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converging cultures

Traditionally the academic study of religion has been distinguished by the suspension of personal faith commitments so that the scholarly deciphering and evaluation of art and religion encourages the innocent eye to be open to the multivalent meanings and influences of art upon religion, and of religion on art, without prejudgment or prejudice. This is not to suggest that the work of art is neutral or benign, for art is neither conceived nor executed in a vacuum. The significance of art, regardless of medium or critical appraisal, is its cultural embeddedness by which it enables reflection on past cultural histories, connection with contemporary cultural attitudes, and projection of emerging cultural values. The fundamental ambiguity in the reading or perception of art attests to its heuristic and multivalent nature.

Art, especially religious art, is the external expression of the artist’s personal vision, and under normal circumstances, a work of religious art, whether identified as Christian, Jain, or Aboriginal, is initiated from an identifiable faith commitment and communicates in the vernacular of that faith community. For example, the sixteenth-century German artist Mathias Grünewald depicts in his magisterial Isenheim Altarpiece (1515: Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar) a series of significant biblical episodes in the life of Jesus of Nazareth for the hospice at the Antonite Monastery in Colmar. Grünewald included specific visual cues so that members of that religious community could “read” his meaning, and other Christians familiar with either the biblical narratives or the liturgical celebrations of Christmas and Easter could access this work of art. The Isenheim Altarpiece operates as visual theology within a clearly defined religious tradition reflecting its religious practices and beliefs. Concurrently, the “outsider,” visitor, or curious can see this artwork as an invitation to or initiation into a particular religious vocabulary and landscape of religious vision.

Traditionally, for scholars of religious studies, especially in the West, the “voice of authority” has been a canon—a series of written texts including a sacred scripture, commentaries on that scripture, and doctrinal or conciliar decrees. However the “reality” of religion is more complicated given the transmutations and permutations of history, geographic expansion, and the constant presence of the human element, especially the collective of believers, many of whom were illiterate, thereby unschooled in the finer points of textual exegesis and theological ruminations. A religion to be apprehended and comprehended fully by both the faith community and researchers requires the display of its multiple dimensions from iconography to canon, from theological tome to devotional prayers. Such a coordination of the elite and the mundane reconstructs the meaning of religion as texts are accessible to the literate, whereas art ranging generically from icons to devotional hymns to liturgical dance to folk art, poetry, and morality tales proffers an inclusive and comprehensive reading of fourteenth-century Western Christianity in coordination with the “authoritative texts.”