© Barbara F. Meyers , 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 16, 2011

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Some of the earliest known works of art had religious significance. This object, the Venus of Willendorf discovered in Austria is estimated to be about 24,000 years old. Although it is impossible to say for certain its meaning, is thought by many to be a fertility symbol, or a mother Goddess figure. I can imagine a woman holding this in her hand and praying for a child. It also says something about the image of beauty and what beauty was so many thousands of years ago.

As it did so long ago, art continues to have religious meaning in our times.

I want you to picture the scene - St. Gregory's Of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. I am visiting it with a group of students taking a Religious Art course that I'm taking at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Behind the altar there is a floor-to-ceiling painting with a dark-skinned young woman and a lighter-skinned young man holding hands; an older woman stands behind them; and a man's face painted in icon form is below them. The first three figures are standing on a rooftop and the icon man is standing in front of the building. The style is that of a very colorful modern mural except for the icon. This is an unusual and strange image for the altar backdrop of an Episcopal Church. For a moment, I think I have it wrong, and it wasn't an Episcopal Church - maybe Coptic or something. Or maybe they were timesharing with an Eastern Orthodox Church, or something...

Then, the priest starts to tell us about the symbolism in the painting:

The next week in class, our instructor Rev. Dr. Joan Carter tells us that many of us view religious art as "tourists" who just say something like "that is beautiful" or "Hmmm...". The real blessing is when you become "spiritual pilgrims" who sit down and contemplate a work of art, notice the many multiple layers of symbolism, see the shapes and see the spaces, see things that the artist didn't even intend, let it unite you with the holy, and reflect on its meaning to you and others. This can help you derive the most meaning for your life. Those tears, I think, meant that I was moving from just seeing it as an engaging mural to seeing something with significant spiritual meaning - from being a tourist to a spiritual pilgrim. It made all the difference. This is someplace that I want to return to and to sit and contemplate. It will always have special meaning to me.

The Use of Symbol in Religious Art

I'll be showing you some works of art and I invite you to engage with them, and learn to embark on the journey of being a spiritual pilgrim in exploring what meaning they have for you - how they connect you to the holy.

Symbolism is very important in religious art, so let's talk about what a symbol is. A definition from the theologian Paul Tillich is: "A symbol points to an absent reality." For example, the cross points to Jesus' crucifixion, his resurrection and is sometimes used to mean the Christianity in general. But it can mean a lot of different things as well. A symbol participates in the absent reality. It comes to life. It lives and grows. Other examples are the flag of a country, the chalice, and the swastika. Most religions have adopted a symbol to represent their faith. A symbol won't mean the same thing to everybody - there are many layers of meaning. For some people a particular symbol can be positive, and for others, negative.

Where does the meaning of the symbol come from? From the artist, the media, or the viewer? If you answered "all three", I think you are right. Using my visit to St. Gregory's as an example, before I was aware of the intent of the artist, I thought the painting was merely a pretty and unconventional mural. But, after it was explained, I realized what it was saying about the church and what its intended mission is. This was very moving to me. And, I also interpreted the painting to me as a Unitarian Universalist rather than purely Christian, with perhaps a different meaning than the artist originally conceived of.

Some church hierarchies are afraid of art - This is because they can't control people's emotional responses. Art speaks directly to the people, bypassing official interpretation. This is a frightening prospect for some religious leaders. This is the reason, I think, for much church art that is formulaic, over-sentimentalized, and ordinary - art that doesn't challenge the people to think and feel for themselves. Other synagogues and churches believe that any art violates the commandment given by God in the Torah in Exodus 20: 3-5.

3 "You shall have no other gods before me.

4 "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."

However, later passages in the same book detail plans for an elaborate tent as a center for God's worship, specifying architects, crafts of every kind, and an elaborate cover for the Torah. To me, it seems that the prohibition was in worshiping some artistic creation - a golden calf for example - rather than God.

What are the inspirations for religious art? These can be many things:

What can we say about the process of creation of a piece of religious art? Many great artists didn't have complete control of their work - they were the vehicle rather than the master. The process has both conscious and unconscious components.

How can religious art be used? It can tell the story, both factually and in metaphor. It can be used as a dialog between the beholder and the artist. It can be used by the religious leader to illustrate the message he or she is saying by more than just words. It is another means of giving meaning to the lives of the congregants.

The main message of the religious art class was that religious artists should be about the symbolic act of their art, not just creating something "pretty". It needs to be more potent to move people to have a meaningful experience rather than just show up at church each Sunday. I strongly agree with this - the symbol is the way through to transcendence. Art connects us to the holy, the mystery. The art that allows one to participate in worship rather than just show up and be a receiver - this is the kind of art that needs to be made and shown.

Let people share their pieces of art

Around the sanctuary you see works of art by our own members. I'd like to draw your attention to them and understand what they mean to the artist who created them...


I will close with some words from an essay in the book Art, Creativity and the Sacred. The essay is entitled: "Can Art Fill the Vacuum" by Langdon B. Gilkey.

"This is the first and utterly essential role of art and the artistic: to recreate ordinary experience into value, into enhanced experience; to provide the ends - the deep, immediate, present enjoyments - for which all instruments exist and from which alone they receive their point. When an event that we label art thus stops the heedless flow of time in an enhanced moment, a moment of new awareness or understanding, a moment of intense seeing and of participation in what is seen, then (as the Zen tradition has taught us) the transcendent appears through art, and art and religion approach one another."

So it is.
So may it always be.


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