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Art and sanctuary

Luther Seminary’s growing art collection may offer a place of calm and healing for ELCA delegates

Art teaches, and so belongs at top institutions of learning, says Paul Daniels, archivist at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. And if art heals, it warrants a place at ELCA’s August churchwide assembly in Minneapolis — which it has. Part of Luther Seminary’s growing collection will be showcased at ELCA’s national gathering in Minneapolis August 17-23, where it may serve as a sanctuary for delegates fleeing stormy issues.
The traveling exhibit of works on the theme of the Prodigal Son includes 35 careful reproductions, among them a Rembrandt. Insurance sets limits on circulation of the original works Luther Seminary holds.
Daniels, archivist and curator for Luther Seminary, leads its growing effort to gather significant pieces and related material. It’s not only about prestige. Students, says Daniels, “really need the visual, and they expect it.”
Good art in hand means hanging it where pastors-to-be walk by daily. That, Daniels argues, means parishioners will get pastors who have at least a beginning understanding of the importance of images.
Daniels calls Luther Seminary’s focus on art an important step forward. “We have been so long a school of texts and words,” he says. “We’re only now discovering the richness of visual material as a pedagogical tool.”
The seminary’s growing collection will likely add more works of John August Swanson, born in Los Angeles in 1938. His work reflects the legacy of a Mexican mother and Swedish father — oils, watercolors, acrylics, mixed media, and serigraphs that mirror medieval miniatures, Russian icons, Latin American folk art, and Mexican muralists. The Vatican has his painting “The Procession” (1982) in its collection of modern religious art. Other institutions with Swanson’s work are the National Museum of American History, National Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University’s Fogg Museum, the Tate Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Grounding in such work gives pastors-in-training a “vocabulary” for assessing works their own congregations may receive as gifts or may acquire, says Daniels. Jerry Evenrud, a retired church musician who gave his Prodigal Son collection to Luther Seminary, agrees that good art helps train pastors. “It makes them visually alert,” Evenrud says.
Evenrud donated his collection to Luther Seminary in 2007, after touring with it. At exhibitions, says Evenrud, people approached him and identified themselves as prodigals, or described others in their family who fit that role. “The art,” he adds, “speaks in a very emotional way to some people.”
In the well-known parable, Jesus describes a young man who demands his inheritance but then squanders it. Reduced to near starvation, he returns home. His father readily forgives him and welcomes him back.
Daniels hopes frequent rotation of paintings in common areas at the seminary means students see most of the collection during study years.
Delegates to ELCA’s churchwide assembly at the Minneapolis Convention Center can see some of the collection as well — perhaps for other reasons. At ELCA’s Minneapolis assembly, the collection may be a healing presence.
Its “visual proclamations of texts” are central to Christianity, says the Rev. Cindi Beth Johnson, director of the religion in the arts program at United Seminary in New Brighton. The exhibit, she adds, will be a “great place for people to take a time out to meditate, refresh themselves, and focus on what people do have in common or share in equal sacredness.”
The Prodigal Son exhibit is open to delegates and to the public in an area away from plenary sessions. Will it be a kind of sanctuary? “That,” says Daniels, “is our hope.”