On October 2, 2022, members of the Society for the Study of Religion visited the National Gallery of Art to think about the intersections of religion and art.
Read some of their reflections below:
I attended the National Gallery of Art field trip on Sunday October 2nd with the Society for the Study of Religion. We decided to visit the gallery due to the enduring legacy of hagiography, religious narratives, and the reification and reinterpretation of religion throughout history. As a group, we toured most of the museum, and viewed artworks from the 11th century to the present day. Among the art we saw, the most easily accessible nexuses between art and religion can be found in the Christian and Hellenic mythological corpuses, with some limited Islamic influences. There was nothing that I saw from the vein of indigenous, Vedic or Sinitic traditions. Most of the artwork came from western traditions, and we viewed the permanent medieval, renaissance and American realist painting collections, the American furniture collection and the impressionist sculpture gallery, as well as a traveling collection from John Singer Sargent of works he completed in Spain. The latter possessed the greatest diversity of media as well as religious influences with many works drawing on the Andalusian region’s dual Christian and Muslim influence. American pieces were quick to reinterpret a pre-existing Christian corpus in light of contemporary philosophical and theological undercurrents. For instance, a series of four paintings saw a guardian angel guiding a person at four different stages of his life. At first, the baby played and was lavished with love and safety by his guardian angel. However, he became a restless youth, and grew into a man who felt far from God and safety. He prayed to the Lord in desperation and was granted refuge and safe passage to the endless ocean. This parable is not found in Christian literature, but depicts the nexus of religion and contemporary thinking. The allegories of a boat journey leading to an ocean are likely new reinterpretations as well. I also saw many faithful depictions of figures from Greek mythology, although artists often used the architectural, and clothing styles of their own time to reinterpret the ancient narratives. A bronze statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin similar to Plato’s veneration of philosophers in his seminal work, the Republic. The thinker is naked, just as Plato suggested we would go to the underworld, stripped of all worldly finery, in order to be judged on our talents, the highest of which was, of course, philosophy. Another statue, titled "Gloria Victis" prompted discussion among the group. Dr. Gunderson thought that the winged woman might be Nike, the greek Goddess of victory. Mark saw the hand of Nordic mythology, comparing the woman with a valkyrie. But the male figure was probably the most intriguing one; he was limp, carried by the winged lady and holding the broken hilt of a sword in his hand. He is most reminiscent of 19th century romanticism than any Greek or Nordic conception of a hero. Finally, I recalled that there was a Salvador Dali painting depicting Jesus displayed somewhere in the gallery and inquired about its location in the gift shop, only to find out that it was straight ahead in the hallway. It is titled "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" and depicts Jesus at a table with hooded figures praying. He flashes an obscure gesture vaguely pointed at himself as well as at a torso with outstretched arms in the sky. His body is almost transparent, revealing boats moored behind him. The whole room is set in a space-age style of architecture that Mark compared to Star Trek. This painting, for me, represented the most striking image of religious ideas reified and made new again through art.
– Conner Cuevo
During our trip to the National Gallery of Art I was enthralled with the concept of movement and the ways artists attempted to capture movement in a permanent and (now) unchanging form. While some artists focused on showing movement through a series of paintings, the statues that looked to particularly encapsulate bodily movement in a specific moment interested me the most. Through the passionate sketches of John Singer Sargent and his attempt to perfectly encapsulate a dancer, one can gauge the sacrality of the experience for both the artist and the dancer herself. It is clear through his work that she moves freely and openly, but at the same time knows exactly what her next move will always be. He captured her passion for that specific kind of dance and for her culture while also highlighting his appreciation for said culture.
My favorite piece, though, was within a set of four figures by Edgar Degas entitled, “Woman Washing Her Left Leg”. This sculpture stuck out to me as the most seemingly “boring” thing in the museum, and that is precisely why I liked it. The four figures were each preforming some sort of mundane task, besides his most famous one “The Little Dancer.” I liked these specific sculptures because the entire museum is filled with extraordinary works of art all extremely expressive or religious in some way, but I feel most people would disregard these little statues. The seemingly boring parts of life are what equate everyone as humans, and they make everyday life a little more fun; what else would we do without the boring tasks or dancing? I enjoyed seeing someone represent the value of the little things in life regardless of how seemingly small washing one’s left leg may seem.
– Meg Merillat
During our trip to the museum, I had a lot of complex thoughts about the art I saw. I thoroughly enjoyed the John Singer Sargent exhibit. I loved how expressively he related his admiration of Spanish culture (especially The Spanish Dance) and his sketches reminded me much of my own. However, the part of the exhibit that centered on his exploration of religious themes seen in Spain during his time was absolutely captivating. His oil painting, “Astarte”, really spoke to me because: 1) it was absolutely beautiful and 2) his inclusion of a Canaanite goddess and other pagan deities just proved how much beauty can be found in religions outside of standard Christianity.
– Michelle Hodges
October 08, 2022