01/26/2012 08:01 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Phoenix Art Museum Exhibit 'Sacred Words And Images: Five World Religions' Poses The Deep Questions Of Meaning

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- In the light of the Orme Lewis Gallery in Phoenix Art Museum, the brilliantly illustrated pages of the 18th century Chinese Quran seem to glimmer, saturated and gilded. It is a far cry from the stark white glow of the text’s utilitarian counterpart, a free, online version hosted as part of a faith-based movement to connect believers with what is still an impactful, powerful, and influential text on the lives of millions today as it was three centuries ago.

The medium may have evolved, depending on your perspective, but the weight of spirituality in the human experience has retained its tremendous power and influence on the human spirit. This illustrated Chinese Quran is, to me, a powerful symbol of the longevity and influence of religion in a world beset by social and cultural tumult. A new exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum presents this and many other symbols of the lasting influence of five major religions, through March 18, in Phoenix, Ariz.

Conceived and organized in collaboration with university scholars and religious historians, the exhibition includes 53 pieces spanning 1,500 years. Drawn from the Museum’s permanent collection and private collections, the exhibition was designed to be more than just a static display of religious paraphernalia. The intent of the exhibition was to illustrate the interconnectedness of belief in our collective cultural memory. In the last decade, there’s been a growing trend to explore the links and influences that connected people of the past. As the world becomes more globalized and cultures intersect in new regions, increasing exposure to the belief systems of formerly distant cultures, the hard lines and divisions between East and West are really no longer relevant. For the Phoenix Art Museum, and many cultural organizations across the world, cross-disciplinary exhibitions like "Sacred Word and Image: Five World Religions" become much more than just a display of art, a collection of relics. Instead, they become a philosophical endeavor: to help audiences understand the threads of commonality and distinctions, across cultural, national and religious lines.

"Sacred Word & Image" is comprised of sacred objects used in rituals in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Beyond the philosophy of connection, the exhibition is visually stimulating, with relics created from media as diverse as the cultures themselves: paper, palm leaf, vellum, wood, lacquer, metal and ivory. Luxuriant and elaborate, each piece is a testament to the hierarchy of religion’s place in the human experience throughout history. But in the end, this exhibition is not solely about religion and spirituality’s role in history alone. Even now, the impact of belief and spirituality, of religion both organized and free form, helps to form many of the decisions made by individuals and nations as to how their lives should be conducted. It is this that underscores the purpose of an exhibition of this nature, and some might say the purpose of human existence in the greater sense: to stimulate discussion and debate, to ask the timeless questions of all faiths: Who are we? Why are we here? What lies beyond this life?

Presenting The Profound: Phoenix Art Museum Exhibition ‘Sacred Word & Image’ Explores The Imagery Of Five World Religions

Phoenix Art Museum |
Jan. 4, 2012 – March 25, 2012
Curated by Dr. Janet Baker, Curator of Asian Art

The Sacred Word

Prepared for HuffPost by Janet Baker and Nicole DeLeon