By David R. Bains 

Images communicate religious beliefs. They embody them and allow them to take shape in the lives of individuals and communities. As David Morgan writes in The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, “religions and their visual cultures configure social relations, over time and space and between one lifeworld and another” (9). In Birmingham, Alabama, communication of belief happens through many artistic media: stained glass, granite, bronze, oil on canvas, and pavers on the ground.

In September 2020, nineteen undergraduates investigated religious images on public display in Birmingham to see how they gave shape to religion in the Magic City. Most of the students had newly arrived at Samford University as first-year students. Although constrained by Covid-19 precautions, they investigated their new city’s religious cultures. No religious tradition has been more prominent in Birmingham life than Baptist Christianity.  While Baptists are not known for use of religious images, over one third of the images selected for study depict Baptists or were made for them. But images in Birmingham come from many other religious traditions as well, including Haitian Vodou, Roman Catholicism, Methodism, and Buddhism. Students were also guided by David Morgan’s writings to include as religions social orders that were within “the sphere of human agency and the conventional laws of the material world” (53). Thus, they also examined images that represent Birmingham’s civic values. 

Images Studied

Art for Baptists

In the late twentieth century, Samford president Thomas E. Corts sought to make his school an internationally recognized Christian university. Art was one of his tools. Two Renaissance-style painters created new works to express Samford’s commitment to Christianity and intellectual and artistic advancement. Rafael Figueroa examines one of four healing scenes from the Bible by D. Jeffrey Mims that are now displayed in the lobby of the College of Health Sciences.

Better known are Petru Botezatu’s two cycles in Hodges Chapel, the Cloud of Witnesses and the Christian Year. Ellie Borcherding shows that, Reformation Day, the culminating scene of the Christian Year series in Hodges Chapel, presents a heroic image of young Martin Luther winning the support of other Christians.

Another Birmingham Baptist landmark is Mountain Brook Baptist Church. Established in the 1940s, the wealthy suburb that would be known as the “tiny Kingdom,” the congregation commissioned windows for its sanctuary and chapel from Willett Stained Glass Studios, one of America’s leading creators of stained glass. Anna Fisher and Anna Kate Beaudry describe windows designed by Margaret Gaudin for the sanctuary. These highlight the significance of the teachings and redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all people. Caroline Rutledge describes the unique creations of Columcille Starkey for the chapel. These  depict the psalmist’s pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple. In their studies, Fisher, Beaudry, and Rutledge draw on the work of former Samford associate provost Joe O. Lewis. 

Promoting Civil Rights

Crossing over Red Mountain into the City of Birmingham, Margaret Treanor and Megan Durden examine the statues of Baptist ministers who led the fight for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s. When Kelly Ingram Park was redesigned as a civil rights memorial in 1992, a statue of three kneeling ministers was sculpted by Raymond Kaskey for the southeast entrance to the park. As Treanor explains, it vividly depicts the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement.

Durden highlights the fact that both this statue and John Rhoden’s of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute place these leaders on the level of the viewer, inviting engagement and encouraging the viewer to imitate the men’s actions. 

The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s recently led to a new mural being installed alongside two 1930s expressions of civic identity in the Jefferson County Courthouse. Jadyn Kilgore shows how Ronald McDowell’s Justice is Blind seeks to supplement the racial messages of John W. Norton’s 1931 murals Old South and New South. It celebrates human equality with its depiction of judges as female and male, white and black. 

An unusual image of this equality graced St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church for many years. Christ of the Nations depicted the crucified and resurrected Christ as four different ethnicities. As Sydney Hearn suggests this crucifix celebrated not only that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth, but also that “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  

Roman Catholic Devotion and Art

As an industrial center, Jefferson County drew immigrants from all over the world, many of them were Roman Catholic. Slavic names predominate on the gravestones in the hilltop Catholic cemetery of St. Michael above the old mining town of Brookside. As Madison Reed shows, the weathered crucifix above the cemetery’s outdoor altar bears witness to humanness of Christ’s suffering.

Inside the downtown Birmingham’s Cathedral of St. Paul, there are many Irish names including on a stained-glass window of Jesus the Good Shepherd given in memory of J. J. Browne, an Irish immigrant who served this parish as priest. Grayson Pease shows that this window embodies Jesus’ care for his followers. 

The depiction of Pentecost in St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, south of Red Mountain, may be less emotionally affecting, but as Jordan Cash shows, this stained-glass window emphasizes Christians’ global reach by showing the gift of the Holy Spirit falling not only on the apostles in Jerusalem, but also upon the missionary patrons of the parish and its diocese. The culture-crossing work of Christians and Jews is also represented in Donald Jackson’s illumination of Esther for the Saint John’s Bible. As Logan Guzik explains, this manuscript Bible was commissioned for a Roman Catholic monastery and its depiction of Esther reflects the longer Greek version of the Book of Esther that Catholics accept as canonical. Yet one of a limited number of copies of the Heritage Edition of the Saint Johns’ Bible is proudly displayed in Samford’s library. 

Symbols and Journeys 

Back on the north side of Red Mountain, adjacent to Samford’s former campus, sits East Lake United Methodist. Like Mountain Brook Baptist and St. Francis Xavier Catholic, East Lake Methodist turned to the Willett studio for its glasswork. Davis Domescik shows that the windows in the church’s chapel are more reliant on religious symbolism than those in the other churches studied. They seek to express the mystery and complexity of the three persons of the Christian godhead. The multiple meanings of simple religious symbols is also explored by Robbie Hedden is his examination of the prayer garden and labyrinth at Trinity United Methodist Church. 

When people and beliefs move across cultures they change the meaning of images or appropriate images for new uses. This is demonstrated through two images in the Birmingham Museum of Art. A fascinating case of how religious beliefs came to take form in new images is the use of Roman Catholic images of saints in Haitian Vodou. As Sarah Grace Callis shows in her examination of a flag of Damballah or St. Patrick in Haitian Vodou each spirit or loa is represented both by a symbolic line drawing known as a vévé and by an image of a saint that follows traditional iconography. Sophie Higby examines the role of a female power figure with nails inserted into it in the religious practices of the Kongo and how this became the inspiration for Hollywood’s formulation of the “Voodoo” doll for commercial purposes. 

The image of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh in the foyer of Hoover’s Silver Coin Indian Grill may appear to some as simply a commercial decoration. But it can also be used for Hindu devotion as Joseph Emerson explains. This representation of Hinduism is encountered by many more non-Hindus than those in Birmingham’s Hindu temple and by many people who do not frequent the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Our journey through religious images concludes with the painting Sudhana Visits Avalokitesvara by Kono Bairei. Corbin Weaver shows how the detailed symbolism in this depiction of a central scene in a popular religious story reveals the character of those depicted. While these last three images are not currently displayed in a religious context, they speak to the global vision of Birmingham’s art collectors and residents as well as to the role of material images in convey belief around the world. Follow the links above or below to learn more about these important images

Works Cited 

Morgan, David. The Sacred Gaze: Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. U of California P, 2005.

First posted October 29, 2020, last modified November 24, 2020.

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