A Religious Revival in a City of Secular Art ; the Museum of Biblical Art Treats Works by Artists of Faith with Respect and Credibility, Reflecting a Change in the Art World

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To an art world deeply skeptical of religious sentiment, the paintings displayed at the Museum of Biblical Art here must seem startling. The fact that this newly opened museum exists in New York at all signifies a change in the compass that orients how art is viewed.

"We're witnessing a worldwide religious revival in response to 9/ 11," says Norman Girardot, a folk-art specialist and professor of religious studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Since the terrorist attacks, "We've all woken up and realized we have to take religion seriously."

The current climate has sparked an upsurge in apocalyptic art, according to Rebecca Hoffberger, director of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum. "These are unusually tumultuous times. We're witnessing epic biblical scenarios like the tsunami and wars - which media coverage look at as faith against faith."

Religion has become more visible in both culture and politics, and the cultural trend toward secularization is showing signs of reversing direction. In the United States, "With the rise of the religious right and the current administration, there's been a reorientation between cultural and religious forces," says Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion and visual arts at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "A new era is opening up to visual art on the conservative end of things."

Evangelical fervor isn't exactly new. One-quarter of Americans consider themselves evangelical Christians. In the South, "evangelicalism has been strong all along, although it's been demeaned by the liberal press and looked at as something to be put down," says Ann Oppenhimer, president of the Folk Art Society of America in Richmond, Va.

The inaugural exhibition, "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South," explores the influence of evangelical Christianity on 73 folk artists. By posting biblical texts beside paintings and sculptures that function as visual sermons, the artists "are proclaiming the word of God as found in the Bible," says curator Carol Crown, associate professor of art history at the University of Memphis, where the exhibition originated.

Ms. Crown objects to the term "outsider," as the art world applies it to folk artists. For her, they're very much "inside" the nexus of contemporary concerns. They've invested a great deal of meaning in the art but their voices aren't heard, she says.

That's about to change. The museum is "catching a wave that's going to grow," says Helen Evans, curator of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art history in general is reconsidering the canon. We're all shifting and seeking to diversify our audience."

A shift toward highlighting religion would indeed be seismic in today's art world. Even though most Western art in the medieval period and in the Renaissance illustrated Christian doctrine to teach and touch the illiterate masses, the discipline of art history that originated in the 19th century "put traditional religion off in a corner," Mr. Girardot says. "Art," he notes, "was a form of higher truth that replaced religion." Critics and art historians applied formalist criteria such as line, color, and composition in assessing aesthetic quality. Museums emphasized the object, not how it was used in a religious context.

Since the Enlightenment, "museums promoted the idea that aesthetic contemplation is a kind of substitute for religious spirituality," says Robert Nelson, professor of art history at the University of Chicago. …