Christians in Muslim countries face violence and harassment. The same goes for Muslims in Christian countries and Israel. And, as Tom Lehrer sang, “everybody hates the Jews.”
This isn’t new information, and many before me have pointed out the irony that the three main Abrahamic religions are so often at each other’s throats. Even if the confrontations are not, as some believe, constant and apocalyptic, it’s certainly reasonable to see Christianity, Islam and Judaism as a kind of Venn diagram of grievances.
It’s reasonable but not entirely correct. As the new “Shared Sacred Sites” exhibition at three New York venues demonstrates, there is no shortage of places where followers of these religions intersect in fellowship and peace.
As its title makes self-evident, “Shared Sacred Sites” is an exploration of places of worship. It’s also about overlapping themes and figures. The exhibition bills itself as “a contemporary pilgrimage,” as it is spread across three sites in midtown Manhattan: the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library (aka, the place with the lions); the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center; and the Morgan Library & Museum.
Despite the enormity of the subject matter, “Shared Sacred Sites” is charmingly modest. In the Schwarzman Building, it occupies a smallish room on the ground floor. This part of the exhibition explores the past: the “shared” city of Jerusalem and the shared scriptural figures of Abraham, Moses and Elijah.
The objects are interesting if not mind-blowing: There are medieval maps and a few of the photographer Félix Bonfils’s wonderful albumen silver prints from the 1870s and 1880s — one of the Western Wall and another of Mary’s Tomb near the Mount of Olives. I particularly enjoyed the compare-and-contrast of the Annunciation. In a pristine 16th-century Book of Hours, Mary appears calm as Gabriel breaks the news. In the gorgeously lettered 16th-century Muslim commentary on the Quran, Mary’s incredulousness is endearingly human: “How can I have a son,” she asks, “when no man has ever touched me and I am not an adulteress?”
A few blocks south of the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library & Museum, at CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery, the focus is more contemporary. This part of the exhibition leans heavily on the work of Manoël Pénicaud, a talented French ethnologist who studies and documents interreligious relations across Europe and the Mediterranean.
You can watch Pénicaud’s short films on “Interfaith Bridge Builders,” such as “The Last Rabbi of Crete,” an interview with Nicholas Stavroulakis, the recently deceased Greek-American preservationist of Crete’s Etz Hayyim Synagogue.
Stavroulakis speaks of his well-earned pride in creating “the only synagogue in Europe that has its doors wide open” to people of all faiths, or even no faith at all. The only criterion is the shared values of “pity and compassion for the world.”