The course was designed to give participants the opportunity to both engage with religious art and to reflect, through presentations and discussion, on how religious art is and has been perceived. Each day balanced theoretical input with visits to see religious art in churches, galleries, and chapels in and around Oxford. Much discussion on the contexts in which religious art is viewed, the suggested ways of how we may reflect theologically on contemporary art, and looking at the place of art in churches and other places of worship was undertaken throughout. There were a wide range of artists and eras discussed, from that of Leonardo to Julia Margaret Cameron to Bill Viola. The application and utilisation of religious symbols was a particular theme throughout the course, both in private discussions or group talks, as well as considerations regarding sacred spaces, how they should be revered, or modified, or modernised; the resulting complexities of any such changes was a recurring issue which seems to be indicative of a broader social change in responses to religion (Christianity being the particular focus of this course).
The course featured input from Graham Howes (Fellow Emeritus at Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Dr. Chloe Reddaway (Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery) Laura Moffatt (ACE) and Sheona Beaumont (PGR at University of Gloucester).
The first day commenced with an opening talk by Graham Howes whose initial questions set the scene for the conversations and visits throughout the rest of the time spent at Ripon. Howes opened with the basic questions: where and how in our own day do we relate to visual arts (specifically to religious visual arts). Much of what Howes discussed was directly drawn from his book The Art of the Sacred (2006) which is an easy read (albeit a little disjointed).
Howes focused upon space and the capacity of art to engage, create or define religious experiences. He referred to St. Denis Abbey to illustrate a sacred space where God continues to be worshipped to this day through architectural design. Howes was trying to impress upon us the artistic creative drive behind spiritual / sacred architecture (in this case medieval). In the case of St. Denis, light (and therefore space) is specific to the process and experience of Christian worship. As an aside, it was acknowledged through discussions that visitors to such places are also secular, but this conference was focused more upon religious engagement, rather than irreligious engagement. The notes from the recent British Art Network’s Ecclesiastical Art seminar discuss the engagement of the secular community in more detail and an interesting accompanying document is the ‘Spiritual Capital’ report of 2012.
The Gothic design of St. Denis’ interior is a skeletal structure of stone with ‘glass walls’ as it were, meaning walls of highly designed stained glass windows (which you can see from the above photo) allow sunlight to stream into the inner space below which the congregation meet to give thanks, to pray, and to conduct their religious life in some form or another.
The theology behind the architectural design is integral to the meetings with the spirit, and it is the space, light and colour which facilitates this process of religious exchange and enrichment. This process was described by Bernini as ‘hearing through the eyes’.
Howes’ passing reference to light is amplified in these two comparisons of St. Denis’ interior space. In the nineteenth century image, we can see the wide open space and members of the congregation being low and humble in the vast space that surrounds them as they adopt their religious demeanour. The Romanesque columns alter the light flooding and the people kneeling in the interior of the Chapel of the Virgin do so both collectively, respectfully, and yet individually. The unity of their Christian faith is illustrated through their shared physical and ritual habitation within the physical space. The sunlight and colour that streams through the stained glass windows can be viewed as bathing the people and cleansing them spiritually: these visitors are being purified somehow through the act of their physical attendance and spiritual worship. The Abbot of St. Denis, Suger (1081 – 1151) described this experience thus: where God is worshipped most highly in his attributes of light, measure, and number.
The twenty first century photograph of the same chapel suggests the visitors’ experience is very different to those in the nineteenth century image, perhaps it is not about worship at all but about tourism. Whether these particular people were there for tourism or not is conjecture but we can positively declare many people do visit the Abbey. It is a useful point to introduce into the consideration and utilisation of sacred spaces though; perhaps through a combination of the Church’s invitation and hospitality, and the curiosity of secular visitors, the people within the church are not always there for religious experiences. This does not mean they may not experience something spiritual or that there are not people who visit specifically for religious reasons, but we must acknowledge the standing figures, posing contrapposto whilst conversing (probably in low hushed voices) at the church are looking at and thinking about the purpose and use of the sacred space. This is a curious colonisation by secular visitors, and although it is not one I am going to pursue here (as mentioned earlier, that conversation was better had during the Ecclesiastical Art Seminar), it is worthwhile acknowledging the change in people’s deferential physical encounters with sacred spaces.
In the third volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin posed the question ‘How far has Fine Art, in all or any ages of the world, been conducive to the religious life?’ This question, complete with its inherent implication that art is not conducive to religious life, continues to be examined but the above basic examples suggest Ruskin’s (probable) pessimism was inaccurate to the common man’s religious experience – at least in our day. Howes offered two quotes, which he did not clarify, but also rebut such a pessimist view of religious art.
‘Art in all its forms keeps spiritualism alive’ and ‘All works have spiritual dimensions’. What these quotes do suggest is that art and religion is somehow mutually dependent. Howes voiced the opinion that broadly spiritual messages in an object can’t extract individual experiences, although I have to disagree with that. Howes queried how we experience spiritual messages in post-modern culture. He suggested religious imagery was becoming invisible and in order to argue this point he displayed some interesting comparisons, e.g. the Despenser Retable at Norwich and Rothko’s non-denominational chapel in Houston.
Another example which I found particularly fascinating was Leonardo’s The Last Supper (1495–1498, Milan) with Ben Willkens’ All That Remains (details of which below). Whereas Howes suggests Willikens work offered a ‘mercilessly cold perspective that revealed nothing’ Cantz’ book Ben Willikens: Art since 1945 (1997) asks ‘How should we approach Willikens’ ‘Counterspaces’? Do we follow the long echo of the vaults, the free rhythm of the pillars, or do we let ourselves be carried by the nobility of high rooms receding into the far distance? …. Or do we release these images from their apparent isolation and try to discover what preceded them and how they relate to history?’ Just like the Old and the New Testament, I suggest religious spaces are spaces of memory that we cannot now enter. Art is the vehicle with which we can best engage in religions of the past. Works like Rothko’s chapel may be non-denominational but they are open, objective, free, inspiring and unconstrained. They permit the viewer to be engaged with the physical space and the individuals own interiority – this can be the sum of religious experience and worship. Harmony and retreat within a new modern open and inclusive space that engages with and acknowledges the religious history of our past. Willikens and Rothko echo religious life, their work acting as a bridge between the sacred and the secular. I disagree with Howes that ‘all frameworks of narrative or beauty and holiness are dissolved’. Yes, the frameworks are evolving and changing, as we must if we are to keep any understanding of the religious art of the past in the present. Without religious engagement by viewers today works like Leonardo’s Last Supper will dissolve, their very meaning will become disembodied and meaningless to a society which has no capacity to revisit old ideas (religious or otherwise). Artists like Willikens and Rothko help maintain religious language and semiotics in a way that remains palatable to viewers today (one only has to attend a Rothko exhibition to realise how his art captures and communicates with art visitors today).
Howes did make a valuable point when he asked what happens to venerable art that is removed from its intended or original location. Quoting Goethe, Howes clearly agreed that ‘Art has consolidated its status as an independent cult, sometimes more flourishing than the churches themselves’. Howes approached Tate Modern as a Yeatsian ‘artifice of Eternity’, feeling that it communicated numinous qualities to its visitors. The photo below shows how powerfully the light falls into the space and one can easily see how it compares to that of St. Denis. Howes has a point, as Kenneth Clark observed we are undergoing a ‘spiritual transformation’ and we have seemingly moved (collectively anyway) away from seeking religious validation preferring instead that we find in aesthetic validation.
Howes says our churches have become our museums and our museums our churches; he is clearly a pessimist although it is hard to disagree with him entirely. What I am unclear about is how far Howes’ accusation goes: is he holding the museum responsible for the de-sacralisation of art? If he is, how does he defend the collections of any of our national galleries? One only has to look at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery to find a whole host of securely protected religious works. Howes appears to uphold Wolterstorff’s view that since the eighteenth century art has become increasingly limited to aesthetic contemplation (a Romantic introduction). As Wolterstorff himself acknowledges the purpose of the art may not be driven by aesthetic contemplation nor its only purpose. Howes view potentially restricts religious art within galleries to purely aesthetic experiences and if we follow that thread through to its conclusion the art (as I suggest already) becomes meaningless, removed from its aesthetic purpose. Howes clearly fears Weber’s ominous words that ‘Art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values which exist in their own right, Art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation…It provides a salvation from the routines of everyday life, and especially the increasing pressures of theoretical and practical rationalism’.
Viewed from this angle, religion in the hands of art (or artists) is at risk. Art offers aesthetic salvation as illustrated by a poster for the Met Museum which used religious language to call upon its visitors to ‘invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece’. In this case art itself becomes redemptive. An extreme example of these blurred aesthetic and religious frameworks is Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (2000, Fourth Plinth).
Wallinger said that as soon as he got the phone call asking him to submit ideas for the fourth plinth, he thought immediately of Christ. ‘For the last couple of years, I’ve been making work that uses Christian imagery and is to do with faith and illusion, so a Jesus figure was such an obvious idea; I felt it was a sort of conduit for something. It struck me, too, that it’s the millennium and yet everyone’s rather squeamish about mentioning Christianity, which seems odd. I mean, they have beacons all around the country saying British Gas. I don’t quite see where the ethical line is being drawn! Essentially, I wanted to make a piece that had Christ as a human being, at a point of the story where he isn’t a deity, he’s just a guy being handed over to the lynch mob. I wanted something that reflected back on issues to do with power. And I wanted him to be life-size because, well, He was made in our image.’
Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, said he found it ‘profoundly moving’ and Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Bishop of Westminster, found it ‘humbling and affecting’; however, Wallinger’s vision of Christ was described by Howes as driving out Christ somehow, as being part of a new ‘tradition’ (if such a thing is possible) of a latent (aesthetic) church. Doubt and anxiety is intrinsically part of religious experience though: from St. Peter to St. Thomas to St. Paul. Art’s currency is anxiety and doubt, and works such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930, Chicago) are an example of honest doubt as is Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning‘ with the lines:
When will we see Him face to face? / Each day, He shines through darker glass. /
Religious symbols are at risk of having a declining power of efficacy, in part because of the mainstream appropriation of religious symbols (e.g. Wallinger’s Ecce Homo was viewed by some critics as being representative of a gay icon). Perhaps we should abandon the symbols altogether posed Howes not himself believing that a tenable future for religious art. So the only option then is to reformulate the symbols, to consider them a dead language, like Sanskrit or Hieroglyphics, but reinvigorate them for our present and the future. This leads us to further issues, for how can the visible suggest the invisible? And if we consider this, how then can we respond to Ruskin’s question?
Spirituality remains difficult, and appears to be experiencing a chronic dissonance and Howes called upon a recalibration. The so say totemic objects seemed to inflame Howes, his particular dislike illustrated by some Marian figurines he had seen in a shop window in a Walsingham shrine shop. Appalled by the aesthetic ‘quality’ of these objects, Howes found it difficult to believe people invested such objects with faith and belief. He was clear to say he respected and was not disparaging the belief but the object itself (or rather the object’s aesthetic). For Howes this seemed to be due to a movement from religion to spirituality although he was unclear as to what exactly his definitions of the two terms are.
Howes felt the issue with religious aesthetics in this day and age was their inferiority, lack of clarity, or secure place (site of display) meant that people often turned to themselves to find meaning. He referred to the ‘aesthetic selfies’ of Emin and I think Howes’ point here was extremely pertinent. This post-Romantic individualism has a lot to answer for. But we should also acknowledge that even Emin has a place within Church. Perhaps we need an explicit confessional narrative? Weber’s view of the profoundest aesthetic being one that permitted self-reading would certainly suggest so. Can works like Emin’s For You (2008, Liverpool) carry with it genuine credal resonance? Can these works of art still be theologically meaningful? How do we maintain reflective sincere space and critical responses going forward? I am not sure Howes answered these questions but I suggest they should be considered in art practice and in the arrangement and curation of sacred spaces.
During our joint discussion, I suggested one space that will cross both the secular and the sacred is the upcoming Triforium Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey. Howes instantly shot this down, claiming the design was over complex and that “it was a terrible idea”. My own view is more lenient. The team at Westminster Abbey seem to have given a lot of thought to their visiting community (congregation) and whilst freely admitting their commercial requirements, they were mindful of utilising the space in a way that allowed meditation, reflection and engagement with the living religious space that is Westminster Abbey. And in order to respond directly to Howes complaint about the additional fee visitors will have to pay to visit the Triforium, a question I posed directly to Westminster curator Dr. Susan Jenkins, the numbers able to visit the Triforium will be limited and due to the access requirements and limitations of the existing architectural space, a separate entrance for just access to the Triforium was not an option. This limited opportunity will therefore mean limited ticket. I don’t personally think limited numbers should equate to more consumer cost, but the Abbey, like any major secular or sacred institution has serious maintenance costs and is a business, regardless of whether or not its beating heart is / was religious in origin.
The means of overcoming the gap between the sacred and the secular means we have to understand they are not necessarily antithetical. This is the central reason for my belief new curatorial practice, e.g. that in the Triforium Gallery, that combines sensitivity and religious inclusiveness will provide new inspiration, new architectural spaces, and new readings for past, present and works yet to be created. It appears I am more optimist than Howes. The one thing Howes seemed to miss in his disregard for confessional narrative works like For You or the gallery in the Triforium is ‘light’. Light is the very thing Abbot Suger of St. Denis found to be a measure of God.
Light as a conductor of spiritual messages in spiritual spaces was the opening argument of Howes own talk and yet he seemed to lose sight of its very power to create sacred and uplifting spaces. As Suger wrote: light shone with the glory of God & it’s brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel. Light then, whether neon, stained glass, or natural sunlight is one means we have of responding to Ruskin’s question: How far has Fine Art, in all or any ages of the world, been conducive to the religious life? Light and vision are integral to art, and Galatians 3:2 suggests Bernini was not far wrong.
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you (Galatians 3:2)
Much of what Howes presented can be found surmised here as well as in his aforementioned book The Art of the Sacred (I.B. Tauris, 2006).
I am indebted to Aberystwyth University for supporting my attendance at this insightful and engaging conference.