On The Sacred Gaze

Let me start this blog post with an appraisal.

I had come across David Morgan’s Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images a while ago and was really interested in his concept of visual piety as an analytical tool for my discussion of the religious prints I collected at Kurmi Market in July 2008. While this books is waiting in the library for my next trip to Berlin, I have just received his The Sacred Gaze from Amazon (bless them, saved me a trip into town) and I’m just captivated. A lot of what he writes ties in very well with my recent reading on iconoclasm, provides further useful food for thought and one or the other promising theoretical underpinning for my discussion of religious discourses on the arts and religious visual culture in northern Nigeria. – Really, if your anyhow interested in religious arts, or to put it more broadly, religious visual culture I can only recommend you read his book. Yes, his particular interest appears to be in American religious and visual culture and I suspect that his informed his view that

As a species, humans rely disproportionately on visual information because our neural network is preponderantly dedicated to processing visual stimuli. (p. 39)

I’m not that sure about it. Certainly, Western(ised) cultures prioritise seeing but I wonder to which extent this occularcentrism, as Manghani et.al. call it, is actually culturally determined. Recent scholarship on the subject at least seems to suggest such. (cf. Manghani et.al. 2006, Van de Berg 2004 and Jenks 1995) In any case, elsewhere Morgan acknowledges the importance of the other senses to the religious experience although his primary concern, as the title tells us, is with the role of different kinds of images. He also recognises the importance of the social and cultural context for the way particular images are perceived. In fact, his understanding of visual culture explicitly calls for the exploration of socially and culturally specific visual practices:

… the study of visual culture will regard the image as part of a cultural system of production and reception, in which original intention does not eclipse the use to which images are put but by those who are not their makers. Scholars will therefore investigate not only the image itself but also its role in narrative, perception, scientific and intellectual classification, and all manner of ritual practices, such as ceremonies, gift-giving, commerce, memorialisation, migration, and display – thereby understanding the image as part of the social construction of reality. […] By stressing the role of social and cultural construction in the definition of visual culture, I intend to underscore the importance of visual practices, ideas, institutions, feelings, and values as constitutive of human vision, in particular, of the sacred gaze. (p. 30-31)

In fact, Morgan draws his examples of religious imagery from all over the world and draws upon scholarship concerned with a variety of historical and contemporary contexts. Such, he provides a valuable framework not only for the study of (American) Christian religious imagery but beyond. Such, his concept of sacred gaze or visual piety might well be applied to numerous cultural contexts.

Morgan introduces the notion of sacred gaze with a brief remark on seeing. Seeing, he argues, should be ‘understood as a great variety of visual practises, forms of engagement with oneself, with others, with the past, with the worlds engaging viewers as viewers look at them in one manner or another.’ (p. 2-3) As such it ‘relies on an apparatus of assumptions and inclinations, habits and routines, historical associations and culture practices,’ (p. 3) hence, needs to be analysed as a culturally, socially and probably even individually determined operation. As a term, sacred gaze in particular

… designates the particular configuration of ideas, attitudes, and customs that informs a religious act of seeing as it occurs within a given cultural and historical setting. A sacred gaze is the manner in which a way of seeing invests an image, a view, or an act of viewing with spiritual significance.’ (p. 3)

While the concept of visual piety is occasionally employed in the book it is not further defined here. However, in his early publication of the same name Morgan defined visual piety as ‘the visual formation and practice of religious belief.’ (p. 1) As an analytical model, the explains, requires the researcher to consider

the set of practices, attitudes, and ideas invested in images that structure the experience of the sacred, visual piety cancels the dualistic separation of mind and matter, thought and behaviour, that plagues a great deal of work on art and religion. … the act of looking itself contributes to religious formation and, indeed, constitutes a powerful practice of belief. (p. 2-3)

From the Catholic mystic who sees the Virgin or receives the wounds of Christ in the same manner that she has seen them in devotional images, to the Sunday school student who is drilled with charts and visual diagrams in order to memorize the catechism, we see that there is no single visual piety, but many. I want to draw attention to the plurality of visual practices, which are distinguished one form the other by the history of theology, cultural politics, and ritual uses of image, all of which in turn keyed to the image’s style and iconography and the historical circumstances of its production and reception.’ (p. 4)

Don't you think those might provide a useful model and tool for my own discussion of, in particular, the previously mentioned religious prints from Kurmi Market, Kano? Although, I'm not sure whether I have or will ever be able to gain enough information about details of the practices associated with those old and the more modern religious prints - as multiple outsider, in terms of religion (i.e. non-Muslim), philosophy (by which I mean the rootedness of my endevour in British academic discourse) as well as origin (non-Nigerian) ... >sight<


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