Museum of Religious Arts, King of Kings Wax Collection
According to the literature from the Museum of Religious Arts, "The most beautiful art in the world has been motivated by religious fervor." If you accept that premise -- and why wouldn't you -- then some of the most beautiful art in the world is inside a building in Logan, Iowa, flanked by three large crosses and an equally large American flag.
The Museum of Religious Arts was founded by Paul Lovell, a local man and a devout Catholic. Lovell saw that the old-time rural Catholic churches of Iowa and Nebraska were closing, and feared that all of their art would be lost. He created this museum, with 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, to preserve it -- and other religious art as well, although not art from all religions. There are no Buddhist mandalas, no Hindu statuary or Moslem calligraphy. "This is a Judeo-Christian religious art museum," said Rhonda, our guide. Rhonda told us that if the Museum were to display art from other faiths, "we'd have to change our mission statement."
Paul Lovell died in April 2007, only a few days before the Museum unveiled "Jesus Walking on the Water" (its first outdoor installation). "It was, like, 'Okay, my job is done here'," Rhonda said of his untimely death. Lovell would likely have been pleased: Jesus, with his feet somehow skimming the surface of a small pond, extending a supportive hand to a sinking apostle Peter (The exhibit is packed away during the winter, both for preservation and because Jesus Walking on the Ice would seem less miraculous).
Lovell's death has not condemned his Museum to a similar fate; the staff is enthusiastic and there's plenty to see. But what is "Religious Art," exactly? Is it historic paintings of Biblical scenes, or contemporary depictions of the life of Christ? Is it the fashions, the implements, the architecture of church orthodoxy? Well, yes, all of that.
Catholic iconography dazzles the eye in the Exhibit Hall, with elaborate altars, glittery vestments, stained glass windows, and many statues. One that leaps out screaming is a super-bloody scourged Jesus in mortal agony a la Passion of the Christ, a statue donated by an order of Omaha nuns.
A crucifix made with a corn-husk Christ caught our attention, more a home-crafted work of a devoted fan, akin to the Last Supper made from Gourd Seeds (or for that matter, Liberace made from bread dough). A communion wafer electric waffle iron was fascinating to see up close with its elaborate seal embossing, but is it Art? Hmmm... wait. The hosts it once made are considered the literal, transubstantiated body of the Lord! So is that like, tattoo art? (Can you even consider such matters without committing a sin? Either way, we appreciated seeing a Host Maker.)
A recreated Southwest "Mission Chapel" can be reserved for special occasions; its elaborate baptismal font was found in a barn in Woodward, Iowa, where it was being used to clean chickens. There's even a special exhibit on Holocaust survivor art (remember, the Judeo- part of the mission statement).
While the Catholics seem to be waning in this part of the world, fundamentalist Christians are on the rise -- which has the Museum of Religious Arts finessing their Catholic art preservation charter with other art traditions. Rhonda told us that "we do have people who are concerned that we're a lot Catholic," so the museum makes an effort to give the evangelicals art of their own. A "Project Moses" 800-pound Ten Commandments monument stands just inside the front door (you can buy one for your yard), and the museum devotes a gallery to Akiane Kramarik, a home-schooled child prodigy who's been on Oprah and who paints visions given to her directly by God. "She didn't know about God until the age of four because her mom was an atheist," Rhonda told us. We were informed that Akiane's original paintings now sell for up to $1 million apiece.
Visitors of all Christian variations can enjoy the Museum's "King of Kings" wax museum, which was imported from Florida's Sunken Gardens in 1998. A local artist named Kris Haase replaced all of the clothing and washed all of the heads of hair (human hair from Tibet, inserted one strand at a time), and somehow ended up with more blondes. The Nativity, Crucifixion, and Empty Tomb all look better than they did in their old St. Pete location, although we miss the completely fake-looking puffy clouds that used to surround heaven-bound Jesus in the Ascension tableau. Rhonda said that the nine Biblical scenes are populated by 44 wax figures and one mannequin -- so if your kids get antsy, have them play find-the-mannequin.
Rural Logan is a bit off the path, and tour bus traffic has declined of late at the Museum of Religious Arts. Former visitors have retired, busy driving around in classic cars -- or at least, that was Rhonda's theory. Perhaps it's just that the old guard is taking a break, and the new crowd is waiting for the latest Akiane art or more outdoor Gospel scenes. And less scourging.
For us, the Museum of Religious Arts deserves its unique, middle-ground spot along the sacred art collection continuum -- with saint bone reliquaries in one direction, and Rapture Realism painting galleries in the other.