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The absence of Christian art

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 4 February 2010


Why are our churches so boring to go into? While the great churches of Europe are veritable galleries of important art, Australian churches seem to have missed out entirely on visual expression of the faith in the form of painting. The explanation for this lack lies, on the Protestant side with its Puritan heritage but even for the Catholics there is very little art in the churches. A recent visit to the newly renovated Catholic cathedral in Perth revealed an empty sanctuary at the East end of which was a series of glass pillars lit in blue which I quickly named the holy histogram. What should be figurative art expressing the faith has been replaced by an abstraction that says nothing at all.

Christian art is a product of the incarnation. The Jews were so careful about idolatry that no image of God was possible for very good reasons. However, when the Church proclaimed that God had become man in Christ it was possible to make a representation of him without impinging on the command against idolatry. This is the wellspring of art in the Christian West.

One of the reasons that contemporary Christian art is not part of the artistic landscape is that much has turned towards abstraction that is unable to express what needs to be expressed. Christian art must be figurative because it represents events in time in which human beings take part. The modern emphasis on the subjectivity of the artist is irrelevant here, rather the artist must respond to something outside of himself. The initial fascination with the internal life of the artist has been short lived; we have come to the conclusion that it is not, after all, interesting. The invitation extended to the artist to express himself should be withdrawn.

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The challenge of Christian art is to get both the theology and the art right. Very few artists are theologically adept and many have not been trained to draw and paint figuratively. The result has been disappointing and the latest revival in photo-realism, perhaps a reaction against abstraction and impressionism tends to leave no room for the imagination and is quickly exhausted to the eye.

There are very few artists who desire to step into the long tradition of Christian art and to tackle the traditional subjects. The few exceptions in Australia are Arthur Boyd’s biblical series. The expulsion housed in the art gallery of New South Wales is a work of intense feeling. Perhaps it is felt that it has all been said before, how many ways are there to paint the crucifixion of Jesus?

The images that are displayed with this article are a series of pictures painted by the Reverend Bob Booth and they are examples of Christian art produced by someone with both the theological and the artistic qualifications to do so. Paintings of the crucifixion are classically very static. Nothing happens in them except when the actual driving in of nails is the subject. The crucified Christ hangs on the cross surrounded by witnesses who stand and watch. Bob’s representation of the crucifixion, the middle of the three, is far from static. There are no watching witnesses. A diminutive Christ on the cross is surrounded by the bodies of a huge bull and a dog. The horns of the bull are close to Christ’s face and the dog seems to be howling at him. The image comes from Psalm 22:

Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan
surround me;
they open wide their mouths
at me
like a ravening and roaring
lion …

For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers
encircle me.

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It is not uncommon for this psalm to be used as a figure of the crucifixion, most of the gospel passion narrative use images from the psalm. The effect of this painting is to represent not just a static scene but the spiritual dynamics of the crucifixion. The forces in the world, the forces of violence and power are represented by the animals; beasts of anarchic chaos. These are the very powers of death that hold humanity in their thrall. Before them the crucified Christ is a pitiable figure utterly defenceless against the horns and the jaws. One can only tremble at his plight.

This is as close as we may get to an image of God because it is an image, not of a scene as in classical iconography but an image of an event. If God is pure event then this is the event that circumscribes him. It is a tragic event and its centrality to Christian faith defuses all ideological attempts to cover the essentially tragic nature of human existence perpetrated by the powers that would put us to sleep. For example, the constant demand for a positive attitude in the face of disease, the self esteem industry, the talk of “life-style” and many others are all attempts to gloss the human condition as unproblematic, and certainly un-tragic. This is a vain attempt at retelling the human story as if sickness and death do not exist.

The image of the cross, and especially this image of the final conflict between Christ and the powers of death, refuses human hubris that has become the hallmark of our civilisation. We have rejected the tragic and maintain that a positive attitude in all circumstances will carry us through. However, the grin easily becomes a grimace as we are battered by our own personal tragedies and we begin to live in an unreal world in which pain is ignored. This is disastrous to art and to ourselves because it is a lie.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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