This year’s Covering Religion class took a tour of religious art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Led by Amy Herman from The Art of Perception training seminar, our students got to not only see significant religious pieces, but better understand how to analyze them from the lens of an art historian. Here is a roundup of what some students learned from the field trip.

Motif of the Angel Gabriel

Columbia University’s Covering Religion class visits the Met Museum. Photo by Calla Kessler

From Richa Karmarkar–

The Archangel Gabriel is found in the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran–and in many of the Met’s religious art pieces, if you know where to look. As a herald and messenger of God, Gabriel is often shown in proximity to Mary, giving her the news that she will give birth to Jesus. The Annunciation, as it is referred to by Christians, has been depicted in paintings dating all the way back to the 4th century. As our guide told us, there are certain motifs that appear in Annunciation paintings–especially the dove, or the symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit indicates God’s ineffability and activeness in the material world as much as the spiritual. The dove, often shown flying down through a ray of light, can also represent the message being flown to Mary–that she will bear the “son of the most high.”

Photo by Calla Kessler

A larger than life-sized man made out of wood stands before the class in a striking pose, yet unmistakably in motion. The statue is overwhelming in stature, but carved with the utmost care and detail. The art piece is called Archangel by Charles Ray, and it depicts a surfer-like, blue-collar, modern version of Gabriel himself. 

The Archangel statue is facing towards the ground with an expression that mirrors other paintings of Gabriel; he is wise and knowing, and he is flying down with outstretched arms, or wings, to deliver his message. I found it especially intriguing to compare this piece with the other renditions of Gabriel and Mary. There is always movement found in this type of religious art, but this statue in particular seemed to engulf the audience as part of the story.

The Meditative Art of Buddhism and Shinto

There is a distinct calmness to be felt in the East Asian section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Colors of the sea and Buddhist and Shinto motifs flow through the walls and decor as if to mimic the tranquility of the belief system itself. 

In contrast to the early European paintings depicting Jesus’s life, the sculptures in this section are subtle in their appearance and color scheme. The materials used are earthly–stone, wood and water. Throughout our time at the museum, I found myself reminiscing about the meditative qualities of the Buddhist and Shinto art. I was able to think more clearly when I looked at them, perhaps a connection to the contemplative nature of both religions. 

Photo by Catherine Zhang

A Buddha sculpture hangs from the ceiling, created solely out of wire and rattan, a reed-like wood made from palm stems. Without a face, the Buddha is striking, but not intimidating. His body does not touch the floor; instead, his torso morphs into long curls of material. The transparency of the statue reminds me of the oneness with surroundings that I’ve learned Buddhists strive for.

Photo by Catherine Zhang

A deer stands frozen in the middle of another room, covered in glass spheres of various sizes. I am surprised to hear from our guide that we are looking at a real, taxidermied deer. The light reflects off of the deer’s new, crystallized form, offering a peaceful end to the deer’s life on earth. I enjoy the artist’s juxtaposition of life and death, as well as light and dark, as it allows me to see what the deer once was, as well as what it is in the Shinto religion–a sacred messenger of the Gods. 

Photo by Emma Van Slyck

From Catherine Zhang–

Adjacent to the serene beauty of Buddhist and Shinto art is a figure that looks like it was designed to inspire fear rather than inner peace.

Emaciated and gaunt, Chamunda the Horrific Destroyer of Evil wears the look of a corpse in the statue dedicated to her.

The sandstone she is carved from is pitted and worn down with the age of 10 centuries, adding to her fearsome appearance. Her 8 shoulders are absent their forearms, her legs absent shins. Whether they were lost to time or in a cosmic battle is a secret she keeps behind bared teeth.

Despite her wicked and decayed look, Chamunda still carries a regal appearance, with a tall crown on her brow and decorated cuisses armoring her thighs. She holds herself confidently with shoulders squared and head high. She is confrontational and prepared, and seems to dredge up the same feelings within those who look at her.

Photo by Catherine Zhang

During our trip to the MET, we saw the Japanese Shinto religious art piece that caught everyone’s eyes. It is a black stone with water flowing quietly over it. The piece shows the perfect balance of quiescence and dynamic between the stone and water, but also between the sound of the water flowing and the stillness of its entity. The simplicity and balance in this piece represent the core concepts in Japanese religion and culture. What’s more, ”purity“ is one of the key ideas in Shinto. At a Shinto temple, rituals begin with a process of purification, often involving the washing of the hands and mouth at the temizu basin in the garden of a temple. Therefore, I think the piece also represents this ritual in Shinto, showing the place people purify themselves, and maybe also the purpose (to reach the perfect balance between quiescence and dynamic of one’s body) of purifying before they enter the temple to pray.