Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By Anne Barber-Shams
Fused-glass art image by the author for her Wilderness Journey Triptych. The subjects of the triptych images, 3 by 4 feet, are of the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire that the ancestors of Jews, Christians, and Muslims followed across the Sinai Peninsula, and the Shekinah/Sakina that remained to hover over the tabernacle.
My study of the current interfaith movement started as a plan to find appropriate sites for my large, interfaith fused-glass triptych, The Wilderness Journey. I began research with questions: What kind of art is available for interfaith chapels, and what makes it the right choice for them? My conclusion is that there seem to be three ways to consider art for interfaith chapels.
Art that is generic
If the purpose of the interfaith chapel is to support religious diversity by avoiding the “can’t haves” of any group, finding art is relatively simple. Themes of nature and the cosmos are often chosen, as are prayer flags, banners, and multifaith symbols. The art curator for an interfaith chapel could go online to CODAworx 2014, narrow the search to public art, wall art, and liturgical art, and find examples of art that has been commissioned and photographed on site and art from artists interested in commissions. There are many choices of fabric art, painted art, sculpture, and glass art with nature themes or abstract and soothing compositions.
Shahna Lax, Reflection & Passage Through the Thinning Door, acid-etched copper with fretwork, Vitrail enamels; 4 tehelet tsisit, copper rivets; two-way acrylic mirror. Framed in mahogany. 27.75 x 17.25 x 1.75 inches.
Artist’s comments: At the top of the door are Hebrew inscriptions meaning “enter,” “sparks,” and “Closer than anything near” — one of the Names for the Eternal. The Moorish design of the door invokes Islamic geometries and carpet page elements. Website: shahna-lax.artistwebsites.com
Art that reflects each tradition’s specific, individual iconography
This choice suits the winning entries of the 2004 interfaith sacred architecture competition, documented in the book, Sacred Spaces: 2004 Sacred Space Design Competition, edited by Donald Frew. The winning designs provided varieties of spaces to accommodate the ritual observances of individual faiths. Without having to avoid the “cannot haves” of each faith, the art curators or committees might visit other existing faith chapels, search online for liturgical art, or search the advertising index of Faith & Form or of their individual faith publications.
Shahna Lax, Blessing Hands, acid-etched copper, fretwork, oxide, and enamel; backed in amber mica. Framed in Oregon Madrone. 34.5 x 18.5 inches.
Artist’s comments: The Hebrew script within the arch is the priestly blessing: “May the Source of Being bless you and protect you; May the Source of Being’s Face shine upon you and flow graciousness to you; May the Face lift towards you and establish you in peace.” The two hamsas in the position of blessing are each inscribed with an Aribis micrographic “eye” which reads: Hu Allah — “the Essence is God.” Website: shahna-lax.artistwebsites.com
Art that provides “access points to divinity”
The term “access points to divinity” is from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in his book, The Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-craft and Spiritual Leadership. Describing the great religious leaders who have helped humanity, he writes, “Jesus and the Buddha are certainly neshamot kaliyot, access points to Divinity, on a grand scale.”
Art that provides access points to divinity suits the chapel/church for the spiritually independent. As described by Rami Shapiro in Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent: Sacred Teachings Annotated and Explained, the beliefs of the spiritually independent neither exclude nor require a specific religious representation. The art imagery can be inclusive of many traditions or of a singular tradition, or can visually make connections between faith traditions.
A search on CODAworx2014 narrowed to interfaith art would be unsuccessful in finding this kind of art. An internet search for Interfaith Art Exhibits and Galleries would yield artist choices from such sites as MOCRA, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University; CIVA, Christians in the Visual Arts; and Paul-Gordon Chandler’s CARAVAN (oncaravan.org), an annual art event/exhibit that builds bridges through the arts between the creeds and cultures of East and West. Artists could be found online by searching for interfaith artists or interfaith art.
Anne Shams, Star Mother, mixed media on birch plywood: acrylic, embossed brass and copper, collage, 25 x 21 inches.
Artist’s comment: The horseshoe arch of the mihrab contains the Eagle Nebula, birthplace of stars, and the Black Madonna holding the Christ child, one of the most prevalent images in art. The central image is surrounded with a border that includes images of goddess/mothers from other spiritual traditions. The Arabic and Hebrew letters at the bottom left and right of the painting are the trilateral linguistic root RHM, which means origin or womb, giving a maternal and feminine slant to the masculine gender usually attributed to the deity. Website: anneshamsart.info
The interfaith movement’s architectural and artistic vanguard is the repurposing or creation of sacred spaces that meet the hoped-for results articulated by Donald Frew in Sacred Spaces: “…sacred space that would welcome and accommodate the needs of practitioners of all religions…. where everyone who entered would be inspired to practice their own faith and build relationships with those of other faiths.” At the progressive edge of this vanguard is the creation of sacred space and art for the spiritually independent.
If Rami Shapiro is correct about interpreting the Pew study he cites in his book—that the 33 percent of persons 30 or under who checked the box “none” in the religious affiliation category are spiritually independent—the church of the future may not look remarkably different, but what goes on inside it will be remarkably different. The spiritually independent does not require that a cathedral be torn down and replaced with a mosque: the prayer rugs simply take the place of pews.
The future interfaith worshiper may have fewer “must haves” and “cannot haves” and instead may embrace diverse faith symbols and rituals side by side. There is a sense of history made visible when the Star of David, a cross, and the crescent moon and star share the same space. Layers of meaning are added when one is aware that the Star of David symbol predates Neolithic art and, later, represented the Hindu Shakti. This knowledge does not obliterate differences. It seems to me to acknowledge humbly how ancient, multifaceted, and deep are humankind’s search for meaning, for access points to divinity.
Siona Benjamin: Finding Home #72: (Fereshteh) Miriam, Gouache and gold leaf on wood panel 18 x 15.3 inches.
Artist’s comment: In “Fereshteh” (“angels” in Urdu), I explore the women of the Bible and bring them forward to combat the wars and violence of today in a Midrash (interpretation) of intricate paintings. In this multicultural society, I would like the viewers to transcend the apparent exotic nature of the images and absorb the core message: tolerance of diversity. Website: www.artsiona.com/
Architectural space, more or less effectively, creates a container for the numinous. The Hagia Sophia may be a more effective container than the architectural shoebox of Seattle’s Interfaith Community Sanctuary, a repurposed centenarian protestant church, but I’m not sure. What happens in the space and who is present may be as important.
Without doubt, beautifully conceived and rendered architecture and art teach us that there is that which is beyond the mundane, inspire us to transcend the mundane, and are a heritage that spiritually enriches us all, irrespective of monetary status, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. Interfaith sacred sites meet an essential contemporary need for us to come together to honor our singular traditions and respect those of others.