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Ena Heller

The Biblical in American Art and Culture

Ena Heller, Executive Director, Museum of Biblical Art


The relationship between art and the Bible in the United States sketches a landscape that is quite different from that of literature, cultural politics, or history. An overview of specifically American contributions to the history of art reveals the fact that religion in general, and the religions of the Bible, in particular, play a rather minor role. After all, the singular contribution of American art is not - and most likely will never be - in the field of religious art per se. Yet if we focus only on direct influence or subject matter to define the biblical in American art we miss a great deal. It is in the area of the indirect or implied quotes, and of reinterpretation and appropriation, that the legacy of the Bible penetrates and defines American art in a very specific way. This presentation will look at those not-so-obvious influences, and in the process will attempt to expand and diversify the very definition of the “biblical” in art and visual culture. Biblical elements will be discussed, among others, in the landscapes of Thomas Cole and Depression-era genre scenes of John Steuart Curry; in the works of the Harlem Renaissance artists; and in popular and visual culture.


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