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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Every Sacred Place

DECEMBER 21, 2018 — JANUARY 20, 2019

Curious Matter holiday Installation

WE THOUGHT it was a trick question. As children, when our Sunday school teacher asked us, “What is the church?” We answered that it is the building where we go to attend mass, to pray, take communion and celebrate various feasts and rites. She said, no, that isn’t what the church is. Each of us in turn tried to answer, but always with some variation of the idea that the church was a building. After we became increasingly confounded she finally explained that the church was the people. The church was a group of people who gathered to share and celebrate their belief. Early Christians would gather in each other’s homes and the notion of the church was the congregation itself, not the building.

The news of the day has been inserting itself into our gallery inquiries lately. Our last holiday installation was entitled Every Personal Savior. We gathered every image of Jesus Christ in our collection and presented them in the gallery as a departure point to enquire, in response to the political concerns of the moment, “[w]hat is it that each of us seek or call upon in our darkest moments, when we’re challenged by circumstance, or in our hopes and dreams? When world events make existence seem like a futile exercise, with what do we confront reality? For us, our personal connection to the Roman Catholic faith taught to us in childhood is distinct from our own idiosyncratic beliefs today. However, the catechism we learned as children remains the basis of how we are in the world. It’s the enduring cultural significance of the spiritual stories and images that remain. We return to them as we continue to ask ourselves: what are the symbolic resources each of us call upon to face the world we live in? What systems do we use to formulate our concept of reality? More specifically, as it relates to the challenge of these long, dark, melancholy nights of winter: how do we maintain a connection with our kith and kin, and how can we use those resources to extend welcome and understanding to everyone regardless of religious, filial or patriotic loyalties?”

Popsicle Church, anonymous, 11 X 7.5 X 11.5 inches, circa 1970.

This year we present Every Sacred Place as a companion to Every Personal Savior. Once again, news of the day led us to present this exhibition. The exhibition is comprised of every image of a church or cathedral in our collection. We are contemplating places of devotion—sacred places. It is impossible for us to think about the attack, this past October, on the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburg without a welling of emotion. That horrendous act was an abomination. It brings tears to our eyes. While our collection represents our Roman Catholic roots, our holiday installations are meant to identify the universal, higher ideals imbedded across religious traditions, without excluding the pagan, the agnostic, the atheistic. With Every Sacred Place, we share images of sacred places from our tradition and seek to honor all sacred places, whether synagogue, mosque, temple, church or the secular spaces that foster gathering together to celebrate our shared humanity.

180th Anniversary, Indian Castle Church, 6-19-49, photograph, 9 X 7 inches, inscribed A.W.L.

During the holidays, our collection of household devotions has been called upon and presented in various groupings over the years to meditate on coming together through the winter chill. For this exhibition, we present prints, etchings, photos, souvenirs and reproductions—from a rare print by Andrew F. Affleck (1874-1935) of Toledo Cathedral in Spain, to an anonymous folk art church constructed of popsicle sticks, to prayer cards and the worn pages of art history books. Whether the local churches we remember from childhood, or the grand cathedrals we’ve visited as part of our studies of art history, we have visited these buildings with a range of intentions and emotions throughout our lives. But, what we could count on was a feeling of sanctuary and peace. From earliest times, the temple and the church have served as the ultimate safe space. They were conceived as a respite from the troubles of life, to withdraw to and commune with the spirit and seek answers. In different times, this has had different meanings. There were times when a fugitive could find protection from the law by entering the church because the sacredness of the house of God could not be defiled—because the word of God has declared that He is our refuge. Places of worship have long been honored as areas off limits even in times of political strife. While that perception has endured, it really isn’t true. There are too many examples throughout history and around the globe to refute the notion that there is any place free from threat.

Installation detail

Among the most infamous acts of terrorism upon a place of worship was perpetrated at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963. It is a date seared into our history. Four little girls dead as a result of that bomb attack. That incident was not isolated. Attacks against African American churches had been so numerous that in 1996 a National Church Arson Task Force was established. In their article in The Washington Post, “Why racists target black churches”, Sarah Kaplan and Justin Moyer answer the question, “The reason black churches remain a target? Because they have always remained a symbol of hope in the darkness of American racism and a source of leadership, political and religious, in the African American community.”1

“Hope in the darkness” is what we seek to manifest with Every Sacred Place. Considering our local and global history, it seems our places of sanctuary have always been under siege. Our gallery isn’t a church, but it represents a place to gather and share. We understand that most galleries and museums tend to leave behind the spiritual aspects of art—even when the subject matter is specifically religious—in favor of biography, timeline and aesthetics. We do not. We keep that aspect open and in plain view. This year our exhibition is our gesture of solidarity, mourning, and insistence on the irreplaceable value of what our Sunday school teacher called the church, the gathering together of people to commune and celebrate the highest ideals with which we seek to live.

All are welcome at Curious Matter. We hope you’ll visit us, especially during the holiday, so that we may nurture the light of our community and our common ground. •

With every warmest wish,

Raymond E. Mingst & Arthur Bruso

co-founders, Curious Matter


Messages in the Leaves Echo in the Cathedral

The oak grove at Dodona in Greece was the sanctuary of Zeus because oaks are large, majestic, and attractors of lightning. Lightning is a particular attribute of Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology. To the ancient Greek animistic Bronze Age society, sacred groves usually had some symbolic connection to a particular god or goddess. The rustling of the leaves in the wind was interpreted by early priests and priestesses as messages from the gods. This added to the magic and mystery of these sacred places.

When civilization evolved building techniques, more permanent structures for the display of votive offerings and cult images were constructed that imitated the shape of the sacred grove. These structures not only marked the landscape as being holy, they also concentrated the worship of the deity into more ritualistic behaviors. At first made of wood columns imitating the tree form with mud brick foundations, the temple was eventually constructed of stone. Using the sacred grove as a model, the vertical rows of columns represented the trees supporting a roof that protected the statuary and offerings. Passing through the columns gave the visitor the sense of walking through the wood. This had the effect of lifting the eyesight up to the sky. At the apex, a triangular pediment pointed heavenward, and would be illustrated with a depiction of a scene from the mythology of the god.

The form of the colonnade as forest was also the basis of the Medieval cathedral. With the use of interior columns to support the roof and arches that curved overhead like the boughs of trees, the feeling of walking through a forest was retained. The idea of nature and the imitation of nature as sacred space is as old as religion, since the gods created all things and the spirit permeates all things. But the need for a special sanctuary to be set aside for worship and sacrifice, to be an earthly dwelling place for the deity and to be in their presence, is as old as humanity and our sense that certain places had a numinous quality where worship and communication was possible.

© 2018 Curious Matter

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