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From the Egyptian Book of the Dead to Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, humans have always reached for art to express religious ideas and impulses. In this episode, we’ll explore how concepts of the divine and spirituality intersect with the history of art.

Introduction: James Hampton 00:00
The Book of the Dead 01:07
Art & Spiritual Feelings 02:57
Sacred Spaces 05:38
Art as Prayer & Ritual 07:40
Review & Credits 09:49

Image Descriptions:



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CC Kids:
In 1931, James Hampton began  receiving visions from God.

Hampton was a custodian working in  Washington, D. C., and following his   visions, he started collecting shiny things:  tin foil, jelly jars, and old lightbulbs.

He called himself the Director, Special  Projects for the State of Eternity. Hampton’s collection grew until  he had filled a rented carriage   house from top to bottom with  carefully selected fragments. He worked relentlessly until the array of found  and discarded objects became something new.

Transforming the individual  pieces into a unified whole. A work of art and architecture as ornate  and impressive as many cathedrals. So what I’m saying is,   religious artwork is much more than old  churches and paintings of baby Jesus.

Hi! I'm Sarah Urist Green, and  this is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] You might think that religious art  is made for a few simple reasons:   to honor a deity, proclaim a belief,  or maybe inspire practitioners. But religious art exists  for /all kinds/ of purposes.

Purposes that are totally diverse — both  within and across different religions. Like, some religious art  is practical — it instructs   followers about an important belief or idea. Take for example the artwork in the Egyptian Book  of the Dead, made around three thousand years ago.

This book is filled with paintings that  serve as a kind of map to the afterlife. This image from the book shows the  post-death journey of a scribe named Hunefer. He’s the one in the white robe —  which is not only a super strong look,   but also an indication of his clean soul.

The guy to the right of Hunefer is Anubis,  the god who oversees passage to the afterlife. He holds Hunefer’s life in the  palm of his hand — /literally/. In ancient Egypt, life was represented  by that symbol, called the Ankh.

In the next scene, we see  Anubis weighing Hunefer’s heart. If — based on how many wrongdoings he’s done on   Earth — his heart is heavier than the  feather of truth, order, and justice,   Hunefer will get eaten by this creature  with the crocodile head named Ammit. Woo-eee, this is high stakes, Hunefer.

Luckily, his heart is lighter than the feather,   so Hunefer gets to meet Osiris, god  of the afterlife, in this last panel. And, we assume, he lives happily ever after-life. So we see here that The Book of the Dead doesn’t  just display what ancient Egyptians believed.

It uses clear imagery to let people know  exactly what to expect on the other side. It instructs and prepares you for  what to do in this life and the next. But not all religious artworks  are quite so step-by-step.

Others are more open-ended, intended to evoke a   particular feeling or state rather  than provide a set of instructions. Like, check out this minimalist  rock garden at Ryōan-ji,   a Zen Buddhist temple built in  the 15th century in Kyoto, Japan. The elements in the garden aren’t  symbols that can be directly decoded,   like how the ankh symbolized life.

The meaning of the garden  changes from person to person,   but the feeling of peace and the  experience of meditation can be shared. Many religious artworks aim to inspire  the feeling of awe or reverence,   like this lavish ninth-century  cover of the Lindau Gospels. When you pick up this impressive tome,  light passes over its gold surface and   through the raised jewels — reflecting toward  the center, where Jesus hangs on the cross.

This trick of the light was meant to  evoke wonder and amazement in its readers,   emphasizing the miraculous quality  of Jesus’s triumph over death. But, it’s complicated. People don’t always agree on the right  way to generate spiritual feelings,   even when they believe in the same gods.

Like, to Catholics at the time,   the use of fancy materials showed  the object’s spiritual significance. But to the Protestants, especially during the   Protestant Reformation, it represented  an overindulgence in worldly things. The Protestants vibed with art  that was a little less… bling-y.

And that’s just one of many disagreements around   how one should — and should  not — create religious art. But there’s really no end to  the possibilities for making it. Like, check out the Rothko Chapel, a  meditative space in Houston, Texas,   that holds 14 massive works by  the American painter Mark Rothko.

The chapel isn’t tied to a specific religion, but still manages to evoke spiritual qualities. Three canvases hung side  by side make up a triptych,   a common format in traditional religious art. Layered pigment creates an impression of depth,   as if you’re looking beyond this  reality, perhaps into what lies beyond.

And the shadows of clouds as light streams in from   a skylight change the look of the  paintings from moment to moment. In both this and the Lindau Gospels,   we see how powerful the manipulation  of light in religious art can be. We can’t touch or hold light,  but we know when it’s there.

This echoes the way that the divine is often  described across many different religions and time   periods — making light a sort of cross-cultural  communication tool in religious art. Now, religious art is often showcased in sacred venues — places where people gather  to worship and be in community. But art doesn’t just decorate these places.

Often, the architecture of  these places is the art. And this has been true for a long time. Let’s go back almost two-thousand years  and step into the Dura-Europos Synagogue,   a sacred Jewish space.

Jewish practitioners entered this room  to study the scrolls of the Torah,   or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. And the synagogue’s walls were almost completely   covered with detailed paintings that  tell stories from the Hebrew Bible,   including the story of the prophet Moses  and the history of the Jewish people. They don’t just decorate  the space; they create it.

Or, take a look at this Iranian mosque, which  was built centuries later in the early 1600s. Its intricate geometric designs  still mesmerize visitors today. But they’re not just there to impress.

They stem from an important Islamic  belief: that God is unique in being   a creator of living things, so we humans  should not depict living things in our art. This explains why sacred Islamic art is aniconic;  meaning it avoids depicting people or animals. Artists instead use geometric designs,  architecture, and calligraphy, inspiring awe   through their perfect repetition and symmetry, as  well as their scale–and engagement of light, too!

So, in both the mosque and the synagogue,   the design of the space itself  communicates spiritual beliefs. And at the same time, it  supports spiritual actions. Like, mosques often feature  mihrabs, or prayer niches,   which physically point followers  in the direction of a sacred shrine   called the Kaaba, considered by Muslims  to be the most sacred place on Earth.

In this mihrab, a bright color scheme of white,  blue, and turquoise represents a heavenly garden,   with yellow and green accents  framing the arched gates of paradise. This merging of art and space can  happen on a smaller scale too. Where the art isn’t the building itself,  but the arrangement of objects within it.

Take for example this carving made by an Ibibio   artist in Nigeria sometime in  the early-to-mid-20th century. It depicts the deity Mami Wata,   a water goddess worshiped by followers of various  traditional West and Central African religions. Her hair and command of the snake in  her arms show her spiritual prowess.

And as a goddess believed to influence  things like wealth and fertility,   she’s frequently honored with shrines. This figure might be placed on an  altar alongside offerings like alcohol,   perfume, talcum powder, and other valuable goods. So, the carving doesn’t just represent a goddess;   it’s an essential part of rituals used to  gain healing and good fortune from her.

OK, up to this point, we’ve explored a number   of religious artworks that have  been preserved for generations. But not all artworks are designed to last. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite.

Like with these sand mandalas  made by Tibetan Buddhist monks. The process of creating a mandala is a meditative  practice that requires extreme precision. The monks design an intricate geometric framework,   and then tap sand through copper funnels  to meticulously fill in the lines.

And then, after all this work is complete,   the mandala is brushed away, to  symbolize that nothing lasts forever. Hindus in India have a similar tradition called  kolam, traditionally done with rice powder. Kolam is displayed in the entryway to  almost every building in Tamil Nadu.

The artists, almost always women, make the  designs every morning to welcome Lakshmi,   the goddess of wealth and alertness,  and Bhudevi, the goddess of the earth. These kinds of art are gone within hours. But permanence is not the point.

The artworks are intended to be both  beautiful and fleeting, kind of like life. Well, unless you've read the Book of the  Dead, and have your afterlife all mapped out. At the end of the day, you don’t have to practice — or even  completely understand — a religion to   appreciate the art that comes from its traditions.

Despite differences in culture,   geography, and time period, humans have been  asking similar questions for a long time. And art has helped us articulate those questions. What exists beyond what we can see?

How can we talk about, imagine, and represent  the unexplainable aspects of being alive? And how can we make sense of the  world, full as it is of suffering,   love, family, and everything else? Religious art doesn’t always answer  these questions, but it can make space   to contemplate them — whether in silent  reflection, or together, in community.

In our next episode, we’ll explore art  made about – and from – nature itself. I’ll see you there. Thanks for watching this episode of Crash  Course Art History which was filmed at the   Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and was  made with the help of all these talented people.

If you want to help keep Crash  Course free for everyone,   forever, you can join our community on Patreon.