Saints in the Museum Context

As part of my introduction to Museum Education course, we put together gallery tours using the collections available at the Georgia Museum of Art. For my tour, I decided to look at the religious art in the galleries and pose questions about how those pieces arrived in the museum and how their meaning changes when removed from their original devotional context. This included activities that encouraged visitors to think about the history of a piece of art and how much art is not designed for a museum and activities that reintroduce visitors to the original contexts of religious art using the pieces available.

Theme and Main Ideas

This tour is designed for a UGA Religion course, likely one addressing Christian history that could include a section on Christianity and art. The main theme is to explore the way that Christian art depicting the saints shows up in museums, and to use that as an opportunity to explore the ways that this art may have originally been used, and how that has changed now that it has entered a museum space. As such, several spots focus on resituating each piece in its original context, and I use a variety of mediums and forms of religious art that would have been utilized in different contexts. The museum becomes a space to unite all of these forms and meanings together so that the class has a chance to compare those ideas through material culture. I also attempt to incorporate art that represents a few Christian traditions and time periods, further complicating the ways the selected art may have functioned in its original context before entering the collection.


Welcome to the Georgia Museum of Art. My name is Nathan, and I am going to be your guide for this tour today. We are going to spend about forty-five minutes, and look at five pieces of art in the collections, all of which depict a Christian saint in a variety of mediums. Some of what we are going to consider is how these works have come into the collection and how we might reimagine them outside their original context. As part of this, we will spend some time in dialogue together, and take part in a few short written activities. I encourage you to take part and share as you feel comfortable. To begin, I want to point out the restrooms and water fountains here on the first floor, before we walk upstairs or take the elevator if you prefer to access the collection on the second floor.

Louis Comfort Tiffany and Studio, Window Depicting St. George and the Dragon (ca. 1880s-1920s)

To start thinking about the Tiffany window, I would open the floor for people to take a look at the piece and reflect on it for a few minutes before voicing some of their ideas. Because this is very early in the tour, the goal is to maintain a “conversation” approach to our early interactions, helping people get comfortable with one another and voicing their opinions about the art in a more casual environment, as suggested by Burnham and Kai-Kee.1 Things that participants might notice are the flag George carries, the dragon in the corner, the way the glass is shaped or the amount of color coming through. These become opportunities to share information about the story of St. George’s fight with the dragon, the symbolic connection to the flag of Great Britain, or Tiffany’s innovative processes, depending on what direction the conversation moves. At this point, there are no major goals for the ways the conversation will develop, and the guide is primarily providing further insight into the details that are interesting participants.

After this develops for a few minutes and people become more comfortable, the tour would transition into a storytelling activity directed around the object. In this activity, participants will write a story about when/how this object was made, who it was made for, what it may have been used for, and how it ended up in GMOA. After having a few minutes to write their story, there will be an opportunity to share some aspects of what they wrote down. It will be important to share this window’s actual story, such as how it was made by Tiffany’s studio for George Foster Peabody’s home at Lake George, how it was donated to the University, and became part of GMOA’s collection when its original building was torn down for the Law School.3 This, however, also becomes an opportunity to discuss the many other places to which Tiffany’s windows were sent. For instance, the guide could introduce the Coffin Memorial Window in St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island, CA as an example of how these windows were often sold to churches and cathedrals. This window is especially well suited as a point of comparison because it looks remarkably like the window in GMOA’s collection, so it is easy to see the diverse spaces Tiffany’s windows ended up in, even ones that are similar. One could also keep the St. George theme and share how some of these windows were sold directly to universities, such as the St. George window at Princeton University

An activity exploring the ways objects find their ways into museums is an important aspect of a tour that considers religious art in the museum context as many of these objects started out as devotional pieces and now function in slightly different ways. Beginning our tour with this mindset prepares participants to consider the ways that all of the devotional objects that we are about to explore are somewhat “out of place” now that they are in a museum. This stop will end with a reflection on this idea, summarizing the various contexts mentioned as part of their stories to prepare us to consider the ways other works of art show up in new ways once they enter the museum. The next piece we are going to look at is a painting, and so something that we are more likely to associate with museums, but this question of context is important to keep in mind going forward.

Workshop of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Martyrdom of St. Andrew (ca. 1675–82)

We are in an exhibit entitled Power and Piety in 17th-Century Spanish Art, and as you look around you probably get the sense that this exhibit really is centered around religious art and the piety expressed by it. We are specifically going to look at this piece from the workshop of Bartolomé Murillo depicting the Martyrdom of St. Andrew, one of the disciples of Jesus. This is a rather detailed painting, where you almost get the sense you are being sucked into the frame, and this is one of the goals of religious work from this era. This is a time in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church is having a Counter-Reformation of its own, attempting to bring people back into the Church, which they included utilizing art to elicit an emotional response in viewers that might return them to Catholic spaces.4 To think about this affective response to art, particularly how scenes like this might draw us in as viewers, we are going to take part in an activity where we might imagine ourselves within this scene to pay attention to how our senses might respond and let that guide our dialogue. Setting out the use of this approach in connection with the historical context with the piece, prepares visitors for why this method for interpreting the art might be valuable and what they can expect to get out of the activity.5 This particular activity also allows for the visitors to make their own observations and find interpretations with the goal of imagining oneself as present in work, as opposed to finding the “right” information or interpretation. In that sense, everything noticed becomes productive information. 

This activity would progress through the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) allowing participants to share what they notice about the scene, developing a sense of the story behind Andrew’s martyrdom and how viewers may have interacted with the piece as a religious object. Potential points of interest for that conversation include the specific “x” shaped cross, the angels bringing the crown and palm of martyrdom down from heaven, the people crying, the sound of people working to put him on the cross, or the smell of horses and other people. Imaginatively placing oneself in this image and noticing what it might be like to be inside speaks about the ways that art can mediate an experience of another time or place for us. In this case, that might be placing the martyrdom of St. Andrew before our senses, but we are about to turn to a particular piece of religious art known as an icon, which in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions function to mediate the relationship between heaven and earth.

Unknown, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign with Saints (1875)

At this point, we are going to turn to our third of five pieces, this Russian Orthodox Icon depicting a host of saints alongside Mary the mother of Jesus and a baby Jesus. This icon introduces a third medium for religious art, being a tempera painting on a wooden panel. Unlike our previous two objects, this is a piece one is more likely to expect in any ordinary home, although they are also quite common in church buildings. Questions to begin discussion include asking people to voice what associations they have with icons, such as in what contexts they have seen them before or what activities they usually see around icons. These questions are directed towards bringing in a replica icon that visitors might touch as a way of discussing the ways that devotees relate to icons through prayer, which might include touching or kissing the icon as part of their veneration. Such an activity engages visitors in a non-discursive, embodied response that brings them closer to the object, and connecting them with the emotional experience associated with an icon.6 Moreover, this piece seems most appropriate for an activity such as this, because of all the pieces on the tour, this is one that would consistently be touched as part of religious practice. Since this tour is directed towards helping visitors consider the ways religious objects enter and are reimagined in the museum, this becomes an opportunity to physically transcend the barrier that develops around religious objects when they enter a museum. 

Associated with this idea is the way that icons connect the spheres of heaven and earth, so if there is time, I would like to discuss the ways that this icon represents that idea through its visual elements. A possible transition is discussing the ways people interact with icons, and what those interactions are meant to convey about the close relationship between heaven and earth, mediated in these works of art. This particular icon visually shows this idea with the bottom half (including the two saints on horses) has a more three-dimensional quality, with the mountains and city in the background. As you look higher on the icon, moving towards Mother Mary, the piece becomes flatter, with a plane gold field in the background, which represents the divine vision of heaven. Thus, there is a movement from earth to heaven (and vice versa) in the piece itself, a movement that the icon is also mediating for the devotee.7 This then becomes a good moment to conclude discussion of the icon, summarizing the importance of the saints and art such as this in mediating relationships between heaven and earth within the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. The next piece in the tour is also something you would expect to find in someone’s home, but is associated more with Protestant practices, and so people relate to it in a slightly different manner.

Unidentified Staffordshire pottery, John Wesley in the pulpit with black robe (ca. 1830–70)

This is our fourth for this tour, and it is a piece of pottery from the Staffordshire area of England, which mass produced a wide collection of pieces such as this one depicting a number of figures, incorporating a number of themes including religion, politics, or just general figurines. While religious figures were a common theme, including figures of Jesus, King David, or even recent bishops, no figure was as popular as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who is depicted here standing in his pulpit. Wesley was a Protestant Christian, a branch that separated from Catholicism and the Orthodox Church in 1517, and one of the primary differences in how these different Christians relate to religious art. For Catholics or Orthodox Christians, religious art plays a role in mediating the relationship between heaven and earth, as we saw with the icon we just looked at. Protestants move away from this idea, instead thinking of art as a reminder of religious themes or a manifestation of their faith, so it operates more as a symbol than having any mediatory function. In that mindset, this piece would likely sit upon someone’s mantlepiece, reminding them of Methodist values, and serving as a sign of their Methodism to anyone who visited their home. Wesley is likely such a popular figure during this time because Methodism is still a new branch of Christianity when Staffordshire pottery was popular, so new converts would have been drawn to images of Wesley to mark them as part of this new movement. 

To better connect with this idea, this stop will include a chance for visitors to design their own Staffordshire pottery (either a drawing or a description) that they would like to include in their home that conveys something about them, like Wesley figurines did for the Methodists. Such a practice allows visitors to make connections between the piece as a religious object and what images might play a similar role in their life. Moreover, it lets them give a personal meaning to their encounter with Wesley pottery in connection with whatever figurine they design, a key component in crafting an aesthetic experience, as proposed by Carole Henry.8 After visitors created their own pottery, there will be an opportunity for some to share as they feel comfortable. So far, we have focused on predominantly modern pieces, with the oldest work being from the 1600s. Christianity has been making art from its early beginnings though, and our next stop is going to return us to those beginnings, and particularly the way Christianity and its saints interacted with Greco-Roman religious traditions, which played an important role in shaping our notion of the saints.

Unknown, Orant Figure (6th-7th century CE [?] with modern recurving)

We’re stepping back in history as we enter this gallery with its Modernism Foretold exhibit that brings together late antique art from Egypt. This is a period that generally stretches from the end of the 3rd century and into the 8th century, incorporating the shift from Greco-Roman culture to the rise of Christianity and Islam when the Middle Ages begin. We are going to begin our last stop by quietly observing this figure for a minute, much like we did with the Tiffany window during the first stop. Then when you are ready, I want to open it up for your observations about this piece, and making some guesses at what it might depict, and what it may have been used as. This period can become an opportunity to engage in dialogue, bringing in information about Christian holy figures from earlier in the tour and how that might help us understand this piece, commenting on the way it has been carved (including how it has some deeper cuts that may hint at a modern recurving), the strange shape of the hands, and what may point to this being a Christian holy figure as opposed to something else. 

After having a period of dialogue specifically about this figure, we would take a broader look at the gallery as a whole which has similar figures that specifically represent Christian holy figures, while others specifically represent various Greco-Roman deities. The guide would ask visitors to find a figure they think resembles this one, read the label that accompanies it, and then share with the rest of the group as they are comfortable. Through this activity, visitors have a chance to think about how these figures influence on another and the connection between the beliefs behind them, such as the assurance they offer of transcending mortal existence and entering into communion with the divine.9 In a way, this also becomes a reflection on the origins of the Christian holy figure and the type of art that the whole tour has been exploring, which sets the stage well to begin making conclusions about what the tour has covered.

Throughout this tour we have been engaging with religious art, and in particular, the ways it may have appeared in its original context before it worked its way into the museum. As we discussed with the Tiffany window early on, all of these pieces have stories about where they have been before they came into the museum, and people often related to them in different ways than we might now that they are in the museum. For instance, we spoke about how devotees might kiss an icon of the saints, something which we certainly cannot do in the museum, or how something like the figurine of John Wesley might convey someone’s religious practices, even as it says little about the religious nature of this museum. What the museum does seem to offer us, though, is a chance to bring all of these contexts together in one place so that we can imagine them alongside one another, which might not be possible anywhere else. So, while the context has changed, the museum creates a new opportunity to imagine the lives of these objects, and idea we might carry forward when we encounter religious objects in future museum visits.

Related Research in Museum Education: 

Burnham, Rika, and Elliott Kai-Kee. Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. 

Hein, George E. “Museum Education.” In A Companion to Museum Studies, edited by Sharon Macdonald, 340–52. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. 

Henry, Carole. “The Aesthetic Experience.” In The Museum Experience: The Discovery of Meaning, 35–45. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 2010. 

Hubard, Olga M. “Complete Engagement: Embodied Response in Art Museum Education.” Art Education 60, no. 6 (2007): 46–53. 

———. “Productive Information: Making Facts Matter.” In Art Museum Education: Facilitating Gallery Experiences, 91–98. London, GB: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. 

Kilgore, Julia. “Coffee with the Curators: Power and Piety in 17th-Century Spanish Art.” Athens, GA, April 27, 2021. 

Kirin, Asen. Gifts and Prayers: The Romanovs and Their Subjects. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2016. 

———. Modernism Foretold: The Nadler Collection of Late Antique Art from Egypt. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2020. 

Longhenry, Susan. “Reconsidering Learning: The Art Museum Experience.” In From Periphery to Center: Art Museum Education in the 21st Century, edited by Pat Villeneuve, 180–87. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 2007. 

Mondi, Annelies. “Highlights from the Permanent Collection: ‘Saint George and the Dragon.’” Georgia Museum of Art: Holbrook’s Trunk (blog), October 20, 2016.