U.S. museums explore the art of different faiths

For thousands of years, religious themes have inspired some of the world’s most famous artwork. Three prominent U.S. museums are highlighting these links, with displays of the art from three different religions.

Two exhibitions — Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia (at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington) and Glorious Splendor: Treasures of Early Christian Art (at the Toledo Museum of Art, in Toledo, Ohio) — along with a new gallery housing the Keir Collection of Islamic Art (at the Dallas Museum of Art), reveal how creativity has been shaped by religious imperatives.

Encountering the Buddha re-creates the interior of a Tibetan Buddhist temple, with sculptures, scrolls and flickering lamps. Visitors learn about the meanings and ritual uses of precious objects from the Buddhist world and can watch a film about the Ruwanwelisaya stupa (sacred monument) in Sri Lanka, which shows the daily rites of monks, nuns and practitioners during the December full-moon festival.

Room with figurines, wooden furniture with multicolored inlay, rugs and other artwork (© John Bigelow Taylor/Smithsonian Institution)
The Sackler’s Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room holds 13th- to 20th-century works from Tibet, China and Mongolia. (© John Bigelow Taylor/Smithsonian Institution)

In Dallas, more than 100 pieces of Islamic art from the Keir Collection (encompassing some 2,000 artifacts produced in the Middle East, Asia and Europe over a span of 13 centuries) are now on permanent display. One standout piece is the heavily embellished, rock-crystal Fatimid ewer, acquired at auction for $4.3 million in 2008. Also on view are rare ceramics, silk textiles and illuminated manuscripts.

At left, circular multicolored patterns; at right, pairs of figures against floral background (The Keir Collection of Islamic Art/Dallas Museum of Art)
Left: Illuminated manuscript from Turkey, 1605-1610. Right: Textile fragment, Iran, 17th century. (The Keir Collection of Islamic Art/Dallas Museum of Art)
Carved crystal pitcher on left and inscribed, multisectional cylinder with handle on right (The Keir Collection of Islamic Art/Dallas Museum of Art)
Left: Fatimid ewer, from Egypt, late 10th to early 11th century, rock crystal, with 19th-century gold mount. Right: Combination padlock, dated 1483 CE, brass. (The Keir Collection of Islamic Art/Dallas Museum of Art)

Glorious Splendor at the Toledo Museum of Art covers the period from about 200 to 700 CE, when the Roman Empire transitioned from a pagan society to a Christian one. Late-antiquity Roman artists designed jewelry and luxury objects for wealthy Christian patrons, and these artists’ techniques — developed during pagan times and still in use today — emphasize artistic continuity in the midst of tumultuous change.

Bejeweled bracelet and earrings (© Bruce M. White/Toledo Museum of Art)
Left: Gold openwork bracelet set with gems and pearls, Byzantine, sixth century. Right: Gold earrings with granulation and garnets, Parthian, first century CE. (© Bruce M. White/Toledo Museum of Art)

Glorious Splendor features objects with explicitly Christian iconography, such as gold crosses and a silver plate bearing the earliest surviving image of the Communion of the Apostles (dating from 547 to 550 CE). The exhibition’s gem-studded bracelets and earrings, commissioned and worn by early Christians, signaled the growing power of the church and its followers.

Power is also evident in the exhibition’s sardonyx cameo busts of Emperor Septimus Severus and his wife, Empress Julia Domna, who was an ally of Pope Victor I.

Pendant and bust (© Bruce M. White/Toledo Museum of Art)
Left: Cameo busts of Septimus Severus and Julia Domna, Roman, 207–211 CE. Right: Garnet bust of Herakles, Roman, 161–180 CE. (© Bruce M. White/Toledo Museum of Art)

These exhibitions trace the earliest days and enduring practices of three major religions — each one with a story as rich and varied as the religious landscape of the United States, where these faiths (and many others) flourish.