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the acheiropoietai images of Buddha, Śiva, or the Black Madonna of Montserrat

Religious Categories for Art

Art has performed a variety of roles in the environments, rituals, and teachings of world religions, from devotional objects to divinely inspired works to communicators of sacred knowledge. Through pedagogy, devotions, and contemplation, art has nurtured the development and establishment of religious identity for both individual believers and the larger collective community. One of the normative and primary rationales for art in the context of religion is “to teach the faith” by means of symbolic and representational depictions of the major sacred narratives and tenets. This pedagogical, or didactic, aspect of art in religion is identified as “visual theology.” Representational art can provide visible models for appropriate behavior, dress, postures, gestures, and modes of liturgical actions, and symbolic and representational liturgical objects of beautiful design and proportions can enhance the religious ceremonies. This liturgical, sacramental, or ritualistic dimension of art in religion is labeled “visual liturgy.” Whether symbolic or representational, works of art that induce prayer or evoke personal devotions are identified as “visual contemplation.” Art that offers spiritual orientation as the symbols and images facilitate the devotee into an experience of transcendence or momentary encounter with the sacred are categorized as “visual mysticism.” The symbolic vocabulary of motifs, images, or signs that transfer religious meaning and theological tenets in a mode accessible only to the initiated is the art of “visual codes.” Art that enhances through design and patterning the religious environment or the experience of spiritual encounter for the believer is identified as “visual decoration.” The art of any of the world’s religions can also be a combination of any or all of these categories so that one work can be symbolic and mystical or didactic and liturgical. Nonetheless, there are always works of art that are difficult, if not impossible to categorize, such as the Muqarnas, or stalactite decoration of Islamic architecture, which some scholars and believers identify as beautiful form and others interpret as the multiplicity of God’s unity.