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Re-imagining the Gospels – Helen Gheorghiu Gould

The gospels, their characters and stories, and of course the unique person of Jesus Christ, have been captured by innumerable artists over the centuries.

From the images of the Madonna and Child that St Luke is said to have made, to the stone-carvings of The Last Supper in the musty catacombs of Rome, and the glorious gilded icons of Byzantium; from the Florentine masters of the Enlightenment, to Titian, Rembrandt, Salvador Dali and Mark Cazalet, artists have re-imagined the people, the places and the scenes of the gospels and created new meanings and interpretations to fit their time.

And, of course, that is the job of artists, says Rowena Loverance: ‘to make meaning visual, so that they themselves can be seen as metaphors for humanity’s task of making meaning from life.’ Through this process, artists become co-creators, translating the good news into a new (albeit visual) vernacular, as much as did William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale.

But how does an artist go about approaching this task?  Capturing the person of Jesus and his life, death and resurrection is simultaneously inspiring and daunting and yet seems to present an endless challenge.  I talked to three very different contemporary artists about how this process works for them.

Henry Shelton

Henry Shelton originally trained as a draughtsman in London, and worked mainly as a commercial artist and designer, until fully committing himself to being a painter in later years.  In his youth, he was inspired by the images at his church and also by the pictures of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and while he painted on Christian themes, landscapes and portraits, he found increasingly his focus was drawn to the gospels.

He will start by focusing on the bible texts and finds images will come to him. ‘I have always believed that painting is a spiritual process.  I feel it is like the Spirit coming through to the canvas,’ Shelton explains. Each piece begins a process through which he will become ‘fixated’, by his own admission, and when he reaches a point when he can do no more with the piece, ‘it leaves me and I’m onto the next one.’

Jesus dies on the Cross - Henry Shelton

Jesus dies on the Cross – Henry Shelton

Shelton’s style has become increasingly minimalist over the years as he tries to pare down and draw the viewer into his images. One image consists of a chalice, wafer and crown of thorns, with the words ‘Do This’ inscribed next to it. Shelton watched with delight, at an exhibition in Westminster Methodist Hall, as a father and his two children became increasingly fascinated by the image. ‘What does “Do This” mean, Dad?’ one of the children enquired, and this allowed Shelton to step in with some commentary on The Last Supper.

‘I want people to look harder at my work, so that it engages them,’ explains Shelton. ‘If you intrigue people they get more from it … I get enormous pleasure out of drawing the viewer into my work, so that they try to work out what it means.’

Shelton has now produced three sets of Stations of the Cross, one of which featured in a one-man show at York Minster, and has completed several commissions for churches in East London.

‘I feel privileged to be part of a great lineage as a Christian artist.  But I do also feel a great sense of responsibility, not to trivialise the gospel but to translate the profoundness of it,’ concludes Shelton.

More on Henry Shelton at http://commissionformission.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Peter Webb

Peter Webb is a Fine Artist and former art teacher, whose commissions include paintings of the Supper at Emmaus, and The Betrayal, on the theme of Peter’s denial, both in contemporary settings.

Peter Webb's Supper at Emmaus

Peter Webb’s Supper at Emmaus

‘The gospels are a tremendous set of stories – especially The Passion.  They are written very graphically, as is the whole of the Bible,’ comments Webb. ‘What inspires me is the desire to help tell these stories.  People constantly need reminding of them.  Or they just don’t know the stories.  When I was doing the Supper at Emmaus I met at a party a very brainy Oxford undergraduate, reading English, who asked me what I was currently working on, and when I told him he said he’d never heard of the supper at Emmaus!’

Webb’s process begins with reading the text and imagining it, in period and modern dress, in various settings and in various lighting conditions. ‘I am one of those painters who allows, or needs, a very long gestation period for a major new work – sometimes several weeks, sometimes months or even years.  Wherever possible, I work from life, so the life I’m working from will influence or modify my mentally generated ideas.’

‘I try to stop when it works as a composition, arrangement of colours, shapes, tones which accords more or less with my mental projection. But as to the picture’s success as a piece of religious art, involving interpretation and theology, I leave that to my critics.’

More on Peter Webb at   http://commissionformission.blogspot.co.uk/

Mark Dean

Mark Dean is part of the young generation of contemporary British artists, whose work has included reimagining the gospels using multi-media.  A lecturer at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, Dean weaves together film and music clips to create art installations.  He won the 2009 Paul Hamlyn Award for Artists.  Mark is also a Church of England priest.

In terms of the process, always starting with the Evangelists, Dean is working with ‘appropriated’ film and music materials, so the meaning is not always his own.  But, in the selection of these materials, Dean can often feel connections arising which offer new insights into the gospels. ‘Lately, I have started out making works for some other reason, and then noticed and developed an explicitly gospel significance at some point in the process of making it,’ he says.

One project specifically tackling a gospel theme was Scorpio Rising 2, which was screened most recently at St Philip’s Church, Salford, in October 2012. It is a reflection on the Gospel of Matthew, pairing Italian filmmaker Pasolini’s black and white film of the gospel with the angry rawness of a 1960s American biker film.

In his commentary on the work, Dean notes: ‘Throughout the work there were many moments when the gospel itself seemed to be being translated at some level in the language of the work, up to the ending, when (in the lower screen) the stone falls away from the tomb to reveal the resurrection, while (in the upper screen) a door … bursts open, following a killing. I have subsequently found that whilst some viewers can see these kinds of correspondences, others do not, and that this differential does not seem to entirely depend on their level of familiarity with the Bible. For my part, the work has remained one way in which I relate to the gospel. The gospel can only make sense when it is related to our own lives, and my life is mediated through art to a large extent.’

Trying to represent the gospels is, he admits: ‘Impossible, but I’ve found there is no way round it. In that sense it is not so different from trying to live the gospel – in fact, that’s what it is, but in terms of being an artist.’

More on Mark Dean’s work at the artists own site:  http://tailbiter.com.  f