Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture

Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture studies the interactions of the religions with cultural forms and practices, with particular reference to art. It pursues this study utilizing the tools of poetics, aesthetics, and theories of interpretation to understand both the ways that the religions harness the human imagination, and the ways that the human recourse to imaginative expression often – some would say always – engages religion. 



Philip V. Bohlman, Jas' Elsner, Sarah Hammerschlag, Karin KrauseRichard A. Rosengarten, Christopher J. Wild

The Divinity School’s program in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture represents the oldest and longest-standing program of its kind in the country.  Created by Preston Roberts and consolidated under the leadership of Nathan Scott under the title “Theology and Literature,” the program became “Religion and Literature” in the 1960s and retained that name while extending its ambit to include comparative study, literary theory (including hermeneutics and aesthetics), and the boundaries between literature and other aesthetic and critical human endeavors.  Its most recent change in name reflects the appointment of colleagues in art history, and growing interest among faculty and students in that field but also in cinema studies.  Throughout its history the program has always been and remains today resolutely engaged with both other areas of study in the Divinity School and other divisions and departments of the University.  Put prosaically: while the program presses the crucial question of the “and” in the area’s title, it predicates no single formulation of the “and”.

The area is concerned, in courses and examinations, with the historical background of the myriad intersections of religion, literature, and visual culture – a history that reflects both perennial issues in the world’s cultures, and the 20th-century academic discipline – and with the methods and theories that have been developed in exemplary critical and historical studies.  Students are encouraged to take courses in English, Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media Studies, Art History, and other departments of languages and literatures as needed for their research.  Resources of the Divinity School and the University at large also afford extensive possibilities for students to pursue studies that are comparative and cross-cultural.  Over the years, degree candidates in this area have written dissertations on a great variety of topics.  (A constantly updated list of these dissertations may be obtained from members of the area faculty.)

Progress Conference format

The progress (or pre-exam) conference is normally held in the spring quarter of the second year, or the fall of the third year.  In Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture, the progress conference is held with the student's panel of examiners for the qualifying examinations, and will normally include assessment of coursework to date, cogency of the course of study petition, readiness for qualifying examinations, and development of the dissertation project. A report from the advisor and a timeline for the qualifying examinations is submitted to the Dean of Students following the conference. 

Written Examinations

RLVC Examination 1:  Theories of Criticism
RLVC Examination 2: Genres of Literature and Case Studies

Complete Area Overview and Exam Information (pdf)

Selected Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture Courses
This list is a sample of courses offered in this area and is for informational purposes only. For current and upcoming courses, visit
  • Iconoclasm and Animation. Elsner
  • Early Christian Art. Krause
  • Poetry and Theory: Mallarme. Meltzer and Marion.
  • The Other and the “Exotic” in Postwar Jewish Writing. Hammerschlag
  • Derrida's 'Of Grammatology'. Hammerschlag
  • Theories of Art in the Twentieth Century: Historiography, Religion and Crisis. Elsner.
  • Animal Spirituality in the Middle Ages. Robinson
  • Between Vienna and Hamburg: From Deutschland to America: Writing of Art History Between 1900 and 1960. Elsner
  • Tragedy: Theory and Texts. Rosengarten
  • The Veneration of Icons in Byzantium: History, Theory and Practice.  Krause
  • Byzantine Art: Iconography. Krause.
  • Medieval Commentaries on Ecclesiastes. Robinson
  • Novel Comparisons. Rosengarten
  • Victor Hugo. Meltzer
  • Religion and Literature in France 1954-1972. Hammerschlag
  • Subject/Subjectivity. Meltzer
  • Theory and Autobiography. Rosengarten
  • Religion and Literature in France. Hammerschlag
  • History of Criticism and Hermeneutics, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries. Rosengarten
  • Blake's Theology in Poetry and Prints. Rosengarten
  • Baudelaire, Benjamin and Blanchot. Meltzer
Why Chicago?

Sarah Hammerschlag, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature, discusses her path to Swift Hall and the Divinity School's situation in both the University of Chicago campus and the academic study of religion.

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