John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Religious Imagination:
Sacre Conversazioni
edited by Sheona Beaumont and Madeleine Emerald Thiele

Palgrave Macmillan, 2023
15.5cm x 21.5cm; 339pp; 64 colour illustrations
printed on 80gsm uncoated paper
HB: 978-3-031-21553-7 EB: 978-3-031-21554-4 PB: 978-3-031-21556-8 (July 2024)

Wherever the great nineteenth-century thinker John Ruskin looked, he theologised. The visual arts and everyday acts of looking were bound up in the symbols and values of Christianity and the Bible. This book brings together a collection of essays by leading experts in art history and theology who bring Ruskin’s spiritual vision into focus for modern eyes, primarily through the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and their wider circle.

Among them, Revd Dr Alison Milbank explores the natural theology in Ruskin’s own drawings and paintings of leaves, while Dr Katherine Hinzman draws out the Protestant and Catholic imaginations of Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones in paintings of Christ. Other media, including Ruskin’s daguerreotypes, wood engraving in the Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1881), and gesso ceiling panels by Mary Watts, are shown to be alive with Ruskin’s visual theology (by Madeleine Emerald Thiele, Madeline Hewitson and Lucy Ella Rose respectively). Sheona Beaumont’s contribution is a short essay written with artist Mark Dean, who in 2019 produced two films reflecting on the angelic symbolism of Marlborough College Chapel and the cycle of paintings there by John Rodham Spencer Stanhope.

These are animated and animating conversations about art works which glow. The full colour illustrations are part of a dialogue where exchanges about art and religion have a present-day dimension, inviting contemplation and transformation. In their introduction, Sheona and Madeleine describe their intentions for the book as seeking to enlighten ‘our understanding about the complexity of the religious imagination’ and also ‘our collective cultural, historical, and theological relationship with religious imagery’. This book is about faith and aesthetics as a living and enduring conversation with the word made flesh.

A timely and exciting collection—a sacra conversazione as the editors describe it—that imaginatively explores Ruskin’s broad interest in Christian faith, devotion, and practice. Beautifully illustrated throughout, the book’s contributors collectively offer the reader both a richly aesthetic as well as critically detailed introduction to Ruskin’s spiritual vitality.

Emma Mason, University of Warwick


Introduction ‘All Great Art Is Praise’ John Ruskin by Sheona Beaumont and Madeleine Emerald Thiele

PART 1: Ruskin’s Sermons on Visual Theology

Earth and Heaven: Ruskin on Dirt, Work, and Beauty by Flora Armetta
Ruskin’s Venice: Embracing Sacred Fragments of Imperfect Beauty by Madeleine Emerald Thiele
‘Those are Leaves’: Ruskin’s Analogical Imagination and the Pre-Raphaelite Theology of Nature by Alison Milbank

Sounds and Visions at The Chapel of St Michael and All Angels by Sheona Beaumont and Mark Dean

PART 2: Pre-Raphaelite Conversations with Ruskinian Truths

Ruskin, Rossetti, and the Sacra Conversazione of Colour by Elizabeth Helsinger
‘The Loveliest Traditions of the Christian Legend’: Ruskin, Burne-Jones, and the Imaging of the Cross by Katherine Hinzman
Crystal Balls: Visions of Creation in the Art of Burne-Jones by Suzanne Fagence Cooper

A World Without Ceiling: Mary Watts’ ‘Language of Symbols’ at Limnerslease by Lucy Ella Rose

PART 3: Reinvigorating Sacred Spaces

Victorian Exodus: Visualising the Old Testament in Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1881) by Madeline Hewitson
Heaven on Earth: Evelyn De Morgan’s Rejection of Materialism by Sarah Hardy
Art on Sundays: Henrietta Barnett and the Whitechapel Fine Art Loan Exhibitions by Lucy Hartley