Centre for Studies in the Visual Culture of Religion


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The Centre for Studies in the Visual Culture of Religion was operational between 1999 and 2013 under the Directorship of John Harvey. It provided a research hub for a fruitful collaboration between the School of Art, Aberystwyth University UK and the Department of Theology, Religious Studies, and Islamic Studies at the University of Lampeter, UK. The text, below, is taken from the Centre’s website (which ceased publication on 1 August 2014.) The research focus and aims of CSVCR remain at the heart of John Harvey’s personal academic commitments:

Declaration

Visual Religion is the web site of the Centre for Studies in the Visual Culture of Religion. It provides: an overview of the Centre; a means for publicizing its research projects and teaching activities, together with links to cognate sites; and a focus for scholarly exchange and news. The web site is regularly updates, and any questions, contributions or observations regarding its operation, or that of the Centre, should be sent to csvcr@aber.ac.uk or to the other relevant contactaddresses.

The Centre is a research unit within the School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Its broad directive is to study the visual culture of religion within a national, international, and interdisciplinary framework. The principal aims are to

  • initiate, support, promote and disseminate research in the field through conferencesexhibitions, and publications
  • encourage a convergence of scholarly disciplines
  • gather material for investigation and study
  • foster a knowledge and an understanding of the field through the delivery of undergraduate, postgraduate, specialist teaching, and public programmes of education
  • establish collaboration, partnerships and networks with other academic institutions, public bodies, and cognate centres.

 Description

The Nature of the Visual Culture of Religion

The visual culture of religion is a relatively recent and a pioneering academic field. It aims to study those aspects of the material, phenomenal, and transcendental expressions of religions that are apprehensible by ‘sight’ (in both the perceptual and imaginal sense). This is with a view to developing a fuller knowledge and understanding of the visual traditions of specific systems of faith, as well as (eventually) a holistic and unified conception of religious visuality within a global and multi-faith context.

A religious culture’s visible attributes are as much a repository and articulation of thought, identity, values, ideals, and priorities as are its textual, oral, and auditory representations. The study of these attributes is, therefore, indispensable to a full-orbed appreciation of religious life and belief. Because the visual and other expressions of religious culture are interdependent, research takes place within a matrix of relevant disciplines, and involves a pooling and an exchange of scholarly methods. The substance of study comprises traditional high- and applied-art mediums, as well as low-art forms, ephemera, media, and immaterial manifestations of the religious imagination, produced by a diversity of orthodox, heterodox, mainstream, and marginal religious groups, past and present.

Academic Context

There have been four advances in scholarship relevant to the emergence of the visual culture of religion as a field of investigation:

1  The first, and most remote (chronologically), is material culture — a mode of cultural analysis synonymous with the study of artefacts which arose within the disciplines of anthropology and archaeology in the 1870s. Material culture is fundamentally an epistemological study that seeks to: collect, compare, and categorize objects; discern the cultural set behind them; ask what can be known from past and present creations of humankind; and develop the explanatory power of artefact knowledge in order that such knowledge might ultimately expand humankind’s knowledge of self and of society.

The artefacts (which sometimes pre-date cultural literacy and textual documentation) constitute primary source material that provides evidential verification of events, customs, and habits. Of late, the influence of social history and cultural studies has expanded the concerns of material culture to include commonplace and vernacular artefacts associated with working-class culture.

2  Second, has been the development of interest in human visuality, which informs the study of visual culture. Visual culture (which, more than a century after the birth of material culture, grew alongside cultural studies and social history) is both a subject matter and compound of specialist disciplines such as art history, aesthetics, iconography, iconology, semiotics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and perception theory. In these respects, this (inter)discipline has broadened the province of inquiry, formerly staked out by art history, to embrace visual expression in its most inclusive sense. It not only examines traditional Fine Art objects but also: material culture; commercial, populist, and ephemeral images; time-based and digital media; performance and visual events; as well as their aesthetic, symbolic, ritualistic, politico-ideological, and practical functions.

Visual culture also addresses, among other subjects: the nature of seeing; the visual characteristics of form; the relationship between the visual and cognitive, making and seeing, producer and consumer; and image and ideology. It conceives of ‘culture’ as, similarly: diverse and pluralistic; comprising expressions of regional, national, racial, gendered, ethnic, official, central, dissident, marginal, and class-ridden identities and values. Moreover, the notion of ‘culture’ (in keeping with the usage of the term in the study of material culture) is not restricted to the product of a cultivated intelligentsia; rather it subsumes the expression of people and life as a whole.

3  The third advance took place in religious studies. Since the 1970s, the discipline has started to question the social context of religion and to embrace cultural and social theory. Theologians and biblical researchers have sought to establish analogies between religious thought forms and cultural forms. Likewise, scholars from other disciplines have begun, more recently, to make incursions into the study of religion. In the past, there has been conspicuously little attention paid to religion (by cultural and social historians and theorists especially). Possibly, this is because scholars have tended to hold a socialist, Marxist, or materialist position, to be sceptical about universals and absolutes, and to regard culture as secularised and, thus, religion as marginal. The resurgence of attention to religion is, in part, a necessary response to its movement from the periphery to the centre of social, political, and cultural discourse.

For example, the United States has never been more religious than now. The growth and globalisation of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, new patterns of immigration, the rise of the cults, fundamentalist and dispensationalist ideologies, the developing diversification and hybridity of new movements, the consequent decentring of institutionalised religion, ecumenicism, inter-faith dialogue; the revival of interest in the occult, supernaturalism, and pagan concepts of spirituality has changed the religious landscape beyond recognition.

Consequently, religion, today, is decidedly in the foreground of academic and popular debate. It ‘is now a “cutting edge” field of research and some of the most exciting academic work in disciplines such as literary criticism and history is now being done in specializations devoted to the subject of religion’ (Mizruchi, 2001). During the last decade, academics have studied various aspects of mainstream, populist, and sectarian movements, past and present, including their demography, organisational dynamics, and cultic apparatus, their textual and musical expression, as well as the adaptation of new media (such as television and the internet) to foster a collective identity and propagate their message.

4  The fourth advance (implied by the previous three) is the growth of interdisciplinarity, wherein individual disciplines transgress the boundaries of their own competence and address their theories and methodologies to the subjects of other domains.

The Centre for Studies in the Visual Culture of Religion

The CSVCR reflects and advances the concerns of the field, in the following respects:

1  The academic context for the Centre is a relatively recent scholarly endeavour that has developed during this renascent period for religion. It draws upon and together the theories and agenda of art, art history, material culture, visual culture, and religion. However, it is not just a hybridisation of existing inter-disciplines but also, more significantly, a descriptive, a critical, and an interpretative approach to a diverse and complex body of material with a view to establishing a coherent whole.

2  The visual culture of religion is a discipline in the making, in that it seeks to define a distinctive conceptual framework, methodological analysis, theoretical techniques, empirical data, and systematic and synoptic views of its subject(s). To these ends, the Centre aims to advance scholarship at the intersection of visuality, culture, and religion — fields that (in the west) previously have been seen as antagonistic and dealt with separately. The triangulation of these fields not only maps out a landscape of material and methods that bi-lateral disciplines (crossing the visual with the cultural, and the cultural with the religious) have either overlooked or neglected, but also demonstrates how each field mediates and informs the other two.

3  Consonant with the disciplines of material culture and visual culture, the Centre affirms that representations are manifestations of (religious) cultural history, and embody and convey meaning. (Visual culture interprets and influences religious culture and vice versa.) The Centre, thereby, refutes the assumption that ‘religion is … only apprehended through language’ (Mizruchi, 2001).

4  The Centre will reflect new developments in Art History. First, programs in art history throughout North America and the UK are expanding their foci to include not simply the production of images, but the reception of images as well. Traditional art history has told the story behind the artwork (what is its style and medium, who made it, who paid for it, where was it made and when), but has tended to leave the study at that. The emphasis within the Centre will be to ask about who looks at the images, how they look, and what kinds of meanings these images have for the viewers, above and beyond what the artist may have intended. Visual culture is interested in, among other things, the ongoing life of images. “Art” is created, and continues to exist, within specific cultures.

Furthermore, within art history there is a movement away from the elitism often implied in equating “art” with “fine and/or high art.” Since much of what goes under the name art in the West has been supported by and created for the upper class, visual culture has sought to reassess the role of images in the lives of people from various classes. This means the split between high and low art cannot be maintained, and even definitions of art itself have shifted. As Mieke Bal suggested of visual culture, it ‘analyses the rejects of the official disciplines.’ These very rejects may be ignored by scholarship, but they have great value in living cultures. In these respects, the Centre is committed to an inclusive cross-cultural and pan-religious study, wherein culture (with both a capital and a lower-case ‘c’) is regarded as pluralistic, and religion (likewise) diverse — comprising not only mainstream and orthodox religious movements but also heterodox and marginal subsets.

5  The varieties of visuality dealt with by the Centre include static and kinetic or performative, fixed and temporal representations, along with traditional and new media, embodied in, among other categories of creativity: fine art; craft; design; commercial products; architecture and buildings, the furnishings and the accoutrements of liturgy, ritual, and worship; film and television; and digital media. Accordingly, the Centre will reflect rapidly growing interests in new fields of study such as visual anthropology, cultural studies, film studies, and media studies. The disciplines of art history and religious studies have also been changed in recent years by the increasing prominence of these new areas of study. Art history and religious studies have both been infused with the social sciences, and challenged to re-evaluate themselves in relation to neighbouring social structures (in other words, religion cannot be understood apart from culture) and neighbouring media (that is to say, contemporary art is no longer focused on painting and sculpture, but quickly spills over into film, video, and television, as well as public performances outside the space of the institution of the museum).

The understanding here is that religion is always mediated. It always works within and through particular material objects and performances in space and time. Thus, our Centre will focus on many of the various visual mediations of religion. This includes architecture; religious tracts; graphic, garden, and urban design; mass-produced images of popular piety; video and film; as well as the more traditional Western artistic media of painting and sculpture.

6  Recognising that religions conduct their activities through a combination of visual, textual, oral, and musical modes of expression, the Centre also examines what might called transitional or syncretic visual forms which cross or combine with other modes (For example, in the case of Islamic calligraphy, the visual and the textual.)

7  The Centre will reflect new developments in Religious Studies. In the past, the paradigmatic model for the study of religions has been to investigate ‘sacred texts’ and ‘systems of beliefs’. This makes sense due to the establishment of the discipline by Christian Protestants, a group that has placed much emphasis on the written word and on doctrines. However, there is a drastic change now occurring in the field on both of these levels, and visual culture is part of that shift. First, there is a movement to get beyond sacred texts toward examining the material components of religion, including the visual. Second, and relatedly, there is a move away from a study of beliefs to a study of practices. In other words, religion is no longer understood as something merely in the head, but it is something that people do. Religion is performed, thought about, touched, and seen.

8  There are other distinctive features of and opportunities for research into the visual culture of religion, which the Centre promotes. Religion is concerned with the ontological, experiential, transcendental aspects of life (that is, being and meaning, and death and the afterlife). Consequently, the visual culture of religion has a far broader base of interests than the disciplines of visual culture and material culture, one that incorporates the imaginative and immaterial realms, including the visual expression of the sacred and numinous; visions, prophecies, and dreams; preternatural agencies such as divinities, angels, ghosts, and spirits; near death experience; and post-mortem existence.

9  Religion also has an ethical and moral dimension. Notions about truth and falsehood, norms and values, relatives and absolutes, censorship and permissiveness, and right and wrong inevitably bear upon the nature and discussion of representations.

10  Religion is also concerned with origins, cosmology, and eschatology. The representation of apocalyptic and eschatological themes and a vision of futurity conjoin the visual culture of religion and the visual culture of science and science fiction. This relationship is both recognised and exploited by popular culture in films and television, but hitherto largely ignored by academia, and provides a quadrilateral relationship of visuality, religion, science, and culture.

11  The visual culture of religion and science share at least one further potential subject of collaboration — the subjective domain of religious experience (the site of prayer, meditation, the imagination, and memory). While religious scholars, psychologists, and psychiatrists have conducted extensive research in this area, art historians have to date rarely addressed the formal, iconographic, and perceptual character of inner religious visualization.

12  Religion, furthermore, is about religious people. Since most of the religious people in the history of the world have been illiterate and without access to books, and since sacred texts have been read primarily by the upper class, a focus on visual images and their attendant practices allows researchers to investigate how religious people actually behave. Visual culture begins with the practices of religion and investigates, for example, the ways images: are believed to mediate between the divine and human worlds; offer exemplary models for human behaviour; provide a focal point for a community of practitioners; function to reorganize space and time for ritualised practices; and maintain mythic structures.

The Centre also examine how religious people are perceived, perceive of themselves and of others. The visual documentation of religious communities (in photographs and paintings), artefacts of cultic commemoration (such as memorials and monuments), and images used in proselytising and missionary work, alone, represents a vast resource by which to understand how religionists construct and mediate their identity, visual memory, and attitudes to those outside the faith.

13  Research in the visual culture of religion takes place at a macro and a micro level. At the macro level, inter-religious studies examine the salient correspondences and divergences between the visual cultures of the five major religions. There are, in addition, intra-religious studies, which investigate similarities and differences in visual cultures among movements and groups comprising a single religion. At a micro level, scholars examine individual movements or groups, or specific aspects of several related movements or groups. Likewise, the context of study is, at one extreme, large scale, taking in a global perspective over a broad span of history while, at another extreme, small scale, confined to a single country and a limited timeframe. The Centre will embrace all these perspectives.

Scope

The Centre integrates a broad spectrum of disciplines and applies a range of methodologies including:

  • aesthetics
  • architectural history and theory
  • art history and theory
  • cinema theory and criticism
  • ecclesiastical history
  • fine and applied arts
  • furniture history
  • hymnology and musicology
  • psychology and parapsychology
  • rhetoric and homiletics
  • science and science fiction
  • semiotics
  • sociology and social history
  • theology, and biblical and religious studies
  • visual and cultural studies

The source material for research includes:

  • architecture
  • church furnishings, decorations and elaborations
  • fine art
  • film and television
  • illustrated children’s literature
  • popular prints, photographs, posters, and tracts
  • religious ephemera and commercial ‘kitsch’

This is examined in the context of, for example:

  • angels, ghosts, and spirits
  • iconographic frameworks outside the traditional pool of Christian imagery
  • iconography and iconology of visions and dreams
  • imagery of sermons, hymns, other literary artefacts
  • near-death experiences, and preternatural manifestations such as narratives describing encounters with God and Christ
  • religious art
  • religious and theological exegeses of post-sixteenth-century
  • revisionist theories and histories of abstract art
  • theologies of art and aesthetics
  • theories of visual and religious discourse
  • sociology of art and religion
  • Spiritualist imagery and psychic automatism
  • working-class religious imagery

The study of visual culture includes the following groups in Britain, Europe, and America:

  • Anabaptist
  • Baptist
  • Brethren
  • Catholic Apostolic Church
  • Charismatic
  • Christadelphian
  • Christian Science
  • Congregationalist
  • Covenanter
  • Evangelical
  • Fundamentalist
  • Huguenot
  • Independent
  • Jehovah’s Witness
  • Lutheran
  • Mennonite
  • Methodist
  • Mormon
  • Pentecostal
  • Presbyterian
  • Puritan
  • Reformed
  • Quaker
  • Salvation Army
  • Scientology
  • Seventh-Day Adventism
  • Shaker
  • United Reformed

together with apocalyptic, cultic, inspirational, renewal, and revivalist movements allied or marginal to mainstream Protestantism. The research programme also seeks to establish correspondences between the visual cultures of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Judaism.

Overview

Aims

The Centre aims to:

1  conduct research into the visual culture of religion. The term visual culture subsumes traditional fine and applied art, architecture and building, cinema, the visual externalization of religious imagination, thought, and practice, and varieties of subjective and intangible modes of religious visualization, and other creative manifestations of religious belief, customs, and piety. The term religion refers chiefly to Christian bodies that separated from the Roman communion during the Reformation, but also embraces both orthodox and heterodox sub-groups in the period since;

2  establish a point of convergence for interdisciplinary and international collaboration among scholars representing a range of disciplines, for example: art practice, art history, theory, theology, religious studies, music, literature, and philosophy;

3  be non-partisan, and to encourage dialogue and participation between scholars representing a broad spectrum of theological outlooks and academic methodologies;

4  develop and support new research into religious visual culture through the provision of MA, MPhil, and PhD degree schemes and scholarships, post-doctoral and research fellowships, and research assistantships in Art History and Art Practice;

5  define new fields of research and evolve a portfolio of short-term and long-term projects that are pursued by individual scholars and co-ordinated teams of researchers;

6  collect, record, and catalogue artefacts, together with literary and oral accounts of religious representation and visualization;

7  form research collaboration with cognate bodies and external scholars;

8  disseminate research through publications such as books, serial imprints, digital publication, journals, originated and curated exhibitions, exhibition catalogues, organized conferences, and teaching programmes;

9  be accountable not only to the academic community but also the general public and, in particular, those religious bodies referred to in the research.

Rationale

The aims of the Centre are predicated on the following assumptions. The visual culture of religion:

1  presents a field of study that has relevance to the considerable public interest in the material and phenomenal expression of religion during the last five years;

2  has not received the serious and systematic study it deserves, one which seeks to comprehend its significance within an matrix of relevant disciplines and in the context of the traditions of established the religious art;

3  is a repository and articulation of religious thought, systems of belief, values, ideals, priorities, attitudes to the material world, and conceptions about the spiritual world. Its study is, therefore, indispensable to a full-orbed understanding of religious expression;

4  is a concept better suited to the study of new and marginal religious groups that do not identify with mainstream or traditional religious art, but which, nevertheless, give visual expression of their beliefs;

5  can be discussed only in relation to specific movements, sects, and denominations, in particular places and at particular times;

6  is not independent either of contemporaneous languages and forms of visual expression or of the religious, visual culture of the past. Therefore, it is amenable to the application of both contemporary-theoretical and traditional Art-Historical methodologies;

7  can be fruitfully studied through the critical intervention of Art Practice in alliance with Art History.

Relevance

While dedicated to the principle of pure research, the Centre is conceived as providing valuable perspectives that will:

1  inform contemporary views on the relationship between art and particular religious groups;

2  promote an awareness of the visual heritage of various religious groups and countries;

3  help to either record or conserve those aspects of a religious group’s visual and material heritage that are threatened with extinction;

4  define the nature and scope of a potential for art in the context of the theological framework of specific groups;

5  bring to light a body of knowledge for future research.