Bible Stories: The Museum of Biblical Art Is Not Just a Glorified Sunday School
Heller, Ena, Commonweal
In the spring of 1997, I was hired by the American Bible Society to open a gallery dedicated to biblical art. I had just received my PhD in medieval art from NYU, and, with student loans coming due, I was (unhappily) working on Wall Street, wondering how I ended up there and when I would be able to get back to the arts.
Then this opportunity came along: the president of the American Bible Society thought an art gallery could provide a new, appealing public face to the organization, while at the same time educating a wider public in the cultural importance of the Bible and its relationship to art. The prospect was intriguing. Working for the ABS, I would be free to curate exhibitions on a wide variety of subjects. On the other hand, I'd be starting from scratch, with few resources and no institutional reputation to build from. It sounded like a transitional job--the gallery seemed unlikely to succeed--but the experience of setting it up would help me eventually find a "real" job in the arts. I weighed my options: embrace the challenge, or stay on Wall Street. It was an easy choice.
The Gallery at the American Bible Society opened in the spring of 1998 with the mission of looking at art, religion, and culture in an attempt to understand how they influence each other. The gallery space was small, with imperfect climate control (which greatly limited the loans we could obtain) and little wall space, not to mention the unthinkable for an art gallery: wall-to-wall carpeting. But the ABS was generous with funding, and I was relieved and grateful to discover that former schoolmates at institutions near and far, as well as colleagues I'd never met, were willing to collaborate. Over the next six years the Gallery presented twenty-two exhibitions: quilts by African-American women, Russian icons, baroque sculpture, contemporary santos from Guatemala, Japanese prints, twentieth-century stained glass. To everybody's surprise--most of all mine--an audience materialized, and even the press took notice. Soon I was in the position to hire another person: the staff had doubled overnight!
The Gallery was not always an easy sell: some were suspicious of a hidden proselytizing agenda; others heard "biblical art" and immediately assumed the work on display must be amateurish or undistinguished. And some of my friends expressed concern that I'd find the subject matter too restrictive. To most people, including professionals in the art world, "biblical art" has a very literal connotation: they imagine art that illustrates biblical stories or art found in Bibles. In fact, art that has its roots in the Bible is so pervasive in Western culture that we often fail to notice it. It includes what I call "biblical art beyond the biblical text": subjects that reflect later religious texts (for instance, the legends of the saints or works by the church fathers) and interpretive commentary; art that originally functioned in a religious space; modern transformation of rituals and iconography; images rooted in a Judeo-Christian worldview but reflecting different times, societies, and particular cultures; and so on. There is an incredible wealth of art that can be traced, directly or indirectly, to biblical roots.
Appreciating religious art for more than its aesthetic qualities requires a certain level of biblical literacy that can no longer be assumed, even among educated people. Stephen Prothero's eye-opening book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't points out that most American adults cannot name all four Gospels and that many high-school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. Even in the academic world, biblical literacy is often neglected. The Bible is the single most influential book in the history of Western art, yet I was able to earn a PhD in medieval art without having to take any courses in religion or religious history.
A friend told me this story: As he was gathering images for a lecture he was preparing, a fellow graduate student saw a reproduction of Caravaggio's Conversion of St. …