Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 20, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and David Morgan. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Exhibiting the Visual Culture of American Religions, held September 1, 2000 through October 15, 2000 at Brauer Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:
Exhibiting the Visual Culture of American Religions: An Overview of the Exhibition
by David Morgan
A prominent art critic recently mused on a curiously American ambivalence: "What do we want and get from art institutions? Are they quasi-religious facilities -- launching pads for exaltation, car washes for the soul? Or are they civic utilities -- educational theme parks, party places for this or that alleged elite?" The confusion to which these questions refer suggests that art and religion are not strangers in the history of` American culture. Indeed, this exhibition examines what is in fact their extensive interdependence by exploring the visual culture of a variety of religious traditions organized according to important themes, functions, and formal features.
FINE ART AND THE RELIGIOUS IMPULSE
For many Americans from the colonial period to the present, the landscape has constituted a compelling affirmation of divine favor and intention in the life of. the nation. The mountains, forests, waterways, and "amber waves of grain" of the North American continent have been widely experienced as a divine blessing and a providential expression of national destiny. As one of the first great imagemakers within the tradition of the moral landscape of the United States, painter Thomas Cole viewed the American landscape as a spiritual repository, the great cultural resource of the new nation. Cole condensed the long trek of Christian, John Bunyan's intrepid pilgrim, to four stages of life in landscape wilderness. From youthful idealism through the tribulations of adulthood to the clearing calm of old age (pl. 1), the Christian pilgrim weathers the "Voyage of Life" registered in the changing landscape. The suite of prints, based on Cole's series of paintings by the same title, situates an overarching allegory of human existence in the landscape, and infuses moral judgment in nature as if it were a divine site of. revelation and a sacred source of counsel.
But if Cole, a devout Protestant, found Christianity explicitly vindicated in the spiritual witness of the natural world, subsequent painters of the American landscape found in nature mysteries that they felt transcended the limits of any particular creed. Nature was a domain of occult manifestations; spiritual realities that sought out analogues in natural phenomena infiltrated the material plane. Joseph John struck such a metaphorical equivalency in his painting, The Dawning Light, a subtle work later engraved for the thriving fine art print trade (pl. 2). The clouds of. dawn, transfused with the light of the sun not yet visible, limn the forms of spectral beings that descend on a farm house in Hydesville, New York. They arrive at the door of the home to call on the world of the living through the spiritualist transmissions of the Fox sisters, two young girls who garnered national fame for their apparent ability to mediate this world and the next by interpreting the rapping sounds of visiting spirits.
Although he was not engaged by occultism, painter Charles Burchfield shared Joseph John's debt to the Romantic experience of the American landscape and pursued the transcendentalist intuition of regarding nature as a manifestation of something more. Burchfield developed a style of painting that transmuted landscapes into radiant symbols of an unspoken presence. His Luminous Tree (pl. 3) records a natural epiphany, a moment when sunlight saturates and transforms the leafy mass of a tree into a stippled aureola of light. The familiar is made strange and allows the invisible to assume form and color, though without any of the metaphysics illustrated in John's image or the explicit moral articulated by Cole's Voyage of Life.
The American taste for the visual evocation of things less tangible, for perceptions and ideas that lead toward the illimitable, has occupied many fine artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from visionary painters such as Rimmer, Inness, Blakelock, or Dove to twentieth-century artists gripped by the sublime such as Newman, Rothko, or Bill Viola. Daniel Goldstein, an artist at work today, has produced a fascinating series of found objects, which he calls the Icarian Series, represented here by Icarian II/lncline (pl. 4), which consist of leather coverings removed from exercise benches in a men's gym In a gay neighborhood of San Francisco. These "skins," as the artist refers to them, bear the ethereal traces of hundreds of. men who deposited sweat in the leather as they worked out. The result is a collective image of individual struggle to remain healthy in the epoch of AIDS. The objects are incandescent relics, visual elegies to human longing. Like the Corinthian maiden who drew her lover's profile cast as a shadow on the wall before he left her, these "skins" are all that remains of those who, like Icarus, fell to the sea after flying too close to the sun. Far from pronouncing moral judgment against the fallen, Goldstein regards them tragically, as victims of forces larger and less personal than themselves
If Burchfield and Goldstein rely on allusion and metaphor in exploring the spiritual resonances of art, other artists have concentrated on the explicitly religious dimensions of art as part of a particular religious tradition. Although it has not commanded much attention in the elite art world in the twentieth century, religious or.sacred art has persisted. For a brief time in the 1950s, St. Louis painter Siegfried Reinhardt was a successful and critically admired artist who produced fascinating canvases that were acquired by museums, galleries, and collectors. Reinhardt's Design for a Crown (pl. 5) is a fine example of the work of a gifted painter who experimented with traditional Christian iconography, seeking to animate dogma with a fresh visual sensibility. More recently, the Georgia Baptist lay preacher Howard Finstcr was discovered and marketed in the art world as an "outsider artist," a term that meant to avoid the conventional quaintness and naivete of the "folk artist." Finster's large sculpture of Jesus, Jesus Said Be Not Afraid Only Believe (pl. 6), is an example of` work that entered the professional artworld at a time of fatigue and search for reinvigoration. Skirting the limitations some contemporaries perceived in both folk and elite expressions, outsider art held out the promise of work that was worthy of being taken very seriously in the fine art market. The apocalyptic, visionary features of Finster's paintings and objects appeared unencumbered by nostalgia and infused with unadulterated visionary authenticity. In the jaded climate of the Manhattan art scene, this lent them a subversive, countcrcultural air, which the eccentric pronouncements and lively personality of their maker only enhanced.
If Finster brought visionary art to the fine art markets, Yaktonai Sioux artist Oscar Howe has been praised by his admirers for transforming "reservation art" into fine art with works like Sun Dance (pl. 7). Informed by such images as Joseph No Heart's Pictograph of a Sun Dance (pl. 14), Howe applied decorative, illustrational, and modern artistic idioms to traditional subject matter. By stepping beyond the recreation of pictographs and ledger drawings as notations of. the remembered past of the Sun Dance and other Sioux rituals, Howe sought to re-configure the Sun Dance as an aesthetic experience, evoked, not remembered, distilled and portrayed, not recorded.
RELIGION AND THE IMAGING OF ETHNIC IDENTITY
The history of the United States is the history of generations of immigrants from around the world, migrating peoples from the sixteenth-century to the twenty-first, who arrived in this strange new land with their language and faith and the need to negotiate the old and the new. In the last two centuries, images of many kinds have performed a crucial function in helping immigrants preserve some aspects of their ethnic identity while learning to be citizens in America. For instance, Spanish, Italian, French, and German immigrants in the nineteenth century could purchase inexpensive lithographs produced by Currier & Ives among other firms. The Sacred Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus (pls. 8 and 9) were issued by Currier & Ives in large numbers and included captions in several languages. This international iconography appealed to Roman Catholics from Latin America, French Canada, and Europe. Jewish immigrants maintained connections with relatives in the old world by using postcards. The postcard with an ocean liner (pl. 10) couches best wishes for the New Year in the biblical hope for protection and safety, expressed by quoting Psalm 91: "May his angels guard you and keep you in all your ways." This hope is visually applied to friends and family who undertake the hazard of international travel as immigrants aboard an ocean liner headed to a new land. Another New Year postcard shows Jewish family members observing Tashlikh, a ritual practice during Rosh Hashanah. The practice consists of emptying pockets of breadcrumbs into a stream of water, here the East River with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background (pl. 11). The suggestion is that the new world welcomes the old. Pairing the child with the elderly, the card bids fond hopes for the holiday in a modern American city that contrasts with the traditional, old world dress of devout Jews. Cards like these crisscrossed the Atlantic, maintaining living bonds. Another Jewish identity was documented by Harlem photographer James VanDerZee in a series on Moorish Jews who lived in Harlem in the 1920s. The hybrid identity of these black Jews is apparent in VanDerZee's image (pl. 12), where the aged Rabbi Matthew stands before American and Zionist flags. The Moorish connection adds yet another element of heterogeneity to an image that recalls the vibrant street life of Harlem in the period. VanDerZee's commerical studio made photography a means of self`-representation for the dynamic variety of types, characters, traditions, eccentrics, and prophets engaged in Lenox Avenue's complex physiognomy of display -- from Marcus Garvey to the Elder Clayhorn Martin, known in the streets of Harlem as the Barefoot Prophet.
RELIGIOUS IMAGERY AND MEMORY
One of the most universal uses of religious images among American believers of all kinds is as an aid to memory, in particular, as a prompt to remembering and transmitting the narrative of one's group and as the commemoration of personal rites of passage. The power of images to tell stories is evident in the commemorative portraits of the Bishops of the A.M.E. Church (pl. 13), issued in 1876 in order to celebrate both the church's sixtieth anniversary and the nation's centennial. The names and portraits of the first eleven bishops appear framed by images of important events and institutions of the church. The print encapsulates the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in a visual shorthand of heroic individuals whose deeds designated the collective story of the whole. Richard Allen is festooned as a kind of black George Washington. Philadelphia, where Allen founded the A.M.E. Church, is heralded in the lower two corners; the city was also the site of the centennial celebration. The church's achievement and progress intersected with the progress and honor of the nation.
In the same year that white and black Americans celebrated a century of nationhood, the Sioux won their final military victory against the United States government. On 4 July 1876, news of Custer's defeat broke in the media, and it was not long before the lives of Plains Indians changed forever. Joseph No Heart created a panoramic pictograph in 1900 (pl. 14) that appears to recall a time when the Sioux co-existed with the American government. No Heart uses the spare vocabulary of traditional painting to record the Sun Dance as occurring in a camp that also flys the American flag. Considering that the Sun Dance was banned by the U.S. government in 1883, what does this image mean:? Was Joseph No Heart remembering a better day? Or was he depicting the fact that the Sun Dance was still secretly practiced even though the ban was in effect? The minimal style of the pictograph depends heavily on the viewer's knowledge of the ritual's story. A comparison of the two depictions of the Sun Dance in this exhibition is telling, since Oscar Howe and Joseph No Heart created their images in different circumstances. Howe's painting (pl. 7) is a dramatic staging and evocation of the rite as a decisive and almost mythical archetype for an audience that largely had no living memory of the event. Joseph No Heart, by contrast, used an older form of visual notation that was telegraphic and largely indecipherable without the viewer's prior understanding of the rite and its observance.
Certificates memorializing such events as marriage, First Communion, and Confirmation allowed individuals and their families to document personal events as important episodes in individual and familial narratives. The ketubbot (ketubbah, singular), or Jewish marriage certificates (pls. 15 and 16), in the exhibition come from different moments in the history of American Jews. One, written entirely in Hebrew dates from 1863. In the late-twentieth-century example, however, Hebrew is used honorifically and English is the primary language. It is also noteworthy that figurative imagery has entered the visual field in the twentieth-century certificate while the older item uses no facial images. For the later ketubbah and for the Swedish confirmation certificate (pl. 17), a mass-produced format provided an inexpensive artifact for display in the home and for transmission to subsequent generations as an heirloom. Like the earlier, nineteenth-century Jewish marriage document, the Swedish Confirmation certificate reinforced relationships (the newly confirmed child, Otto Pehrsson, to his Swedish-American family and community) and recalled a ritual moment. Specifically, it celebrated his entrance into the sacramental life of the Lutheran church. The boys participation in Holy Communion was compared to the visual archetype of Leonardo da Vinci's endlessly reproduced Last Supper and was premised on Pehrsson's public examination on the principles set forth in Luther's Catechism.
VISUAL PRACTICE AND THE FORMATION OF CHILDREN
A significant concern of religious communities, families, and parents is the formation of children in the faith, which means instructing children how to participate in worship and communal life, teaching them sacred texts and stories, conducting devotional or religious exercises with them, and organizing their lives spatially and temporally through ritual events and their commemoration. A sizable body of religious visual culture is dedicated to these tasks. In Roman Catholicism, celebrating and remembering the child's First Communion serves the role that Confirmation does among Protestants. The Remembrance of First Communion certificate (pl. 18) situates a devoutly kneeling pair of children at First Communion before an enthroned Christ with Mary and John to either side as the communion host descends in a sacramental epiphany from heaven. First Communion means entrance into the celestial community of Jesus and the Saints and comes to the devout communicant as a revelation. Jesus gazes calmly at the viewer, reaching out from the timeless mystery into the here and now of Louise Liebeck's First Communion on the seventh of July in 1907.
James VanDerZee likewise suggests a heavenly disclosure in his photograph of Communion from 1930 (pl. 19), in which a young African-American woman, dressed in elaborate white veils, rosary wrapped about her fingers, reads from a devotional booklet with a picture of Jesus and John on the cover. The photograph records a young Catholic on the occasion of her religious coming of age (presumably her Confirmation, which in Catholicism generally occurs sometime after First Communion). Other occasions in Catholic life that engaged the energies of children were feast days. The Kellogg litho firm issued its inexpensive print entitled Corpus-Christi-Day (pl. 20), commemorating Christ's removal from the cross and his burial. In the print, four young girls tend an out-of-doors altar that displays a crucifix with angels and attendants. The print images a miniature religious observance, in which the girls replace adults in an exercise intended to nurture in them a primary sense of care for the church and its rites. Gender is noteworthy, reminding one of the pious play of the March girls in Little Women, but also of the fact that women have long dominated the observance of Christian rites and worship in the United States even as male clergy have maintained nominal authority. The print suggests good reason for this: girls are taught from a young age that responsibility for the maintenance of religious life depends on their piety.
Two New Year postcards illustrate the importance of the formation of children among American Jews. In the Passover Scene (pl. 22) a young boy asks the aged patriarch the Four Questions regarding the meaning of the Seder meal as family members follow along in their copies of the Haggadah. But religious formation of children is not always so explicit. In another Jewish postcard (pl. 21), a young girl performs religious music for a visiting family member or rabbi, an elder male who represents in a formal manner the importance and unity of tradition, family and faith. The pairing of senior male and young female in a ritual act honors and seeks to secure the intergenerational transmission of identity by sanctioning the trajectory of female submission to male authority: the life of a respectable woman begins in performing respectfully for the senior male and continues in maturity at his side.
The construction of male authority in the formation of children is certainly one task of James VanDerZee's photograph of Daddy Grace and Children (pl. 23). Pastor of the United House of Prayer for All People in Harlem, Daddy Grace, or Marcelino Manuael da Graca, poses before the ceremonial throne in his church sanctuary as if he were a biblical chieftain in his palace, accompanied by children who sit before him as he holds one and looks heavenward, as if seized by the grip of a vision. In the upper left, VanDerZee superimposed a spectral reproduction of Christ Blessing the Children by nineteenth-century German painter Bernhard Plockhorst. Perhaps the image is the subject of Daddy's homily to the children, or possibly it is meant to represent his own biblical counterpart. If the latter, VanDerZee (and Daddy Grace?) may have intended to replace the established mass-produced iconography of Christ blessing children with this new image, tailored to the Protestant piety of Daddy Grace's parishioners in Harlem.
QUEST FOR THE FACE OF JESUS
Among American Christians, the question of Christ's personal appearance first became important in the nineteenth century. Archaeology and critical studies of the bible began mounting evidence that both supported and undermined the historical authenticity of biblical records. The circulation of a letter purporting to be an eyewitness description of Jesus of Nazareth historicized the life of Christ in visual terms. The lithograph of the Letter from Publius Lentulus (pl. 24) exhibited here visualized the description in a literal manner. Numerous portraits of Jesus followed in Europe and the United States as lithography and half-tone engraving allowed for large editions of inexpensive prints that could be placed in the home, reproduced in books and devotional literature, exchanged as gifts, and distributed as Sunday school rewards. In the twentieth century, the most widely circulated and recognized image of Jesus was Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (pl. 25), painted in 1940. Sallman related that the image came to him in a vision or dream one night. Millions of Christians around the world came to regard it as the authentic portrait of Jesus. Sallman produced many other images of Christ, such as Christ in Gethsemane (pl. 26), which often incorporated aspects of previous popular images of Jesus and frequently re-used his signature image of Jesus from 1940.
It was not long, however, before the dominance of Sallman's imagery was challenged by other religious illustrators and religious publishing houses as well as by Christians who took offense at what they considered the ethnic or racial bias of Sallman's portrayals of Jesus. For many Christians, much popular imagery of Jesus failed to portray Christ's Jewishness. Many African Americans faulted Sallman's pictures and those by other Caucasian artists for consistently envisioning Jesus as white. Images of Christ as a black man appeared with increasing frequency in the 1960s and 1970s. A prolific illustrator of bibles and religious instructional materials is Fred Carter, an African-American lay preacher and professional illustrator who has produced many images of. a black Christ such as the two in this exhibition (pls. 27 and 28).
SACRED IMAGES AND PUBLIC DISPLAY
Religion, like any other human activity, depends on signs to participate in the manifold relations that constitute a society. Believers need visual signage to direct their behavior, to communicate with one another, to transmit values from one generation to the next, to conduct ritual with one another as well as to engage in commerce with the unseen. In the history of North America, religious signs vary from tall steeples marking the sacred space of churches to the distinctive dress of groups from Mennonites to Muslims. Numerous manifestations of the material, and particularly the visual, culture of American religions -- dress, food, objects, architecture, and images -- have served religious groups by situating them in the cultural landscape of the nation, reminding others of their presence. The yard shrines to the Virgin and St. Francis (pls. 29 and 30) photographed by James Legault are examples of the need felt by some American Catholics to announce their religious allegiance in a public manner to their co-religionists and to their neighbors.
With the disestablishment of religion by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights and its eventual ratification by state governments, the nature of religious signification changed. In addition to operating as markers of prestige and social location as they always had, religious signs now acquired the urgency of persuasion, of advertising the faith in the newly competitive marketplace of private religions. Republican moralists wasted no time in arguing for a public role for religion, by which they meant a kind of generic Protestantism. Rather rapidly they produced school books and voluntary associations that endorsed bible reading as essential for the moral education of American citizens. This national campaign was opposed by Catholics and other religious groups that challenged the use of a Protestant version of the bible (the King James Version); litigation related to the bible and the public school continues in the twenty-first century.
But is there a sacred practice shared by most Americans, one that avoids the sharp edges of sectarian debate? When Americans have observed national holidays, staged public festivals, fairs, and parades, given speeches, inaugurated monuments, honored veterans of war, assumed public office, opened congressional sessions, celebrated public anniversaries, or conducted ceremonies such as graduation from school or college, they have often made use of commonplaces culled from the bible, praised national heroes for their religious virtues, affirmed the providential stature and divinely-sanctioned mission of the nation, and invoked God's blessing The rhetoric has been monotheistic and biblical, but increasingly non-Christian in particular details. Scholars have referred to this phenomenon as "civil religion."
Although the idea of civil religion is by no means accepted by all scholars of American religion, there is little disagreement that George Washington has long enjoyed a special reverence among Americans in what amounts to a national cult. Evidence of this is clearly apparent in two prints in the exhibition. Apotheosis of Washington (pl. 31) conveys in the visual vocabulary of neoclassical allegory the religious aura that Washington acquired for Americans. Tomb of Washington (pl. 32) depicts the bourgeois American practice of pilgrimage to the tomb of the "father of the country," which is set off as a mortuary temple marked by Egyptian pylons. Significantly, the Egyptian style intermingles with the pointed arch of the Gothic cathedral and with the volutes and pilasters of the classical order to create the impression of an all-encompassing visual mode. Issued as a print to assist the Ladies Mount Vernon Association, which was struggling to reclaim Washington's home from neglect and to transform it into a national site for honor, the image appealed to the growing interest in rural cemeteries as picturesque landscapes decorated with neoclassical details such as columns, temple architecture, festoons, urns, and antique busts and reliefs that elegiacally framed the memory of the dead.
EFFICACIOUS IMAGES: PROTECTION, HEALING, REDEMPTION
Many religious images are experienced by believers as containing power within them, resident in the matter and form of the object or image, and not as something affixed to a sign by convention or memory. Some images possess intrinsic power to act -- to protect, to heal, to redeem, to reveal divine will, or to grant divine favor. The buffalo effigy (pl. 33) used in the Lakota Sun Dance is one such image. According to James Walker's ethnographic account, the image was cut from leather and ritually infused with the presence of deities of sexual indulgence. The buffalo image was then attached to the sacred pole -- regarded as a captured enemy -- erected in the center of the Sun Dance to reign briefly over the participants' feigned moral abandon. Then the effigy was forcibly knocked down by arrows and blows and burned in order to defeat and purge the lusts that might distract the focus of the dancers who would soon embark on several days of extreme physical exertion and excruciating pain in quest of vision and such prized virtues as bravery and fortitude by doing battle with the enemy, the sacred pole.
Nothing would appear to contrast more starkly with the scientific rationalism of modern secularization than efficacious images. In fact, however even in contemporary American life, the secular and the sacred are not mutually exclusive, and the power of images to act often holds a place in the lives of people who are no less committed to a rational worldview: For example, the Three Gods found in many Chinese-American homes and stores are understood to promote good fortune, wealth, and longevity (pl. 34). Older informants indicate that these statues are given by grandchildren to their grandparents. Others report that the statuary group is frequently selected as a house-warming gift among Chinese-Americans. Still others comment, when asked, that the statues have no special meaning or efficacy. Some people of Chinese descent with whom I spoke in Chicago's and San Francisco's Chinatowns were even unable to identify the three deities and their meanings. The significance of these artifacts has been changed by commodification as they have moved from traditional use to the tourist and novelty markets, where they function more as souvenirs and markers of Chinese-American identity. But the power of mass-produced objects to signal identity, to secure good luck, and to offer emotional reassurance to their owners does not necessarily end when the objects have become commodities.
In the Christian world, many believers wear crosses or crucifixes as charms or invocations of divine benevolence. The history of popular Catholicism is replete with accounts of statues, holy pictures, and icons that granted a special favor from God through an intercessory saint. Sculptures like the crucifix attributed to Jose Aragon (pl. 35) have often been the focus of local cults and popular devotion because of special manifestations of power in the form of miraculous healings. Weeping or lactating images of Mary with the infant Christ are still a living part of Roman Catholic and Orthodox piety in the United States.
Although Protestantism often prefers to present itself as a faith purged of "superstition" or "magic," it possesses its own protocols for divine intervention. A portable altar used by Protestant as well as Catholic chaplains in World War II, Give Us Help from Trouble (pi. 36) is one such instance. A kind of Protestant guardian angel, the towering figure of Jesus supports the wings of a military aircraft in flight. One imagines that soldiers found relief and reassurance in the divine protection the image promises. Stories abound among Protestant veterans of World War II of the miraculous assistance that billfold-sized reproductions of Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (pl. 25) rendered to Christian soldiers in battle and as prisoners of war. Veterans report having carried the image with them throughout the war and afterwards as a special talisman.
SEEING SACRED WORDS
Certain strains of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity express anxiety over the use of images in religious settings. For each of these "religions of the Book," the written and spoken word are widely considered superior in authority to imagery. Yet vision is the sense to which the human nervous system is most dedicated as a form of gathering and processing information about the world. Visual signs and images are therefore a very effective means of storing and transmitting information. A picture is often worth far more than a thousand words. Consider the evocative use of imagery in the Masonic Chart (pl. 37). If some religious visual culture substitutes text for images, others use images as stand-ins for secret words. The arcane imagery in the Chart encodes a number of ideas that only the initiated can decode. Each image stands for Masonic doctrines of hierarchies of status and knowledge and rites of passage leading to moral advancement. The three principal degrees of membership in freemasonry are portrayed in the chart as a kind of surreal revelation, the dreamy vision of the sleeping Jacob in the lower right. As detailed as each symbol's meaning may be, however, its interpretation varied from lodge to lodge. The surreal character of the chart and the unlimited permutations of its meanings anticipate the visual enigmas of Surrealist painters Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte several decades later. These characteristics suggest that images, precisely because of their power to evoke something other than what they were intended to signify, may not be contained by dogmatic formulations or rational ideas. Images easily become what semiologist Roland Barthes called "floating signifers," endlessly allusive devices that are not easily controlled.
Perhaps this is one reason why some religious traditions are uneasy about images. If written texts possess the status of sacred revelation, they also act as limits on the imagination and therefore may be intolerant of images that resist the management of meaning. But because images can be made to operate in concert with texts, the combination of images and texts is rather common among Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. The nineteenth-century Protestant millennialist group known as the Millerites produced a large lithographic Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel & John (pl. 38) in 1842 in order to visually interpret highly symbolic chapters in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. The chart integrates visual, textual, and numerical symbols into a single field that maps human history from ancient Babylon to the year 1843, when Jesus was expected to come again. The pictorial figures combine with bible verses, names, and a long set of arithmetical calculations, reading from the upper left and moving downward and to the right, to culminate in the lower righthand corner of the chart. Millerite preachers hung the chart wherever they preached and used it as a compelling visual aid as they unpacked their complex prophetic interpretations.
The Shakers, another Christian group, contemporary with the Millerites but predating and surviving them, likewise avoided illusionistic pictorial representations. A song page produced by Mary Hazard in 1839 (pl. 39) inscribes a song and personal note within the wiry contours of a leaf which puns on the process of gathering leaves as pages of songs, what Hazard referred to as the "Tree of songs." The quivering lyrics and flowing melody of the song describe the shape of the leaf, echoing image with text. The written word informs and substantiates the linear script of the delicate image. An even more literal substitution of text for image occurs in the micrographic image of Moses and the Burning Bush (pl. 40), in which every single graphic mark consists of the biblical text relating the story of Moses encountering the burning bush. If Judaism proscribed the use of imagery in the Second Commandment, the micrograph circumvents the injunction by constructing the visual world from Torah. The Word is the basis, the substance of reality. Just as Moses glimpses divine power in the fire of the bush, so the viewer of` this image sees that the natural order is the work of Holy Spirit, the speech of the Lord.
A similar reverence for the pronouncements of God occurs in the calligraphic rendering of text from the Holy Qur'an (pl. 41), where the calligrapher's brush interprets the speech act such that the spoken is visualized. The visual performance of the brush actually preserves the nature of` God's word as utterance. This highly decorative object translates Holy Writ into a visual presence that is displayed in the home. While Muslims of Sufi influence often make use of images in religious contexts, Muslims from the Arab world are careful to avoid any figurative imagery in the act of prayer and study of the Qur'an. But decorated pages like the one in this exhibition contribute intensely visual presentations of the word that engage the eye and are conducive to meditation and reverence toward scripture.
SELLING RELIGION: IMAGES AND COMMODIFICATION
No examination of religious imagery in the United States should ignore the economic aspects of both religion and art. With the rise of mass-production in the nineteenth century, the home turned from the place of production into the place of consumption. Goods traditionally handmade for use in the home were increasingly available through mail order or in dry goods or department stores. Objects for religious devotion and the instruction of children were no exception. The home became part of the public face of faith in the urban setting, as the emergence of the parlor as the domestic room for receiving and entertaining guests suggests. The parlor was the room for public display, and one of the chief religious articles there was the family bible, which Harper Brothers offered most notably in the monumental Illuminated Bible of 1846 (pl. 42). Its elaborate bindings, girth, and unprecedented number of illustrations were clearly intended to call attention to the bible as an object of display, an item whose primary function was not to be read, but to be admired on visual terms. Firms specializing in religious commodities such as the Benziger Brothers issued catalogues of their goods (pl. 43) comparable to the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, and did a thriving business in supplying churches and homes with the material culture of belief. Businesses such as funeral homes that catered to religious clientele often advertized among religious customers with such devices as the fan, using images drawn from sacred art such as Warner Sallman's imagery (pls. 25 and 26) or recognized personalities such as Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (pl. 44). Photographer James VanDerZee produced photographs for commemorative or decorative use that portrayed religious figures (pl. 45). Feminine subject matter in such imagery as the fan and photograph reminds us of the prominence of women as both consumers and producers of these items, which followed from the older social arrangements of women as caretakers of home and hearth.
Commerce and mass media have continued to shape what some have called the spiritual marketplace. Entertainment has played no small role in this process. It is difficult to point to a more widely recognized example of visual culture that makes religion into a mass culture form of entertainment than Hollywood bible epics such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (pl. 46). Although many have regarded commodification as inevitably profaning and have dismissed popular movies such as The Ten Commandments as kitsch, this is a film that has been lauded by believers, even screened in houses of worship for the edification of the faithful. Religious commodities like this are also often seen as public legitimations of biblical faith.
Modern mass media are by no means inimical to religious belief or spirituality. American Protestants, for instance, have a long history of championing new communications media such as radio, television, and satellite technology as providential means of enhancing evangelical outreach. The Internet has become a viable medium for engaging in religious ritual. This is perhaps especially the case, for example, among participants in New Age and goddess spiritualities. Successful mass media are accessible, convenient, and inexpensive. Certainly the webpage dedicated as an altar to the Great Goddess (pl. 47) exhibits all of these features. While commodification can help usher artifacts out of the realm of religious practice and significance, often commodification amounts to a form of religious re-appropriation or re-sacralization. Thus, while dream catchers (pl 48) originated in Native American spirituality, their availability on the Internet and in stores has made them a part of what may be generally called New Age spirituality This appropriation, which has offended some Native Americans, re-deploys the sacred function of the object. For many non-Native Americans, the dream catcher is a device for securing pleasant dreams and a balanced emotional state as part of a practical spirituality that has little or nothing at all to do with Native American belief or practice. The dream catcher may be an efficacious image or artifact in New Age spirituality. As commodified and privatized as this strain of belief may be in the American spiritual marketplace, the status of either the dream catcher or the goddess website as commodities should not be seen to disqualify them from serving some authentically sacred purpose. Attentive study of what religious communities have done with modern visual media demonstrates that commerce and mass culture are not necessarily antithetical to religion or the sacred. Neither is secularization an inevitable result of capitalism and the economic application of scientific rationalism in a technological society. Religion and spirituality persist, even thrive in the modern world, and the visual cultures of belief often discover in mass media and technology the opportunity to reinvigorate traditional practices for a new day.
1. Peter Schjeldahl, "Less is Beautiful," The New Yorker
(March 13, 2000), 99.
About the author
Editor's note: Please also see Dr. Morgan's essay American Art & National Identity in the the Brauer Museum of Art website at http://www.valpo.edu/artmuseum/
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Brauer Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
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