Religious Art at the Met

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.

The Gospel Music of Abyssinian Baptist Church

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring

The 14-person chorus chanted lyrics from a book called African American Heritage Hymnal as they swayed together in perfect rhythm. Behind the pulpit, the piano, organ, guitar and drum ensemble, dressed in their black Sunday best, joined in as the embodiment of religious devotion. 

May we forever stand

True to our God

True to our native land

The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III introduced the opening hymn on the first Sunday of Black History Month as the celebratory anthem for the African people. His church, Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem, was formed when a handful of African devotees broke away from the predominantly white First Baptist Church more than 200 years ago. On this Sunday, the sanctuary was decorated with traditional African brocade; a testament to the artistic creativity that defined a people. 

“We have so much talent in this room,” said the reverend. “This is all a part of our great expression.” 

The African American church has been using music to tell its story since its inception. At Abyssinian’s service, gospel music expressed what Bible verses may have not – the resilience and faith of Black America. 

Butts led by singing a new song, while the Total Praise ensemble followed his cue, almost as if to represent the spirited Abyssinians themselves. 

We have come this far by faith,

Leaning on the Lord,

“Everybody sing to the glory of God,” instructed the Rev. Dr. Raschaad Hoggard, preaching each lyric before the choir joined in. “Now let’s sing with conviction!

Trusting in His holy Word,

He's never failed us yet.

The rows of well-dressed men and women were joined together by the nostalgia of each verse and the spirituality of each word. The song served as its own kind of prayer, with a resounding message of safety in God’s care.

As the choir began their gospel rendition of Happy Birthday for all churchgoers with February birthdays, I saw masked worshippers hugging each other and posing for photographs. It seemed like their warm embrace was to make up for the past two years of isolation, and the music was what brought a familiar sense of community that they had been missing.  

The pastor brought everyone back to their pews to start a sermon from Apostles 8:26. In it, he described the kings and queens of Ethiopia who were consistently underestimated, and who served as a lesson of the great successes Black people had found throughout time and oppression. 

“The core of our people is our struggle,” he said. 

A twinkling piano melody filled the silence between affirmative “mmms” and “Amens.” The long phrases felt deeply meditative, and his hands seemed to glide over the keys as he closed his eyes, entranced with what, or whom, he felt. 

He’s got the whole world in His hands.

An operatic soprano performed the next solo to the crowd of enchanted worshippers. Some eyes were closed in prayer, some open in awe, with each person’s body swaying as part of a whole. 

He’s got the whole world in His hands.

She sang the high notes with so much passion that it warranted a standing ovation, “yes ma’ams” and abounding claps.

“Thank you for encouraging our hearts,” said Reverend Hoggard. “That was masterful.”

I understood that music wasn’t just for the ears here. It was for mind, body and soul, and connected each person’s heart with the sentiment of feeling God. 

A different soloist, this time with a brassy, mezzo tone began the next song, “Is There Any Way” by Richard Smallwood. She closed her eyes as she sang, pulled in by the deep emotion of speaking to God through her words.

God, You promised to be with me

Through the storm and through the rain

You are my everything

The Total Praise ensemble sang with her in harmony. Music, along with God, was the church’s everything. Their blended, melodious voices sounded like what many cultures deem will welcome good souls to the pearly gates of heaven. 

“When the spirit is in us, our creativity celebrates the fullness of who we are,” he said. 

Again, the piano music crept up in perfect transition to the end of service. A new, jovial tune played with cymbals and drums played in the background of the closing prayer, signifying a hopeful future for the ancestors of Abyssinia.

In Harlem, Sunday School Students Contemplate Justice


The first Sunday in March was the end of an era in the life of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem. It was the last Sunday that the church would hold virtual services, an accommodation it had offered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago.

Since March 2020, the parish, at 1883 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, had only been open a few hours a day from Tuesdays to Fridays.  

When I tuned in for the final virtual lessons at 8 a.m. on Sunday, I watched people pop into the Zoom and Facebook Live call one by one, smiling at each other and dropping familiar good morning messages in the chat. 

But instead of celebrating the end of an era or speculating what it would be like to gather in person once again, the online conversation was all about justice. 

“Does God pervert justice?” asked the Reverend Gerforne Johnson.

Blank stares from behind screens left Johnson bewildered. 

“Did I go on mute?” she asked.

I didn’t know enough about God to answer her question. But as I learned later in the virtual Sunday service, even Christians aren’t meant to always know God’s will. 

The Sunday school, part of the church’s Black History Month teaching series, would be about the misunderstanding of God’s justice, taught through the story of Bildad and Job from Job 2:11.

“Can someone highlight what is one of the biggest injustices we face as people of color?” asked Minister Maya Clarke for the adults of Bible Study group three’s icebreaker prompt.

Echoes of “voting rights” “job discrimination” and “racism” flooded the unmuted crowd of fifteen. 

From overlapping voices emerged the answer Clarke was looking for: police brutality. 

“Too many innocent women and men of color are being killed or assaulted at the hands of police officers,” she said. Her use of the present tense made me realize this lesson wouldn’t only be about biblical history. Black churches in America have been forced to reckon with external social and political injustices since their inception.

Before sympathy or condolences are offered to those killed by law enforcement, Clarke continues, the criminal past of Black victims is often used to purport an explanation for why they landed in the position they did. In other words, Black victims are blamed far more than White victims, as if their past transgressions justified their deaths. 

“Do you ever find yourself victim-blaming?”

Nobody wanted to answer this one, perhaps afraid to show that they had ever acted in judgment.

“With all things, God's justice is always fair despite what it might look like.”

Bildad was a Shuhite, from the nomadic tribe of southern Palestine. He had been placed by God in Job’s life after Job had lost his children because of their sins– a test of Job’s faith. Bildad told Job that all of the negative events in his life were a punishment for his sins, on the premise that the righteous would never suffer. 

But Bildad was wrong, Johnson said. He assumed he knew what God was thinking.

“Do you blame God for things that you don’t understand?”

A woman piped up from the boxed congregation. “Yes, I blamed God when my Grandma passed, because I didn’t understand why He would do this to the only person I knew who lived exactly by His word.”

“Only God knows why bad things happen to good people,” replied Johnson. I wondered if the woman was satisfied with her answer.

Sister Shirley Monroe seemed as though she had been pondering a question during the entire Bible Study, and was itching to pose it to the group.

“I just wanted to know why people say it was God’s will if someone gets killed in the streets,” she said. “Was that really God doing that?”

A tonal shift among the crowd indicated that questioning God’s motives behind human suffering was a difficult and heavy topic to approach. 

The senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Johnnie M. Green Jr. spoke up from a moving vehicle to answer Monroe’s query. 

“God doesn’t order a hit on somebody’s life,” he said. “But a person who dies from street violence may often be reaping the seeds they’ve sown.”

Wasn’t this victim-blaming? I was unsure how the pastor had understood the lesson in such a different way than I had, but he doubled down in his next statement.

“God allows certain things to happen and we have to accept it as the grand scheme of things. Sometimes people bring it on themselves.”

The pastor’s words felt like a sharp detour from today’s message. I looked at the faces of the churchgoers to see if anyone felt differently about the question, but they remained expressionless, maybe to say that the head pastor had the final call.

I wish I knew how God put His plans in action. I wish I knew why bad things happen to good people. Was everyone else truly okay with not knowing?

Violence on the streets of New York has continuously caused suffering in the Black community, and that suffering has led to a collective grief. But in that grief, for believers to accept their fate as players in God’s long game, is something that fascinates me about faith. Deep down, they must trust that everything happens for a reason they might never understand. I realized the theme of today’s lesson was about control– how Christians must grapple with the things out of their control, and how God’s omnipotent control is one of Christianity’s great mysteries.

The Blessed and Pink Dressed

I had visited Catholic churches before. Whether in Italy, Spain or New York, they always struck me with the same haunting silence.

Aside from the faint echo of monastic chants or organ chords, it was quiet. If I listened too hard, it was like I could hear someone whispering through the stone walls. Maybe believers heard Jesus in the whispers, and that’s why they sat so earnestly in the brown pews.

I couldn’t hear Jesus the way that they did so their prayers fell upon my arms and legs like chills. I entered the Church of Notre Dame in New York with only the expectation of echoes.

The church on 114th Street and Morningside Drive was hidden in plain sight, with a fence on the corner blocking it off from the noise of the neighborhood. A path through a small garden led either to the chapel where the priests said mass or to the rectory, where they lived.  

As I entered the chapel, I saw one woman alone, her gaze fixated on the marble altar at the front of the room. . Her bright pink dress stood out from the clean, holy, untouched marble. With a mask on, she looked as if she could be an older cousin of mine, her black frizzy-wavy hair down her back, tan skin warm against the floral pink.

She arrived at the Tuesday service at least an hour earlier than everyone else. As she waited, she sat in a pew near the raised statue of the Virgin Mary. She looked between Mary and Jesus in reverence, muttering under her breath with her hands folded on her lap. It was like she knew God was coming. 

Catholics believe that, in 1858 in Lourdes, France, the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman who would later be recognized as St. Bernadette. The New York church replicated this moment in a grotto in stone at the front of the chapel. The gray stone looked real, like someone had carved into the building itself to reveal its earthy interior. The grotto looked so natural against the stark white marble that it lured me into the scene of the Virgin’s apparition.

As she sat, the woman in pink held the same facial expression as the memorialized St. Bernadette–a combination of awe and longing. 

While the priest gave his homily, the woman in pink was seated one row across from me, with her eyes laser focused on the book he was reading from. The Good Book, the word of God Himself, the Holy Bible. 

She seemed to know every word to every prayer the priest spoke. I followed her to know when to stand up and sit down, and when to bow my head. But when she rose to take the Eucharist–the wine and bread that Catholics believe to be the real body and blood of Christ – I stayed in my seat. There are some moments that are only meant for true believers.

The woman in pink gracefully consumed Jesus’s body and knelt on the pew closest to Him to pray. As I sat in my pew, I tried to talk to God. But it felt like I needed someone to translate for me, like I couldn’t reach Him in the same way that everyone else could. 

Her prayer was long. I could see in the folds of her face that she was fervently praying to God, faithfully asking for help and expressing her pious devotion. I wanted so badly for all of her prayers to be answered. But neither I, nor she, knew if they ever would be. 

When she sat back down at the end of service, she started singing on cue with the other worshippers; out of tune, at a higher volume than the rest, but with the passion of someone who knew the song well and believed every word. It was a hymn about Jesus, but I couldn’t pick out the melody from her shouted notes.

She closed her eyes and remained in her seat. As I left the church, she was still singing.