Alexandria, VA – There are shrines so majestic they can take your breath away and make you want to fall to your knees. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States, comes to my mind.
Also, the Neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church. Zebra Art Editor Kelly MacConomy took the photo here during the annual “Seeing Deeper” event at the Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral re-opened to the public last month for ticketed visitors to experience Michael Pendrey’s installation “Les Colombes,” consisting of nearly 2,000 origami doves.
The photograph, “Representations of The Buddha,” is from my 1985 photo documentary of worship in Alexandria, which may currently be seen at Alexandria History Museum at The Lyceum, 201 S. Washington Street. But there are many kinds of Buddhist shrines, some elaborate, others simple. Wikihow will tell you how you can create a simple one for your home.
And then there are our personal shrines, collections we keep that are not religious but still are sacred to us. They are often made up of photographs. I see them frequently at wedding receptions, pictures of the bride and groom as children, and sometimes the couple’s parents.
There may be walls with photographs of our children as they grow; sometimes, the walls honor our ancestors. And there may be collections of small, framed photos displayed on tables, window sills, and shelves.
Musing on shrines today, I realize that personal shrines may change as we change over time. What was once sacred to us may not be anymore. Some things lose importance. They are overtaken by “the now.”
Years ago, I kept a shelf of trinkets given to me by my friend Charlie. A small white plastic Delta airplane, a give-away on a long-ago flight. Dice from Caesar’s Palace. A toy soldier on horseback. One of the horses’ legs came broken at the knee; I propped him up with a toothpick. A miniature toy VW bus. An old tin Lucky Strike box salvaged from his family’s home when it was sold. An American flag is stored inside the box. It has 48 stars. The fabric is faded and fragile.
Though Charlie was a treasured friend, a thread that wove itself through my life for many years, I haven’t heard from him in more than 20. I don’t know whether he still lives. The objects are packed away now. I can’t bring myself to let go entirely, but they no longer occupy sacred space.
Now my in-home gallery, Serenity Place, features “Blue Sanctuary aka Shrine of the Everyday,” a mosaic piece that I bought in 2001 from Lin (Hall) Hiley, an artist in Del Ray. When I buy original art now, I ask for an Artist’s Statement and tape it to the back. But I didn’t do that then and had to research my old journals to find her name. That shrine serves as a home for a small representation of the Buddha and sometimes includes representations of my personal totem, the gecko, a symbol of change and transformation.
Lin recently sent me this statement: “This piece was inspired by the book by Kaffi Fasett and Candace Bahouth. I am a lover of folk art, and relished the idea of creating a shrine where one could insert changing objects (Barbie dolls, talismans, pet toys, ritual objects, etc.) into the mirrored shrine area, in essence, mindfully paying tribute to meaningful life events as they unfold.”
That piece may well have been the inspiration for my later pivot from photography to mosaic art. I found it that beautiful.
Photographs of my children and my friends live on shelves in my bedroom, along with awards and recognitions I’ve received over the years. I know intellectually that they don’t make me any more special than anyone else, but I like to have them close by, especially on those days when I need a hug or an angel on my shoulder.
What are our assemblages saying to us, and what are they saying about us? It’s something to ponder.
Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria