Religion and art: Talent and tension

Religion and art have been inseparable for millennia. The earliest art objects uncovered by archaeologists were religious in nature. Religion has always been a go-to subject for both fine and folk artists.

But in the last 50 years or so, religious art has fallen out of favor, with a major turning point coming with the 1987 exhibition of Andres Serrano’s controversial “Piss Christ.” Fewer artists engage with religion through art, and fewer works of art that have religious themes are taken seriously. Why? Is it a sign of the growing secularization of the Western world, or a simple lack of talent? At the same time, most major and secondary museum shows that feature religious art tend to look backward rather than forward. Is religion still relevant to art?

This edition of ReligionLink presents background, resources and sources reporters can tap into to write about the intersection of visual art and religion.

Background

Resources

Some houses of worship support artists in residence, including The National Cathedral (Washington, D.C.), Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) and St. John the Divine (New York, N.Y.). Sometimes, those artists work in the visual arts.

National sources

Religion and art (general)

  • Alain de Botton

    Alain de Botton is a philosopher who writes frequently about religion, arts and contemporary culture. He is the author of Religion for Atheists, in which he discusses what religious art and art forms can convey to nonbelievers. He is also outspoken on the role and format of most art museums. He lives in London. Contact via the form on his website.

  • Norman Girardot

    Norman Girardot is a professor of religion at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He is the author of Envisioning Howard Finster: The Myth and Meaning of a Stranger from Another World, about the American folk artist, whose work frequently included religious themes and images. Girardot is also an expert on similar artists, including Gregory Warmack, Myrtice West, Norbert Kox, Aloise Corbaz, Charlie Lucas and Lonnie Holley. Girardot can discuss religion and American folk art.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a professor of religious studies with a secondary appointment in art history and visual studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert in the history of religious visual culture, art history, and religion and media. He is the author of The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity and The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America.

  • James Najarian

    James Najarian is editor of the journal Religion and the Arts at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

  • Aaron Rosen

    Aaron Rosen is professor of religious studies and director of international and cultural projects at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont. He is also a visiting professor at King’s College in London. He has written about Jewish art and curated London gallery shows on religion and art. He is the author of Art + Religion in the 21st Century. He gave an interview to David van Biema at Religion News Service on the subject of religion and contemporary art.

Christianity and art

  • Cameron Anderson

    Cameron Anderson is executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts in Madison, Wis., and author of The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts.

  • Jonathan A. Anderson

    Jonathan A. Anderson is an artist, art critic and associate professor of art at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. With William Dyrness he is the co-author of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism, which examines modern art’s engagement with Christian theology. Anderson’s areas of interest include art theory and criticism, art and theology and modern/contemporary art. Contact via Biola University’s art department.

  • Barbara Drake Boehm

    Barbara Drake Boehm is the senior curator for the Met Cloisters in New York City, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses much of its medieval Christian art. In 2016, she was the co-curator of the Met show “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven,” a collection of religious art and objects by Jews, Christians and Muslims inspired by the city of Jerusalem. Contact via the Met’s communications department.

  • Contemporary Religious Artists Association

    The Contemporary Religious Artists Association is an organization of professional artists who take religion as their subject. Its members are painters, sculptors, musicians and writers who “seek God with heart and mind, and to glorify God through our artistic work.” The group was founded in response to St. John Paul II’s 1999 appeal to artists to find “new epiphanies.” Members are Christian and mostly Catholic. Contact via their website form.

  • William Dyrness

    William Dyrness is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Among his books are Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism, which he co-authored with Jonathan A. Anderson, and Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue.

  • Elayne Oliphant

    Elayne Oliphant is an assistant professor of anthropology in the religious studies program at New York University. She is an expert on Catholicism and art and is the author of the forthcoming book Signs of an Unmarked Faith: Contemporary Art and Secular Catholicism in 21st Century Paris. She organized a 2015 exhibition, “The Art of Invisibility,” featuring the work of seven contemporary artists and the links between the religious and the secular in their work.

  • Philip Graham Ryken

    Philip Graham Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. He is the author of Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, which argues that God has a plan for the arts, which Ryken sees as a tool for both evangelism and glorifying God. Contact via media relations at Wheaton.

  • Sacred Murals Studio

    Sacred Murals is the icon-painting studio of artists Philip Davydov and Olga Shalamova in St. Petersburg, Russia.

  • Peter W. Williams

    Peter W. Williams is professor emeritus of religion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Religion, Art and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, a look at how Episcopalians influenced the visual arts during that time.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    Gregory Wolfe is the founder and editor of Image, which examines contemporary art and literature’s intersection with religious traditions of Western culture. He also serves as senior fellow at the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University.

Judaism and art

  • Jewish Art Salon

    Jewish Art Salon is an international artists and scholars community that promotes understanding and appreciation of contemporary Jewish visual art and organizes and supports art exhibits and other events with Jewish themes. It is based in New York City and maintains a list of Jewish artists around the world, some with contact information. Yona Verwer is co-founder.

  • Norman L. Kleeblatt

    Norman L. Kleeblatt is the chief curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City. He has curated shows on Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Chaim Soutine. He is also an expert on 20th-century Jewish artists in New York. Contact via the museum’s press office.

  • Mason Klein

    Mason Klein is a critic, an art historian and a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City, where he has curated shows on Modigliani and Man Ray. Klein has written about artists Joseph Beuys, Ross Bleckner, Marcel Duchamp, Leon Golub, Ray Johnson, Yves Klein, Nancy Spero, Michael Snow, and Joan Snyder. Contact via the museum’s press office.

  • Claudia Nahson

    Claudia Nahson is a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York City, where she specializes in Jewish illustrators. She has curated shows on Ezra Jack Keats, William Steig and Maurice Sendak. Contact via the museum press office.

  • Melissa Raphael

    Melissa Raphael is a professor of history, religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, England. She is the author of Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art.

  • Francesco Spagnolo

    Francesco Spagnolo is the curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley. His specialties include music and digital media, but he has curated a number of visual exhibits at the Magnes, including one on botanical drawings and one on European Jewish posters.

Islamic art

Artists

  • Siona Benjamin

    Siona Benjamin is a painter and educator from Bombay, currently living in New York. Her work frequently combines images of Judaism, which she was raised in, and the Muslim and Hindu cultures of India.

  • Sunhee Joo

    Sunhee Joo is a Los Angeles-based educator and artist with an interest in biblical stories, people and nature. She has said Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Mary Magdalene are her “beloved characters.”

  • Beth Krensky

    Beth Krensky is an associate professor of art education and the area head of art teaching at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She is also an artist and activist. Her work is expressed in objects — she makes reliquaries, prayer shawls and “portable sanctuaries.” Some of her work is rooted in Judaism.

  • Angela Larian

    Angela Larian is an artist in Los Angeles who bases some of her work on the works of the Sufi poet Rumi and Zoroastrianism. Her latest series, “Khoda,” the Persian word for God, is currently being exhibited in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Contact through the Make Agency.

  • Mark Podwal

    Mark Podwal is an artist and illustrator whose contemporary, cartoonlike drawings often focus on Judaism, Jewish culture and the Jewish experience. His work is the subject of the book Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art. He provided the art for the documentary House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Some of his work can be seen here.

  • Archie Rand

    Archie Rand is a painter and muralist whose works are in collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Much of his work draws on his Jewish background, most notably The 613, a series of paintings based on the laws of the Torah. He is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Regional sources

In the East

  • Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

    Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a writer, poet and professor of English, creative writing and American Catholic studies at Fordham University in New York City. She serves as associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. She has written about the intersection of religion and popular music, especially in the work of Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra.

In the Midwest

In the South

  • Jas’ Elsner

    Jas’ Elsner is a visiting professor of art and religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he studies religion, literature and visual culture. His expertise is in the art of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the pre-Christian world.

  • Roy Brooks

    Roy Brooks is a a Ph.D. candidate in theater and performance studies with a specialization in Christianity and theater at the University of Georgia in Athens. He specializes in medieval theater, performance art and queer Catholic imagery.

In the West

  • Kittredge Cherry

    Kittredge Cherry is a Los Angeles-based Christian author, minister and art historian who runs a blog called Jesus in Love that focuses on LGBTQ issues as they are expressed in religious art. She is the author of Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ and More.

  • Megan Sanborn Jones

    Megan Sanborn Jones is an associate professor of theater at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her area of expertise is Mormon-produced pageantry and melodramas.

  • Renny Pritikin

    Renny Pritikin is the curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Contact via Melanie Samay in museum communications.

  • Francesco Spagnolo

    Francesco Spagnolo is the curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the University of California, Berkeley. His specialties include music and digital media, but he has curated a number of visual exhibits at the Magnes, including one on botanical drawings and one on European Jewish posters.

  • Ashlee Whitaker

    Ashlee Whitaker is the curator of religious art at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art in Provo, Utah. The museum has a significant number of works, both antique and contemporary, that deal with religious subject matter and themes.