'The Sacred Feminine' transcends history at art and archaeology exhibit

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | 5:19 p.m. CDT; updated 10:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Margaret Waddell reads the description of a painting in "The Sacred Feminine, Prehistory to Postmodernity" exhibition at the Museum of Art and Archaeology. The flowing hair of the woman in the painting became part of a discussion between Waddell and other people at the exhibition.

COLUMBIA — The hushed voices in the exhibition room lent it the air of a shrine, or perhaps a library, cataloging the painted, sculpted and woven images that thousands of years of history had left to the modern world.

Museum patrons wandered from room to room, gazing at small sculptures, lavish paintings and tall statues that seemed to stand guard over the proceedings. They stood back, stepped closer and offered their thoughts quietly as they regarded the dozens of diverse images decorating the walls of the museum’s small white rooms.

Symposium Highlights

Saturday’s Sacred Feminine Symposium will offer 10 diverse academic takes on women in religion, including two presentations by MU scholars and a keynote by an outspoken scholar on Dan Brown’s novels.

  • Kristin Schwain, associate professor of art and archaeology at MU, will present on “Generating Taste and Turmoil: the Madonna in American Art” on Saturday morning.
  • Robert Baum, chairman of MU’s religious studies department, will present on “Women Prophets, Priests, and Deities in West African Religions” on Saturday afternoon.
  • Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Graduate Liberal Studies Program and Catholic Studies Program, will present on “Fruit of Pleasure, Source of Sustenance, Object of Shame: On the Naked Breast of the Feminine Divine” as Saturday evening’s keynote address. Apostolos-Cappadona is a prolific author and editor but is perhaps best known popularly for her scholarly takes on Dan Brown’s novels, which include “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.”

The symposium’s sessions will be held in Room 106, Pickard Hall at MU.

A public reception for speakers will be held Friday evening at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, featuring a screening of the newly restored 1934 Cecil B. DeMille film “Cleopatra” at 7 p.m. in Room 106 Pickard Hall.

All sessions are free and open to the public, with no advance registration required.

For more information, go to

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The images were of women observing, critiquing and celebrating their religious representations in every corner of the ancient and modern world. Plaques among the paintings and sculptures detailed the many facets of womanhood in religious tradition: the dangerous schemer, the devoted mate, the warrior and defender, the meek and mild innocent, the queen, and the mother.

The women in the art were the stars of a new exhibition at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, “The Sacred Feminine, Prehistory to Postmodernity.” Their images were pulled from the museum’s collection and from art museums throughout the Midwest to create the mosaic of spiritual femininity.

Benton Kidd, the museum’s associate curator for ancient art, estimated that about 5 percent of the art on display at the exhibition had come from other art museums, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the Kansas City Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and art collections at the University of Kansas, Rockhurst University and Monmouth College in northern Illinois.

“The Sacred Feminine” is positioned as the museum’s major offering for the year, running through Dec. 24. A national academic symposium, sponsored by the museum and set for this weekend, will offer a scholarly take on the creative themes presented in the exhibition.

The museum’s exploration of women in religion offers multiple takes on a broad subject rich with possibilities and contradictions, both academic and artistic.

“If you look at the history of religion in the Western world, on the one hand they’re goddesses and priestesses, and then other times they’re sort of sinners, beneath male roles,” Kidd said. “There is this kind of dichotomy. These are mostly patriarchal societies.”

The idea of progress, too, is reflected in the evolving study of women in religion, visually and otherwise.

“The first thing (the exhibit) says is how far we have progressed,” said Ann Gowans, a longtime MU Museum of Art and Archaeology docent. Gowans holds a doctoral degree in sociology from MU. “Women have had places in home and society that they’ve lost and regained, lost and regained.”

Scholars of religious studies and art and disciplines distinct from both have explored this often volatile topic, and MU’s own scholars are no exception. Their research is significant not only to a certain place, time or context in history, but to the modern Western understanding of religion and women’s place in it.

Studying women’s role in religion is significant in no small part because the problems women face in religion are timeless, said Rabia Gregory, assistant professor of religious studies at MU.

“One thing I hope people realize is that the same problems that are posed by religion for women today were being creatively dealt with by women in the past,” said Gregory, who studies the history of Christianity in late medieval and early modern Europe.

Gregory points to limitations on worship access and leadership roles as problems women faced in medieval times and today.

“When (people) look at women in the modern world and say, ‘There’s no room for religion,’ or, ‘We need to make room for women in religion,’ they assume it’s a modern idea,” she said.

In the earliest days of Christianity, women routinely held important leadership positions in local faith communities and were relied upon to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, a role that is documented in Scripture despite the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in his letters to prohibit women from preaching and teaching in the church.

Similarly, during the period upon which Gregory’s scholarship focuses, there are stories of women who had visions of God and preached and corresponded with the pope.

“Part of the shift is, as Christianity becomes more developed and established, there are still certain places for women,” Gregory said.

Robert Baum also sees a shift in modern Western religion away from women’s prevalence in religion. As the chairman of MU’s religious studies department, Baum has spent more than a decade studying women prophets, an outgrowth of his longtime work on the spirituality of the Diola people of Senegal.

Baum’s scholarship and perceptions on women in religion are particularly central to the purpose of “The Sacred Feminine”: He is slated to present on “Women Prophets, Priests and Deities in West African Religions” at the “The Sacred Feminine” symposium.

“I’m struck by the way Westerners tend to assume that Western cultural influence empowers women,” Baum said, citing the spread of Islam and Catholicism and their denial of priesthood to women. “(Diola women) can challenge authority in a way that, in Islam and Christianity, they cannot.”

In the Diola religion, men and women have broad access to religious authority. Although men still have more access to religious authority, the majority of Diola prophets since the French colonial conquest of the 19th century have been women, who Baum says were, by and large, very critical of the economic and agricultural issues colonialism posed to the native Senegalese people.

The role of women in religious leadership is not only a significant issue in Baum’s and Gregory’s religious scholarships, but an issue that still carries the weight of a certain contemporary conflict in America. In late 2007, the ordination of two St. Louis women to an organization called Roman Catholic Women priests sparked a furor in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. Last year, Columbia’s Calvary Episcopal Church welcomed its first female senior rector, or pastor, as the worldwide Anglican Church continued to debate the appropriateness of ordaining women as priests.

In a religious culture where faith communities frequently thrive on the efforts of women as organizers, caretakers, nurturers, teachers, cooks and more, Baum sees a conflict between the glad acceptance of women as institutional support and the prohibition of women as institutional leadership.

“The idea that women should not be in leadership roles, I find extraordinarily problematic,” Baum said. “Women are the backbone of many congregations in this country, yet there is a lack of ease with women in leadership.”

Gregory echoes Baum’s sentiment: “There’s been more comfort with women leading women than women leading everyone.”

Kristin Schwain, an associate professor in MU’s art history and archaeology department, studies American art and religion. Much of her work has examined images of the Madonna, or Mary, as an icon for Christian womanhood, a topic on which she will present at the Sacred Feminine symposium. The varying roles of Mary in Christianity across denominations affect visualizations of Mary and of womanhood’s place in religion.

“She’s been used by artists to open up new avenues, new roles in womanhood,” Schwain said, citing Hispanic artists’ use of Mary “to suggest agency in a culture where women are valued more for domestic work than creative work.”

Schwain sees art as a different way of conceptualizing the shift in women’s roles, including their contemporary emergence as leaders in religious communities.

“Women have always done the footwork, but more and more they’re entering institutional leadership,” Schwain said. “Artists can help us think about this in new ways, open up new avenues of inquiry and create new images.”

Gregory, too, sees an inevitable tendency toward creativity in addressing the problems women face in religion — especially the problems the future has yet to reveal.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues to be a creative process, but I wouldn’t try to predict” what lies in store for women in religion, Gregory said.

For Schwain, as an art historian, art is the key to thinking about women’s religious and spiritual roles in new ways.

“The arts can continue to challenge us to rethink women’s roles in new ways,” Schwain said. “If artists can continue to challenge us to think in new ways, using religion as a source, I think it could be quite exciting.”

Then, of course, there are the ways women contemplate their own sacredness in everyday life, outside the so-called ivory tower of academia.

Belinda Davis was one of a small, close-knit group of friends who took in the opening of “The Sacred Feminine.” The women, who hugged one another warmly in greeting and visibly shared the emotional intimacy of old friends, call themselves “sacred women.”

“We meet every six to eight weeks, sometimes at something like this, sometimes in homes, and celebrate one another, what we do, who we are, the specialness of our feminine relationships,” said Davis, who said the women formed their special bond during a weekend retreat in Kansas City about five years ago.

For Davis and her friends, the sanctity of women is not about a specific role or a narrow self-understanding, but about womanhood in itself.

“We are sacred women,” Davis said. “Each woman is sacred.”

In the context of the exhibition and its myriad images of women as paragons and pariahs of spirituality, the sacred women saw themselves, their history, and their own nature, both explicitly and between the lines.

“The woman’s been sacred in some very negative ways, but it brings to light some of the positive,” Davis said. “It’s as much what’s not presented as what is that speaks.”

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