Art Institute of Chicago's Religion and Arts Program Pairs Parliament with Docents

On Monday, April 18th, the Parliament was invited to participate in an exciting panel discussion, located where it all began; at the Art Institute of Chicago, site of the original 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions.

Brian Savage, Parliament Director of Advancement and Logistics, served as the moderator of a panel of art experts who took the stage to discuss the dynamic intersections of religion and art.

The panel was organized by the Art Institute’s Diversity Committee to train the museum’s volunteer docents, many of whom said that this most recent event was, by far, the most valuable training they had ever attended.

Chicago has a rich religious and cultural legacy, in no small part thanks to the 1893 Parliament which, for the first time on such a large scale, introduced Eastern religions to the West. It was electrifying to be in the very building where the interfaith movement was born, listening to art experts wax about the deep inherent spirituality present in artistic expression. Gurdwaras, Sikh temples, synagogues, mosques, and a number of other faith and religious places of worship all stand within Chicago’s city limits; to observe the Art Institute’s dedication to understanding the interplay between religion, culture, tradition, and art, was a point of pride for the Chicago Parliament team, and resonated deeply with the mission of the Parliament and the importance of interfaith understanding.    

The bulk of the program saw the four panelists giving presentations on selected works of art with particular religious significance. Some of these were created specifically for worship and devotion, others for religious education or indoctrination, and still others for  theological, political, and sociological commentary.

Sarita Heer, Instructor of Fine Arts at Loyola University, chose a bronze sculpture from 10th-11th century India depicting the Hindu deity, Shiva, entitled Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja). An iconic image in Indian art, Shiva’s cosmic dance sets in motion the rhythm of life and death. Heer presented an analysis of the hand gestures, the manner in which Shiva stood, the clothing he wore and other seemingly small details, each holding immense significance within the faith tradition.

Rebecca Long, Curator of Italian and Spanish Art at the Art Institute, presented on a number of Spanish paintings. An altarpiece depicting the Assumption of Mary by El Greco (1577-79), was originally commissioned by a Spanish convent and played a key role in the daily worship of the nuns there. Her other pieces were similar in content but couldn’t have been more different in function; a series of paintings created to force Christianity upon the colonized peoples of the South American continent. Long detailed the ways in which these Christian images served evangelizing religious orders as “educational” tools. Her words were an effective reminder that art does not always occupy a noble place in history.

Elinor Pearlstein, Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Art Institute, presented on a very recent acquisition of a five piece porcelain altar set from Qing Dynasty China (late 18th century).  She summarized with an interesting insight regarding the relative fluidity between Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism in China during this time period, and how the stratification and clarity of these as unique traditions has increased with time. As the Parliament seeks to interact with the world around us, it behooves us to remember that religion - even as it relies on a historical foundation - changes as the world changes. This fluidity needs to be reflected in the work that we do.

The final piece, Marc Chagall’s recent White Crucifixion (1938), was the focus of Amanda Friedeman of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. White Crucifixion is a galvanising piece featuring the image of Christ as a Jewish martyr and dramatically calling attention to the persecution and suffering of European Jews in the 1930s. Friedeman juxtaposed the violence in the Chagall with a photograph of Germans watching the burning of a German synagogue.

The images of violence in the Chagall, as well as the photograph of “bystanders,” served as an excellent transition to a spirited panel discussion and audience Q&A centered on religious diversity and tolerance. Here are a few of the questions asked by the docents that have particular relevance to those in the interfaith community:

Q: When we discuss religious art, how can we be aware of particularly sensitive words and statements such as “colonial” or “this religion believes” and how can we choose less alienating and loaded language?

A: Sometimes descriptor words like “colonial,”  and other such words, can be very important in contextualizing certain artwork. We should try to describe the piece as objectively as possible, and to avoid adding value statements to the descriptors of the art. Give the audience the tools to understand the context and then let the work speak for itself.  

Q: When we are explaining a work of art tied to mythology or traditional stories, how do we answer questions like, “Did this really happen?”, “Is that a real god?”, etc.?

A: A good strategy is to explain that people of faith hold different beliefs about the stories portrayed in art. It is also important to note that another person’s belief is no less real, simply because it is different than yours or mine.  

The morning rekindled a long bond between the Parliament and the Art Institute, and it is likely that future collaborations will arise from this encounter!. It marked an great opportunity for the Parliament to join in a very timely and relevant discussion on the power of art to speak to one of our core areas of focus - replacing interreligious hostility with bonds of peace.

Parliament's Constituency Development Coordinator Miriam Quezada and Brian Savage, Director of Advancement and Logistics, contributed to this article. 

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