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Religion in Cultural Imaginary. The Book

The members of the Imaginaries Network have just published their research. Here you can find the Table of Contents and the paper abstracts:

ImaginariesReligion in Cultural Imaginary. Explorations in Visual und Material Practices

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati (ed.), Nomos: Baden-Baden, 2015.



Religion in Cultural Imaginary: Setting the Scene

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati

The Construction of the “Alien” in the Social Imaginary of 16th Century Germany: The Woman of Endor from Religious Mediator to Witch

Ann Jeffers View abstract

This paper will look at the role of imaginary in the production of woodcuts in Bibles from the time of the Reformation. I will attempt to analyse the concept of the ‘imaginary’ in a culturally specific example: that of the illustration of the story retold in 1Samuel 28:3-25. I am interested in the interplay of how this story has been read and understood, and how it has been used (distorted?) in the 16th century in order to give ideological credence to witch-hunts. The story has been re-imagined using both the visual trappings of late Medieval ‘witches’ (‘witchart’), and the theological construction of witchcraft, as exemplified by the Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of the Witches’). I will illustrate the discontinuity in the history of the illustrations of the Woman of Endor and hope to demonstrate that the cultural imagination of Bible illustrators is both political and ideological/theological. Ricoeur’s concept of the ideological imaginary will constitute the framework to my contribution please replace with: Benedict Anderson’s concept of Imagined Communities will constitute the methodological framework to my contribution.

Imagining a Nation: The Civil-Religious Role of Female State Personifications

Anna-Katharina Höpflinger View abstract

In my contribution I will look at the Swiss state personification of Helvetia as an example of the construction of collective identity through religious imaginary.

I will approach selected examples with a (neo)semantic method and analyze them regarding their semantics, syntax and pragmatics(Höpflinger2011) with a special focus on their relationship to religious depictions.

Helvetia is the personification of an imagined political community and is closely connected with boundary processes constructing otherness.

On a semantic and pragmatic level, Helvetia first and foremost, takes on a socio-political role. She serves as a marker for national identity and gives orientation in difficult normative and political contexts (e.g. in wars). This allegory is also connected with a sort of secular worship that has some parallels, especially regarding its function, with religious practices.

On a syntactic level Helvetia is strongly connected with the depiction of religious figures, specifically the Christian Mary as well as ancient goddesses–or at least romantic reconstructions of those goddesses–such as Athena/Minerva,Demeter/Ceres and even Aphrodite/Venus. In her representation as well as in her function, esp in the 19th and early 20th century, Helvetia adopts elements of a transcendental female protector of the community (e.g. as a symbolic military leader or as the mother of an imagined community).

Western Imaginaries between Fascination, Colonial Construction and Appropriation: The Lore of a Mysterious India, of the Goddess Kali and of her Evil Devotees

Paola von Wyss-Giacosa View abstract

The fantastic adventures invented by Emilio Salgari (1862-1911), by far the most successful author of popular fiction in late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy, represent a gripping experience of armchair travel shared by a vast majority of Italians for several decades. Salgari exerted great influence on the imagery and the imagination of entire generations. Given the way in which he worked and his position within a publishing network, his books were both a product of and driving force behind a specific literary genre of the entertainment industry. As a melting pot and catalyst of idées and images reçues, his novels may be studied as a reflection of the collective ideas and expectations of his publishers and readers, of their cultural imaginary. I define this term as the verbal and visual representations that are received and elaborated, expressed, perpetuated and varied in a set of shared notions, stories and images – a common system of reference for producers and recipients, which is both lasting and flexible and in which tradition and innovation are tied together.

My paper focuses on Emilio Salgari’s I misteri della jungla nera. More specifically, I present a detailed analysis of individual narrative and visual elements concerning one key motif in the novel, the representation of Kali and of the Thugs: The lore of a mysterious India, threatening and cruel, but all the same fascinating and tempting, found a compelling and influential expression in the image of the “bloodthirsty” goddess and of her devotees. More generally, thus, my interest concerns the Western appropriation of an Indian religious iconography and the construction of an Indian narrative in popular literature, their impact on individual and collective memory and imagination, and not least the implications and consequences of such an imaginary.

Apocalyptic Imaginaries: Contrasting Approaches to Revelation

Natasha O’Hear View abstract

This paper seeks to use the Apocalypse, the last book in the Bible, as a lens through which to examine the artistic expressions of contrasting twentieth-century cultural imaginaries.Far from being a relic of an earlier, more uniformly religious age, the appeal and impact of the Apocalypse has, if anything, grown in the last century. Perhaps in response to the often dramatic and tragic events of the twentieth century, such as WW1 and WW2, as well other occurrence of genocide and more recently of the growth of terrorism, both the biblical book and the term apocalypse are, on the whole, now connected with mindless destruction, suffering and the end of the world. It has evolved into a convenient and easily understood label or metaphor for chaotic or mysterious events and accordingly has often been appropriated by authors, journalists, film-makers, musicians and cartoonists. As a result, there is a general, tacitly understood, cultural understanding of the term, which the first half of this paper will address. However, within this dominant popular understanding of the Apocalypse exist other treatments arising from different contexts or cultural imaginaries. What is distinctive about such interpretations is the fact that they are more deeply rooted in the text of the Apocalypse itself, rather than just consisting of more generalised references to disaster. Thus these interpretations challenge (to different degrees) the dominant, one might say, superficial, understanding of the Apocalypse that exists in our society today. The second half of this paper will examine three such examples, drawn from the worlds of film, music and popular literature. They are Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, The Reverend Gary Davis’ song Twelve Gates to the City and Jenkins and Lahaye’sLeft Behind Series. I am particularly interested in the relationship between our dominant Western culture and more marginal or theologically sophisticated cultural imaginaries and the differing interpretations of the Apocalypse that these contrasts produce.

Mobilizing Biblical Imaginary in Comics: Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis

Davide Zordan View abstract

This chapter analyses The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, a very successful comic book by Robert Crumb published in the US in October 2009. The Book of Genesis is a textually literal adaptation of the biblical Book of Genesis with drawings by Robert Crumb, one of the most eminent and controversial contemporary American illustrators. In my analysis, I explore the question of what happens to religious images and symbols when they become a building element of a more widespread visual culture. After a brief discussion of the key elements and the framework used for this study, religion, comics, and imaginary, the text will provide a close analysis of the visual and narrative content of Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated considering in particular the specific experiences of reading it may induce.

Images Traveling through Time and Media: De- and Reconstruction of the Holy Family in Contemporary Independent Cinema

Natalie Fritz View abstract

Although times have changed, family as a specific but ideal form of human coexistence is ubiquitous in contemporary cinema. It is interesting that many of today’s media representations and interpretations of family reflect on the notion of an “ideal” family and are based on representations of the Christian motif of the Holy Family dated mainly between the late 15th and early 17th century. Even if this notion of the ideal family does not necessarily reflect real life experiences, it remains present in filmic adaptions and in the recipient’s mind as a contrast to real life and an idealized image of how family life could or ought to be. Many of contemporary filmic interpretations of the family do not focus on harmony or affection but reflect on the ambivalence and fragility of this social construct. Therefore, a critical reflection of actual and traditional family constellations including gender roles and generation conflicts is necessary to uncover both how the powerful religious-cultural cultural conception of the Holy Family still informs our perception of what family is and how this image is being drawn upon by new mass media.

Using selected scenes of Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums (USA 2001) this paper will show how cinematic representations re- and deconstruct our cultural conceptions of the traditional ideal family by constructing a diachronic, cross-media context that enables to work out transformations and constants during transmission and reception processes.

The Reconstruction of a Jewish Imaginary: Susanne Moguls Documentary Driving Men as an Identifying Practice

Marie-Therese Mäder View abstract

DM 004243 Stage performance Jew

Susan Mogul (*1948), an American filmmaker and performer in films and on stage, is looking back in the documentary Driving Men (66’) on the relationships in her life. She asks herself why none of them were successful. During her car journey she meets Ron at a Bar Mitzwa, a Jewish man and – as it transpires – the man of her dreams. This meeting is located in the middle of a narrative side-path of 16 minutes, in which she thinks about her Jewish roots and asks if a specific Jewish characteristic exists.


To consider the question and meaning of being Jewish, Mogul uses different stylistic means: Interviews, footage of one of her former stage performance, music and photos as inserts. Many scenes contain symbols, topics and practices constructing a field in which “to be Jewish” becomes a kind of a religious imaginary which is shared with the audience through its cinematic representation.

Catholic Iconography, Cultural Memory and Imaginaries: The Sacred Heart in Irish Emigrant Identity

Sean Ryan View abstract

My paper focuses on the use of images of Catholic devotional objects (rosarybeads, Sacred Heart painting) to communicate the identity of the working-class Irish emigrant in the photographic novel I Could Read the Sky (O’Grady & Pyke, 1997). I will focus on how the novel attempts to communicate a collective “cultural memory” of Irish emigrant identity to second or third generation Irish readers of the novel, as well as nuancing stereotypical images of Irish identity already contained in the “cultural imaginaries” of a wider readership. Accordingly, my paper will tease out some of the distinguishing characteristics of the concepts of “cultural memory” and “cultural imaginary” in order to highlight elements of continuity and discontinuity.

Imagining Religion in the Public Space: Religious Reference in an Exhibition of Contemporary Art

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati View abstract

In the last few years, several authors have outlined the relevance of material culture within religious practices and beliefs. This contribution broadens the topic looking at the presence of and reference to religion in the public space with a focus on visual media. The paper pays attention to meanings, contexts and receptions of religious symbolism in exhibitions displayed in museums open to a large public. It focuses on the exhibition “Signs of Life. Ancient Knowledge in Contemporary Art” by the Museum of Art in Lucerne (2010). The museum, as a public institution, demonstrates the relevance of religion within the contemporary art production with a broad, international selection of works. This paper outlines methodological aspects in dealing with the question about meanings, contexts and receptions of religious motifs within this particular social context. The main steps of the analytical process are presented and critically discussed using as an example one selected work: “World of Plenty” by the Finnish artist Tea Mäkipää (2005-2006, digitalprint, 400x2670cm). This photoshop collage, printed on paper, confronts the visitors with a contemporary, utopian vision of a paradise they could explore while sitting on a comfortable chair-bed.

Firstly, the work is analysed with particular attention to the employed digital print technique and the composition of the motifs. Indeed, the electronic collage allows the assemblage of a huge amount of quotations, items, forms and colours. There are re-enacted scenes from European paintings next to images from travel catalogues and other magazines. This monumental work displays explicit references to Christian themes; in the analysis of the religious motifs three levels play a central role: the reference to narratives, the usage of symbols and the references to religious practices and performances. Secondly, “World of Plenty” will be contextualized within the general conception of the exhibition with particular regard for the ‘intertextual’–or more precisely ‘intervisual’ and ‘intermedial’–frame created by the selection of works and their mutual influences: the multi-layered references to religious traditions in past and present in all the exhibits outline their specific relation to religious discourses and reflections. Seen in another context, the religious references of the single works would still be present, but probably perceived as less important.

Since I argue that the intention of the curators and the thematic program of the exhibit have a crucial role in outlining the religious significance of the single works, the third step is dedicated to possible reception processes. Here the spatial collocation of the work in the white cube of the museum and the possible receptions suggested by this mise-en-scène will be considered. Furthermore, I include comments of visitors on cards the public was invited to draw something on after having seen the exhibition. Finally reviews of the exhibition in newspapers are also integrated into the process of interpretation.

“World of Plenty” presents a utopian vision of the otherworld in a secular setting by a device that can be diffused and reproduced on demand, since the digital collage consists basically in electronic data. By employing religious motifs, symbols and by playing with religious practices the work itself and the exhibition as a whole reproduce religion in a secular, public context. This staging of religious images in the museum can be received on different levels, either as a reflection about religion in society and/or as a critical approach to it. The art museum, as a secular public space, engages in a discourse about religion and participates actively in the transmission of religious imagery in culture.

On the theoretical level the contribution deepens the possibility to conceive the cultural imaginary as a dimension that sustain this complex communication process with references to C. Castoriadis, C. Taylor, and J.J. Wundenburger.

The Journey of a Symbol through Western Imaginaries: The Curious Case of the Apple

Stefanie Knauss View abstract

Is an apple an apple, just like “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, as Gertrude Stein says, or should one rather say: “Ceci n’est pas une pomme”, as René Magritte warns on his eponymous painting of, precisely, an apple? One can certainly say that an apple is always much more than simply a piece of fruit. Probably no other fruit has inspired the imagination and creativity more than the apple: throughout the cultural history of the West (and to a degree in the East), it has been used as the material symbol of a vast number of immaterial ideas. In this paper, I will follow the fate of this symbol in order to show the internal dynamics and heterogeneity of the imaginary and how imaginaries influence each other. This will also help to understand how it is possible that the elements of the religious imaginary, with which the apple is connotated, are still present in today’s society, although with shifts in their significance.

To begin, I will map the many meanings of the apple, how they have been transmitted through art, stories, folk customs, and with which imaginaries they are associated. I will then take a look at the use of the apple as a motif in advertising in order to illustrate which of these multiple meanings are still present and understood in contemporary society. I will then take a look at how people react in internet forums to two questions about the symbolic meaning of the apple: Why is Apple, the computer company, called “Apple”? And why do apples appear in the opening sequence and publicity campaign of Desperate Housewives? I will conclude with some thoughts on how the concept of the imaginary can help to understand the remarkable presence of religious symbols and meanings in “secularised” society, and to trace the changes they have undergone.

Towards a Circuit of Technological Imaginaries: A Theoretical Approach

Alexander D. Ornella View abstract

To start thinking about the technological imaginary, I would like to invite the reader to join me in an imaginary journey. Imagine a world without Google, television, internet, or mobile communication technology: life would be different but we would probably still imagine (and enjoy) an environment both the individual and communities could cultivate using tools (or technology) to some extent. But imagine a world without technologies, even the most basic technologies (or what we think of being “basic”) such as household technologies and appliances, heating, hygiene technologies, a world in which we would have to learn how to make fire. For some, this might sound like going back to (a romanticized version of) mother nature, for most of us (including the author of this paper), such a world is unimaginable or – at best – part of a survival training boot camp.

Today, we take basic technologies and techniques such as making fire for granted, yet the very example of making fire shows that technologies, techniques, and discoveries have spurred human (western) imagination for millennia. In Greek mythology, fire is a gift of Prometheus, something he stole from the gods, who taught humans how to use tools, and thus stands at the beginning of human culture. The French philosopher Simone Weil expresses our fascination with this very basic technique millennia later when she reflects on our continuing fascination with Prometheus’ gift and its importance for culture. Her poem Prométhée can be seen as an example of human imagination at work being entangled with the technological: ““Feu créateur, destructoeur, flame artiste! Feu, héritier des lueurs du couchant!” (Simone Weil, “Prométhée”).

Technology in its various forms and manifestations, from very basic invention and discoveries to state-of-the-art science and technology are not simply tools we create to get ‘stuff’ done, but technology exists in and is part of our symbolic universe, of thick and rich socio-cultural, economic, political, and religious practices. Technology provides meaningful ways to relate to, explore, and frame the world around us. How we shape the world around us, however, can both tell us something about our own self-understanding as human being and shapes our self-understanding as embodied beings. In this paper, I work towards creating a framework for analyzing how technological imaginaries are composed, how they work, and how they interact with different spheres. Drawing on Paul du Gay’s et al. Circuit of Culture, I call this framework Circuit of Technological Imaginaries. After a few terminological reflections, I first discuss scientific and technological imaginaries and what they might entail. I then turn to “imaginary designs” to discuss how visions and hopes are often inscribed in the design and development of technologies and discuss the religious aspect that often drives technological development. In a final step, I propose to understand the way the various aspects I have discussed intersect as a circuit composed of the following aspects: the sublime, body, aesthetics, agency, materiality, narrative.

For a graphic representation of the Circuit of Technological Imaginaries and a more detailed explanation, please visit my personal website.


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