By Jeremy Hanes
Here at Reading Religion, we have reviews coming in from scholars, theologians, and oftentimes from artists, all discussing the importance of art in the study of religion. From the use of icons in Orthodox Christian traditions throughout history to the way contemporary artists engage with religions, we have something for every interest.
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, edited by Frank Brown, provides an excellent starting point. Covering a full array of different types of media, from music and poetry to architecture and film, this handbook offers a uniquely multi-dimensional consideration across forty original essays. Written by an international team of leading scholars, this collection includes information on the subjects of artistic imagination, fears of idolatry, aesthetics in worship, and the role of art in social transformation and in popular religion. We’ll have a review by Lieke Wijnia, currently a postdoc at the Centre for Religion and Heritage at Groningen University, published on the Reading Religion website for you shortly.
Roman Catholic and Western Christian Art
City of Saints: Rebuilding Rome in the Early Middle Ages, by Maya Maskarinec, soon to be reviewed by Michele Salzman, professor of history at University of California, Riverside, examines how the unlikely scenario of Rome, abandoned as the capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine in the 4th century and sacked repeatedly by invaders, would go on to become a “seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of sanctity.” By importing saints and their related depictions—mapping a new sacred topography onto the city—Rome would gradually transform from a fading former capital to a new microcosm for the church.
Stephen Miller’s The Word Made Visible in the Painted Image: Perspective, Proportion, Witness and Threshold in Italian Renaissance Painting discusses one way that art impacted religion later in Italian history—and it’s waiting for the right volunteer to review it! Miller explores how artistic techniques were used to “embody” and explore the nature of theological topics central to Christians, such as incarnation and revelation in the body of Jesus.
Moving up to the present day, John Daniel Dadosky and William Hart McNichols’s Image to Insight: The Art of William Hart McNichols explores how Roman priest William McNichols, known as Father Bill, is taking part in a revival movement for iconography among American Catholics. Dadosky, professor of theology and philosophy at Regis College at the University of Toronto, introduces Father Bill’s depictions of holy women and holy men, and sets the stage for each of the works w are tied to sacred narratives. Take the opportunity to review this book by clicking here.
Another new work, Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral explores iconography at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France. Jill Geoffrion’s writing and photography takes readers through the cathedral—built in 1220 but now a UNESCO Heritage Site—showcasing an extensive stained glass Mariology and over seventy-five images of the Virgin of Chartres. Read along to see Chartres through Geoffrion’s eyes, and get a lovely coffee table book at the same time by volunteering to review this title here.
Moving into primarily Protestant imagery, Katerina Horničová and Michael Šronėk’s work From Hus to Luther: Visual Culture in the Bohemian Reformation (1380-1620), offers a tour through the visual culture of late medieval and Renaissance Bohemia. Exploring the visual culture of Utraquists, Lutherans, the Unity of Brethren, Calvinists, and Catholics in the region, Horničová and Šronėk examine illuminated manuscripts, panel paintings, and architecture from the time period and the legacy of this artistic flourishing to a new audience. Become this book’s reviewer by clicking here.
Orthodox and Eastern Christian Art
Turning toward eastern branches of Christianity, Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein, reveals a range of liturgical, devotional, and spontaneous approaches to relics of saints and holy persons. As reviewer Laura Katrine Skinnebach, a post-doctoral fellow of medieval and early modern religious art history at the University of Aarhus, Denmark explains, “materiality or ‘stuff’ has agency,” and relics and their artistic containers function as “material technologies for mediating divine presence. Thus, reliquaries not only served to contain, but also to augment and stage the holiness of the relic within.”
Daniel Maria Klimek, a Third Order Franciscan friar with both a PhD from Catholic University of America and an MA in Religion from Yale Divinity School, offers us his book Medjugorje and the Supernatural: Science, Mysticism, and Extraordinary Religious Experience. Focusing on the Croatian village of Medjurgorje, where in June 1981 six people reported that the Virgin Mary appeared to them, Klimek argues for an approach involving both scientific methods and one attuned to the presence of Mary in these people’s lives. Offer to review the book here.
Amy Singleton Adams and Vera Shevzov delve into Russian encounters with a Mary virtually unknown in the West. In their edited volume, Framing Mary: The Mother of God in Modern, Revolutionary, and Post-Soviet Russian Culture, scholars of Russian and Soviet history approach visual and narrative images of Mary as they shape perceptions of space and in turn shape discourses on women and motherhood. This title is also available for review.
We have one more book about encounters with Mary waiting to be reviewed: Elena V. Shabily’s edited volume, Representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary in World Literature and Art, looks at Marian worship throughout the world, demonstrating the ways in which devotion to the Virgin is a global artistic phenomenon.
Art also functions as a bridge between religious traditions. Nicholas Denysenko’s Icons and the Liturgy, East and West: History: Theology, and Culture presents papers from the 2013 Huffington Ecumenical Institute’s symposium on “Icons and Images” by Catholic and Orthodox scholars gathered at Loyola Marymount University. Learn more about how Christians have “experienced divine encounters through icons” and review the book here.
Another recent book, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Crossan’s Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, brings the Easter story into new perspective for those familiar only with the Western depiction. The Crossans argue that the earliest version of the Easter story, seen in depictions across the Mediterranean world from Egypt to eastern Europe and Asia, reveal the resurrection as a group theme, with Jesus carrying or lifting figures such as Adam and Eve from hell, or the old and sick to the afterlife. Chang Seon An, a PhD student in history and hermeneutics at Boston University’s School of Theology, is reviewing this book for us.
Staying in this part of the world, The Physicality of the Other: Masks from the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Angelika Berlejung and Judith E. Filitz, presents the results of a conference in Leipzig in 2015, during which scholars from a range of disciplines commented on ancient masks. As both the result of human artifice and divine likeness, masks function to connect human beings and spiritual powers. Christoph Uehlinger, professor of the history and study of religion at the University of Zurich, has a review forthcoming on this anthology.
Soon to be reviewed by Amy Balogh, adjunct professor of religious studies and program manager of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, Herbert R. Broderick’s Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch turns toward a late Hellenistic theme in an 11th century manuscript of the Bible. Broderick’s discussion showcases how Late Antique Jewish exegetes constructed an image of Moses with the traits of an Egyptian-Hellenistic king, priest, and prophet. This trope has persisted even into the present, and can be seen in statues of Moses such as Michelangelo’s 16th century piece at the San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome.
Another figure encountered across the Late Ancient world is explored by Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, Dominic Dalglish, Stefanie Lenk, and Rachel Wood in Images of Mithra. Part of the Visual Conversations in Art & Archaeology series published by Oxford University Press, the assembled authors investigate the various manifestations and depictions of Mithra from Vedic texts in the 2nd millennium BCE to the Roman Empire and Sasanian Persia. Mithra’s images are the central focus of this analysis which investigates each of their contexts in religious traditions and ongoing cultural interactions. Watch for the forthcoming review of this title by Jenny Rose, professor of Zoroastrianism at Claremont Graduate University.
We switch over to how a specific culture and art form views a tradition with Holy Anime! Japan’s View of Christianity by Patrick Drazen. With the introduction of Roman Catholicism to Japan, and the ensuing Tokugawa Shogunate’s isolationist policies, Christianity’s appearance in Japan marked the first time that a word for “religion” was coined in Japanese. If you’re interested in learning more about this Japanese vision of Christianity through Edward Said’s work on Orientalism, volunteer to review this book here.
Other artistic encounters stretch across the Atlantic in Sacred Art: Catholic Saints and the Candomblé Gods in Modern Brazil, edited by Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla. As described by reviewer Steven Engler, professor of religious studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary and professor colaborador at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, Glassie and Shulka’s work documents the images, statues, and prints of saints and orixás created by artists from the northeast of Brazil. Shukla’s translations of the artists’ words, Engler argues, “evoke a popular theology through a mosaic of references to ‘positive’ or ‘universal spiritual energy,’ to ‘spiritual,’ ‘life,’ or ‘creative force,’ and to ‘sacred power’; the authors sum this up with the phrase ‘essences of power and beauty.’”
Working Images and Artifacts
The mode through which images exhibit a capacity to act independent of human will is the site of exploration for David Morgan, professor of religious studies and art, art history, and visual studies at Duke University. In Images at Work: The Material Culture of Enchantment, soon to be reviewed by Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, professor and chair of the Interfaculty Programme for the Study of Religion at the Ludwig-Maximillians-University Munich, Morgan investigates how images have power over us in ways we can’t always describe.
Of course, explicitly religious artifacts have a long history of affecting us. The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times, written by Christopher A. Farone, suggests that archaeologists and other scholars have been unable to explain the prominence of many types of objects found in the Roman empire as amulets, with curative, shielding, or other properties. Recent epigraphic evidence suggests that many everyday objects were infused with the same powers as amulets while appearing to be ordinary. Jeremiah Coogan, a graduate student at Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen, will be reviewing the book soon.
Jeehee Hong’s Theater of the Dead: A Social Turn in Chinese Funerary Art, 1000-1400 turns toward a different kind of artistic work: funerary images as theatrical scenes bringing living and dead, ancestors and celestial beings together in performance. As graduate student reviewer Lu Zhang from the University of Arizona writes, Hong’s work “provides us with a perspective from which to reconsider the transition of funerary art during the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, a period in which stage play, or zaju, popularized and thus influenced funerary art in a variety of forms.”
Finally, Peter A. G. M. de Smet and Ian Reader discuss another set of working images in Health-Related Votive Tablets from Japan: Ema For Healing and Well-Being. These wooden tablets are vehicles for carrying prayers, words of gratitude, or wishes at Shintō and Buddhist shrines. Helen Hardacre, Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society at Harvard University, will be reviewing this piece.
Art Spaces, Religious Spaces
Places infused with religious or spiritual meaning for practitioners of a tradition are oftentimes the built environments of human work, or become repositories for objects used in religious contexts. Peter W. Williams’s book, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, looks into how the Episcopalian church created a sense of pastoral care for the entirety of America through its prolific construction of monumental buildings. As James Hudnut-Beumler, Ann Potter Wilson distinguished professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School explains in his review, “19th century Episcopalians, alone among the Protestants, found their way quickly to a religio-social theory that resisted the prevailing laissez-faire economics and social Darwinism in favor of an ethic of responsibility” that became reflected in their built environments.
In a similar vein, Murray A. Rae engages in a conversation with built space in Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place, soon to be reviewed by Claude N. Stulting, professor of religion and literature and religion and art at Furman University. Looking at architectural space—often communal and taken-for-granted—Rae argues that the spatial arts can illuminate how styles, textures, and the way that we move through them can influence religious behavior, emotion, and thought.
A particular sacred space is explored in detail in Middle of Nowhere: Religion, Art, and Pop Culture at Salvation Mountain. Author Sara M. Patterson argues that southern California’s Salvation Mountain, and its architect, Leonard Knight, participate in the lineage of desert ascetics in Christian traditions while also critiquing capitalism and religious divisions. If you can’t make a desert pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain, review the book!
Wen-Shing Chou’s Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain, describes how the titular northern Chinese mountain became a key site of reimagination for Qing Buddhists and rulers among Manchus, Tibetans, and Mongols in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author explores written and artistic material, including temple replicas, pilgrimage guides, hagiographic representations, and panoramic maps of Mt. Wutai. If you’re interested in the cosmopolitanism connecting China and Inner Asia, this is the book for you to review.
A version of “non-monastic, non-sectarian” pilgrimage and connection is also explored in Justin Thomas McDaniel’s Architects of Buddhist Leisure: Socially Disengaged Buddhism in Asia’s Museums, Monuments, and Amusements Parks. As graduate student reviewer Grace Ramswick of Stanford University explains, McDaniel shows that the monumental Buddhas seen at places like Sendai, Japan blur the line between secular and sacred, offering a form of ecumenicalism between versions of Buddhism in “affective encounters.” Ramswick continues, the “building projects undertaken at Buddhist leisure sites are best seen as ‘complex adaptive systems,’ the trajectory of which their designers or architects can steer only in part.”
Bruce M. Sullivan takes us into another set of contested spaces in his treatise on art objects from Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Spaces: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums. Exploring a range of topics from how yoga practitioners feel they are “reconsecrating” artworks by performing yoga in museums to how curators and exhibit designers light maṇḍalas to formally display features of Vajrayāna Buddhist philosophical writing as “twilight language,” the essays will offer something to everyone interested in exhibiting Asian art, whether as art or as religion. As reviewer Lisa Owen, program coordinator for the College of Visual Arts and Design at University of North Texas, states, “this book is a thought-provoking volume that gives primacy to the ever-evolving lives of objects and how we interpret them in shifting contexts.”
Art of Texts and Written Art
San San May and Jana Igunma’s book, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from South-East Asia, explores an understudied facet of southeast Asian religious art. Compiling over one hundred examples, Buddhism Illuminated contains manuscripts from the British Library’s collection and covers topics from Buddhist scriptures, literary works, historical narratives, and texts on everything from traditional medicine to law, cosmology, and fortune-telling. Rebecca Hall, a recent visiting assistant professor in Asian art history at Virginia Commonwealth University, will be reviewing this piece shortly.
Turning to another vast archive of religious imagery, The Bible—From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance: Writing and Images from the Vatican Library, edited by Ambrogio M. Piazzoni and Francesca Manzari, showcases what reviewer Jeffrey L. Morrow calls “a coffee table book on steroids,” with “more than three hundred and sixty thick glossy pages” and works by more than thirty scholars. According to Marrow, chair of the department of undergraduate theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall, “The story told in this volume spans the disciplines of medieval history, history of art, philology, history of print, theology, and Jewish and Christian interpretive practices to tell the story of the transmission of biblical manuscripts and their reception.”
In a similarly pictorially-laden mode, Claus Michael Kauffman’s Eve’s Apple to the Last Supper: Picturing Food in the Bible is waiting to be reviewed. This book looks at depictions of food from biblical stories, covering art from the catacombs of early Christian worship to Rembrandt van Rijn and Nicolas Poussin.
In a similar vein, Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear’s Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia, explores the artistic use of eschatological themes. Reviewed by Eric C. Smith, assistant professor of history of Christianity and New Testament studies at Iliff School of Theology, this volume explores iconic scenes and images from Revelation in light of the text’s reception history and ongoing reinterpretation. As Smith notes, “the thrill of the book is encountering the ways myriad artists, from medieval book illuminators to Reformation woodcut makers to 20th and 21st-century filmmakers, have contended with the overwhelming weirdness of John’s Apocalypse.”
If the four horsemen of the apocalypse haven’t scratched your equestrian itch, Louis Komjathy’s Taming the Wild Horse: An Annotated Translation of the Daoist Horse Taming Pictures, might. As reviewer Ben van Overmeire, Flanders Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Ghent University, Belgium suggests, the 13th century Quanzhen Daoist artist and poet Daokuan responded to the Chan (Zen) Buddhist popularity of “ox-herding pictures” with their own brand of art: the ennobling form of the horse as a succinct, “stimulating and accessible visualization of the contemplative path.”
Turning to another written art form, By the Pen and What They Write: Writing in Islamic Art and Culture, edited by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathon M. Bloom explores calligraphic art throughout Islamic culture and history. Come by and volunteer to review this beautiful book here.
Art in Other Abrahamic Traditions
The editors of the provocative Imaging the Jewish God, Leonard Kaplan and Ken Koltun-Fromm, turn us toward imagery in Abrahamic traditions that have been written off as iconophobic. Turning from art as merely pictorial to the notion of diverse imaginings of the Jewish people, Kaplan and Koltun-Fromm frame their volume as a reciprocal, resonant dialogue through the covenant by means of texts of poetry, narrative, sacred literature, film, and graphic mediums. Be the first to offer to review Imagining the Jewish God here.
A specific Jewish symbol and working image is explored in Steven Fine’s The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel. Gregg E. Gardner, associate professor and Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at the University of British Columbia, claims in his review that the iconic shape of the menorot from the Jerusalem temple known today was spread when the Romans sacked the Second Temple and brought the arch menorah back near the Coliseum: “That the menorah was positioned on the arch just high enough to be out of reach, yet close enough to be visible from the ground, surely contributed to its visibility and preservation. For 2000 years, viewers would bring knowledge of the arch menorah back to their home countries.”
Colleen M. Conway’s Sex and Slaughter in the Tent of Jael: A Cultural History of a Biblical Story discusses a character study drawn from a scene in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible and the long history of its reception in art and exegesis. Reviewer Dirk von der Horst, instructor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles, describes how Conway explores the “performances” of this scene between the sleeping Sisera and tent-peg-wielding Jael in artworks. Ranging from early Biblical exegeses to feminist thinkers of the 1970s, “Conway has unearthed a wide range of cultural performances that give further texture to familiar stories of the cultural changes in the West over the last thousand years.”
James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill’s edited volume Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art likewise explores biblical themes from Christian traditions from the American Civil War to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Soon to be reviewed by Rachel McBride Lindsey, assistant professor of American religion at Saint Louis University, this collection explores the diversity of African American artworks’ formal, iconographic, and thematic participation in the history of Christianity and the visual arts without laying claim to black religiosity, culture, or art.
Turning to other postcolonial settings for art, The Bible and Art: Perspectives from Oceania, edited by Caroline Blyth and Nasili Vaka’uta, explores the role of the Hebrew Bible from the perspective of artists from Oceania. As reviewer Amanda Dillon, adjunct professor at the Loyola Institute at Trinity College, Dublin sums up, “this volume is a gift to scholars, most especially those in the Oceanic geographical region, with its distinctive southern hemisphere perspective, opening up this vista of creativity: engagements with the Bible, an impressive breadth of interpretative perspectives and analytical methods, cultural contexts, conflicts, and concerns.”
Finally, Jaime Lara’s Birdman of Assisi: Art and the Apocalyptic in the Colonial Andes discusses colonial depictions of a winged Saint Francis. Reviewer Josefran Sánchez-Perry, a PhD student at the University of Texas, Austin, describes how Francis became figured by the 13th century writer Peter John Olivi “as the alter imago—the idealized image—of the crucified Jesus.”
Art, as a culturally influenced and nuanced, embodied, and affective engagement, ties into other major trends in the field of religious studies. Studies of material culture and religion show how icons and images mediate and imaginatively become real interlocutors—what Thomas McDaniel calls “shared agency” (169)—between religious subjects and non-human forces. We play roles with these images, but also bring deep “materially charged” resonances into both art objects and ordinary ones in religious engagements. Architectural spaces are brought into the conversation, as well as art objects, for facilitating certain affective encounters with human and non-human actors. Much like art history, then, studies on religion and art, while methodologically diverse, offer no strong, universal claims. Instead, like an enduring work of art, they encourage attentive engagements, self-reflective probings of our innate biases, and ongoing conversations into the role that religion and art play in our lives and the lives of others.
Jeremy Hanes is a PhD candidate in South Asian religions, art, and performance at University of California, Santa Barbara.