Denis Desert on a Lenten art exhibition that allows us
to reflect on contrasting interpretations of biblical themes
The Puritan wreckers of the sixteenth century robbed Christians of that period of something vital to faith – the visual. Rood screens were torn down, reredos and altars were destroyed, statuary smashed, murals were whitened. All that enhanced the faith was removed in the mistaken understanding that the visual led to idolatry. But, to my understanding, faith needs to be supported, informed and encouraged through colour, beauty and the work of inspired artists.
It was with this understanding in mind that I taught a course some years ago at my local Retirement Education Centre on Faith in Art. I based the course on the life and ministry of Christ from the Annunciation to Pentecost using art slides of works by artists over the ages, from the icons of the fourth century through to modern artists. We viewed the interpretations of, say, El Greco, who trained as an iconographer in his native Greece, and that inspirational Jewish Hasidic artist Marc Chagall.
At St Paul’s Bedford, where I serve as an honorary assistant, we have set up in conjunction with our Lent course an exhibition: Seeing Salvation. It draws on much of the material I used in Faith in Art. There are twelve sections, starting with the Creation, going through the life of Christ, and ending with an opportunity for reflection in which the viewer sees Dali’s wonderful work Girl at a Window in which the subject gazes out over an inlet on which dusk is falling.
Throughout the exhibition we have tried to provide contrast between the works. So we have the 1450 work of della Francesca of the baptism of Christ set against Stanley Spencer’s work of 1952 in which the baptism takes place in a contemporary lido. In the Gethsemane section we have El Greco’s Agony in the Garden and Dinah Kendall’s modern interpretation. For the Ascension we used Rembrandt’s inspirational work of 1636 and Dali’s surrealistic interpretation in which Christ appears to disappear into a sunflower.
The exhibition was produced by a graphic artist in the congregation who downloaded the material online, had the pictures copied in colour and mounted on board.
The exhibition remained in place throughout Lent and has attracted many viewers. It is clear to me that one of the ways the faith can be conveyed to our ‘post modern’ world is through the eye and imagination. It may well be that some ND readers might be interested in using the material either in digital form or, if close to Bedford, the mounted work itself. If you are interested, get in touch with me, firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 01234 211413. ND