Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Site specific

One thing you can say about NZ's museums and art museums is that we haven’t pillaged too much stuff from other countries - too late, too small, too distant. With strong Maori leadership we're also ahead in the repatriation of human remains although it’s estimated that around 500 Maori ancestral remains are still held overseas. And you do have to wonder why, say, a small university museum in Montreal needs to display the mummified body of an Egyptian or a treasured and sacred fetish figure from Africa. 

And then there's the works that will never be returned, the countless religious paintings and icons and sculptures that have been stripped from their context and narratives and put in museums. When you do get to see a great artwork in its original setting it's a startling experience. 

We've just been to St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta and met up with Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  Ok, it's not exactly accessible, but an extraordinary visual reward is guaranteed. Painted for a side chapel in the Cathedral used by the Knights of Malta, this painting hangs behind the altar exactly where Caravaggio intended. It even witnessed the day the Knights of Malta gathered to defrock the artist after another unpardonable escapade. Like many other art pilgrimages it has its challenges but you’ll never see anything like it anywhere else.
Image: Sure it’s behind a sign and you share the space with a small crowd but there it is, Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist right where it belongs.