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Qui sommes-nous ?

(texte extrait du rapport final du projet)

This collective project, gathering scholars from three institutions (IRPA/KIK, UCLouvain, KU Leuven), aimed at conducting an iconological and anthropological research devoted to the late medieval and early modern liturgical heritage (called ornamenta sacra during this period) from the Southern Netherlands (1400-1700). It is concern with different kinds of objects, made of wide variety of materials and techniques (such as chalices, monstrances, censers, altar vases, candlesticks, chasubles…) and fundamental to the ceremonial, that occupied a central place in the religious art of the past. We have investigated the provenance, the nature (material, technical, stylistic, iconographical…) and the evolution of this production in order to better understand its religious, social and artistic importance for a timeframe characterized by profound transformations of the liturgy and by religious conflicts and reforms.

In this respect, the focus on the Southern Netherlands was particularly relevant. Indeed, this area appears to be an interesting vantage point to observe all the reconfigurations of the relationships between art and liturgy, due to its position at confessional and cultural borders. The spatiotemporal framework has allowed us to appreciate how far the evolving norms (especially after the Council of Trent and the consecutive Romanisation of the liturgy) but also the politico-religious turmoil (e.g. the iconoclasm crisis of 1566) had an impact on practices.

The historical anthropology of the visual and of the sensible has offered us a methodological framework within which we have considered the material and symbolic nature as well as the spatial and ritual context of these objects, so as to provide a renewed analysis of their forms and functions. We have also built up an original methodology in order to trace the links (in terms of provenance, of typology, of chronology) between the objects which are part of liturgical sets often today dismantled and spread through different places (museums, private collections, church treasures…).

Web resources for research sourcing and valorisation strategies

The principal aim of this project was to highlight this threatened or neglected cultural heritage by developing new online resources on the website of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (IRPA/KIK) in order to sustain a team research but also to offer an efficient tool to a broader national and international community concerned with the understanding, preservation and valorisation of what is usually relegated to the field of the decorative arts. It has contributed to the valorisation and the better knowledge of a rich heritage, the improvement of the management of the digital data related to BALaT, the valorisation of this federal photographic heritage.

Ornamenta and decorum

In line with some new trends in art historical research devoted to the study of the relationships between art and religion, we have investigated the complex and evolving status, functions and uses of these objects. Intimately related to a ritual context, they are intended to serve the liturgy. We have thus studied their performative power which is closely related to their aesthetic dimension. They are indeed efficient not only because of their intended function but also because of their material, symbolic and artistic values. Even though these two main dimensions – aesthetic and functional – have been traditionally conceived as antithetic, we have contributed to reassess their intrinsic interactions, especially with regard to the issue of decorum, that is the appropriateness of form to function.

Senses and experience

This issue of the role of ornaments in their relation to the aesthetic value and liturgical functions of the objects under scrutiny leads to a reflection on the interactions between motions and emotions. We have taken advantage of recent studies on the history of senses and the sensible to shed new light on the synesthetic experience triggered by these objects. One part of the study has thus been focused on their different functions in the experience of the sensorium: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. We have shown how through these senses, the different media are efficiently interwoven with the audience and the ritual.


The general purpose of the project was to study and valorise this rich cultural heritage through interdisciplinary research that contextualizes the liturgical objects in their historical, spatial and cultural environment. According to this scope, the overall aim was to investigate the provenance, the nature (material, technical, stylistic, iconographical…) and the evolution of this production in order to better understand its religious, social and artistic importance for a timeframe characterized by profound transformations of the liturgy and by religious conflicts and reforms.

More precisely, this project aimed at opening new perspectives on both interrelated methodological and thematic levels.

Through the development of a thesaurus, the project has contributed to refine the typology and vocabulary. The development of new search tools and web resources took in particular the form of a database with new imaging techniques (3D images for example).


General methodology

This project is positioned at the crossroads of the most innovative studies in the field of iconology and historical anthropology of the visual, ritual and sensible which have developed, the past two decades, new ways to approach art works.

Material and space

It comes in particular within the scope of recent studies that have repositioned the question of material and space of art works at the centre of art historians’ interests. In contrast to an approach to art history that has long avoided the material dimension of images in favour of an often strictly stylistic or iconographical analysis, it is now understood that the properties and values of materials are part of the very meaning of works of art and the way in which they are received. It invites us to consider how materials generate certain forms and appearances, and how they bring about and maintain certain beliefs in the immanent power of objects, independent of their formal or representational value. This reflection is particularly relevant for liturgical objects made of a wide variety of materials (metals, wood, ivory, textiles…) whose symbolic meaning pertains to their efficacy.

It is also true with their spatiality. Inspired by some studies that have in recent years explored the relationship between art objects and the space they occupy, another aim of our research will be to understand the issues linked to the relationship between the liturgical objects and their spatial environment. Indeed, we need to understand how liturgical objects form body-parts of the space (Kroesen):  their positions, their interaction between them, their status of inactivity (often veiled or hidden) towards activations (unveiled, manipulated…) are important signifiers which were consistently neglected in the liturgical studies. In short, as soon as we consider liturgical objects as dynamic spatial parameters, and not as static ‘passive’ containers, they prove themselves of being part of a ‘liturgical choreography’.

Art nexus

This stress on their spatial environment results also in a new interest in ritual interactions. Liturgical objects have never been isolated as a work of art hanging in a museum; there were always located in a specific place and within a network of other artefacts, but also gestures, words, sounds, smells… Alongside with material, technical, iconographic and stylistic analysis, recent research has pleaded to go beyond this immediate frame in order to replace it within a network of relationships that are thus fashioned around it and caused by it. Alfred Gell speaks of an ‘art nexus’. Thus completing the traditional art historical approaches, research has attempted to understand the uses and practices that an art object can give rise to. From this, a body of thought on its functions and on its power to bring about actions or reactions has developed.

This approach could easily be applied to the study of liturgical objects which are endowed with a ritually instituted efficacy. To better apprehend this efficacy, a strictly stylistic and typological study – which has dominated research until now – cannot suffice any longer, because these objects ‘function’ only within a complex net or system of relations: relations with the people who ordered and manipulated them; relations with the ritualized time-space (dependent on the liturgical calendar and the structuration of sacred space); and finally, the relation between the different objects themselves displayed and used in a certain order. This leads to a reflection on performativity.

Performativity and ritual

The Performative turn in the Humanitieswhich is in line with the renewed interest in rituals in their relations to objects, whether artistic or not, has opened new avenues in the field of art history that we have followed. It had long been recognized that art could arouse an emotion which in turn was able to provoke a motion, such as prayer, conversion, donation… In this respect, we may say that art is performative insofar as it engages the spectator in a performance; it is even possible to say that it is effective only when it is performed, in the sense of the performing arts. Since Austin’s ground-breaking work, many scholars have considered the art object as an agent within a determinedly anthropological perspective, that is to say, as an object endowed with an ability to act or to trigger reactions and not simply as a thing to be interpreted as a passive transporter of ideas. Their work has highlighted the way in which the belief in the agency of objects depends on a series of factors, ranging from their specific material and formal characteristics through to the ways in which they are displayed and the rituals surrounding them. Once more this can particularly be applied to liturgical objects which are the means and sometimes ends or focal point of the mass ritual (e.g. the chalice and paten or the monstrance).

Synesthetic experience

The issue of performativity leads also to a rich reflection on the aesthetic value of the objects under scrutiny, which contribute to an overall impression, emotions interacting with motions. We took advantage of recent studies on the history of senses and the sensible to shed new light on the synesthetic experience triggered by these objects. In fact, recent methodological impulses came from medieval historians who mapped out primary sources related to liturgy and the enveloping sense of the senses, particularly the ephemeral ones: smell and taste. The synesthetic experience was considered as the window open on the soul. A fundamental testing of these recent studies upon the material and contextual uses of the liturgical object as material carriers of synaesthesia is a highly innovative contribution to the space between art history and liturgical studies.

Art as ornament

The project also took advantage of the recent renewal of scholarship on ornament. Being no more considered as a simple pattern, ornament is today approached as a complex phenomenon whose significance exceeds the strictly stylistic dimension. Its aesthetic dimension, far from being limited to the issue of taste and fashion, must be reintegrated within the realm of human intentions and actions. By serving with its aesthetic qualities the significations (symbolic, ritual,…) of the object, the ornament acts on the spectator and makes him react in return. The way in which ornamentation affects meaning needs thus to be considered, and the way in which meaning is conveyed and often transformed by the force of the art objects, but also by the ornamental apparatus accompanying it and bringing it before the viewer has also been examined.

Texts and images

Next to analysis of these objects we have also investigated different textual and iconographic materials (mainly paintings and engravings) picturing church interior and in particular rituals performed at the altar in order to discern an ideal representation of the mass with its constitutive objects and actions. Naturally, we are aware that these documents only allow us to reconstitute the functions and modes of display of these objects to a certain extent. Similarly, they only give us a glimpse into the reality of religious practices. However, in their capacity as representations, they indicate how these objects were intended to be perceived and imagined. We have therefore focused on the idealized representations of these practices rather than on their reality.


In terms of mediation and dissemination, the research conducted by the OrnaSacra Team led to several collaborations with musea and cultural institutions. Various seminars with scholars and students have been organised. Finally, the research carried out throughout the project was presented at conferences and seminars in Belgium and abroad.

Exhibitions and collaborations


The collaboration with the CIPAR (Centre interdiocésain du Patrimoine et des Arts Religieux) proved to be very stimulating due to the complementarity of the respective objectives of these two teams: if on the one hand CIPAR’s objective is to coordinate efforts in the field of protection, conservation and valorisation of religious heritage at the level of the Belgian French-speaking dioceses, on the other hand one of the objectives of the OrnaSacra project (in line with the objectives of the funding) is to contribute to a better knowledge of the historical interest of these objects and to raise public awareness of their heritage value. To this end, in connection with the theme of liturgical textiles chosen by CIPAR in 2017-2018, a travelling exhibition has been set up. Entitled « Vêtements sacrés, sacrés vêtements », this exhibition was inaugurated on 20 June at the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Basse-Wavre and has been circulating since then in various churches in Wallonia. Composed of 16 documentary panels on the historical, artistic and conservation aspects of textiles (this last point having been ensured by the KIK-IRPA team with the advice of the Textile workshop), this exhibition aroused great interest among the public and made it possible to communicate our initial research results more widely. Still related to the textile theme, a manual (La conservation des textiles religieux dans les églises) was written by the CIPAR team and the OrnaSacra team.

Based on the successful results of this collaboration with CIPAR, we have decided to continue it by focusing, for the year 2018-2019, on liturgical silverware, with the development of a second travelling exhibition, entitled “D’or et d’argent. Orfèvrerie et liturgie”, and a manual dedicated to this theme. This new thematic year was inaugurated by a colloquium co-organised by the two teams. It was held in Louvain-la-Neuve on 6 October and was attended by more than a hundred people. All these dissemination initiatives have made it possible to raise awareness among a wide audience of the importance of conserving these objects, but also to make their various material, liturgical and artistic dimensions known and appreciated.

Museum L (Louvain-la-Neuve)

A new partnership was launched in 2018 with the new Museum L in Louvain-la-Neuve. The UCLouvain team of OrnaSacra developed, with a series of colleagues from this same university (Myriam Watthee, literary historian, Arnaud Join-Lambert, liturgist theologian, Anne-Marie Vuillemenot, anthropologist), an interdisciplinary project devoted to the relationships between the arts and the rites. This project led, throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, to a seminar with a view to preparing the exhibition at Museum L entitled “Art & Rite. Le pouvoir des objets” (23/04/21 – 25/07/2021). The aim was to create new scientific synergies and to communicate to a wider public the results of the reflections carried out within the framework of these collaborations, reflections that are anchored in the analysis and enhancement of objects. This exhibition sought to answer the seemingly simple question: What is the purpose and function of a work of art or any object to which a heritage value is attributed? Starting from the observation that a large proportion of the works conserved in Museum L, as in any other museum, are uprooted from the context for which they were created and in which they were initially inscribed, we proposed an exhibition entirely devoted to the question of the animating powers of the works, starting with the power of ritual.

Through a selection of religious works and ritual objects from the Museum L, from all eras and civilizations, and the contribution of material, iconographic and textual documentation, the aim was more precisely to consider the capacity of these works to generate a new reality not only from their intrinsic qualities but above all through a series of gestures and actions, words and sounds, smells and contacts, as well as from the relationship they maintain with space and other objects. The aim was therefore to give the public an understanding of the ritual processes and experiences that are at the heart of the creation and reception of works from the past. To this end, the exhibition drew on ancient, medieval and modern collections, as well as on collections of folk art and anthropology. The wide variety of media collected has made it possible to highlight the way in which their material, formal, iconographic and textual dimensions, combined with ritual actions, contribute to their symbolic and performative effectiveness in particular spaces and circumstances, with a view to connecting visible and invisible realities. In the end, it was also a question of highlighting the ritual framework that a museum implements and that supposes a certain distance and some prohibitions, notably that of touching, a gesture that is so transgressive that it has never ceased to be at the heart of many rituals whose objects are the works we contemplate in museums.

In the context of this exhibition, a study day entitled “Rites and museums” was organised on 29 april 2021. This day, which allowed for new discussions between OrnaSacra researchers and external experts, aimed to question the conceptual boundaries of rites, art and the museum environment. The morning was devoted to what rites do to museums: What explicit and implicit codes and symbols are present between the museum and its public? How can they be questioned, modified and developed? What is the impact of museum rites on the perception of objects and the museum? How do they interfere with the notion of art? The afternoon was devoted to what museums do to rites: How do museums deal with the initial ritual dimension of the objects they hold? Do museums alter objects by taking them out of their original context, by removing the primary gestures associated with them and imposing others, specific to the museum environment? Is it possible to reinvest decontextualised objects within the museum space? Are there objects that remain originally charged and ritually used in the museum context? What part does art play in the rituals at stake?


Finally, a partnership with the TAMAT (Museum of Tapestry and Textile Arts) in Tournai has resulted in an exhibition in the autumn of 2021 (from 11 September to 28 November 2021). Entitled “Habiller le culte. Les fastes du textile liturgique”, this exhibition aims to present the richness and beauty of the liturgical vestments of the past while reintegrating them into the heart of the worship in which they take on meaning. It is based on an exceptional collection of vestments preserved in Tournai Cathedral and produced by the Dormal-Ponce embroiderers’ workshop in Ath in the 18th century. This exhibition seeks to make these embroidered objects speak for themselves by exploring the “life” they give us, which is multi-faceted, from their commissioning and production to their study today, via their uses and ritual functions. A section devoted to contemporary creation was also part of the proposal, with the views of contemporary artists being placed in dialogue with these pieces from the past. The ambition was to create an exhibition for the general public that would appeal to young and old alike, by mixing genres and breaking down the usual categories: applied arts, memory of the trades, local history. The quality of the historical-scientific content, provided by the academic collaborators of the OrnaSacra project, has made it possible to develop a multi-layered discourse that is accessible and enjoyable for everyone, whether they are novices or initiated.

In addition, various activities were organised on the occasion of this exhibition, both scientific and for the general public:

A scientific publication by Belgian and foreign specialists in liturgical textiles (“Habiller le culte. Les fastes brodés de l’atelier Dormal-Ponce à Ath au 18e siècle”). The publication is a monograph on the Dormal-Ponce embroiderers’ workshop, which was active in the first half of the 18th century. It contains detailed notes on the pieces exhibited and preserved in Tournai, as well as on other sets preserved elsewhere, making it possible to reconstitute an unpublished corpus of the workshop. Contextual and synthetic studies allow these pieces to be placed in their production and reception environment, by considering their material, aesthetic and, of course, cultic aspects.

On 29 October 2021, a colloquium organised by the OrnaSacra team brought together specialists in the field of liturgical arts, and in particular textiles, at both Belgian and international level (“Orner le culte. Pour une approche relationnelle du textile liturgique entre Moyen Age et Temps Modernes”). Its objective was to take stock of the state of research by focusing on the anchoring of textiles in ritual. The aim was to consider the relational aspects that link these textiles to a system of gestures, looks and words, but also to a system of images and materials that give rhythm to and define the ecclesial space or, more broadly, the ritual space. Moreover, while taking place at the heart of TAMAT and close to the exhibits, this day helped to open up new perspectives on the question of the materiality of the works and their meanings, a field that is still too little explored in research.