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…

SBL report St Andrews 7-11 July

St Andrews Old Course
St Andrews Old Course

The International Meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature was this year held at the University of St Andrews for 5 days in July. Attended by over 850 delegates, the conference attracts international scholars working across a range of areas and disciplines relating to the Bible, the Society being the oldest and largest organisation in this field. With the University of Gloucestershire team support of Prof Gordon McConville and fellow-student Vivian Randles, I was pleased to be able to present a paper to the Bible and Visual Culture group, along with 7 others over the course of two sessions.

I say pleased, but the rather daunting prospect became even more challenging when my introduction to the conference involved negotiating a densely-packed programme, the combined brains of prolific and renowned biblical scholars, very hot seminar rooms and my own third-stage-pregnancy distractions. A popular opening seminar with 6 papers presented in honour of Richard J. Bauckham included presentations from N. T. Wright and Loveday Alexander; while a seminar on the Bible and Moving Image offered reels of interest on themes such as the unrepresentability of the resurrection and Exodus 8:2 in the film Magnolia. At nearly a dozen papers on the first day, I realised some pacing was in order.

A trip to the beach and an open top bus tour were, after all, necessary in order to better garner the original visual context of the subject of my paper – the 19th-century Scottish minister Rev Dr Alexander Keith. His introduction to photography may well have been in St Andrews through the friendship of Sir David Brewster (then Principal of the University) and his circle of pioneering friends who were making some of the earliest calotypes in the world. Photography led Keith to employ the help of one of his sons in photographing sites in the Holy Land, to undergird his thesis regarding the evidence for the fulfilment of prophetic texts. In my paper I discussed the ways in which Keith assumed a certain literalness of image and text, and their conjoined proof of God’s supernatural involvement in the landscape. Some questions and comments were helpfully engaging, and the paper was well-received.

Overwhelming to me personally however, was the committed and rigorous approach of all engaged in this area of biblical studies, particularly as encouraged by the Chairs of the Bible and Visual Culture section, Prof Cheryl Exum (University of Sheffield) and Prof Martin O’Kane (University of Wales Trinity St David). On both days of the presentations, discussions were lively and animated as to the institutional and methodological challenges of this interdisciplinary field. Questions debated included what objects are we studying, for whom is the research, and how is visual critique to be encouraged in what is primarily a literary field? Though it’s obvious that working out answers to these questions will be ongoing into the long-term, it was nevertheless encouraging that SBL has recognised and fostered the increasing significance of visual modes of biblical interpretation – from the rise of popular culture references in contemporary media to iconographical tradition in the long reception history of the Bible in art.