Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine

Sara Mark’s Lavant at The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester

Visual Theology Conference Report
19th-20th October 2018
The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester; The Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester; in association with the Diocese of Chichester

Our two-day conference explored ‘Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850-Now)’. Together with Madeleine Emerald Thiele, we put on a programme of 17 papers from open submission, 2 keynotes, 1 roundtable, and 2 installations/performances of art work. Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, amongst whom were represented leading academics in Art History and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic traditions, and award-winning artists. The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here):

• The Visually Discursive Bible
• A Theology of Installation with Maciej Urbanek
• Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation (including an artist-in-residence programme at St James’ Weybridge, sound/dance performance at St Paul’s Cathedral, and the community engagement through Beyond in Brighton)
• Institutional and European Commissioning
• Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image (keynote 1, Professor John Harvey)
• Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
• Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
• Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
• Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals (keynote 2, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine)

Hosted at the Bishop’s Palace, with a conference dinner at the Chapel of the Ascension (Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester), and including a tour of Chichester Cathedral’s artworks, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. This included the performance of Sara Mark’s piece ‘LAVANT’ with Compline after the conference dinner, the invitation to Prof Gill Clarke to talk about the Otter Collection in situ, the recognition of the Alight app for Chichester Cathedral, and the installation of my own work Scriptorium in the Bishop’s Chapel (which also hosted Sara’s shroud by the end of the conference). The visually rich, printed programme also served to highlight the range and multi-disciplinarity of the conference (available to buy here), as well as our significant online presence both through our website (www.visualtheology.org.uk) and on Twitter (@Visual_Theology).

We feel these two aspects of the conference – the strength of the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the settings – were key in contributing to an extremely successful event. Included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have had were a number of comments that convey the sense of grace and generosity felt by those attending. This has been truly humbling, and beyond what we expected. Also on this level, 5 local hosts put up some of our long-distance guests (including a very generous response from St Pancras, Chichester), which was deeply appreciated. We had a total of 70 people attending, with a fair mix of clergy, artists, and academics. Of these, 61 attended the first day, 45 the second day, with 37 attending the conference dinner. We also had an equal proportion of women/men (both presenting and attending), and a range of ages from students to those in retirement.

We remain extremely grateful to the Bishop Otter Trust for underwriting what has been an intellectually, spiritually, and socially engaged event. Visual Theology will go on to deepen and develop these relationships with future events, as a formal entity between myself and Madeleine. We have a vision for that which we felt blossoming at Chichester, for the generosity of collective conversations that can happen between church leaders, academic researchers, and artists. It is in no small part down to the original vision of Bishop Otter himself that we have felt able to take this step.

Feminist photo lines at the Pallant House Gallery

Room 10 at the Pallant House Gallery’s ‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks’.

The Pallant House Gallery is showing the touring exhibition Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Artworks, until 16th September (previously at the Tate St Ives, and continuing to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2nd October – 9th December). The display of over 80 female artists, from 1854 to the present day, nominally explores the inspiration of Woolf’s writings through artists who work across a variety of media, from film to photography, from painting to collage, from installation to sculpture. The mix presents a record of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ and a scoping of ‘alternative ways for women to be’ (from the press release). Let’s own a bit of my own limited female experience here, by acknowledging from the outset that I know nothing about Virginia Woolf and have never read her work. I will be blogging again about her later this year, in a spirit of reckoning with those texts as they might relate to her family’s positioning on the Bible, especially in the light of her sister Vanessa Bell’s involvement with the Berwick Church murals in Sussex (and her photography for the same). That presents a more specific opportunity to relate the artistic-literary impulses of the Bloomsbury set to Christianity and the Bible, which does not run in the currents of this exhibition. Instead here, I found myself sifting lines of feminist art practice not from Woolf outwards, but across modernism and across photography and across the exhibition’s four themes of landscape, still life/the home, the self in public, and the self in private.

I confess myself disappointed in the shrinking of ‘the vast scope of the female experience’ to these themes. Where are the rooms themed ‘God’, ‘war’, or ‘technology’? When the exhibition does introduce a perspective of engagement that steps outside the framed exhibits, as with France-lise McGurn’s multi-coloured meandering lines painted across the walls of Room 10 (above), or with Eleanor Smith’s Shrimp Shell wallpaper-like embellishments for Room 13, these remain confined by a decorative, essentially harmless, tone for what is the more serious business of a serious story. And that in turn is failed by dislocated glimpses into whole lives of intentionality reduced to labelled observations of female bodies, vases, or fields. It is perhaps unfair to expect deeper, more rigorous, explorations of the female mind in such an eclectic and ranging collection of works, but the effect for me was to suggest that female experience aligns with precisely these qualities of eclecticism and reductive scatter-brained attention.

Eileen Agar, ‘Ladybird’, 1936; gelatine silver print and guache
Penny Slinger, ‘Perspective’, 1970-7; photo collage

I did think, however, that photography was well-represented. In that sense, an ownership of medium presented itself through particular female artists where I hadn’t seen it before – to me, the ownership of the camera/photograph, as opposed to the ownership of painting still-life, or the ownership of minimalist sculpture practices, or the ownership of the pen, is already a very different feminist exercise. The 1920s and 1930s saw Claude Cahun pre-date Cindy Sherman with self-portraiture as a constructed get-up of identity, while Eileen Agar and Edith Rimmington take the collaged image into surrealism and the unconscious. They hustle themselves through younger conventions of the medium’s transparency, a transparency hitched to self-representation and the document and less to the objecthood of the subject. I like Agar’s dancing ‘feminine type of imagination’ (her words), and Cahun’s Judith or Salomé (not in the exhibition) become a biblical look-in before Sherman’s series of the same. A later cluster of 1970s work introduced me to Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and Birgit Jürgenssen. Slinger’s series of collages over seven years, titled ‘An Exorcism’, evoke a force of emancipation that can only be expressed through pseudo-spiritual terms of release from ‘spirits of the past and other people’s ideas of them’.

Is it a mark of the museum/gallery curator practices (or funding directives) that the threads of emphasised significance, the statements about this or that art work, have to express historic value over and above other values? I felt a tension in the exhibition between historic female artists held up as exemplary for their positions in a story of emancipation, and between the contemporary female artists held up as exemplary by association with that story. The former are somehow confirmed, the latter remain unconfirmed by history, yet are pressed into that line. The former includes the small self-portrait by Louise Jopling (1877, in the gold frame, top image), a founder of a painting school for women in the nineteenth century, while the latter includes Zanele Muholi’s photographic self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015, top image, right). It’s not that I think contemporary work can’t be important for history – of course it can and will be. Rather, to stress the activist, political thread here in these stridently progressive terms (Muholi brings her South African identity to questions of gender, racism, and homicide) is actually a limiting operation for what I think is the present-tense meaning of art made now, particularly photography. Recent photography categorically resists historical significance: it is life in front of us. And there is an ‘us’, into which its mode of meaning plays – not the ‘them’ of history. To speak to, or with, an ‘us’ is ideologically miles apart from the posture of ‘them’. For every expanding photographic gaze on different corners and perspectives of our world, the inscribing frame is one of collective and continuity (even if speaking of difference within it, as with Muholi). The viewing implications are of responsibility rather than influence, of a horizontal relation of humanity rather than a vertical one of intellectual patterning. As I said of another collective exhibition ‘Tribe’ earlier this year, 21st-century feminism is, I think, ‘less about feminist politicisation, more about feminine vocalisation’. We need to recognise this interactivity in the viewing and making of art in this space, and photography puts us there, centre frame.

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.