Devotional practices and imagery have always been both portable and subject to reinvention in new contexts. They have served not just to define sacred cartographies, but to propel mobile worlds beyond formal institutional spaces. This has been true of different world religions – Christians who re-enacted Jerusalem in medieval Wakefield or near Moscow in the 17th century; Yorkshire Hindus who since the late 20th century have reconceived the River Aire as the holy waters of the Ganges; early medieval Irish monks who, seeing Christian life itself as a journey, kept on the move across Europe and the Atlantic, founding monasteries which became the nuclei of urban settlement; or 21st-century Pakistani Muslim emigrants to Canada who visit a network of shrines in India, London, South Africa and Turkey, reinforcing diasporic connections by carrying devotional material back to North America with them.

In Catholic culture, images – of Christ, the Virgin or the saints – have constituted a rich devotional focus, which at once evoke very particular associations of place and also transcend space and time in the imagination of the individual devotee. These qualities have given them a special significance for migrants shaping new communities and forging links with old ones. Millions of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese migrants to North and South America over the centuries took with them copies of their local cult images, which reinforced spiritual confidence, on small and sometimes much larger scales. Churches in New York, Boston, Rio and Buenos Aires were dedicated to Madonnas of European sanctuaries. Processions with statues marked the bounds of new parishes on patronal feast-days, and migrants set up domestic shrines and carried small reproductions for daily personal prayer. Some cults acquired wider resonance. The Virgin of Guadalupe, rooted in a 16th-century fusion of Mary with a Native American goddess, became a dynamic embodiment of Mexican nationalism from the 19th century, and of Filipino Catholicism in the 20th. Retaining these cultural and potentially countercultural connotations, and providing a point of interconnection for Hispanic and Filipino communities worldwide, the cult has been given universal status by a Catholic hierarchy repeatedly striving to benefit by popular association. A younger, still controversial, and even more extensively diffused devotion is to the Divine Mercy, an image of Christ deriving from visions experienced in the 1930s by Faustina Kowalska, a young Polish nun. Spread initially by Polish post-war migration, the cult, officially banned worldwide from 1959 to 1979, was rehabilitated by Pope John Paul II in a process leading to Faustina’s beatification in 1993 and canonisation in 2000. Now a global phenomenon, the devotion sits alongside established image cults within churches worldwide, drawing both visually and culturally on existing popular characterisations of Christ (such as the Sacred Heart), and structuring the private prayer lives of millions of Catholics. Many of these faithful have not grown up with the devotion, but have encountered it in new contexts, where it has helped them to make different connections, often across ethnic, cultural and sometimes even religious boundaries.

Recent diversification in migration patterns and communication media have complicated, but not fundamentally transformed, the ways in which devotional cultures work. Many cults that once travelled by word of mouth and through print reproduction now move electronically; but Facebook and Skype mirror and complement familial, group and community solidarities and physical displacement. A woman from Sierra Leone now in east London has adopted 3 pm GMT (the time associated with Christ’s death and instituted as part of the devotion to the Divine Mercy) as the hour on Sundays when her dispersed family around the world join in prayer: a modern connective ritual built on very traditional bonds of emotional affinity and shared memory.


Garnett, J. and Harris, A. (2013) ‘Canvassing the Faithful: Image, Agency and the Lived Religiosity of Devotion to the Divine Mercy’, in G. Giordan and L. Woodhead, (eds.) Prayer in Religion and Spirituality, Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Garnett, J. and Rosser, G. (2013) Spectacular Miracles: Transforming Images in Italy from the Renaissance to the Present, London: Reaktion.

McGuire, M. (2008) Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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