Religious architecture on display in photo exhibit

When an average day at Yale involves walking to class amid soaring Gothic pinnacles and brick-clad colonial facades, it can be easy to overlook the rich architectural history of New Haven. But the Sacred Spaces photo exhibition, currently on display at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is a reminder that Yalies are surrounded by churches and chapels, synagogues and steeples.

The Sacred Spaces exhibit features 45 full-color photographs of places of worship in New Haven, which represent a diverse collection of faiths and ethnic backgrounds, ranging from Catholic and Jewish to Greek and Russian Orthodox. The list includes a few University landmarks, such as Dwight Chapel and the Slifka Center, but most of the 40 sites are located off campus.

The photographs were taken by Robert Lisak ART ’81 for what was originally conceived as a historical and architectural guidebook for points of religious interest in New Haven. Melissa Maier, manager of external relations and publications for the Institute, said the idea for the Sacred Spaces book was born about seven years ago when the Institute used several local places of worship as venues for a major international conference.

The process of selecting the 40 sites was difficult, Maier said.

“The book project was done by a steering committee composed of local clergypeople, religious leaders from various faith traditions as well as representatives from the Yale community,” she said. “This committee selected the 40 spaces to be represented in the book.”

Although Lisak was not included in selecting the locations, he was eventually approached and offered the job of photographing the chosen spaces. Lisak said he accepted the job for both practical and artistic reasons.

“I’ve had a long-standing interest in architectural photography, and I’m also interested in religious issues, so for me it was a great fit,” he said.

Lisak has lived in New Haven since graduate school and said he was delighted to have the opportunity to explore the religious and historical landmarks of the city that has been his home for almost 30 years.

“I certainly had not been in a lot of [the places of worship], so it was a real pleasure to see these various spaces and see how different parts of the community express themselves spiritually,” Lisak said.

The book is not due to be published until fall 2008, Maier said, but its photographs are currently on display as part of the Institute’s ongoing tradition of displaying religious art. The Institute shows off four collections of art each academic year, said Jaime Lara, an associate professor of Christian art and architecture and chair of the program in religion and the arts, as well as the editor of the guidebook.

Lara said the Institute strives to display art that represents faith traditions from around the world and reflects 21st-century values of global perspective.

“We’re trying to deliberately force our students to look at a wider world, a global world — to get beyond the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesuses,” he said.

Lara said while past exhibitions have more effectively reflected this goal, the Institute chose to display the Sacred Spaces collection this fall because it is hosting an international conference on sacred spaces this weekend. The conference, titled “Sacred Space: Architecture for Worship in the 21st Century,” is open to students free of charge.

Lisak said the photographs reflect the incredible diversity of New Haven’s 350-year religious traditions.

“You’ve got a wonderful variety of styles, denominations and types of architectural embodiments of sacred spaces in a fairly small geographic area,” he said.

Timothy Weisman DIV ’09 said he was struck by the incredible wealth of religious architecture so close to the University. Weisman, who is in his third year of study at the Institute, said the Sacred Spaces exhibition stands out as a favorite among the exhibits he has seen at the Institute. He said he especially appreciated the use of photography, as opposed to drawing and painting.

“It’s nice to see the variety of spaces,” John Helmstadter DIV ’10 said. “I like the juxtaposition of the really simple places and the ornate ones full of symbols.”

But Helmstadter said the gorgeous ornamentation depicted in some of the photographs reminds him of society’s misuse of wealth.

“It’s sometimes sad to see the amount of money and resources devoted to buildings seldom used, when those resources could possibly go to addressing a lot of the social ills of New Haven,” he said.

The photographs will be on display at the Institute of Sacred Music at the Divinity School through Nov. 2.

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