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While studying with Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker, a few of us were invited to his home for coffee and cookies. I noticed a religious print on his wall that lacked any of the aesthetic qualities he had taught us to look for. He noticed me standing in front of it and said without elaboration: "There are a lot of reasons beside aesthetic ones to hang something in one's house." True enough. But what are they, I wondered? Because it was a gift of a beloved aunt? Did it remind him of some event in his life? Or speak of God in a way that touched him deeply? He didn't tell us; indeed, the questions did not even figure in the art curriculum of that day, though Rookmaaker already knew they were important.
Much has changed in the study of art—and of religion—in the 25 years since that experience, and much of that change has come to focus on what to make of our everyday religious life—its artifacts and practices. Now an art historian at Valparaiso University, David Morgan, has written a book, published by a university press, about the "other" reasons for hanging things in one's living room, especially reasons connected with faith.
In 1993 Morgan ran an ad in 25 religious periodicals, asking people to comment on the role Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (or any of his other popular prints) played in their lives. The 531 responses provide the primary data for his project, though Morgan puts these responses in the context of a rich study of popular piety that stretches from the Middle Ages through the Reformation to Jonathan Edwards and Victorian America.
But why should people in universities pay any attention to this kind of popular religious art? Behind this question lies an important shift in cultural studies over the last generation. Increasingly scholars recognize the importance of everyday practices and the way people construct their world—even, or especially, with things they hang on their walls or stick on their refrigerators. Rather ...