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Museums, Expositions, and Religion in North America since the 19th Century  

Hillary Kaell

Since the mid-19th century increasing numbers of North Americans have had access to new technologies of display that feature religious artifacts. Missionaries and museum curators played an especially important role as cultural brokers in this regard. They often worked together to set up ethnographic collections, although their respective goals differed in terms of spiritual uplift and public education. In the same period, the mediation of religious objects took place in other arenas too, such as recreations of sacred sites and spirit photography. In the 20th century, religious objects were mediated through cinema and television. In each case, the materialization and mediation of religion raises a number of significant questions, including those related to the aestheticization of sacred objects in public museums and the display of things and rituals associated with religious “others.” Since the 1980s, North Americans have engaged in debates about whether to repatriate indigenous objects and human bones to their communities of origin. There have also been significant protests related to the provocative use of Christian imagery in contemporary art. Increasingly, scholars have also begun to recognize and study how museum spaces are more malleable than previously assumed, especially as new publics access them and may even (re)use the sacred objects they house.

Article

The Cosmological Vision of Martin Luther  

Mickey L. Mattox

Martin Luther was not an original contributor to the study of cosmology, and if one were to judge only by his explicit remarks on the matter, it would seem to have been of little interest to him. He was, however, every bit a man of his times, and as such he assumed what educated people of his times assumed, including in the matter of the nature and structure of reality. The world in which he came of age was informed by a compelling vision of the universe as a whole. Astronomical observation and mathematical calculation in the traditions of Aristotle and Ptolemy had long since combined with philosophical and religious speculation to render Luther’s world a coherent “cosmos” (Gk. kosmos, “order” or “world”), at the center of which reposed a stationary sphere, the earth. This world was surrounded at ever-increasing heights by the heavenly spheres, each of them thought to be wheeling in at tremendous rates of speed that increased as one moved up through their heights: first the moon, then the planets, the stars, and ultimately the prime mover. This long-traditional view of the cosmos rendered reality itself an arena of intense motion and beauty. Taken in a broad scientific and aesthetic sense, cosmology provided not only an interpretation of the heavens but also an imaginative lens through which to experience and understand one’s self and one’s world. Though he quibbled over some of the details, Luther clearly viewed himself and his world through that very lens. During his university studies in Erfurt for the bachelor and master of arts degrees, he read cosmology as a subject covered in the integrated approach to learning set forth in a curriculum based on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). In combination with other later medieval notions—such as the understanding of the human body and its four humors or the sublunar sphere and its four constituent elements (earth, water, air, fire)—cosmology became for Luther what it was for all his educated peers, that is, a world view. Thus, while Luther was not a cosmologist per se, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos provided a set of background beliefs that informed his theology and world view at every level. He also developed a distinctive understanding of the reality and exercise of power and authority, both on the earth and in the heavens.

Article

Iconography and Iconology  

Davor Džalto

Iconography and iconology are the ways of describing and interpreting images and their meaning. Although closely related, iconography and iconology can be understood as distinct disciplines. When clearly differentiated, iconography is understood as a method of identifying and describing the themes and motifs (“subject matter”) represented in an image, while iconology is understood as an interpretation of the meaning of images. Especially in the contemporary applications of the method, iconology is often understood as an interdisciplinary enterprise. In its rudimentary form, iconography has been practiced since the earliest recorded attempts to describe images, conveying “what is depicted” in the medium of language. Already in antiquity is the application of the iconographic method understood as a way of relating depicted visual forms with textual sources, aimed at an identification of the subject matter in images. In the Renaissance, attempts at the systematization and codification of the most commonly used motifs in visual arts are found, resulting in manuals that offered a description of the motifs and an explanation of the meaning of particular symbols or entire scenes. The modern period (especially the 19th and 20th centuries) is the time when iconography was fully developed as a method, but this is also the time of a clearer differentiation (both conceptual and terminological) between iconography and iconology. A series of authors, primarily art historians, contributed to this differentiation and to the development of iconology as a discipline that deals with the meaning in and of images and artworks. Among the most prominent ones are Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. Iconology, understood as an interdisciplinary approach to the issue of visual phenomena, has successfully been applied in the interpretation of a variety of visual phenomena, from ancient, medieval, and Renaissance artworks to works of contemporary art and visual culture understood more broadly.

Article

Contemporary Visual Art and Religion  

Dominic Colonna

Contemporary visual art that uses themes and symbols of particular religious traditions has the potential to alienate both those who are adherents of those traditions and those who are non-adherents. Such art is often characterized as sentimental, superstitious, naïve, exclusivist, or triumphalist by modern standards of judgment. At the same time, efforts to avoid exclusivism or triumphalism in contemporary visual art can render the meanings of works so vague that it is hard to identify a work with any particular religion. For these reasons and more, the art world tends to disparage the benign use of religious themes and symbols in art and tends to accept works that are transgressive—that is, art that transgresses the boundaries of religious decorum. Material and visual culture studies provide ways for the art world to find value in and analyze the use of religious themes and symbols in contemporary visual art. These approaches have widened the scope of works that might be identified as contemporary visual art: popular, mass-produced, and folk art are all within the purview of analyses of contemporary visual art. These studies examine how religious themes and symbols function in religious communities and in the wider communities of which they are a part. Even when studying the function of visual and material culture within a particular religious tradition, these studies tend to identify common or essential themes in different religions. The contemporary preference for being “spiritual but not religious” emerges in the identification of common religious themes and symbols. Contemporary theological approaches to the study and appreciation of contemporary visual art are “insider” methods that religious adherents use to assess critically the value of the use of religious themes and symbols in modern culture. These insider methods identify orthodox uses of religious themes and symbols in contemporary visual art, not only to identify negatively that which is unorthodox or heterodox, but also to identify works of art that celebrate religious beliefs, make traditional beliefs relevant, and help to shape new ways of engaging the wider community. Theological methods often incorporate the work of material and visual studies scholars. Like these scholars, theologians seek to affirm the value of unique religious beliefs in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Article

Holy Week and the Theater of Art: Sculpture, Retables, and the Spanish Baroque Aesthetic  

Rafael Japón

In the 16th century, the social and political changes derived from the European religious wars between Catholic and Protestant countries, economic crises, and the Counter-Reformation had an enormous impact on the evolution of visual culture. These transformations drastically changed the way in which the Catholic faithful interacted with works of art. The exemplary uses given to the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints were promoted as intermediaries between God and people. The intense realism in art served precisely this objective, since the faithful could recognize themself in these figures. In addition, the rise of the brotherhoods and penitentiary guilds led to the popularization of behaviors that imitated the Passion of Christ, such as public self-flagellation. Therefore, the Spanish processional sculpture was fully brought forward by many of these brotherhoods. Processions used theatrical resources and were very successful among the people. In the 17th century, the Hispanic baroque aesthetic was strongly linked to the Catholic Church and was especially evident during Holy Week. The public processions and their artistic resources were very successful, so much so that they have survived to the present, evolving and adapting to each period.