“I find the best places that I can focus, and that I can worship, are places that have art or have artistic qualities. I don’t pray well in a little white box in a reflection room because it’s not really soothing.”
For Public Health junior Nuha Mahmood, art and religion are intertwined. The addition of art in places of worship amplifies her prayer.
“I’ll be really focused and really into it if I’m at the mosque that has calligraphy or art on the walls,” she said.
It’s a sentiment that spans continents; the interior of oldest mosque in the world, the Masjid al-Haram (or the Great Mosque of Mecca), has a forest of white pillars, gleaming marble arms that stretch up endlessly, crowned by stretches of calligraphy. The lines are graceful and exact, and their curves match the curved backs of the people as they bend to pray. Their worship and the detail of the surrounding art reveal similar narratives: a story of dedication and devoted care.
Across all faiths, religion and art have the potential to be easily connected. There already exists a sprawling history behind the portrayal of religion in art: Paintings hung in the Vatican serve as the visual icons to religious stories, and verses of the Qur’an turn melodic in recitation; on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, Tian Tan Buddha blots out parts of the sky; in Rio de Janeiro, Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms take flight 30 meters above Brazil.
Throughout the years, people have consistently turned to art as a platform for displaying religion.
More expressive than written text, art makes religion more personable. It is, at times, a window into the interpretation of the artist — an invitation that is accessible to all. The method in which Diego Velázquez chose to paint “Christ Crucified,” a solemn figure with his head lowered and eyes closed, induces a state of quiet contemplation no matter the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the viewer.
The relationship between faith and art, however, is not solely limited to oil paintings and frescoes. Even more contemporary aspects of artistic performance that seem to stand completely independent of religion can share common themes.
Both art and religion can take time to develop. Both art and religion can be used as forms of self-expression.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Grace Bydalek has always considered musical theater a large part of her life.
“I was probably 6 or 7 when I started,” she said. “I started with ‘A Christmas Carol.’ And then I kind of got bit by that bug and never went back.”
Paralleling her art is her religion — an aspect of her life that has been as long-lasting as the musical theater component.
“I was raised in the church,” she said. “I was raised Presbyterian and Protestant. So I went to church all growing up with my family; it was a big family thing. We would go on Sundays and Wednesdays and do the whole conformation thing and do the whole Sunday school and Bible school and vacation Bible school and the whole thing.”
Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Vincent Ford shared a similar story.
“I’ve been working in the industry professionally since I was like 6 or 7,” he said. “I started off doing vocal work and a little modeling work and then, as I got older, I went over to the world of film and then I became heavy in theater.”
Like Bydalek, Ford was raised in a religious household, spending time in church with his family as well as under the spotlight on stage or in front of the camera.
“I’m a very Southern man, so I was raised up extremely, strictly Christian,” Ford said. “I grew up in a Baptist religion. I come from a family of ministers and clergymen, so I know what it is to be caught in religion.”
The commonality across these distinct identities of art and religion is community — a concept Mahmood discussed when detailing her experience as a member of her high school’s Indian Students Association. Every year, Mahmood and the rest of the organization would put on a multicultural show, and during her last two years of high school, Mahmood found herself filling the role of choreographer. However, more valuable than the actual dances themselves was the resulting interconnectedness throughout the group.
“Just the skill of building community and building a pseudo-family for a lot of these kids that wouldn’t have found comfort anywhere else,” she said. “So, you get a lot of the people who tend to be loners, I felt like. They came and they would find people to support them there.”
A home built out of shared interests and countless rehearsals — the unity that Mahmood discovered within her cultural association — is a concept that holds true for Bydalek and Ford as well.
However, within religion and art, alongside cohesion, there can also exist conflict.
“This past year,” Ford explained, “I was in show called ‘Insurrection Holding History’ … and my character was a slave who had a homosexual love interest … I remember telling my parents about it … (my father) wouldn’t come to the show because it’s just that far removed from our religious beliefs.”
Contrasting his father’s actions, Ford approached this role with an open mind.
“The most important part about most religions is that we just are our best selves as human beings and that we love everyone equally,” Ford said. “I told the whole cast and the director as well that I grew as a person because of this production, because I was able to see the light of God through everyone.”
Bydalek reconciles the occasional tension between her religion and her passion in a slightly different way.
“I think of all the characters I’ve played as having important stories,” she explained. “Stories that were written for a reason. Stories that need to be told for a reason … it’s not necessarily about me, it’s more about telling a story.”
And the stories that Bydalek, Ford and Mahmood share as they continue to balance art and religion have the capacity to inspire others; the interactions between art and religion prompt understanding: Ford’s dad might have purposefully skipped “Insurrection Holding History,” but Ford’s mom came, watched and had a life-changing experience. In religion, there is always a capacity for growth.
There is also always a capacity for art.