Some 20 years have passed since Georgetown University theology professor Ori Z. Soltes first tried to write about the interconnectedness of symbols sacred to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In 1984, while teaching at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies in Ohio, he was invited to guest-curate a mobile Smithsonian Institution exhibition at Chicago’s Spertus Museum that centered on important emblems from each of the three Abrahamic faiths: the Jewish menorah, the Christian icon, and the Islamic prayer rug. The exhibition got him thinking about how those religions share common pagan symbols and even borrow symbols from each other.
The roughly 2,500-word essay he wrote on the topic never made it into print—funding for the exhibition catalog ran dry—but the idea of multitasking marks stuck with the 54-year-old Columbia Heights resident, filed away “both in the back of my mind but also literally in my files,” he says. He started working the topic into lectures, and eventually he put together a semesterlong course on the subject.
In the fall of 2000, he began writing a book in earnest, and by early 2002, he had a completed manuscript. The result, Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw From the Same Source, published last month by Westview Press, traces the interuse of sacred symbols from ancient times through the 20th century. In architecture, for instance, the apse has two ancestors—it dates back to both early synagogues and ancient Roman legislative buildings. And in medieval Europe, the Star of David signified alchemy and magic; by the late 19th century it had gradually evolved into a universal symbol of Judaism. Even today, Christians use it “as a reference to Jesus as a descendant of David,” writes Soltes, and it’s known as a “geometric pattern that refers to the infinite God” among Muslims.
Researching the book also bolstered another part of his thesis—that religious imagery hasn’t been completely abandoned as art has seemingly become more secular in recent centuries. Even such 20th-century abstractionists as Mark Rothko, says Soltes, “had more on their mind than just aesthetics.” In Rothko’s giant blocks of color, the author discerns an attempt to restore order after the mass death of World War II; the paintings offer “contemplative calm [and] spiritual uplift,” he writes.
Given the book’s emphasis on what visuals can do that language can’t (“If it is difficult to capture with words the exquisite perfection of a sunset or the love of a mother for her child,” Soltes writes, “how much more will words fall short in trying to articulate God?”), it’s no surprise that trimming down the original 600-plus-page manuscript wasn’t as challenging as winnowing the book’s more than 400 images to the 76 that appear in the finished product. “I had in mind a big art book,” recalls Soltes. Though he’d still like to do a bigger book on the same topic, he has no complaints about the end result, which at 275 pages and $29.95 “is a hell of lot more accessible than a $75 bigass art book.”
Meanwhile, that original catalog essay finally found an audience: It’s assigned to the students in the Symbols of Faith course that Soltes teaches at Georgetown. Though he plans to assign Our Sacred Signs, as well, the essay enjoys its own level of success, he says: “I haven’t had anyone come back and say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” —