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Friday, 16 May 2014

Three Faiths Forum: Faith and Visual Art

Last night I was the Christian speaker at the East London Three Faiths Forum meeting on Faith and the Visual Arts. My fellow speakers were Abed Bhatti and Rabbi Nancy Morris. Abed spoke about his wide-ranging interests and practice as a Muslim who is an artist and academic. Nancy surveyed Jewish approaches to the arts from Bezalel to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

This was my contribution to the discussions:

What is Christian Art? Well, we all know the answer to that! It is cathedrals, icons, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and stained glass. It is Chartres, Michelangelo, Rublev and Sir Christopher Wren. Iconic images, buildings and artists which suggest that Christian art is soaring architecture built to the glory of God combined with biblical stories created with glass or paint.

But do our stereotypes of Christian Art hold up when we examine them more closely? Let’s take a look. Some people answer the question ‘What is Christian Art’ by saying it is art made by Christians but, if that is the answer to the question, then there is much that we are ruling out.

Fernand Léger’s mural at Assy, Henri Matisse’s Chapel at Vence, and Le Corbusier’s Church at Ronchamp are some of the most interesting art works and architecture created for churches during the twentieth century and all were by artists who made no claim to be Christians. In fact, all these commissions came about because of an approach to commissioning art for churches which argued that Christian art could be revived by appealing to the independent masters of the time with churches commissioning the very best artists available, and not quibbling over the artists' beliefs. If all ‘Christian Art’ is art made by Christians then we rule all this out.

So, maybe, ‘Christian Art’ is art commissioned by the Church. Yet, again, this seems too limiting a definition. 

For instance, Mark C. Taylor has noted that "From the beginning of modern art in Europe, its practitioners have relentlessly probed religious issues. Though not always immediately obvious, the questions religion raises lurk on or near the surface of even the most abstract canvases produced during the modern era.” Yet relatively little of that art was commissioned by and for the Church. He concludes that, “One of the most puzzling paradoxes of twentieth-century cultural interpretation is that, while theologians, philosophers of religion, and art critics deny or suppress the religious significance of the visual arts, many of the leading modern artists insist that their work cannot be understood apart from religious questions and spiritual issues."

Re-thinking again, is it art which uses Biblical/Church images, stories or themes? Once again, this is too narrow a definition which would not capture, for example, the images that the deeply Catholic Georges Rouault produced of prostitutes. William Dryness has described these as “painted as penetrating types of the misery of human existence” but with grace also seen, as “divine meaning is given to human life by the continuing passion of Jesus Christ.” Nor would we capture the semi-abstractions created by the Evangelical Christian Makoto Fujimura who uses semi-precious minerals in the Nihonga style to create paintings that tend to only hint at recognizable subjects.

So let’s take a different approach altogether. At the centre of Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus and at the centre of the story it depicts is a very simple and ordinary action; breaking bread or tearing a loaf of bread into two pieces. Although it is a simple and ordinary thing to do, it becomes a very important act when Jesus does it because this is the moment when Jesus’ two disciples realise who he is. They suddenly realise that this stranger who they have been walking with and talking to for hours on the Emmaus Road is actually Jesus himself, risen from the dead. They are amazed and thrilled, shocked and surprised, and we can see that clearly on the faces and in the actions of the disciples as they are portrayed in this painting.

Something very simple and ordinary suddenly becomes full of meaning and significance. This simple, ordinary action opens their eyes so that they can suddenly see Jesus as he really is. That is art in action! Art captures or creates moments when ordinary things are seen as significant.

When our eyes are suddenly opened to see meaning and significance in something that we had previously thought of as simple and ordinary that is called an epiphany. Caravaggio’s painting is a picture of an epiphany occurring for the disciples on the Emmaus Road but it is also an epiphany itself because it brings the story to life in a way that helps us see it afresh, as though we were seeing it for the first time.

The disciples realise it is Jesus when the bread is broken because Jesus at the Last Supper made the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine (the Eucharist) into a sacrament. A sacrament is a visible sign of an inward grace and so it is something more than an epiphany. An epiphany is a realisation of significance, while a sacrament is a visual symbol of an inner change. For Christians the taking of bread and wine into our bodies symbolises the taking of Jesus into our lives. Art (or the visual) then can also symbolise inner change.

For Christians this understanding of epiphany and sacrament is based on the doctrine of the Incarnation; the belief that, in Jesus, God himself became a human being and lived in a particular culture and time. Jesus was and is the visible image of the invisible God.

This belief has two main implications for the visual arts which have been explained well by Rowan Williams. First, “God became truly human in Jesus … And if Jesus was indeed truly human, we can represent his human nature as with any other member of the human race.” When we do so “we’re not trying to show a humanity apart from divine life, but a humanity soaked through with divine life … We don’t depict just a slice of history when we depict Jesus; we show a life radiating the life and force of God.”

Second, “if we approach the whole matter in prayer and adoration, the image that is made becomes in turn something that in its own way radiates [the] light and force” of God. Visual images are “human actions that seek to be open to God’s action” and which “open a gateway for God.” Christian art is therefore characterised by epiphany and sacrament. 


James Macmillan - Kiss On Wood.

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