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Theology returns as an important tool for interpreting art

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Since art history evolved as a discipline in the 20th century, we have seen the positivist approach, the history of collections, structuralism and post-structuralism, feminism, postcolonialism and critical theory race, queer studies and more. But what about art and theology?

The divine is rarely allowed to peek, partly because art historians tend to assume a general knowledge of the basics of Christianity and partly because the religion is increasingly seen as superstition irrelevant from the past, propagated by an meddling and often corrupt Church like an opiate. for the mass.

But religion, or more specifically theology, has quietly emerged in some major museums and in academia as an important tool for interpreting art. Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, worked with focus groups representing Christian, Muslim and secular communities before re-exhibiting the Medieval and Renaissance galleries in 2009 as they realized the works were at 80 % religious and should be understood.

Ben Quash, who has held the chair of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London since 2007, explains the distinction between theology and religion: “Theology is the tradition of thought which makes it possible to approach questions related to God in an academic way. If you ask yourself whether it is reasonable to believe in God, what kinds of ideas about God have shaped human civilizations and how they have found expression in practice, in ethics and in liturgy, you are asking theological questions and you don’t have to be a believer to do that.

Quash created the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS) as an open-access online resource that brings together theology and art. Art historians and visiting theologians select three works of art from any era to illustrate a passage from the Old or New Testament. They write a short art history commentary on each work and then a longer comparative text discussing their relationship to the biblical passage. Many art historians who have contributed to the VCS are new to theology, which does not mean expressing subjective religious sentiments, but rather using the Bible to provide scholarly interpretation of art. “We’ve covered about a third of the Bible so far, and we expect to complete the project in about five years,” Quash says.

The initiative has its roots in a joint master’s degree in Christianity and the arts created 15 years ago by Quash and Nicholas Penny, then director of the National Gallery in London. It was partly designed to generate educational material for the gallery, which is available today in the large section of its website devoted to art and religion. Penny had been converted to the idea by the exhibition see salvation, held at the gallery in 2000 under the direction of his predecessor Neil MacGregor. It wasn’t strictly theological, but, as the show’s co-curator MacGregor recounts The arts journal“It was about how the figure of Christ was the form through which the artists explored the great questions of the human predicament of love, suffering, hope, despair and compassion. “

It was already a notable break with conventional art history. MacGregor recalls how, when the exhibition was first proposed, the older curators and Penny himself opposed it because, they said, one would think the gallery was proselytizing. “The Louvre was deeply shocked, of course, because of the French public commitment to secularism [secularism]adds MacGregor. But critics were confused; the exhibition, which had found no sponsor, attracted over 350,000 visitors, many of whom had never set foot in the gallery before.

California-based Christian philanthropists Roberta and Howard Ahmanson, who fund the arts and humanities, education, health care and homelessness projects, later became strong supporters of the National Gallery. According to them, we are currently experiencing a religious revolution similar to the invention of the printing press. In the visual age of the 21st century, with people communicating through images on social media, the Ahmansons saw the potential for an online platform to change the way people read the Bible.

For the West is de-Christianizing faster and faster, says MacGregor, as those raised in a religious environment are dying. While the Pew Research Center’s 2018 survey of Christianity in Western Europe found that 71% of Europeans identify as Christian, only 22% attend church services at least once a month. Materialism and the belief that science answers all important questions, not to mention the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, have contributed to the religion’s discredit. At the same time, MacGregor observes, since 9/11, “Around the world, the political dimension of religious affiliation has been refined and deepened, making the questions quite different from those we had when we were planning” Seeing Salvation” in the late 1990s.

It was in this context that the Ahmansons supported Quash to create the VCS, which launched at Tate Modern in 2018, in part to demonstrate its adherence to contemporary and historical art. So far, Quash says, a small minority of artists have refused to participate in online exhibitions because they don’t want to be associated with religion, but most have been supportive. The site now has a following in North America, the UK, Africa, Australia and Singapore and is used by museum curators, pastors and priests, academics and the general public. In some cases, the VCS has brought scholars and museum curators to an interest in the Bible for the first time.

In April, the VCS inaugurated a collaboration with the Bode Museum and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin entitled “Unlocking Christian Art”, consisting of short films centered on the figures of Jesus and Mary through the works of the collections. More should follow this fall on prophets, angels, patriarchs, evangelists, etc. Another series called “Interfaith Discussions” uses works from the museums to illustrate the relationship between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the so-called Abrahamic religions. The project aims to educate the public about Christian iconography in a city where religion was discouraged under East German communism and where there are significant Turkish and Syrian communities.

“Visual Scripture commentary is an imaginative exercise in reading the Bible as religious people read it and also in seeing how art can bring texts and questions of faith to life without you needing to be religious.” One of the big problems we have today is that people think they can’t be interested in these matters without someone trying to get them enrolled in a church, or they’ll have the seem to have an unhealthy interest in something that’s socially embarrassing,” Quash says. “What I find most encouraging is that the more progressive and adventurous conservatives are willing to engage in religion, while those who think it’s terrible or dangerous are those who are stuck in mud.”

A sample entry by the author of the Visual Commentary on Scripture

The days of Noah yet to come

Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, The Construction of Noah’s Ark, from Die Schedelsche Weltchronik by Hartmann Schedel (1493), woodcut

The story of Noah and the Flood was, and still is, one of the best known of the Old Testament and it has been portrayed with great imagination over the centuries. One can only make an educated guess what thoughts the writer and illustrators of this first printed book had in mind about the story, but it’s safe to say that they would all have considered the Bible as the real history, in which the flood of Noah was an important event because, according to ancient tradition, it ended the first chapter of existence after Creation (the other six chapters of the Schedelsche Weltchronik being: until the birth of Abraham; until the birth of King David; until the Babylonian exile; until the birth of Christ, and then all the time thereafter, with the second coming of Christ as the last chapter).

It is also safe to say that they would have been familiar with how it related to the Second Coming, as these words from St. Matthew’s Gospel have always been read at church services close to Christmas: Jesus said to his disciples, “As were the days of Noah, so shall the coming of the Son of man be. For as in those days before the flood they ate and drank, married and gave in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark and they did not know it until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:37-39). is a warning to be ready for the end of days.

The artists are unlikely to have mastered the intricacies of theological interpretations of Noah’s Flood, but they would certainly have been accustomed to looking beyond the simple facts of the Bible to allegorical and moral meanings, as this was part of integral part of the Christian mentality long after their lives. They wouldn’t have sat like Bible literalists today wondering how all the animals in the world fit into the ark, even if it was as long as a football field.

For, as Saint John Chrysostom wrote in his delightfully down-to-earth homilies on Genesis in the fifth century, don’t speculate what the ark must have smelled like, where they drew their drinking water or why Noah was not eaten by the lions because one should not question God’s actions with human reason.

Thus, in the Middle Ages and beyond, the salvation of Noah with his family and animals was seen as evidence of God’s justice and mercy, while the ark itself was seen as a symbol foreshadowing the Church as the community in which everyone would find salvation. The moral message for the individual was that we must live virtuously and obey God, just as Noah lived virtuously and obeyed God’s instructions, however crazy they may have seemed to him.

But the key messages from Noah’s Flood were that God had said He would not destroy the world again. For us today, the message, always allegorical, is that creation has been entrusted to man and that we are responsible for it. Noah is all of us and we can still save ourselves. Each of us must build an ark against the chaos, the deluge of today. The ark is a microcosm of the whole world.

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