Magazine article Cross Currents

The Skin of Religion: Aesthetic Mediations of the Sacred

Magazine article Cross Currents

The Skin of Religion: Aesthetic Mediations of the Sacred

Article excerpt

  "That which is most profound in the human being is the skin."                                             Paul Valery    "The body is the place where things happen."                                            Vito Acconci 

We begin with the skin. The liminal, semi-porous boundary between inner and outer worlds, between self and world. Here is the edge of productive space: the ebb and flow of sight, scent, sound, touch, and taste.

Herein, I articulate the beginnings of an approach to understanding religion in and through its skin, and through the sensually mediated experiences of religion. By religious "experience," I don't mean the stories people tell of so-called im-mediate, mystical experience of the gods and goddesses, but rather of the sensual sacred experiences of the human in her/his physical spaces. By focusing on the vital role that the sensual body plays in human experiences of the world, we are able to investigate religious traditions in ways that complement and expand traditional approaches to religion. The study of religion has continued to focus heavily on the interpretation of sacred texts and intellectual exploration of philosophical doctrines. In contrast, experiencing religion through its sensual, material, and artistic practices challenges the student of religion to think through the seemingly mundane dimensions of religions: what religious people eat and taste and see in their sacred settings. What seems trivial and easily overlooked, in the end, becomes foundational for religious environments and traditions.

This article builds on the ancient Greek roots of aesthetics, in which the term pertains to "sensory perception." Aesthetics, as discussed here, is about the ways human bodies sense their religious worlds around them through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, among other possible senses. Sometimes the sensual encounter enables humans to be touched and transformed by beautiful art in the space of a museum, but these aesthetic experiences more often occur within other spaces: in the incense smelled upon entering the temple, in the bitter herbs eaten at the Passover table, in the chanted call to prayer of the Muezzin, in the water-color portrayal of the head of Jesus Christ, in the stroll through the Zen and Jodo inspired gardens of Kyoto (Fig. 1). Aesthetics cannot be bound to a theory of art, and here I mine the term and its history for sacred-sensual purposes. The fixed-but-still-moving point of the religious skinscape is the permeable boundary at the edge of the body, constituted by what passes in and out via the sense organs. Religion itself is, in part, produced by the experiences formed in these mediated sites betwixt and between.


To begin, I outline some of the meanings of a "skinscape" and the role of the sensual body in the production of sacred space. Then I turn to revive the understanding of aesthetics as sense perception, suggesting the senses as boundary markers that define the space of the body, which in turn defines social and sacred space. Following from this, a further investigation of the skin of religion suggests that it consists of two components: sense perception and the mediated, sensational forms that make meaning out of religious objects, sights, shapes, and sounds. In conclusion then, I'll offer some notes toward an aesthetic-sensual construction of sacred space.


The skin wraps the body, defines it, sets the self apart from the world. At the same time, the skin is the contact point, the connection with the world. The skin is media. Persons as subjects encounter each other at the site of the skin, and it is this fleshy screen that marks our identity. In modernity, as Claudia Benthien puts it in her book Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World, the concept of the self is "understood rather as hidden on the inside of its body house, invisible and immaterial." (1) And thus we talk negatively about things only being "skin deep," and suggest our "true self" is "deep down" below the surface. …

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