In This Case: Art’s Role Regarding the Sacred

Unidentified, Santa Barbra18th century

In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases. This piece was written by Luce Center volunteer, Laurna Strikwerda.

If you have ever visited a centuries-old Roman church or an Islamic mosque, you may have glimpsed the role visual arts play in the beliefs, practices and narratives concerning the sacred. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center, three pieces of art provide a snapshot of the different ways art has connected individuals and community to spirituality: a concrete object for protection; a narrative about hope; and a symbolic representation of prayer.

In case 21B, there is a small statue titled Santa Barbara from 18th-century Puerto Rico. Catholics pray to her to ask for protection against lightning storms, hurricanes, and sudden death. This connection derives from an account passed down that her father—who killed her after she refused to renounce her newfound Christianity—was struck by lightning as retribution. This narrative hints at how she became popular in Puerto Rico. The patron saint for lightning expanded to become the patron saint for violent storms and hurricanes as well. The small sacred image, or santo, (Spanish for "saint") had a protective function and was integrated into the daily lives of those who used it. Art conservators' research (PDF) has shown that santos were repainted multiple times, which was part of the devotion rituals associated with these objects.

Centuries later, American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner also used narrative to evoke the sacred. He frequently painted images of Biblical stories that focus on themes such as justice, trust, and hope. The son of a minister and a mother who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Tanner began painting at age eleven. By twenty, he had entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as the only African American among 200 students. Tanner's piece Moses in the Bullrushes depicts one moment in the story of Moses, a member of the Israelites, who was enslaved in Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh feared the Israelites' were becoming too numerous and ordered all Israelite baby boys to be killed. Moses' mother and aunt hid the baby on the Nile River bank to save him. Eventually, he grew up and led the Israelites out of Egypt into freedom. In the painting, the baby Moses is escaping a violent fate, but Tanner's soft colors, still figures, and gentle brushstrokes create a sense of calm, while the moonlight reflected in the water may symbolize God's presence. Tanner's depiction of a moment of trust in an otherwise violent story reminds its viewers not to lose sight of hope.

In addition to the narrative, symbolism can be used to connect spirituality to everyday objects. Richard de Menocal's painting, Calligraphy with Box and Glasses, uses a full glass of water on the right and an empty one on the left, moving the viewer's eye from right to left, with the Arabic phrase, which is also read right to left. The phrase, the Basmala in his painting, means "in the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful." It is frequently used by Muslims at the beginning of a speech or major text. De Menocal may be evoking this idea of offering with the full glass at the beginning of the phrase and an empty one at the end, symbolizing an individual emptying, or offering, himself to God.