It has inspired some of history's greatest creative works, and now the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is drawing on old religious art in a powerful new exhibition.
Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World will be at the museum from September 30-April 1, showcasing works dating from 1350-1900.
While the museum's exhibitions have typically showcased contemporary works or a mix of new and old, this one sets its sights on artistic expressions of the Christian faith rooted firmly in the past.
It showcases more than 140 devotional objects depicting saints, virgins and other Christian holy subjects.
The exhibition examines centuries of spiritual and artistic tradition in a bid to explore human emotion, the cultural impact of religion and what drives human behaviour.
Mona curator Jane Clark said people do not have to be believers to enjoy the beauty and emotional power of the artworks.
She described the objects on exhibition as "very potent" and "exquisitely beautiful"
"While painting an icon may begin from an act of piety, the resulting object also lives as a work of art far beyond its original purpose," she said.
"We can look at the icon as a 'window into heaven', as believers believe; but also as a looking glass, through which we may glimpse the deeper purposes... that are served by human creativity."
Jane said she believed religion and art were united by three overarching human characteristics - the understanding of and attempt to come to terms with our mortality; the shared capacity of art and religion to bond communities; and the desire to explain what we do not understand.
"One of our guiding interests (at MONA) is why humans make art at all, why they do the things they do," she said.
"I think there is an argument that if something is universal across all human cultures, there's something deep in our biology."
The exhibition features work from Russia, Crete and mainland Greece, Armenia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, the Balkans and Palestine.
Highlights include a depiction of the popular legend of Saint George fighting a dragon dating back to Crete in 1500; an image of St Nicholas titled Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker dating back to 16th century Russia; and an image of Christ quietly gripping his mother's hand as he turns to acknowledge the lance and crucifix from 15th century Crete.
The exhibition has been built around the collection of John McCarthy, with additional icons loaned by private collectors and public institutions. Most have never been on public display in Australia before.
As well as painted images, the exhibition also features silver crosses, portable altars, holy books, and an 18th-century pilgrim's 'memento map' - the personalised souvenir of one devout man's journey to the Holy Sepulchre inside the walled City of Jerusalem.
The museum is also putting together a catalogue of works featured in the exhibition, which will be available to order via its website. If all goes to schedule, it should be available by the opening date of the exhibition.
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