Everyone has almost certainly heard of Oscar Wilde, the witty Victorian-era Irish playwright whose many affairs with other men landed him in a British jail and eventual self-exile in France, where he died in 1900 at the age of 46.
He’s been a hero to some to the point where there’s actually a United Methodist worship space dedicated to him in the symbolic heart of New York City gay culture. Tara Burton, Vox.com’s new religion writer describes it for us.
The key, as you read this feature, is to look for any sign of dissenting voices questioning its big themes. Look for conservative Methodists defending their church's teachings on sexuality, experts on Wilde's final repentance and conversion to Catholicism. That kind of thing.
Hidden in the basement of New York’s Church of the Village, a Methodist church in Greenwich Village, is an entirely unconventional worship space.
The aesthetic -- a neo-Gothic stained glass window, a devotional statue, a series of paintings depicting the life and suffering of a martyr -- is perfectly familiar. The chapel’s advertised uses -- weddings, memorial services, contemplation -- are likewise commonplace. The subject, however, is not.
At the Oscar Wilde Temple, a religiously themed installation project by McDermott & McGough, the art-world tag of artists David McDermott and Peter McGough, the central statue and the figure of worship is of Wilde himself: the 19th-century Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright whose name has become synonymous with LGBTQ liberation.
A series of paintings modeled after the traditional Christian stations of the cross -- representing different moments in Jesus’s trial and crucifixion -- tell the story of Wilde’s 1895 trial for “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexuality) and subsequent two-year imprisonment. In each panel, all of which are modeled after then-contemporary newspaper engravings of the trial, Wilde sports the gilded halo of Christian iconography.
Wilde actually was born and baptized an Anglican, then re-baptized as a Catholic thanks to his mother’s friendship with a Catholic priest. He fell away from religion for some time but planned to convert back to Catholicism, only to get cold feet and back out on the very day of the ceremony.
Back to the “temple:”
Equal parts art project and ritualistic space, the temple, which will be open through December 2, is available to rent for gatherings both sacred (the aforementioned wedding, poetry readings, a planned discussion of queer theology) and profane (the temple’s curator, Alison Gingeras, jokingly suggested a séance to honor Wilde’s death day, November 30).
But is the Oscar Wilde Temple actually, well, a temple? The participatory nature of the duo’s art exhibit, as well as its Christian imagery and its relationship with the Church of the Village, reflects the porous boundaries between art, ritual, and religion.
The piece brings up some good questions, as a temple betokens worship and I don’t think any of the visitors to this place are out to bow the knee to Wilde.
In defining itself as a ritualistic space, the temple serves as a powerful reclamation of religious ritual by those who have not historically had access to it, something with which Wilde -- a deathbed convert to Catholicism -- would doubtless have been familiar. Even earlier, in his De Profundis, an 1897 letter written from then-inmate Wilde to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde writes movingly of his desire “to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.” He adds: “Every thing to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.”
The piece continues with an interview with the Methodist minister of the host church, who approved the installation of the exhibit, which is filled with Catholic iconography that gets linked to gay narratives.
“There's a reason that Catholic iconography keeps popping up in LGBT art: It's become powerful through centuries of use, and it partakes, even if obliquely, of the rich Catholic theology of suffering,” Dan Walden, a graduate student at the University of Michigan and a gay Catholic, told Vox. “I think people from more liturgical backgrounds do miss and need ritual.” He added that despite the growing presence of progressive or pro-LGBTQ Catholic parishes, such a thing should not be taken as a given.
Back to the journalism issues mentioned earlier: I'd like to hear at least one dissenting voice, whether it be someone who's an expert on iconography or Catholic art or a United Methodist official who may remind us that Methodist doctrine still holds that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
Also, what about Wilde’s own obsession with the Catholic Church, his love-hate relationship with it and his final wish to be included as a believer? After his release from jail, he asked a local Jesuit retreat house if he could stay there for six months. Sadly, they refused and he was driven to seek a home in France.
But he did convert at the 11th hour, which complicates his reputation somewhat, as even the Vatican has claimed Wilde as one of its own. Any exhibit on him should include the paradox of a gay icon who repents at the end of his life. But repentance is not part of the legend that most media which to explore.
As Vox concludes:
Reconfigured as a religious martyr, and venerated as a saint, Wilde may at last have attained the legacy he sought.
But how was he a martyr? He didn’t die for his beliefs, unless one can prove that the meningitis that killed him was from his time in prison. As for being a saint, should that title be given to any writer with strong beliefs? If so, we’d all have halos.
His precipitous downfall from the heights of London society, the defiant pose he struck during the trial -- his defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” under cross-examination became famous -- and the degradation he suffered have turned Wilde into something more than a literary icon. With the rise of the LGBTQ rights movement, he has increasingly been viewed as a gay martyr.
“They took him down,” says Peter McGough, half of the artist duo McDermott & McGough, whose public installation The Oscar Wilde Temple opened September 11 in Manhattan’s Church of the Village. “Straight society, they took him down.”
But at least Out brought up the paradox of his last-minute embrace of Catholicism, which would have included a rite of confession:
So, how would Wilde -- a fair-weather Anglican who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed -- react to being turned into a quasi-religious figure? McGough suspects he would love it. “When Wilde was in prison he became interested in Christ -- the suffering and the message of redemption and the message of hope.”
To quote Al Gore, the deathbed conversion is an inconvenient truth.
What was Wilde saying by doing this at the end of his life? Whether his act was fire insurance or conviction, I wish all these hagiographies would allude to that more and to sainthood less.