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Art, with a side of faith

Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

Man has always sought to connect with the divine, and faith has profoundly shaped Western culture. In turn, spirituality has greatly influenced the history of art. Throughout the ages, art remains a vehicle for man to explore and express faith.

Groups will find that specialized museums filled with faith-based works help fulfill the greater purpose of understanding God in relationship to humanity. At these museums, visitors are reminded of life’s meaning and can interpret art through a spiritual lens.

Museum of Contemporary Religious Art
St. Louis
Unique in its location, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Arts on Saint Louis University campus is housed in a 1950s chapel. The chapel served as the place of worship for studying Jesuit priests who lived in the adjacent dormitory. The central nave gallery with its 28-foot ceiling displays larger works and exhibitions. Of the 12 side chapel galleries, 10 still have original altars, and the choir loft displays several sculptural works.

“Visitors find it an unusual space for art but very appropriate for the kind of art we show,” said David Brinker, assistant director. “There’s a quality about the space, an atmosphere of calm and quiet. People have a sense of exploration as they work their way through the side chapels with some unexpected views. One piece of art leads to another.”

Spearheaded by faculty member Father Dempsey, the museum showcases contemporary interfaith art from all major faith traditions of the world. Alongside the permanent collection are group and solo exhibitions that change three times annually.

Exhibitions encompass the same range of media styles found in contemporary art museums, from paintings to sculpture to video and computer art. The common thread remains the contemplation of the important questions of spirituality and life.

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage
Tracing the journey of Jewish families from the Old World to their new life in America, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage gives groups an insider’s perspective of immigrant life. Exhibits recount Jewish immigrant history through the Great Depression, WWII and after, when the state of Israel was birthed. Exhibits recognize modern-day Jewish contributions, too.

Groups visiting the museum learn about Jewish customs and prayers through Sabbath dinners. Tours can focus on one exhibit, such as the Holocaust Room or the Survivor Room. Docents, some Holocaust survivors themselves, share their personal experiences.

“Our mission is all about diversity and tolerance,” said Judi Feniger, executive director. “Like many, the Jewish people have faced misunderstanding and hate. We teach that we must reach out and understand each other. It’s the thread that runs through everything we do.”

Always a highlight, the Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery contains ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls, textiles and fine art from all over the world showing Jewish life. Some objects are periodically removed from the museum and used for present-day Jewish feasts and celebrations.

Museum of Biblical Art
New York
In 2010, the Museum of Biblical Art became the steward for the American Bible Society’s Rare Bible Collection. The society began collecting Bibles in 1817, one year after its founding. Today, the collection contains scriptures printed in more than 2,000 languages spanning six centuries, including 15 manuscripts and 42 early printed books called incunables.

“The beauty of the books themselves, the original bindings and lovely illustrations in some of the editions are all noteworthy,” said Debbie Bujosa, manager, communications and marketing. “The collection has amazing breadth. We even have the emperor of Japan’s Bible, and our current exhibition of family Bibles keeps a record of the mementos that people placed in their Bibles, such as a lock of hair or a pressed flower.”

Ongoing exhibitions in the main gallery are complimented by shows from the Rare Bible Collection. Upcoming exhibits include “Finding Comfort in Difficult Times: A Selection of Soldiers’ Bibles,” Feb. 3-May 20, featuring Bibles from the Civil War up through the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and “Ashe to Amen: African-Americans and Biblical Imagery,” Feb. 15-May 26, 2013.

The schedule of rotating exhibitions spans national and international traveling shows throughout 2012 and beyond, among them “Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed” and “Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion.”

Museum of Religious Arts
Logan, Iowa
Showcasing the spiritual works of today’s artists and preserving religious culture of the past remains the Museum of Religious Arts’ mission. Groups will find a variety of art forms in the 20,000-square-foot museum.

“We continually hear the word ‘awesome’ as visitors walk from room to room,” said Rhonda McHugh, assistant director. “Visitors recall many memories from their childhood when they see the numerous pictures, rosaries and art.”

A large portion of the museum focuses on child prodigy artist Akiane Kramarik, who is introduced by a short video. Kramarik painted the stunning portrait “The Prince of Peace” at 8 years old, and the galleries feature reproductions of 30 of her realistic paintings.

Holocaust victim George Zielezinski created numerous charcoal drawings in the German concentration camp Dachau. Forty-four of the drawings were discovered in their original container in a box bought at an Iowa estate auction; they were later donated to the museum.
The “King of Kings” exhibit portrays nine biblical scenes, from the Annunciation through Jesus’ Ascension The life-size wax figures, sculpted by Leone Chaney, were originally displayed in Florida, but were moved and restored at the museum.

Outside, “Crosses on the Hill” depicts the Crucifixion. Constructed of stainless steel, the largest of the three crosses measures 33 feet high, representing each year Christ walked the earth. Visitors climb the hill by way of a sidewalk, view the crosses up close and enjoy the Loess Hills and valley below. Lit at night, it’s a dramatic sight, appearing to float on the horizon.

Museum of Biblical Art
Devastated in a 2005 fire that destroyed the museum and its 2,500 works, the Museum of Biblical Art has been rebuilt, bigger and better. Eleven galleries showcase European, American and Israeli works in sculpture, paintings, drawings and fine prints. Visitors can explore biblical themes as they relate to the humanities and Western culture.

Featured artists include John Singer Sargent, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz and Ben Shahn, among many others. Measuring 40 feet wide by 12 feet high and commissioned for the museum, Ron DiCianni’s largest masterpiece, The Resurrection Mural, depicts Christ’s Resurrection.

The collection in the Jewish Ceremonial Art gallery includes Torah covers, Seder plates, Hanukkah lamps and menorahs. The Biblical Archaeology gallery’s more than 50 watercolor and lithograph images depict Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land.

Still under construction is an exterior sculpture garden walk that will feature 14 life-size bronzes by Gib Singleton. The sculptor is the only artist ever to be represented simultaneously in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Cowboy Hall of Fame, Vatican Museum and the state of Israel, a bequest of the late Prime Minister Golda Meir. The museum’s Sculpture Atrium currently features several of his works. The completed outdoor section will also include the Bible Meditation Garden planted with trees and herbs from Israel.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.