UWM's "Fragments of Faith" Challenges the Sacred

Defining Sacred Objects and Spaces

May. 15, 2013
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A specific place, often a treasured object and a contrite, willing spiritDo these elements constitute a sacred place? The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Art History Department examines these questions in their current exhibition at the Mitchell Hall (Room 154) Art History Gallery titled “Fragments of Faith.”

All around the world, citizens of different countries, far and near, name their natural and man made sacred spaces. In India, the entire Ganges River is considered sacred, a place for blessing and ritual. Other ethnicities name Cathedrals, Mosques, Temples or tombs as places to meditate and worship, with the building's interiors incorporating all the adornments and objects amassed within them to begin a spiritual journey.

Still other individuals carry a sacred element or object with them, a small cross loosely worn around the neck, a beaded rosary in their pocket or a small statue, perhaps a named saint, in a handbag or briefcase to remind them there perhaps is a world beyond the very harsh one they walk through day to day. Each of these objects, from the minute to the monumental, represents a ‘fragment of faith,’ one tiny piece taken from a larger whole that possibly comprises a sacred place when contemplated or used. 

In the UWM exhibit, a primitively carved, miniature Marble Sarcophagus might have once held a bone or other fragment of a holy person or a stone from a sacred site. This art form embodies a version of what can be known as a reliquary, which was an ornamental housing, often costly and revered, for the bones or artifacts of saints, or related objects with spiritual significance.

This object leads to the study of the St. Francis de Paula Traveling Reliquary accompanied by a tooled leather case for this interesting shaped, more embellished artifact to be placed in, covered for protection. For the reliquary, a sun like shape sits on a pedestal, with the middle of the supposed "sun" housing the treasured object, while the entire form represents the sunburst, a symbol reflecting the divinity of God. Traveling reliquaries could be the perfect reminder of devotion to create a space of worship where ever a person might be, or travel to, especially on long crusades or journeys typical in earlier centuries. 

Also included in the exhibition were several carved figures, statues, that traveled from Africa and represent ancient ceremonies and traditions: an abyeri, nkisi and ero ibyi figures. Their fascinating histories were discussed in the black and white catalogue available free at the exhibition, or by reading the text alongside the objects on view. 

Perhaps most familiar to American culture would be the processional crosses carried by priests during a church service or the German silver chalice from 1700-1715. The chalice, which held wine for the communion or the Eucharist service commemorating the Lord's Last Supper, was made famous during a scene where Harrison Ford as the iconic Indiana Jones must choose the very first chalice used by Christ in a brief moment to save his father's life. Usually chalices are jeweled and ornate, to honor the Divinity and Holiness of the Christ. However, the first chalice chosen and used by a then disreputable band of 13 or 14 disheveled men, the disciples, while intensely sacred, could have merely been a humble wooden cup, suitable to the men’s economic status and class instead of the elaborate ones decorating European Cathedrals. 

This one example indicates sacred objects may be precious and treasured, valuable as an object alone, or very plain and simple inhabiting a sparse dignity touted by Zen philosophies. For 21st century Americans, do these icons and symbols, whether precious or seemingly ordinary, have any meaning beyond their value as art whatsoever? Where does their authenticity derive from, being placed in the University's permanent art collection or as a sacred object, or both? America descended from a Puritanical history founded in the Northwest, where the first settler's sacred leaders abhorred any art, image or object lavishly adorned because they named bright colors and supposedly graven mages blasphemous, heresy, so inherently here were fewer sacred objects to define America's history as in older cultures. 

“Fragments of Faith” positions all these objects throughout various centuries and continents to ask viewers what are their own symbols of spiritual enlightenment and encouragement, in the past and today? To search once again for their sacred places and treasures that could illuminate a path in the treacherous world with hope. UWM's exhibition presents a challenge to renew any vows to a divinity, a power more infinite than the humanity walking over a finite earth, if individuals discover a sacred spirituality within themselves. 

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Art History Department presents “Fragements of Faith” through March 23 in Mitchell Hall, Room 154, usually open from 11::00 a.m to 4:00 p.m. A black and white exhibition catalogue explains the background and identifies many object in the gallery, free to take home. 


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