In the second volume of her biography of Henri Matisse, Hilary Spurling describes the reaction of French Communists to the elderly artist’s chapel at Vence, for which he designed not only the stained glass windows, but also the architecture, furnishings, murals, and vestments. Completed in 1951, Matisse called it his “masterpiece.”

Once in power, the Communists promised to turn it into a dance hall.

The union of religion and modern art has the power to inspire and surprise and often offend. Conventional wisdom would have it that modernism and religion—in particular, Jewish and Christian religion—rarely walk hand in hand. Whether it be Vence or the Rothko Chapel in Texas, the old storyline treats religious themes as the eccentric curiosities of a secular art rather than the strains of an art form with more sacred roots.

But in fact religion and modernism have had been engaged with each other since the beginning. Certainly, it has not always gone well. In the second half of the twentieth century, mainline religion lost confidence in traditional symbols and leaned on modern architecture to whitewash once-sacred iconography. Houses of worship came to represent mere houses of congregation. Expressions of faith had become formless.

When it comes to modernism and religion, however, the successes can still outdo the failures. Last month, New York provided one more example of this fact with the rededication of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and Sixty-fifth Street. A force for reformed Judaism in the United States since its founding in 1845, this congregation grew both in numbers and wealth to a point in the 1920s where it could construct, on the site of the former mansion of John Jacob Astor, the largest Jewish sanctuary in the world. After a $30-million renovation led by the firm Beyer Blinder Belle, which also oversaw the restoration of Grand Central Terminal, Temple Emanu-El reopened officially on December 15, 2006 with a public ceremony featuring the mayor of New York and the governor-elect of the state, both of whom are congregants. The temple’s museum also opened a small exhibition on the reconstruction.[1]

In the nineteenth century, before the move uptown, Temple Emanu-El occupied a Moorish-style synagogue on Fifth Avenue and Forty-third Street that had been designed by Leopold Eidlitz, who also did P. T. Barnum’s “Iranistan” mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Breaking with the ornamentation of the previous building, the new Sixty-fifth Street sanctuary called for a rationalized, neo-Romanesque style. When completed in 1929, it became a living example of art-moderne design—now returned to its original splendor.

The architects Robert D. Kohn, Charles Butler, and Clarence Stein, along with Goodhue Associates and Mayers, Murray & Phillip, mapped out a floor plan that was 147 feet long by 77 wide by 103 high, a space that would accommodate 2,500 seats—more than the capacity of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. To span it, the architects used an innovative steel structure concealed in a polychromatic coffered ceiling. Here, on these beams, the restoration has revealed a colorful pattern of painted shapes and gold gilt that rains down a shower of mystical, abstract elements over the rest of the temple’s artistic program.

For the sanctuary details, the master planners employed many of same artists and designers whose work can be seen in the best buildings of the period, both secular and sacred. Goodhue, for example, designed the Church of St. Thomas down a few blocks on Fifth Avenue, and Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Oliver Smith, who designed stained glass for a number of area churches, conceived of the temple’s glass wheel window with segments representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Hildreth Meiere, who teamed up with Goodhue on the art deco Nebraska State Capitol building and with Mayers, Murray & Phillip on the Medicine and Public Health Building at the 1939 World’s Fair, here designed the mosaic arch above the ark in a palette inspired by Gustav Klimt. Oscar Bach, who joined Meiere in creating the rondrels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, another deco building, designed with Samuel Yellin the ornamental metalwork on the sancutary ark—here conceived as an open Torah scroll with pillars as staves. Ulysses Ricci, who designed the sculptural program on the National Archive building in Washington, executed the column capitals, balcony fascias, and pulpits. The firm of Rafael Guastavino supplied its patented noise-reducing “Akoustalith” tiles for the sanctuary walls. Guastavino’s herringbone-pattern tile can be seen in Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, Carnegie Hall, the U.S. Supreme Court building, the American Museum of Natural History, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, and the famous, abandoned City Hall subway station. Finally, Tiffany glass that had decorated the Forty-third Street sanctuary was re-employed in the bimah of the Beth-El side chapel.

The overall effect is grand and at times austere. The romanesque side-arches are just a little too spare. The wheel window looks staid, while some of the modern materials come off as just a little too up-to-date. The Guastavino tile, for instance, look like it could be used in the space program. At Grand Central, beneath the layers of grime, Beyer Blinder Belle revealed a secular temple to our civic religion. At Temple Emanu-El, this firm has uncovered a space where modern design comes together for a sacred purpose. It is a beautiful achievement, open to the public.

Last month, two exhibitions in New York examined the place of religion in modern art—or art in modern religion, depending on how you look at it. “Responses to … Solitude” was a one-evening event that resembled a young Christian “happening” rather than your standard gallery fare.[2] Along the ninth-floor hallway of a modern Catholic office building in Midtown, candlelight directed over 350 artists and spectators into what is usually the building’s cafeteria. For the evening show, the blacked-out room was lit only by spotlight. The soundtrack came by way of Radiohead and Sigur Rós.

The exhibition featured the work of nine young Catholic artists. The show was the brainchild of Daniel C. Schreck, the young-adult coordinator for the Archdiocese of New York. Schreck, who sees the Church as the “matron of the arts,” says that he “wanted to show the vision of the living Church.” This was the first show of its kind. Looking back, he believes, “in the lighting, venue, people, food and wine, gift (it was free), music, and of course the art and artists, a collective response to solitude was experienced. I pray it is the beginning of a renewed sense of arts and beauty in the Church and a re-examination of what it means to be Catholic in the modern world.”

Schreck brought together artists working in a variety of media for a single liturgical purpose, all to be experienced in this (temporarily) sacred space. The nine artists—Cheng Zhongqi, Erin Palazzolo, Gregory Skolozdra, Suzanne Kent, Ken Woo, Ron Bovard, Oxsana Prokopenko, Morgan Russell (no relation to the early modernist of the same name), and Tim Willoughby—looked like they would all be at home in a Chelsea gallery, were it not for their common Catholic faith. You can read their artist statements at

For their unexpected takes on sacred art, the artists working in “alternative media” stood out. Skolozdra contributed an installation of giant sculpted flowers lit by chili-pepper lights. Representing stamen, the lights gave these jungle plants a spirtual glow. The effect was rather more convincing than it might sound. Willoughby combined haunting photographs of the stages of life with a glorious image of clouds taken from an airplane window. Prokopenko provided tile mosaics of traditional themes executed in a whimsical, contemporary way. In painting, styles ranged from geometric abstraction (Kent) to realism (Woo). Are we seeing the “beginning of a renewed sense of arts and beauty in the Church?” This (lower-case) catholic exhibition answered, “yes.”

Across town, I found another exhibition of religious art far less enchanting. “Biblical Art in a Secular Century,” a show located within the American Bible Society, is an uneven survey of an important topic that leaves you cold.[3] The curator Patricia C. Pongracz begins her exhibition essay by referring to a work from the 2006 Whitney Biennial. This is a sin that in Dante finds eternal damnation in the circle below Ugolino’s. She continues: “artists have looked to the Bible in search of metaphors; in commemoration; as an act of transgression; as a means of cultural identity; in the service of a commission; as a witness of faith; a combination thereof; and to be sure, for reasons that remain unarticulated.”

Oh, God. What does this all mean? “Biblical Art in a Secular Century” compares work by Stanley Spencer (Angels of the Apolocalypse, 1949), on loan from the conservative philanthropist Howard Ahmanson, with a parodic gilt rococo frame by Jeff Koons (Christ and the Lamb, 1988). Elsewhere, George Bellows goes in for an attack on The Sawdust Trail of Billy Sunday (1916). The radical German artist Käthe Kollwitz compares the suffering of Christ to the workers’ struggle (Aus vielen Wunden, blutest Du, O Volk, 1896). George Segal compares the Vietnam War to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham and gets in a jab at Kent State to boot (In Memory of May 4, 1970: Kent State-Abraham and Isaac, 1978).

“Biblical Art in a Secular Century” is a show that seeks out the problems of Biblical art rather than its solutions. The Museum of Biblical Art bills itself as the “nation’s first scholarly museum of art and the Bible.” Unfortunately it’s the “scholarship” part, and not the art part, that has the real problem with the Bible.

Those French Communists who wanted to do away with Matisse’s chapel now have tenure.

Go to the top of the document.

  1. “Sanctuary Revealed: Restoration of an Architectural Icon” opened at the Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, on December 15, 2006 and remains on view through April 16, 2007. Go back to the text.
  2. “Responses to … Solitude” was on view at the Terrence Cooke Building, New York, on December 7, 2006. Go back to the text.
  3. “Biblical Art in a Secular Century: Selections, 1896–1993” opened at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York, on December 14, 2006 and remains on view through March 11, 2007.Go back to the text.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 56
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now