Cross-Cultural Representations of Religion

by Monika Kopytowska (Volume editor) Artur Gałkowski (Volume editor) Massimo Leone (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection 470 Pages
Series: Łódź Studies in Language, Volume 71


This unique volume focuses on religion and spirituality, along with rituals, practices and symbols, discussed and analysed from a semiotic perspective. It covers both cognitive and social dimensions of religious practices and beliefs, various aspects of spirituality, multiple forms of representation, as well as spheres of religious beliefs and practices. The volume is an outcome of the Signum-Idea-Verbum-Opus project initiated by Umberto Eco’s keynote address during his visit at the University of Łódź in 2015. More theoretical insights and further explorations into contemporary semiosphere can be found in Current Perspectives in Semiotics: Signs, Signification and Communication and Current Perspectives in Semiotics: Texts, Genres and Representations, published by Peter Lang.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Reflections on the Interface of Religion, Culture, and Society: Between the Symbolic and the Embodied (Monika Kopytowska, Massimo Leone and Artur Gałkowski)
  • Part 1 Contextualizing Religion
  • Semiotics of Religion: A Map (Massimo Leone)
  • Proximizing the Sacred: On Symbols, Rituals, and Distance (Monika Kopytowska)
  • Generation Z and Spirituality in the Age of COVID-19: An Emerging New Terrain? (Padmini Banerjee and Myna German)
  • Part 2 Interpreting the Symbolic
  • Transformations of a Religious Symbol and the Problem of Cultural Autocommunication (Małgorzata Jankowska)
  • What Did Jesus Want to Say by Washing His Disciples Feet? (Anna Wierzbicka)
  • Proximizing Speaker Authority in Sermons: The Use of Metaphor and Metonymy by a Kenyan CPG Preacher (Bernard G. Njuguna and Helga Schröder)
  • Sign Language in the Holy Quran. A Semiotic Interpretation of Surat Al-Hujurat (Ibrahim A. El-Hussari)
  • Part 3 Depicting Sanctity
  • An Approach Toward the Signs of the Christian Saints. Cultu(R)al, Anthropological, Linguistic, Artistic, and Social Reflections of the Hagiological Iconography: (Enzo Caffarelli)
  • Saint Veronica and the Inventio of a Gesture (Raffaella Zardoni and Amanda C. Murphy,)
  • Visual-Spatial Signifiers of Sanctity in Selected Paintings by Caravaggio (Kamila Ciepiela)
  • Saints in the Service of Polish Nationalism (Teresa Pac)
  • Part 4 Naming the Sacred
  • A Semiotic Perspective on the Presence of Clergy in Romanian Hodonymy (Oliviu Felecan)
  • The Pragmatics of Geographical Markers in Church Names (Osei Yaw Akoto)
  • Names of Synagogues in Poland: Onomastic Judaica Rooted in Cultural Memory (Artur Gałkowski)
  • Part 5 Representing Identity and Culture
  • Spoken Vernacular as Revealed Scripture: Evliya Çelebi on the History of the Languages of the World (Michiel Leezenberg)
  • “C’è un guadagno per l’uomo / In tutto lo sforzo suo che fa / Penando sotto il sole?” (Qo 1,2–3). Guido Ceronetti and the Italian Translations of Ecclesiastes (Patrizia Bertini Malgarini, Ugo Vignuzzi and Chiara Orefice)
  • The Raven Breaks the Vessels: Reclaimed Traditions and Cultural Interplay in Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (Krzysztof Majer)
  • Circumcised Cinema: Representing Jewishness on Film through Circumcision (Nathan Abrams)
  • Series Index

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List of Contributors

Nathan Abrams, Bangor University, United Kingdom

Osei Yaw Akoto, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana

Padmini Banerjee, Delaware State University, United States

Patrizia Bertini Malgarini, LUMSA University, Italy

Enzo Caffarelli, Tor Vergata University of Rome, Italy

Kamila Ciepiela, University of Lodz, Poland

Ibrahim A. El-Hussari, Lebanese American University, Lebanon

Oliviu Felecan, Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, North University Centre of Baia Mare, Romania

Artur Gałkowski, University of Lodz, Poland

Myna German, Delaware State Univesity, United States

Małgorzata Jankowska, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland

Monika Kopytowska, University of Lodz, Poland

Michiel Leezenberg, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Massimo Leone, University of Turin, Italy

Krzysztof Majer, University of Lodz, Poland

Amanda C. Murphy, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy

Bernard G. Njuguna, University of Nairobi, Kenya

Chiara Orefice, Roma Tre University, Italy

Teresa Pac, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, United States

Helga Schröder, University of Nairobi, Kenya

Ugo Vignuzzi, University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy←9 | 10→

Anna Wierzbicka, Australian National University, Australia

Raffaella Zardoni, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy

←10 | 11→
Monika Kopytowska, Massimo Leone and Artur Gałkowski

Reflections on the Interface of Religion, Culture, and Society: Between the Symbolic and the Embodied

1. Opening Remarks

Religion is without a doubt a multifaceted phenomenon spanning various disciplinary areas and theoretical perspectives. Existing both internally in the form of thoughts, experiences and mental operations, and externally in patterns of behaviours and embodied practices, bringing together the abstract and the material, affecting individuals and groups, reaching back to the past and forward to the future, it covers a vast area of meanings, entities and effects. In addition to being a system of beliefs and rituals connected to the sacred, it is a social phenomenon involving identity formation and group membership (cf. Durkheim 1969/1912; Coleman and Collins 2004; see also Benerjee and German, this volume).

The use of language has constituted an essential part of religious practices, experiences and mental operations, with central position granted to “sacred texts” by religious traditions (cf. Chilton and Kopytowska 2018: xvii–xviii). With its ability to make present “a variety of objects that are spatially, temporally and socially absent from the ‘here and now’” (Berger and Luckmann 1991/1966: 64; see also Kopytowska, this volume) and its performative potential (Austin 1962) language has been the link between the divine and the earthly and a tool by means of which the realm of religion (with its individual and collective dimensions) has been created, sustained, and legitimized over generations. While notions of language and meaning were already addressed by Pāini in his analytic descriptions of the Vedic scriptures in the fourth century BCE, it was in 1965 that David Crystal in his book Linguistics, Language and Religion discussed the applicability of linguistics to religious sphere (see also Crystal 2018). The relationship between the literal and the non-literal, and metaphor in particular, especially in the case of scriptures, has been the preoccupation ←11 | 12→of theologians and linguists alike (cf. Boeve and Feyaerts 1999a, 1999b; Feyaerts and Boeve 2018; McFague 1982; Swinburne 1992, 1999). Integrating biblical criticism, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural psychology Wierzbicka (2001, 2018a, 2018b, this volume) offered a new perspective on the symbolism of words and gestures, and, more broadly a new conceptual language to talk about God. Drawing on the insights from cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, archaeology, social anthropology, philosophy, and related disciplines, research paradigm known as cognitive science of religion (CSR) has brought forth interest in how religious concepts are generated and processed in the human mind (see discussion in Chilton and Kopytowska 2018: xx–xxiv). Sperber’s Rethinking Symbolism (1975) shed new light on the interface between the linguistic and the non-linguistic, as he argued that the use of language and other resources is contingent on human cognitive representations of the physical world as well as affective responses.

Even though it is the (revealed) word that has always been in the centre of hermeneutics and homiletics (and in consequence linguistic analysis), other modalities have also been perceived and analysed as crucial to religious belief and practice, which has been manifested in the visual turn within religious studies. Providing an overview of theoretical perspectives on images and architecture within “religious visual culture” Morgan (2000: 51) argues that “visual artifacts should not be segregated from the experience of ceremony, education, commerce or prayer” as “[v]‌isual practices help fabricate the worlds in which people live and therefore present a promising way of deepening our understanding of how religions work” (see also Morgan 2005). The socio-historical context has indeed had a formative role in shaping religious beliefs and practices through ways of interpreting the sacred, prescribing values, enforcing norms, and perpetuating dominant patterns of thought and behaviour. In addition to providing spiritual and moral guidance, or perhaps in the process of doing so, religious institutions as guardians of tradition and communal cohesion have exercised control over the spiritual, the verbal, the visual, and the material.

Technological development has added yet another dimension to the verbal-visual dyad within spiritual experience and religious practice, simultaneously transforming the dynamics of power, control, and access, as well ←12 | 13→as the very notions of sacred time, space, and co-presence. “Mediatization of religion” has meant “a new way of living the religious experience in everyday life” (Martino 2020: 1; see also Martino 2016; Hjarvard 2008, 2011; Lövheim 2014; Lövheim and Hjarvard 2019; Kopytowska 2018, this volume, as well as Banerjee and German, this volume). Changes induced by it have encompassed both horizontal and vertical dimensions. Horizontally, media have transformed the character of interaction between believers and other members of religious community (thus altering the institutionalized format of religion), while vertically they have facilitated contact with the divine and the spiritual (Kopytowska, this volume). Bringing religion closer to media culture and entertainment mediatization has made religious representations more cognitively accessible and affectively impactful. Generating super-time and super-space within which rituals, worship and other religious and spiritual activities can be embedded and enabling trans-spatial contact between community members it has contributed to diversification, decentralization and deterritorialization of religious practices (see Kopytowska 2018, this volume). Finally, increasing visibility of religion within the public space has also meant giving it more say in the socio-political matters (Martino 2020; Maoz and Henderson 2020; Roosvall 2016). Lövheim and Hjarvard (2019: 221) point to “a new visibility of conflicts involving religion, with media often working as a structuring intermediary”.

Embedded in the socio-cultural context and contingent on signs and signification, religion inevitably “is a semiotic phenomenon par excellence” (Jensen 2014: 130). Analysing it as such entails interest in various aspects of religious belief and practice, along with their structural, representational and interactional characteristics as well as semiotic resources and affordances in use (Leone, this volume). Caputo (2001: 1) ventures a view that “‘[r]‌eligion’, in the singular, as just one thing, is nowhere to be found …[t]there are Western religions, Eastern religions, ancient religions, modern religions, monotheistic, polytheistic, and even slightly atheistic religions”, each with its own language, tradition, and heritage. His claim about “uncontainable diversity of ‘religion’” (ibid.) brings into focus multiple instantiations of religious experience and practice exhibiting both universal and culturally specific traits along with their social, political and economic implications. Exploring this panoply of ideas, emotions ←13 | 14→and actions as well as spiritual and religious artifacts from a semiotic perspective can provide new insights into how religion is lived, practiced, constructed and challenged in contemporary mediatized and globalized world.

2. Religion and Culture: Perspectives on Interpreting Signs

The manifestations of the divine, the sacred, the transcendent, the numinous, those that by convention or conviction are counted within the circle of religion, mean as traces of a broader horizon, because they emerge from a set of virtualities on the background of which – and in a sense against which – they delineate their own meaning. It is up to the theologian, not the semiologist, to imagine the reconstruction of the totality against which the divine message unravels in its immanent event. Instead, it falls to the semiologist to undertake a task that is both more modest and more constraining; first, to collect and inventory these traces: under what circumstances have men and women told and are telling of their encounter with the divine? Using what signs? Bending them to what communicative needs? The next, more arduous task is to analyse these signs, with the tools at the disposal of semiotic methodology, to see if they can somehow be catalogued, subdivided into typologies, distributed in atlases that, even beyond and despite differences of historical and confessional origin, nonetheless manifest common dynamics in the construction and elaboration of language.

The ultimate goal, then, is to arrive at a characterization, from the perspective of the semiotic methodology, of the ideologies that together ground the manifestations of the sacred, in the technical sense that semiotics and semiotic anthropology ascribe to the term “ideology” (Leone 2010 and 2011a): a way of conceiving the nature of signs in both the social and individual, cultural and psychological spheres, in which a transcendent dimension and its commerce with an immanent one is postulated, evoked, narrated, or even denied (see also Leone, this volume and Leezenberg, this volume). Adopting a vestimentary metaphor, it is indeed true that the sacred is never totally naked, since without an albeit very thin garment of signs, one could not humanly imagine it or imagine its dialogue with the human; however, it is also true that in some times and civilizations, religious expressions emerge that are like heavy liturgical ←14 | 15→vestments, fabricated from precious and cumbersome fabrics, studded with gems of the most complicated symbology; and in other times and civilizations, on the other hand, the enunciation of the sacred, its annunciation, prefers milder, almost impalpable wrappings, up to the paradox of a mystical momentum – and discourse – that weaves an oxymoronic, but still human, garment of transparency.

Out of metaphor, the meta-discourse of semiotics must cultivate the ambition to order the multiple manifestations that history records in a system that is not only organized by civilization, or chronologically, but that takes into account and gives account of, on the contrary, the forms of life (Fontanille 1993), ideologies, but also the sensitivities, tastes and idiosyncrasies with which the immanent matter of the world is transformed into the expressive form of transcendence, of its desire to signify to the human.

By this is it perhaps meant that the semiotics of religion is concerned only with expressive formulas, and not with content? Such an assumption would be absurd in itself, given that setting up the signification of the contact between transcendence and immanence – even in cases where one imagines their inextricable coalescence – concurs with the simultaneous setting up of an imaginary (Leone 2011b), of the more or less organized system of modalities by which the divine is conceived, thought, and believed. Indeed, to announce the sacred is not merely to articulate its expression, but to segment its content at the same time; to give form, if only by presupposition, to the system of thought that signification both nurtures and translates.

The semiotics of religion is then a semiotics of religious cultures, and thus brackets the idea of a numinous source of the sacred in order to rigorously analyse the myriad rivulets through which it manifests itself in history (see Leone, this volume and Jankowska, this volume). A discipline of the human, not the divine, it focuses on how humans make gods speak, rather than, like theology, on how gods make humans speak.

Does this mean that the semiotics of religion denies the legitimacy of belief, faith, religious fervour? Not at all. Agnostically, it does not pose the problem of the veracity of divine discourse, of its truth, but instead explores the canons and shifts of its verisimilitude, that is, the cultural forms that, shared by entire civilizations or formulated by individuals, ←15 | 16→ascribe a sign, discourse, text, language, or an entire culture to a transcendent origin, beyond history.

Recognizing that semiotics is concerned with religious manifestations in history, and not beyond it, also implies suggesting that the semiotic meta-discourse itself is perennially invested in this continuous flow of signs that irradiates human cultures over time. In enumerating the signs of the divine, in cataloguing them, in distributing them into typologies whose axiologies and tensions are characteristically recognized with semiotic flair, the semiotics of religious discourse is itself situated in history, time, space, and culture, and thus inevitably captive to a hic et nunc that, despite every effort of the analyst, conditions the perception of ideologies, the identification of expressions, the deciphering of contents, and the elaboration of an imaginary.

Even the semiotician, in other words, is overpowered by a certain ideology of meaning and religious meaning, which also derives to a great extent from the accidents of history; it is only the continuous confrontation, possibly international and interdisciplinary, with other scholars that enables the semiotician to limit these constraints.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (November)
religious discourse religious symbolism mediatized religion meaning and representation culture semiotic perspective
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 470 pp., 17 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Monika Kopytowska (Volume editor) Artur Gałkowski (Volume editor) Massimo Leone (Volume editor)

Monika Kopytowska is Assistant Professor in the Department of Pragmatics at the University of Łódź, Poland. Her research interests revolve around the interface of language and cognition, identity, and the pragma-rhetorical aspects of the mass-mediated representation of religion, ethnicity, and conflict. Artur Gałkowski is Associate Professor of Italian and French linguistics at the University of Łódź, Poland. His research interests cover various issues in onomastics, semiotics, and translation. Massimo Leone is Tenured Full Professor of Philosophy of Communication, Cultural Semiotics, and Visual Semiotics at the Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences, University of Turin, Italy. His research focuses on semiotics, religious studies, and visual studies.


Title: Thought-Sign-Symbol