When Art is Religion and Vice Versa. Six Perspectives on the Relationship between Art and Religion

Frank G. Bosman 1
  • 1 Tilburg University,


In the discussion of religion and art, it is quite difficult to exactly define what makes art ‘religious’. In this article, the author suggest six different perspectives in which a work of art—any work of art—could be interpreted as ‘religious’, as an embodiment of the complex relationship between art and religion. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive: one and the same art work could be approached on multiple levels at once. Nor do they disqualify other methodologies of studying art and religion. These perspectives provide conceptual windows to understand what people (could) mean when they discuss religious art. The six perspectives are: (1) material, (2) contextual, (3) referential, (4) reflexive, (5) ritual, and (6) existential. They vary from the more or less objective to the more subjective, and as such from artist-intended to viewer/listener-perceived (with or without help of clues provided by the artist and/or the object itself). The author illustrates who these different perspectives can vary in defining certain pieces of art as religious by using three very different case studies: the Isenheimer Altarpiece, one of Hugo Ball’s famous sound poems, and the digital game Child of Light.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Adams D and Apostolos-Cappadona D (1987) Art as religious studies. Insights in the Judeo-Christian traditions. In idem (eds) Art as religious studies. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, pp. 3-11.

  • Alexander E and Alexander M (2008) Museum in motion. An introduction to the history and functions of museum. Second edition. Lanham: Rowman & Little-field.

  • Arp H (1957) Dadaland. In Arp H, Huelsenbeck R, and Tzara T (eds) Die Geschichte des Dadaismus. Dichtung und Chronik der Gründer, Zürich: Die Arche.

  • Bennett R, Kerrigan F, and O’Reilly D (2012) Introduction. In idem (eds) New horizons in art, heritage, nonprofit and social marketing. London: Routledge.

  • Ball H (1996) Flight out of time, edited by Elderfield J. London: University of California Press.

  • Bohlman Ph and Engelhardt J (2016) Resounding transcendence. An introduction. In idem (eds), Resounding transcendence. Transitions in music, religion, and ritual. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Bosman F (2019) Gaming and the divine. A new systematic theology of video games. London: Routledge.

  • Bosman F (2018) The bell tolled six on Easter Sunday. The motif of the harrowing of hell in the video game Child of Light. In Sarot M and Wieringen A van (eds) The Apostles’ Creed. ‘He Descended into hell’. Leiden: Brill, pp. 160-184.

  • Bosman F (2015) Die Laute von Byzanz. Byzantinisches Christentum: zur fehlenden Verbindung zwischen Dada und Catholica im Leben Balls. Hugo Ball Almanach 6: 71-91.

  • Bosman F (2014) ‘Gottes Ursprache’. Hugo Ball’s Theology of Sound. In Lintner M (ed) God in Question. Religious language and secular languages, Brixen: A. Weger, pp. 397-412.

  • Braun M and Teubner T, eds (2011) Hugo Ball. Der magische Bischof der Avantgarde. Heidelberg: Das Wunderhorn.

  • Brown F (2014) Introduction. Mapping the terrain of religion and the arts. In idem (ed) Religion and the arts. Oxford: Oxford University press, pp. 1-24.

  • Brown F (2000) Good taste, bad taste, & Christian taste. Aesthetics in religious life. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Buggeln G (2015) Museum space and the experience of the sacred. The journal of objects, art and belief 8(1): 30-50.

  • Campbell J (2008) The Hero with the Thousand Faces, Novato: New World Library.

  • Casanova J (2009) The religious situation in Europa. In Wiegandt K and Joas H (eds) Secularization and the world religions. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

  • Chyssavgis J (2012) Orthodox spirituality. In Tyler P and Woods R (eds.), The Bloombury Guide to Christian spirituality. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 82-93.

  • Cobb K (2005) The Blackwell guide to theology and popular culture. Oxford: Blackwell publishing.

  • Conforti P (1997) Spirituality. In Winiarski M (ed.), HIV Mental health for the 21st Century. London: New York University Press.

  • Dalgleish G (2000) Myths and realities of Jacobite relics. In Fladmark J (ed) Heritage and museums. Shaping national identity. London: Routledge, pp. 91-102.

  • Davies S (1991) Definitions of art. London: Cornell University Press.

  • Dillenberger J (1998) The religious art of Andy Warhol. New York: Continuum.

  • Duncan C (1994) Art museums and the ritual of citizenship. In Pearce S (ed) Interpreting objects and collections. London: Routledge, pp. 279-186.

  • Flanagan K (2001) Religion and modern personal identity. In Harskamp A van and Musschenga A (eds) The many faces of individualism. Leuven: Peeters.

  • Frayling C (2011) On craftmanship. Towards a new Bauhaus. London: Oberon Books.

  • Groot K de (2018) The liquidation of the church. London: Routledge.

  • Harman S (2015) Child of Light is a dark fairy tale RPG brimming with potential. VG247.com, www.vg247.com/2014/04/03/child-of-light-is-a-dark-fairy-tale-rpg-brimming-with-potential [accessed 11-05-19].

  • Harrisville R (2004) Encounter with Grunewald. Currents in theology and mission 31(1): 5-14.

  • Hauser A (1965) Mannerism. The crisis of the renaissance and the origin of modern art. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

  • Hayum A (1989) The Isenheim alterpiece. God’s medicine and the painter’s vision. New York: Princeton University Press.

  • Hefner P (1989) The evolution of the created co-creator. In Peters T (ed) Cosmos as creation. Science and theology in consonance. Nashville: Abingdon.

  • Hefner P (1993) The human factor. Evolution, culture, and religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

  • Hefner P (1996) Theological perspectives on morality and human evolution. In Richardson W and Wildman W (eds) An evolving dialogue. Theological and scientific perspectives on evolution. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.

  • Howell B (2013) In the eyes of God. A metaphorical approach to biblical anthropomorphic language. Cambridge: Pickwick Publications.

  • Howes G (2007) The art of the sacred. An introduction to the aesthetics of art and belief. London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Janco M (1969) Dada créateur. In Verkauf W (ed) Dada, monographie d’un mouvement, Teufen: A. Niggli.

  • Joas H (2009) The religious situation in the USA. In Wiegandt K and Joas H (eds) Secularization and the world religions. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

  • Koestlé-Cate J (2016) Art and the church. A fractious embrace. Ecclesiastical encounters with contemporary art. London: Routledge.

  • Korte A-M (2014) Blasphemous feminist art. Incarnate politics of identity in postsecular perspective. In Braidotti R, Blaagaard B, Graauw T, Midden E, and Graauw T de (eds) Transformations of religion in the public sphere. New York: Palgrave/MacMillen, pp. 228-248.

  • Kuspit D (2005) The end of art. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Kuenzli R (1979) The Semiotics of Dada Poetry. In Foster S and Kuenzli R (eds) Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt, Iowa City: The University of Iowa, pp. 52-70.

  • Lewis A (2015) Child of Light. Stories Behind the Stories. Ubi.com, http://blog.ubi.com/child-light-stories-behind-stories [accessed 11-05-19].

  • Mann Ph (1987) Hugo Ball. An Intellectual Biography. London: Institute of Germanic Studies.

  • Martland T (1981) Religion as art. An interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Mellinkoff R (1988) The devil at Isenheim. Reflections of popular belief in Grünewald’s alterpiece. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Middleton J (2005) The liberating image. The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

  • Molendijk A (1999) In defence of pragmatism. In Platvoet J and Molendijk A (eds) The pragmatics of defining religion. Contexts, concepts, and contests. Leiden: Brill, pp. 3-22.

  • Morris P (2014) The end of multiculturalism? Religion, sovereignty and the nation state. In Mansouri F and B’béri B de (eds) Global perspectives on the politics of multiculturalism in the 21st century. London: Routledge.

  • Nicholis B (1979) Contextualization a theology of gospel and culture. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

  • Noguez D (2015) Lenin dada. Essay, translated and edited by Straumann P and Morgenthaler J. Zürich: Limmat Verlag.

  • Otto R (1917) Das Heilige. München: C. H. Beck.

  • Paine C (2013) Religious objects in museums. Private lives and public duties. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Prodan S (2014) Michelangelo’s Christian mysticism. Spirituality, poetry, and art in 16th century Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Robinson D (2016) Understanding the ‘Imago Dei’. The thought of Barth, von Balthasar and Moltmann. London: Routledge.

  • Rubin W (1969) Dada and surrealist art, London: Abrams.

  • Sassower R and Cicotello L (2000) The golden Avant-garde. Idolatry, commercialism, and art. London: University Press of Virginia.

  • Sauerländer W (2011) Der Katholische Rubens. Heilige und Märtyrer. Münich: C.H. Beck.

  • Sedlmayr H (2017) Art in crisis. The lost center. Milton: Taylor and Francis.

  • Siedell D (2015) Who’s afraid of modern art? Essays on modern art and theology in conversation. Eugene: Cascade Books, pp. 44-65.

  • Simmons J (2016) Museums. A history. Lanham: Rownman & Littlefield.

  • Stakemeier K and Vishmidt M (2016) Reproducing autonomy. Work, money, crisis, and contemporary art. Berlin: Mute Books.

  • Steinman G (2015) Child of Light. Poetry in Motion. Ubi.com, http://blog.ubi.com/child-light-poetry-motion [accessed 11-05-19].

  • Stock W-M (2012) Denkumsturz. Hugo Ball. Eine intellektuelle Biographie, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.

  • Streib H (2007) Religious Praxis—de-institutionalized. Theoretical and empirical considerations. In idem (ed) Religion inside and outside traditional institutions. Leiden: Brill.

  • Usselmann N (2018) A sacred look. Becoming cultural mystics. Theology of popular culture. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

  • Wacker B, ed (1996) Dionysius DADA Areopagita. Hugo Ball und die Kritik der Moderne. Paderborn: Schöningh.

  • White E (1998) The Magic Bishop. Hugo Ball, Dada Poet. Columbia: Camden House.

  • Zehetner C (2000) Hugo Ball. Portrait einer Philosophie. Vienna: Turia und Kant (2000).


Journal + Issues