In 2018, we visited a number of places in Italy that have been set up for ritual acts, sacrifice and worship, representation and performances: temples, squares, theaters, parks, villas. These were forgotten places as well as very famous and touristy places, dating to different times: from prehistoric ruins to architectures of the classical modern period, some of which have already become ruins themselves.
A multifaceted transfer of cultural signs became visible: from an archaic prehistory to Roman antiquity with its mystery cults, to Catholic Christianity, the Renaissance, to a classicist or shamanist-inspired modernity, often linked with hints back and forth, superimpositions, moments of exchange, and quotations wrapped up in a morbid atmosphere of neglect and decay or in today’s musealization and commercialization. In the places we visited, we repeatedly encountered a particular quality of »experience« that we only could describe as somehow »sacred.« Sacred because something that points to the extraordinary was staged there, something that stands out from the everyday.
In these places, techniques are effective that – still today – we also include in the usual tools of performance, of theatrical staging, and dramaturgical strategies. The scenery, positioning of objects, appearances, the placement and integration of light; everything is geared toward an effect that then actually occurs or accidentally fails: the effect of experiencing the »sacred.« In the following, we would like to reflect on these basic strategies for staging the sacred in brief.
A place is sacralized by (at least) two intentions that meet in a fragile encounter: the place has been intentionally set up for an effect and we, the visitors, are searching for an experience there. In the preoccupation with the sacred, the material and the spiritual become blurred. One has become almost accustomed to looking at the sacred as something spiritual, i.e., unreal or supernatural, linked only to the field of imagination or the metaphysical. But in the places we visited, the sacred experience is always transported through concrete tangible material things. These places were set up in the past, sometimes an extremely long time ago. If they still have their physical effect on today’s visitors, they only function across the temporal distance, because of their corporeality/materiality: there was an intention in the distant past that has left its mark for a possible future encounter.
In the end, two (or more) human intentions rooted in different times meet in the physicality of the sacred space and create an experience of common corporeality. This specific experience of physical community is a crucial element of sacrality.
Sacred places are specially designed through spatial modifications such as demarcations, elevations, hollows, or vistas. Objects are either placed in a particularly exposed position, or in hiding places such as niches. Nevertheless, these architectural elements do not remain frozen forever.
These seemingly permanent installations communicate their fragility; they obtain their own temporal dimensions: Growing vegetations indicate their aging. Moving shadows of the daylight highlight their rigidity, yet fall apart. The fleeting element of water in natural or artificially created ponts, fountains, and moats contrasts the architecture and points out (material) changeability.
In a broader sense, sacred places can be shaped by ephemeral actions. Through choreographies, processions, rituals, gestures, rhythms, and directions, time was inscribed in these places. Often these ephemeral actions are still legible in the remaining architecture: paths, stages, and niches indicate the possibilities for rituals, plays, or ceremonies. The intensity of these traces can vary from great prominence to barely visible.
Often the fixed and the ephemeral refer to each other and play together: The »ephemeral« performances sacralize the place in which they are held, and the »permanent« installations sacralize the time spent in: as mo(nu)ments. Sometimes this can be even experienced in the sonority of those places, yet another staged dimension. In a grotto, for example, where sounds – voices and footsteps, and drops of water – are multiplied and echoed, you can imagine that thousands of years ago they sounded exactly as they do now.
What is fascinating about all these places is the overlapping of the present and the past: These places often refer to older pasts. Often Christian medieval chapels are built upon cult sites from Roman times; beneath the Roman cult site lies an even older place of worship. New buildings were erected on top of ruins, ruins were rebuilt, the remains of older buildings were integrated, fragments were used as spolia. The distinction between »authenticity« and »forgery« becomes blurred.
Already in ancient times, remains of older cultures were often preserved and integrated into a cult. During the classical Greek period, for example, older archaic weathered wooden images of the gods had a status of their own alongside the idealized »modern« marble statues, and had a special spot in the temples. The ancient tombs of their mythical founders were worshipped in the center of the cities, such as the tomb of Romulus in Rome. There were shrines for relics, and remains of the bodies of ancient heroes, like the hair of Medusa, and the skin of Marsyas, or their instruments and weapons.
The old stories about the apparitions of gods, spirits or even monsters in sacred places translate these experiences of encounter with an intention from the past, the physical communication.
This creative communication with the past reappears throughout cultural history. During our travels through Italy we faced it in various forms: the Catholic cult of relics, the reinvention of antiquity in the Renaissance, rural tales and festivities, to contemporary cultural tourism; the cult of art objects. Our own sensitivity is shaped by all these influences and inspirations.
All images: Michael Kleine, 2018. Courtesy the artist
Roman Lemberg is a performer, musician and music dramaturg, arranger and composer. His artistic practice is characterized by his involvement with the medium of opera / musical theater. Together with the Berlin collective HAUEN & STECHEN, he is dedicated to redesigning the great myths of opera history in formats that transcend genre boundaries. In his joint practice with visual artist and director Michael Kleine, he expands in the field of artistic research, with a focus on the sacred and its links with artistic and performative strategies.
Michael Kleine is a performance and visual artist, stage designer, and theater director. His interdisciplinary artistic practice comprises stage and costume design, artworks and objects, performances, productions, and exhibition architecture in the fields of theater, opera, contemporary and classical music and visual art. In his solo exhibitions and performances, he creates intense collective experiential spaces by focusing equally on the art work/object, sound, architecture, social situation and visual conditions.