Uffizi director Eike Schmidt urges religious art to return to places of worship

In many cases, it is much easier for a work of art to enter a museum than to find the exit. If you follow restitution news, you’re incredibly familiar with the hurdles families and countries must overcome to even hope to see a work of art returned to its original home. That’s why Eike Schmidt, director of Italy’s beloved Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is making headlines. Schmidt advocates for religious artworks held in Italian museums to be returned to their original places of worship.

Schmidt’s main reason behind his proposal is the original context of the works; the artworks Schmidt has in mind were created for religious purposes and once decontextualized you miss much of that purpose. “Devotional art is not born as a work of art but for a religious purpose, usually in a religious setting,” Schmidt said. Told The arts journal. “If we didn’t believe context mattered, the Italian state wouldn’t have the legal concept of art or architectural installation [vincolo pertinenziale]or practice contextual archeology instead of Indiana Jones-like scrabble for simple masterpieces”

Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Enthroned Virgin and Child, Surrounded by Angels (known as Madonna Rucellai)” (c. 1285) in the Uffizi Collection, Florence. Eike Schmidt offered to return it to Santa Maria Novella. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are significant benefits to having religious works in museums. Museum visitors have access to several works by different artists in one place and you can compare and contrast different styles and interpretations of religious stories. However, it was partly the need to close these museums and galleries during the COVID-19 outbreak that prompted Schmidt to make this suggestion. If the works were removed from their museum setting and returned to public places of worship, they would reach a different audience than those seeking this art in museums and galleries. Moreover, the experience would be radically different.

Another argument in favor of the repatriation of religious works is that they were never intended to stay, long term, in many organizations that house them today. According to the Fondo edifici di culto (FEC), a government body that runs nearly 900 Catholic churches in Italy and is headed by Schmidt, around 1,000 works of religious art are housed in the stores of the Sporintendenze, a public body responsible for art, architecture, and archeology. These works were brought to the state during World War II for safekeeping. These works were poorly cataloged and should no longer be stored, so working to restore them would benefit everyone.

With his statement, Schmidt proposed that Duccio di Buoninsenga Madonna Rucellai (c. 1275) should be one of those works to be returned to its original home: Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The painting inlaid with gold leaf is a magnificent example of religious art from the Middle Ages depicting the Virgin Mary seated on a throne holding Jesus Christ. The pair is flanked by six angles. Schmidt’s hope is that if the work were returned to Florence, it would encourage other museums to take similar action and inspire people to view the art in different contexts.

According to Schmidt, the process of returning art to places of worship would be relatively smooth as they would simply move from one state entity to another. Of course, safety and conservation would be the biggest concern but, as Schmidt pointed out, there are places that have adapted to bring works, like the Altarpiece of Castelfranco by Giorgione, back to their original settings.