Sacred Materialities

Organizer: Caroline Hirasawa (extension 4063; ninzu-dou [at]
Participants: Richard Gardner, Michio Hayashi, Tatsuo Murakami. (FLA, Sophia University)


The goal of this interdisciplinary research unit is to study art, objects, and substances that mediate agency in religious contexts. Scholars of both art and religion are increasingly turning to material culture to identify overlooked information about engagements with the sacred. We will explore the methodological convergence engendered by this mutual interest. From the art history side, Georges Didi-Huberman's analysis of Fra Angelico's The Annunciation in the Monastery of San Marco, for example, takes a "taciturn" image and makes it speak through its use of white, natural light, architectural placement, theology, and metaphysics.

Didi-Huberman's move to revitalize art-historical investigations through this phenomenologically-influenced approach resembles what Bruno Latour attempts to do for the sociological, pointing out unexamined limitations of traditional methodologies and suggesting new paths of inquiry, partly through considering how things "assemble the social." Not only art or objects, but substances convey the sacred in ways that provide a great deal of information for our respective fields. The smoke and scent of candles and incense that pervade halls of worship and permeate the vestments of religious officiants also, eventually, exaggerate the "shadows" of sculpture, blackening lower surfaces and thereby revealing how they were placed and used. Such artificial shadows counter the effects of low-placed candlelight, leaving crystal eyes, semi-precious stones, and gold-leaf as the only reflective surfaces—and contributing to an experience of the immaterial sacred. The same substantial vehicles of turugidakereligious communion that can reverse the highlighting of sculpture may completely obscure a painting, and yet visibility is not essential to sacrality's manifestation, conduction, or symbolism in objects, as Fabio Rambelli's work on Japanese hibutsu has proven. Drawing on the thought of Arjun Appadurai, Michel de Certeau, Alfred Gell, Martin Heidegger, Marcel Mauss, Bruno Latour, Henri Lefebvre, and others, this unit will explore how materiality, a key to understanding the affective possibilities of objects used in ritual environments, has not sufficiently been treated by iconographical, social art historical, and religious-anthropological approaches. Through exchanges between scholars of art and religion, this project will develop a methodological and theoretical framework to address how the form and content of sacred material culture impinge upon each other, and how they impact beholders.