Lexi Eikelboom & David Newheiser, Australian Catholic University

Religious Ritual as a Lens for Understanding Art

What if spiritual practices and secular art have a lot in common?
What if art making could help people better understand religious traditions?
What if the spiritual significance of secular art isn’t dependent on the beliefs of those engaging with it?

Grant Title
Spiritual Understanding in a Secular Age: Engaging Art as Religious Ritual. Worldwide
Legal Organization
Australian Catholic University
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 July 2021
End Date: 31 December 2023
Grant Amount

For centuries, rituals and art have both been central to the spiritual life of a religious  community. Throughout the world and in every system of belief, artists have created art  for religious and ritual purposes. However, in our increasingly secularized society, there  is a widening gap between secular art and religious contexts.  

Consider, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” a late 15th-century mural  painting. The content is overtly religious: Christ initiating the ritual of communion before  his impending crucifixion. But what of Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” series created  in the late 1980s that has advertising logos superimposed on images of Da Vinci’s  acclaimed work? Did Warhol transform a religious work of art into something secular or  even profane? Or should the revelation of Warhol’s secret religious life after his death  affect how we experience the series? Among his last works, do they reflect Warhol’s  “spiritual personality,” as one expert has argued?

What makes art a spiritual experience?

Lexi Eikelboom, D. Phil. and David Newheiser, Ph.D. from the Australian Catholic  University, think that, as interesting as these questions are, another question is worth  considering, namely, one about the structural similarities between religious rituals and  artmaking more generally. Moreover, both appear to be active, purposeful ways of  seeking self-transcendence and the unknown. Do these similarities suggest that we  might be able to understand the distinctive spiritual significance of art, not in terms of its  content, but in terms of its motions and structures? 

Based on studies in experimental psychology showing that ritual practices produce  similar cognitive effects regardless of whether they’re performed in a religious or a non religious setting, experimental psychologists Miguel Farias, Ph.D. and Valerie van  Mulukom, Ph.D. from the University of Coventry joined the project to test whether  engagement with art might also produce these cognitive effects.

Joining Science & Humanities

With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Eikelboom is testing a hypothesis: that the  study of ritual from both scientific and humanities disciplines can illuminate how art  works as a kind of embodied understanding with spiritual significance. Various scholars  have convincingly argued that art without religious content may have religious  significance. Their project, however, hopes to support this claim empirically by  identifying concrete processes by which secular art may contribute to spiritual  understanding.

Art practices may contribute to spiritual cognition even without propositional belief.
Lexi Eikelboom

To achieve that goal, the team has designed a highly original research process. Using  ritual as a lens, they have been exploring the spiritual significance of art with a fresh  perspective and new methods. In light of research showing that cognition is not only  internal and brain-centered but also embedded, embodied, enacted, and extended, the  team is studying how art practices may contribute to spiritual cognition even without  propositional beliefs.  

On the scientific side, Farias and van Mulukom are studying the effects of an art  performance on an audience, measuring, specifically, feelings of self-transcendence.  On the humanities side, Eikelboom and Newheiser assembled a group of scholars to  identify knowledge processes involved in art-making through dialogue with practicing  artists brought together by the local fresco artist Sarah Tomasetti. In this way the project  takes into consideration both empirical measurement and irreducible complexity, as well  as both makers and receivers of art.

Frameworks for Inquiry

People today often think of rituals as nearly mind-numbing repetition. Eikelboom,  however, has a less restrictive view. Like the scaffolding of a building, she says, rituals  can be a supportive framework “to create openness and being receptive to whatever  might come” – including the experience of divine presence. 

“There’s a way in which the scaffold enables rituals to change over time,” Eikelboom,  continues. “In different times and places, they come to look different. And something  similar happens in art practice where there are scaffolds that people learn through  repetition in their bodies for how to make certain kinds of images. And then they also  are open to the changes that process produces in their artmaking.” 

Using tools developed in religious studies and experimental psychology, this 18-month  project has three stages: 

  1. An experiment measuring the effects of exposure to a dance performance on  feelings of transcendence 
  2. Discussions with visual and movement artists about their practices to identify  points of comparison with religious rituals 
  3. Bringing scientists and humanities scholars together to discuss approaches to  the study of ritual and possible applications to the study of art practice. 
There's also a way in which theology is done through rituals.
David Newheiser

The overall objective is to understand the spiritual significance of art, using ritual as a  means to that end. 

“Theology can happen in different ways through different kinds of modes of inquiry,”  says Newheiser. “We think about it as something that’s done through research, thinking,  and reflection. But there’s also a way in which theology is done through rituals. We’re  interrogating that parallel to try to understand whether there’s spiritual and theological  significance to art as its own kind of practice — a practice that’s not reducible to religion  or a replacement for religion but has spiritual significance that might be like that which  happens through the embodied action of religious rituals.”

Bridging Divides

As a never-before-conducted exploration, the research team hopes their project can  expand religion’s understanding of secular art. Even more broadly, they hope to create  better understanding between people who identify as religious and those who don’t.  

“By empirically supporting the claim that secular art produces spiritual understanding,  we hope this project will help religious people engage art as a potential source of  spiritual understanding even when the art is without religious thematic content,”  Eikelboom concludes. “Likewise, the project intends to encourage people who are not  religious to see religious traditions as offering conceptual resources that may clarify the  significance of practices that aren’t explicitly religious.”


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