What makes a text sacred? There are probably as many answers to that as there are people who use them. Is text sacred when you feel a connection to something larger to yourself, whether or not you would call it Divine, something universal? Are there other kinds of sacred texts that may not have words, things that help us to pray or meditate or chant? Are artists, by the nature of their creative work, more attuned to Creator? Is laughter a form of sacred text? Is nature? And specific to this exhibit, do sacred texts have anything to say to one another?
This beautiful illuminated Koran from the eighteenth century has lines of beautiful script, shining gold, intricate decoration, and the varnish of age, all combining to form the very image of a sacred text. It is showing in Santa Clara University’s current exhibit, “Dialoguing with Sacred Texts, Past Present and Future” on display daily between 9 and 7 in the university’s library on the third floor. A sacred text is commonly thought of as a book, but this exhibit shows not only the codex form of books, but scrolls, drawings, broadsides, prints, myriad prayer beads, sculptural books without words, shoes, photographs, weavings, stitchings, and multi-media explorations of modern worship. Religions represented include “the major five” religions of the world, from a Western point of view: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, with just enough sacred poetry and nature devotion thrown into the mix to make it interesting. As curator Michelle Townsend said of assembling the exhibit, “The fun part was when the books began to talk to each other.”
I am happy to be part of the conversation, with my book The First Writing (seen above in the bottom left corner) contributing a view of the spiritual source of writing by our earliest ancestors. This exhibit is part of a larger program sponsored by the Ignatian Center’s Banaan Institute, entitled “Sacred Texts in the Public Sphere.” The exhibit is co-sponsored by the Institute and the university library’s Archives and Special Collections. The assemblage of sacred texts from many sources is in keeping with the Jesuit mission to be “contemplatives in actions” and to seek God “in and through all things.”
The seed of the idea for this gathering of spiritual art was germinated by the university’s ongoing acquisition of the Heritage limited edition of the Saint John’s Bible, which suitably occupies the central exhibit case in the room. On one side of this book is an equally massive Torah scroll from the 18th century.
The third center case is filled with small devotional prayer books, which make a fine counterpoint to the two large volumes. If volume can be a book or the loudness of a sound, then these books are the quiet ones, the private and hand-sized books whose long tradition and presence here speaks to the personal relationship between devotee and deity, a sacred space created without the need for an intercessor. This is a practice which is present across the world in any religion and is probably the oldest and still most widespread form of prayer, with or without a book. Below is a small volume showing an exquisite fore-edge painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by the tree of knowledge. Eve reaches up to the snake and the fruit of knowledge.
It is in this case that my own book The First Writing is placed, anchoring the corner with the concept of the first sacred marks in European civilization, found exclusively at home altars and on grave goods, bespeaking a profound reverence for the feminine source of life, whose cycles of birth, death and regeneration were central to the devotions of our earliest European ancestors. Because of the large number of female figures found with these marks incised on them, it might be understood that the first sacred texts were written on the body to honor the Sacred Feminine. Here my book is very nicely displayed to show my invented “goddess alphabet” on the title page and a glimpse of the ancestor marks on an interior page.
My book might be said to represent a folk religion, which arguably is one of the largest “religions” in the world. Hearth-based or tribal, polytheistic or goddess-worshipping, these spiritual paths are often gathered under the large umbrella term of “pagan” which means simply “a country person” or “person of the earth.” Following an earthwise path means that sacred texts are few and far between. A teacher of mine who spoke about my work at a panel discussion of sacred texts several years ago said simply: “Nature is our book.” So my eyes in this exhibit are searching for signs of Nature and finding them in all sorts of interesting ways. My other lenses are for interesting calligraphy and evidence of women’s work, as women are often the carriers of the old ways.
The wall case next to the small devotional books is filled with calligraphy. Beside the centrally placed small Koran are traditional and innovative calligraphy treatments of poetic texts.
Thomas Ingmire’s work is well represented with a series of broadsides and manuscript books. This artist has been exploring and re-inventing letterforms for many years, even as he builds on his traditional training. Of the several contemporary artists who have work in this show, Ingmire’s work perhaps best exemplifies the sacred nature of poetry itself. His letters seem to arrive organically on the page. In some cases they are accompanied by a typed text next to the work for those who want to read, but the work is interesting enough without knowing quite what it “says.” We can enjoy the illuminated Koran, shown at top, in a similar way, for if we cannot read the Arabic, we can still appreciate the artistry and arrangement of the decorative elements. Ingmire has explored the interpretive aspects of calligraphy as it is practiced in other traditions, as can be seen in this wonderful presentation of a quotation from the Baghavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text. The look of Sanskrit accomplished with our Latin alphabet is a wonder, and the content also echoes the Ignatian teaching that God is present everywhere in the world.
In the same case with Ingmire’s work is a traditional calligraphy manuscript book by English calligrapher Violet Wilson, beautifully written in gold on vellum with a decorative floral border, made in 1948.
At the bottom of the case is a different kind of a sacred text, a bound copy of the United States Constitution.
Next to this case are three large framed textual works. These bear much examination, for artist Meg Hitchcock has a fascinating way of introducing sacred texts to one another, by cutting out the letters from one to make a different one. For example, in this piece, she has used letters cut from the Torah’s Book of Deuteronomy to form a Tantric sacred text called Shoonya: Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, which is a conversation between the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati.
A close inspection of the words, which are not really meant to be read for any distance on a line, yield phrases such as “a woman’s bliss,” “Queen of gods”, and “Oh Supreme Goddess.” I don’t imagine these phrases exist in Deuteronomy, and I’m pleased to find that mine is not the only work to honor Goddess. In a sea of text, the round capitals do stand out, so it was easy to find those capital G’s and O’s. These lines look like strings of pearls around a woman’s neck.
Another artist who uses letters in a completely different way than I ever would is Lisa Kokin. One of her textile devotionals, Transcript (Kaddish), at first resembles a gossamer mandala.
On closer inspection, as with the previous work, words come into focus and it is understood that this piece carries language stitched into it. Before her mother died, the artist transcribed their last conversation, and later sewed the words into her works. This is her sacred script in memory of her mother.
The thread of women’s grief leads to another work by a contemporary artist, Amy Hibbs, whose Grief Retrofit is strangely compelling. On the trail to a mountain shrine of the Amida Buddha in Japan she saw statues dressed in an article of clothing, which she discovered were in memory of unborn children or children who had died young. Made in homage to this practice, the artist says this piece sprang from her “deep unconscious . . . and her deeper understanding of the grief/love of motherhood.” If, as has been suggested to me, religion evolved and survives to help people cope with death, then these artists are using the sacred practice of meditative art to answer the same need.
Another artist has taken grief at the social level and transformed it into these curious shoes. Rennee Billingslea made these from the leather covers of black and white Bibles which were used in the courtrooms of the southern United States to swear in witnesses. The contents of the books were the same, but white people swore on the white bible, and dark people swore on the black one. Swearing in in Jim Crow’s Court is a powerful statement about race, our associations with the colors black and white, and the use of a sacred text for less than sacred purpose.
There are plenty of historical sacred texts interwoven with the contemporary works, including this Hindu prayer book, printed on accordion-folded banana leaves, its Sanskrit lettering the original for Ingmire’s Bhagavad Gita echo across the room.
These Ethiopian prayer books and satchel show the original of the Coptic stitch used on so many modern artists’ books, and how such books traveled with their owners, their durability attested to by their wooden covers.
Presiding above these archaic handbooks of prayer is a mysterious and monumental object whose sacred text is spoken entirely in its form and inclusions of natural objects such as ammonite fossils, mica and a Luna moth wing. Daniel Essig’s Luna carries a hint of the obelisk, and yet it is hinged to open as a codex would. This piece enters into the sacred dialogue in several ways: its use of the historical Coptic stitch for its book sewn of Bible pages; its use of objects from nature in a reverent way.
You can see the large Torah scroll in the background to give an idea of size. Luna‘s stature, sentinel position and reflectivity make interesting juxtapositions for its meaning. Here, it reflects the Santa Cruz mountains, giving an added layer to its theme. It seems to be looking out the window at the Earth’s sacred text.
The exhibit continues on the second floor of the university’s library with several larger works by more artists. The theme of sacred texts in nature is taken in a different direction by Terri Garland in her large-scale photographs of Bibles salvaged from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. These images are strangely beautiful and disturbing. The intersection of sacred text with the deterioration delivered by the Earth is profound. Below, a passage can be seen to “My beloved” and “betwixt my breasts” (the Song of Solomon perhaps?), but surrounding these lovely phrases is nothing but decay and layers of obliteration.
This Holy Bible has also been through serious changes, most striking to me is the way the “H’ on the cover has leaned over diagonally enough to read at first as “X.”
One of the largest objects in this exhibit is also on the second floor. Sarah Filley’s 27-foot Prayer Rope is an oversized facsimile of the prayer ropes worn as part of the Eastern Orthodox habit and used in a similar way to prayer beads. The size of it suggests the immensity of the sins we need to atone for. Knotting is a very ancient spiritual and magic practice.
The beautiful calligraphy for the sign was created by Georgia Deaver and is everywhere about the campus to help guide the way to the exhibit.
The poster which greeted me as I entered the library for the opening reception was illuminated with the rays of the setting sun. Illustrated entirely with the modern works in the exhibit, these pieces seem to emerge from the deep past, to which we are all connected in some way.
Though it is not formally part of the exhibit, another volume of the Saint John’s Bible is on display in a case in the library reading room on the third floor and open to the Grandmother image which represents Wisdom. I think She looks out on this exhibit and sees that it is good.