In a temple in south Taiwan, a patron holds a newly carved statue of his tutelary deity as a ritual master performs the requisite rites to animate the statue. In the climactic moment when the statue becomes bound to the god, the god also descends into the body of the patron and transmits through him messages from the heavens. Further south, a spirit medium visits a local statue workshop, and upon arrival, he invites the god into his body to appraise a statue in progress, a statue of the very god now present within the medium, conveying to the statue carvers divine approval of the image. At another temple in the same city, a ritual master collaborates with a spirit medium: together they perform a ritual of consecration for nearly a dozen statues, several statues of the god present in the medium, several statues of still other gods. These vignettes bring into focus the question of how spirit mediums in Taiwan may participate in the early lives of deity statues, specifically their material construction and ritual consecration. While previous scholarship has illuminated the relationship between spirit mediums and deity statues (Lin 2015), the roles that mediums may have in the artistic and ritual processes of statue production remain largely unexamined. By drawing upon recent fieldwork, this paper argues that, in the lifeworld of Taiwan’s common religion, spirit mediums may enable gods to participate in the making of sacred images, both their own images, as well as images of other gods.
Aaron Reich is Assistant Professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he teaches courses on religion in China, Taiwan, and East Asia. His research explores the production, consecration, and use of religious images and objects in both historical and modern contexts. His work to date focuses primarily on material culture that emerges from intersections between Daoism and local ritual traditions in late imperial China and in contemporary Taiwan. In his approach to the study of religious images and objects, Aaron draws on a combination of research methods, including ethnographic fieldwork, visual and iconographical analysis, and the close study of ritual texts.