Breaking Resemblance

The Role of Religious Motifs in Contemporary Art

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Alena Alexandrova
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the past decades the intersection of art and religion has turned into a rapidly expanding field of academic study. In Breaking Resemblance: The Role of Religious Motifs in Contemporary Art, Alena Alexandrova combines strong engagement with the study of religion, art history, and art theory. She departs from the observation that since the 1990s in Europe and the United States, “religion is taken as subject of critical reflection, while art is considered as the medium of that reflection, a frame for rethinking the role of religion” (3). Her engagement with the contemporary art world leads Alexandrova to particularly look at “art that understands itself as and is considered secular” (6)—the dominant type of art mostly appreciated in the world of contemporary art. Religion is approached by means of motif; Alexandrova explores how religious motifs are recycled in art, including the effects and challenges of such recycling.

Breaking Resemblance can be divided in two parts: The first four chapters discuss theoretical and historical explorations on the relationship between art and religion. The following four chapters offer case studies, as each chapter discusses the oeuvre of one artist: Bill Viola, Lawrence Malstaf, Victoria Reynolds, and Berlinde de Bruyckere. The leading theoretical notion (and image type) in all the chapters is that of the acheiropoieton, or true image. This is a type of image that is attributed with divine qualities and of which—from a religious sense—it is not important who made it. That such images originated at all is crucial, as it happened through divine intervention.

Well-known examples are the imprint of Jesus’ face on Veronica’s veil and the Turin body shroud. Belief in the truth of such images makes them subject to communal gaze and veneration. In the first chapters, Alexandrova makes compelling arguments for how, after the Middle Ages, this notion of the true image might be recognized in, for example, Renaissance artistic styles in which the human hand was concealed as much as possible, or later in the 19th century in the invention of photography. The resulting images from such practices do not appear to have been made by human hands, while they also intend to communicate a truthful representation—or even truthful presence.

In addition to the at times densely written theoretical explorations, Alexandrova offers a brief rewriting of 20th-century art history from the perspective of the religious motif. In chapters 2 and 3 she outlines how the many modern artistic movements move between critical displacement and spiritual affirmation when it comes to religion. This rewriting is driven by the contrast between figuration and abstraction. Figurative art tends to deal with religion from a critical, outsider perspective, while abstraction tends to express a new sense of spiritual awareness. Even more so, already beginning with The Dead Christ with Angels (1864) by French painter Édouard Manet, religion—in the form of religious motifs—is increasingly used to comment and critique the medium and artificiality of art itself. This occurs throughout the 20th century, with the most obvious example being Andy Warhol’s pop art. Defined by mass reproduction, Warhol also subjected religious subject matter to his artistic practices. Such use of the religious motif points towards a long-standing tradition from which the motif is derived, while it simultaneously breaks the continuity with this tradition because it is used in a fundamentally different way.

For the context of the true image, Alexandrova heavily draws on the work of Hans Belting, who famously distinguished between two image eras: that of the cult image (making religion present through material embodiment) and that of the art image (merely representing, displaying religion, without embodying it). Alexandrova stresses how religious motifs used by secular artists, or in artworks for secular contexts, no longer embody religion. Rather, these motifs are used by the artist for political or societal critique. However, do cult images—or the images the motifs are borrowed from—always solely focus on spiritual matters? Were these not also capable of simultaneously addressing political or societal issues?

The selection of the four case studies presented in the second half of the book was based on the variety of artistic media they represent: video, photography, painting, and sculpture. In the discussion of these case studies, Alexandrova observes yet another trend in the use of the religious motif that emerged since the 1990s. Artists no longer either offer critique or express spiritual resonance. Instead artists began to use the religious motif in a more ambiguous manner. They cite or recycle religious motif, but also critique or comment on the medium of art in doing so. This is the trend from which the book title is derived. “The modification and displacement of religious motifs imply breaking the resemblance to the older, religious image. However, such a gesture can be made only when the source image is reproduced. Thus it inherently involves the redisplay of the religious image” (104, emphasis original).

Throughout the book, the notion of recycling is a recurrent feature, raising some questions. It implies there is one fixed repertoire of motifs that is used over and over again, as if there were one original (indeed, one true image) that artists continuously relate to. While Alexandrova mainly uses the notion of the true image in a structural sense (an image that appears to be without human maker), the religious motifs she discusses are based on content. They relate to biblical passages, saints, or hagiographic legends. These do not necessarily have one true image as their foundation. Early cult images are already visual interpretations. Do the notions of recycling and borrowing truly catch the reality of religious material culture, characterized by enduring exchange, interpretation, and inspiration?

The book is an original and relevant contribution to the body of literature on art and religion. The combination of the more general theoretical explorations and the focused, in-depth case studies is extremely useful for a broad audience: students and scholars of art and religion will find overviews of relevant discussions and be guided toward further readings, while those interested in the particular artistic oeuvres are also well-served.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lieke Wijnia is curator of modern and contemporary art at Museum Catharijneconvent, The Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alena Alexandrova is associate professor at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design (KHiB), Norway and at Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



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