Drawing on various aspects of the Menil’s permanent collection, Objects of Devotion explores the ways in which art supported religious practice in different times and places. Objects ranging from small-scale works of personal nature, such as Byzantine pilgrim ampulae, to a Maya vessel used in ninth century chocolate-drinking rituals, to architectural sculpture, including a thirteenth-century Japanese Shinto shrine figure, allow us to consider the various roles to which objects are put in the service of establishing, reinforcing, and refining spiritual beliefs.
In their past lives, works of art included in the exhibition have acted as representations of the divine, conduits or intercessors that provided access to it; modeled or regulated proper comportment or practice; and acted as a stand-in for the petitioner. For example, a sixteenth century Northern Renaissance portrait of a female donor, a fragment of a larger altar piece, not only bore witness to her piety and pointed to it as an example during her life time, but continues her prayer into the present. A Dogon maternity figure from the twentieth century probably performed a similar role when it was placed on an altar in West Africa. Rather than representing an ancestor or deity, this work likely depicts a petitioner and as such, offers an interrupted prayer. An eighteenth-century Spanish colonial painting of Mary and Christ, on the other hand, offered the believer an image by which to conceptualize the divine and his intercessor in material form. A monstrance designed by Dominique de Menil when she lived in Venezuela with her husband, John, in 1941, acts, as do these other works, as a testament to her belief and a manifestation of her own spiritual devotion.
Many of the works featured in this exhibition have never previously been on view in the museum, which opened in 1987. As an ensemble they speak to the spiritual impulse in the collection formed by John and Dominique de Menil whose encounter with the Dominican priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier prompted them to begin acquiring art in the 1940s.
Photos: Paul Hester