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Representative of living dichotomy between the collective of believers and the religious hierarchy

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Art And Religion

Encyclopedia of Religion 
COPYRIGHT 2005 Thomson Gale


ART AND RELIGION is a discrete field of multidisciplinary study that attends to the creative interplay between image and meaning making as religious activities. More general usage of the term signifies investigations into the role, place, or experience of art in religion(s).

As a mode of creative expression, communication, and self-definition, art is a primordial facet of human existence and constitutive factor in the evolution of religion. Through visible expression and form, art imparts meaning and value to anthropic aspirations, encounters, and narratives, and simultaneously orients the human within the horizon of a community, world, and cosmos. Thereby, art renders the human situation—origin, existence, death, and afterlife—comprehensible through visual representations. As a stimulus for creativity and culture, religion is the spiritual impulse that conjoins humanity with divinity through spiritual experience, ceremony, and mythology. Art and religion converge through ritual practice and presentation of sacred narrative, thereby affecting “an experience of the numinous” (Otto, 1923). Enigmatically, art can recognize and project the essence and significance of a spiritual experience through form, thereby engendering a tangible record that informs the initiation or repetition of the original spiritual moment. Commensurately, art employs visual archetypes and idealizations on the journey to truth and beauty, thereby proffering visions of the sacred and models to follow on the path to salvation. As visible religion, art communicates religious beliefs, customs, and values through iconography and depictions of the human body. The foundational principle for the interconnections between art and religion is the reciprocity between image making and meaning making as creative correspondence of humanity with divinity.

The intimacy between art and religion has prevailed beyond historical convolutions, transformations, and permutations in global cultural and religious values. Unimaginably arduous to label with a universal standard, the intercommunion between art and religion has endured proliferation, diversification, and diminution through world cultures and religions. Nonetheless, this impossible regularization or definition of art and religion in any form, communal or universal, may be interpreted as appropriate to as amorphous an entity as art and religion is, and reflects its fundamental heuristic and multivalent nature. From their inexplicable differences within individual cultures to their inherent and unconscious manifestations in the human psyche, the numerous conjunctures between art and religion persist even unto their camouflaged survival in the secular societies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


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Art has power in the anthropological sense of mana. This troublesome and distinctive characteristic of art, and commensurately of images and imagery, is evidenced through the power to evoke or affect the human capacity to feel. The distinguishing human ability to feel, to have feelings, extends beyond simple emotion to the capacity and sensitivity that are elemental to the human capability to interpret and to reason. This connection between art and feeling is privileged by the naming of the philosophy of beauty as “aesthetics.” The English word aesthetic is derived from the Greek root aisthetikos, meaning “to be sensitive” in the etymological context of “coming to know through the senses.” Conversely, an anaesthetic prohibits the human ability to have feeling. The universality of this association of art as an affector of emotions and sensitivities, and a connective to religion, is evidenced in Bharata Muni’s treatises on art. His comprehension of rasa as levels of human consciousness educed by art in which the aesthetic merges into the spiritual for artist and viewer is crucial to the Hindu tenet of the indivisibility of art and religion. This aptitude to effectuate feeling, either as emotions or sensitivities, is an elementary motive in the intellectual “fear of art” that led to the denial of the visual both as a prime response to the epistemological question and as primary evidence in the study of history.

The authoritative preference, at least in the West, is for the primacy of the text, that is, of the word over the image. Historians of religion reputedly advocate the unconscious act of selection between the image and the word by every religious tradition with appropriate cultural consequences. Religions, like Hinduism and Eastern Christianity, which favor the primacy of the image are differentiated as sacramental, creative, and intuitive in linguistic and cultural attitudes from those religions, such as Protestant Christianity and Judaism, preferring the primacy of the word and labeled as legalistic, pragmatic, and rational in language and cultural reception. Further, the study of religion, particularly in the West, has been predicated upon the authority of the written text, or a series of texts, not upon the image. The disciplined reading of these canons encompasses exegesis as the fundament for study, debate, and interpretation. A hegemony of texts, canons, and scriptures—that is, the written word—results in the incorporation of art simply as illustration for explication and dissemination of textual themes.

Late twentieth- and early twenty-first century publications in religious studies reveal interest in the inclusion of new themes, foci, and methodologies, given the insights toward religion accessible through a variety of new disciplinary fields interested in the religious dimensions of art, most specifically material culture, popular culture, and visual culture. These new styles of analysis incorporate “activities,” including worship, personal piety, public rituals, and all styles and levels of art, in unison with intellectual interpretation of the canon to provide broader comprehension of religion. Although recognized as a contributor to religious meaning and orientation, the partnership of art and religion remains a complex enigma. Art as an object to be both analyzed and experienced is recognized as empowering artist and viewer in transcending the quotidian existential and the rational in a temporary communion with the sacred, the experience of which is so singular as to incite the desire for repetition emphasizing the ritual character of art.

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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.”

Critical Questions

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Regardless of methodological approach or religion investigated, art and religion inquiries have been initiated from two critical, oftentimes implicit, questions—”what makes art religious?” and “how is religion artistic?” Since the 1970s, scholarship in art and religion has incorporated several other critical questions into the modes of approach in both research and publications. These critical questions affected the direction of study and interpretation process. Primary among these critical questions is the issue of the “starting point” for an art and religion investigation. The choices range from an individual work of art or a group of works, to one artist or a group (school) of artists, to a specific historical or religious event, to a new religious doctrine or a singular iconographic motif. The second critical question is what art is to be studied. Each investigator develops a set of criteria to discern art as high or low, art as popular culture, art as material culture, and art as an element of visual culture. The crucial decision is whether the focus of study is a traditionally defined work of art or from one of the domains of art such as folk art, photography, or popular culture. The third critical question is that of procedure, for example, examination from a specific historical question such as that of the process of secularization, the meaning of Christian art as the “Bible of the poor,” or the implications of political power and authority for religious art. The fourth critical question has been formed by the academic recognition of “the marginalized”—those previously little investigated groups including women, racial and ethnic minorities, classes, and gender—whose art has reformulated traditional art historical categories not simply by introducing new iconographies or styles but by the very nature of their understandings of art and religion in their respective societies and cultures.

With the advent of the new century, scholarship in art and religion has formulated new critical questions arising from both contemporary events and a growing global recognition of the broader ethical and societal responsibilities for cultural heritage. The recent loss of works of religious art through natural disasters, war, and violent acts of iconoclasm has focused attention on the role of religion in fomenting or silencing acts of destruction, whether initiated by environmental neglect or military activity. Further analysis as to religious meaning and cultural value of the works selected for destruction is a topic for new studies from the perspective of art and religion. The related critical question for art and religion study is that of the complex ethical and moral issue of the “theft” or transfer of art from one country to another on the grounds of protection or military conquest, and the potential for repatriation. Another new critical question, which may be related to the primary question of “what makes art religious?” and which simultaneously impinges upon the ethical quagmire of ownership, is the collecting and display of religious art in institutional environments such as public museums and special exhibitions, thereby in sites and for uses distinct from those sacred criteria for which it was created, and perhaps consecrated.

The Nature of the Relationship(s)

The oftentimes controversial and amorphous interconnections between art and religion proffer five distinctive relationships that can be categorized as distinguished by power (Apostolos-Cappadona, 1996) and that extend beyond mana to include economic, gendered, political, societal, and religious concepts of power. The first is authoritarian, in which art is subject to religion. The authoritarian relationship permits no place for artistic creativity, individuality, or originality; rather, art and artists are controlled by the higher authority as art becomes visual propaganda. The second relationship is that of opposition, in which both art and religion are equal powers, and while neither is dominated or subservient to the other, there is a constant struggle to subjugate the other. The third relationship is one of mutuality when these two “equals” inhabit the same cultural environment in a symbiotic union of inspired nurture. The fourth relationship is separatist, as each operates independent of and without regard for the other, as in an iconoclastic religious environment or a secular culture. The fifth relationship is unified, so that their individual identities become so completely blended into a single entity it is impossible to discern what is art from what is religion.

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Images are either inherently venerable or become sacralized through an act or ceremony of consecration. The primary classification of natively venerable images is those singular sacred images known as acheiropoietai (from the Greek for “not made by hands”). Believers recognize these particular images as divinely inspired and divinely created as they are discovered either fully formed in nature, including the acheiropoietai images of Buddha, Śiva, or the Black Madonna of Montserrat, or those acheiropoietai reported to have “fallen” from the heavens to the earth like the iron thokchaks in Tibet and the Black Stone in Mecca. A second mode of acheiropoietai are those formed by direct divine imprint on cloth, such as the legendary Mandylion of Edessa and the Christian scriptural Veil of Veronica. A third mode of acheiropoietai are contemporary portraits of sacred persons created in their lifetimes by an artist who may also have been a holy person; for example, the icons of the Theotokos and Child painted by Luke the Evangelist and the sandalwood images of the Buddha reputed to have been carved in his actual presence.

A second category of sacred image meriting adoration and respect is the miraculous image that receives gifts and votives regularly from devotees. Miraculous images such as the Black Madonnas of Spain, Italy, France, and Switzerland, or Ganeśa, the Hindu “remover of obstacles,” exhibit their sacrality by performing miracles, especially miraculous healings of otherwise inexplicable illnesses, bodily ailments, and physical disabilities; the dissipation of obstacles; and the conception and birth of healthy children to previously barren women. To evidence reassurance or perhaps to foretell impending disaster, some miraculous images produce a sign such as a glowing light, aromatic scents, streams of oil or blood, or tears as those of the renowned twelfth-century icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir. Other miraculous images such as the icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria of Constantinople were known for responding to prayers of protection from invading armies or natural disasters, so the preservation of the city or the conditions for a good harvest witnessed the inherent sacrality of the image.

Rituals of consecration performed by holy periods, or ecclesiastical hierarchs, affirmed venerability through the ceremonial imbuing of diving energy so that the image is worthy of adoration and respect. Consecration ceremonies range from the ancient Egyptian “Opening of the Mouth” ritual to the Hindu “Installation of Breath” rite in which the image was brought to life through the initiation of breath to the Zen Buddhist rite in which the eyes of the image are completed. Representative of that living dichotomy between the collective of believers and the religious hierarchy are images accepted as miraculous and venerable by the former prior to any formal ecclesiastical approval or consecration ceremony, as with a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara or an icon of Theotokos Treheroussa.