Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images

Article excerpt

Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. By David Morgan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xviii + 280 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

A "Madonna and Child" that graced a grandparent's living room and a portrait of Christ in a childhood bedroom have become objects of serious scholarship. Visual Piety joins several recent studies of everyday religious "stuff," all of which confirm the value of studying mass-produced devotional objects. Under David Morgan's interdisciplinary gaze, such popular images become windows into the construction of religious worlds, as they serve to display identity, shape memory, and symbolize relationships.

Morgan constructs Visual Piety within well-defined theoretical, geographical, and historical boundaries. He generally limits his primary data to mass-produced American religious imagery from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most of which is displayed in sixty-nine black-and-white illustrations throughout the book. The familiarity of these images is heightened, fittingly, by placing them in household settings, surrounded by the accoutrements of everyday life. The greatest strength of Visual Piety lies in its skillful use of a sophisticated social constructivist theoretical model, drawn from thinkers such as Czikszentmihalyi, Bourdieu, and Berger, each of whom asserts that human beings constantly cultivate the worlds in which they live. Morgan adopts this model to show how people use images to make and maintain sense in otherwise unstable and chaotic environments. Cardboard icons and plastic buttons, Morgan reminds us, are rarely classified as "high," "elite," or "tasteful" art; indeed, he laments the pervasive "aesthetic of disinterestedness" that has governed studies of religious art, a prejudice that places value on artistic skill and beauty rather than on appropriation and usefulness. …

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