The Catholic Studies Reader

By James T. Fisher; Margaret M. McGuinness | Go to book overview

11
Visual Literacy and Catholic Studies

CATHERINE R. OSBORNE

In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote one of his bishops a letter on the question of iconoclasm that has reverberated down almost to the present day, frequently quoted to justify the use of images in Christian worship and later cited by scholars to explain the role of pictures in the Middle Ages. Gregory argued,

To adore a picture is one thing, but to learn through the story of a
picture what is to be adored is another. For what writing presents to
readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since
in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiter-
ate read. Hence, and chiefly to the nations, a picture is instead of
reading.1

In Gregory’s understanding, an image is the straightforward, transparent equivalent of a written text, inferior but nevertheless capable of conveying the essentials to the simple and above all to the unconverted barbarians (“the nations”).

But just as scholarship has rejected the idea that texts themselves are able to straightforwardly convey true information, insisting instead that they be read “critically,” it has rejected the notion that images and objects are simply pendants to texts, visual expressions of ideas that are always rooted in words.2 Art history, and the broader interdisciplinary approach of “visual culture studies” to which it is related, has used the metaphor of “visual literacy” to suggest that images and objects deserve analysis in their own right and with attention to the specifically visual attributes that make them different from texts.3

In this essay, I argue that visual literacy deserves attention in Catholic Studies classrooms alongside the more familiar skills of critical reading, and I briefly outline several techniques for interrogating images,

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