Christmas card reflection

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9; The Gift, 2007

This year once again I’m delighted that one of my Advent images, Joseph’s Angel, is being used by Bishop Martin as a Christmas card for the Chichester Diocese. It was originally produced as part of several annual designs, which were initially for personal use, but subsequently became prompts for mini-research projects. Here I reproduce the ideas I explored for another card, The Gift, in 2007. In this card, the opportunity to plumb deeper pictorial traditions comes to the surface, as it was explicitly modelled on the medieval Wilton Diptych, held in the National Gallery’s collection. What follows is a mini-essay I wrote and produced as a miniature booklet at the time, one of my earliest ventures in self-publishing.

A Visual Analysis

John Drury in his analysis draws out the physicality of the Wilton Diptych in terms of ‘treasure’ (in Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings, 2002).  My Christmas card is designed in terms of the ‘gift’.  ‘Treasure’, in the meaning of the Greek gospels (the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure), comes from the Greek thesaurus.  It specifies a casket or strong-box for valuables – so suggests a container for other riches.  ‘Gift’ in our understanding of Christmas presents, also suggests a wrapped container with a present inside.  The connotations of both are of something intimately received and delighted in.  

At the time it was made, the diptych would have been exclusively enjoyed by one person, King Richard II.  He would have held it as a precious object, opening the box on its middle hinge to reveal the glowing gold and blue interior.  Essentially, it functioned as ‘a portable altarpiece which could be closed like a book and set up on the altars of different churches and chapels – it was intended for private religious devotion’ (Dillian Gordon, writing for the National Gallery).  Gifts at Christmas, if given in the spirit of the wise men, are similarly devotional offerings – they don’t simply meet a need, or fulfill obligation, rather they remind us of another way of living, of another way of loving.

The subject of the painting is designed to encourage such spiritual attentiveness, being as it is a very picture of devotion on the part of the king himself.  The picture shows earth and heaven facing each other – on the left hand side, Richard kneels, attended by Saint Edmund, Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint John the Baptist; and on the right the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ attended by a host of angels.  There is a very definite separation of space, whose formality acts on our interpretation of what is going on.  It is just such a language of precise arrangement and correlation that I have tried to impose on my Christmas card. 

Within the ‘frame’ of the Christmas present depicted, my image is split into four, each part hosting various figures.  Drury makes the observation that in the diptych, all eyes on the left look to the right, whereas in heaven, there is a greater containment in some mutual gazes as well as others directed towards earth.  My card creates a criss-crossing of gazes, an interaction between angels and humans that is altogether more involved.  Mary acknowledges the kings, who both present their gifts and acknowledge the angels, who in turn look down on events and capture the gaze of a shepherd.  Joseph by his expression could also be acknowledging everyone.

The exchanges are further added to by a consideration of boundaries.  In the diptych, the figures on the left are contained within the frame, and on the right are crowded into it, some not quite making it.  In my card, those figures who have appeared on the scene, as it were, stepping in from the outside are the kings and the angels, whose outlines overlap the notional division suggested by the ribbon.  They are larger than the other figures, and bring either gifts or a fanfare of announcement.  They break into the world of the other pairing, the holy family and the shepherd, whose figures are smaller, more self-contained and stationary.

In terms of background, pattern plays an important part in the diptych, showing a ‘quiet pattern of buds’ on the left, against a ‘bolder and more vibrant pattern, like open leaves or petals’ on the right (Drury).  Similarly, flowers on the ground make a fuller, more decorative setting on the right than the bare earth on the left.  Whilst I have not exaggerated the use of pattern to distinguish between worlds, the markings of the wrapping paper are stronger on the lower panels of my depicted Christmas present than on those above.  This is a simple denotation for ‘groundedness’ which then finds something of a release in the placing of the shepherd on the spiral of ribbon.  Here is an abstracted means of lifting a figure both physically and as a reflection of the character’s worship upon the appearance of the angels (at a slight remove from the events below).  

The echo of this dimension is also found in the lighter colouring of both angels and sheep.  As with the diptych, the angels’ realm is one of concord where similarity of uniform and face (in the medieval tradition of portrait by type rather than studies from life) present overwhelming harmony and affirmation of their thrice-repeated proclamation.  Their white robes dominate the image, and as I’ve always thought the animals to be significant witnesses of the Christmas story too, they also pick up this reflection.  In the diptych, the prominent animal in the arms of John the Baptist, a lamb, serves a symbolic function in reminding the viewer that Christ was also referred to as the Lamb of God, whose white purity is celebrated in the book of Revelation.

The heart of the diptych links this picture of Christ as a lamb with Christ as triumphant Son of God, since the gesture of the infant is to direct the flag with the red cross to be passed over to the lamb.  Here another symbol predominant in painting at the time signifies Christ’s resurrection after death which performed a reconciliation between earth and heaven on account of his perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  As Drury observes of the diptych, ‘his crossings-over had joined the worlds together’.  In my image, there is also a red cross which acts in the same manner to both symbolise and effect a joining of worlds.  The message is made clearer in the writing on the gift tag which quotes John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.’

In the case of the diptych, it is likely that the flag carries multiple meanings as well as that highlighted by Drury, referring to the banner of Saint George, patron saint of England, and also to the kingdom of England as represented in the tiny depiction of an island within the flag’s orb.  The presentation of the flag might well refer to the blessing and/or devotion of Richard’s kingdom from/to the Virgin Mary.  As also noted by the presence of the king’s personal emblem on the robes of the angels (the white hart brooch), there is a very definite affinity between heaven and earth, sacred and secular.  In my card, there is this sense of intermingling since the characters of the nativity are photos of plastic models – mass-produced slightly kitsch figurines employed in the depiction of that most holy night.

Finally, it is the action of the king in the diptych which leads Drury to reaffirming its purpose as an object of devotion – his hands remain open, and he kneels.  In ownership of the object itself, Richard is to practice that same reverence and simplicity, so that without grasping or being acquisitive he enters into ‘a moment of happy seeing when the overwhelming beauty of the world beyond breaks into the present’.  It is the same with receiving God’s gift of his son, receiving the nativity story again and appreciating the ‘good news of great joy’.

Lenses on the Bible: recent article publications

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin’s Holy Bible, 2013; David Mach’s Adam & Eve, 2011

2019 has been a year of article publications for me, the first fruits from completion of my PhD in 2017. In that labour of blood, sweat and tears, I considered four photographers as case-studies for new kinds of image/text relations between photography and the Bible. I’ve already introduced Revd Alexander Keith in a previous post, he saw the light of day in the History of Photography 42:4, published earlier this year. Here I’ll introduce Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin briefly, and David Mach in more detail. For another time is that seminal photographer in regard to biblical themes, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Broomberg & Chanarin’s Holy Bible (2013) is a publication I’m very fond of: a Bible with photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict covering the pages. I’ve written about it twice now, in the Visual Commentary on Scripture as part of my commentary ‘Scaping Sin: Leviticus 15-18‘, and a couple of months ago in ‘Engaging with the Bible in Visual Culture: Hermeneutics between Word and Image, with Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy BibleReligion and the Arts, 23:4. They present what I call artistic ways of exploding the Bible, with photographs of catastrophe. It’s quite a provocative hermeneutic in which they imagine a de-centering and deconstructing effect of war reportage, in which the Bible holds its own with a de-centred and deconstructive theology of God beyond words, God as rupture.

I’ve also been a long-time admirer of David Mach’s photo-collages – large-format composites assembled by hand from magazine and newspaper images. Mach produced over forty of them for an exhibition in 2011 called ‘Precious Light’ (which I reviewed at the time here), all with biblical subjects in celebration of 400 years since the King James Version of the Bible was published. In ‘The Bible as Photo-collage and Tableau: David Mach’s Precious Light Series (2011), I’ve written for the German Bible Society’s online journal, Bible in the Arts (Volume 3) exploring this work in greater depth. In the vein of Kudos’ helpful interface for the presentation of academic writing, I’ll answer their questions about this article here:

  • Plain language title: What happened when artist David Mach took cuttings from the Bible.
  • What is it about? David Mach’s ‘Precious Light’ series of photographic collages: huge and with myriad details, these art works show well-known biblical episodes against modern city backdrops with contemporary crowds. I describe Mach’s visual treatment of the text in three ways: the images play to that which is scenic about biblical stories (a realism which is also staged/written like a kind of picture), they give the stories the epic treatment (especially with the wide-angle), and they invite the reader-viewer’s imagination to construct from and with composite, piece-meal knowledge of the stories.
  • Why is it important? Mach brings the Bible into the present tense, which opens the door onto its present-tense theological bearing. Such theology can be seen through the Bible understood as newspaper rather than as Shakespeare (to paraphrase David J. A. Clines) – as being continually renewed, disseminating, and materially embodied, rather than residual, throwaway and inaccurate. Mach invites a particularly engaging consideration of theology as mediatised with his recourse to imaginative re-collection and re-membering of contemporary media.
  • Perspectives: ‘[Precious Light] veered away from just being about the Bible very quickly, to being about people. People living on this earth, like me, with two feet on the ground, and all the things that are happening to us today, in an attempt to try and make this story, that subject matter a contemporary thing, a contemporary art talking about now. I’m not illustrating something from then, I’m trying to talk about us, how we live, and what’s going on now’ … ‘Surreal is too bloody easy. … Collage can be political, contemporary social comment. Because they are real people who exist, every time you cut, you bring something to it – like chopping off Castro’s cigar and putting it in a peasant’s mouth’ (David Mach, 2012).

Picturing the Peacock Arts Trail

Art work by Sheona Beaumont, painter Victoria Cleverly, and Lacock Primary School; St Cyriac’s Lacock.

From the 5th to the 13th October, I’ve been busy exhibiting and curating an exhibition in St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, as part of the Peacock Arts Trail 2019. We’ve had a wonderful 10 days, with over 1,000 visitors to the building, and plenty of inspiring chats over a cuppa and cake. Joining me in exhibiting were local painter Victoria Cleverly, and the pupils of Lacock Primary School.

At our preview event, I unveiled my community project Wall of Remembrance. This is an 8-panel, 35-aperture photographic installation, displayed in the south transept at St Cyriac’s. Featuring lenticular photography (where the images appear to change as you walk past them), Wall of Remembrance commemorates the service and commitment shown by local servicemen and women during the First World War, as well as the love of the families who supported them. The piece is the culmination of a community project in Lacock that began in 2018, having been commissioned by the Green Café at St Cyriac’s Church, and supported by Wiltshire Scrapstore, initially as part of Lacock Remembers 2018. Local families were invited to contribute to the project by sharing their photographs, medals, clippings and other objects connected to war time.

These objects appear in the lenticular panels and include portraits of Major Charles Selwyn Awdry and Major Allen Llewellen Palmer, as well as of Matilda Talbot serving at the Red Cross Hospital in Corsham, and Ivy Gladstone at the Chippenham and Bowood Red Cross Hospitals. Other images include a Soldier’s Penny given to Ernest Leonard Stevens, an engraved communion cup presented to St Cyriac’s in memory of Basil William Ramsbottom, and a shell casing. The poppies in the images were made out of clay by the 1st Lacock Scout Group in 2018. 

My work also included the display of Scriptorium (first displayed in 2018). The complete text of the King James Bible text, with the exception of the Psalms, is transcribed onto Fabriano drawing paper with light, with one book per page. Cyanotypes are photographic prints produced without a camera, in this case with the superimposition of an acetate layer and a single peacock feather, over the sensitised paper. The vivid blue pigment forms as a result of iron compounds reacting to light – the process was originally adopted in the copying of architectural designs known as blueprints. I’m playing with ideas here of old and new copying of sacred texts – the scriptorium was where medieval manuscripts were copied onto parchment, and ‘script’ is also a programme in computer code for running or executing the display of public domain text.

Victoria’s thoughtful paintings with geometry, layers, and textures of natural form and detail (seen together with the artist above) were found in all corners of the church. It was wonderful to create spaces of accented contemplation, where a kind of slow looking worked between painting and architectural setting, and also brought organic shapes and subjects into view. The Lady Chapel at St Cyriac’s worked particularly well for this relationship with its wall and ceiling paintings featuring natural world designs in abundance. Other parts of the church such as the pulpit and the font received specific artistic interventions from the school pupils, who I’d invited to respond with ideas around the theme of unity. With Victoria’s help in class, the results are joyous and colourful, expressing hope and beauty through a world recycled and held together (with plastic and palm-prints), and a rainbow-like church seen in the pulpit above. Other paintings were displayed hanging between the pillars and also share exuberant multimedia designs from children aged between 6 and 9.

It’s been a privilege to share this space and its time with so many interested and enthusiastic people. To the parents and church members who helped with stewarding and cake – you’ve been amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without your help! It’s made the event feel special and connected to the community in new and exciting ways, so thank you. To the church PCC and the team at the Peacock Arts Trail, thank you too. I’ve really appreciated your professional support, with dedicated helpers and layers of expertise all working to make something magical happen – not just here but across the other trail venues. What a rich creative field in this corner of Wiltshire! Here’s to the next one in two years’ time…

A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

Sounds of a summer visual theology

Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.