From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the glow-in-the-dark Madonnas that line the counter at your friendly, neighborhood 99-cent store, different cultures have always found ways to express their religious beliefs through art, icons and physical representations of a higher, more ephemeral world.
The Virgin Mary keeps watch over a yard in central Denver.
Dr. Martha Narey of the University of Denver has made a casual science of deciphering the differences in the form and function of many of these "sacred spaces" in Colorado, from the public to the more personal. In trips around Denver and to small towns across the state, Narey has visited and studied more cemeteries, churches, kivas and cathedrals than the average monk, and she's observed the ways in which social, economic and cultural factors influence their design, placement and distribution.
Along the way, Narey has unearthed some fun stuff. For example, she's discovered that tiny Central City has three cemeteries because, at one point, the dominant religious communities there -- Protestants, Jews and Catholics -- preferred to keep their dearly departed separate in the ground and, presumably, the afterlife.
She's found that you're more likely to encounter folk-art variations on cathedral fare -- say, a ceramic bathtub converted to a backdrop for a Crucifixion scene -- in neighborhoods peopled with ethnic groups such as Hispanics and Italians; in Denver, that primarily means clusters on the north and west sides of town. Narey's also learned that such kitchen-sink devotion often vanishes when these areas become gentrified.
Narey has confined her research to places and objects that can be observed from the street as a way to gauge "the willingness of people to make a public expression about things that they feel strongly about. It seems, at first, that people who place shrines and things in their yards are trying to make some sort of commentary about their cultural and religious understanding," she says. "But in some cases, it can just indicate a different cultural expression, maybe just a willingness to install art." Occasionally she knocks on doors to ask the artists or homeowners what their yard shrines or installations mean to their lives. "In many cases, the people were fairly forthcoming about their reasons for putting something up," she says. "Often it is as an expression of gratitude toward God for something that did or did not happen, an expression of that feeling. In Montana, near Butte, there's a very large statue of the Virgin that was erected by a man after his wife survived a bout with cancer, I believe it was. He had money; he could make a big splash. Most of us can only make little splashes in our own yards."
And though this kind of cultural survey technically falls outside her field of expertise -- it's more of a hobby for the good doctor, a climatologist and professor in DU's geography department -- Narey sees an obvious connection between geography and folk and formal art. "Geographers tend to get interested in the visual landscape as well as the physical," she says. "We want to know how things get where they are, where they came from, and what they say about the culture of the people who are responsible for them."
This week, Narey will host Sacred Spaces: Denver Yard Shrines and Other Colorado Monuments, an hour-long narrated slide tour of some of Colorado's more appealing, and revealing, cultural and religious landmarks.
As a scholar and speaker, Narey is very enthusiastic; in light of this, you might want to have some glitter, glue and small icons waiting when you return home inspired: Shrine kits are not included with the talk.