To see or not to see? the presence of religious Imagery in the Protestant household

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The essay focuses on two case studies of seventeenth‐century domestic decoration, at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall and the Butterwalk in Dartmouth, North Devon: both plasterwork ceilings with complex iconography, both dating from the 1630s, and both created by Puritan patrons. It is proposed that due to inherent physical difficulties in the process of viewing, our study of figurative imagery on ceilings requires an interpretive approach which places the visual qualities of the imagery second to the impact of its presence. In short, the meaning of the imagery is less important than its effect. In pursuing this argument, the essay draws from ideas and approaches within the interdisciplinary field of visual studies; specifically, an interest in the physical dynamics of viewing and the mechanics of visual perception, allied with an awareness of the specificity of visual experience according to historical and cultural context. This focus on questions of the visual is allied with anthropological and archaeological approaches focusing on the relationship between art, belief and behaviour. The essay concludes that placing religious imagery on ceilings within the domestic interior allowed Protestant patrons to exploit the power of the visual in the service of reformed faith while minimizing the risk of idolatrous abuse.

Bibliographic note

Hamling, T. (2007), To see or not to see? the presence of religious imagery in the Protestant household. Art History, 30: 170-197. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2007.00537.x


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)170-197
Number of pages28
JournalArt History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2007