THE ANNO DOMINI: Jesus Through the Centuries exhibition opened at the Provincial Museum of Alberta on October 7, 2000 and closed on January 7, 2001. I did the exhibition out of my love for the Christian tradition and my sense that our cultural amnesia, in bracketing if not expunging this tradition from public discourse, diminishes our culture and thins the identity of all, believer or not. For three months thousands of people came, young and old, those who claimed the tradition and those for whom the Christian tradition is troubling if not worse. They stayed and pondered life's questions in dialogue with Jesus through the centuries. While it was the most popular exhibition our museum has ever had, drawing some 114,000 people, most important to my mind
Many came and lingered for three or four hours, asked if they might pitch their tent and stay; many returned two or three times to think again and ponder their own life experience in the face of this grand language of meaning we call the Christian tradition.
is the depth of engagement I was privileged to witness during those 90 days. Many came and lingered for three or four hours, asked if they might pitch their tent and stay; many returned two or three times to think again and ponder their own life experience in the face of this grand language of meaning we call the Christian tradition. A suite of stories on this spiritual geography:
Child's Search for the Devil
It was three days into the exhibition when one of our interpreters told me of lingering in "Jesus: Poet of the Spirit" section of the exhibition. A little child, perhaps four years old, called to his mother: "I found him. I found him." When the mother came close to him he pointed to Fritz Eichenberg's sketch "Jesus Sent Away," which shows the Grand Inquisitor dismissing Jesus.. Jesus moves out the door "never to return" as Dostoevsky tells us in this "Fifth Gospel",a parable at the heart of his magnificent novel The Brothers Karamazov. The child pointed to the Grand Inquisitor and said, "See, here he is,here he is. Here is the Devil!" Children often see the truth of an artistic work in an immediate way even when they know nothing of the story or texts behind the work. Eichenberg, an exile from Nazi Germany, convert to the Society of Friends and friend of one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, Dorothy Day, had made this suite of sketches for an edition of The Brothers Karamazov published back in the 1940s. I had acquired the original sketches from the Yale University Library, Arts of the Book Collection, and was thrilled to hear Eichenberg and Dostoevsky speak across and captivate a young mind who may someday plum the depths of what Jaroslav Pelikan has called "The Fifth Gospel" precisely because it speaks to the curious ways the anti-Christ nests within the church.
How Small Jesus Sometimes Is
Students and faculty of Gardner College, a Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) Bible School in Camrose, Alberta, spent a morning in Anno Domini. I was asked to introduce them to the exhibition and then to join them over lunch and listen to them as they reflected on their visit. My introductory lecture before they entered the exhibition explored the evangelical vision present in their communion (and periodically throughout the life of Christianity) and touched on their Anabaptist roots and their concern for sanctification. Both themes were implicit in various places in the exhibition.
Over lunch a number of interesting themes were raised. First, one student spoke of his realization in the exhibition that he had grown up with substantial prejudice towards things that he identified as Catholic. This came to the surface when he saw the early works, works that he saw as explicitly Catholic. As he saw works he could identify with alongside the Catholic artwork, and saw them "talking to each other", he realized his prejudice. He spoke of how this encounter opened him up a bit to consider the other and what the Holy Spirit might be doing in this context.
The second comment came from a professor. He noted that as he walked through Anno Domini he was reminded of "something I know but often forget. Jesus is far larger than we make him in the church. We often see Jesus as much smaller than he is."
The second comment came from a professor. He noted that as he walked through Anno Domini he was reminded of "something I know but often forget. Jesus is far larger than we make him in the church. We often see Jesus as much smaller than he is." He went on to speak of the impact of Jesus on our world and on culture and how important it is for Christians, such as him, to be reminded of this obvious but often forgotten matter. I spoke of the habit within the church of colonizing Jesus and we spent some time in discussion around these themes. A third issue was raised by the Dean of Faculty of the college, a man with a lovely mind and a fine spirit. He referred to a comment made by his wife when they visited the exhibition a week earlier. She referred to Anno Domini as the meta-narrative of our culture and how this is the narrative Post-Modernism wishes to remove from the landscape of intellectual discourse.
Ismaili School and "Jesus, the Son of Mary"
The grade 12 class of the Edmonton Ismaili Saturday School came to the exhibition with various adults. I introduced the exhibition by discussing the Prophet Jesus, as understood in Islam and as they have come to understand him. I used the Ismaili consideration of the Hidden Imam and the Imam of the Day, a kind of incarnational notion, as a way of inviting them into the way Jesus has been considered in Christian culture. After they visited the exhibition I was asked by their teachers to participate in a reflection on the exhibition. We discussed the paintings by Edward Knippers and Bruce Herman, and why it is that these works speak so strongly. In Islam the body is always covered. We discussed what it means for Christian artists to show the human form in its pristine beauty and the common Muslim and Christian sense of the human being as God's creation.
The following week the grade 11 class visited. This was a marvelous groupo of bright young people and our conversation ranged over the meaning of Jesus, Son of Mary and Prophet, the Ismaili understanding of the Hidden Imam, the ethical issues raised in the video "Jesus in the Age of Television," as well as the themes of "Jesus the Divine and Human Model" and "Jesus the Liberator." One young woman reflected on Gandhi's presence in the exhibition and on Churchill's churlish comment, "Gandhi is nothing but a naked fakir." She said, "What I have learned here in this exhibition is that even Churchill had within himself the capacity to change and recognize the image of God in Gandhi. He may not have taken the step but he had the capacity to do so."
Edmonton Interfaith Education Council In-Service
Anno Domini and Vocation
My colleague and friend Ian MacLaren, Professor of English at the University of Alberta, told me that a friend of his had recently been in the exhibition and heard a conversation she wished him to pass on to me. A young woman and young man, both from Vancouver, had come to Edmonton to see the exhibition. She works with prostitutes and he with street people. They had apparently never met before talking in Anno Domini. The young man said to his new friend: "This exhibition makes me want to go back to Vancouver, back to streets and get to work." "Me too," she responded.
Our museums and art galleries have catered to the aesthetical-historical appetite of an ever diminishing elite. Indeed, approaching questions of meaning at the heart of why artists paint and sculpt has been all but taboo in the 20th century if it touches on faith or the Christian tradition. It is a great curiosity that while museums and art galleries are full of works which bear a trace of Jesus' name, the Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries exhibition is perhaps the first to intentionally explore these questions of meaning. While Jesus as a person, Jesus' teaching and what we have made of him over 20 centuries stands at the centre of our culture, we have become strangers to ourselves as a result of the amnesia of the last century. My approach in Anno Domini sought a third way, opening up the avenues of meaning in which artistic works and ideas have been and are at play in our culture and cultural tradition.
Our colleagues who came as couriers from museums in Europe discussed the exhibition and this third way I endeavored to follow. Roberto Fontanari, an art historian from the Galleria dell'Accademia (Venice) and Museo di San Marco (Florence) spent some time going through the exhibition just before it was opened. He spoke of how, in Europe and in his own museum, exhibitions typically focus on aesthetics and historical themes and issues: "For twenty years I have thought about how we might explore the deeper questions of meaning that so much of our artistic works speak about. I have wanted to find a way to do this but have never seen an exhibition in which this has been done until now." He spoke of the layers of meaning within the exhibition, how the artistic works, ancient and modern, talked to each other and talked with the texts, religious and secular, with the "Voices of the Twentieth Century" and with the audio selections and music.
Similarly, Godfrey Evans, Curator of European Metalwork and Sculpture at the National Museums of Scotland, discussed the landscape of meaning presented in Anno Domini. We discussed why we were able to do this in the Canadian context and how it had come about that museums and art galleries always reduce their exhibitions to aesthetics and history without consideration of the larger questions of cultural meaning. He also spoke of Anno Domini as a significant accomplishment for several reasons, including showing a way of engaging questions of meaning within the context of a pluralistic society. Significant or not for the approach of museums to artistic works, Anno Domini provided a landscape of meaning for thought and conversation, the grace of which fills my heart with a deep appreciation for the gifts of he who is ever ancient, ever new. But let me finish with another story from the exhibition's closing day. It is a story rooted in two of the most haunting texts that shape the Gospel landscape, a story that speaks to how the spiritual geography of our life is shaped by those who care for our soul.
Conversation on "Jesus the Rabbi"
I spoke with a woman and her two boys in front of this theme. She was kneeling down speaking very seriously with her young sons, perhaps 6 and 8 years old. I asked her about the discussion. She was speaking to them about the scripture texts in one Frakturs on the "Prodigal Son" and one Vorschrift on "Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery." She told me they had remembered the parable and narrative together and that she was speaking about God, our father, always joyous to welcome us home. She reminded her boys about how we must strive to be faithful but that when we see others who are not faithful, like the women taken in adultery, we are not to judge. Like Jesus, she said, we are to forgive and bless. This is what she had been speaking about with her young sons and doing so, at the heart of two millennia.
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