Material & Visual Cultures of Religions

Over the past two decades increasing numbers of scholars in several disciplines—art history, religious studies, American studies, and anthropology chief among them—have directed attention to material and visual cultures of religions. These academic categories or fields encourage consideration of the everyday sensory, material, and aesthetic practices of religions as well as the world’s great art and architecture.

Past and present religious practice, as inherently sensory and material as it is textual, is intimately engaged with “stuff.” In selecting terms for the Center’s name and work, we understand visual culture to operate as a subset of sensory culture. The Center thus directs attention to those places where sensation and materiality engage each other and where both concern religion. Our interests lie in the ways religions, and especially the spaces and objects they use and activate, look, feel, smell, taste, and sound as well as what religious practitioners say and write. The density of “religious” things in human life makes this a truly voluminous subject and one that is spatial as well as pictorial and material.

Pictures and things surround us, and people work with them—and they with people—in constructing selves, communities, and worlds. A partial sampling of things usefully gathered under the umbrella of material and visual cultures (religious and otherwise) includes: clothing, costume, jewelry, textiles, tattoos and other body modifications or adornments; landscape and the built environment, architecture and other forms of spatial organization or consolidation; paintings, prints, photographs, postcards, film, television, the internet and digital technologies; toys and games; maps; cartoons; sculpture, statuary, figurines; embroideries and needlework; educational ephemera; coins and currencies and postage stamps; devotional objects and implements; furniture; scrolls and books; bumper stickers, key-chains and dashboard decorations; holiday displays; processions and parades; housewares, domesticities, and domestic technologies; certificates and other items commemorating rites of passage and accomplishment; advertisements, broadsides, posters, billboards; as well as images and objects seen and felt with the “interior senses,” like the products of visionary experience and sensory imagination.

The Center is deliberate in its uses of the grammatical plural here, and not just with respect to objects but also to cultures and religions. Currently active in one phase or another of our project are scholars of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, among others. We charge ourselves to articulate as well the diverse and particular constituencies within each of these traditions and broad designations.