Icon? Art and Belief in Norfolk

  • Thofner, Margit (Principal Investigator)
  • Heslop, Sandy (Co-Investigator)

Project Details


'Icon? Art and Belief in Norfolk' is a collaborative project, a partnership between the School of World Art Studies and Museology at the University of East Anglia and Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. The main collaborator at Norwich Castle is Andrew Moore, Senior Curator and Keeper of Art; the key researchers at UEA are Sandy (Thomas Alexander) Heslop and Margit Thofner.

The project will explore one core question: what is the relationship between religious artefacts and the locality where such objects are made and used? It is a well-established fact that religious works of art can have a power or agency of their own. Such works have inspired and continue to draw responses such as awe, devotion or aggression. But where does this power come from? We think it likely that religious artefacts take a substantial part of their agency from the locality in which they are made or used.

To explore this idea, to provide it with a meaningful factual basis, the project is focused on one case-study: the making and use of objects for spiritual purposes in Norfolk, an area with a history of religious diversity going back at least 2000 years. Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings all came to Norfolk with their own belief systems and their own religious objects. In the later Roman period, Christians settled in this region and - after a period of conflict - Christianity became dominant. This, however, did not prevent other religions from flourishing. For example, in the Middle Ages there were thriving Jewish communities in Thetford, King's Lynn and Norwich. From the fourteenth century onwards and across the early modern period, religious diversity took the form of a bewildering number of different branches of Christianity, including Lollards, Catholics, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Puritans and Quakers. In Norfolk the putatively uniform religion of Christianity was only ever an illusion. Then, over the past two centuries or so, a new pattern of diversity has emerged. To number but a few of the faith-groups now found in this region: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Neo-Pagans, Baha'i and Sikhs as well as older and more recently formed communities of Jews and Christians. This makes Norfolk a particularly appropriate case-study for our project.

It must be noted that 'Norfolk' was and still is a fluid category. The definition we shall operate with is partly geographical and partly religious: our project is focused on the medieval diocese of Norwich. It covered most of present-day East Anglia since it was bounded in the south by the river Stour, in the west by the Great Ouse and in the north and east by the North Sea. The term 'spiritual' is similarly unstable. For the purposes of our project it denotes behaviour found both within organised religion and within looser and perhaps more personal belief-systems.

The project and its most visible outcome / an exhibition in Norwich Castle Museum / will explore the works of art and the artefacts that have both embodied and perpetuated spirituality in Norfolk. In particular, we shall focus on moments of religious conflict, moments when questions of faith became pretexts for iconoclasm and other forms of object-based violence. But we shall also consider works of art which have served or still serve as bridges between different faith communities in this locality. Here we shall pay particular attention to the roles that local institutions such as universities, museums and multi-faith groups may play. Finally, the exhibition will examine the roles that art plays within religion and spirituality in Norfolk today. Our sense of what is local has changed dramatically in recent years: a sculpture with religious contents exhibited in Norwich in October 2007 has caused consternation as far afield as Thailand. Can this shifting sense of locality, driven by technological change, help us understand the sheer power of religious works of art?
Effective start/end date1/02/0931/03/11


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £318,172.00