Robin Osborne and Caroline Vout
One of the challenges shared across cultures and faiths is the intangible, ineffable nature of the divine. One problematic, yet theologically productive, solution to this problem is to embody the divine in sculpture and painting; another is to seek divine aid and attest to divine presence by making votive offerings. In the absence of a sacred text, it was sculptural and graphic representation of the divine that made sanctuaries and temples in Greece and Rome theologically active places. But the need to experience god was not confined to these centers. Greek and Roman gods were everywhere—on coins, gems, drinking vessels, domestic wall paintings. Even when they were not there, their power could be felt in the representation of those who had felt their power. They were as pervasive as they were all seeing.
This article examines how this material culture worked to bring gods and mortals into contact. It does so by tackling three major issues: first, it discusses how a wide range of artifacts, monumental and modest, shaped sanctuary space and guided and recorded the worshipper’s interaction with the divine; second, it looks at images of gods themselves and how these affected epiphany, while maintaining a critical gap and insisting on their strangeness; and third, it uses art to rethink the relationship of religion and myth. Although there are some continuities between cultures, the rise of Hellenistic and Roman ruler cults created a new subcategory of gods, creating additional representational challenges. Out of this came Christ, who was god incarnate. We briefly explore how early Christian artists used the problems of anthropomorphism to their spiritual advantage.
John D. Barbour
Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.
Until the late 20th century, it was widely assumed that visual art could be of only negligible significance to a Jewish tradition that had been principally mediated through written texts. However, by the closing decades of the 20th century, Jewish cultural historians had demonstrated that, while Jewish worship and study is indubitably logocentric, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of the making and worshipping of graven images has not entailed a blanket ban on visual art. Jews have not been uniformly indifferent or hostile to visual art, a category that includes the architectural design and decoration of synagogues; funerary monuments; illuminated manuscripts; embroidery; liturgical seats, pulpits, and the other fittings and ornaments of religious Jewish life at home and at worship; as well as, since the 19th century, drawing, painting and sculpture. Most interpreters now read the biblical texts as prohibiting only the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but is aware that not all images are idolatrous. By around the 3rd century of the Common Era, rabbinical rulings recognized that the danger of Jews becoming idolaters, as they might have done under formerly pagan dispensations, had passed. In short, although in a number of Jewish historical periods and geographical regions there have been good reasons to be reluctant to accommodate visual art within the tradition, there is also ample evidence of visual art in settings that span the entire geography and history of Judaism. Jewish avoidance or neglect of visual art has usually been more historically contingent than theologically necessary. The religious culture of Jews resident in Islamic lands, for example, tended to conform to their hosts’ prevailing, though not historically or geographically comprehensive, tendency to aniconism.
On grounds such as these, it has been argued that the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is a modern one. Kant’s appreciation of the Second Commandment as one of Judaism’s few redeeming features, proscribing any crude urge to see that which exceeds the bounds of sensibility, encouraged western European Jews to advert to Judaism’s lack of art a sign of its pre-eminence as the first enlightened religion. The 19th and early 20th-century claim that Jewish tradition is aural and literary, but not visual, seems to have owed more to the modern German scientific study of Judaism’s use of the Second Commandment to highlight affinities between Jewish and Christian monotheism and to Jews’ desire to integrate into Protestant culture, than to restrictions within their own legal and cultural inheritance.
Perceived violations of the Second Commandment no longer provoke much of a reaction in any but the most conservative Jewish communities. And even among the Haredim, artists have begun to paint semi-abstract pictures that are not considered a deviation from halakhic norms. Yet, while many Jews still regard abstraction as a more permissible form of Jewish visual art than others, it is evident that the art tradition that developed after Jewish civil emancipation in Western Europe has actually been predominantly figurative. A number of scholars have therefore proposed that the Second Commandment has not so much prevented figurative visual art as promoted a distinctive set of styles and techniques, especially those that allow Jewish artists to make images that fulfill their quintessentially Jewish obligation to criticize idolatrous images. Jewish art, it has been argued, exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it.
This essay does not cover Jewish approaches and contributions to film and architecture. It examines both the history and theorization of Jewish visual art and Jewish religious approaches to visual art. The essay uses the findings of this two-pronged enquiry to suggest that Jewish visual art, which is more than art by artists who happen to be Jews, is properly counter-idolatrous art, art that is far from hindered by the Second Commandment but is actively produced by it. Jewish art does more than build cultural, political, and national Jewish identities; it does more than the commemorative work of visually constructing Jewish memory. Visual art made by Jews becomes Jewish when it serves a constructive theological, prophetic purpose and when it uses idoloclastic techniques to produce images that both cancel and restore the glory of the human. This claim counters the prevailing view that there can be no unified or normative theory of Jewish art.
Bissera V. Pentcheva
Hagia Sophia, the former Orthodox Christian cathedral of Constantinople, is the single most important monument that survives from Byzantium. Its daring architecture of cascading dome and semi-domes reflects a unique vision of beauty and power introduced by the emperor Justinian (527–565). Equally impressive is the interior decoration of gold mosaics and marble. Yet, it is the liturgy with its large congregation, officiating clergy, and numerous choirs that brought about the effect of being transported to a place in between heaven and earth. Within its walls, a rich multisensory experience was created through the integration of architecture, music, acoustics, and liturgy. The material fabric of the building and its acoustics together with the liturgy performed by Hagia Sophia’s officiating clergy and the chants sung by the choirs formed the character of the cathedral rite. The architectural form and ritual performed in this space harmonized with the Byzantine philosophical and mystagogical explanations and enabled the religious experience of nearness to the divine.
In the history and prehistory of human societies, poets, prophets, and seers (the word vates can cover all three) have often been virtually indistinguishable from one another. From time immemorial, their respective activities overlap and interpenetrate to such an extent that prophets (or mantics or seers) and poets have been closely associated and tend to completely coalesce in many of their functions and modalities. The Sanskrit word kavi (like its Latin cognate vates) embraces both. A certain strand of ideology running through the Bible (at least as interpreted by classical rabbinic texts) aims to drive a wedge between God-inspired prophecy and humanly created poems. Nevertheless, the Hebrew word nabi for “prophet” means “bubbling forth, as from a fountain,” so the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, too, is naturally apt to suggest the creative fecundity of verbal imagination. In fact, Amos, Isaiah, Elisha, and Ezekiel frequently produce parables, proverbs, and even love songs.
In primordial cultures, with only minimal social stratification and differentiation of roles, long before any specific mantles as either prophet or poet can be identified and donned, a figure like that of the shaman or even the wizard (Merlin, for example) is often emblematic of a certain undecidability between religious revelation or spiritual experience and creative imagination and invention. Of course, in modern cultures, with their highly differentiated social roles, theological revelation and poetry are typically seen as distinct and often even as opposed to each other in crucial respects. Yet the two still need to be understood together as reciprocal and symbiotic in their origins, aims, and purposes. Throughout subsequent history, the deepest intents of literary and religious practices remain inseparable from each other in their myriad manifestations within our cultural traditions and institutions; they thus stand to be illuminated by such a juxtaposition. Poetry and prophecy together comprise the common matrix of some of the oldest and most fundamental modes of expression of humanity across cultures.
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.
The artworks under discussion detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what form does the meeting take? The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter that occur outside the gallery and other spaces and involve audio-visual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms make different demands on viewers; they create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. What we learn is that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, or the Apocalypse of John, has been extraordinarily influential in Christian life and theology. For example, because of the many hymns sung by the heavenly host, Revelation has, like Isaiah 6:3, been particularly influential on liturgy and also music, for instance, the setting of Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” in Handel’s Messiah. It is one of two biblical apocalyptic texts (the other being the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible). Apart from the opening words, a dominant theme of Revelation is prophecy, and its imagery emphasizing what John “saw” on Patmos suggests that the form of prophecy in the first century
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader. Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer. The visual was primary for Blake. It was a major part of his attempt to produce that which is “not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction,” to allow the reader/viewer to work out what the meaning of words and images was and how one might inform the other. Much of his work is inspired by the Bible, though the heterodox approach he takes to biblical interpretation is frequently at odds with mainstream Christian opinion. Blake’s lifelong fascination with the work of John Milton led him both to challenge and refine his great predecessor’s views and, in Milton a Poem, to enable the departed spirit of Milton to discern the worst of his intellectually self-centered excesses. Blake’s interpretative method, his hermeneutic, is encapsulated in some words he wrote to a client who was perplexed by his work. In it he gave priority to imaginative engagement with the Bible which was only then complemented by rational reflection: “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?” (Letter to Trusler 1799, E702-3). His ongoing work and the complex idiosyncratic mythology that he invented reflect the changed circumstances of the reaction to the events in revolutionary France. Themes of the Blake corpus, such as prophecy, challenge the hegemony of authoritative texts like the Bible. His critique of dualism and monarchical view of God pervade his work.
Born in 1757, Blake lived most of his life in London with the exception of four, often difficult, years in Felpham, Sussex (1800–1804). He was married to Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), who in his later years was a collaborator in his engraving and printing. Arguably, the companionship of Job’s wife in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, so different from the impression one gets from the brief reference to Job’s wife in the biblical book, may reflect their marriage. The Felpham years were difficult because they marked a time of great personal upheaval, when the ideas which formed his long illuminated poems, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, took shape. As a consequence of an incident with a soldier in Felpham, he was put on trial at this time for sedition, for comments he was alleged to have made to this English soldier. This experience seared his visionary imagination and left its trace in the repeated references to the soldier who brought the charge against him, Schofield, which are dotted throughout Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake was trained as an engraver and pioneered his own technique. This remained the basis of his art, and arguably offered a means that complemented his visionary imagination (Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, 1993). After his move back to London, he lived in obscurity and on the fringes of poverty, indebted to the support of patrons like Thomas Butts, for whom he painted many biblical scenes, and later John Linnell. Only in the last years of his life was he discovered by a group of artists. Toward the end of his life he was adopted as an artistic father figure by a group called “The Ancients,” which included George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.
Like religion, art has been a fundamental component of human experience since the beginning of time. Often working in partnership, occasionally at odds, art and religion form a combination that has been a source of inspiration, pedagogy, contemplation, and celebration of the relationship between the human and the divine. However, each individual religion and its culture have encountered the arts differently; these encounters are reflected in distinctive attitudes toward the human, sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class, as well as configuration of the holy.
The human figure has been a common denominator in the arts envisioning transformations in cultural and societal attitudes, economic and political perceptions, and religious doctrines. Traditional wisdom suggests that the majority of world cultures and religions are established upon a patriarchal structure so that representations of the male body project attitudes of power while the female body projects negative attributes. More recent scholarship by feminist art historians, critics, cultural historians, and religious historians provides new ways of looking at the female figure and the role of women in religious art including the history of women artists, patrons, collectors, and, most recently, as critics and curators.
Further surveying the iconography of specific women, whether deities, historical personages, or legendary beings, in the history of a religion affords the opportunity not simply to analyze variations in artistic styles but also to witness how religion shapes and informs cultural, societal, and even legal definitions of women. While the majority of scholarly investigations have focused on Western religions, the possibilities of both comparative analyses and innovative studies of non-Western iconographies of women in religious art can both inform and expand global recognition of the categories of gender, race, and ethnicity as well as research methodologies. The Western model of iconography may be found wanting and open to enrichment through engagement with new categories and models of analysis.