Christian Art in the National Gallery, London: Two Books

For about a thousand-year span (from roughly the eighth through seventeenth centuries), images of Jesus dominated Western art. Annunciations, Nativities, Last Suppers, Crucifixions. Preaching Christs, healing Christs, dead Christs, risen Christs. Christ as the Good Shepherd or Pantocrator. Perhaps these sorts of images seem dry and stilted to you; uninspiring, artificial—always the same dead stares, always the same pious poses and gestures. They used to seem that way to me. But when I took an art history course my sophomore year of college, it really opened up my understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces of earlier centuries and enriched my faith as well. I had never realized how much meaning was packed into some of these paintings. That’s because I had never allowed myself the time to get lost in a painting—I never gave the pictures a fair chance to resonate. And I had never learned the language of the artists of each age.

Painting the Word by John DruryThe Art of Worship by Nicholas Holtam

Here are two books that aim to help you sharpen your spiritual perception when it comes to art viewing, each written by an Anglican clergyman, and each confined to paintings from the National Gallery in London: Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings by John Drury, former dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and The Art of Worship: Paintings, Prayers, and Readings for Meditation by Nicholas Holtam, former vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. My intention was to read both and then recommend the best one (there is, after all, a lot of overlap in the image selection), but alas, I have to recommend both! They do take different approaches, though, so it depends on what you’re looking for. 

Painting the Word by John Drury (1999)

Painting the Word has an analytical focus; Drury discusses the various works mainly from a technical and art historical standpoint, drawing on his training at Norwich Art School. Composition, line, color, content—Drury treats all these elements as part of each painting’s religious meaning.

The flap copy says that the book presents a range of paintings “through the ages,” but really almost all of them are from the Renaissance and Baroque periods and cover a span of only three centuries. Out of the thirty-seven paintings discussed, only three are medieval, and two modern (post-impressionist, both Cezanne). This reflects the focus of the National Gallery’s collection.

In the preface, Drury says that in order to draw out the intrinsic meaning of these paintings, we have to know the internal and external conditions under which they were created. The paintings may do the initial work of putting us in a prayerful mind frame, but for that to flourish into anything meaningful and not merely superficial, he says, we have to work hard to see the images through the eyes of their original creators and viewers, and for us that requires reading.

Drury challenges us in the preface to search for the fundamental unity beyond or within the contradictions of each painting, and within Christianity itself. (For example, how is it that the crucifixion, an event so horrific, was so often pictured as beautiful and elegant?  How is it that we feel pleasure by looking on Christ’s pain?) Drury also tells us to look for the themes of sacrifice and incarnation threaded throughout the book.

The book is divided into three parts—like a triptych, Drury says: the story of Christ as the central panel, “how the world was imagined and looked at by people for whom Christianity was completely coterminous” as the left wing, and “how the world was seen by people whose Christianity was turning into a way of looking at it for its own sake” as the right wing.

The first chapter opens with a reflection on mythical time versus historical time, on the separate and distinct realms of God and man, and what it looks like when the two meet; Tiepolo’s Allegory of Venus and Time and Veronese’s Vision of St. Helena are examined. The bulk of the book then very typically tracks through various scenes from the life of Christ. It closes with the this-worldly Christianity of Rubens and Velazquez, whose faith shaped their work, but sometimes in less obvious ways. When free to paint what they wished without having to rely on church commissions, Rubens chose landscapes, and Velasquez chose genre paintings—that is, scenes of everyday life. The work of these two men, Drury says, demonstrates a seamless blending of the secular and sacred, a collapsing of the two-world cosmology (heaven/earth) of orthodox Christianity into one.

In the epilogue Drury considers the notion of solitariness versus community through two works by Cezanne. His Old Woman with a Rosary is a portrait of an ex-nun who had left her convent because of religious doubt, and whom he had taken into his home as a servant—here she is, clinging to a broken rosary, her eyes dark with introspection. What is she thinking and feeling? Is she looking back on her faith with nostalgia, remembering the security it once brought her, which has now given way to uncertainty and fear, or is she reclaiming her faith in a deeper, more personal way, tapping into the truth that exists beyond the strictures of organized religion?—or maybe both?

Paul Cezanne, Old Woman with a Rosary, 1896. Oil on canvas, 80.6 x 65.5 cm.

The last painting, The Large Bathers, shows a group of individual bodies participating in the greater bodies of society and nature. There is an “exuberance of exchange” of color and form—the red of the earth is also in the women’s hair; the green leafage and blue sky are reflected on their nude bodies. But look at the lone figure on the right. Who is she, and what is she doing circling the fringes? Drury says that she is as much joined to the group as she is separate from it.

Paul Cezanne, The Large Bathers, 1894-1905. Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm.

On first reading the book, I was unclear about what Drury was trying to say with these two paintings, and how they comment on modern Christianity—which Drury claims is a different Christianity than the Renaissance and Baroque artists knew. But on looking back and writing through it, I think I understand: the woman in each of these two Cezanne paintings has genuine faith but also convictions that lie outside the mainstream, so she is made to feel like an outcast by the institutional Church; her saint status is recognized by God but not by the earthly communion of saints. I think Drury’s point is that today’s Christianity (or should I say, God as we know him today) accommodates, to some degree, doubt and heterodoxy, and whereas faith used to be something practiced in community, it has now become more private, more internalized, more “spiritual” and less religious. More and more people are leaving the church to ask questions and to find God and themselves and to seek beauty and live it out in new ways with a devotion no less holy, and no less “Christian,” than the devotion felt by the saints of earlier centuries. If you read the book, I’d be interested to hear how you interpret Drury’s conclusions. Keep in mind, though, that this book is descriptive (how it is), not prescriptive (how it should be). Drury does not suggest that Christians should leave the church. (Why would he? He’s a priest.)

One of my favorite parts of the book is all the details of paintings that are provided—details that are nearly impossible to notice unless you’re standing before the actual full-size image, or playing around with the zoom function on the museum’s website. For example, in Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation, I had never noticed the spray of golden particles that the dove is emitting from his beak, or the hole they burn in Mary’s tunic. Or the two goldfinches in the lower left-hand corner of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity, omens of Christ’s passion (they have red marks on their heads). Or the discontinuous goings-on in the background of Antonello da Messina’s Crucifixion, including a mounted party setting out, oblivious (or just indifferent) to the event depicted in the foreground (Drury relates this detail to a few poetic lines by W. H. Auden: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along . . .”).

Fra Filippo Lippi, The Annunciation (detail), 1450-53. Egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm.

Antonello da Messina, Christ Crucified (detail), 1475. Oil on wood, 41.9 x 25.4 cm.

Not only does the book include several details of each painting, it also includes photos of other related paintings, which are introduced for either comparison or contrast. I like how Drury brings artists into conversation with each other in this way. For example, he discusses Poussin’s Annunciation as a classicist response to Bernini’s theatrically erotic The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. And in discussing conventional Marian iconography, he notes the striking absence of a crown and angels in Velazquez’s Immaculate Conception—all the more striking when set beside Francisco Pacheco’s version of the same decade. Velazquez was one of the first artists to bring this moment down to earth. (The evolution of groundedness—of angels, saints, and Christian virtue—is loosely traced throughout the book.)

The Art of Worship by the Reverend Nicholas Holtam (2011)

This book has more of a devotional focus and format. The language is more accessible and spare (one page per painting, whereas the other book has about six at a larger trim size). Holtam’s objective, it seems, is not so much to get you to know the paintings better as to get you to better know and appreciate the God who’s represented through them. That’s not to say that Holtam doesn’t engage in any technical analysis or provide historical background—he does, but only in the space of one or two paragraphs. The majority of the text deals with theology and biblical narrative. Situating the paintings in these two contexts is more important to Holtam than establishing the contexts of time period and movement.

The Art of Worship is divided into three sections: Praying the Scriptures, Prayers of the Church, and Prayers in the World. I don’t really understand the distinction between the first and second sections (both depict scenes from the Bible and from the lives of saints). But the last section is what really makes this little anthology unique, in that the paintings chosen are not explicitly religious—they are portraits, still lifes, depictions of ordinary people, objects, and events. And yet Holtam examines them through Christian eyes and in doing so finds spiritual meaning in such things as a teacup, an acrobat, a horse show, a retired warship, and a vase of flowers. For example, he turns Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) into a reflection on the various stages of life and decay, and how we ought to be thankful to God during each of these stages, and recognize the beauty in them. Alongside Edgar Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, he reflects on God’s strength, imagination, beauty, and verve (Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a person fully alive”), and admonishes us to celebrate all that is possible and enlivening.

I really appreciate this last section, because it challenges the standard definition of Christian art. What makes art “Christian”? Can’t “secular” art still teach us about Christ? Almost all art is spiritual—that is, it speaks to the spirit of man, to its needs and questions and longings—and is meant to point the viewer toward a truth that lies somewhere beneath the literal image. Holtam challenges us to look beneath the surface of all these paintings to discern not necessarily what truth the artist intended to convey but what truth we see in it and can take away. To treat art viewing as a form of worship, and to look for God in the everyday.

Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879. Oil on canvas, 117 × 77 cm.

van Gogh Sunflowers

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888. Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm.

The other high point of this book is its skillful selection of poetry and prayers—the best of any devotional book I’ve read. A lot of times with art books I’m disappointed by the poetic pairings; they’re usually overly general, bland, or unrelated. However, Holtam has taken care to choose pieces that are linguistically rich and rich in insight, and they truly do inspire in me a heart of worship. I discovered some new voices and new metaphors, new ways to pray, and new things to be thankful for.

In many ways, The Art of Worship is probably a better entry point into the world of Christian art, if you’ve not yet been introduced or are unsure of whether it’s for you. Also, it would work well as a daily devotional program (forty-six days), because it is succinct, and the focus is on Scripture and prayer. However, if you want to learn more about the context in which the works were commissioned, created, and used, and to meditate on them in more detail, I recommend Painting the Word.

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3 Responses to Christian Art in the National Gallery, London: Two Books

  1. Pingback: Christian Art in the National Gallery, London: Two Books | The Jesus … | Nail It To The Cross

  2. Thanks for reviewing these. They both sound like great reads for any Christian interested in the arts– even nonwestern art– since so many Christian artists around the world are glocal in style and content, drawing from east and west as well as various historical periods. I also like that fact that The Art of Worship discusses some “non-Christian” paintings and shows how Christians can draw biblical truths from them as well, something that MANY Christians are unaware of, sadly.

  3. Pingback: John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London – Art & Theology

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