Can An AI Paint An Icon?

The Severed Head of St. John the Forerunner, c. 1870s. Egg tempera on silvered and gessoed wood, 31 x 26 cm. Private collection.

There’s a timely reflection by Seung Heon Sheen over at Transpositions on the relationship between AI-generated art and iconography, with implications for how we might consider the relationship between an artist and their work more generally. It draws on relevant texts from the iconoclast controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries. Here’s a snippet of the argument in nuce:

… any ‘icon’ generated by a ML algorithm would be inherently idolatrous since the relationship between the image and the archetype would be severed. That is, although the works produced by a human iconographer and an AI ‘iconographer’ may be outwardly similar, inwardly they would be radically different due to the disparity in the process of their creation. A human iconographer faithfully contemplates and depicts the archetype; an AI abandons the archetype and merely replicates its images. And if this is so in the case of iconography, it implies a danger of idolatry in involving AI in religious art or employing it for religious purposes.

You can read the full piece here.

Things to do in the belly of the whale

When I fractured my skull in late 2019 in a cycling accident, I went into an early lockdown. While life continued for so many, mine stood still, as I learnt new rhythms of selfhood. I took Julian of Norwich as my guide and I learned to sit still. With a cat and an acorn as my teachers, I sat: as the fires provoked us, as air pollution apps were downloaded and golf ball hail rained down on parliament. I was in training; training, for the eventual lockdown of COVID-19. I emerged from my restrictive neck brace into the still-restricted confines of my small (but lovely) apartment. But now I shared the experience with the world.

What I hadn’t expected is the noise, the haste, and the pounding incessant need for ‘connection’ that now surrounded me.

We all need each other: completely! We’re all in this together: 100%.

But it’s also OK to be a bit quiet sometimes – to curl up on the couch, to think, to pass idle time, to be present to the quietness within, and to all you might find there.

This animation was made, inspired by this feeling and by the words of Dan Albergotti. His poem ‘Things to do in the belly of the whale’ captured something, somewhere quiet, somewhere where Zoom cannot prompt you back to the exterior of your life, somewhere where no wifi can find you.

Because in 2020: Here we are, in the belly of the whale.

And, like Jonah, we have to wait.

Quietly …


Pearl Taylor is a Melbourne-based visual artist, art therapist and Uniting Church youth facilitator, invested in the ways faith forms our personal narrative. Pearl’s art practice is informed by a pinch contemplative traditions, a healthy dose of the radically-inclusive, and a touch of humour. As she dabbles in theological spaces, it is through creativity that she expresses, connects, and invites others in. She lives on Wurundjeri land.

Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.



Christ and Digital Media

858px Robert Rauschenberg Tracer 1963 11 20 17 Sfmoma 40482628341
Robert Rauschenberg, Tracer (detail), 1963; photo taken by Sharon Mollerus on 20 November 2017; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

On Maundy Thursday, Good Friday’s Victim “placed Himself in the order of signs.”[1] By this gesture, Jesus is understood to have handed himself over, traditioned himself, into the human economy of meaning and signification, and so into the realm of human art. So resplendent with meaning was the Sign he gave, that its radiance generated, within mere centuries, the essential form and complexity of the Latin Rite.[2]

In both the original gesture, which is the still point of the Canon that lies at the heart the Rite, and in the fullness of the Rite in its most elaborate expression, the meaning of the Sign could never be separated or dissociated from the medium that sustains it and accomplishes it. The Tridentine conviction that in the liturgy “nothing is superfluous” points precisely to this radiance of the whole of the liturgical gesture, and not to the narrow neo-scholastic minimalism of sacramental “validity.”[3] Like any work of great human art, the beauty of the liturgy—the Sign traditioned through history—is sustained within an indissoluble unity of form and content; the kernel and the husk are here one.

What is most surprising as regards the liturgy is what is at same time most obvious: the sheer humanness of the manner of this communication. As a rational animal who learns through his sense, who reasons from the world he touches and tastes, the human being is among the beings of the world uniquely “sacramental” and “ritualistic.” He is, as the Welsh-English poet David Jones used to say, “sacrament at every turn and all levels of the ‘profane’ and ‘sacred,’ in the trivial and in the profound, no escape from sacrament.”[4] The Council Fathers at Trent were keenly aware of this when they justified the un-bloody sacrifice of the Mass as a thing “the nature of man demands.”[5]

The human being lives and moves in signs; and at the highest reaches of his life and experience, these signs radiate a meaningfulness beyond what can be abstracted from the sign that signifies. The human is a being of media and mediation.

In our epoch, after the double explosion of the electronic age and the digital revolution, the human is in a paradoxical situation. Humans have never been so saturated by the fact of media in the form of a plethora of competing media and rival significations, while at the same time, the sign of the mystery of being, the medium of his own destiny and the Sign of the God-Man handed over to him on Holy Thursday, has never been so difficult to discern, so abstract and so seemingly irrelevant to his media world.

This is due to at least two factors. On the one hand the relentless competition of media vying for human attention hits the human mind with a dizzying experience of being “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”[6] Concentration and silence lead, in our culture, less to contemplation of being and more the anxious vertigo of despair of significant meaning.

While on the other, the nature of digital media, with its hyper-virtuality, tends, at least in the first instance and on the surface, to hide the mediating character of media itself, so much so that “content” is paradoxically experienced as without any real relation to form. The message exists as if it is indifferent to its media.

The reproductions, multiplications, and endless variations in the field of media have, in this sense, achieved the alienation of the human being, not so much from God, but from the significant meaning of his own humanity. From the point of view of the Christian religion, this alienation of the human being from the significance of his being is yet more disastrous than alienation from the question of God. This is because it is estrangement from the medium God himself chose when he became Incarnate and left to us the work of propagating his memory in the fleshy art of the liturgy that grows and is sustained from his original traditioning.

All I have said so far has been gesturing to the diagnosis of Marshal McLuhan, whom I consider not only a great Catholic thinker, but one of the key voices through which we can come to better understand the digital age in which we now live.

McLuhan, of course, wrote long before the invention of the internet and digital technology. He diagnosed what he called the “electronic age”—the age of the television, the movie, the telephone, and radio. His insight is well summed up in his famous adage: the “medium is the message.” In his 1964 work Understanding Media McLuhan argues that the social impact of communication, its power to radically transform culture and human life, never lies in the inputs of new messages or ideas, but rather overwhelmingly in the introduction of new media. This is the case, according to McLuhan, because media is what fashions and determines “the scale and form of human association and action” (Understanding Media, 9). Here we could say that media has the power both to “enframe” and to “expand” our experience of being.

McLuhan takes film as an example that shows how a unique medium reconstrues the human experience of reality:

The movie, by sheer speeding up of the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations (12–13).

This realignment of the human experience of time, from the sense of historical and narrative connection to a situation of punctiliar juxtaposition of configurations, is one way the electronic age reconceives our humanity.

To understand the real depth of this impact, it is crucial to grasp how, for McLuhan, every media is an extension of the human nervous system, a portal of transportation both in space and time. So that, ultimately, what new media introduce, in each case, is a new experience of scale, temporal and spatial. This is the real message of the medium: the way that roads reduced the scale of distance between towns and the invention of the car accelerated this; so the television introduces us into the simultaneous spatially collapsed world of, what McLuhan called, the “global village”; or how the internet now has introduced us to the pure presence of virtual identity and connection, devoid of the significance of our carnality and geography.

But even as new media extend the human nervous system, this extension of human experience collapses not only the lineal connection of life into configuration, but overwhelmingly the carnal connection of persons. In other words, our new media, which are generated from the sacramental possibility of the human creature itself, now become the very means of the concealment of this most human fact of being.

The more the world becomes pure presence from Beijing to Buenos Aires, from New York to Johannesburg, the more the absence of the carnal other becomes unremarkable since we remain virtually connected, while its concrete presence becomes an irrelevance, apart from the inconvenience its presence poses to my use of my digital media that mediates the world to me.

McLuhan helps us clarify how this is so, since for him it is not merely the fact that the medium is the message, but more: the “‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (8). McLuhan illuminates this claim with the example of light generated from a light bulb, which is “pure information” precisely because it is “a medium without a message” (Ibid.). The light bulb has no “content” the way a book has “content”; yet, as a medium, its impact is radical: the light bulb enables the human being to create spaces in times of the day and in places in which it would have been impossible, and so creates “an environment by its mere presence” (Ibid.) an environment which allows for other media.

The extension of the human nervous system in the electronic age—the age of airplanes and television, radio, and telephones—becomes a global transportation system deconstructive of human scales of mediation: the old media of city and marketplace, sidewalk and local shop, house and porch, which mediated human life on a more human scale, now become obstacles. If we can already see the deconstructive character of the electronic age, the digital age represents a radicalization of the transportation system, which McLuhan perhaps anticipated but could never have fully imagined.

The smartphone and the internet represent the total collapse of the human encounter into the virtual, since these forms of communication travel faster even than the speed of the human central nervous system. Now even the airplane and the television, the highway and the radio are too incarnate to keep pace with the spatialized speed of the digital transportation system. At this point our own bodies, our physical communities and our next of kin, become increasingly irrelevant to our sense of life.

For McLuhan the aesthetic announcement of his thesis and its distortive consequence was given by the Cubist movement in art:

[C]ubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole (13).

This sensation of “instant sensory awareness of the whole” is perhaps related to Heidegger’s experience of “enframement,” the technological paradigm of thought “the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, [and so] challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.”[7]

It is also very close to what Catherine Pickstock, in her seminal book After Writing, diagnosed as the “spacialization” of being. Pickstock defines this spacialization of being as the result of “a textual calculus of the real” ruled by “protocols of division and manipulation” that function “independent of time and space” and thus work to suppress “embodiment and temporality.”[8] While for her the roots of this spacialization lie in the univocal conception of being associated with the figure of John Duns Scotus, the philosophical apogee comes for her with Descartes, and what she understands as his “subject” frozen in space, which is predicated on the collapse of time into space. For Pickstock, on the level of culture, the impact of digital technology carries this process to its logical and most radical conclusion.

But if aesthetically, for McLuhan, specialization is understood as evidenced in the figures of Cubism, in Cubism there is still a complexity. Furthermore, McLuhan discerns in Cubism also a moment of discovery. He writes: “Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.” (Understanding Media, 13). This announcement is the discovery, for McLuhan, of the electronic age, before which this fact of human being and communication was not yet obvious because not yet problematic (Ibid., 13–14). The electronic age, for McLuhan, not only saturates the human being with media in a way that alienates him from both the height and depth of the Sign’s meaningfulness, it is also a portal of discovery, and so holds within in the promise of recovery of a genuinely human gaze on the real. And in this way McLuhan links up with the ultimate wager of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” which is not merely a critique of technology but a search for a way beyond the trap of the technological paradigm.[9]

Now, if the essence of technology for Heidegger is the “destining of revealing,” then technology in the originary sense is bound up, paradoxically, with unconcealing, that is, with bringing-forth, even if it ends up doing the opposite.[10] Drawing on Aristotles’s account of the four causes, Heidegger argues that both physis and poiesis are ways of unconcealing. It is not just nature that brings forth being; art does this too.

Thus, the encounter with being as such (physisand the act of making signs (poiesis) both involve aletheia: truth as unconcealment rather than capture. And herein lies, for Heidegger, is the origin of “technology,” which derives from techne, which according to him at one time also meant “the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful.” Techne in its originary sense thus is bound to—and convertible with—poiesis, human art, and the discovery of beauty.

In this light we can perhaps see that the technological paradigm, the electronic age, and the digital revolution all bring us to the brink of discovery: to the Cubist moment. The hyper inhumanity of our dislocation that forces an encounter with the truth of human being. The Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino once remarked: “the gaze that notices the desert does not belong to the desert.”[11] In a similar way McLuhan notes the irony of “a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control,” comes now to discover, through the contradiction of its own production, that “in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message” (Understanding Media, 7). The question then becomes: where is the medium that saves the meaningfulness of our own humanity?

From a Catholic point of view all of this points back at Holy Thursday, when Good Friday’s Victim “placed Himself into the order of signs.” The wager of the Christian claim is that, in that moment, the divine Mystery took the form of human art and made of it a perfect communication of our salvation. The meaningfulness of the Mystery become flesh is not a human achievement or ingenuity, it neither conquers being nor divine meaning, but is rather the work of divinity imitating human nature, as it were, to disclose the divine brilliance and destiny of the human being.

In traditioning himself into the human economy of meaning as the Sign of salvation, Good Friday’s Victim made himself the medium even of the salivation of the digital age since he is now the medium of a perfect message, not in the sense of a lightbulb that generates “pure information” because it is “a medium without a message,” but in the sense of a medium that is coterminous with its message. In Jesus Christ the human nervous system is extended into communion with the whole for which it was made.

All of the forgoing in this light points to a need for a renewed and contemplative attentiveness to the liturgical gesture traditioned at the heart of the Church’s life. In the Cenacle, when Jesus handed himself over, he established the Sign to which alone all meaning and depth adheres.

“I have given you a sign (ὑπόδειγμα)” (Jn 13:15). Jesus does not give a discourse or doctrine, a moral teaching or gnosis. He gives an indication, a showing, a gesture, a Sign. In fact this is the method Jesus used throughout his mission: “believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:39); “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard” (Lk 7:22). Jesus does not ask for mere adherence to what he says, he entrusts the evidence of his being to the hearts of those who have seen him, and thus activates their capacity to judge the signs he gives of his being.[12]

The artistic fruitfulness of Jesus’s last Sign, the Eucharist, is an original fullness of splendor hidden in evident poverty. The graceful poverty of the great splendor of this gesture is the basis of the formal elegance and beauty of the mature liturgy, which sustains the original medium of Jesus’s self-traditioning; Sign precisely in the wholeness of the rite, in which the medium is the message.

The radiance of the liturgical gesture is beheld by the astonished eyes of faith, which awaken thereby to the glory of the divine presence in the indissoluble unity of form and content the Sign requires. That the liturgy grew so quickly into a cathedral of ritual postures, elegant formal speech, rubrics, set music and architecture, plays of light and shadow, verifies and confirms the conviction of the original gesture: only human art can be the medium of the human memoria of Jesus’s un-utterable self-gift pro nobis.

As veritatis splendor, the liturgy, in the sublimity of its expression, is truly the glory of God made flesh and blood here and now, a present fact of our own human history; and therefore it grows in time. The liturgy grows (it is not made) because it is not only a memory of the past, but a gathering together of the past towards the Destiny to which all human life strains, especially when it sees the desert. The Christian task in our moment, in the human desert of the digital age, is the same as it was at the beginning: “Do this in memory of me.”

[1] Maurice de la Taille, as quoted in David Jones, “Art and Sacrament,” in Epoch and Artist (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 143–179, at 179.

[2] Cf. Joseph Jungmann, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, 2 vols. trans. Francis Brunner (New York: Benziger, 1951), vol. 1, 49–60.

[3] Cf. Council of Trent, “Decree on the Sacraments,” canon 4 (DS 1604).

[4] Jones, “Art and Sacrament,” 217.

[5] Council of Trent, “Doctrine and Canons on the Sacrifice of the Mass,” chapter 1 (DS 1740).

[6] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” III, 12, Four Quartets in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 1. Collected and Uncollected Poems, ed. Cristopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber and Faber, 2015), 182.

[7] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), 3–35, at 20.

[8] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 3 and see 47–100.

[9] The way he puts it at the beginning of his essay is that he seeks a “free” relationship to technology, that “opens our human existence to the essence of technology.” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 3)

[10] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 34–5.

[11] Emanuele Severino, Téchne: La radici della violenza (Milan: Rizzoli, 2002), 301. Quoted in Alberto Savorana, The Life of Luigi Giussani, trans. Mariangela C. Sullivan and Christopher Bacich (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), 789.

[12] Cf. Julián Carrón ¿Dónde está Dios? La fe cristiana en tiempos de la gran incertidumbre (Madrid: Encuentro, 2017), 94–95.

Reposted from Church Life Journal.


Aaron Riches is a Canadian theologian currently serving at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, USA. He is also the author of Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ.

The Cross and the Tree of Life

Finnie 1(1).jpg

One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline. Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? It is clearly not just a question about theological language as it is more material and global in scope, calling us to transcend our liturgical customs, our cultural allegiances, and our national identities. Is Jesus part of our future as we dare to imagine what that future will be?

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.

Andrew Finnie, an artist from Newcastle, Australia, is well known for his paintings of rich colour that express the sensual delight of the local beach-side landscape. Alongside this practice, Finnie is also a skilled digital artist, who is able to transform images into new forms with unexpected relationships. Here in this complex large-scale digital image we have a multitude of visual fragments that work to express the complex significance of the cross for this time in history.

Finnie 2.jpg

Finnie has placed the cross not in the position favoured in former centuries, high in the sky in glory, but deep into the shadows and roots of a large green tree. He explains: ‘This is the Tree of Life – this apparently jumbled mass of branches we see behind Christ. Inscribed in the bark of the tree are prayers and biblical texts. These prayers gather at the trunk of the tree, and make their way through the branches and transpire through the leaves, heading off towards heaven. So the Tree of Life’s story in this image is that it is a channel for our prayers’.

What strikes me most profoundly about this image is its insistence that my eye keeps returning to the earth, the ground. It reminds me that life is here and now and that God is incarnational, taking on human flesh. It also echoes the idea that the grace of God flows in and through creation; it is, therefore, an eco-theological insight for our times. We are invited to love the earth as God’s beautiful creation. In this regard, one is reminded of the medieval theologian, scientist, musician, and visionary Hildegard of Bingen who talked about ‘viriditas’, the greening force which is God’s gift and energy in creation. As Hildegard writes: ‘Christ brings lush greenness to shrivelled and wilted people’. The vibrant green of this work is the thing that pulses throughout all its branches and the tiny unfolding details that draw you down into its tendrils and roots.

Finnie 3

One of the devices used by the artist is the surface of repeated square divisions, which provides distinct pictures of engagement as worlds in themselves. The digital process has allowed Finnie to enhance the eye’s engagement through the fine details of cobwebs, insects, and flowers, as well as text that sounds out the words of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. The fulness of engagement found in this work is at this level of detail, where one’s eyes are found wandering among the fragments, networks and connections. An apprehension of the whole is the awareness of an interconnected network of myriad details. An appreciation of the work builds through encountering these small meditations of looking into these tiny windows of intricate detail.

Arising out of these fragments and networks is the figure of the Christ crucified. The figure has been constructed from a found image used in a medical text, and is without skin and flesh. This emphasises the muscular structure and allows the figure to take on a more androgynous likeness, in turn allowing for the possible representation of both the male and female form. If this view is correct, then a maternal figure may draw us even closer to those earthly connections, where grace is found in human love and connection.

Does this figure represent a crucified and risen Christ who can embrace this world and respond to the travail of climate change and environmental stress? Who is God for us in this moment in our world history? How can we connect what we know about the cross, the redemption and resurrection, and apply it to God’s purpose for all creation? Andrew Finnie offers us a refreshingly hopeful opportunity to think about Christ and God’s purpose for human existence, embedded as we are in God’s creation, sharing its travail and looking for its redemption.

Reposted from ArtWay.