Sometimes, the best art can't be found in a museum. There may not be placards or an entrance fee, but many of Tucson's most important and passionate expressions of creativity are located in worship centers and temples. Art lovers of all faiths and non-faiths can appreciate the devotion and historical value of Tucson's religious art, especially if they look for its universal themes and keep an open mind. WildLife staff writers sought to find some of the most distinct and spiritual art centers in Tucson, and here is what we encountered. You don't have to be an art critic or an alter boy to enjoy this art. You just have to be human.
Hop on Interstate 19, drive for about 15 minutes and you'll end up at one of the biggest cultural monoliths this side of the U.S. The San Xavier del Bac Mission, a solitary white monument starkly contrasting the surrounding desert of the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, is one of the finest representations of classic Spanish Catholic art outside of Mexico. It combines Byzantine, Moorish and late Mexican renaissance art to make worship not just a beautiful act of spirituality, but a beautiful act of creation as well.
The Mission, also known as the "White Dove of the Desert," was founded in 1699 by a Jesuit missionary and has been used as a cultural mecca of worship, history and fine art for the last 300 years.
Even the most secular of us can appreciate the passion and persistence behind the astounding amalgamation of sculptures, wall art, carvings and retablos in San Xavier's nave. The floor plan of the church is modeled after a classic Latin cross, where the left transept is an alter dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of Franciscans, who now run and inhabit the area.
In the center of the chapel, surrounded by votive candles, is a glass tomb with a statue of St. Francis lying. During mass, congregants are encouraged to light a candle for someone they want to pray for. They are then supposed to lift the head of St. Francis, and if they are able to it is said they are true believers.
The right arm of the cross is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with statues and paintings hanging off the walls to honor her. When you walk in, immediately on your right side is a colorful La Virgin de Guadalupe painting that you might see on a candleholder - but almost four feet tall. This retablo alone is comparable to any of the best paintings in Tucson.
After you leave the nave, make sure to visit the museum that showcases various artifacts documenting the history of the mission, as well as a 3-foot long illuminated Bible.
The San Xavier Mission has been described as the Sistine Chapel of the United States, and for a good reason. The historic site is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hidden behind a Jack Furrier's Western Tire Center on North First Avenue and East Blacklidge Road lies an unconventional religious center that in mainstream America has been known for its chanting and counterculture during the 1960s.
Tucson's own Hare Krishna temple, the Chaitanya Cultural Center founded in 1987, is a worship center for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and also a vegetarian restaurant that anyone can visit: Govinda's Natural Foods Buffet.
This spiritual center, tucked away behind strip malls, features many forms of meaningful artwork for the religion (or the preferred name "yoga," meaning union). It holds intricate shrines, wax sculptures, wall carvings, oil paintings and more. All of the art serves a purpose in spirituality.
Much of the artwork in the center represents and honors the deities, which take many forms but are all a part of the same god.
"The deities are an expansion of God," said spiritual student Bhakta Edwin, 24. "Krishna is the original form of God - from him all expansions grow."
Every morning at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., and every Sunday at 5:30 p.m., the congregation of 50 gathers around the "simasana," or wooden alter, from Bombay. Congregants worship in front of the colorful and vibrant deities placed atop its mantle, as well as various paintings of the deities. Usually, the construction is covered by a curtain, because etiquette rules forbid eating in front the shrine.
A wax shrine of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, is also featured in the temple. Edwin said the sculpture serves to imbue a sense of Prabhupada's aura in the center, so people may feel his presence more physically. Prabhupada started the religious movement in 1965 in New York City as a sect of Hinduism, but most Hare Krishnas do not identify themselves as Hindus.
"Calling a Krishna a Hindu is like calling a Navajo an Indian," Edwin said.
The religion's underlying belief is that the soul eternally exists and that the highest goal of the soul is to align itself with the goal of God. The movement is "part of a worldwide movement to respiritualize human society," Edwin said.
"The point of life should be to reconnect a relationship with God. ... to try to always remember God," he said.
By showcasing their most important artwork in their center of worship, the Hare Krishnas remember the significant people and deities in the religion.
Tucson's Temple Emanu-El, 225 N. Country Club Road, has history on its side. In 1910, the Jewish Benevolent Society built a synagogue on South Stone Avenue. This congregation eventually evolved into Temple Emanu-El, now located in central Tucson.
"We're definitely the best permanent collection of Jewish art in southern Arizona," said Temple Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon.
Not only does the complex contain important Jewish art, Temple Emanu-El's architecture and design are artistically relevant. The temple's west entrance is adorned by a large mosaic piece that represents the creation of the world. According to temple member and Betzalel committee chair Mark Goldsmith-Holt, the mosaic was recently removed due to building damage. Local artist Greg Schoon then transformed the piece into something new but still culturally important.
The temple's sanctuary features the location's most brilliant piece. Vertical panels of stained glass are alternated with concrete covered with gold mosaics. The symbolism of the display is deep with many facets of the Judaism represented.
The stained-glass panel directly above the temple's Torot is red in color, which, in Jewish symbolism, represents man. The panels cool in color as their distance from the Torah increases. In the stained-glass pieces themselves, a traditional menorah is represented along with the customary Jewish greeting "Shabbat shalom" written in Hebrew.
Throughout the entire display, lines cross between window panels and mosaics, creating an almost hypnotic effect.
"It's practical because it's designed for meditation," Goldsmith-Holt said.
The temple's newest piece of art is one not typically associated with a formal Jewish temple. One of the temple's religious school teachers, who also has three children who attend the school, recently spent nine months working on a large, wall-sized mural depicting the scene of Noah's Ark. The mural is intricately detailed, but still fun and relevant to the temple's teachings.
A fundraiser was held so students of the school could "sponsor" the individual animals of the mural. There are also plans in the works so the mural can evolve with more students becoming involved with the animals by taking care of them or other activities.
"Everybody is connected to Jewish art when they're here," said Rabbi Cohon.
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