VDTR Public Lecture with Joe Moshenska (University of Oxford): “Iconoclasm as Child’s Play: Dolls and Idols in the Reformation”

June 9th at 6.15pm

Dekanatssaal of the Faculty of Catholic Theology, Universitätsring 1, second floor, staircase 8, 1010 Wien

Conference Report

The word 'iconoclasm’ conjures to mind acts of burning and breaking, grim-faced figures wielding hammer and flame. In the sixteenth century, however, the desecration of formerly holy things could take a very different form: such objects were periodically placed in the hands of playing children.  This lecture will argue that while this made a certain polemical sense - as a way of implying that traditional religion was inane and childish - such play was also a complex and volatile process.  Once we understand the array of forces and discourses that coincided on such objects as they became toys, they can be seen as both fascinating anomalies, and exemplary of the competing values that playthings embody as they fluctuate between idol and doll.

The workshop entitled “Thinking Through Dolls: Religious Studies Anthropological and Artistic Approaches to Human Simulacra” took place on the 9th of June, 2023 in collaboration with Vienna Doctoral School of Theology and Research on Religion (VDTR) and Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society (RaT) . The workshop was on studying dolls that are often overlooked as juvenile playful things but are actually compelling objects because they are so closely entangled with human life. They can serve as ritual implements, toys for children, decorative objects , uncanny entities and even healing and spiritual aids, depending on the quality of the relationships that dolls are part of. The material, mental, and symbolic spaces they inhabit connect them to questions about desire, attachment, surrogacy, ritual and how we understand the human through the mirror of the doll.
The workshop consisted of three panels with seven papers. In the first panel ‘Dolls of the World: Austria, West Africa and Cuba”, Dr Dirk Schuster(Religious Studies Department, University of Vienna)  presented a paper on the anonymous historical origins of the dolls in the state collection of Lower Austria that poses questions on the dynamic meaning attributed to these dolls and the ways in which it can be perceived. Prof Hans Gerald Hödl (Religious Studies Department, University of Vienna)  delivered a paper on the ritualistic aspect of twin dolls in West Africa and Cuban Santeria. In the second panel “Dolls, Deaths and Funerals” , Alisha Saikia (Religious Studies Department, University of Vienna) presented a paper on the death, birth and re-incarnation of Ball Jointed Dolls focusing on the relationship between adult doll collecting and neo-animism from a relational ontological perspective. Joseph Chadwins’s (Religious Studies Department, University of Vienna ) paper was on defining childhood religiosity by examining a doll funeral at a nursery in Scotland. In the third panel “Doll and their Souls” , Linda Franca( Historical and Cultural Studies Department, University of Vienna)  presented a paper on animating the soul of puppets through Jewish traditional analogies of Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, Chaya and Yechida. Dr Agnès Giard’s (Nanterre University) paper was on love dolls and the ritual practices of human simulacra for adults in Japan investigating if these love dolls are actually substitutes for real human beings. Prof Fabio Gygi (SOAS, University of London) delivered a paper on doll funerals in Japan through the lenses of ritual theory and material semiotics of animation.
All the papers presented in the workshop were fascinating and thought provoking works that generated an active and engaging discussion amongst the presenters and the attendees.
The workshop was followed by an excellent  public lecture by Prof Joe Moshenska (University of Oxford) on dolls and idols in the Reformation when sacred objects would sometimes become playthings for children and its meaning and value would oscillate between them being either sacred or profane or both at the same time.
After the public lecture there was an interesting panel discussion by Lisa Zingerle (Director, Schubert Theatre), Prof Fabio Gygi and Alisha Saikia moderated by Dr Katharina Limacher (Vienna Doctoral School of Theology and Research on Religion) on the eminence of dolls in their respective fields from various social, cultural and religious contexts.
The public lecture and the panel discussion was a delightful event with a big turnout. The questions and discussions that followed were extremely intriguing and stimulating.



Joe Moshenska is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and a tutorial fellow of University College. He is the author of four books: Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England; A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby; Iconoclasm as Child’s Play; and Making Darkness Light: The Lives and Times of John Milton.  He is the current President of the International Spenser Society and is the recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize.  He is currently working on intersections between critical and creative writing, and between literature and anthropology.

The public lecture will be followed by a panel discussion including Fabio Gygi (SOAS), Lisa Zingerle (Schubert Theater Wien) and VDTR member Alisha Saikia (University of Vienna) and will delve into the enigmatic prominence of dolls across various historical and cultural contexts. Our panelists will share their insights and knowledge on the beliefs they inspire, the rituals and performances they evoke, and the significance of their creation and destruction for their makers and owners.