Taking Religious Art Seriously
The world of children's literature is filled with books on religious art. Over the decades, these books have mainly been about Christian churches; by reading them, children could learn about Romanesque carvings, neoclassical pillars, and modern stained glass – but not about Christianity. This trend reached its climax with the publication of Cathedral, in which David Macaulay managed the incredible feat of creating the most famous children's book on religious art without once mentioning religion. As one friendly critic pointed out, you could never guess from the book how cathedrals are actually used.
Fortunately, children's authors have begun to move away from the belief that you can describe great works of art while ignoring the philosophies that led to the creation of those works. Two books published in recent times demonstrate the bold trend toward taking seriously the beliefs of religious artists.
LEARNING FROM THE DALAI LAMA
Both books, coincidentally, deal with religious art that is great because it is unoriginal. In a world in which "great art" is considered synonymous with "innovation," it is helpful to remember that most art through the centuries has achieved its greatness through its conventionality: medieval artists, for example, did not have to tax their ingenuity in order to create beautiful art, but instead built upon the work of previous artists.
This remains true in certain religious art traditions today; one such traditional art is examined by Karen Pandell and Barry Bryant in their book for middle readers on Buddhist sand mandalas.
Their book is burdened with an uniformative title: Learning from the Dalai Lama: Secrets of the Wheel of Time. Fortunately, the cover makes clear the subject of the book: a flat and circular piece of art made out of sand, which Tibetan Buddhists create as a home for their deities, and which they use as an aid to meditation.
The sand mandala is so delicate and intricate that it would be possible to write a book that did no more than describe the careful steps taken to lay down each little pile of sand. Fortunately, the authors have resisted the temptation to treat the mandala as a work of secular art. Instead, they spend much time describing religious rituals that accompany the creation of the mandala and examining the religious goals of its creators. It is interesting to learn, for example, that grains of wheat are placed on the mandala "representing cushions where the gods and goddesses are invited to sit." Even the section that teaches readers how to create their own mandalas includes advice such as, "Each time you pluck the [chalk] string, repeat your wish for the world."
Learning from the Dalai Lama describes the origins of Buddhism and the search and discovery of the present Dalai Lama; the volume is thus a convenient introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. The photographs by John B. Taylor are colorful and competent; the only striking images are two close-up views of the mandala. Moreover, the authors describe the creation of the mandala as thought it could have taken place at any time and anywhere. Since in fact the mandala was created at Madison Square Garden, the authors have missed out on the opportunity to include a few "you are there" anecdotes that would bring readers closer to the process of creation.
Neither of these defects may be found in Raymond Bial's beautiful and fascinating book for middle readers, Shaker Home. Bial has created a number of photo essays for children, notably, Amish Home, and he is a master at recreating the historical and philosophical contexts of the objects he photographs.
The subject of this book is the art of the Shakers, the American sect that rejected the "cohabitation of the sexes" (as its founder put it), embraced communal living, and created furniture and smallware of lovely and simple forms.
"I don't want to be remembered as a chair," lamented one present-day Shaker, and Bial does justice to the community by devoting as much space to the Shakers' religious beliefs as to their art and inventions. He shows how the simplicity of Shaker furniture grew out of the Shakers' desire to live a plain life – as well as their desire to create furniture surfaces that wouldn't collect dust. The Shaker belief that the soul can only thrive in a healthy body led them to be among the first to use precise measurements of ingredients in cooking. Their founder's belief that "good spirits will not live where there is dirt" led to the invention of the flat broom.
Throughout the book, Bial spices the text with pithy quotations, such as this saying by the Shaker founder, Mother Ann Lee: "Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live on earth, as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow."
No higher praise can be given to Bial than to say that his photographs live up to their subjects. Bial is in fact one of the finest photographers working children's literature, and his works in this book – such as a photograph of a spiral staircase, lovely as a lyric – are simple in a manner that any Shaker would admire. The pictures are also informative: a photograph of a Shaker meeting hall reveals how far apart from each other the men and women sat. The book's design complements the photographs, using a generous amount of white space that echoes the lightness of the Shaker rooms.
Readers emerge from both of these books with an awareness of how an artist's world view shapes the creation of his art. Thomas Merton has the final word on the subject in Bial's book: "The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it."
Pandell, Karen, and Barry Bryant. Learning from the Dalai Lama: Secrets of the Wheel of Time. Ill. John B. Taylor. New York: Dutton, 1995. 40 pp. 0-525-45063-7.
Bial, Raymond. Shaker Home. Ill. by author. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. 40 pp. 0-395-64047-4.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth