16.00 Worshipping the Past, Heritagizing Religion. How did the (Un)Holy Alliance between Churches and Heritage Come to Be?
“Why museums are the new churches.” This was the title of an essay on BBC Culture (June, 2015), where the author reflected on how museums and art galleries have replaced churches as places of meaning and context, perhaps even worship, in society today. Might the reversed case be true as well: that churches—and other religious heritage buildings and sites—are becoming more and more of museums, when heritage narratives and preservations are competing with religious identity? Or is this contradiction, at least in part, an invention in the spirit of modernity, while the sacred and the historical and worldly previously have coexisted and reinforced each other through history?
One way to shed light on the complex relationship between heritage and religion in society today is to go back in time and explore some of the roots of this (un)holy alliance. This paper will present a brief historical background on the topic of churches and religion as heritage, and will explore examples of sacred uses of heritage, and vice versa, from the two very different cases of Rome and Venice. These two cities provide examples of strong heritage narratives, various uses of sacredness and heritage for political, religious, artistic, financial and other purposes, where the churches and holy places have played a crucial role in these uses through the centuries; Rome, building a new identity as an aspiring capital of Christianity on the ruins of an empire and claiming to be “the new Jerusalem”; and Venice, competing with Constantinople over political and religious power in the Eastern Mediterranean and claiming to be the new Constantinople. In both cities, their different driving forces—in terms of religious materiality in general, and relics in particular—played an essential role in the development of religion and politics and in the fulfillment of ambitions. It resulted in the sacred pilgrimage sites, the tourist attractions, and the conservation dilemmas that are the numerous churches.
Throughout history, churches and Christianity have frequently utilized history and heritage arguments to strengthen their own position, and churches have also functioned as a central public space open to all, providing an opportunity to enjoy art, look at spectacular objects of interest, and experience the history of a place. In this respect churches can be said to have started to heritagize themselves, long before the word was invented, and long before the identities as heritage or religion started to compete over narratives, money, attention, and legitimacy. Have we, in the aftermath of modernity and the passion for categories, constructed a rivalry between religion and heritage that makes problematic questions of use and conservation even more difficult?