Righting America

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Reading Holy Objects | Righting America

by Peter Cakja

Today’s post continues Dr. Pete Cajka’s series on religious imaginations and the design of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY and the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics in Maria Stein, OH.  In this third installation, Pete addresses the problem of reading and interpreting the artifacts and relics at both sites. 

III: Reading Holy Objects

Both the Creation Museum and the Maria Stein Shrine deal with the problem of “reading.” Texts and objects cannot impose their wills absolutely on a receiving subject. As the Trollingers note, the bible, like other texts, can be read multiple ways. It is difficult – if not impossible – to control the lessons readers will derive from texts. The Creation Museum attempts to reduce the possibility that the bible might be interpreted in ways other than their own by selecting and omitting particular verses from Genesis in the museum’s displays and on placards.

Photo of the Prayer Area with a red felt kneeler with a Paper Mache Jesus, a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgen Mary and a stained glass window.

Voice of the Lord Prayer Area at Maria Stein Museum. Copyright: Heritage Museum at Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

Maria Stein must also confront the problem of reception. Objects cannot impose a meaning on those who behold them. Visitors to Maria Stein’s museum can visit a small room with three religious objects. The first is a stained glass window on which the Holy Family appears. The second is a small statue of Mary holding the Christ child with her right hand, with Christ leaning on her shoulder for support. The third is a paper mache Jesus suffering on the cross, blood pouring out of the wound inflicted by the Roman soldier with a spear.

Photo of a Paper Mache Jesus showing him in agony on the cross with blood dripping from his wounds while wearing the Crown of Thorns.

Paper Mache Jesus on the Cross. Copyright: Heritage Museum at Maria Stein Shrine, 2017

What lessons should the visitor take from the crucified Christ, the Christ Child, and the Holy Family? The visitor might understand such pieces as art. Is Mary present in the statue or is this just a representation of Mary? How should the blood flowing from the paper mache Christ be assessed by the visitor? The intention of the museum in putting such items on display is not entirely clear. Thus, any direct lesson could be lost upon the visitor. Or, a pilgrim could potentially draw his or her own lessons from the presentations of these materials.

The materials that appear in Maria Stein’s museum also allow for multiple interpretations the way a text is open for a number of readings. Indeed, placing such objects in a museum for the purposes of edification may challenge the presence previous generations of Catholics found in such materials. The ways such images are received are visitors and pilgrims would also change over time. Are current generations looking at these pieces in a “museum” whereas earlier generations of Catholics viewed them as invested with presence? The German Catholic community, especially its first wave that settled in Ohio in the nineteenth century, would have understood the suffering Christ, with blood gushing from his open wound, in different ways than certain twentieth century “American Catholics.” Putting statues or images on display in a museum risks making such images appear as atavistic, draining them of their real presence and vital life force. In this way, the pilgrim to Maria Stein may encounter mixed messages as they move between reliquary and museum.