I highly recommend the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts. Click here to read my review, and see below for chapter summaries.
VISUAL THEOLOGY AND THE TRADITIONAL
1. “Art’s Last Icon: Malevich’s Black Square Revisited” by Charles Pickstone
Pickstone sees Kazimir Malevich’s oil painting Black Square (ca. 1923-30) as expressive of the apophatic tradition of spirituality, which finds God in silence, in darkness, in absence of speech. Using the Russian icon tradition as his discussion framework, Pickstone examines the topics of power, presence, and democracy as they relate to the image.
Here Henrich contrasts two portraits of the same subject: the apocryphal Judith, an Israelite widow who, through courage and cunning, decapitates the Assyrian general Holofernes and so saves her people. Whereas Klimt’s painting depicts Judith as a femme fatale—exotic, erotic, and deadly—Blondell depicts her as an angel “fallen into reality, scarred by her experience of tension and grief and able to challenge viewers, male and female, to see her as she is” (26). The paintings’ disparate meanings derive in part, says Henrich, from the artists’ different uses of nakedness and ornamentation.
3. “Wholly Porcelain: Mimesis and Meaning in the Sculpture of Ginger Henry Geyer” by Deborah Sokolove
Geyer’s art juxtaposes, often humorously, the ordinary stuff of daily life (toys, kitchen utensils, bedding, etc.) with reproductions of religious works of art from earlier periods of history. For example, her Holy Roller is a glazed porcelain paint tray with a roller that is either picking up an entire scene out of the tray or spreading it down there. By drawing on religious symbols in this nontraditional way, she challenges viewers to consider the relationship between everyday life and the life of faith. Other works discussed in this essay are Cookie Cutter Christ and Faith and Reason Sleeping Together.
VISUAL THEOLOGY AND THE POLITICAL
4. “The Mockery of Christ: Tragedy, Resignation, and Courage in the Life and Work of the Artist Eugene Biel-Bienne” by Robin M. Jensen
This essay examines Biel-Bienne’s painting The Mockery of Christ in light of his life of struggle—first against the Nazis in Europe, then with his wife’s permanent war-inflicted injuries, and then later against discriminatory race laws in the US. In all these trials he, like Christ, maintained his dignity and courage; he learned to look past the pain of each blow to that which is of lasting value.
5. “Pop Art Terror / Apocalypse Returning: George Gittoes in New York and Baghdad” by Rod Pattenden
Gittoes’s body of work, which includes video, photography, drawings, and paintings, highlights the common experience shared by the cities of New York and Baghdad as sites of terror and violence. Drawing on the tradition of the grotesque, he disorders and reorders familiar images and terms of reference to create visual collages that both attract and repel. Pattenden calls Gittoes’s imagery “apocalyptic”—not mad but rather mediating hope in a situation of intense stress where the terms of reality are under threat. This essay considers the artist’s role as cultural critic, as one who dwells in the tradition of prophetic criticism and social renewal. The two works discussed are Target with Baggage (Iraq) and Super Power—New York and Baghdad.
6. “Deforming and Reforming Beauty: Disappearance and Presence in the Theopolitical Imagination of Ricardo Cinalli” by Kimberly J. Vrudny
While some critics read Cinalli’s Encuentros V as antireligious, Vrudny reads in it a robust theology of the cross: Christ is compassionately present with the battered and the disappeared, bearing witness to atrocities and providing a means of transcendence, of re-formation. In response to the history of political violence and oppression in his birth country, Argentina, Cinalli depicts a fragmented Christ in a detainment cell, at whose feet lies a mangled heap of amputated body parts. This pile of grotesques, says Vrudny, points not just to the diminishment of the tortured but to the nature of the torturer. And yet there is hope, as indicated by the oculus at the top of the cell, which lets in a stream of light.
In this essay, Vrudny discusses the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and its implications for the world; liberation theology; comparison and contrast to Francis Bacon’s Three Studies; the grotesque and human nature; and the good, the true, and the beautiful. Cinalli’s Last Supper, also part of his Blue Box series, is included in the discussion as well.
VISUAL THEOLOGY AND THE NATURAL
7. “Artist, Clay, Fire, Ritual: A Potter’s Aesthetic” by Don E. Saliers
This essay celebrates the poetics of pottery making through an examination of the five key steps of the process: throwing, loading, firing, unloading and washing, and using. It profiles the work of the Japanese-trained Richard Bresnahan of Saint John’s Pottery in Collegeville, Minnesota, a studio on the campus of Saint John’s University that promotes the integration of art and life, work and worship.
With great reverence and a literary voice, Saliers describes the role of the four primal elements of life—earth, air, fire, and water—in the potter’s process and the thrill of surrendering to their power. Pottery making, he says, is a combination of creating and “letting come to creation,” an activity in which the artist and nature collaborate in the most profound way to bring about color, line, and texture. Of crucial importance is “the sense of an intrinsic ‘sacramentality’ of the whole process—taking elements of the created order, blessing them, breaking open with fire and time, and giving them back, transfigured, to the human community” (106), as objects intended for the exchange of food and drink.
At St. John’s Pottery, the annual firing is preceded by a purification ritual involving salt cast upon the kiln and prayers for a good outcome. Saliers describes his experience of one these rituals, led by Sister Johanna Becker of St. Benedict’s Monastery:
In light of so much destruction of human life by violence and fire, she affirmed hope that the beauty produced by the fires of the kiln would be strong enough to counter the violence and harm done to humans. It was a ritual moment in which the words of this beloved teacher and friend commingled with the physicality of the process, generating on this occasion a prophetic sanctity for all of us who were gathered. (100)
From beginning to end, Saliers sees the pottery-making process as a piece of music—with varying pitches and rhythms—and as a God-honoring reclamation of the material elements of existence.
8. “Theological and Political Perceptions of Freedom and Community: Works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude” by Doug Adams
This husband-wife team emphasizes artistic, political, and religious freedom in their outdoor installation art, challenging boundaries that divide (or once divided) neighbors and inviting new communal experiences. Many of their works are meant to parody famous dividing marks. The Gates, for example, references the Brandenburg Gate, which once divided east and west Berlin but now is permanently open. On display in February 2005 in New York City’s Central Park, The Gates is a twenty-three-mile walkway created by 7,053 saffron-colored gates topped with free-hanging nylon panels. Read from a theological perspective, the gates could be seen as inviting one to cross a threshold—to transcend what is known and to pilgrimage into new territory.
Other similar installations were meant to parody the Berlin Wall (Running Fence) and the iron curtain (Valley Curtain). Their fabrics torn by the wind, these works affirm that the spirit of freedom does not allow such walls to stand for long. Christians might read this as the Holy Spirit cutting through the walls we erect.
Wrapped Coast offers another opportunity for theological engagement. Seeing the earth wrapped in a white shroud for three days and then seeing that fabric removed creates a death-and-resurrection experience for viewers. It also suggests the idea of the earth being a gift.
9. “Theology in Stone” by Deborah J. Haynes
Haynes carves words in marble as part of her contemplative practice. On her one-acre parcel of land in Jamestown, Colorado, she established a stoneyard where she erects these carvings, connecting them with a circumambulation path that she uses for walking meditation and prayer. This path begins with a five-foot-tall standing stone called [THIS] PLACE, a symbol for her decision to “become native to this place.” It wends its way over to her medicinal herb garden, marked by the TEMENOS stone—a Greek word meaning “sacred precinct.” Down by the creek, there’s a stone that reads Dona nobis otium sanctum (“Give us holy leisure”). Inside the creek is one inscribed with the word WATER; submerged for part of the year and on dry ground for another part, this stone helps her be mindful of the seasons and grateful for the life-giving power of water. Also along the path is a grove of trees that resemble female bodies, marked by a stone with the words THE SISTERS. And finally, there’s the HOPE stone, its two inscriptions inspired by Buddhist teachings about being joyful, patient, and present.
Combining wisdom from many of the world’s religious traditions, Haynes’s spirituality is not exclusively “Christian.” However, the Christian influence expresses itself in her recognition of the world as sacred; like Moses, she knows she stands on holy ground. In walking us through her yard, Haynes discusses ancient stone structures, the philosophy of place, the Navajo “Beauty Way,” environmental mindfulness, marble as a symbol of permanence, and the vocation of the artist.
(Note: This September, Haynes’s property was completely devastated by a flood; her home, garden, and carvings were all destroyed and her tools swept away. She shares about this tragic experience on her blog.)
VISUAL THEOLOGY AND THE LITURGICAL
10. “Art in the Service of God: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and the Parish Church of St. Matthew, Northampton” by Graham Howes
This essay examines two works of modern art in St. Matthew’s, Northampton, each of which depicts a traditional subject in a nontraditional way: Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child and Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion. Both were commissioned by Walter Hussey and installed in the 1940s. Howes discusses the planning stages of these works, presenting the artists’ correspondence with Hussey, and the public’s reaction.
11. “Interreligious Communication through the Visual Arts” by Lisa Wren
Here Wren gives us a look inside Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, a school that was founded in 1862 to serve Swedish Lutheran immigrants but has since moved toward an increasingly global view of its heritage and mission while seeking to incorporate a diverse population drawn from many faiths and cultures. In 2005 and 2006, three pieces of original art were commissioned for the chapel to emphasize this evolved identity.
In his painting Community of Believers, William Bukowski used students, faculty, and staff as models; he depicts in their faces a variety of shades of faith, but Christ presides over them all.
Installed on the wall of the balcony is a ceramic piece by Lois Peterson called Listening. Peterson wants her work to be accessible to people of all backgrounds, so rather than relying on figures or symbols, she relies instead on the pure aesthetic qualities of lines and shapes to invite reflection.
WWID? What Will I Do? by Francis Yellow reflects the artist’s dual identity as both a Lakota Indian and a US citizen. The painting features an outline of the United States bordered on the inside by the teeth of Iya, a devouring spirit in Lakota lore. Inside the map is a poem that challenges viewers to consider their roles as consumers of the environment and participants in the foreign and domestic policies of the United States.
12. “Where the Spirit Abides” by John W. Cook
This essay celebrates the innovation of contemporary church architecture, highlighting five such unique sacred spaces: the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles; the Jubilee Church in Rome; the Byzantine Chapel in Houston; Bigelow Chapel in New Brighton, Minnesota; and the Church of the Future, an urban interfaith center that’s yet to be realized.
VISUAL THEOLOGY AND THE COMMUNAL
13. “Gary Seal and Outsider Art: Engaging the Sacramental through Prophetic Form” by Jann Cather Weaver
Here Weaver traces the evolution of the term “outsider art” and its definition, distinguishing it from the similar (but mainstream) style “naïve art.” Originally pejoratively named “art of the insane” or “mad art,” in 1945 Jean Dubuffet used the term “art brut,” which translates into English as “raw art,” thereby elevating it as a legitimate category of art worthy of attention. In 1972 Roger Cardinal coined the term “outsider art.” Outsider art is art that is “uncooked,” unadulterated by culture. It is direct, uninhibited, spontaneous, pure, emerging from the imaginations of people who experience the world in unique and often painful ways, who are mental or social outsiders. Outsider artists operate outside the fine arts system (schools, galleries, museums, etc.) and don’t create for any reason other than their own need of expression. They have no regard for a recipient or for market trends, and their subjects and techniques stem from personal invention, not tradition or fashion.
Gary Seal is one such artist. His developmental disabilities have enabled him to see the world in a different way and to exercise truly free expression. Weaver discusses one of his works: an abstract explosion of color which he named Jesus. This oil pastel requires “un-seeing” through composition theory and “re-seeing” through the artist’s proclamation of the reality of Jesus.
14. “Messengers of Jazz: Rose J. and Melvin R. Smith” by Cindi Beth Johnson
Rose J. Smith is a painter who works in acrylics, oil, and watercolor. Her husband, Melvin R. Smith, creates works in collage and sculpture. Their works are often exhibited together because they complement each other so well. They both focus on capturing and interpreting the African American experience. “My art is a confession made to clarify what I have witnessed in life,” Rose says. Rose’s The Robinson Sisters and Melvin’s Another Country are both discussed. These works, along with others by the pair of them, made up an exhibition at United Theological Seminary called “Messengers of Jazz.” How does their work contribute to the mission of the seminary? Johnson, who curated the exhibition, writes:
Messengers of Jazz provided a window into a world many of us do not know firsthand, yet the Smiths invite those new to their community, without condition, to travel to new places, to glimpse different worlds, to be attentive to that which we often have trouble seeing. Conversations about race and privilege, while often painful and volatile, are conversations a seminary must foster if we are to be about the work of preparing religious leaders. The Smiths invited us into that conversation in new ways. (203)
15. “Käthe Kollwitz and the Question of Death” by Wilson Yates
Kollwitz’s work focuses on the darker side of human experience—on issues of human suffering and social injustice, the realities of war, poverty, and death. This essay deals in particular with the latter category. Exposed to death at a young age, with the passing of her infant brother, Kollwitz later experienced the untimely death of her son Peter, a formative event in her life and work. Drawing on the artist’s writings, Yates traces her constant struggle to understand death. Who is he, why does he come, and where does he take us?
Yates examines Kollwitz’s varied iconography of death: as enemy, stranger, comforter/friend, judge, purveyor of grief, or gatekeeper. Several works are discussed, but those illustrated are Woman with Dead Child, Commemorative Print for Karl Liebknecht, Pieta, Death: A Mother Stretching Her Hand Out to Death, and The Call of the Dead.
When she entered adulthood, Kollwitz abandoned the Christianity of her youth, but in her writings she engages with God and seeks, it seems, to return to him, or at least to penetrate his mystery and find hope through suffering. After a lifetime of struggle with God, she ordered these words for her tombstone: “in peace within His hands.”