Friday, December 18, 2009

‘Sacred Spaces’ at MOBIA, Part I

As mentioned last week, yesterday evening saw the first of the three-part lecture series at the Museum of Biblical Art concerning what it calls Sacred Spaces. Our speaker Thursday was Dr. Ena G. Heller, Executive Director of MOBIA, and curator of the related exhibition of artist Tobi Kahn’s work titled “Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century.”

Heller’s lecture was titled “Function, Symbol, Access: Sacred Spaces Throughout History,” which took us on a visual tour through time and space, from ancient days to medieval times to the Renaissance, and up to today, visiting synagogues, cathedrals, monastic churches, private chapels, and a meditation space designed by Kahn. “I live in a very predictable universe,” she joked, “so if I’m going to lecture on something, it’ll be the Bible.” And she indeed began with that Volume of Sacred Law, even beginning with its beginning.

It is in Genesis where we are introduced to the idea of a place where the Divine is manifest, she explained, screening a photo of one of Bro. Marc Chagall’s paintings of the passage in Chapter 28, when Jacob dreams his vision of the ladder, and upon awakening constructs our first sacred space. Excerpted:

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel....

Fast-forwarding to 13th century Europe, Heller brought us to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a relatively small Gothic structure built quite quickly in Paris during the late 1240s, and to the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, another Gothic-style house of God, completed in 1270. She cited both as early examples of how architecture can define the uses of space for prayer, study, and ritual. Juxtaposing the floor plans of both, she pointed out their similarities. Explaining how that evolved from pagan practices of using temples for the public sacrificial rites conducted by an elite few, Heller acknowledged how Temple-era Judaism had a similar priesthood, but that after the destruction of the last Temple of Jerusalem, the synagogue became the center of the Jewish faith, where it served as a place of assembly. With the faithful gathering to read and study Torah, Judaism became the first communal religion, she added, which brought an element of democracy to religious life. It was Philo of Alexandria who first dubbed the synagogue a sacred space, thanks to the presence of Torah, “the supreme source of holiness.”

Reinforcing her point on how architecture defines the sacred space, Heller explained that synagogues do not follow a uniform architectural plan, but are constructed to highlight the location of the Torah. “There is a general and generous space with benches for the community, and then the Torah shrine.” The Talmud’s metaphoric injunction to build a fence around the Torah would be expressed literally in some cases, such as the Old Synagogue in Krakow, the 16th century Renaissance structure with famous wrought ironwork inside and out. The significance of the Torah location gave rise to the apse, the architectural flourish designed to draw attention to the presence of deity, which Christianity would adopt and adapt for the place of its altar.

Evolution led to the advent of the chancel screen, a “highly charged symbol” that makes for two distinct spaces, “separating the sacred from the profane.” To illustrate this, Heller guided our tour to Florence for examinations of two monastic churches, one Dominican, the other Franciscan, both dating to the 13th century.

Dr. Ena G. Heller, Executive Director of the Museum of Biblical Art, explains some of the functional similarities in the architecture of synagogues and churches during her lecture Thursday night. Behind her is one of the artworks in MOBIA’s “Scripture, Image, Life: Orthodox Christianity” exhibit, which will close January 24.

The Dominican Order’s Santa Maria Novella and the Franciscans’ Basilica of Santa Croce both feature more than chancel screens; they boast very solid, bridge-like barriers that perform the function in monastic churches of ensuring the monks can worship separately from everyone else. (NB: Galileo, Machiavelli, and Michaelangelo are entombed inside Santa Croce.) In fact, this segregation is what differentiates monastic church from cathedral, the latter being intended for everyone’s use.

Ultimately the concept of sacred space divided led to what Heller suggested was an abuse, as families possessing more wealth than virtue came to acquire their own chapels on the altar side of the chancel, changing worship space from being open to everybody to being owned by the few, and sometimes for purposes other than religious. Cosimo Medici, Florence’s supremely powerful “Father of the Homeland,” would employ his family’s chapels as reception rooms for visiting dignitaries, and to host high level business meetings. He even had his likeness painted into a fresco depicting the Three Wise Men.

Turning away from the self-serving, and returning us full circle, Heller concluded her lecture (45 minutes, but too brief!) with a visit to a creation of artist Tobi Kahn, whose work comprises the “Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century” exhibit in the adjoining room. Kahn is celebrated in part for his Meditation Room, installed in 2001 on the fourth floor of the HealthCare Chaplaincy on the other side of Manhattan at East 62nd Street.

Here, Kahn’s love of abstract designs is matched with his gift for material functionality, and what is most notable – to the Magpie Mason at least – is his placement of seating. Visitors here do not sit in unison facing one direction, as in a house of worship, but sit facing one another – as in, for example, a Craft lodge. Remember, we used to have Masonic Temples, as in places for conTEMPLation.

The Magpie Mason was not allowed to photogragh inside Kahn’s exhibition at MOBIA. The photos below are courtesy of the museum. The exhibit will close on January 24.

Titled “Shalom Bat” (2008) these four chairs are painted with Kahn’s signature abstract geometric expressions.

“Ykarh II” (2008) is a matched “Havdalah” candlestick holder and spice box. Both are acrylic on wood. Kahn tells art collectors who purchase his work that they should use his creations for their intended functions.

“Mezuzot” (2008) Also acrylic on wood.
A mezuzah is a Jewish household item, mounted on doorposts. Inside is a small scroll containing the words central to Jewish life: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord Our God is one Lord.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) I suppose in this way, the mezuzah makes every room a sacred space.

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A note from Dr. Heller:

In 2010 the Museum of Biblical Art will celebrate its fifth anniversary with many exciting exhibitions, educational programs, and special events planned. MOBIA offers one-of-a-kind programs that encourage interfaith dialogue and explore the many ways in which art and religion intersect.

To make the next five years and beyond even more successful, MOBIA depends on the support of its benefactors, friends, and members. Your donation will ensure the museum will continue to provide year-round cultural services, such as free summer art making workshops for neighborhood children and seniors, guided docent tours, and the unique concert series “Hearing the Sacred.”

You may send a check or money order made out to Museum of Biblical Art, or call us directly at (212) 408-1586 to learn more. You may also donate online with a credit card here.

Your gift makes a difference. Thank you for your support.

Ena Heller, Ph.D.
Executive Director


51st said...

It sounds as if this were a very interesting and informative lecture. I regret missing it! Your account of it also gave me pause to reflect, not just on the material, but for other unrelated reasons: e.g. I just saw the Medici Chapel of the Magi this Summer; also, I spent too much time on 62nd Street growing up...


AlphaLodgeNo116 said...

Wow, the meditation room looked a great deal like a Minimalist Masonic Lodge Room.