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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Arts All Around...Faith through the Prism of Art

By Barbara-lyn Morris | January 28, 2008

I am looking forward to the exhibit, "Beyond Aesthetics," opening February 15 at William King Regional Arts Center in Abingdon, Va. The focus is on three regional artists each working in a tradition of one of the great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Congratulations and appreciation go to William King and curator Adam Justice for this bold endeavor. Justice said, "As always, our goal is education through art. We aim to encourage visitors not only to celebrate their own faith perspectives, but also to be better informed about other religious traditions."

Last summer, for the third consecutive year, I attended The Glen Workshop, an "Institute for Artists, Writers, and Wayfarers" who seek to unify arts and spirituality, especially in the Christian tradition. Sponsored by Image, an acclaimed journal exploring the intersection of art and faith, the 2007 workshop had as its overarching theme: "God of the Desert: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam through the Prism of Art."

Held at St John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Glen follows a retreat/workshop/conference format that includes the choice of five half-day studio classes or a seminar, each approaching the theme in varied ways under the leadership of renowned artists and scholars. During the afternoons, there are readings, lectures, and presentations. An evening worship service, interlaced with all the arts in the duration of the week, concludes the organized part of each day. Conversations and studio work often go on late into the night. With all this, there is free time to explore the city and region.

I chose the seminar "Peoples of the Book" led by Rodger Kamenetz, a poet and writer as well as the founding director of the Jewish Studies Program at Louisiana State University. He is the author of at least ten books, including a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Stalking Elijah (Harper, 1997). His recently released book, The History of Last Night's Dream (Harper One, 2007), has received praise from many circles.

Kamenetz was joined by George Dardess, an ordained deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and national leader in facilitating dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He is the author of Meeting Islam: A Guide for Christians (Paraclete Press, 2005).

Rounding out the seminar leadership was Jamal Rahman, a Muslim Sufi minister from Seattle, Washington, who has a passion for interfaith community building. Working in the mystic tradition of Islam, Rahman is the author of The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam (Book Foundation, 2004.)

Our group worked together under what Kamenetz referred to as Rule One of Interfaith Dialogue: Start with what unites us; delay addressing what divides us until "heaps of trust have been established." A basic tenet of our dialogue was that the prism of art will provide a unique foundation for building respect and understanding.

Because the depiction of living creatures as images of worship is forbidden in Islam, The Glen chose calligraphy as an artistic focus because all three traditions identify God with beauty as revealed in calligraphy. Timothy R. Botts, a senior art director at Tyndale House Publishers and a GLEN studio director in calligraphy, illustrated in his studio course and general presentation that calligraphy reveals beauty in all three faiths.

Islamic calligraphy includes scrollwork, arabesques, geometric motifs, and interlace patterns, as well as the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet. The Koran (Arabic Qar'an-the sacred scripture of Islam) has been the context for calligraphy for generations. The letters and words have beautiful body and distinct personality.

Botts shared many illustrations of the impulse of Muslim scribes to glorify sacred words with "bubbles or clouds around the words, as if words have a halo. When artists have their hands tied (from images), they find a way to create beauty." The walls of mosques are often completely covered with calligraphy.

Even though representational images play important roles in both Judaic and Christian traditions, calligraphy has also been employed with great enthusiasm and dedication. Christian manuscripts are replete with elaborate printing of letter and words from the Greek alphabet, as well as geometric motifs and intricate patterns. Embellished copies of the Koran from as early as the seventh century influenced the Christian art of illustrated sacred text, such as the ninth century Christian Book of Kells. Likewise, in the Jewish tradition, calligraphy constitutes a dominant force in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (often referred to as the Old Testament by Christians).

A major exception to the no-creature-image rule comes from Rumi, the thirteenth century Muslim Sufi. A mystic, poet, and spokesman for Islam throughout India and Southeast Asia, he preached no prohibition against human images. Secular Muslim art has always included figures. Manuscripts and miniature paintings in Persian art and throughout the Ottoman Empire (13-15th centuries) are famous for their depiction of creatures in all aspects of life, including the erotic.

Since mid-nineteenth century, Islamic religious art in some environments has been incorporating the human as subject. The outstanding example of such Islamic art is in Senegal, in western Africa. There more than four million Senegalese follow the Islamic movement called Mouridism. Founded by a mystic descendent of Sufi and a local saint named Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), this branch of Islam regales in presenting bold, colorful images of Bamba and his family and followers, especially in the public arena. The portraits are treated as if they have a "living presence," in ways similar to that of Christians who revere icons of Jesus, Mary, or almost countless Catholic and Greek Orthodox saints.

I learned about the Senegal phenomenon in an exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe: "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal." The authors of the catalogue for the exhibit conclude: "It is clear, then, the Mouridism presents very different faces of Islam from those most familiar to Americans from television and other media coverage of current events. Indeed, the peaceful and progressive nature of Mouride life is consistent with what Islam means to the great majority of Muslims living around the world."

The example from Senegal illustrates the complexity and diversity of Islam. I look forward to learning more about the three religious traditions so prominent on the current world stage from the exhibit at WKRAC and from continued reading and searching in dialogue with others.

FOR MORE about the exhibit, "Beyond Aesthetics," click HERE.

"Beyond Aesthetics" at William King Regional Arts Center, Abingdon, Va., includes works by Mary Jane Miller, who produces iconic images taken from Christian tradition. Shown is "Mary of Tenderness."