'This brute stupidity gripped the whole world' - the broad canvas of Christian art

Rite & Reason: Methodists have a more positive attitude towards religious art than Calvinists and members of other reformed churches

‘Curious and remarkable’: Detail of  Pietà by Elisabeth Frink, part of the Methodist Church collection of modern Christian art in Britain on show at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery in Dublin until December 21st

‘Curious and remarkable’: Detail of Pietà by Elisabeth Frink, part of the Methodist Church collection of modern Christian art in Britain on show at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery in Dublin until December 21st

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“God is the sole and proper witness of himself. Meanwhile, since this brute stupidity gripped the whole world – to pant after visible figures of God, and thus to form gods of wood, stone, gold, silver, or other dead and corruptible matter – we must cling to this principle: God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him.”

Thus wrote Jean Calvin on the role of religious images in his Institutes of Religion (1536). Calvin’s words epitomise the second major outburst of iconoclasm in church history which led to the destruction of church art notably in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain. It has had a decisive effect on the aesthetics of non-conformist and reformed churches to this day.

Calvinist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, unlike Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran places of worship, have tended to be austere, with no images, crucifixes, statues, and so on. Luther, contrary to Calvin and Zwingli, retained a far more positive view on church art.

Medieval altarpieces, images and large crucifixes, pointing towards the centrality of grace and faith in the crucified Christ, were kept in Lutheran churches following the Reformation. Unlike Calvin, who repudiated that images had functioned as Bibles for the illiterate, Luther emphasised the didactic, pastoral and commemorative value of images.

Context

Five hundred years on, the context of Christian art has markedly changed. With the continuous secularisation over the last centuries, culminating in the critique of religion by Marx, Feuerbach and Freud, and the subsequent ever-decreasing numbers of adherents to institutional religion, Christian faith has moved to the margins, more or less – and so have works of art with Christian subject matter.

Modern art has been marked by the development of a pluralism of styles and subject matter and the interest of contemporary artists in Christian themes – albeit with some significant exceptions – has become peripheral.

Yet, it is from the 1980s onwards that theological research on the relationship between faith and the arts has proliferated on an unprecedented scale, with theology and religion departments now offering courses and even post-graduate degrees in religion and the arts.

A curious and remarkable addition to this development is the Methodist Church collection of modern Christian art in Britain, on exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery in Dublin until December 21st.

It is curious and remarkable indeed, as one might not have expected the Methodists, originating from the non-conformist dissenter tradition, to venture into collecting religious art.

But then, when one considers the life of John and Charles Wesley, one may be less surprised, as neither ever left the Church of England, and the latter composed more than 6,500 hymns.

If their focus was not on visual art, their appreciation of music infers an openness to the arts in the Christian sphere, a factor that possibly led Methodists to have a more positive attitude towards religious art than Calvinists and other reformed churches.

Vision

The collection is shown for the first time in the Republic. It is accompanied by an informative and amply illustrated guide. The establishment of this wide-ranging collection was not a move from the side of Methodist church leaders; rather it was the vision and enthusiasm of a layperson, Dr John Morel Gibbs, who in the early 1960s took the initiative, believing that “the quality of ‘religious art’ and ‘church furnishings’ was poor.”

He hoped that a collection which would be widely exhibited would “draw attention to the situation and encourage a more imaginative approach to the commissioning and buying of paintings, sculpture and church furnishings”.

Those who have furthered the development of this collection, in particular Rev Douglas Wollen, have honoured Gibbs’s vision. It continues to be exhibited around Britain, containing almost 50 works and including some leading modern artists – Norman Adams, Elisabeth Frink, Eric Gill, Patrick Heron, David Jones,Georges Rouault and Graham Sutherland, among others.

Ranging from stark existentialist works to more decorative, illustrative depictions, there is nothing showy or sensational here. Rather one will encounter works of art that were created with a profound sense of artistic integrity, prompted by an intention of trying to grapple authentically with the enduring themes of Christian faith.

For more information, see rhagallery.ie

Dr Gesa E Thiessen is a theologian who lectures at Trinity College, Dublin and at Sarum College, Salisbury. She is a non-stipendiary minister at the Lutheran Church in Ireland

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