The Forge of Vision

A Visual History of Modern Christianity

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
David Morgan
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     407 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


To see is to locate oneself in a socio-cultural and political economy; to look is to practice—to participate relationally in—a human geography. Looking is intentional: one “looks at,” rather than, in general, merely “sees.” The consequences of deliberate looking are central to David Morgan’s The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity. He is particularly interested in the activity of the imagination, the operational center where images are moulded and, subsequently, are beheld as informative of self-identity, and the identity of a community and of a nation. Although the imagination, and its images, were condemned as idolatrous by John Calvin, and deceptive by David Hume, during the age of Romanticism, and in the works of certain artists of later Abstract Expressionism, the scouring of the sacred was resisted.

Morgan focuses on post-16th century modes of seeing that shaped modernity, and how the imagination sought to outline this era honestly. The book is divided into two unequal parts. In part 1, human materiality—a central concern of Morgan’s—is highlighted in the interactive dynamics between the believer and what represents the believed. With regard to Catholicism—from Nicaea to Trent and beyond—images do not simply provide the means of journeying into the sacred realm, they also define forms of behaviour, and create a particular religious, in this case a Christian, anatomy. Bodily gestures of humble obeisance and eyes of solemn beholding enact the acceptable modes of relational interaction between the faithful and the divine. In a Catholic (and, of course, Orthodox) sensibility, the doctrines of the Church “scar” the believers who assume consonant forms in their visible corporeal demeanour. If for the Catholic, the sacred vision was participatory and the images breached any putative temporal and eternal division; for the Protestant, a distance of interpretive scrutiny arose between, now, less a seer than a reader and hearer of a textual message—of “the Word” proclaimed. The liturgical and devotional doors that sacramental efficacy had opened into holy presence were closed firmly, and the paths to divine union, which so scrupulously had been mapped by the long and disciplined tradition of contemplative waiting, decisively were rejected. Yes to “faith alone,” the Reformers announced, as every human endeavor to fashion a holy self was deemed, at best, deeply misguided, and at worst, the hubristic assumption of divinity. 

However, Catholicism was not unaware of a modernity that foregrounded “man.” Morgan highlights the increasing sense of personal subjectivity in Catholicism by adverting to the widespread influence of Ignatian Spirituality—of meditation rather than contemplation—of the gaze returned to an attentive self. The daily Examen and the imaginative Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius demanded that the thoughts and actions of the believer be self-scrutinized and that, with deliberative resolve, a purposed amendment of life was promised. Yet the Exercises remained holistic: the meditations aimed to transport the believer somatically, sensorily, into a particular gospel event, or narrative as a participant. Catholic Christians resided in a past that was their present, especially in the anamnēsis of the Mass, so that they might enter a future that already they had more than glimpsed in the light, in the seen, in the visual glory of, the lamp-lit corners of numinous redemption in their radiant glass-stained churches.

It was the transition from light to word, as David Chidester (Word and LightSeeing, Hearing and Religious Discourse, University of Illinois Press, 1992) earlier documented, that exercised the imagination of the Reformers to edit the apprehension of the divine. The Protestant imagined through textuality. Portrayals on paper cast visuality as a deliberative epistemology rather than a participatory ontology. To know trumped to see—and “looking at” was re-imaged as a pilgrimage of reading through a textual following (discipleship) and scrutiny of the words and arguments in the evangelical tracts and in the publication of sermons. 

Part 2 opens with a lucid chapter on “Religion as Sacred Economy,” which constitutes the theoretical matrix of the book. Economies manage, order, and maintain more than the commerce of sociality and, as a system that establishes ultimate meaning for individuals and communities, a religious economy may be said to order the various orders of ordering: from the home through the nation to the transcendent realm. By negotiating the “costs” of devotional time, of corporeal self-discipline, of allocating locative space for holy sites, and also tallying the necessary monetary expenditure, so a “sacred economy” is founded upon a range of sacrifices offered for sacred benefits as the temporal nomos yields to a sacred nomos.

Returning to the Protestant power of words, Morgan uncovers the modes in which textual images visually depict the nation, in particular, the US. The words from the pulpit were captured in print and disseminated, but speech is also visual. It entices imaginative construals of being human; it announces the rules of sacred-secular negotiation that calibrate the economic exchanges, and their appropriate scales, so as to facilitate conducive relations between the two spheres. Therefore, in similar ways, Catholic France’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Protestant America’s walk with Bunyan’s Pilgrim summon, depict, and structure the promise of communal well-being within a transcendental vision. 

The final two chapters provide a more focused treatment of artworks that, first, portray Jesus, and second, extend to modern art’s relationship with the Christian faith. If imagination is “a mental and bodily practice of thinking and feeling in sensations” (172), then the religious imagination enables the perceptual capacities of the believer synaesthetically to negotiate the accords of human meaning in an arena that remains redolent of divinely incarnational presence. For Christians of various ecclesial communities, the modern portrayals of Jesus both represent and enact these compacts through the authorization of authentic repetitions of former images, and encourage a participatory emulation of, or affinitive conformity to, them. 

Morgan then confronts the turbulence that combusts between faith communities and art worlds. Unruffled—and aided by examples of and references to, Wassily Kandinsky, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Mauricio Paz Viola—he provides an eloquent argument for greater continuity between modern art and religion. Though he does so, not in the cause of captivating current images for Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the imaginative forge, that imaginatively forges images, continues to generate, contest, discuss, subvert, and highlight the complexities of negotiating meaning in its portrayals of any residual and bedimmed intimations of sacrality. 

An elegantly expressive work, richly illustrated and rhetorically euphonious, this book should spur the interest—indeed, the imagination—of the reader to pursue various religious inquiries about the materiality of imaginative comportment, the purpose and authenticity of images, and the productive function of textual visuality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Frank England is Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town and Lecturer at the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Morgan is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies. He is the author of The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling and The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, and coeditor of the journal Material Religion.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.