Suzanna Ivanic publishes new book on Catholic visual identity

Dr Suzanna Ivanic, Lecturer in the School of History, has recently published Catholica: The Visual Culture of Catholicism with Thames and Hudson. Featuring over 400 colour images, the sumptuous volume investigates the influence of Catholic iconography and ritual items, equipping the reader with a detailed knowledge and method for interpreting Catholic art – and the art it has influenced in turn.

Dr Ivanic’s approach to understanding the material culture of religion is heavily informed by anthropology, placing great emphasis on how religious meaning is created by the religion’s icons, objects and artefacts. “Religion can no longer be thought of in that very nineteenth-century Protestant sense: as being just about internal beliefs, words and texts,” explains Dr Ivanic, reflecting on her approach to analysing religious artefacts. “It is equally about the visual and material context and the things people do with objects in rituals and devotion.”

Though readers may be familiar with Catholic art’s most famous images and icons – such as The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel – Dr Ivanic shows that Catholicism’s visual culture includes objects we might not initially expect. She explains: “It was great to be able to work across all types of visual and material culture with this book, from ‘material texts’ like the lavish Lindisfarne Gospels to bizarre modern-day Catholic trinkets.” One such trinket is a plastic Holy Water bottle in the shape of the Virgin Mary – souvenirs which will be familiar to anybody who has visited the Vatican City in recent decades. “And there are weirder ones that weren’t included,” she adds.

As the reader builds up their knowledge of recurring themes, motifs and practices on the Catholic visual code, it becomes clear that the influence of this culture extends into areas outside of religious art. “We see the enduring impact of Catholic visual culture in many unexpected places today, but perhaps most obviously it pervades fashion,” she explains. “The Met Gala in 2018 featured Katy Perry with gigantic angel wings, Rihanna wearing a heavily embroidered Papal mitre (hat) and Blake Lively in a Versace gown that reflected the exquisite liturgical vestments worn by priests as well as various halos and bejewelled crosses.” She also points out that this influence is even felt in our everyday language and emojis: 👼.

From the first page, Catholica is visually striking, and shows how the findings and subtleties of rigorous academic research can be expressed and presented to wider audiences. “I really wanted to integrate the images and text and make sure that they spoke to each other throughout the book, so there was a lot of back and forth as we fitted the layouts together, took out five words here and added a sentence there!”, says Dr Ivanic, reflecting on the process.

Catholica: The Visual Culture of Catholicism is available now, published by Thames and Hudson.  On Thursday 26 May, Dr Ivanic will be hosting a special book launch with the publishers, and will focus on the process of producing the book and publishing research for wider audiences.