Unidentified European Artist, Book of Hours, about 1470, ink on vellum bound in leather, Elisabeth Ball Collection, gift of the George and Frances Ball Foundation, on loan from Archives and Special Collections, Alexander M. Bracken Library, L1989.024.002

Written by Tori Smith, Public Relations and Social Media Assistant 

Spilling out with spirituality 

One summer day during undergraduate school, Matthew Hotham sat in one of the back seats of a windowless van as the driver circled a few times. He, and a few other students, had no idea where they were going.  They had just been put in this van after leaving their hostel in Turkey. When he opened the van’s door, he was viewing something that was illegal at the time in Turkey: a real Sufi tradition.  

He had just viewed an imitation of a Sufi tradition with trained dancers, and seeing the real Sufis do their tradition felt amazing in comparison. He saw them use different techniques to get their bodies a little more disconnected from this world, and a little more mystically connected to God. Those techniques varied from breath control, chanting the 99 names of God (commonly referred to as “The Merciful” or “The Real” as described in the Qur’an), and whirling, where they spun to blur their vision, and stuck out one hand to show their connection with God, and opened the other hand to the other Sufi’s to allow for them to gain the blessings as well. Their body image mirrored a teapot spilling out spirituality.  

Matthew, now an assistant professor of religious studies at Ball State University and a part-time poet, was introduced to the idea of mysticism as an undergraduate at Colgate University. During his spring break, he found himself inspired to pursue this topic after reading the poetry of Nizami Ganjavi. He continued to study, eventually earning his PhD on Islamic mysticism. 

Often, Matthew said, mysticism is viewed as just simply having a connection with God. But that is not necessarily true.  

“Mystics come from a group of people who said ‘No, God isn’t knowable through things that you would know or experience in this world…the only way to know things about God is through direct experience.” 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are three definitions of mysticism.  

  1. The experience of a mystics union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics 
  1. The belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attainted through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight) 
  1. A vague speculation: a belief without basis 

In the case of Matthew’s classes, the second definition is most applicable when viewing art at DOMA with his classes. There are multiple ways that Matthew uses art at DOMA to teach in his classes. This semester, Matthew is responsible for teaching two World Religions class and one Qur’an class.  

Fortunately, DOMA has a 15th-century bound manuscript copy of the Qur’an in the museum’s collection, which he has scheduled his students to view during his Qur’an class.  When Matthew is teaching the Asian Religions class, he uses multiple statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas at DOMA and ask them to identify the various mudras (or hand positions.) It helps the class discuss meditation and acquisition of the Buddha mind. 

Also, during last semester’s Fibers of Being: Textiles from Asia in the David Owsley Museum of Art’s Collection, he encouraged students to go and see a few Buddhist monk robes. 

He usually gets about one class session per semester to talk about Islamic mysticism. Although, regarding, Christian mysticism, he said that a book in DOMA’s collection that could be helpful about learning about Christian mysticism is the Book of Hours, which can be found in one of the galleries.  

“This could be used to discuss how religious specialists seeking a mystical encounter with God regulated their day with specific readings and prayers at prescribed times,” he said. 

 He has been back to Turkey twice since his initial trip. During one of his visits, he was able to see mystics perform Ebru as a spiritual practice, which is a technique of dripping ink in water to create interesting patterns. Mystics are huge generators of art: poetry, visual, and memoir, he said.  

“The reason is because of the experience with God…if you can’t express your experience through a five-paragraph essay, then you have to say it through non-linguistic forms.” 

If you’re interested in seeing more of our Christian religious art, view the online collection: Christian Religion: Art Collection. 

Better yet, come visit the spring exhibition: Beyond The Medici: The Haukohl Family Collection. There are plenty of religious figures and narratives that visitors can see. The exhibition is open until May 19.

Read part two: here

As always, thank you for reading the DOMA insider and make sure to visit the museum soon! DOMA is free and open to the public; we are open Tuesday – Friday 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., and Saturday from 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Check out our website at bsu.edu/doma.