Exploring Our Relationship to Sacred Objects and Art
Art and Interfaith Conversation
by Andrew Smith
I learn best by listening to people’s ideas over a good cup of coffee. One such conversation sparked ideas that inspired a whole series of interfaith dialogues that have taken place over the past few years. I was introduced to the idea that art could not only provoke reactions that lead to discussion, but also create new forms of conversation between people. I’ve been involved in interfaith work in one for or another for more than 20 years, but this seemed like an opportunity to explore it in a different way.
Over the next three years we explored the relationships between art, faith, dialogue, and understanding in several different ways, opening up new insights and possibilities for dialogue. We used art and artifacts to develop conversations between people of different faiths, and also used art to create new conversations. This work became part of The Birmingham Conversations program and opened up possibilities for us to collaborate with both the Museum and Cathedral in Birmingham.
During one project a group of us from six different faiths met at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to spend time together looking at art from the 13th century through to the present day. Some were explicitly religious, and because of the context and history of Britain, exclusively Christian, but much of it was portraiture, scenic or abstract. We also looked at objects in the Museum’s new Faith Gallery that include artifacts from several different faith traditions.
Asking about spirituality encouraged people to look beyond the obviously religious and to explore how different understandings of spirituality were portrayed or challenged. Looking at medieval Christian art and sacred objects alongside Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu friends was an illuminating experience for us all. For some the stories depicted were unknown, prompting questions or responses that were new for the Christian participants to hear. Others found that the Christians were less moved by the imagery than those from different faiths who were seeing them afresh, without the theologically critical lens through which some of the Christians viewed them.
A number of the pictures and sculptures included nudity, which provoked different reactions amongst the group members. Some found them offensive or unnecessary and others saw them as a celebration of the human form and of God’s creation. Looking at them together made people think more deeply about their own perspectives. Could they see the good in a picture that they found morally challenging? Were our responses theological or cultural and what were the gender issues that the portraits raised? As a Christian I am used to seeing pictures of Mary breastfeeding Jesus, but to stand alongside a Muslim woman and look at the same picture made us both feel slightly uncomfortable, even though we could laugh together at our awkwardness. The picture then provoked conversations about our ideas of Mary as a woman, a mother, the mother of a prophet, or the mother of the Son of God, and whether each of those interpretations changed our perspectives on seeing her portrayed as breastfeeding.
We ran a similar event in Birmingham St. Philip’s Cathedral looking at the stained-glass windows by the renowned artist Edward Burne Jones. They show the nativity, crucifixion, ascension, and last judgment. People were invited to just look, reflect, and discuss what they saw and felt without any explanation of the stories depicted. One Sikh woman noticed similarities between the expression on Jesus’ face at the crucifixion and the way the Sikh 5th Guru, Sri Guru Arjan Sahib Ji, is often depicted when being tortured. Others noticed that the position of Jesus’ right hand in the last judgment picture is the same position that both Buddha and Guru Nanak would often be depicted when giving blessing. These, and other similar observations had never been recorded before by Cathedral staff. They opened up news ways of sharing the beauty of the windows with visitors of other faiths and enriching the understanding of them for Christians. A video of the event was created by the Divine Beauty Project at Birmingham Cathedral.
Sharing in this way has made me reflect much more about our relationship to sacred objects and art and how it changes depending on the context in which it’s displayed and who else is with me. A statue of Ganesh or a crucifix displayed in a temple or church evoke a different response than if they are in a museum; they move from objects of veneration and worship to ones of artistic and cultural interest, possibly displayed according to geography or religion, but rarely with any opportunity for visitors to honor them in the way they would in a place of worship. This means that for some people their ‘power’ is removed, which is either seen as a tragedy for those to whom they are important or good news to those who might consider that religion to be idolatry or blasphemy.
In a museum, the positioning of religious objects in relation to other objects can also affect our response to them. I’ve been part of a group working with the Birmingham Museum and Art gallery to help curate their faith gallery, which includes objects from several religions. As we worked with friends of different faiths and museum staff, it became apparent that moving objects that had been displayed separately according to geography or history into the same space raised theological questions.
Was the gallery presenting all the faiths as equally true and valid and if so, how would visitors who didn’t believe that respond? If holy books were to be included, at what height should they be displayed, and could they be placed together, or would that cause offense? How does one include statues and imagery which are meaningful and important to some whilst being problematic or even forbidden for others? And in all this how could the artifacts be displayed in a way that gives integrity to the spiritual significance they might have for some visitors? The result has been a creative, and award winning gallery that managed to balance these questions and give space for people to use it for special events such as Buddha Day celebrations.
We haven’t just looked at explicitly religious art or artifacts but have also used more abstract artwork to encourage reflection and response. During one series of the Birmingham Conversations we had two local artists working as ‘artists in residence’ to inspire our conversations and to produce work informed by what they had seen and heard. Jake Lever produced a large abstract work called “Dance” which went on to spend a year touring different places of worship around Birmingham and is now on display in the Birmingham Museum Faith Gallery.
Mandy Ross produced a “Map of Conversationland” which included poetry, drawings and questions which went alongside ‘Dance’ and helped people engage with the topics we had considered. In many of the places where the artworks were displayed, people were not used to this kind of abstract work and often asked what it meant. When told the artists were thinking about the concept of community people began to add their own interpretations and meanings to the pictures.
Both works of art, by being portable and accessible, really did open up new conversations between people from different faiths and cultures. Using art has created new forms of conversation and looking at art and artefacts with people of different faiths has helped us view them in new ways and discover new meanings, connections, and insights that we miss when viewing them by ourselves or only with people from our own faith community.
Header Photo: “Dance” by Jake Lever