Sunday, March 22, 2009


Artists sometimes transform sacred texts into visual art by converting words into designs. The result is not intended to be read like a conventional book, but rather experienced as a visual object.

For example, some Korans from 17th-century Turkey, Iran and North India are so ornate they are virtually impossible to read except as designs. The finest artists, calligraphers and craftsmen embellished these books with gold and jewels to create regal images that would inspire reverence and awe for the spiritual content.

When I was growing up on the south side of Chicago, a boy I knew was shot and killed on the school playground by older boys from a street gang.

Virgil White and I sang in the choir together. One night, he foolishly tried to take a short cut through the playground alone. The gang members shot him and left him bleeding to death on the cold concrete. Virgil managed to scrawl the names of his killers in his school notebook: "Greg Vincent and Chap Dog killed me." Then he was gone forever, like a wisp of smoke.

They found Virgil's bloodstained notebook clutched in his hand. Years later, I can't look at it without feeling a pang. The terrible beauty of Virgil's marks on paper still touches my heart more than the most lavishly decorated religious text.

Sometimes crude and hasty images are more inspiring than refined ones.

Sometimes a random accident-- such as the design left by a bloodstain-- is a more powerful image than the most carefully executed schemes of great artists.

Sometimes cheap materials can create images of deeper and more profound spiritual significance than images made from the purest gold.