This collection highlights variations on a theme through works of art: George Washington Crossing the Delaware, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware and Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Comparisons of these works could serve as springboards for discussions about identity, immigration, "master" or dominant narratives in history, and hero myths.
“History matters because it has contemporary consequence,” declared historian Jennifer Guiliano, explaining to an audience how stereotypes affect children of all races. “In fact, what psychological studies have found, is when you take a small child out to a game and let them look at racist images for two hours at a time they then begin to have racist thoughts.”
The assistant professor affiliated with American Indian Programs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis went on to explain what that means to parents who have taken their kid for a family-oriented excursion to a sporting event with a racist mascot.
“We’re taking children who are very young, exposing them to racist symbology and then saying ‘But don’t be a racist when you grow up,’” Guiliano says. “This is the irony of sort of how we train and educate children. When we think about these issues of bringing children up, of thinking about the impact of these things, this is why history matters.”
Guiliano was among the speakers at a day-long symposium, “Mascots, Myths, Monuments and Memory,” examining racist mascots, the fate of Confederate statues and the politics of memory. The program was held in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian.
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the African American History museum, says this all came about after a conversation with his counterpart Kevin Gover at the American Indian museum. Bunch says he learned that the creation of Confederate monuments and the rise of racist Indian mascots in sporting events occurred during the same period in American history, between the 1890s and 1915. This gathering was one way to help people understand the how and why between that overlap.
1. Analyze various landscapes presented in a work of art.
2. Understand the relationship between humans and the natural world.
3. Identify ways artists use viewpoint, scale, and detail to communicate ideas.
Creative Leadership Unit 3 collection pieces.
This learning lab consists of portraits painted by John Singleton Copley, one of America's first painters. The subjects included all played a role either prior to or during the revolution.
This collection was created to support an online class for elementary teachers focusing on culturally and linguistically diverse history makers.
The Spring 2020 Cooper Hewitt Design Scholars, a group of high school students with an interest in pursuing design as a career path, have explored design through independent research into topics of interest in design, ranging from contemporary fashion design to surrealism to an exploration of silk. Below, find their collections, created as part of these explorations. Bravo, Cooper Hewitt Design Scholars!
This collection explores the significance of the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. Contemporary Muslim Fashions includes an ongoing trend in modest fashion that extends beyond strictly Muslim audiences. The collection also examines examples of fashion from various regions, including streatwear and couture fashion, as well as current trends in overcoming the obstacle of athletic wear for modest and Muslim women. Finally the collection includes news articles that discuss the exhibition as well as the impact of contemporary Muslim fashion on the global community.
This collection contains a selection of artworks related to the themes of conflict, identity, and place. Teachers can use these artworks for a variety of purposes; here, we use them as a catalyst for discussion, with an extended version of Project Zero's See, Think, Wonder thinking routine. In small groups or as a classroom, have students select one artwork they find meaningful or interesting and discuss the following:
- Why did you pick this artwork?
- What do you see? Name specific aspects of the artwork you notice.
- What do you think about what you see?
- What does this artwork make you wonder?
- Optional: How might the artwork connect to the themes of conflict, identity, and place?
This Smithsonian Learning Lab collection contains artwork selected by Phoebe Hillemann, Teacher Institutes Educator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, featured in the 2019 Smithsonian American Art Museum Summer Institute for Teachers, "Teaching the Humanities through Art."
These artworks serve as foundational museum resources in lesson concepts that are accessible by searching the Smithsonian Learning Lab with the hashtag: #SAAMTeach.
This collection brings together EDSITEment and Smithsonian resources to support the initial research into a project for National History Day 2018, "Conflict and Compromise in History."
These resources - including protest posters, archival photographs, interviews, artwork, and articles - explore the topic of the Vietnam War from multiple perspectives. Resources highlight politics, the experience of soldiers, anti-war protests, and artwork created in reaction to the Vietnam War. The second tile of this collection contains questions to help with both the analysis of this historical event and the analysis of different types of resources (photograph, document, artwork, portrait, and object). The third tile contains a graphic organizer, created by National History Day, to help explore historical context and the "Conflict and Compromise in History" theme.
By no means is this collection comprehensive; instead, it provides a launching point for further research.
This collection was created in collaboration with EDSITEment, a website for K-12 educators from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Share your National History Day collections and let us know what you think! Write to us on Twitter: @EDSITEment & @SmithsonianLab, #NHD2018. If you publish a collection on your National History Day topic, be sure to enter #NHD2018 in the description!
Tags: ho chi-minh; lyndon b. johnson; richard nixon; walter cronkite; henry kissinger; veteran; oral history; viet cong; protest; peace; 50s; 60s; 70s; 20th century; 1900s; national endowment for the humanities; nhd; #NHD
This Learning Lab collection has been created to support the 2018 National History Day theme, Conflict and Compromise. Utilizing portraits and other resources from the National Portrait Gallery, this collection is organized by Topics within the Conflict and Compromise theme.
Be sure to check out the following at the end of the collection:
-Reading Portraiture Guide for Educators highlights close looking strategies that can be used with the portraits listed
-Conflict and Compromise In History Theme Book from National History Day 2018
This collection about the National Anthem of the United States includes more than 10 performances of it, the story of Francis Scott Key’s inspiration and the British tune to which he set his lyrics. The suggested instructional strategy is a comparison/contrast exercise, with "Close Listening" questions.
This collection was created for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Arts Professional Development Day. #SmithsonianMusic
This collection dives into the comparison of modern and contemporary artists who were inspired by the ancient arts (prehistoric, ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, etc.) and builds upon the meaning of art and transformation of the different styles. What do these artists have in common? How were they inspired by the ancients?
This collection includes self-portraits by two different artists: Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence. Both artists are generally known for their efforts to represent everyday life experiences, struggles, and successes of African Americans. The purpose of the collection is to prompt a discussion comparing/contrasting each artist's content and media choice in the context of a self-portrait. Students will be asked to reflect on stages of the artistic process in terms of artist intent, choice of media, and general content of a finished artwork.
This collection was created in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery's 2019 Learning to Look Summer Teacher Institute. #NPGteach
In this activity, students will explore how portraits reflect both the personality of the subject portrayed and the artist's personal view of the subject. They will examine two portraits, both painted by American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), of his patron British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland (1831-1892). Using looking strategies, students will compare and contrast the artist's perspective of his subject, then will connect the portraits to music as a final activity.
This collection was created for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Arts Professional Development Day by the Education Department at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in collaboration with Tess Porter, Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.
Tags: Peacock Room, Whistler, portrait
This collection includes a video that presents the question: "What did the artist keep the same and what did he change? Why?" In this collection, there are multiple images of individuals who have made a strong contribution in society. The artists have placed emphasis on the hands of the sitters. The objective is for students to compare and contrast multiple paintings, with the goal of gaining insights into ways portraitists convey personality with details.
1. Watch the video and write down the similarities between the two paintings that are presented. What are some comments the narrator said about the people in the paintings?
2. The narrator says the hands of the people are given great importance. Why do you think so?
3. Write down the similarities of the people's hands in the portraits.
4. Using that information, create a T-Chart. On one side of the chart write the overall similarities of the people in the paintings (build upon the findings of the narrator) and on the other side, the differences.
5. Using that information compare and contrast the second image and third images with the two paintings in the video. Add another column to the T-Chart and write down your findings.
6. Discuss or write about your conclusions as to what the painters were trying to express about the sitters. Do you think they were effective?
Tags: una troubridge; statue; representation; character; photograph; painting; visual.
Included in this collection are examples of portraits National Portrait Gallery educators have had success with when facilitating the compare and contrast looking strategy while teaching in the galleries: Pocahontas, Shimomura Crossing the Delaware and Washington Crossing the Delaware, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, LL Cool J and John D. Rockefeller
Look at various community workers and read the book, The House that Jane Built, about Jane Addams who built a community center in Chicago, IL.
These images come from murals that depict people at work. What jobs do you see them doing? How does each job help the community?
The following collection will explore the "Elements of Style" in our community and the political and/or cultural truth they represent from the perspective of Folk Culture Interns from The Dr. Beverly Robinson Community Folk Culture Program at Mind-Builders in the Bronx, as well as from local artists, family, style exemplars, and other community members.
This collection will examine examples of art as a form of communication between the human and spiritual worlds. These forms of communication may include examples of direct communication — in which an individual or group uses art to speak to and influence the spiritual world — as well as examples that serve to document practices, beliefs, and the place of spiritual practices in society at large.
The form and focus of these communications expressed through art can help to explain the values of particular cultures or individuals, or may serve to question or enforce certain cultural beliefs. This type of art may be the expression of the needs of a social group or culture, such as prehistoric cave paintings that might have functioned in rituals to ensure successful hunts or plentiful game. It may serve to enforce a political agenda such as the Law Code of Hammurabi. Or it may express an individual's personal interpretation and experience of spirituality such as the illustrated poetry of William Blake. However, form does not always imply the expected function: the 19th century English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti sometimes drew on religious subjects or themes and much of his work has a mysterious and mystical atmosphere. Yet Rossetti, describing his spiritual beliefs, called himself an “art Catholic,” implying that if he engaged in a spiritual dialog through his art, it was with art itself (Faxon, 1989).
This collection will look at examples
from the prehistoric era through the early 20th century. These
examples help to contextualize the inner lives of individuals, and
the collective inner life of the cultures, their environments, wants,
needs, and values, to foster a greater appreciation of and respect
for these peoples and cultures.
Although there is only limited firm evidence of the purpose of cave art found at sites such as Lascaux, Chauvet, and Les Trois-Frères, scholars generally agree that it served some religious purpose. Various theories have been proposed to provide more specific explanations. Cave art, particularly Paleolithic cave art, depicts almost exclusively animals. Hunting was crucial to the survival of early humans, and it is possible that the images were created as part of hunting rituals. Images of animals superimposed over each other many have represented fertility rituals aimed at increasing the amount of game animals. Some images appear to have been deliberately scratched or gouged with spearheads — in some cases blood was painted flowing from these wounds — suggesting that the images may have been intended as a type of sympathetic magic giving hunters power over and protection from large and dangerous animals (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
Other images are less easy to explain and have given rise to controversial theories such as the bird-faced human figure in the Lascaux Shaft Scene, that combine elements of humans with other animals in a single figure. The Shaft Scene appears to describe a narrative although the exact meaning is not completely clear. A wounded bison stands ready to charge; the animals intestines appear to be pouring out of its abdomen and a spear is shown near its hindquarters. In front of the bison is a stick figure human with a bird's face. The human figure appears to have fallen or been knocked over. Just below this odd figure is a line topped by a bird, perhaps an object belonging to the bird-faced man. This figure and others that combine humans and other animals into one figure such as The Sorcerer in Les Trois-Freres may document early humans' mythology, and could suggest the origins of certain beliefs and practices (Curtis, 2006).
The meaning of the Law Code of Hammurabi is less ambiguous — the spiritual and the legal/political aspects of the culture are united. The stele dates to approximately 1760 BCE and is divided into two sections. The lower section, which takes up the majority of the stele, consists of the code of laws in effect at the time. The relief at the top depicts the Babylonian king Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash. The implication is clear: the law itself is a religious document and the social rules it describes are the will of the gods — and Hammurabi whose authority is bolstered by the approval of the gods (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
The spiritual is not always a numinous experience in a cave. Some early laws and social codes were framed as divine communications that enforce social norms and rules — even now, witnesses in courts are generally sworn in by placing their hand on a Bible. Communication with the spiritual in examples such as the Law Code of Hammurabi is aimed at establishing and enforcing order and lending it a weight of legitimacy. It is as critical for the members of an urban culture, such as Babylon, to abide by rules to maintain peace with their neighbors as it was for the Paleolithic peoples to ensure successful hunts. And, kings such as Hammurabi believed it was critical to protect their power. By aligning themselves with gods, they could borrow some of the gods' power in the minds of the people and make rebellion or betrayal a kind of sacrilege. Hammurabi, in fact, was declared a god in his own lifetime (Van De Mieroop, 2005).
Music may also function as a form of communication between gods and humans. In pharaonic Egypt, religious festivals appear to have prominently involved music and dance. Music may have been used in religious rituals to communicate with the gods, invoke deities, or as a medium to transmit offerings. Some instruments were associated with specific deities: the sistrum with Hathor and Isis and the tambourine with Bes. Sistrums may have been played during rituals associated with Hathor to invoke her — and to placate her. Although images of deities playing musical instruments are relatively rare in Egyptian art, Bes is frequently depicted dancing and playing a tambourine. Unlike the other gods, Bes used music to communicate with humans. Bes was associated with the home and family — the front rooms of Egyptian homes appear to have contained shrines to Bes — and he remained a popular deity among the people throughout Egypt's history. Bes was believed to protect people, particularly women in childbirth, by playing music to frighten away evil spirits. Amulets of Bes dancing and playing a tambourine appear to have been a common type of protective amulet worn around the neck. It is worth noting that depictions of Bes differ markedly from depictions of most other Egyptian deities: he is represented in lively motion. In contrast to the image of Egyptian religion based primarily on royal tombs and, therefore, focused on death and the elite members of society, Bes was closely tied to life and the lives of common people (Simmance, n.d.).
Composed by the poet Valmiki in India the fifth century BCE, the Rāmāyana relates the deeds and adventures of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. According to J. L. Brockington, in Indian tradition the Rāmāyana is designated the ādikāvya, which may be translated as “the first poetic work,” and is regularly referred to as being sung as opposed to spoken in contrast to the Mahābhārata. In one version of the framework story introducing the Rāmāyana, Rama is described as the perfect human being. His behavior is therefore worth emulating, and it is likely that as early as the first millennium BCE that was in a sense being done literally through plays and dances reenacting the story (Brockington, 1998). In that sense, the Rāmāyana represents a complex, evolving dialog, a lived experience of both artistic and spiritual expression.
Euripides' tragic drama The Bacchae is another example of theater acting as a complex dialog between the human and the spiritual worlds. The plot of The Bacchae revolves around the arrival of the god Dionysos in the city of Thebes where his ecstatic worship is opposed by Pentheus, the king of Thebes. As Segal writes, the play is morally ambiguous and may have been designed to implicate the audience in the action. Although Dionysos is a disturbance to Thebes, Pentheus' response is heavy-handed and unsympathetic. However, as the drama unfolds, the audience that may have been rooting for Dionysos is confronted with a climax that sees the god orchestra Pentheus' gruesome death. It is important to note that Dionysos was a well-established and liked god in Athens and that Classical Greek drama was written to be performed during annual festivals in Dionysos' honor. As Vellacott writes, during the festival a statue of Dionysos was brought from a shrine to the amphitheater to watch the plays. As Segal notes, it is unlikely that the play is meant to be critical of Dionysos (his actual worship was much more restrained than depicted in the play or the myths it was based on) but its presentation, at a fundamentally religious festival with the god literally in the audience, could not but have sparked another dialog within the audience, a reflection on their relationship to the god and the sometimes overwhelming forces he represents.
Temple of Isis at Pompeii declares both the strength of her
worshipers' belief and the endurance of her cult in the face of
repeated official sanctions. The temple was damaged in an earthquake
in 62 AD but was rebuilt by the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in
79 AD; in fact, it was the only civic building in that area of
Pompeii that had been completely rebuilt (Hackworth, 2006).
The apparent preference for a foreign goddess in a Roman city is all
the more significant in light of imperial persecutions and
prohibitions against her worship dating back to Augustus and coming
to a head in 19 CE when Emperor Tiberius exiled thousands of freedmen
who were adherents of the religion (Heyob, 1975). However, the cult
of Isis continued to flourish. By the time of Pompeii's destruction,
her worship appears to have included individuals from all classes of
society, from members of the imperial family and municipal officials
to freedmen and slaves (Takacs, 1995). The remains of the temple can
still be seen on the original site and at the nearby Museo
Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Although Egyptian decoration was
incorporated in the design of the temple and cult objects, the plan
of the building and the style of the frescoes was Roman (Moorman,
2011). The navigium Isidis fresco appears to show a distinctly
Egyptian scene, Isis resurrecting her husband-brother Osiris, but in
a purely Roman style. The Pompeiian worshipers of Isis were part of
Roman culture but may have been seeking an opportunity to engage in
personally meaningful spiritual communication outside of the
state-sectioned venues and deified emperors (Hackworth, 2006).
Early Buddhist art avoided direct representations of the Buddha. The first iconic representations of the Buddha were likely not created until approximately the 2nd century CE in the area of Gandhara, in modern-day Pakistan, under the influence of the Kushan emperors. After their conversion to Buddhism, the Kushan produced distinctive images of the Buddha that drew on Greco-Roman traditions while creating an iconographically unique image that was clearly identifiable as the Buddha (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
Many of these early sculptures of the Buddha depict a serene, sublime figure, perfectly proportioned and untouched by time or the rigors of his life. However, a small group of statues presents a radically different image of the Buddha. One of these statues, Fasting Buddha, created between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE, depicts the physical effects of the Buddha's forty-five days of fasting and meditation before achieving enlightenment. In an interview with Hyperallergic in 2016 when Fasting Buddha was seen publicly at an Auctionata sale, Dr. Arne Sildatke, Auctionata's head of Asian art, explained that although the Fasting Buddha and similar images can be compared to depictions of the crucified Jesus Christ, the Buddhas are not images of death and resurrection. Instead, they are meant to communicate to followers Buddhism the concepts of self-empowerment and the overcoming of suffering, according to Sildatke. Despite the figure's protruding bones, sunken stomach, and hollow face, the image expresses the strength of the Buddha's will (Voon, 2016).
The Ajanta caves in Maharashta state, India, contain some of the finest examples of Indian Buddhist art and represent several centuries of complex artistic spiritual expression. The caves were created as a monastery and decorated in the Gupta style of sculpture and painting. The Gupta style moved away from the Greco-Roman influence and embraced a more fully Indian style in which characteristics of physical beauty associated with Indian art are adapted to symbolize spiritual beauty (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
The monks' work on the caves was likely supported during its later phase by wealthy patrons, including the 5th century CE Emperor Harisena and his courtiers. These patrons sponsored the construction and ornamentation of specific caves to honor the Buddha and earn religious merit, as well as worldly praise, for themselves. According to Spink, Cave 1, created in the late 5th century CE, was sponsored by Harisena. Cave 1 contains some of the most sumptuous and well-preserved murals in Ajanta. It is likely that these images, including the Bodhisattva Padmapani, are so well-preserved because Cave 1 was never used for worship. Spink theorizes that Cave 1 was not used because Harisena died suddenly before the cave could be dedicated. An undedicated cave could not be used for worship; therefore, if the cave was indeed left undedicated, Harisena would not have achieved the religious merit he desired (Spink, 2008). In that case, Harisena's attempt to communicate with the spiritual, to have his faith validated, and his attempt to communicate his spiritual virtue to the human world were both left unfulfilled.
Rich ornament and stylization was also used to signify spirituality in European Christian manuscript paintings. As Christianity spread through Europe, representations were adapted to the local Celto-Germanic styles, which bore more in common with the luxurious, symbolic, and stylized Byzantine art than the naturalistic Greco-Roman tradition. The Book of Kells is an illuminated gospel created c. 800 CE by Irish monks. A figure of St. John on one folio is an exercise in elaborate stylization, a purely two-dimensional figure made up of patterns of decorative lines, emphasizing the image's spiritual rather than physical reality (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
An illuminated gospel such as the Book of Kells was not merely a book — as the chalice used in Mass is not merely a cup — it was created as a sacred object (Calkins, 1983). Like the images in Chauvet cave or the ceremonial sistra used in Egyptian religious ceremonies, it formed part of the necessary accouterments of communication with the spiritual. And, therefore, its form and image took precedence over its physical practicality (Calkins, 1983). In that light, the entire object itself, not only individual folios, can be seen as a translation of spiritual experiences and a vehicle for spiritual communion.
Liturgical music has been a key part of Christian ritual since the earliest days of the religion. Most early Christian music was woven into the services and often consisted of chants based exclusively on scripture. Over time, the scope of music in Christianity grew and original pieces were composed. One notable composer in the Early Middle Ages was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Beginning in early childhood, Hildegard experienced intense visions. She entered a community of nuns when she was eight and became a poet, composer, and playwright (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
Hildegard also wrote several books detailing her mystical visions and theological instructions derived from them. One of these, Scivias, contained sections that Hildegard later adapted to the Ordo Virtutum, a sacred music drama (King-Lenzmeier, 2001). The plot revolves around the struggle between the devil and the Virtues for a human soul. The Ordo was not written to be performed as part of the Mass or liturgy and does not depict biblical events: the allegorical story is adapted directly from her personal visionary experiences (Potter, 1986). When performing the Ordo, the nuns were embodying and participating in Hildegard's visions by bringing these invisible spiritual experiences into the human world (Davidson, 1992).
The Unicorn Tapestries were made in Brussels c. 1500 and depict the hunt, capture, and death of a unicorn. The tapestries may have been made as a wedding gift and may have been intended to communicate a multilayered message that combined romance and fertility with Christian doctrine (Benton & DiYanni, 2012). The chivalric tradition of courtly love had introduced the idea that romantic love was a symbol of God's love: Marie de France's Eliduc employs this symbolism to suggest that when two individuals loved each other completely they could leave each other for God, separating to live in different religious communities (Potkay, 1994). In The Unicorn Tapestries, Margaret B. Freedman explores the complex interweaving of secular and religious messages encoded in the tapestries, including references that syncretize polytheistic deities into Christian mythology. For example, the fountain in the tapestries may be a symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was compared to a fountain in many medieval hymns, as well as Venus and Cupid, who were frequently depicted holding court in gardens dominated by a fountain. The highly detailed flora in several of the tapestries also simultaneously references Christ and Venus. In Freedman's analysis, the tapestries can be understood as symbolizing and communicating the doctrines and values of the overlapping Christian god of heaven and the god of love, a concept that was well-established by the late medieval period. In the context of the tapestries as a wedding gift, this dual meaning is perfectly appropriate to express, reminding the newlyweds of their spiritual, personal, and social duties and rewards.
In 15th century Florence, a renewed interest in and availability of Classical Greek and Roman scholarship fueled the development of Neoplatonism, a new school of philosophy that sought to merge the principles espoused by the Classical Greek philosopher Plato and the Roman philosopher Plotinus with Christian spirituality. Platonism and Christianity are dualistic and perceive a separation between the physical and the spiritual that humans should strive to breach. According to Neoplatonist thought, this could be done by recognizing the spark of the divine — the work of God — in beautiful things in the physical world; therefore, the love of beauty was a form of worship (Benton & DiYanni, 2012). Florentine Renaissance ideals of beauty were heavily indebted to Greco-Roman traditions that emphasized harmony, rationality, and balance. Therefore, in art and architecture, this could be performed by using geometry as a symbol.
The elaborate geometrical floor pavings in the Medicis' private chapel, the Chapel of the Magi, may be a deliberate geometric code that communicated Neoplatonic ideals and functioned as a type of devotional communication. Cosimo de' Medici, who commissioned the chapel, and several of the artists and architects involved in the design and construction of it were closely involved with the founding of the Accademia Platonica in Florence, an influential group of scientists, artists, and philosophers and which was the cradle of Neoplatonism. The chapel's pavings following distinctive, complex geometrical patterns and ratios tied to Neoplatonic thought. The chapel was constructed for the use of the Medici family and those close to them — it was not intended as a place of worship for the public. Therefore, the Medicis and the artists, scientists, and intellectuals close to them could freely express in a precise geometric language certain beliefs and modes of thinking that were not completely orthodox. In the carefully measured, sumptuous marble pavings of the chapel, they could demonstrate theories of elevated scientific and religious though: divine harmony communicated through mathematics (Bartoli, 1994).
The 17th century English poet John Donne combined sexual language and spiritual subject matter to express his concept of ecstatic love. In this concept, an individual achieves unity of body and soul and reaches spiritual truths through sexual union with another individual they love. The soul is capable of awareness and growth only through love, and during sex the souls of the individuals mingle, each soul gaining greater knowledge of itself in relation to the body. The individual is then a complete self: a being that is a synthesis of its physical and spiritual aspects (Thommen, 2014).
This concept is described in Donne's poem "The Extasie":
see by this it was not sex,
We see we saw not what did move;
But as all several souls contain
Mixture of things, they know not what,
Love these mix’d souls doth mix again
And makes both one, each this and that
“The Extasie,” therefore, communicates Donne's own understanding and experience of spiritual communion. Like the Neoplatonics, Donne's efforts to interact with the spiritual are focused on resolving the perceived conflict between the physical and the spiritual by seeking the divine in the physical — but uniting body and soul by being united with another individual.
Communication with the spiritual is also blended with sensuality in Gianlorenzo Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-52). The subject of the sculpture, St. Teresa of Avila, was famous for her ecstatic visions as described in her writing, particularly her c. 1567 Autobiography. Teresa described a process of mental prayer that resulted in spiritual union with God and produced visions and intense physical and emotional responses. As quoted by Thommen, Eleanor McCann pointed out that St. Teresa and Donne's descriptions of communication with the spiritual through the experience of physical ecstasy and union are, despite the author's differences, remarkably similar.
Bernini's sculpture is based on the episode from St. Teresa's Autobiography when an angel appeared to her and thrust a golden spear into her heart, producing an intense pain and an “infinite sweetness” that she described as the “sweetest caressing of the soul by God” (Benton & DiYanni, 2012). The sculpture, therefore, is in the interesting position of relating mystical communication third hand. Unlike the nuns in Hildegard of Bingen's community, Bernini had no direct contact with St. Teresa and his translation of her experience was inevitably colored by his own experiences and personality and the preferences of his patron. Although Bernini emphasized the sensuality of St. Teresa's experience, the sculpture occupies a supernatural sphere, distinct from the related sculpturing groupings that are placed firmly in the physical world and the space occupied by the viewer (Wittkower, 1980). The viewer is invited to witness the point of contact and communication between the physical and the spiritual (Boucher, 1998).
In The Book of Urizen, published in 1794, English poet and painter William Blake communicated a profoundly personal, visionary spirituality that expressed his major moral and philosophical concerns. Blake, like Hildegard of Bingen and St. Teresa of Avila, experienced visions. He saw himself as a prophet and believed that the duty of a poet was “To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought” (Benton & DiYanni, 2012).
The Book of Urizen is a creation myth structured along the lines of Genesis but with Blake's Urizen in place of God. Urizen is a god of reason and logic and law — a deity of pure materialism, enslaved and enslaving who creates the world so that he may have something to rule. Urizen represents both dogmatic, essentially materialistic religious laws and Newtonian reason. To Blake, these were both forces that blind humans to the spiritual by trapping and circumscribing human imagination, thereby preventing them from communicating with the spiritual, creative world that would otherwise be their birthright (Frye, 1990). By creating The Book of Urizen and his other illuminated books of poetry and painting, Blake attempted to communicate his experience of the spiritual and warn of the consequences of either rejecting personal communication with the spiritual and imagination or of ceding that direct, personal experience to a higher, worldly authority.
Communication between the human and the spiritual is not always easy nor does a familiar form always imply the expected function. These points are illustrated in the works of the English poet Christina Rossetti and her brother the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Christina was deeply religious and often used her poetry to explore both the rewards and struggle she associated with faith. Unlike St. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, or William Blake, Christina's experience of the spiritual was not mystical. Rather than communicating with the spiritual through ecstatic visionary experiences, Christina's efforts to communicate and achieve union with the spiritual were the result of the effort of her faith, and that effort, and her doubts, are expressed in her poetry. In “Alas, my Lord,” (1874), Christina describes the difficulty of this process and expresses her doubts as well as her desire for spiritual affirmation — some communication, a response from the spiritual, that her efforts are not in vain (Avery, 2014).
Alas my Lord,
How should I wrestle all the livelong night
With Thee my God, my Strength and my Delight?
How can it need
So agonized an effort and a strain
To make Thy Face of Mercy shine again?
How can it need
Such wringing out of breathless prayer to move
Thee to Thy wonted Love, when Thou art Love?
In contrast, her brother Dante Gabriel was not a practicing Christian, although he used Christian iconography and language, particularly in his early works. Dante Gabriel referred to himself as an “Art Catholic,” implying that his interest in the imagery of encounters with the spiritual was largely aesthetic (Faxon, 1989). In addition, he often used Christian iconography and language in the context of secular love poems (Roe, 2010). In Dante Gabriel's art, such as The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849), representations of the spiritual were not strictly religious but rather an iconographical shorthand for the artist's sincere, personal communication with their imagination. Particularly in his early career when he identified as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he believed that medieval art was more sincere, more closely connected to the natural world, in opposition to the British Academic tradition embodied by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which he believed was formulaic and insincere (Faxon, 1989). Therefore, the religious subject matter so prominent in medieval art took on a new meaning and the spiritual was transferred from the Christian God to the artist's quest for genuine inspiration.
The Dream of Geronitus, Op. 38, composed by Edward Elgar in 1900, is a powerful sonic portrait of an encounter with the spiritual. Set to the text of a poem by John Henry Newman, it describes the death of a man, Gerontius, and his soul's journey to the throne of God to receive judgment. A dramatic and technically challenging piece, it explores communication with the spiritual as a psychologically complex, and not always pleasant, experience. The rapture Gerontius experiences is counterpointed by the appearance of devils and his own doubts that his soul is worthy to face God. The Judgment scene, in fact, depicts that ultimate communication with the spiritual as an almost unbearable experience. For the scene when Gerontius beholds the glance of God and receives judgment, the score instructs: “For one moment, must every instrument exert its fullest force.” (Burton, 2003).
In 1974, The Dream of Gerontius figured heavily in Penda's Fen, a film written by David Rudken and directed by Alan Clarke for the BBC. The film's protagonist Stephen, writes about The Dream of Gerontius in the beginning of the film, which then unravels his nationalist and orthodox Christian certainty through visionary experiences that lead him to reject his former beliefs. Stephen's encounters with the spiritual challenge the priggish patriotism and the national and moral myth he embraced, embodied by a middle-aged couple who have successfully campaigned to ban a film exploring Jesus as a man rather than as a god. At one point Stephen plays the Judgment scene from The Dream of Gerontius on the organ in his father's church, triggering a vision of cracks appearing in the church floor, the crucified body of Jesus, and a voice commanding Stephen to unchain Jesus from the strictures of conservative Christianity. Later, he experiences a vision of King Penda, the last pagan king of England, and, grasping that his culture is ultimately a hybrid one comprised of a mingling of various religions, languages, and peoples, rejects his former beliefs (Sandhu, 2014). The experience is as unsettling for the viewer as it is for Stephen. in Penda's Fen the spiritual intrudes on assumptions and certainties and by irrupting reality leads both Stephen and the viewer to question their assumptions and demands that they take part in a wider, richer communication with the spiritual and the world.
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