Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images

By McDannell, Colleen | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images


McDannell, Colleen, The Catholic Historical Review


Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. By David Morgan. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997. Pp. xviii, 265. $35.00.)

David Morgan, an art historian at Valparaiso University, is concerned with how the most predictable of mass-produced religious imagery may be invested with "vital meanings" in the lives of those who find the art useful (p. xv). In pursuit of this, he has composed a short but densely written book on popular Christian art in the United States. Visual Piety considers both Protestant and Catholic imagery. Its subjects range from the aesthetic piety of Jonathan Edwards to the contemporary placement of religious prints in the home. It attempts to provide a history of popular Christian images, a survey of domestic religious practices, and a discussion of visual theory. In order to get a better sense of why people use pious art, Morgan placed advertisements in Protestant and Catholic magazines asking readers to send him their views on Warner Sallman's "The Head of Christ." Their responses are analyzed throughout the text to show how people make and maintain their worlds through interaction with religious images. Using Sallman's art as a starting point, Morgan discusses other topics such as the masculine portrayal of Christ in Sunday School art, the "hidden" meaning in art, the role of art to stimulate memory.

While Morgan deals with the realm of the popular, his book would be a difficult read for those who are not already schooled in art theory and cultural history. …

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