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The Art of Sacred Spaces


By Pamolu Oldham 

To experience art, we often anticipate destination points—the High Museum in Atlanta, our own North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, the Nasher in Durham, Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC, Tate in London. But even close to home we can find stunning works of art in our community’s sacred spaces, religious art that celebrates communities and cultures. That dull inset in the massive brick wall we pass so frequently, once seen from the opposite side, is alive with color, shape, history—offering us a meditative moment, comfort, elation.  

Scholar Joseph Campbell says, “In your sacred space [temple, synagogue, church, mosque] you get the ‘thou’ feeling of life…. This is an abundant necessity for anybody today, [a place] where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is the place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be…. At first you may find that nothing happens. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”  

What is religious art? Since religion, comes from an ancient Latin word meaning “to tie things together,” Thomas Trotter, Dean and Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, believes religious art is that which “helps the participant to bridge his experience with that of the artist or…the religious values expressed therein…. That is why religion and art are part of the wider quest for meaning. That is why we need them both.” 

Reverend Cureton Johnson of First Baptist Church on Moore Street says, “I like to come here for a break.” He has left his office to sit in front of a modern stained glass window as the afternoon sun emblazons a golden glass cross and chunks of bright red, azure, purple, green, orange, yellow in a surrounding field of concrete. “The liturgy, scripture, music,—all are designed to lift our hearts up to God. That unifies us toward the source of our very being.” 

Religious art enhances the experience of the divine by telling of historical events unique to a system of faith or by reflecting emotional and spiritual needs. 

 St. Michael the Archangel Maronite Catholic Church on Arsenal Avenue (with 8:30 Sunday morning service by Saint George’s Anglican Church) offers beautiful stained glass windows depicting saints, including St. Maron and St. George. On Great Friday, the priest and members of the Maronite Catholic congregation lower Christ’s body (Corpus) from the sanctuary’s large cross, process outside the church with Christ’s body held high, the congregation following, as finally His body is placed on a bier, with the congregation leaving fresh flowers in the bier which is closed and placed in a tomb. On Easter Sunday, the tomb is empty; Christ has resurrected. The flowers are taken home by each as a blessing. 

The importance of flowers is evident as one approaches Anantachin Buddhist Monastery on Highway 24, just off Highway 87. “Is there importance to

 the red and yellow of your temple?” “It’s easy to see,” says Head Monk Ven. Theerapattarapop Phuangmala and smiles. The sanctuary has a long altar with Buddha, candles, many flowers, symbolizing how “people from many different families, styles can be peaceful in one arrangement.” On the grounds, fruit trees and vegetable beds flourish. There is even a magnificent lotus blossom.  

Opening the doors of Hindu Bhavan Temple on Cedar Creek Road, Chief Priest Dixit Karthik, a fourth-generation priest, points to the Sanskrit symbol for meditation, “OOOmmmm,” the original universal sound emanating from Lord Shiva, that lets us know we are all one world family. Inscribed on the façade above, it explains the call to conscious breathing, of grounding oneself in the present. Inside is a large area with a ledge-like altar upon which sit nine, sometimes more, colorful gods. The face of Ganesh, the God first to remove obstacles in one’s path, he states, is reminiscent of the OM symbol at the entrance. Each god is an avatar responding to human needs—healing or aspirations for a good education or “self-knowledge, the concept that each of us has the same spark from the Divine power…that it is up to us to question ‘Who am I? What is my purpose on earth and what is my connection to the Divine?’”  

Beth Israel Synagogue on Morganton Road offers many ceremonial objects and traditional and contemporary works of art. For example, a modern depiction of the Tree of Life painted on the acacia wooden doors of the Ark welcomes all who enter the main sanctuary. The Ark houses the Torah, an encased scroll of the Pentateuch, with both velvet or silver- inscribed shield, finials and pointers. The Tree itself bears 18 pomegranates, each with 613 seeds representing 613 Good Deeds (Mitzvot) in Jewish tradition. A large bronze wall sculpture honors victims of the Holocaust—displaying a Torah in flames, a menorah rising from flames and a dove of peace. It memorializes Bernard Szaku, a Holocaust survivor, his grandparents, parents and six children who all perished.  

 Massey Hill Baptist on Gillespie Street offers vibrant stained glass windows and a distinguished painting of a river and palms as a backdrop to the baptismal pool where, on a nearby coat rack, hang waders and a black robe. Erected in the 1990’s, the Church responded to the needs of many mill workers at a time when, Pastor Tim Evans relates, “life was church, family and work and people walked to church.” 

Paintings can be found on the exterior of The Prayer and Healing Room, founded by the late “Sister” Lillie Levy. Located on Bain Drive, the white block home of Sister Levy displays a life-size painting of Jesus welcoming all; another of Him pointing “this way”; and a depiction of the Last Supper with Jesus, arms spread, behind the table—all painted by Robert Williams. Over decades, many, including now prominent area pastors, passed by these paintings as they entered for service three times a day (8, 12, 6) until 1985, when Sister Levy passed away. The paintings, as a result of the elements, have taken on a more muted quality rendering them closer to da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  

At Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, located on Oakridge Avenue, a vivid panorama of nearly life-size religious icons is depicted. To the left stand St. George, Archangel Michael, St. Constantine and Helen, Mother Mary with Jesus, and to the right are Jesus, John the Baptist, Archangel Gabriel and St. Demetious—all painted in vivid blues, reds, yellows and gold. Also, centered in the ceiling is a recessed “dome,” approximately fifteen feet in diameter, of Jesus Christ and rimmed with the following inscription: “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” The voices of those standing below reverberate, possibly making the speaker more acutely aware of her or his own words. 

A mural depicting a timeline of growth and service graces a long wall in the main assembly room of St. James Lutheran Church on Morganton Rd. The mural begins in the 1930’s with scenes of ground-breaking, a mule team, wooden scaffolding surrounding a steeple in progress, soldiers serving during WW II and progresses to today’s structures. In the sanctuary hangs a very large painting: “The Ascension” in which Jesus’ facial features, hands and rich red drapery are finely rendered. Both the mural and “The Ascension” were painted by long-time member Judy Hagan, who had no formal training.  

At Whomsoever Will Let Them Come Church on James Dail Road in Eastover hangs a crucifix carved by a sculptor who espouses no formal training but who always prays before carving a Crucifix. The sanctuary’s focus is the central red-carpeted aisle leading to the altar, the podium and the chair designated for Bishop Hairston, the pastor who sits at the foot of the Cross. This eight-foot crucifix was brought from Tzintzuntzan, Mexico, by a congregant moved by the detail of Jesus’ face, His nailed hands and feet. 

 At 1601 Raeford Road, one enters the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church through “The Great Doors,” each measuring sixteen by six feet and created by artist George Hoelzeman along with a church committee who helped choose and design the panels. Made of Philippine mahogany, the doors have six panels, three feet square, which depict “biblical scenes that reflect belief in the Trinity.” Outside panels tell of acts of “hospitality or giving”: for example, the Magi and Jesus feeding the multitude. Inside panels depict scenes of an active Holy Spirit: for example, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. The tiled floor of the sanctuary offers a labyrinth, which is “a metaphor for life’s journey. It offers lessons as we walk the path. Walking the labyrinth can assist us to address challenges, meditate, pray and find peace and tranquility.”  

The First Presbyterian Church on Ann Street, rebuilt after the fire of 1831, and MacPherson Presbyterian on Cliffdale Road are both historic sanctuaries. Through the influences of John Calvin, John Knox and the Scottish Highlanders, these sanctuaries offer elegance without ostentation and focus directly on the cross. Large, clear, 24-pane windows along both sides of each sanctuary allow worshippers access to nature’s beauty though framed views of Japanese maples, turkey and white oaks, swamp chestnut oaks, cypress and crape myrtles. An expertly crafted wooded sounding board, used from 1800 – 1868, is displayed in the foyer of MacPherson Church—set opposite the pastor, to reflect sound from the rear of the church.     

Masjid Omar Ibn Sayyid Mosque on Murchison Road offers a “place of tranquility and solace to hear the Iman read from the Koran.” It has a large, open room for prayer with prayer rugs and a focus on the Iman beneath a row of ceiling-high windows offering natural light.  

The windows of Fayetteville’s 5th St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Village Drive were designed by Joep Nichlos, a third generation stained-glass artist also known as the father of modern stained glass. He used a distinctive method of painting directly on the stained glass, giving spontaneity associated with an artist’s sketch to the large sanctuary’s windows depicting such scenes as “The Navitity of our Lord” and “The Crucifixion.” 

Henry Evans, a licensed Methodist preacher and slave who swam the Cape Fear River to arrive in Fayetteville, brought Methodism to this part of the state and in 1796 organized a group of worshippers, both black and white, into Evans Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church on Cool Springs Street. The original Evans Metropolitan Church burned and was rebuilt with one congregation continuing at Evans Metropolitan and another building Hay Street Methodist Church on Old Street—both built on the last words of Rev. Henry Evans: “None but Christ.” A leaning white cross inlaid high in the brick façade of Evans Metropolitan speaks to the struggle of building the church. Inside brilliant sheets of purple, yellow, blue and green fill windows in a sanctuary of intricate beaded-board construction. 

The stained-glass windows of Hay Street Methodist Church were built in Salisbury, England, and “represent a rare type of art. The fold of the robes on the figures are actually blown into the glass,” using a technique which is now a lost art.  

First Baptist Church on Anderson Street offers exquisite stained-glass windows depicting several Christian scenes—Jesus at Gethsemane and Jesus as the Good Shepherd in which “He is both shepherd and sacrifice,” says Rev. Robert James, only two weeks into his new assignment in Fayetteville. He points out numerous symbols in the glass such as the anchor, underground symbol for “Christian’s here,” and one of his favorite works which is the Impressionistic style painting of the River Jordan behind the baptismal pool. “I was there. It’s just like that.”