Screening salvation: the National Gallery and YouTube


Along with the last two blog posts, I’ve found myself following a focus on digital technologies for engaging with art: Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds at Lacock Abbey, the Alight app for Chichester and its Cathedral, and today the seven-part YouTube series The Audacity of Christian Art by Dr. ChloĆ« Reddaway for the National Gallery, London. The National Gallery’s landmark exhibition Seeing Salvation in 2000 was also accompanied by a screening, on that occasion with the then director Neil MacGregor presenting four episodes for the BBC. Both then and now, with YouTube’s more bite-sized packaging of reflections on art with biblical subject-matter, the National Gallery have gently prompted the theological discourse behind so much of their collection to emerge centre-stage. More precisely, one third of the artworks in the collection have this Christian ‘agenda’, and it is indeed a mark of renewed interpretative urgency that Reddaway’s position as the Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion assumes this online platform for its extended discussion.

But there are characteristics of this twenty-first century ‘screening of salvation’ that would benefit from more critical understandings. Visual culture’s tendencies of highly packaged information for quick and immediate consumption tends to erode the possibilities for the ‘slow burn’ effect of images viewed over long periods of time, in person. Photographic technology in the films that cuts between head shots of Reddaway, and manifold variation of zoomed, zooming, cropped, angled, wide-angled, out-of-focus and distanced framings of the images employs a language of hybridity and mobility – the better to engage our interest in a two-dimensional object, but which also effects a kind of perceptual distraction and distance. Also, from an art historical perspective, The National Gallery trades on its formal framework of institutional repository for Art. Its remit for engagement is constituted by the rational and cognitive discourses of intellectual enquiry, in which unfortunately the relation of image to theology is treated more-often-than-not as thematically reducible, immersively sterile, and quaintly historical. Despite Reddaway’s best efforts (and elsewhere, she has written on the importance of precisely countering such art historical treatment with a revitalising of contemporary theological situation), her iconographic focus puts biblical meaning in the past, and theology becomes a relic, because that’s where its recovery is concentrated. At times, it is occasionally enlivened with delightful intrigue and questions which resonate with our looking today – of snails on the edge of a painting and shadows on the sky behind a bower of fruit (The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, 1491, from Episode 3; and The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, c.1489, from Episode 7; both paintings by Carlo Crivelli) – but the dialogue of hermeneutical exchange nevertheless retains its overall ‘pastness’.

Now here’s the thing: these visual culture / art history platforms aren’t necessarily negative for theology and the arts, but it depends where you put the theology. It would be ungenerous of me to suggest that the National Gallery is operating to consciously exclude contemporary theological horizon by a focus on its symbolic construction in the past. Neil MacGregor continues to broadcast about religious culture precisely to enliven our sense of the enduring and ‘relevant’ human quest for meaning (in his BBC Radio 4 series recently on the British Museum’s Living with Gods exhibition). And it would also be a red herring to critique contemporary technological engagement for its erosion of certain contemplative practices and contexts for theology in such art, however much such engagement has and is undoubtedly changing the field. Let’s say, for the moment, that theology might be better situated in the socially-minded, relational and hermeneutical spaces of viewer interaction and interpretation today. Instead of its recovery, let’s talk about about its return. With those across visual culture studies and art history now discussing it in such terms, I find theology now to be an increasingly ‘live’ issue. In post-9/11 culture, it may well be fragmented, international, diffused, but it is no less potent in its migrating forms – when Bibles and pilgrimages are apps, when Stations of the Cross are city-wide and trans-religious, when churches are art galleries, when vicars are cultural commentators, and above all, when art practitioners are referencing religion, we need theology’s resurrected vocabulary to percolate image criticism with the decentered, deconstructed sympathies it already has. More on that, another time…

Roots and routes of art and theology in Chichester

Plaque marking the site where Bishop William Otter was interred, Chichester Cathedral, 1840.

In my new role as the Bishop Otter Scholar for theology and the arts, I have started to explore the potential avenues for continuing my doctoral research in photography and the Bible. Where my patrons thus far been Bible Society and the University of Gloucestershire, now I am employed by Bishop Martin Warner of the Diocese of Chichester, and will be affiliated with ASK (Centre for Art and the Sacred) at King’s College London. This finds me reflecting on new starts much as I did at the beginning of my artist residency at Trinity College in Bristol: it’s tempting to think of this institutional identity in static terms of association and contracts of exchange – the ‘business’ side of life commonly works by these markers. But just as I reflected on journeys, pilgrimage, and passages at Trinity, I want to begin here with a reflection on this ‘journey’ side of life, now with a changing sense of movement and relation.

Continuing as I am in a role previously occupied by Dr Naomi Billingsley, it is entirely fitting to be guided into Chichester quite literally, in the form of an app she helped to develop, Alight: Art and the Sacred. Free to download, it provides audio commentary for a gentle walking route from the city walls to Chichester Cathedral (approximately 1/2-an-hour), and then around the Cathedral taking in its many artworks by, among others, Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Marc Chagall (just over an hour). Interactive and insightful, it naturalises a engagement with the world that is also rich and deep with history, art, meaning, and above all, spirituality. I was entranced during the outside route: peripheral noises of cars and people passing were (at times unnervingly) connected in reality and recording, and thronging crowds on the high street really did bring the sense of pilgrimage to life. The genial commentary provided by Professor Ben Quash weaves a vibrancy and immediacy between tangible, physical connecting (across city wall, street plan, and cathedral edifice) and the retracing of history and heart as centred on the spiritual centre of the city.

Finding a climax in the approach to the cathedral entrance, the sense of arrival is reframed by the vertical dimension, where Bishop Martin comments on the spire’s heavenly orientation. Here indeed is the marker that defies all other markers, the catapulting idea that, as he quotes Augustine, we come to God not by navigation (Chichester Cathedral can be seen from the sea), but by love. Every footstep, every decision, every effort of exploration, and thinking that one might conjure a full-stop achievement of horizontal containment is sprung open by the mystery of being found, already, always. The urgency of every pilgrimage is to somehow re-orient oneself to this dimension, to find ‘thin’ places and ‘slow’ time. In my turning into words, this will be an (all too human) attempt to stay close to wisdom, or a wisdom tradition. As I continue blogging, different directions and focusses will emerge, but I hope to journey in the model of Alight’s app, with photography’s realism and ‘nearness’ to help me along the way.

It’ll be natural enough to stop and stare and discuss things: inside the Cathedral, the works of art are just such a series of stations, and for this part of the app we’re treated to a range of different voices connecting image with symbol and text (from Professor Aaron Rosen on the Chagall window to Head Cathedral Guide Dr Judith Lee on the South Transept window). A long-time favourite of mine, Sutherland’s Noli Me Tangere (1960) is as jewel-like as Canon Dr Anthony Cane evokes. With its bright blocks of red and green, and Jesus zig-zagging across horizontal and vertical dimensions like he owns them, it’s a beautiful and dynamic moment of transformation and revelation. At times the discussions of art works remain self-contained in a way that misses the pilgrimage setting – as no doubt my own of the future will – but on the whole, another’s captivation reveals previously hidden gems, like Karen Coke on the monkey in the Charter panels of Lambert Barnard (1530s). My own viewfinder looked down to the floor, finding a testimony to Bishop Otter himself, as seen in the photograph above. Nearby, the commemorative inscription for his life ends with words from James 3:17, a fitting motto for any following pilgrim:

But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.

Launching in Lacock

Thresholds at Lacock Abbey

The season turns, and it’s time to re-emerge again in a more public frame for practice and research. It has been two years to the week since the last blog post, in which I declared a ‘going-to-ground’ period on arrival in Lacock, Wiltshire. The characteristics of such a long withdrawal are far from being blank, though they are a deliberate stance against working modes characterised by visible productivity. What you can do with invisible time and space is enter whole new worlds, as I experienced this week at Mat Collishaw’s Thresholds exhibition at Lacock Abbey.

More on the virtual experience in a moment, but by way of what I’ve been up to in the last two years, 2015/16 initially saw an enforced break on work patterns, firstly in the aftermath of moving and secondly in a family member’s ill health. I spent a lot of time digging, literally turning over soil and dragging out stubborn roses – it felt like a spiritual exercise in identifying and living with ground zero for a while. I came circling back to what it was I wanted to grow in my PhD, while finding footing at the local campus for Bath Spa University in Corsham Court. 2016/2017 then was a solid twelve months’ writing my doctoral thesis, part-time. I worked out the number of words per week that I needed to average, as well as the number of pages I could read in a day. I ploughed. Finally on the 4th August this year, I submitted over 80,000 words to the University of Gloucestershire, and look forward to a viva there next month.

It was absorption, with great intensity. Absorption in a world much like that recreated by Collishaw: the world of original photographic encounter. In his case, he has built a ‘room’ to mirror the setting of one of Talbot’s early photographic exhibitions (in Birmingham, 1839). You are given a headset and backpack, are guided blind into the blank white space, and then experience its sights, sounds and textures through the room’s virtual recreation, complete with wooden display cabinets, mice on the floor, street sounds from outside. I loved this world, and I loved the tangibility of its interpretation – it felt like, in microcosm, a material confirmation of so many academics’ verbal interest in photography. But its absorption was also lacking in intensity, limited by clunkiness, six minutes’ viewing time, and regulated space. It was interesting to experience the incompatibility of presences: my own was not ‘visible’ in the virtual space (others were ghosts, and staff were occasional disembodied voices at your side), yet I did enter a ‘thereness’, physically. Ultimately I found it a gift to visual imagination, and at my own threshold of new forays into word and image, it marks the moment with new, dynamic, possibilities.

Landing in Lacock

Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015
Lacock Abbey 2003 and 2015

As I write my 100th blog post, it seems a fitting time to pause for reflection on my directions past, present and future. This summer I moved with my husband and two children to the village of Lacock, Wiltshire. I leave behind 20 years of living in Bristol, of which nearly 15 have been spent with part-time artistic practice. In the great migrations of my life, this is the third, and feels far more a move towards settlement and consolidation, since the first period (in Africa) was largely shaped by the missionary appointments of my parents, and the second period included my university placements in Canterbury and Nottingham. In biblical terms, I’ve moved from ancestral home to slavery at the hands of empire to… is it the promised land?

In the spring of 2003, I visited Lacock Abbey with Adam, 2 years before we married and a few months before I decided on further masters study in Visual Culture at Nottingham. I like this earlier photograph, I stand on the cusp of something, my hopes of intellectual stance forming a kind of waiting. I am resolutely facing east, with the famous abbey behind me and its primordial window. At the time, I was certainly aware of Talbot’s photographic legacy in this place but could have had no sense of its spiritual and geographical centering that has now come home to me. It does feel like a ‘coming home’ to something. As if the efforts of horizontal achievement in exhibitions, competitions, residencies has somehow to stop, and stay still, and be grounded for some serious vertical development. I am asking questions about what this entails, about my position here, and my husband’s related call to Christian ministry in this place.

Among other things, the promised land demanded reliance and trust in God’s provision of rain and pasture for the Israelites’ settlement. Yes it was to flow with milk and honey, and was deeply rich in goodness, but it was no site for empire-building projects, self-irrigation, impregnable city fortifications and monarchical authoritarianism. Israel remained small either side of Egyptian and Assyrian/Babylonian might, and her constitution ensured a community-wide model of dependence. Isaiah calls Israel God’s ‘heritage’ (19:25) – and the concept is deeply woven with the history of God’s tending and care of his vine/bride. Egypt and Assyria are called God’s people and the work of his hands respectively. There’s a backward and a forward glance in these terms, looking west and east, which at the very least suggests Israel’s orientation is locked into both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

What do I mean in the here and now? Something like going-to-ground, being geographically single and observing photography’s roots here and in me. My blogging will be less frequent, and my practice is working out the theme of Sabbath rest, as am I.

Leaves and Lincoln

Prof Larry J Schaaf's revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright
Prof Larry J Schaaf’s revelation of 1839 leaf photograph as by Bristolian Sarah Anne Bright

By way of an introduction to the conference Rethinking Early Photography held at Lincoln University earlier this month, Prof Larry Schaaf presented a lecture called ‘The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria and Historiography’. In the whirlwind speculation that swirled around this particular photograph, which had come up for auction in 2008 as part of an album, Schaaf’s comments at the time gave rise to unmerited suggestions that it was possibly an earlier photograph than Talbot. The name Wedgwood popped up, since a ‘W’ is found in the bottom left of the negative. In a welcome spirit of openness since the leaf’s quiet retreat from the public spotlight, Schaaf’s lecture gave the photograph its long-due much-deserved critical attention; and the results, while not the tabloid headline so hastily dreamed of, nevertheless open the door on other aspects of early photography.

Of no little interest to me is this early history in Bristol, and the likely female involvement. For Schaaf has discerned in the scrawled lettering on the back of the negative the initials ‘SAB’, standing for Sarah Anne Bright, the daughter of the Bristol MP Henry Bright (1784 – 1869) whose residence was in Ham Green. That the image is printed on paper produced by William West (of the Clifton camera obscura and the Bristol School of Artists) is highly probable – the ‘W’ is a likely link to the blindstamp identifying the paper with the stationer Lancaster, who was selling to West in Bristol at the time. I have written about West in the past (in my book Bristol Through the Lens), as his camera obscura was key to the tradition of landscape composition and view that developed in the South West – a particularly Romantic and photographic view, especially in the area around the River Avon and its Gorge, which includes Ham Green. That the leaf has been treated as a photogram, in the manner of a specimen, is not as far from this Romantic view as we might think.

In my paper for the conference ‘Let There Be Light: Theology and Spirituality in Early Photography’, I consider the vocabulary, context and direct evocation of biblical themes in and around early photographs. Leaves had something of an emblematic status, whether for biological perfection and detail (Talbot), for monogram experimentation (Herschel), or for revelatory apparitions (Enslen); at times, they come close to bearing the immanence of God through the way people saw them, with the action of divine light on the photo-sensitive surface. I argue that when we examine so many leaves, our view should not thereby forget that there was once a forest – that background milieu of religious or spiritual understanding. Nor need we suppose that we have ‘clear’ sight now, rather that we are grafting new philosophical perspectives into early photography.

Two things pointed this up to me mostly clearly at the conference: the first was the final question put to a panel at the end of the last day, a question that sought an answer to our persistent search for photographic origins, for photographic ‘firsts’. Amidst the general replies that questioned points on a historical line rather than the existence of the line itself, I found myself offering the comparison of linear photographic perspective: within its system, we can continue to plot and map our direction and position – but beyond this, surely we have all already woken up to its system-like nature, to the limitations of it, indeed to the falseness of it? And isn’t it in fact photography itself that has done this – in our increasing awareness of its subversion of normative perspective? So the question of origins needs a rather more radical a-historical discussion.

Secondly, 36 of the 52 speakers at the conference were women. In a varied programme that crossed several disciplines internationally, from geography to history, from literature studies to conservation, this high representation of women to me suggests the lack of entrenched patriarchy in what is still a relatively young subject. It bears the mark of the social eclecticism which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to Sarah Bright’s involvement in photography, though here it’s rather more an academic eclecticism. Practicing or studying photography, it is remarkable that so many women are telling the story, which volunteers another radically new, still unrecognised perspective.