Last month I attended the biennial conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Celebrating forty years, CIVA is a membership organization made up primarily of studio artists but also other arts professionals—curators, gallerists, administrators, educators, critics, art historians—as well as collectors, theologians, and church leaders. As a writer about the arts working independently out of my home in Maryland, sometimes I feel disconnected from artists themselves, so five years ago I joined CIVA to plug into and invest in this community of believer artists. The large conference that CIVA organizes every other year, each time in a different US city, is an opportunity to meet and talk with artists, to see what they’re working on, and to worship and pray with them. It’s also a weekend chock-full of amazing talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, exhibitions, and other activities.
In a series of blog posts, I’d like to share some of the art I encountered at the CIVA conference. All photos in this post are by me, Victoria Emily Jones.
I arrived a day early to participate in a CIVA-sponsored Sacred Spaces tour of the Twin Cities with Kenneth Steinbach, a sculptor and a professor of art at Bethel. The first stop was Bigelow Chapel, designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson at the commission of United Theological Seminary in 2004. As Ken warned us in advance, the chapel was recently sold by the seminary to a charter school, who will not be using it as a worship space and will be removing its one overt Christian symbol (the inset cross) as well as renaming it. Because of the changeover, the chapel was in a bit of disarray when we visited, being used for the time being as an ad hoc storage space, but I was grateful for the chance to see this acclaimed work of contemporary religious architecture before it fully succumbs to its fate as a secular meeting room.
I first learned about Bigelow Chapel through the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (reviewed here, with annotated chapter list). Ken read us the vision statement of this ecumenical Protestant institution—“a generous and welcome seminary where all—trailblazers and traditionalists, questioners and yearning spirits—explore the boundless possibilities of a loving and beloved community”—and we discussed how the design reflects that vision. Symmetry and linearity, for example, can be associated with authority, rigidity, so this chapel is notable for its asymmetry, an uncommon feature in church design, as well as an open floor plan that accommodates different traditions and styles of worship. It’s also curvy, feminine, womblike; a series of translucent maple wood panels sweeps up the wall and over the ceiling, casting the sun’s warm glow inside the space. Some people on the tour expressed a sense of being enveloped in God’s love.
Another mentioned how the cross is far too subtle, almost unnoticeable, and seems to recede; it’s certainly not a focal point as it typically is in other Christian worship spaces. Ken pointed out that the cross was intentionally positioned next to a clear window that looks out into a central garden, suggesting the idea of deep incarnation; nature is itself part of the space, and Christ’s redemption is for all of creation. One person noted how the large green shrub outside, when illuminated by the sun, is reminiscent of the burning bush of Exodus and therefore calls us into an awareness of how God might be speaking to us.
Ken also told us that student worshippers used to stick written prayers between the chapel’s wall-stones, much like at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Several such pieces of paper were still there, wedged in the cavities of the masonry.
It was sad to me to see this building losing its original function as a Christian worship space. The impetus for the sale was the seminary’s relocation from New Brighton, a suburb, into the city of St. Paul, where it believes it can be of better service to the surrounding community. View more photos of Bigelow Chapel at https://www.kirkegaard.com/827.
Next our tour group visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we spent time inside a James Turrell Skyspace titled Sky Pesher, 2005, a subterranean concrete chamber with a square aperture in the ceiling that frames the sky. (The word pesher is Hebrew for “interpretation.”) Turrell calls himself a sculptor of light; light, he says, is his medium. His work is influenced by his Quaker faith, especially the doctrine of the Inner Light. Quaker worship gatherings consist primarily of silence, a time of corporately waiting on the Light, which is God, who dwells within us as wisdom and guide. I did find the environment Turrell built especially conducive to stillness and listening. Quakers say that silence is not a void, it’s full, and I found that to be true as I opened myself to encountering God in that space.
I actually really cherished sitting there in silence with the group, ridding myself of distractions as together we simply turned our gaze to the wonderful gradients of blue stretched out above us. Out of interest in and respect for the artist’s Quaker spirituality, I took the opportunity to commune with God in “wordless thought”; instead of me talking to God or about God, I let God talk to me.
I expressed my particular enjoyment of the experience afterward to a colleague, who was surprised that, because of my fascination with biblical imagery and its possibilities in worship and devotion, I should be so moved by a sacred space that lacks any imagery at all, other than open, undefined sky. It surprised me somewhat too!
“I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame,” Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami once said. (For this kind of perspective, I think, too, of Kris Martin’s Altar.) By focusing our attention on just one little section of sky, Turrell’s frame prompts us to notice the beauty of that vast expanse that surrounds us every day, and even its communicative power. Heaven and earth seemed so connected in that open, underground vault. In my noticing, I conflated the sky with the Divine Presence—universal, immense, and wondrous. And, Sky Pesher being a communal space, I found myself noticing the Divine Presence in others. As light poured in from above, illuminating faces, I could not avoid reading that as part of the work.
For a quick side romp from our main destination, Ken pointed us to another space in the garden that could be construed as sacred: Theater Gates’s Black Vessel for a Saint (2017), a twenty-foot black-brick tempietto that houses a salvaged statue of Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of librarians and archivists.
After the sculpture garden, we went to the Basilica of Saint Mary, an early twentieth-century church in the beaux-arts style (think Grand Central Station).
Mark Wyss, the assistant to the director of liturgy and sacred arts, showed us around. I was particularly drawn to a few of the racially/culturally specific depictions of Jesus that I saw—like the processional cross that’s sometimes used, showing an African Christ.
Or the Vietnamese Madonna and Child (“Our Lady of La’Vang”), procured by former rector Michael O’Connell in 1981 during a visit to Vietnam. It’s the centerpiece of a side chapel whose mosaic apse features a pelican in her piety, a medieval symbol of the self-sacrificial Christ.
I was pleased to find out that the basilica has an art gallery (when I was there, they were preparing for a documentary photography exhibition, “When Home Won’t Let You Stay”) as well as a growing art collection whose objects span several centuries, some of which are distributed in glass cases in rooms and hallways. Unfortunately, the pieces aren’t labeled, and Kathy Dhaemers, associate director of sacred arts, said that for a lot of them, even the modern works, the artist and provenance are not known, as many of these were donated by individuals who did not keep track of such things.
Upstairs there is a gallery of contemporary icons and a Lucite crucifix by Frederick Hart, whom I know for having sculpted the Creation tympanum of Washington National Cathedral. Look closely at this glasslike cross, and you will see the figure of Christ inside—it’s a sculpture that really must be experienced in the round. “Although artists have been casting bronze and other metals since antiquity, no legacy of casting clear acrylic existed when Hart first determined to master the new medium,” his website reads. “Over the course of years of experimentation and perseverance, Hart became the first artist to cast figurative work in clear acrylic resin. He also patented a process of embedment, the casting of one acrylic work within another.”
Outside the church is a bronze cast of Timothy Schmalz’s infamous Homeless Jesus, which I wrote about in 2013 when the first cast was acquired by Regis College in Toronto, and again when reactions started pouring in.
Inspired by Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, the sculpture shows a blanketed man huddled on a bench, trying to keep warm. His face is covered, so his only identifying marks are the two puncture wounds in his feet. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,” Judge Jesus tells those whom he sends into eternal punishment. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (vv. 42–43). A sobering warning.
I have seen casts of this sculpture in Washington, DC, and in Madrid, but this is the first time I’ve seen a “love offering,” as Wyss described it, left at Christ’s feet: a bag of fresh rolls. Wyss said that people frequently leave food there for the city’s street population—and by late afternoon, a hungry person will have picked it up. This is such a beautiful example of how art can inspire empathy and social action.
The last stop on the Sacred Spaces tour was St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, where one of the church’s members (a convert from evangelical Protestantism and a member of CIVA) explained to us what an Orthodox worship service looks like, and especially the significance of icons. It was interesting to compare the space to the Catholic basilica we had just been in, with its long-aisled hall with an apse at one end, a Western form. This Orthodox church, by contrast, has a more compact, centralized design, predominant in the East.
Behind the iconostasis (icon screen) is the altar (sanctuary), which is concealed from worshippers and treated with utmost reverence, similar to the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament. Only those who receive a specific blessing from a bishop or a priest may enter into this holy place, so understandably, we were not allowed behind the screen. The central door in the iconostasis is called the “Beautiful Gate,” or Royal Doors, and is used by clergy, while the other two are used by deacons and servers.
As is standard in Orthodox church architecture, there is a central dome that symbolizes heaven.
Here’s an icon I rather like, referred to as the “Inexhaustible Chalice” Mother of God—a relatively recent type. It shows baby Christ in a Communion cup, with Mary behind in an orans posture.
More art from the 2019 CIVA conference and related activities is forthcoming in part two.