Art and Religion

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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 situationorigin, existence, death, and afterlifecomprehensible 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.


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 scripturesthat is, the written wordresults 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.

Art is simultaneously an objective and a subjective eventthe object being seen and the effect of the process of seeing. This exchange between art and religion, in coordination with the fundamental reality of its heuristic and mutually beneficial mien, challenges the logocentricity of traditional, especially Western, scholarship and cultural values, which normatively dissociates religion from art. This Enlightenment principle of the separation of the experience of art from the intellectual analysis of religion parallels the transfer of religious meaning from institutional to non-institutional environments. The intellectual divorce of the academic study of religion from the practice of religion, and from the experience of art, is analogous to the separation of the academic study of art history from the creating and encountering of art.

The Practice and the Study of Art and Religion

The position of artwhether in the broadest frame of religious studies, or a specific category such as church history or history of Buddhismlocates a useful parallel in traditional distinctions between the study of religion and the practice of religion. Applicable to art as well as to religion, this dichotomy exceeds the categories of objectivity and subjectivity, for "the doing of" religion (or art) is physically and intellectually distinct from "the thinking about" religion (or art). The telling distinctions here include recognition of class, gender, and ethnicity as well as education and the revelation of the privileging of the study of religion, and of art and religion, as a Western scholarly phenomenon. The practice of religion is primarily sited in worship and religious education, or catechesis, in which art either iconographically or figuratively envisions established narratives to transmit religious ideas and practices, to convey religious truths and practices, and to promote worship individually and communally.

Historically, Western scholars, especially those intrigued by religious art, or what they may have identified as the interconnections between art and religion, emphasized the primary role that art played in religious practice, for example, an altarpiece or a bronze sculpture of Śiva Nataraja, and were unaware the fact that this mode of study could be read as restrictive, exclusivist, and parochial. Further interpretive difficulties arose as these scholarsincluding theologians like Roger Hazelton (1967) and Paul Tillich (1987) and art historians such as Jane Daggett Dillenberger (1986/1998) and Timothy Verdon (1984)were committed members of the religious communities whose art was being examined. This style of scholarly investigations is better identified as theology and art, not art and religion. The significance of both the choice of category names and the order of their arrangementthat is, art and religion as distinct from religion and artannounces more than the focus of intellectual attention.

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 canona 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

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 genderwhose 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.

As a corollary to, if not a result of, the fact that there is no universally agreed upon definition of either art or religion, none of the major world religions have a historically consistent attitude toward art. These cultural and geographic variations even within one religion such as Islam and Buddhism confirm that any or all of these five relationships between art and religion exist either simultaneously or in a chronological progression in one religious tradition. In his now classic Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (2005 [1963]), Gerardus van der Leeuw (18901950) considered the nature of the arts in relation to religion and specifically identified Christianity as a religious locus in which all five relationships between art and religion can be identified.

Religious Attitudes Toward Art

Every religious tradition has an attitude toward art, and thereby toward image. Some are formalized in written canons, hierarchy, dogma, creeds, and liturgy, while others are predicated upon oral tradition, ritual, and mythology. The fundamental modes of religious attitudes toward art are iconic (advocacy), aniconic (acceptance), and iconoclastic (denial or rejection). The iconic attitude locates the image in representational or anthropomorphic figures of identifiable and known reality, as evidenced in the Byzantine icons of Mary as Theotokos or Jesus Christ as the Pantocrator. Taken to its extreme, however, the iconic religious attitude treads lightly upon idolatry. The aniconic attitude defines the image as a symbolic or allusive presentation of sacred reality, exemplified in nonrepresentational images to facilitate contemplation, devotion, and worship, as evidenced in the elegant calligraphy of illuminated Islamic manuscripts or the Śiva liga. Taken to its extreme, the aniconic religious attitude verges on total abstraction and thereby the complete absence of forms. The iconoclastic attitude rejects totally images and imagery in any media, style, or form, as exemplified in the otherwise imageless environment of Jewish synagogues and many Protestant churches. Taken to its extreme, the iconoclastic attitude is violent destruction of all images and imagery, sacred and secular.

Although these three religious attitudes toward art can be delineated, it is rare in the history of any religious tradition to operate without some variation in its attitude(s). As with all theories and constructs in art and religion, there is a coexistence of multiple religious attitudes toward images either in a historic process of evolution or simultaneously so that patterns develop: iconic to iconoclastic to iconic; iconic to iconoclastic; iconic to aniconic; aniconic to iconoclastic; or aniconic to iconic. Buddhism is one of several world religions that has had these three religious attitudes toward art in its history. Initially aniconic, Hinduism slowly assimilated image into worship and devotional practice, eventually establishing a complex religious iconography composed of representational and symbolic elements. The operative principle is that as each world religion evolves, its fundamental attitude toward art is similarly transformed. Certain religions such as Christianity and Buddhism have espoused a variety of attitudes toward image. Earliest Buddhist teaching was aniconic, while Zen Buddhism is iconoclastic. However, contacts with other cultures, including Hellenism, and expansion into other geographic regions caused Buddhism's initial aniconicism to evolve into a bifurcation of the iconic and iconoclastic religious attitudes. This Buddhist dichotomy is illustrated in the use of iconic and aniconic forms in those maalas that are ceremonially created and then ritually destroyed. Further, a fundamental ambiguity exists within several world religions as the hierarchy affirms the proscriptions or prescriptions pronounced in written texts, dogmas, or creeds, while the praxis of the collective of believers venerates an unconsecrated but nonetheless miraculous image.

The Veneration of Art

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.

Following the ceremonies of consecration, sacred images garner specific forms of behavior and reception from believers. Often the simple viewing of the sacred image is an efficacious ritual, as witnessed through the ceremonial acts of elaborate ornamentation and dressing of sacred images in Hinduism and Roman Catholicism. The practice of offering delicate edibles, lit lamps, aromatic incense, beeswax candles, fresh flowers, and objects precious to the believer to the sacred image occurs either on significant feast days or upon the fulfillment of an intercessory plea. Sacred images are oftentimes anointed with consecrated liquids ranging from precious oils to holy water to melted butteras a rite of cleansing and honor. The secularization of this ritual is practiced in the consecration of monarchs with precious oils and holy water. Devotees may follow prescribed patterns of posture and gestures to embody their acts of veneration, such as offering prayers from positions of prostration or the kissing of the sacred image with the intoning of prayers. Furthermore, the religious practice of ritual processions, which concurrently display and honor the sacred image, extend the ritualized boundaries of sacred energy and blessing throughout the processing areas.

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.

Art as Religious Communication

As a multivalent communicator of meaning and value, art can be defined as religious art on account of its theme, subject matter, or iconography, ranging from a scriptural narrative to a sacred portrait to a holy image created within the prescriptions of a particular faith. Religious art incorporates signs and symbols accessible to the initiated who have learned to read the iconography while recognizable as beautiful form to the uninitiated, such as the carved reliefs covering the interior and exterior walls of the Khandarīya Mahādeva Temple in Khajurano or multiple panels on Mathias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.

Art may be characterized as religious art by its function. The fundamental function of most religious art is as religious pedagogy to illustrate bodily postures and gestures or a story or dogma of a religious tradition, as do visual symbols and representational imagery. Beautiful ceremonial objects that priests or religious officials employ in a sacramental manner or as part of a religious ceremony, such as illustrated holy books, candelabra, or chalices, have a clearly identifiable religious function. Visual art, for example, the wall frescoes depicting yoga postures at Ajantā in western India or the Byzantine mosaics portraying the sacrament of baptism on the ceilings of the Orthodox Baptistry in Ravenna, have simultaneous liturgical and pedagogical functions. Other works of art such as Yoruban masks and Navajo sand paintings have a function as ritual art.

The positioning or site of a work of arton an altar or inside a templesignifies it as religious art. Religious edifices differ in architectural style and function from religion to religion and country to country; however, ecclesiastical, monastic, ritual, and sacred locations include temples, synagogues, cathedrals, monasteries, and mosques as well as tombs and shrines. Oftentimes, patrons, whether individuals, royalty, religious hierarchs, or monastic communities, commission works of art, including but not limited to altarpieces or stained-glass windows, for a specific location. An artist's comprehension of the scale and siting of the work of art from the time of the commission permits design according to the spatial environment, as with Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece (1432). Other works of art, for example, the sculpture of Athena in the Parthenon or the monumental Buddha at Kamakura, are identified as religious art as their function determines their placement.

Commissions for works of art either for placement or use within a religious environmentwhether temple, mosque, monastery, synagogue, or churchor for a religious activityecclesiastical, liturgical, sacramental, devotional, contemplative, or catecheticalqualify art as religious art. Patronage of religious art may be the result of a special devotion, a healing, a response to an intercessory plea, or to assuage divine anger. Throughout the religions of the world, patrons of religious art have included laypeople as well as monastics and religious, the court and aristocracy as well as the lower classes.

The artist as the creator of art has a significant role to play in the characterizing of art as religious art. The definition of the artist and of the artist's spirituality varies from religion to religion. The characteristics and categories by which the artist is defined include descriptions of the relationship between artist and art, between art and personal spirituality, and ultimately, between the aesthetic and spiritual experiences, and are delineated in distinctive fashions within each world religion and culture. For example, art discloses the character and thereby the spirituality of the artist, according to Daoist and Confucian aesthetics, while an intimacy between artist, art, and spirituality is presumed by Hindu aesthetics, as art is spiritual and the spiritual is expressed through the arts. However, the distinction between artist and art, whereby a nonbeliever could create works for a religious community or environment, is the modern Western position. Traditionally, even in the West, the normative pattern was that the artist was a believer and practicing member of a religious community for whom the creation of art was a spiritual path. The making of religious art was, then, a form of religious ritual that began with an act, or period, of spiritual cleansing, including intense prayer, abstinence from sexual relations, and fasting. Further a complex but carefully defined rubric of forms, symbols, colors, and motifs was followed; each religious image was a codebook and "earned" the appellation "religious art." In the making of maalas the Buddhist monk followed such ritual procedures and codified rules as did the Eastern Orthodox Christian monk who "wrote" icons and the Navajo shaman who created the healing image through sand paintings.

Religious Responses to Art

The response to religious art is predicated upon individual faith, pronounced dogma, religious attitudes toward the image, and aesthetic quality projected by the work of art. The operative principle should be that as the embodiment of the sacred, a religious image provides for immediate and permanent access to the deity. Such a response, however, would require the believer's receptivity to the power of images and the primacy of sacred nature. The practical reality is that even one work of religious art can garner a diversity of responses, each of which is dependent upon the believer's preconceptions regarding religious encounter and the image. As an example of this multiplicity of response to one image, consider that of Śiva Nataraja, the divine dancer who creates and destroys the universe with each footstep. Śiva is invited to enter an image of himself at the beginning of ritual prayer or ceremonies; his presence may be perpetual or fleeting, although the physical image endures through the work of art. Throughout the ritual both Śiva and his sacred energy reside within the image but depart when the ritual comes to a close. The image remains as a visual aid for personal devotion and prayer and as a visual remembrance of the god's activity so that Śiva's sacred presence is known even in his absence. The artistic rendering of Śiva Nataraja functions as a visual reminder of the divinity's existence rather than an embodiment or temporary receptacle of the sacred; it thereby becomes a centering point for meditation, prayer, ritual, or religious experience. For many devotees, such an image is simply the point of initiation toward their individual "goal" to transcend materiality and to ascend to a mystical state of imageless union with the divine. Other believers find such an image to be simply a pedagogical object but not relevant for personal prayer, devotions, or mystical experiences. For an iconoclast, such an image of Śiva Nataraja should be denied, if not destroyed, as much out of a fear of idolatry as a simple distrust of images.

What is most significant in the human response to religious art is that even a minimal response provides an entry into the experience of or participation in divine power and energy. Works of religious art, for believers, are not simply material objects but mediators of spiritual energies. Simultaneously as efficacious location and a distancing from devotees, sacred space is created by the presence of a religious image. Recognized as a religious image in many religions, the human body is identified as a reflection of the divine bodies of the gods and goddesses in Classical Greece and as an object of glorification in certain Hindu sects and African traditions. Thereby, the response of the human body to religious art provides an aesthetic channel for devotions, contemplation, prayer, and worship.

A Preliminary History of the Field

As a discrete field of study, art and religion has no singular historic event or scholar to recognize as its formal beginning or founder. From the beginnings of scholarly discourse, critical and academic discussions of art or religion impinged each upon the territory of the other, as reflected in the initial pages of this entry. As an identifiable formal topic, however, the study of art and religion was initiated with the virtual plethora of mid-nineteenth-century publications on Christian art that emerged from the pens of a diverse group of predominantly self-trained writers beginning with Alexis-François Rio (17971874), De la poésie Chrétienne (1837); Adolphe Napoléon Didron (18061867), Iconographie Chrétienne (1843); Lord Lindsay Alexander (18121880), Sketches of the History of Christian Art (1847); and Anna Brownell [Murphy] Jameson (17941860), Sacred and Legendary Art (1848). These publications, especially Jameson's books and serialized texts, which built upon her renown as an author of museum guidebooks, inaugurated a genre dedicated to the appreciation of Christian art as an exemplar of moral values and good taste. Nonetheless, these texts situated the paintings and sculptures discussed within their historical contexts, carefully described any stylistic or technical innovations, and explained the "lost language" of Christian signs and symbols. Apparently, there was a charisma for Christian art at this time throughout Western Europe and America, as witnessed by the establishment of a variety of art movementsthe Academy of St. Luke in Rome, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in London, and the Nazarenes in Viennadedicated to the reunification of art and religion as epitomized in the medieval synthesis.

Cultural and language shifts beginning with the Renaissance were formative on this nineteenth-century movement, as the concept of art was transformed from craft and that of the artist to individual creator. These terms were further clarified with the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, as the Renaissance cult of the artist as an individual, and perhaps a genius, matured into common vocabulary. The German Romantic philosophers, including J.G. Fichte (1762-1814), Friedrich W.J. Schelling (1775-1854), and August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), built upon the foundations of subjectivity introduced by Immanuel Kant (17241804) and the spiritual in art of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Other philosophical and theological influences from Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) to Charles Baudelaire (18211867) to Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882) to John Ruskin (18191900) corroborated this transformation toward a spiritualizing of art and toward the establishment of an academic discourse identifiable as art and religion. This genre of Christian art initiated by Rio, Lindsay, and Jameson was quickly expanded by a variety of ministers, artists, and educators predominantly from England, France, Germany, and then the United States. Their publications included travel diaries, behavior manuals, gift books and annuals, and treatises on the history and symbolism of Christian art; and this genre flourished into the early twentieth century, as witnessed by the popular books of Estelle Hurll, The Madonna in Art (1897) and Clara Erskine Clement Waters, Saints in Art (1899).

Concurrently, the academic study of religion, especially as the history of religions, began to surface in the German university system, while an assortment of cultural events, including the artistic modes of Orientalism and Japonisme in the nineteenth century and the fascination with le primtif in the early twentieth century, the Christian missions into China and Japan, the Chicago World's Fair, the Parliament of World Religions, and the phenomenon of theosophy created a cultural climate of intellectual and popular interest in other religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Nonetheless, the lens was Westernso a Western perception of Hinduism or Buddhism as both a religion and a culture. Western scholars and commensurately Western scholarship has privileged this field of study. Students of religion and artists learned about the aesthetics and art of "the other." As the academic study of art history was being organized in several European universities, the recognition of the need to learn about religion was mandatory for the research and discussion of Christian art, and later of the arts of India, China, and Japan. From its earliest moment, then, art and religion was a multicultural and multireligious form of discourse.

Further developments in the study of art and religion resulted from the breadth of vision among a select group of religion scholars: Rudolf Otto (18691937), Gerardus van der Leeuw (18901950), Mircea Eliade (19071986), and Suzuki Daisetz (18701966); art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (18771947); and theologian Paul Tillich (18861965). Of this magisterial group, the phenomenologist of religion, Rudolph Otto, and the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, contributed most significantly to the development of the discrete field of study known as art and religion. In his now classic The Idea of the Holy, Otto identified the connectives between art and religion. Beyond normative language and rational description, religious experience is initiated by the nonrational modes of communication and sensory perceptions provided by art. Despite his silence on any comparison between aesthetic and religious experience, or the commonalities between religion and artistic creativity, Otto points to the critical importance of the experience of art as a moment of the silence, awe, wonder, and fear encountered before the numinous.

Eliade describes the visualizing of the otherwise invisible sacred through art in a variety of forms and styles in Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts (1994 [1985]). Art is a conduit to the sacred and a human activity permitting the possibility for involvement with divinity/ies. Art is essential to the proper performance of religious ceremonies and rituals. Eliade interpreted art as embedded in the human universal consciousness and in all world cultures and emerging in the artistic visioning and reinterpretation of symbols and images even in the secular art of the twentieth century. Coomaraswamy sought for the commonalities between the spiritual art of East and West, but perhaps his most significant contributions came during his tenure as curator of Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he introduced the concept of "spiritual art" into the vocabulary of curators, museum displays, and special exhibitions. He furthered the definition of spiritual art when he supervised the acceptance of several of Alfred Stieglitz's (1864-1946) photographs as works of artthe first photographs ever to enter a museum or gallery collection under the rubric of artinto the museum's collection. Van der Leeuw proposed a phenomenology of art and religion in his Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, in which he described how all the artsdance, drama, poetry, painting and sculpture, architecture, and musicsignaled and manifested the presence of the sacred. His is the only text to expand the discussion comparatively among the arts.

Tillich is to be credited with relating contemporary Christian theology with twentieth-century art. His efforts to see and to discuss the connectives between contemporary works of art with both religious and secular themes to the classic masterpieces of Christian art, and as venue for discussing theological issues, opened the door to the serious consideration of the spirituality of modern art. Suzuki's significance to the study of art and religion was his masterful text Zen and Japanese Culture (1970 [1938]), in which he introduced his interpretation of the Zen aesthetic to the West. However, his famed lectures on Zen and Zen aesthetics at Columbia University in the 1950s opened the eyes and the minds of many of New York's most promising and creative artists, including musician John Cage (19121992), choreographers Martha Graham (1914-1999) and Merce Cunningham (b. 1919), and the painters and sculptors who became known as the Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), to an alternate way of envisioning and experiencing the sacred, and to the spirituality of art.

Similarly, a quick survey of the academic field of art history and of the influence of several prominent art historians such as Charles Rufus Morey, Émile Mâle, Erwin Panofsky, and Meyer Schapiro would provide critical moments in the evolution of the field of art and religion. Panofsky's work in deciphering iconography from iconology may be one of the most crucial art historical contributions to the study of art and religion prior to Freedberg's "response theory." Iconography was a carefully detailed method of analysis of the symbolic vocabulary delineated within an image, while iconology was an explanation of an image or art form within the context of the culturesocial, political, religious, and engenderedthat produced it.

Methods and Methodologies

The amorphous nature of the relationship between art and religion as both a topic of investigation and a field of study is paralleled by the oftentimes perceived "flexible" methodologies employed by specialists. The breadth of methodological approaches, technical languages, and questions investigated continue to expand in tandem with the study of religion. The lacuna of a single or even commonly accepted "core" methodology is irksome at best. The diverse technical vocabularies and methodologies include but are not limited to art history, iconography and iconology, cultural history, church history, ethics, history of religion, ritual studies, comparative religions, and theology. The primary characteristic of art and religion that defies its definition as a normative field of study is that it is fundamentally a multidisciplinary field that is broad in its subject matter, geographic sweep, world religions foci, and technical language.

From its possible "official" beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century into the twenty-first century, art and religion has traversed a variety of methodological formulae and vocabularies, beginning with art history, iconography and symbolism, history of religion, cultural history, theology, philosophy, phenomenology, and iconology, while the foci of a new generation of scholars in the 1970s incorporated the principles and lenses to expand the borders of art and religion into the questions raised by the emerging categories of "the marginalized" and feminism into the 1980s issues of the body and class. The reception of art historian David Freedberg's groundbreaking study, The Power of Images (1989), defined and traced the history of "response theory," which provided art and religion with an affirmation of its interest in the human, or worshiper's, experience of art. Beginning with the late 1980s, specialized studies with methodologies and languages for material culture, popular culture, performance and display, visual culture, and museum studies were incorporated, sometimes tangentially, into art and religion.

These additional disciplinary approaches and topical interests may be interpreted as diffusing the field of art and religion that much more broadly. However, the reality is twofold: oftentimes these new approaches or fields give a "name" such as Freedberg's "response theory" to an attitude, theme, or subject of art and religion research and investigation; and secondly, the fundamental nature of art and religion is to be inclusive, and to that end, it is a metaphor for religious studies. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to consider whether art and religion as a field without a methodology is an academic nomad or a valid but discrete field of study.

The methodological lacuna for art and religion may be problematic, especially in any attempt to defend its existence as a field of study. However, the range of disciplinary methods and topics ranging from art history to cultural studies to theology to gender studies and beyond has created a multilayered syntax for the research, writing, and discussions of art and religion. Among the fundamental topics for investigation have been the historical relationships between art and religion(s); religious attitudes toward image (or icon or idol); religious attitudes toward the veneration of images; the symbolism of gender in religious art; changing cultural attitudes toward religion and the effect(s) upon art; changing cultural values toward art and the implications for religion; and the visual evidence for cultural shifts in understanding of gender and the body. Further, the normative pattern has been that specialists in art and religion operate with the methodological formulae and vocabulary in which they were first trained, and expand, transform, and re-form these in the process of research and writing about art and religion.

From the nineteenth-century "establishment" of art and religion as a focus of study, there are three identifiable investigative categories related directly to the initial or primary lens in which a scholar of art and religion is initially trained: art history, theology, and history of religion. Further, these categorizations to the point of origin within the researchthat is, the category of "art-centered investigations"proceed from art as a primary document; "religion-centered investigations" advance from the religious impulse; and the "art-and-religions-centered investigations" emerge from the comparative study of traditions.

Art-centered investigations begin with a fascination with or spotlight on art, particularly a specific work of art. Critical in this mode of analysis are the topics of the origin of the work of art, the "reading" of the signs and symbols, and recognition of the cultural and historic context as formative in the shaping of the artist and the artistic vision. Scholars who operate from this category of "art-centered investi-gations" are predominantly art historians, art critics, and aestheticians who typically analyze the art and religion of one faith tradition, as evidenced by Hisamatsu Shin'ichi's (18891980) study of Zen Buddhist art (1982), André Grabar's (18961990) texts on Christian art and iconography (1968), and Stella Kramrisch's (18981993) work on Hindu art and architecture (1946 and 1965). Students involved in research on Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance art will quickly learn that the art of those historical epochs is undisputedly difficult to decipher without some study of the history and theology. The texts on Christian art by Émile Mâle (1984), Erwin Panofsky (1953 and 1972), and Otto von Simson (1956) evidenced a careful interweaving of theology, scripture, and church history as connectors in the visual codes in the individual artworks analyzed. During the late 1960s the formal academic concern for the creative process corresponded with more than a comparative analysis of the aesthetic and the spiritual experience. Rather, fascination grew with the code of visual vocabulary and the mode by which images communicate ideas, as seen in the 1969 and 1974 texts of Rudolf Arnheim (b. 1904) and the 1971 text by Martin Heidegger (18891976).

Religion-centered investigations emerge from a fascination with or a devotion to the theological impulse or religious character of art. Central to this mode of examination are the topics of the affect of theology or religion on the making and symbolic content of a work of art, and of the cultural interplay between artists and the theological postures of prevalent themes. Scholars who participate within the frame of "religion-centered investigations" include art historians, church historians, and theologians who typically engage in the study of art and religion from the perspective of one faith tradition, as witnessed by Jane Daggett Dillenberger's books on the style and content of Christian art (1965), John Dillenberger's texts on Christian art in the context of church history and theology (1988 and 1999), and John W. Dixon's studies of the theological impulse in Christian art (1978 and 1996). The creative process for the artist as an act of religious communication of ideas is evidenced in the "religion-centered investigations" of Jacques Maritain's (18821973) 1978 work and Nicholas Wolterstorff's 1980 study.

Religions-and-art-centered investigations proceed with comparative analyses of at least two religious traditions, with art as the focal point. The process of comparative readings of the same work of art determines the universality of art and of the religious impulse. Comparative studies of symbols and images extend beyond syntax and vocabulary to witness the creative impulse of imagination as it shapes new worlds and formulates new understandings of the human and of the world, which cannot be achieved through language or reason. Scholars operating within the "religions-and-art-centered" investigations include art historians, historians of religion, and aestheticians who share a passion for comparative study and the desire to learn the vocabulary of signs and symbols, such as Titus Burckhardt's (19081984) comparative analyses of Hindu, Christian, and Islamic art (1967 and 1987), Coomaraswamy's studies of Christian and Hindu art and religion (1943), and S. G. F. Brandon's (19071971) books on comparative rituals and iconography (1975). Also within this category is a place for the art of world religions to be evaluated with reference to the energy and power of art to fascinate and communicate through emotive codes and images, as discussed by André Malraux (1953 and 1960) and F. S. C. Northrop (1946).

The interpretative critiques raised by those scholars representing "the marginalized" transferred attention from the traditional art being studied to the nature and intent of the questions being asked. Initially, feminism wielded vast influence in transforming scholarly foci and the methodological formulae. The incorporation of feminist concerns, motifs, methods, and vocabulary in art and religion is evidenced by the work of Margaret R. Miles (1985) and Celia Rabinovitch (2002). Scholarly interest in the process of seeing, the relationship between art and religious vision on all levels of society, and the role of seeing in the process of making art is emphasized in the new disciplinary visual culture studies by Colleen McDannell (1995) and David Morgan (1998 and 2005). An important reference is the special exhibitions and their catalogues and books, which have begun to focus on issues related to the art and religion of the so-called Third World in the work of Rosemary Crumlin (1988 and 1991), Thomas B. F. Cummings, and Kenneth Mills (1997). The writing and discussions of two art historiansDavid Freedberg (1989) on response theory and James Elkins (2001) on the interconnections of optics/vision, human emotions, and religious meaning in arthave greatly advanced the studies of art and religion.

New Considerations

As scholars engaged in the study of art and religion continue their perennial quest to answer the critical questions "what makes art religious?" and "how is religious artistic?", the analytic methods, subjects, and vocabulary have responded by crossing over into the borders of new disciplines, such as visual culture, and the new critical gauntlets of technology, globalization, and secularization. Technology transformed the definition, experience, and study of art with the nineteenth-century invention of the camera, as photography challenged painting into new directions. The contemporary challenges of technology include the advent of computer art, virtual reality, and an environment in which one merely needs to press the right button to encounter masterpieces of art on the websites of major museums. The computer becomes then a mediator between art and the viewer, between art and artist, and between human consciousness and the projection of reality.

The challenge of globalization coincides with religious pluralism as the dominance of Western cultural and religious values appears to be ending as the symbolism and visual codes of Western art are being synthesized with those from other cultural and religious heritages. A new visual vocabulary is emerging from the confluence of religious traditions. Interwoven into this new fabric of the global and pluralistic world are the questions raised about the moral and ethical policies of collecting and exhibiting the sacred art of other cultures, and the issue of repatriation. Multiple considerations related to the presentation and display of sacred art in a secular or institutionalized setting are significant topics for the study of art and religion, including the issues of function, consecration, and response. Furthermore, and perhaps more significant, globalism and pluralism should assist in erasing the privileged status of Western scholars and Western art within the boundaries of art and religion. Comparative studies of specific artistic images or motifs might prove to be a positive venue to examine the commonalities and the differences and even the possibility of reformulating the basic vocabulary and issues of this discrete field of study.

Another way to consider this serious concern of the presentation of sacred art is the growing awareness that the "objects" being studied are being analyzed, researched, and encountered outside of their original placement and purpose. Thus, to be inclusive, our analysis must extend to the consideration, if not reconstruction, of the physical space in which the work was originally sited, its function (devotional, liturgical, ceremonial, ritual), and the experience of encountering the work for the first time in its "home" place.

Art is an imaged reflection, prophecy, and witness to human experience and religious values as well as an expression of culture. The topic of art and religion continues to entice consideration and to adapt itself to the transformations and permutations of scholarly concerns. The call continues among a new generation of young scholars to define the field and to adopt a methodology. The field of study identified as art and religion continues to survive despite its lack of a recognized methodology or academic vocabulary. Art, like religion, defies categorization and universal definition. Art and religion are inexorably interconnected throughout human history and human creativity.


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