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

Although this phenomenon is arguably concurrent with all of human history, the academic enterprise of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture is by comparison young. It took its initial explicit form in response to the conviction, articulated most forcefully by Paul Tillich in the mid-twentieth century, that in order to understand religion we must engage our “cultural condition.” In its relatively short life the field has witnessed the more widely recognized shifts in the study of religion that had their advent just as Tillich’s own remarkable career was concluding, and the field has since aimed toward more self-conscious engagements with comparison (both within a culture and across cultures) and with history. We recognize the texts and artifacts we study to be both more knowingly pluralistic, and often more intentionally eclectic, than had been assumed. We aim to address the pressure this exerts on conventional rubrics of cultural study such as nation, language, “high art” and – not incidentally –the self-proclaimed provenances of the religions. As a consequence a comparative frame of reference, both within a culture and across cultures, has become essential. This broader compass of cultural practice has also led to a revision of the area’s interests in the history of interpretive theory, to engage not only literary criticism but hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, and aesthetics. The area seeks to be interdisciplinary in its work, so that students pursue sustained work in other areas of study in the Divinity School and in other departments and committees of the University as informed and directed by the area’s emphasis on the acquisition the skills of close, sustained interpretive analysis and broad engagement with issues in the theory of interpretation.

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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