Courtesy of Angela Manno

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s new “Religion, Ecology, and Expressive Culture” initiative — which seeks to foster interdisciplinary collaboration among the humanities and sciences in the face of climate change — held its first event last week.

The initiative — which was launched in January — will provide funding for projects, art exhibits and public events that engage with the current ecological crisis. The initiative plans to center its efforts around three distinct themes: “Sacred Cosmologies” will explore the relations between humanity, the cosmos and ecological systems; “Ritual Natures” will study cultural portrayals of natural forms such as rocks and trees; and “Extraction and Disposal in Expressive Culture” will consider the sociopolitical consequences of resource consumption and environmental justice. 

“We are looking forward to supporting research, teaching and policy-focused work that diversifies the ways we think about ecological knowledge and practice,” wrote Eben Graves, assistant director of the Institute of Sacred Music, in an email to the News.

The initiative’s first event has been a three-week webinar series titled, “Mass Extinction: Art, Ritual, Story and the Sacred,” that has brought together artists, researchers and scholars whose works have centered around the theme of biodiversity loss. Some of the speakers include poet Craig Santos Perez, artist Emily Laurens, and historian Sadiah Qureshi.

Mass extinction, Ryan Darr, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music, said, is an “issue in which we’re all involved in some way.” He was hopeful that religion, arts and culture could offer the tools for a fuller understanding of the problem. 

We need to think about the kind of stories we are telling, the kind of rituals we have for recognizing loss,” Darr said.

April’s installment, “Sacred Biodiversity: Icons of Threatened and Endangered Species,” will showcase artwork by artist Angela Manno. Manno, who had been trained in traditional Byzantine-Russian iconography — a painstaking technique of pigment and gold layering — has brought the same kind of religious “reverence” to nature by featuring endangered animals in her art.

The sale of her work has contributed to supporting conservation organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Half Earth Project.

I’m truly looking forward to meeting kindred spirits from a cross-section of disciplines who are as passionate as I am about protecting wilderness and the natural world,” Manno wrote in an email to the News. “No matter what we do as individuals […] we all need to do our part now, to ensure that every square inch of land and sea is not decimated by our habits.”

Darr explained that the programming is meant to exhibit the kinds of work the institute would like to solicit from the public. Despite having planned many of this year’s events, the institute hopes that Yale community members will take over the reins in the future. The institute is currently open to submissions for artwork and project proposals on their website.

Ideas for the initiative started five years ago during conversations with the institute’s faculty and other leaders. In light of the growing urgency of the climate crisis, Graves explained, the institute decided to explore “how various forms of religious thought and practice have been linked with care for our environment.”

“One perspective the initiative hopes to address is to consider how the arts and expressive culture … can present new modes of understanding and engaging with ecological knowledge and issues,” Graves wrote. 

The initiative at-large will also provide space for religion to enter the growing climate conversation, according to Darr.

Recognizing the continued centrality of faith in modern-day life, Darr looked forward to building new connections between religious practices, art, ritual and ecology.

“My hope is that [religion] can be meaningful, that [it] can inspire action,” Darr said. “I think what I’m most excited about is the possibility of […] highlighting […] work that matters on a larger public scale.”

Graves explained that the initiative would add different forms of “religious practice” and “expressive culture found across every region” to the “robust work” currently being done by other programs such as the Yale Environmental Humanities, the Religion and Ecology Forum and the Yale Planetary Solutions Project. 

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music — a successor to the School of Sacred Music at the Union Theological Seminary — partners with the Yale Divinity School to offer study of art forms such as choral conducting, organ and voice. Martin Jean, director of the Institute of Sacred Music, acknowledged the institute’s strong ties to Christian practices but hopes the program will engage in dialogue with a variety of other belief systems.

“I anticipate greatly the many ways we will learn from Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Indigenous cultures as to how they use their expressive cultures to shape their stewardship of the planet,” Jean told the News. 

The initiative’s upcoming event is “Breath of Earth,” a performance of Aaron Jay Kernis’ music by the Yale Schola Cantorum, on Feb. 19  at Woolsey Hall. Prior to the concert will be a roundtable discussion by Yale professors at Sudler Hall.

The Yale Institute of Sacred Music was founded in 1973.