Depicting the Divine

When a New York resident sued the Metropolitan Museum in 2015 for displaying allegedly ‘racist’ paintings of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, it was simply the latest iteration of an enduring philosophical debate. What does God look like? Is the divine representable? Is it morally dangerous to visualize divinity? With such high potential for error or offense, why even bother? Utilizing DC’s rich art museums and centers of contemporary religious practice, ‘Depicting the Divine’ explores the controversies and orthodoxies surrounding godly representations across geographies, temporalities, and cultures. We will attend to issues such as politics, race, and gender through case studies from across the geohistorical spectrum. For example, why did fifteenth-century Persian leaders sanction manuscripts depicting an extravagantly dressed, haloed Mohammed? What can the reactions to a modern sculpture of a female crucified figure tell us about associations between godliness and the male physique? How can a Russian abstract artist claim that a single black square represents ‘the face of God’?  Drawing on a wide range of sources – from analysis of ancient scriptural texts to engagement with DC community leaders – students will investigate arguments for and against representation of the divine, and analyze the visual strategies used by artists constrained by dogmatic limitations. In a globalized society which regularly witnesses terrorist destruction of religious images, depicting the divine is a complex and ancient problem still relevant today.