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The Mandorla Art Award

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 15 July 2014

It is the aim of the Mandorla Art Award to challenge artists to create art that is a response to a set reading from Scripture. By doing this we hope to encourage works that belongs to the great tradition of Christian art that attempts to deepen the faith. We find it an irony that although art in the Latin West and Orthodox East found its beginning in this tradition, very little art in this vein is now produced. Moreover, churches now rarely commission art whose function it is to enrich the imagination of worshippers. There are exceptions, the windows of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Bunbury, produced by the late Robert Juniper being one excellent example.

Art in our time is almost uniformly cut off from its origins in the decoration of churches and from commissions to do such work. By and large there is little to see in our church buildings that suggest the narratives of faith or point to the transcendent.

The reason for this absence is both historical and contemporary. Historically, the blame may be placed firmly at the foot of the Reformation that released a new iconoclasm that was strange to the Reformers themselves. For example, before the Reformation the Lowlands produced religious paintings that rivalled the Italian and had a great influence on how Florentine artists painted landscape. After the Reformation commissions for church art dried up and Lowland painters resorted to works designed for the home that celebrated, not key Christian themes but everyday life. Religious painting in England has not survived Cromwell's Commonwealth to this day.


While religious art thrived in the Roman church particularly in the Counter Reformation, Protestant churches were almost uniformly blighted. The turn to non religious subjects in Protestant countries began what is now the dominant artistic style, that of the secular. This move was gradually transformed by Enlightenment thinking that posited the artistic genius who bowed to no authority or tradition, nor, often to an apprenticeship to an established artist. Whereas the great Renaissance painters spent years, often as boys in an artist's studio learning to draw, paint, sculpt and cast there is no such training today. A common complaint made against arts training today is that teachers often cannot draw or paint and hence cannot teach such skills. Conceptual art often does not require any craft skills at all, being a combination of objects that express some often-banal idea. The Mandorla Art Award struggles under this heritage, both in the absence of interest by churches in religious art and with the lack of artists who have the skills to produce it.

While the Blake Prize will accept any work that is "Spiritual", the Mandorla insists on the artists addressing a Christian theme. Certainly we would have better quality of entrances if we adopted a policy of undefined "spirituality" because professional artists would be more willing to create works for the prize since they could created according to their own lights. However, I would argue that all art is spiritual since all art strives to reveal the unseen under the seen. That is why it cannot be compared to photographic reproduction. Indeed, artistic photography is also directed towards the almost absent image in the shadows that reveals more than we would expect. If we accept that all authentic art is spiritual then the Blake is just another art prize with no particular orientation.

There has been much discussion on the Mandorla committee about the label "Christian". I would argue that such a labelling is infelicitous because "Christian" overflows its definition. Theologians talk of the "eschatological remainder" to describe this overflow. It means that when we attempt to define Christian behaviour, or Christian art, or whatever, our descriptions will be incomplete, there will be a remainder. This means that the faith can never be closed by definitions, it will always break out of the bounds that we set for it. That this is not widely recognised accounts for the understanding that anything labelled Christian is narrow and stultifying. Understood correctly, what happens in the Faith is a breaking down of boundaries and the setting free of the creative spirit as the great artistic achievements in art and music of the past richly demonstrate. In our time one may study the music of J.S.Bach without acknowledging that his primary service was to the church.

The cutting edge of the prize is to dare the artist to think deeply about a Scriptural theme and produce work that expresses that theme so that it communicates directly to the patient and critical viewer. We know that this is a very unfashionable thing to do and that many professional artists will not contribute on principle. However, we are determined to persist because we think that art and faith belong together.

The most powerful works of Christian art do more than illustrate biblical narrative; they evoke deep feelings. We see the despair in the faces of Adam and Even when expelled from the garden, the deep sorrow of the disciples surrounding the dead body of Jesus, the awe in the faces of the adoring Magi and the tenderness of the Madonna with her child. Intellectual theology is an essential preoccupation of the church. It is enlivened by fine music, painting, sculpture and oratory. Religious art finds its place in interpreting and deepening theological understanding. Just as the liturgy sung feels deeper than when it is said, art accompanies and deepens the faith. The arts have always been an accompaniment of worship acting in that mysterious place in us that joins understanding with feeling. It is the aim of The Mandorla Art Award to revive that connection.

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The Mandorla Art Award exhibition will be open to the public between the 19th and the 27th July at Linton and Kay Galleries 137 St Georges Tce. Perth. Details may be found at

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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