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New York museum’s focus is biblical art in Jewish, Christian faiths
September 23rd, 2009
By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Among Ena Heller’s favorite moments at New York’s Museum of Biblical Art is when visitors look at the treasures in its galleries and say, “That’s not what I expected!”

“If we can create moments like that, then we have done our job,” she told Catholic News Service.

Heller is executive director of a museum created to foster an understanding of art inspired by the Bible and its legacy through the centuries by showcasing the relationship between art and religion in the Jewish and Catholic traditions.

“MOBIA is about biblical art, not religious art in general,” she told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview in late August.

“The premise for the museum was there is this one book – the Bible – that is more important, more foundational to Western civilization than any other,” Heller explained.

“The point of view we come from is not a religious point of view, but you cannot understand literature, art history, this country (and) the movement for religious freedom” without understanding the Bible, she said. “I believe you cannot be fully educated without knowledge of the Bible.”

Located at the headquarters of the American Bible Society, the museum grew out of a gallery that Heller started there in 1997. The museum was founded in 2004 and opened to the public in May 2005, drawing some 60,000 visitors since then. It has two galleries and a learning center.

“One of the things we try to do is show the extraordinary variety” of biblical art, Heller said. “I think everybody thinks they know what biblical art is but they don’t know for sure.”

People “usually have a definition but it is usually narrow,” and the museum wants to help its visitors “stretch the definition,” she added.

The museum’s current exhibit – “Scripture for the Eyes: Bible Illustration in Netherlandish Prints of the 16th Century” – really “illustrates some of the most important connections that this museum is trying to make,” she said. “It brings together two very important movements – in the history of art and the history of religion.”

In the 16th century, the Netherlands was one of “the most prolific, exciting centers for printed images,” Heller said, and that was happening at the same time as the religious turmoil of the Reformation.

The exhibit – according to a companion book edited by James Clifton and Walter S. Melion – “studies the crucial role played by scriptural prints in the complex processes of religious self-formation that dominated early modern European culture.”

“Prints were the primary medium for the invention and dissemination of biblical imagery that gave viewers new ways of relating to Scripture,” it adds.

“It is a period and a place in which there is this virtual explosion of printmaking and the dissemination of visual images,” making them accessible to the masses, said Clifton, who is director of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

This profusion of illustrated Bibles, devotional books and prints allowed ordinary people, not just the rich and educated classes, to buy such items to use in their homes for their own “devotional purposes,” he told CNS in a phone interview.

After Sept. 27, “Scripture for the Eyes” moves to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta. Clifton will be one of the exhibit’s curators.

Past shows at the New York museum have included: “Reel Religion: A Century of the Bible and Film,” “Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling,” “Albrecht Durer: Art in Transition” and “Images of the Prodigal Son: The Art of Forgiveness.”

Opening Oct. 16 will be an exhibit titled “Tobi Kahn: Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century,” followed by “An Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians and the Altarpieces of Medieval Aragon,” which starts Feb. 19.

Besides exhibitions, the museum sponsors tours, lectures, concerts and other events for the general public and scholars. It also has special programs for children and families.

It has received funding from a wide range of private, public and individual sources including various charitable trusts and foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the American Bible Society.

“We really are devoted to the image of the heavenly banquet, where everyone is invited and everyone is welcome,” said Father Paul Tabor, a New York priest who is the Museum of Biblical Art’s director of exhibitions.

The museum also has a place in ecumenical dialogue, he said, because even as religious factions can so often disagree in today’s world, “one of the important doorways into that discussion and mutual respect of religions is through the arts.”

“A person is led into a deeper appreciation of the religion that inspired those artworks,” he told CNS.

Editor’s Note: More information about the Museum of Biblical Art is available on its Web site,



From September 25, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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