Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Uplifting our mind: Finding inspiration in religious and sacred art

Johann Koerbecke / The Annunciation (1457)

The artistic imagery of religious or sacred art is intended to inspire us and uplift our mind. Whether Christian, Islamic, Catholic, Buddhist or Hellenistic in nature, there is a path of spiritual realization and beauty worth discovering throughout the world's cathedrals, mosques, chapels and art museums.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting the Art Institute of Chicago while on holiday in America's "Second City", and I made a point to look for the museum's religious and sacred art. The Art Institute's permanent collection of religious and sacred art includes a variety of works created by German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian artists. There is also a wing devoted to Indian and Islamic art, which included some religious and sacred artifacts.

Some of the earliest surviving Christian art goes back to near the origins of Christianity. Meanwhile, an example of Islamic sacred art can be seen in the Great Mosque of Kairouan (also called the Mosque of Uqba), located in Tunisia. Built in 670 AD, the upper part of the prayer niche (known as the mihrab) is decorated with 9th century lusterware tiles and painted intertwined vegetal motifs. And, Buddhist art has its origins on the Indian subcontinent and followed the life of Siddhartha Gautama from 6th to 5th century BC.

Among the most common Christian themes found in religious or sacred art is that of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus and also of Christ on the Cross, and the Art Institute's collection includes many examples of both themes.

Fortunately, the Art Institute allows non-flash photography in many of its permanent galleries. Thus, I have the pleasure of sharing with you a sample of some of the religious and sacred art spanning the 15th through 18th centuries, which I saw and photographed during my afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Colyn de Coter /
Virgin and Child Crowned by Angels

Burgos Cathedral /
The Birth of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1525)

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo /
Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic
and Hyacinth (1730/35)

About the paintings:

* In Johann Koerbecke's "The Annunciation" (oil on panel, transferred to canvas), the German painter depicts one of eight scenes from the life of the Virgin decorating the inside of the wings of his masterpiece, the altarpiece on the high altar of the Cistercian abbey of Marienfeld, near Münster in northwest Germany.

* Colyn de Coter's style and subjects, as shown in his "Virgin and Child Crowned by Angels" (oil on panel), reflected the traditions of the great 15th-century Netherlandish painters. In his painting, a comfortable, bourgeois interior underscores Christ's humanity, all the while angels crown the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven.

* In "The Birth of Saint John the Baptist" (polychromed and gilded wood) from the Spanish Burgos Cathedral, the figure of the infant Baptist being passed between his mother, Saint Elizabeth, and a kneeling midwife are depicted in this relief. During this period, painted wood sculpture was popular in Spain, and it is assumed that this relief probably came from a carved altar dedicated to the life of the Baptist.

* "Virgin Child with Saints Dominic and Hyacinth" (oil on canvas) by Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is an altarpiece that, according to the museum, was likely destined for a church in Venice. "Tiepolo transformed the traditional subject of the Virgin and Child with interceding saints into a light-filled vision. Supported on golden clouds, the Virgin and Child appear atop an altar table with a richly embroidered hanging."

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