By Elizabeth Orens
A number of Christian poets, musicians, and visual artists have responded to the COVID pandemic, offering their gifts in churches and cathedrals to express the gospel message.
Their inspired, sometimes mystical, gifts of the imagination bring us more than solace. Through image, song, metaphor, and symbol, their works stop us in our tracks, inspire us to be still, invite us to see anew.
“[T]he arts give people a reason to live,” Deborah Sokolove writes in Sanctifying Art, “the strength to carry on in the presence of terrible pain, or the ability to face death with dignity and peace.”
Sokolove’s insight brings to mind a few examples that antedate the pandemic, yet resonate all the more strongly today: a painting by Mark Rothko that reveals a radiance of light; a haunting chant sung by choristers in Arvo Pärt’s Beatitudes; a verse from John Donne’s Christmas Eve sermon:
He brought light out of darkness,
not out of a lesser light.
He can bring thy summer out of winter
though thou have no spring.
And although some church buildings have been closed throughout the pandemic, others that have been able to open their doors have become venues for works of artistic and spiritual healing.
“Art literally feeds us through beauty in the hardest, darkest hours,” Makoto Fujimura writes in Art and Faith: A Theology of Making. Whether in a painting, a sculpture, a poem, a mural, or a musical offering, the beauty of art beckons us even in our “hardest darkest hours” to “seek his Way amidst our many ways.”
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan offered a creative response to the pandemic during the feast days of All Saints and All Souls. In recognition of those who cared for the sick and dying and in remembrance of those who lost loved ones to the Coronavirus, the cathedral leadership observed the feasts with the theme “Lamentation, Thanksgiving, and Hope.”
Because the pandemic wreaked an especially deadly toll on the Mexican-American and wider Latino communities, cathedral leaders invited guest artist Sebastian Gamez to build Día de Los Muertos altars for two bays. Through social media, the cathedral then invited those who were grieving to send photographs and mementos of loved ones to be placed on the altars. These altars will remain in the cathedral through November.
Another work is a glass sculpture of angel wings originally displayed in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. This ten-foot high sculpture, Solace, consists of 160 blown glass feathers hung from the metal bones of the wings. Layne Rowe, its creator, offered this “reflective memorial” to honor those who have lost their lives during the pandemic.
In an interview, Rowe explained that his glass wings represented “freedom and fragility, but also peace, strength, and protection.” This sculpture suggests the wings of birds, angels, and the Holy Spirit. Rowe’s Solace has drawn many to the cathedral’s Lady Chapel for reflection and for meditation.
From December 2020 through July 2021, the Washington National Cathedral sponsored another remarkable installation, Les Colombes (The Doves), to symbolize peace and the work of the Holy Spirit. It was created in response to the pandemic, but many may have found it suitable for the times. The exhibit featured a flock of 2,000 white origami paper doves that whirled in a winding column from the very height of the cathedral nave.
The exhibit’s German creator, Michael Pendry, says that he chooses churches for his work because his creations can instill a greater sense of hope and peace in a sacred environment. Les Colombes has previously been installed at such churches as Salisbury Cathedral, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. When the light from surrounding windows (often stained glass) falls on the paper doves, the visual effect delights the eye with its splendor.
St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, responded to the pandemic through visual art tiles. Tim Jones, the deacon in charge, inspired volunteers in his congregation to each create two tiles — one representing despair and the other hope. Upon completion, parishioners organized a full-display mosaic for the church’s courtyard. The mosaic, “Circumference of a Pandemic,” brought adults and children together in a creative project that attended to feelings of loss and isolation, but also to healing. In a television interview about the project, Jones reported that painting the tiles helped parishioners “speak what is in their souls.”
Friends Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in College Station, Texas, opened its doors during Easter week to a prayer service and art exhibit, “The ‘Holy Pandemic’ Stations of the Cross.” Mary Button, the artist, painted images of hope and resilience that featured frontline healthcare, sanitation, and mortuary workers, along with verses from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
“[The exhibit] was something we as a community needed to do, especially after 12-plus months of being mostly in isolation,” said Dan De Leon, senior pastor. “It shows the resiliency in the face of so much suffering and death much the same way that the Easter resurrection gives us hope in the face of the sufferings and death of Jesus.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Orens assists at All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.