About the discipline
Art has played a central role in religion, both in expressing religious ideals and challenging religious assumptions.
Historical role of art: For two millennia Christians have used art to influence and spread the Christian message, using artwork to visually express moral or spiritual mores. The appreciation of art in Renaissance times was often an attempt to appreciate God. That is, artists attempted to depict beauty in nature and in man, to celebrate life and creation.Artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci later came to believe that ugliness communicated truth better than beauty. Their painstaking recreations of “regular” people – some depicted in anguish – conveyed a spiritual value in realism that spurred artists and others to learn more about the human body, leading to study of anatomy and medicine.Orthodox Christians have long used colorful painted icons to depict a sense of religious understanding that could be passed on through generations. Icons became an essential part of the Church’s survival in spite of purges during Communist rule in Soviet Russia and Eastern Europe. Icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the apostles and saints are central to the Orthodox faith. Orthodox believers do not worship the images, but contemplate the deeds and spiritual natures of those depicted. Orthodox Christians also believe icons – painted on wood or canvas – reflect a central Christian belief that in Christ, God became part of the physical world and sanctified it. They offer a way to teach about the faith visually, in a language that crosses racial or ethnic boundaries.
In Islam, it is forbidden to depict God and the prophets – including Muhammad, believed by Muslims to be the most recent in a line of prophets – as well as animals. This has forced a stylistic difference in the evolution of Islamic art, one that has stressed geometric shapes and colors rather than animated life.
The ban arose out of concern that images of Muhammad or other religious figures could lead to idolatry and detract from worship of Allah. (The Ten Commandments of the Jewish and Christian faiths contain similar prohibitions against “graven images.”) But there are also differences among Muslim practice. Experts say Shiite Islam has fewer issues with portraying Muhammad; more conservative strains of Sunni Islam in some cases prohibit portraying any form at all. Art or décor in mosques or Muslim homes is often simple words of the Koran written in calligraphy.
A 19th-century American art trend featured beautiful and serene natural landscapes intended to inspire awe and communicate the presence of God and his creative powers as manifested in the natural world.
Understanding the history of art in religion helps a person understand how art interacts with religion. Because it plays such a vital role in cultural development, it is worth studying the role it plays in contemporary society as well to see how it changes beliefs, attitudes and values. Religion has also had a large impact on art, from sculptures of ancient Greek gods and goddess to Renaissance masterworks – religion has provided both a subject and an inspiration to create.
Cultural Differences: What is good art? The critic concerned with aesthetics might define that differently than someone who judges art based on its moral value. News is regularly made about protests by those who believe that art violates sacred religious or ethical principles, and it stirs up passions on all sides of the issue. Religious literacy, as well as a sense of literacy in the area of art appreciation, could help bridge gaps of understanding and context.
Artists often seek a place where humanity and transcendence come together. They may struggle with their beliefs and explore their fears, the dogma or perceived contradictions through art, intending to pose questions or provoke thought. This may incite more conservative representatives of a religious tradition to protest, particularly when traditional religious values are challenged or confronted in an unorthodox way.
Examples include recent violent and deadly demonstrations that erupted over European newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad as a terrorist. The depiction of Mohammed alone was offensive to many Muslims and showed how freedom of expression has the ability to offend large groups. Experts say reaction was mostly to how Muhammad was portrayed and existing tensions, as likenesses of Muhammad have long been displayed in the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums and libraries without exciting alarm or reaction.
Chris Ofili’s multi-media work, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” caused controversy in the United States by showing the Virgin as black, with a three-dimensional breast made from a ball of elephant dung. The piece outraged some Catholics, who saw it as a defacement of the Virgin. What many did not know was that Ofili himself was Catholic, and that he chose to draw upon his African roots to represent his idea of the Virgin Mary, using the elephant dung that symbolized fertility and the Earth in his culture.
Art’s role in religion: What was largely missing in these controversies was dialogue, a major focus of the Center’s work. Research partnerships with those who study conflict management, for example, might help artists who want to do their best work while still making sure that reaction doesn’t overshadow meaning.
Both art and religion have more in common than in disagreement, particularly a need to describe the world or parts of the world. Though they do it in different ways, both search for meaning and are themselves a vehicle for expressing what is found. Art is a way to experience answers to questions about life and existence, though not all religions value experience in the same way; some tend to put more emphasis on the mind and philosophical thought rather than expression.
Artists also have the ability to work within paradigms or explore new ones. While this might be of offense to some from more conservative traditions, art can be a way to show religious communities that new ideas and paradigms are not a threat to their belief system but rather an exercise in living.
Art also gives expression to spiritual experience and belief. It is a way to make those things that are believed but not seen take on reality, be seen, digested, understood and shared in a common visual language. Art and religion also tell people about themselves. One example is the many ways that Jesus is depicted in art. Images have changed over time, reflecting shifts in theologies, historical research and the ethnicity of worshippers. Religion scholars say Christians tend to project themselves – both in belief and likeness – onto their savior, so new portrayals of Jesus are likely to present current themes in the faith.
Issues today: One of the Center’s goals is to highlight how religion interacts with other disciplines so that we can understand this process and find ways to make it a better experience for society as a whole. Research in the areas of education and training can help further this aim. Researchers may want to look at the role that religion has played in art and art in religion, and how they both reflect and create the society in which we live.
They could study how pieces of art deemed religiously controversial in their day have become mainstream because faith interpretations have changed – or actually were responsible for changing views about faith through dialogue. Researchers could look at whether personal faith impacts an artist’s subjects, or how faith influences non-religious subjects. They could also study the movement that looks at creating (art) as a way to honor the “master Creator,” studying people’s beliefs about why they create and how it fits into their religious beliefs or world view.
- “Breast cancer between faith and medicine: the Peres Maldonado ex-voto” by Lisa Pon and James F Amatruda. 36 (2010): 112-114.
- “The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran” by Robert Gluck. Leonardo. 20, no. 1 (2007): 20-8.
- “Buddhist Material Culture, ‘Indianism,’ and the Construction of Pan-Asian Buddhism in Prewar Japan” by Richard M. Jaffe. Material Religion. 2, no. 3 (2006): 266-292.
- “The Gift of Form: Brassal and the Crypt of Saint-Sulpice” by Meg Melvin. History of Photography. 30, no. 4 (2006): 359-71.
- “Around the World in Religion and the Arts: Defining the Study of Islamic Art” by John G. Renard. Religion and the Arts. 10, no. 4 (2006): 539-55.
- “Women and the Dura-Europos Synagogue Paintings” by Faith Steinberg. Religion and the Arts. 10, no. 4 (2006): 461-96.
- “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China” by Chou Wen-shing. Art Bulletin. 89, no. 1 (2007): 108-29.
- “Building Churches in Armenia: Art at the Borders of Empire and the Edge of the Canon” by Christian Maranci. Art Bulletin. 88, no. 4 (2006): 656-75.
- “Shouting Fire: Art, Religion and the Right to Be Offended” by David Edgar. Race and Class. 48, no. 2 (2006): 61-76.
- “Ancient Near East Religion as Represented in the Art of the Ancient Near East” by Mehmet-Ali Ataç. Bryn Mawr College, 2008
- “Asking the Clergy: Is there a relationship between art and religion?” Newsday (New York), Feb. 28, 2009.
- “City Arts Commission Funds Religious Statues At Churches” by Howard Friedman. Religion Clause, Dec. 15, 2007.
- “Atheist Camille Paglia to Artists and Writers: Read Your Bibles” by Iosue Andreas. The Western Confucian, Aug. 2, 2007.
- “Voodoo-Hoochie-Coochie and the Creative Spirit.” absolutearts.com, Oct. 30, 2008. (2008-10-28 – 2009-01-12)
- “Art prize judge resigns in disgust” by Erik Jensen, Louise Schwartzkoff and Richard Jinman. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Aug. 6, 2008.
- “Cardinal’s art comments spark outrage” by Harry De Quetteville. The Daily Telegraph. National Post (f/k/a The Financial Post) (Canada), Sept.19, 2007.
- “Prayer becomes work of art” by Teneshia Naidoo. Sunday Times (South Africa), Aug. 19, 2007.
- Graphic Design and Religion. Daniel Kantor. GIA Publications, 2008.
- Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life. In collaboration with the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington, D.C. The New Press, 2001.
- Where Heaven and Earth Meet: The Spiritual in the Art of Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, and Kiefer. Wessel Stoker. Rodopi, 2012.
- Religion and art: A study in the evolution of sculpture, painting and architecture. Alessandro Della Seta. RareBooksClub.com, 2012.
- Religion and Art in Ancient Greece. Ernest Arthur Gardner, 2007.
- Reluctant Partners: Art and Religion in Dialogue. Ena Giurescu. Heller Museum Of Biblical Art, 2006.
- Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995.
- Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life. Alberta Arthurs. Center for Arts and Culture New Press, 2001.
- Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. Mircea Eliade. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1992.
- On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. James Elkins. London: Routledge, 2004.
- At the Crossroads of Art and Religion: Imagination, Commitment, Transcendence. Peeters Publishers, 2008.
Codes of ethics
- Guidelines from the College Art Association
- American Institute of Graphic Arts – Design Business and Ethics | Standards of Professional Practice
- International Center of Medieval Art – Code of Ethics for research and use of works of art(.pdf)
- Jewelers of America – Code of Professional Practices
- Journal of Ritual Studies
- Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion
- Religion & the Arts
- Material Religion
- Journal of Religion & Film
- Archaeology & Religious Art, Virtual Religion Index
- “The Crisis of Meaning in Religion and Art” by Barbara DeConcini
- “What is Religious Art?” by F. Thomas Trotter
Professional associations and faith groups
- Asian Christian Art Association
- Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America
- Christians Artists Network
- Christians in the Theatre Arts
- Christians in the Visual Arts
- Christian Performing Artists’ Fellowship
- Gluck, Robert. “The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran.” Leonardo. 20, no. 1 (2007): 20-8.
- Jaffe, Richard M. “Buddhist Material Culture, ‘Indianism,’ and the Construction of Pan-Asian Buddhism in Prewar Japan.” Material Religion. 2, no. 3 (2006): 266-292.
- Melvin, Meg. “The Gift of Form: Brassal and the Crypt of Saint-Sulpice.” History of Photography. 30, no. 4 (2006): 359-71.
- Renard, John G. “Around the World in Religion and the Arts: Defining the Study of Islamic Art.” Religion and the Arts. 10, no. 4 (2006): 539-55.
- Steinberg, Faith, “Women and the Dura-Europos Synagogue Paintings.” Religion and the Arts. 10, no. 4 (2006): 461-96.
- Troughton, Geoffrey. “Light at the End of the Word.” Australian Historical Studies. 37, no. 128. (2006): 55-71.
- Wen-shing Chou. “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China.” Art Bulletin. 89, no. 1 (2007): 108-29.
- Religious Architecture and Islamic Cultures. Prof. Nasser Rabbat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Artists, Shamans and Cosmology. Thomas Peterson, Alfred University
- Art, Religion, & Material Culture in America(.pdf). Douglas L. Winiarski, University of Richmond
- Myth, Religion and Art. Dr. Monica Dominguez, University of Deleware