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Literature and architecture panel from the America Windows Literature and architecture panel from the America Windows

Talking about Prayer and Art in the Galleries

Gallery Program


And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As a child, I repeated this prayer countless times as I knelt beside my bed. Whether it was intended to provide comfort or fear—probably both—it certainly inspired hours of fitful sleep disturbed by thoughts of death. Combined with catechism classes and the ritual of Catholic masses, this simple rhyme effectively linked the idea of prayer and God together.

Since leaving the church as a young adult, I’ve hardly prayed at all. Instead, there are quotations and lines from conversations, books, poems, and songs that play and replay in my head, offering solace and inspiration. But the idea of prayer as the ritualized recognition of mystery fascinates me, so I eagerly joined one of the museum’s gallery programs titled “What Is Prayer?” It was led by Sam Ramos and Marielle Epstein from our department of Interpretation, who emphasized that the purpose of the program was discussion, that their Gallery Conversations are about questions more than answers.

Ando Gallery 2024 4

The Andō Gallery

Also known as the Andō Gallery, Gallery 109 was designed by the self-taught architect Tadao Andō, who viewed museums as a sacred space. The dimly lit room is so resonant and serene that it inspires whispering—the perfect choice as a place for the program to start. There were about 20 of us, sitting on folding chairs. After a guided meditation, which set a reflective mood, the discussion began with an attempt to define prayer, which for most people seemed to be something that was directed outward. Meditation, on the other hand, seemed more inward-directed.

Prompted by the question of what conditions are necessary for prayer, someone suggested that for prayer to occur, there has to be faith or belief in a deity, in something or someone to direct the prayer toward. Someone who had been raised with no religious practice said that they regard prayer as a form of self-conversation. Could a person praying be seen as the “other” toward whom the prayer is directed? As a part of the creation, maybe you are also part of the creator.

What about group prayer, as in a church or a temple, where the individual voice is subsumed in the cadence of a collective prayer? There is a different kind of power in a group prayer than in one spoken in solitude. Does that idea apply to meditation? Is there more power in a silence filled with a group of people seeking silence?

A writer and an artist in the group both saw the creative act as a form of prayer, as a kind of religious practice. Instead of ritualistic repetition of the words of a prayer, they repeat their artistic practice, whose goal is to explore all aspects of life: the dark and the light, the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane.

Our time in the Andō Gallery ended with a reading from the book To Bless the Space Between Us, by the writer and philosopher John O’Donohue. The lines that stuck with me most:

Awaken to the mystery of being here / and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.

—John O’Donohue, poet and philosopher

Our next stop was Zurbarán’s The Crucifixion, the most overtly religious of all the works in our tour. A large percentage of the artworks on view in the museum are what could be called religious works. Whether Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, or of another faith, they were made in large part for devotion and ritual.

Francisco de Zurbarán

Zurbarán’s handling of the central event of the Christian faith seems designed to have maximum visual impact. He places the body of Jesus Christ in a black void, removing all historical context, directing the viewer’s focus. This kind of heightened drama was encouraged by the Catholic church at the time, as such images were the primary vocabulary of an illiterate populace.

One person in our group explained that the Protestant sect she belonged to was created in opposition to theatrical images such as this. Several people noted that while the image is disturbing, it has been painted so beautifully, as if Zurbarán needed to strike a balance between the human and the divine, to make an unimaginable agony appear as transcendent.

How does this relate to prayer, and especially for non-Christians? First off, the size of the work—almost 10 feet tall— combined with the fact that it was hung up high almost forces the body into a posture of submission or reverence. The poet Rumi wrote famously that “when the world pushes you to your knees, you’re in the perfect posture to pray.” In this case, the viewer stands below, looking up.

Originally it had been hung in the sacristy of a monastery. This fact turned the conversation to the importance of context: what happens when you remove an artwork from a sacred site and place it in a museum? Is it still a sacred object? Or does it become an aesthetic object? Staff members among us mentioned having seen people praying—or who seem to be praying—in front of artworks in the galleries.

Which raises the question: how know do you know if someone is praying? What is the posture of prayer? It reminded me of that famous expression: you know it when you see it.

Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Our next stop was a painting by Jay DeFeo in the Modern Wing. The title of the work, The Annunciation, refers to the moment in the New Testament of the Bible when the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the son of God.

Jay DeFeo

About the title of her painting, the artist said, “I don’t choose such titles with any narrow Christian interpretation in mind. It doesn’t have to do with any specific religion at all. It is only a symbol.” For several people, the work proved too abstract to inspire religious sentiment or prayer. For others, it had the opposite effect, proving inspirational and moving. The vividness of the colors and energy of the brushstrokes evoked the emotional experience of what an Annunciation might feel like, the raw human reaction of being approached by an angel—had Mary ever seen an angel before?—and being told that you will carry God’s child. The intensity and complexity of the emotions are hard to imagine.

DeFeo’s work suggests that as much as it was a divine story, it was a human story. Her Annunciation wasn’t painted for a church or for religious worship. Yet the impact, even if only symbolic, was profound, which raised an interesting question: what is the difference between praying to a stylized likeness of the Virgin, one of those serene Madonnas found in European art and Catholic churches, and praying to the all-too-human woman perhaps still arrested mid-vision?

As a prompt, Rothko’s famous quote was evoked: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experiences I had when painting them.” This reinforced the idea, shared by several participants, that for some people going to an art museum is the same as going to church. Some people go to the same works, over and over again. And the repetition doesn’t lessen the impact of the work but deepens it, because every time you see it, you are different, no matter how slightly. The same thing could be said about the repetition of prayer. Things happen between prayers.

If the topic hadn’t been prayer, would people have the same reaction to the artwork?

Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.

-Teresa of Avila

The last work on this tour was Marc Chagall’s America Windows, created as a gift to the city of Chicago on the occasion of the American Bicentennial. The windows were a fitting end to the tour as they celebrate the freedom of religion and the arts as vital aspects of the American experience. We unfolded our stools and luxuriated in the vibrant color. (Can you luxuriate in prayer?)

Marc Chagall

Typically, stained glass is used in religious spaces, and Chagall wanted to inspire reflection. Participants mentioned that the America Windows demonstrate how religion and the arts are intertwined, how art has served religion as much as religion has served art.

When designing the windows, Chagall stated, “When one works, one must have a vision.” How does his vision relate to prayer? First, in a pragmatic way, our freedom of religion allows us to publicly pray to whatever god we choose. In a more symbolic way, the medium of stained glass says as much about prayer as the imagery itself, because without the light behind the glass, there are no colors. There are no images.

Marc Chagall

The artwork itself would not exist without light. Could the energy behind the glass be equated with the breath that brings prayer to life? Just as the windows are brought to life with fire, is prayer brought to life with air? Prayer, in this regard, is very much a living thing.

And with that, our time was up. After an acknowledgement of the 90 minutes we had shared together as a group, the conversation ended.

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.

—Meister Eckhart

Special thanks to Sam Ramos, director of gallery activation, and Marielle Epstein, assistant director of interpretation, for leading such a fascinating and inspiring discussion, and to all the participants and the ideas they voiced in the galleries, only a few of which were touched on in this article.

If you’d like to participate in this or any of our other engaging gallery programs, check out our website. There is something offered on every day that we’re open.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but since this experience, I’d swear I’ve become more aware of my posture and attitude as I stand before works of art.

—Paul Jones, associate director, Communications



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