Book Reviews Sacrality Visual Art

REVIEW: Reading Religion

Previously published on Reading Religion, the Book Review website of the American Academy of Religion.


In the first volume of the new Brill Research Perspectives series, Religion and the Arts: History and Method, editor-in-chief Diane Apostolos-Cappadona presents the reader a remarkable introduction, an overview, and a plethora of future perspectives. In a mere 55 pages—in which she likens her endeavor to opening Pandora’s box—Apostolos-Cappadona attempts to tame the field’s spirits and demons alike. 

In the first part of the volume, the origins of the field of religion and the arts are traced back to the mid-19th century. Over time, the field has widely expanded in understanding: from art as visual exegesis of scripture into art as a vital part in the study of religious culture. Scholarship developed from analyses of traditional religious iconography into explorations of the impact of response theory, globalization, and technology in the functioning of religious imagery in contemporary culture. While it seems impossible to define both the notions of “religion” and “art,” the scholarship in this field departs from “the recognition that religion and the arts are extraordinary yet fundamental concepts in human experience” (3). The lack of universal definitions is regarded as a positive characteristic of the field, inviting multiplicity and diversity in subject matter and methodological approaches. 

Artistic endeavors are not merely concerned with representing religion, as they essentially constitute theological and ritual dimensions of religion. “One of the foundational principles for the interconnections between religion and the arts is the recognition between the processes of image-making and meaning-making as a correspondence between the human and the Sacred” (20). The modes of studying and understanding this correspondence have experienced a great broadening in scope. The earliest modes were derived from academic disciplines—from iconography and symbolism, to history, theology, philosophy, phenomenology, and iconology. The second half of the 20th century saw modes of analysis rooted in conceptual categories such as the marginalized, gender, class, the body, and response or reception. Apostolos-Cappadona argues that, recently, analytical questions are related to new fields of study, such as material culture, popular culture, performance, display, museum studies, and digital culture. 

Within this vast arena of disciplinary and conceptual possibilities, several categorizations are offered which may prove useful in the practice of positioning one’s research. First, she discerns three overall types of investigations: 1) art-centered investigations, proceeding from art as primary documentation, 2) religion-centered research, which aims to provide understanding of the religious impulse embedded in artistic practices, and 3) art-and-religions-centered investigations, which are comparative studies of at least two religious traditions and their artistic practices (22-24). Second, five types of relationships between art and religion are presented: authoritarian, opposition, mutuality, separatist, and unified (27). As no religious tradition has a historically consistent attitude towards art, these five identified relationships between art and religion “exist either simultaneously or in a chronological progression in one religious tradition” (27). Finally, religious institutional attitudes towards art are broadly described as iconic (advocacy), aniconic (acceptance), and iconoclastic (denial or rejection) (28-29). 

Furthermore, we are reminded of how art can be integrated within religious practices—for reasons of pedagogy, devotion, or contemplation—and how both space and the convictions of the artists impact the question whether an artwork can be regarded as religious. Thus, in secularizing contexts non-religious artists can make works for sacred spaces, while religious artists from one denomination can produce works for the context of another. In this ever-expanding realm of possibilities, Apostolos-Cappadona is very clear on the essence of religious art: “The operative principle should be that as the embodiment of the Sacred, a religious image provides for immediate and permanent access to the deity … Works of religious art, for believers, are not simply material objects but mediators of spiritual energies” (35). This central feature needs to be taken into account; from whichever discipline and conceptual framework one decides to study religious art. 

In the volume’s final part, Apostolos-Cappadona explores current trends and transformations in the field. She identifies technology’s impact on the way religious images function as mediators of spiritual energies. Other themes highlighted in the section on future developments are: repatriation, or the ongoing calls for the return of illegitimately obtained objects, in which there is increasing attention to spiritual significance of the objects for their original owners; exhibition practices—how museums deal with religious subject matter in their exhibitions and collections; and globalization, that is making the world a smaller place, creating familiarity with previously unknown topics, and therefore demanding the inclusion of new approaches and narratives.

Although initially appearing as a neatly boxed topic, the relationship between religion and the arts provides an almost endlessly expanding field. As such, this inaugural Brill Research Perspectives volume is a brave undertaking, as well as a welcome resource for scholars trying to find their way in this vast field of opportunity.


Date of Review: January 21, 2019

About the Reviewer: Lieke Wijnia is a Fellow with the Centre for Religion and Heritage at Groningen University and lectures in Art History at University College Tilburg.

About the Author: Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is Haub Director of Catholic Studies at Georgetown University. Having published books and scholarly articles including Dictionary of Christian Art, she is currently Editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion and the Arts

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