The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity

The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity

by David Morgan

ISBN: 9780520286955

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Christian Books & Bibles/History, Arts & Photography/Religious, Religion & Spirituality

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Protestants and Catholics have long been obsessed with their origins. There is something powerful about claiming that one's faith descends directly from the life of Jesus. Holding to the truth thus means tracing one's practices and beliefs to the true beginning. Protestants have commonly imagined that their faith is grounded in an epochal return to Christianity's genesis after a long interlude of wandering and corruption. Roman Catholics have maintained that they never lost contact with the apostolic age, and have therefore preserved the church that Jesus founded, and then entrusted to Peter. The issue for both parties has been authority, or, in a more modern term, authenticity, though each has posed and answered the question of authority differently.

The Catholic tradition has been defined in many ways by asking who spoke for God, while Protestants from the outset focused instead on asking by what means God spoke. The Catholic answer is that the church fathers, the councils, and the continuous chain of popes speak as the united authority of the church. But that glosses over an ongoing conflict within the Catholic tradition that contributed importantly to the Reformation itself: a dominant strain of thought and practice asserts that authority resides in fathers and councils, yes, but that the preeminent servant of God, the vicar of Christ, remains the pope, who is invested with power by unbroken apostolic succession. The pope as the final authority on earth is infallible, as a nineteenth-century promulgation officially established. The Protestant tradition, by contrast, asserted that God spoke for himself, once and for all, in scripture, his Holy Word, which must be the unquestioned authority for all matters of faith. To be sure, this overlooks very rancorous, sometimes bloody dissent among Protestants regarding the nature and authority of revelation: is it limited to the closed canon of the Bible or is it supplemented by prophetic inspiration, charismatic leadership, spiritual manifestation, or new revelatory writings?

Authority is force invested in a social mechanism for doing work. The sort of work that is performed depends on the mechanism and its purpose. Authority means that the individual or group or institution executing it compels obedience — because those subject to authority recognize the obligation to obedience or because they fear the consequences of disobedience, or both. They may also believe that the authority has it right. Authority organizes and maintains social configurations that obtain a kind of second-nature when their utility or the threat of punishment keeps them in place. Constancy breeds familiarity, which becomes an abiding sense of everyday life or normalcy. We learn something very important about Catholicism and Protestantism when we grasp how each of them understands religious authority to operate in human life. The major stream of Protestant thought and ecclesial practice insists that God calls the soul through the medium of scripture. A premium has therefore often been placed by Protestants on biblical literacy. Catholicism has long taught that God has established an apparatus for disseminating divine will and influence in the world. God operates through an elaborate bureaucracy of intermediaries that distribute divine agency. Emphasis has therefore commonly been placed on reverence for the institution and recognition of its authority and the propriety of obedience.

This difference plays out significantly in what sociologists call organizational dynamics. When Catholics say the word "church," they usually mean something different than the Protestant utterance of the word. Catholics often have in mind a vast and holy apparatus descending from heaven to earth and from the ancient world to the present. There have been and will be bad priests, heretical teachers, and power-hungry prelates, but the church abides because it is the way that God works in the world. Protestants may think more of God's people, who stretch from heroic beginnings through the dim present to the glorious future. If Catholics look upward and backward to see the church, Protestants often look ahead for the kingdom to come, pressed there by the intrepid example of the past and nagging uncertainty about the present. What this means for the material cultures of each tradition and the ways they practice their religion will occupy our attention here.

Of course, as soon as one accents the importance of obedience for Catholics, a host of qualifications come to mind. One thinks, for instance, of Brazilian and Haitian Catholicism, in which a substantial intermixture of spiritualist and African traditions challenges any notion of submission to official dogmatic purity. Or of American and European Catholics and their widespread disregard for church strictures on birth control, divorce, and church attendance. Obedience as ethos means neither purity of doctrine nor blank compliance with authority. As a marker of the faith, obedience has come to mean recognition of the institution at key ritual moments such as baptism, marriage, and death. And it means a history of reliance on its deeper sacred economies, which describe what Catholics do in everyday life to achieve comfort, health, and the favors of a merciful heaven.

Nor should we imagine that Protestant and Catholic are internally consistent or neatly distinguished from one another. There are Protestants who are virtually Catholic in their sense of tradition, liturgy, and sacramentality; and there are Catholics who are deeply Protestant in their sense of liberty of conscience and suspicion of institutions and clerical authority. Moreover, there is more than one version of each. Roman Catholicism is certainly the dominant and largest tradition of Catholicism, but is joined today by other versions. And the lines are even blurrier when we consider the Eastern Catholic Churches that profess unity with the doctrines of Rome, but do not practice the Latin rite. Instead, they use liturgies drawn from Orthodox traditions, allow their priests to marry, and give an important place to icons like the one reproduced in figure 1, whose style is clearly Russian Orthodox. But I purchased it from a Ukrainian Catholic iconographer in Lviv, where a group of Catholic and Orthodox Christians were actively seeking to reestablish icons in churches in the 1990s, after nearly a half-century of Soviet rule during which icons had been banned. Icons play no formal role in the Latin rite, but they are vital for Eastern Catholic devotion and worship. If we are to recognize the breadth of Catholicism, we need to realize that its visual pieties are even larger than the familiar medieval altarpieces and Renaissance church frescoes that have done so much to shape the Western Christian imaginary. Although the focus of this book will be on the Western heritage, we will not be confined geographically to Europe or North America.

This degree of latitude in defining Catholicism is important to bear in mind since it will help us to avoid essentializing it, and, by extension, the even more fractious tradition of Protestantism. Neither Protestantism nor Catholicism consist of a single, timeless essence. There is no pure "Protestantism" or "Catholicism." We can speak of Protestants and Catholics, but we are always speaking in generalizations, not single, irreducible principles. In each tradition, believers are shaped by history and by enduring loyalties expressed in artifacts and symbols that they may not clearly understand but that they find nevertheless important to enforce by forms of association, ritual utterances, and practices as varied as dressing, eating, praying, worshipping, marrying, and rearing children. As we shall see, Catholics and Protestants have relied on one another to define their own claims to authority. My aim in this chapter and the next is to examine their respective characteristics, follow them individually and interactively over the course of several centuries, and to consider the consequences of their various, differing sensibilities about word, image, revelation, body, and authority.


The shape of the holy has preoccupied the Catholic tradition, as the record of its earliest documents attests. Replicating pre-Christian Roman society, early Catholicism structured authority as a vertical hierarchy of offices and as an unbroken temporal chain. A late second-century pope, Saint Zephyrinus, rehearsed the hierarchy: "The Apostles were made preachers of the Gospel to us by the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent by God." When the apostles made converts, "they appointed bishops and deacons." Appeals to the authority of Peter grow in the record over the next centuries as the pontiffs of the apostolic see asserted their primacy among bishops. They did so by citing Peter's martyrdom in Rome and Christ's words to Peter, interpreted as investing in him foundational authority over the church: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 16: 18–19). In 431 the Council of Ephesus proclaimed: "It has been known to all generations that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith, the foundation stone of the Catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that the power of binding and loosing sins was given to him, who up to this moment and always lives in his successors, and judges." From Peter to each successor is invested the power of the office to make decisions, to appoint bishops, to excommunicate, to rule the hierarchy from the pontiff 's office to the parish priest and the religious in monasteries. Obedience is a key virtue in this vertical organization of power. Material continuity functions as an analog both of apostolic succession and of the hierarchy and chain that organize the institution and its passage through time. According to tradition, Rome is where Peter died and where the bishops of Rome took his place at the head of the universal or Catholic church. The many martyrs buried in Rome yielded relics and cults centered there; St. Peter's Basilica, to take the most prominent example, was erected over the tomb of Peter. The growth of other churches, shrines, and relics made the city an important pilgrimage destination.

Of course, Catholicism is more than its formal structure of authority. It is also popular devotional practice, some of which operates far beyond the arc of papal authority and official recognition. Yet folk saints like Santa Muerte and unauthorized apparitions such as Our Lady of Medjugorje remain similar to official piety inasmuch as they offer sensory access to the power of a saint, through such means as pilgrimage and vow. Their very popularity serves to underscore the urgency of asserting control over tradition by means of official review and recognition by the hierarchy as the unrivaled avenue of authority, even if, in fact, the conduits of authority are far greater and more varied than the magisterium would like to allow. It is critical to understand that the engines that drive a great deal of Catholic piety are not located in the official rules of the church, but in the practices of the laity, where rules meet the realities of everyday life. Our Lady and the other saints have repeatedly appeared to peasants and children, in the distant backlands of local parishes and mountainsides. The response of shepherds, artisans, and townsfolk to such manifestations has shaped the holy at the level of everyday life. The hierarchy takes note only when hundreds and thousands of lay devotees make pilgrimages and recognize in the apparitions and deeds of heavenly visitors the work of the divine. The pattern is familiar: power invested in the ironclad bureaucracy responds to the charismatic power of pilgrims in the grain field, orchard, or desert. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe models this process (see figure 2): Our Lady reveals herself to a peasant, Juan Diego, clothed in the flesh and costume of indigenous peoples, and the peasant is charged to bear the revelation to the archbishop of nearby Mexico City, and thereby to the official church. Once the cult is established by popular response, the church embraces it, steers it, and recognizes in it the powerful relationship binding the divine to the church and to the faithful. In the bronze group in figure 2, erected at the site of the original revelation on the Hill of Tepeyac — said to be an ancient site sacred to the Aztec deity, Tonantzin, a mother goddess — the fault lines are smoothed over, and the potential menace of a grassroots movement is successfully grafted onto the tradition. A long line of indigenous peoples submissively offer gifts, themselves, and their devotion to Mary, the mother of the Christian God. And yet Our Lady, enfleshed in brown skin and speaking in Nuhuatl, not Spanish, remains a potential icon of resistance and protest, no less than a symbol for appropriation by Mexican national military or the state. She is a site for the contestation of power, and that keeps her alive and relevant to the lives of many.

The Catholic tradition maintains that it descends from a sacred origin and sustains the sacred in its performance of duties entrusted to its many offices and agents by virtue of their place in the hierarchy, as anchored in time to the chain of papal successors. In this regard, the shape of the holy for Catholicism is the configuration of authority in these institutional and temporal forms. Continuity is a premium. To change is to risk loss of connection with the past, which remains the font of authority and the material source of holiness. Moreover, a secure origin acts as an anchor for subsequent history and allows succeeding authorities to posit and curate a stable essence called "Catholicism." Of course this essence is in actuality a construction formed by time and the exertion of institutional power, and its maintenance is deeply dependent on the places and things that clothe the hierarchy of priests and prelates as the material culture of authority and put devotees in visceral connection to the majesty of the church. Catholic material culture is the means for accessing the power of the sacred in ecclesiastic ritual and in devotional life. Images, relics, altars, liturgical objects, vestments, rosaries, scapulars, missals, architectural structures — all of these come from somewhere to deliver their power. They come, for one, from the past and are relied upon to maintain a connection to it. Further, these material forms come with the blessing and consecration of the hierarchy — the priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, or pope. Finally, the believer's officially endorsed access to the holy comes through material interaction with these artifacts. Using them, honoring them, is an interface with the celestial hierarchy that ends in God himself. Levels of intercession are not experienced as distance from the divine, but as the way in which the divine draws near to the soul. A good deal of Protestant theology and church practice rejected this conception, coding all forms of the Catholic hierarchy as confusions with its apex, and therefore as idolatrous.

At the heart of Catholic and Protestant difference was an abiding disagreement over authority as the shape of the holy. Protestants have typically believed they have authority in the Word of God, the Bible, which they can access independently of clergy and hierarchy. Catholic laity and even many religious in monastic settings have generally not relied on reading the Bible, which Protestants have considered indispensable, but have looked instead to the power of spiritual exercises, liturgy, Eucharist, penance, and devotion to saints to bring them to the source of the sacred. The power of the church is delivered through the things believers do, such as pilgrimage and penance, vows, and practices of reparation; the practices of belief; the objects, such as the rosary, they use to pray; and the images they use to pledge, promise, praise, and thank the saints who intercede for them and bestow favors by virtue of their friendship with God. Devotion to the saints, to Mary, and to Jesus is performed before images or with images in mind as a way of focusing attention and embodying attachment and dedication. To bow or genuflect, to kneel or flagellate oneself before an image is to generate a range and intensity of emotions that knit the devotee to the object of devotion. The body serves as a powerful matrix for the experience of penance, and visualization has long been an important means among Catholics for staging encounter with the sacred. But by "performed" and "staging" I do not mean to imply a lack of sincerity or a merely external exhibition of devotion. I want to stress the central role of the active, performative body in Catholic practice as part of the materiality of the holy in this tradition.

Excerpted from "The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity" by David Morgan. Copyright © 2015 by David Morgan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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