Sally Promey (Yale University), "Religion in Plain View: The Public Aesthetics of American Belief"

August 12, 2015
Thursday, October 22, 2015 - 4:30pm
165 Thompson Library
Sally Promey

Professor Sally Promey will deliver the second talk in the 2015-2016 University Lectures on Religion series. She is Deputy Director and Professor of Religion and Visual Culture in the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale Divinity School and Professor of American Studies at Yale University. Her lecture, like all others in the Center for the Study of Religion-sponsored series, is free and open to all. There will be a brief question-and-answer session and a reception following the lecture.


In the United States the public display of religion is firmly lodged between the establishment and free exercise clauses of the Constitution’s First Amendment. Public display of this sort is something many people do and see. It is a constitutive, and frequently contested, dimension of American social practice and visual culture. As legal scholar Leonard W. Levy points out, constitutional disestablishment notwithstanding, “religion saturates American public life.” I want to materially elaborate his assertion, to show how religion permeates the American public landscape too. In the book I am currently writing, I analyze the contexts and attributes of this visible saturation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

I center attention on religion’s visual and material embodiments and enactments in the spaces we inhabit and traverse in the usual conduct of our daily routines. I have in mind religious display of a particular, largely public, sort: display that is set out for generalized others to see in the course of fairly ordinary, fairly everyday circumambulations of common spaces, spaces to which the designers and practitioners of display assume that most everyone has, or can have, easy visual access. Mine is not a statistical or quantitative study but examines instead material religion’s modes of public address, the ways religion looks and works in public space. I am speaking, in other words, about religion in plain view.


Sally M. Promey is Professor of American Studies and Professor of Religious Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University; and Professor of Religion and Visual Culture and Deputy Director in the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. She is also founding Director of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion, generously supported in its early years by a grant awarded in 2008 from the Henry Luce Foundation. She convenes the Sensory Cultures of Religion Research Group at Yale. Prior to arriving in New Haven in 2007, she was chair and professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, where she taught for fifteen years. Her scholarship explores relations among visual/material/sensory cultures and religions in the United States from the colonial period through the present. Current book projects include volumes titled “Religion in Plain View: The Public Aesthetics of American Belief” (about which she speaks today) and “Written on the Heart: Sensory Cultures, Material Practices, and American Christianities.” Most recently, she is contributing author to and editor of Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (Yale University Press, 2014); and coeditor, with Leigh Eric Schmidt, of a volume titled American Religious Liberalism  (Indiana University Press, 2012). Among earlier publications, Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library received the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the historical study of religion, and Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism was awarded the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for distinguished scholarship in American art. Recent articles and book chapters include essays titled “Hearts and Stones: Material Transformation and the Stuff of American Christianities”; “Sensory Cultures: Material and Visual Religion Reconsidered” (coauthored with Shira Brisman); “Mirror Images: Framing the Self in Early New England Material Piety”; and “Taste Cultures and the Visual Practice of Liberal Protestantism, 1940–1965.” She first engaged today’s subject of religion’s public display in a volume titled The Visual Culture of American Religions that she coedited with David Morgan (University of California Press, 2001). Professor Promey is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a residential fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, two Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellowships (1993 and 2003) at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers. She serves on the editorial boards of Material Religion and Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture and is editorial advisor to American Art.

For the full list of speakers in the 2015-2016 University Lectures on Religion series, please visit