Sacred and Profane
Professor explores the relationship of religion and art in the modern world
By Jeremy Craig | Photo by Carolyn Richardson
Louis A. Ruprect Jr.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. spent eight years researching the Vatican Archives to determine when the way we look at art changed in the 18th century, the time during which society detached art from religion and the sacred from the non-sacred, or "profane."
Through research across ancient archives around Rome and all the way to the Vatican Library's "Secret Archives," Ruprecht arrived at a clearer picture of the momentous change in our views of art and the man responsible for the great shift in our thinking: J.J. Winckelmann, called the father of modern art history.
The history of this great change and Winckelmann's impact on our perspectives is described in Ruprecht's new book, "Winckelmann and the Vatican's First Profane Museum" (Palgrave MacMillan 2011).
Ruprecht, William M. Suttles Chair and Professor of Religious Studies, said his journey was inspired by a single sentence in a book about the Vatican museums, referring to the "profane museum" that the Vatican created at some point in the 1760s - a museum housing non-Christian art and artifacts - with little else described.
During his research, he was able to access the secret archives, which aren't really "secret" or hidden in a mysterious way but, instead, are difficult to access. The "receipts" of the daily business of the Vatican palace are presented in up to five leather-bound volumes for each year, but visitors can request only three volumes per day. Also, with the Vatican Library closed for three years for reconstruction, it took Ruprecht four years to dig through a quarter century of Vatican history.
This first "Profane Museum" - one that helped fashion the idea of the modern museum - is the creation of a man who flew under the radar to become the curator of the Vatican's first museum, which held a collection of non-sacred art and artifacts separately from sacred materials.
Winckelmann served as a secret, unofficial curator of the museum in 1763, when he was hired as a temporary "scrittori," or curator, for ancient German texts and translations in the Vatican Library. He was hired to compile an index of all the German-language holdings at the Vatican.
"Winckelmann never did that, but it got him into the library, and to work on the museum," Ruprecht said.
The critical piece of information Ruprecht found in 2010 was a document that confirmed a payment to Winckelmann in July 1763 for his role as curator for the German language holdings, though he was paid an extra stipend for his work on the Profane Museum.
Winckelmann's work as the secret curator of the Profane Museum persists today in the modern museum - "a modern shrine to an ancient muse," Ruprecht said.