“I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”
I presume His Eminence was being deliberately provocative.
His point, I presume, was that taken out of the context of faith, works like "The Baptism" loose their meaning. An altarpiece only really comes to life when it is set over an altar and Mass is celebrated before it.
Jan van Eyck's, The Adoration of the Lamb only makes sense and comes to life when a priest is elevating the Sacred Host or Chalice before the lower panel. It is designed for that. When I last saw it in a glass box in the crypt of Ghent Cathedral, separated from its altar and the Mass, as beautiful as it was, it seemed like a suit of dead men's clothes.
Art created for worship becomes a mere relic of a half remembered past when it is removed from its context.
The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the Medieval Galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, are really little different from an Albanian Museum of Atheism; out of context paintings, chalices, relics even, become mere artifacts, which as the Cardinal points out was never the intention behind their creation.
That being said, the Church itself can't be without criticism. Westminster Cathedral itself came back to life during the celebration of Mass by Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos earlier this year. For the fist time I saw the Benson altar "alive", rather than treated as something to be ignored or seen as an embarrassment.
In the last 40 years we have seen the Church turning its back on its artistic heritage. Ancient rites have been swept away, the orientation of prayer changed, that which which was held sacred has been dismissed as irrelevant and a great deal that was regarded as precious has either been consigned to the museum or the rubbish dump. Statues has become merely decorative, even chant is more likely to be heard at some New Age workshop or polyphony at a secular concert, albeit in a Church, with singers obscuring the altar rather than in the context of worship. The Church in recent years, by quite often literally turn its back on the sacred has been one of the greatest promoters of secularisation of Europe.