In The Sacred GazeDavid Morgan examines the visual culture of religion as it has been used historically and theorizes how we might benefit from its study. He works primarily with static visual media (paintings, drawings, etc.) but his insights would apply to dynamic ones as well. Vision is more than just seeing; it is a way of viewing something that includes all the cultural baggage (tools, assumptions, ideals, etc.) present in the viewer, the artifact, and the setting and rules that govern their relationship. A “Sacred Gaze”, then, is the manner in which a way of seeing invests an image, a viewer, or an act of viewing with spiritual significance.
Humans are visual creatures. Therefore it is no surprise that visual culture has played a large role in human history in shaping beliefs, attitudes, and nations. Although the whole of reality cannot be conveyed in a single text—a song, movie, or piece of art—visual culture remains persuasive because we want to believe it represents true reality. Therefore humans have historically used images in pamphlets (to convince people to act a certain way), in monuments or money (to remind us of our national identity or history), and of course in religious artwork (to argue for a certain deity, worldview, etc.).
Images are also powerful because they seem to give us a window into the invisible. “Visibility is often a kind of condescension of the transcendent to the threshold of human experience. The image mediates the viewer and the unseen, both revealing and concealing” (48). This allows for a more transformative experience since it situates us at the boundary of the natural and supernatural. Religious imagery in particular plays a variety of roles; they order our world temporally and spatially, imagine community, help us communicate with the divine or transcendent, influence thought and behavior, and displace rival images and ideologies (55).
There is an element of trust with images. Morgan describes it as having a covenant with them. For example, with a tourist photo, it is assumed that the person was there, and you were not; with an advertisement, it is assumed the product would make one’s life better. Morgan lists several criteria (both external and internal to the image) that describe the covenant a viewer has with an image: communal (this image is “true” for the whole group), orthodox (ideologically correct), authoritarian (valid), open (unbiased engagement with the image will be repaid in some manner), mimetic (familiar), allegorical (symbolic representation), exemplary (ideal), expressivist (essence, not accident), deconstructive (self-critically aware). These covenants operate as guarantees (much like the MPAA’s film ratings) or as a key to understanding a map: depending on the covenant invoked for an image, interpretations may vary wildly (107).
Images are powerful, and religions have used them to suppress, colonize, and “enlighten” native peoples much as children are disciplined or taught. “Idolatry represents blindness of the nonbeliever or child…Iconoclasm enacts his or her liberation” (125). Morgan traces the history of the visual culture of Christian missions and indigenous responses to evangelism, but notes that his framework need not be limited to Christianity. He also discusses the role of images in promoting the ideology of the perfect woman and man (according to 18, 19, and 20th century North American evangelicals). Finally he distinguishes between how images were used to cultivate feelings of Nationalism (installing the flag as a cult-like object to secure a nation’s divinely ordained sovereignty) and Patriotism (dedication to principles on which a nation was founded). Nationalism sacralizes the flag, bible, or cross for use in coercive campaigns.