Reading Time: 6 minutes

It is sad – one half of the world does not believe in God and the other half does not believe in me. — OSCAR WILDE 

On the 7th of July in 1896, Anglo-Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was incarcerated at Reading Prison for “gross indecency”—what would now be simply described as gay sex. He would remain there for two years, sentenced to grueling labor, trudging on a wooden treadmill for six hours a day between long periods of confinement in his dark cell. 

Initially denied both books and writing implements, Wilde was eventually allowed to write—one page at a time—and under these circumstances produced the remarkable document known as De Profundis (“From the Depths”). 

Addressed as a letter to Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, De Profundis addresses two major topics; a recap of Wilde’s relationship with Douglas and Wilde’s identification of (and with) Jesus Christ as a romantic, rebellious artist-figure whose profound compassion was inspired by profound suffering. 

The Roman Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do. — OSCAR WILDE

Oscar Wilde’s intellectual stance on religion was complex. Although he would famously fulfill his long-term pledge to die as a Roman Catholic—being received into the Church literally upon his death-bed—he had decidedly not lived as one, and there are passages in De Profundis that seem to advocate for a deeply unorthodox practice of “atheistic ritual.”

“Religion,” Wilde wrote, “does not help me”:

The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at. My gods dwell in temples made with hands; and within the circle of actual experience is my creed made perfect and complete: too complete, it may be, for like many or all of those who have placed their heaven in this earth, I have found in it not merely the beauty of heaven, but the horror of hell also.

Wilde’s notion of spirituality eschewed faith in the supernatural for the sensory experiences of the natural world, in all its glory and with all its dangers. His sensual materialism might be compared with that of the Epicureans of ancient Greece, who similarly evinced a deep skepticism regarding the “supernatural” and saw pleasure as the highest good.

Wilde then noted that: 

When I think about religion at all, I feel as if I would like 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.

Writing in the bowels of Reading Prison, Wilde understandably imagined his Confraternity of the Faithless as an austere order, whose rituals would be marked by absences. But he continued:

Every thing to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. It has sown its martyrs, it should reap its saints, and praise God daily for having hidden Himself from man.

But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating. Only that is spiritual which makes its own form.

If I may not find its secret within myself, I shall never find it: if I have not got it already, it will never come to me.

In these few lines, Wilde envisions a kind of mystical, agnostic spirituality; a “poetic faith”, as famously defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose communion is via artistic creation and whose godhead lies within. 

Oscar Wilde died in Paris on November 30, 1900, just three years after his release from prison. At 46 years old, he was destitute, exiled and so widely reviled that he’d resorted to living under a pseudonym, “Sebastian Melmoth”—a devastating fall from grace for a man whose elegant wit and refined sensibilities had once made him the toast of London.

While Wilde’s written work remained popular in the decades following his death, his personal image went unrehabilitated until the 1970s-80s Gay Pride movement, which spurred a reassessment of his life and historical context. The circumstances of his trial and imprisonment, in particular, came to represent the prejudice that had doomed so many gay people to misery during the late 19th and early-mid 20th century. 

More than a century after Wilde’s death, the artists David McDermott and Peter McGough opened a joint immersive art project/secular ritual space, The Oscar Wilde Temple, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century and subverting traditional Catholic iconography, the Temple evokes a kind of alternative reality in which Wilde’s suffering has consecrated him as a martyr/deity within a hypothetical queer religion. It invites visitors to imaginatively participate in a “faith” that might have been founded by Wilde himself, or perhaps by his friends and admirers, after his release from prison in 1897. 

In 2016, Peter McGough described the project as:

…a temple to our god and martyr, Oscar Wilde, a place where unions of love can be celebrated without Christianity—or really, any fucking religion—frowning down upon anyone.

He continued:

I was mocked and beaten for who I was and who I wanted to be—tripped, spit on, called a faggot—since I was seven years old. So fuck everyone—if fucking Scientologists can have their tax-exempt religion, I can certainly have Oscar Wilde be the savior for all queers.

The Temple’s point of focus—serving a similar function to Wilde’s vision of an “altar on which no taper burned”—is a 4’ tall hand-carved wooden statue of Wilde himself, standing on a bedecked plinth. Nearby, an overturned soapbox bearing a label for “Fairy” brand soap serves as a deliberately makeshift pulpit.

The Temple evokes a kind of alternative reality in which Wilde’s suffering has consecrated him as a martyr/deity within a hypothetical queer religion.

On the walls, a sequence of twelve blue and gold paintings, closely evoking the style of Victorian “Police Gazette” illustrations and titled The Stations of Reading Gaol, represent key moments of Wilde’s arrest, trial and imprisonment. This sequence is intended for devotional use in the manner of the “Stations of the Cross” of Christian iconographic tradition, down to the fact that each scene depicts Wilde crowned with a gilded halo. 

The images of the sunflower (championed by Wilde as an emblem of the Aesthetic Movement) and the green carnation (representing Wilde’s notion of “nature imitating art”) are featured throughout the Temple, as well as the cypher C.3.3., which had been Wilde’s cell number at Reading Prison and was the pseudonym under which he later published The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Much as he had anticipated in De Profundis, the symbols of the “Wilde religion” are of his own creation. 

The Temple also honors, via portraits, the lives and deaths of contemporary queer “martyrs” including Harvey Milk, Alan Turing, Brandon Teena, Xulhan Mannaz, Martha P. Johnson and Sakia Gunn. Visitors are invited to commemorate loved ones lost in the AIDS crisis in a Book of Remembrance, while an ornate sign near the entrance explicitly identifies the Temple as a sanctuary from perennial evils:

NO
Homophobia
Transphobia
Bigotry
Misogyny
Racism
Fascism
Neo-Nazism
White Supremacy
Anti-Semitism
Anti-Immigration

Only Love Here

Although “immersive environments” are currently trending in the art world, the Oscar Wilde Temple is highly unusual in that it is intended as a venue for formal, secular ceremonies as well as an aesthetic experience. The space may be privately used for LGBTQ+ marriages, blessings, transgender re-naming ceremonies and commemorative rituals, as well as for public lectures and book readings. Co-creator David McDermott had long expressed the wish to create a “new religion” for queer folk who had traditionally been shunned and worse by orthodox, mainstream faiths, and the Oscar Wilde Temple represents a case study of the premise “if you build it, they will come.” 

Co-creator David McDermott had long expressed the wish to create a “new religion” for queer folk who had traditionally been shunned and worse by orthodox, mainstream faiths.

This melding of art, play, and ritual within a nontheistic or quasitheistic environment raises intriguing questions about the nature and potential of contemporary secular spirituality. The aesthetics and facilities of the Oscar Wilde Temple evoke a sense of religion without imposing a doctrine. Any deeper symbolic meaning is for the viewer/participant to decide for themselves. Through imaginal time travel, the artists have created a liminal place – somehow simultaneously timeless and transient – serving most of the traditional functions of a “sacred space”, minus the supernatural dogma that normally attends those functions. 

After the 2017 installation in New York City, an expanded rendition of the Temple was created in a Victorian-vintage former Methodist chapel, now part of London’s Studio Voltaire art gallery. It remained there for six months, again serving both quasi-sacred and secular purposes. All proceeds were donated to The Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity for LGBTQ+ youth at risk of homelessness.

The Oscar Wilde Temple is a potent and provocative exercise in artistic recontextualization. Among the questions it provokes; how else might the time-honored artistic and ritual “technologies” of religion be utilized or transformed by new generations of creators? And most particularly, what may be conjured by those artists who take secularism as read, and then dare to ask, “What’s next?” 

Tony Wolf is a writer (mostly nonfiction, one prose novel, one graphic novel, one play) and educator, formerly a director/choreographer for feature films, TV, theater, opera and ballet. Born in one hemisphere...