Faiths live together: Jewish, Muslim and Christian iconography from Islamic Spain

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Vermont artist Valerie Hird has traveled in Spain, looking for images from the 10th to 13th centuries, a time when Spain was culturally Arabic, and Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in the same cities, influencing each other's art and music and language -- before Jews and Arabs were expelled from the country.

"Artists borrowed images from one another," she said, "as they do now."

She studied Sephardic Jewish iconography; paintings on monastery walls, grotesques and battle scenes from the Book of Revelation; scenes from the Shahnameh, an epic Persian, semi-divine princes conquering parts of the empire; images of Mohammed -- she has has seen many illuminated volumes of the Quran; images from the Jewish Haggedah, the expulsion from Egypt, and from Christian books of hours, giving guidance on how to conduct an ethical life.

In "Islam contemporary," her stream of consciousness paintings blend these images with contemporary scenes and people she saw in Spain as she traveled there. People would gather in the squares at 5 p.m., after mass, she said, as the evening began to cool, to talk over the news of the day.

She painted people in Morocco making the Hajj with one hand outstreatched in prayer.

"It's an organic jumble," she said.

She finds religous iconography side by side breathtakingly beautiful. She has spent years traveling to religious centers where one religion has taken over or overlaid another, like Haggia Sophia in Istanbul, or the Great Mosque in Cordoba, which is now Cordoba's cathedral.

She has lived and worked in the Middle East for five years and has traveled there extensively, she added, and she does not often have the chance to be part of an exhibit with this work, as a white, Christian, American woman. She praised ‘Islam Contemporary' curator Aziz Sohail for his generosity.



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