Seeing church and theology in stereo

Cardboard stereoscope with inbuilt stereoscopic photograph, from Jumièges Abbey, Normandy.

I’m continuing a blog series which is exploring more experiential ways of engaging with art and theology, with particular reference to photographic technologies. Today, I completed a two-week course from FutureLearn with the University of Edinburgh, ‘Stereoscopy: An Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography’. Free to access, and wonderfully user-friendly, I checked in over a period of two or three days to whistlestop the 40 or so points on this course. Each was characterised by images, short commentary, links, references, or videos: a byte-sized diet of amuse-bouches on the fascinating technology and contexts of early Victorian stereographs. The online learning platform itself has theological implications for the experience of art and images, though these are not my subject here. Rather, the stereoscope itself is.

They are remarkable images, involving ‘the simultaneous perception of two monocular projections, one on each retina’, as described by Charles Wheatstone in 1838. His invention of the stereoscope created a handheld viewing instrument with mirrors (for drawings in the first instance), but it was the later lenticular stereoscope designed by Sir David Brewster whose lens-based design is remembered. A pair of photographs, each fractionally different as taken from different points, are usually presented together on single cards, which are then inserted like slides a couple of inches in front of the lenses. In my foldable, cardboard ‘readymade’ above, the images are part of the box – a tourist souvenir I picked up at Jumièges Abbey while on holiday in Normandy a few years ago. Optically, the lenses aid the eyes to focus beyond the picture plane, at which point the wall-eyed convergence (as opposed to cross-eyed convergence in front of the picture plane) perceives the images as one, with the illusion of 3D projections across its surface.

Many a stereoscopic photograph of an abbey ruin was produced during its boom period in the mid-nineteenth century. Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was a master of such views of church architecture. His photographs range from atmospheric ruins in romantic settings (for example those at Furness Abbey, 1860 and Glastonbury Abbey, 1858) to sculptural studies of light and stone detail (for example at Rosslyn Chapel in 1856 and Westminster Abbey in 1858). The ruin carried a pictorial emphasis which imbued typical tourist scenes with an expansive melancholic vision, deliberately evoking the spiritual undertones of the picturesque ideal. Views by Fenton and others such as Francis Frith were readily commercialised by companies specialising in stereographic production, who capitalised on the Victorian appetite for armchair travel. It’s easy today to align the romantic effect with our own somewhat nostalgic attribution to a sentimental style, but the theological weight of a church’s representation should be remembered for carrying some substance at the time. Oliver Wendall Holmes famously evoked what was almost a supernatural experience in looking at stereographs, ‘a dreamlike exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance’ (in the 1861 essay, ‘Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture’), and he gave specific significance to the Dome of St Paul’s and Canterbury Cathedral, with the presence(s) of divine authentication as amplified by the power of the 3-dimensional lens. The images still hold a certain magic today, and my research will continue to explore the spiritual resonance of looking at, among other things, the Palestinian landscape and Victorian diableries in stereo. It is, specifically, a corporeal and immersive way of seeing, which occasionally received enthusiastic religious attention and explanation.

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. Chloë 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…