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Exhibitions
Library display case Queen's College

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Sensing the Sacred: The Materiality and Aurality of Religious Texts

Sense’. ‘Sacred’. As modernity moves on, with its screens and its secularism, will these two words be lost?

We increasingly live in a virtual world, bombarded by images fleetingly flashing on our phones, laptops, and television screens. Libraries are silent - but bands, orchestras and choirs simultaneously sound within each person's headphones. With each new technology, sight and sound can be experienced in a different way. This exhibition invites the viewer to explore the delights and difficulties these senses have historically presented.

It does so in the context of Christian religious texts. Religious believers have always been confronted with the problem of how to represent what is spiritual and sacred through material and sensual means.

This exhibition includes medieval illuminations, early-modern iconoclasm, printed texts, and modern art. Together, they show the variety of ways in which people have negotiated the problems presented by the materiality of religious texts over time. Music and texts in a variety of languages are also displayed, exploring how religious ideas have been communicated through different sounds. All of the objects displayed evoke sacred sights and sacred sounds.

They might, one day, become totally archaic artefacts. As modernity moves on, this exhibition invites a moment’s pause. It uses objects usually hidden within the shelves of the Special Collections Library of Queen’s to provoke some reflection on sense and sacredness.

SIGHT

Religious believers have constantly struggled with the paradox of expressing something sacred and invisible through sensual and material means. Christians have vacillated between crafting beautiful and exquisite images, to mass-producing printed and monochrome words. Throughout Europe, the 16th century Reformations are often thought of as turning points when superstitious idols were rejected in favour of the Word, ushering in modernity with its reason and literacy. This idealistic linear narrative is challenged by the objects in this cabinet. Graphic and beautiful medieval illuminations are displayed alongside the messy vestiges of a violent iconophobic attack, and a set of 16th century didactic instructions on the importance of reading scripture appear futile next to the modern works of William Blake - a radical and vibrant artist who refused to acknowledge boundaries between text and image.

SOUND

If expressing religious texts through visual means has been so controversial and contested, has aural communication provided a simpler alternative? Sound can be just as complicated and problematic a sense as sight. Displayed in this cabinet are musical settings of sacred texts, as well as texts in different languages and alphabets. Heard together, they would make a confusing and chaotic soundscape: a congregation shouting hymns, a child singing a rhyme, a choir’s haunting melody, in Greek, Gaelic and English all at once.