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Facets of faith:the gospel in modern and contemporary art – Jonathan Evens

The gospel in art has had many different facets from the fourth century to the present, over which time period an intimate linkage between the visual arts and Christianity has been forged and sustained.

This linkage formed initially through inculturation, as Christians appropriated symbols and images from Roman culture which enabled them to express and explore faith in Christ.  It continued by way of icons, striking visual images that through prayer and adoration open a gateway for the light and grace of God.  The permission granted through Christ’s incarnation to depict the divine in human form developed in the West in the direction of realism which then competed with the grandeur of the baroque for the patronage of the church.  The baroque increasingly won the ecclesiastical kudos but realism outgrew the church and became the dominant Western style culminating in the pathos of Rembrandt’s privately commissioned biblical and secular images.

Throughout, content had ruled for the church as art had illustrated biblical narratives and the lives of the saints for teaching the faith, inspiring praxis, and facilitating prayer.  By the time Impressionism initiated modern art, art had already freed itself in many ways from the patronage of the Church and, as form not content was its primary focus, the developments of modern art led to an increasingly strained relationship between the Church and the visual arts.

'Nice to see you' Sergiy Shkanov

‘Nice to see you’ Sergiy Shkanov

Modern art developed initially by means of movements studying each element of construction separately – Henri Matisse characterised these, from his own practice, as drawing, colour, value and composition.  This experimentation moved initially in the direction of abstraction (through pioneers such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich) and then, by means of Marcel Duchamp’s ready mades, recognised that anything can be art (including ideas, in the case of conceptual art).  This focus on form raised significant issues for the Church in relating to modern art movements, which at one extreme could be perceived as contentless while, at another, could appropriate traditional christian iconography for their own purposes.  As a result, we have seen condemnation of specific artworks perceived to be blasphemous, continued commissioning of styles viewed as traditional, and an apparent general decline in church commissions.

The story of modern art has therefore often been told solely as a secular narrative but that telling of the story ignores the influence of spirituality more generally, and Christianity in particular, on its development.  Roman Catholic artists played prominent roles in Post-Impressionism, the Nabis, Fauvism and Cubism.  Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism and the Thomistic Study Circles, which met at his home, influenced many artists.  Expressionist artists frequently painted biblical narratives while Futurism developed a strong strand of sacred art.  Abstraction was viewed by many as the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm.  Suprematism and Abstract Express-ionism were both influenced by the underlying principle of icons.  Dominican friars and Anglican clergy alike called for the great artists and architects of their day to design and decorate their churches.  A revival of traditional icon painting occurred with centres in Greece, Russia, Europe and Scandinavia.  Visionary artists abounded within Folk Art while many mainstream visionary artists also used Christian themes and imagery.  In response to the growth of christian art on the Asian continent, the Asian Christian Art Association was founded in 1978 to encourage the visual arts in Asian churches.  Australia encouraged con-temporary religious art through the establishment of the Blake Prize in1951.  Polish Art in the 1980s was marked by a profound interest in the whole question of the sacred in art and many exhibitions were held in Roman Catholic churches.  There has also been extensive use of christian imagery by BritArt artists with such iconography and narrative often used as a frame for the artists’ critiques of contemporary life, including politics and culture.



This partial summary indicates some of the diverse means by which artists have expressed or engaged with aspects of the gospel in modern and contemporary art.  To explore what some of these approaches look like in practice, I would like to end by highlighting work from artists with whom I work in commission4mission, an arts organisation encouraging churches to commission contemporary art.

Henri Matisse, in describing his work for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Venice, wrote that ‘simple colours can affect the innermost feelings’ and this remains a motivation for many abstract artists.  Caroline Richardson uses the processes of fusing, bonding and sandblasting glass to create abstract designs in architectural settings. Her Love design, one of a series based on the fruits of the Spirit, contrasts complementary blues with yellow in sequences of ripples emanating from a small but central red heart. Love is felt here as waves of peaceful yet vibrant colour lapping over us.

Sergiy Shkanov also works in glass but uses representational motifs within abstract designs.  In Nice to see you (on front cover) the four open hands create a circle of welcome into which we are invited. This is a piece which plays in the spaces between the predominantly sacred style of stained glass, the popular catchphrase of the title, and his bright, inviting colours suggest a warmth of welcome.  Are these the hands of God or those of our neighbour?  We don’t know.  They could be either or both simultaneously, perhaps depending on context.  Whatever, we feel we are welcome.  Image, colour and design combine to draw us into a space and a moment in which welcome can be received and felt.

Ally Clarke has created several installations which can be recreated on request in churches and other spaces.  From a tangled chaos of broken branches a fragile wooden ladder is formed and rises into the air within which paper aeroplanes, inscribed with the hopes of participants, soar. Agony of Hope, devised in collaboration with Heather Gani, creates a visual environment substance of our hopes, dreams, ambitions and aims.  Beauty from brokenness, hope from despair, as the hymn writer puts it, but visualised in this contemplative yet inspiring space.

What is the gospel?  What is art?  In our time many answers can be given.  Some church historians would argue it has always been thus.  To encounter the gospel in contemporary art, this diversity must be embraced.  The traditional forms of expressing the gospel in art – illustrating biblical narratives and the lives of the saints – remain, albeit sometimes in the newer form of movements like Expressionism, while attraction and reaction to the meaning, impacts and influences of the gospel also continue to inspire creative work by contemporary artists working in fields such as the abstract, conceptual, performance and relational arts.

A recent installation by Josiah McElheny at the Whitechapel Gallery (The Past Was A Mirage I Had Left Far Behind) transformed the Gallery into a kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors with seven large-scale mirrored sculptures arranged as multiple reflective screens onto which reconfigured abstract films were projected. To embrace the diversity of ways in which the gospel is expressed and questioned, explored and critiqued, in and through contemporary art is to see ourselves and our faith reflected in just such a myriad of mirrored facets.  f

commission4mission:                 http://commissionformission.blogspot

Ally Clarke:

Caroline Richardson:

Sergiy Shkanov:       


Jonathan Evens is a Vicar in East London and the secretary of commission4mission, an arts organisation encouraging churches to commission contemporary art, while also creating his own visual and written work.