We do not understand the notion of “cult” only in its strict religious and liturgical sense, but more broadly as a set of ideas and practices relating to the building of (not just religious) respect for a certain person, group, institution or ideal. So this need not be a case only of religious cults such as that of the Virgin Mary and the saints, but also of non-religious cults, such as the personality cult, a cult of ideology as an expression of political religion, a cult of popular music, sport and so on.
We work from the cultural history concept, which presumes a decodable relationship between a visible sign and the thing it designates. An important question of course is the ability to decode the meaning of that which is represented, which is a socially, culturally and historically changing aspect. Put another way: that which is represented can be interpreted variously depending on the manner of representation, i.e. of symbols or signs used, but of course also depending on the scope of shared values and meanings which a given social group or historical era offers the individual. In the area of image and cult also, we are concerned mainly with analysing the meanings given by contemporaries to “images”, or more precisely, to forms of representation. One possible piece of research concerns the general conditions for the establishment, promotion and maintenance of piety and cult, including the use of images in practice, i.e. as a part of the “liturgy” (celebrations, public acts, etc.) within a historical space. In this we are gradually moving in the area of “communication”, i.e. in the process and possibilities for understanding the image; and of course in the category of “behaviour”, if we are concerned with understanding the meaning of an image for example through analysing treatment of images (in both public and private spaces). Today this question is frequently discussed in the context of the relationship between cultural history and art history, which calls for cross-disciplinary analysis in our setting as well. A further question raised in cultural historical research is the relationship between the discipline efforts of representational creators (for example churches or the state) who “force” certain meanings on their recipients, and the option and will of the recipient to accept these meanings or to “rebel against them (interpreting them “in their own way”, originally, in an unorthodox manner).
In practical terms we again propose research directed at monitoring the three levels “Image – Communication – Behaviour”, i.e. 1) the image and its role, imagination in the religious/cult area (current theories, views, ideas about the impact of the image on the recipient in the area of cult); 2) the possibilities for the “communicativeness” of the image, i.e. understanding image expression (specific forms of piety and cult, the religious and other forms of literacy of recipients, problems of perception and understanding of individual topics, signs, symbols), the image and its confessional, ideological and other roles and potential (scope for persuading the recipient); 3) images and behaviour – treatment of images in liturgical and other practices, events around images, images in the public space, options for disseminating and reception of images of a cult, regional questions of cult, cultural translation. These more broadly conceived questions are going to be studied on selected topics, which correspond to the previous specializations of the individual members of the team, but will nevertheless be closely linked by the chosen cultural historical and three-dimensional perspective. The main scope is changing concepts, strategies and modalities of the relationship between the image and cult from end of the Middles Ages to the 20th century. When laid out this way, one can also follow, inter alia, the serious problem of the conflicts between discursive practice (the orthodox, confessionalised, ideologised discourse of theology or state propaganda) and the nature of social practices, which can resist this rhetoric to a significant degree. Of course we also wish mainly to monitor the changing, that is, period-specific, essentials of the functioning of the relationship between image and cult, to be more precise, the conditions for such functioning – such a general platform will guarantee the cross-linking of specific topics, from questions of medieval society to problems of the modern ideologies of the 20th century. It is precisely here that we see scope for leading a broader discussion, which will not be limited to more narrowly selected periods.