ethnography of contemporary

Aboriginal art explores the complex processes through which spiritual/artistic practices are assigned value
in the global art market. For an ethnographic study of a contemporary artist more explicitly focused on
religious themes, see Kenneth Georges (2010) study of Indonesian artist A.D. Pirous. For a study of the place
of religion and the secular in a national contemporary art scene, see Zitzewitz (2014).
22 See Jojada Verrips (2008) and Anya Bernstein (2014) for anthropological accounts of contemporary art

that offends religious sensibilities.

23 See Adrian Nichols (1980) and Jerome
Alexandre (2009) for accounts of how contemporary art can be
viewed as a Christian practice. Catherine Grenier (2003) argues that much of contemporary art is informed
by questions within the Christian tradition. Jeffrey L. Kosky (2013) makes the case for an enchanted
interpretation of four contemporary American artists. Alena Alexandrova (2004) has described the more
critical role that Christian images may take in their post-religious life.
24 In contrast to the guides, who were volunteers offering didactic tours of the space, mediators were

paid as interns and were most often graduate students at one of Pariss many art schools.
25 I learned later that directors took up my categories and applied them in subsequent staff meetings.
26 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing to this source.

Alexandre, J. 2009. Lart contemporain: un vis-`a-vis essentiel pour la foi. Paris: Parole et Silence/Coll`ege des
Alexandrova, A. 2004. Death in the image: the post-religious life of Christian images. In Religion: beyond a
concept (ed.) H. de Vries, 772-87. New York: Fordham University Press.
Asad, T. 1993. Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, Md:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
2003. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford: University Press.

Bauberot, J. 2004. Lacite 19052005, entre passion et raison. Paris: Seuil.
Belting, H. 1994. Likeness and presence: a history of the image before the era of art (trans. E. Jephcott). Chicago:
University Press.
Benjamin, W. 2002 [1936]. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Walter Benjamin: selected
writings, vol. 3: 19351938 (ed. H. Eiland & M.W. Jennings; trans. E. Jephcott et al.), 101-33. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Bernstein, A. 2014. The post-Soviet art wars: Iconoclasm, secularism, and ways of seeing in contemporary
Russia. Public Culture 26, 419-48.
Calhoun, C. 2010. Rethinking secularism. The Hedgehog Review Fall, 35-48.
Cannell, F. 2006. Introduction: the anthropology of Christianity. In The anthropology of Christianity (ed.)
F. Cannell, 1-50. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Duncan, C. 1995. Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums. New York: Routledge.
Elkins, J. 2004. On the strange place of religion in contemporary art. London: Routledge.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
372 Elayne Oliphant

Emery, E. 2001. Romancing the cathedral: Gothic architecture in fin-de-si`ecle French culture. Albany, N.Y.:
SUNY Press.
Engelke, M. 2013. Gods agents: biblical publicity in contemporary England. Berkeley: University of California
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1976 [1937]. Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: University
Fernando, M. 2014. The republic unsettled: Muslim French and the contradictions of secularism. Durham,
N.C.: Duke University Press.
Geary, P. 2002. The myth of nations: the medieval origins of Europe. Princeton: University Press.
George, K. 2010. Picturing Islam: art and ethics in a Muslim lifeworld. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Grenier, C. 2003. Lart contemporain: est-il chretien? Paris: Editions Jacqueline Chambon.
Hansen, M.B. 2012. Cinema and experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hirschkind, C. 2011. Is there a secular body? Cultural Anthropology 26, 633-47.
Holmes, D.R. 2000. Integral Europe: fast-capitalism, multiculturalism, neofascism. Princeton: University Press.
Holsinger, B. 2005. The premodern condition: medievalism and the making of theory. Chicago: University
Huysmans, J.-K. 2008 [1908]. Trois eglises et trois primitifs, Paris: Libraries Plon.
Keane, W. 2005. Christian moderns: freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Kosky, J.L. 2013. Arts of wonder: enchanting secularity Walter DeMaria, Diller+Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy
Goldsmith. Chicago: University Press.
Martin, D. 2005. On secularization: towards a revised general theory. London: Ashgate.
Meyer, J.D. 1997. Profane and sacred: religious imagery and prophetic expression in contemporary art.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, 19-46.
Milbank, J. 2006 [1990]. Theology and social theory: beyond secular reason (Second edition). Malden, Mass.:
Moxey, K. 2004. Impossible distance: past and present in the study of Durer and Grunewald. The Art Bulletin
86, 750-63.
Myers, F.R. 2002. Painting culture: The making of an Aboriginal high art. Durham, N.C.: Duke University
Nichols, A. 1980. The art of God incarnate: theology and image in the Christian tradition. London: Darton,
Longman and Todd.
Rabinow, P. 1989. French modern: norms and forms of the social environment. Chicago: University Press.
Sahlins, M. 1993. The sadness of sweetness: the native anthropology of Western cosmology. Current
Anthropology 37, 395-428.
Stieglitz, A. 1993. Exorcizing the devil: a recontextualization of Grunewalds Isenheim Altar. Art History 16,
Taylor, C. 2007. A secular age. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ternisien, X. 2012. A` Charlie Hebdo, on na pas limpression degorger quelquun avec un feutre. Le Monde,
9 September (available on-line: http://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2012/09/20/je-n-ai-pas-l-
impression-d-egorger-quelqu-un-avec-un-feutre_1762748_3236.html, accessed 9 March 2015).
Trouillot, M.-R. 2003. Global transformations. New York: Palgrave.
Van Engen, J. 1986. The Christian Middle Ages as an historiographical problem. The American Historical
Review 91, 519-52.
Verrips, J. 2008. Offending art and the sense of touch. Material Religion 4, 204-25.
Warner, M. 2002. Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone.
Zitzewitz, K. 2014. The art of secularism: the cultural politics of modernist art in contemporary India. Oxford:
University Press.

Au-del`a du blasph`eme ou de la devotion : art, si`ecle et catholicisme a` Paris

Lauteure explore ici la relation entre le seculier et le catholicisme culturel en France a` travers le
prisme dune uvre dart contemporain exposee dans le cadre dun nouveau projet de lEglise catholique
francaise. Selon elle, les reactions diverses des visiteurs a` lexposition sont finalement venues a` lappui de

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015
Beyond blasphemy or devotion 373

laffirmation des organisateurs selon laquelle les activites qui sinscrivent dans lespace non religieux de

lEglise francaise sont des aspects e vidents dune culture seculi`ere francaise ou europeenne largement

Elayne Oliphant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies at New York University. Her
research explores expressions of religion and the secular in the public sphere through the lens of visual culture.
She is currently working on a book project that analyses the production of Catholicism as high culture in
France through a detailed ethnography of the churchs art exhibition practices.

New York University, 726 Broadway, Suite 554, New York, NY, 10003, USA. elayne.oliphant@nyu.edu

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 21, 352-373

C Royal Anthropological Institute 2015