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.
When words fail me, being in the studio helps me make sense of the world.
This new body of work emerges from several years of attending more deeply to the life of the trees that surround and companion me every day. For many years, I have walked routinely along a path that follows a local creek, appreciating how the trees continue to hold space for me. Even as the weather changes and shapes them, we both endure. But in late 2021, I watched my neighbour excavating the land nearby and, by doing so, undermining the existence of a healthy gum tree. As the roots of this tree were laid bare, I went into the studio to paint the grief that I felt and understand the depth of my response to the inevitable loss of this tree.
It seems that in choosing to live among trees, we live within a nexus of risk and power. In being among the trees surrounding my studio as I make this work, I am becoming more deeply aware of the interdependence that shapes our life with trees. Trees welcome the CO2 that I cannot bear and, in turn, offer me life in the form of oxygen. As I learn to see how trees live interdependently with one another, I see a healthy exchange between risk and power, shaping how I can choose to live with others. I am learning to see trees in the way I see people, and I am wondering what it is like to be a being among trees.
Over the past year or so, I have been working towards developing a new exhibition set to be hung in April 2023.
Being Among Trees will hang in the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre between 3–27 April. Rather than an opening night, I have scheduled an afternoon for a conversation with the artwork and me. Further details are below:
LIBBY BYRNE LIVES WORKS AND PLAYS OF WURUNDJERI LAND. SHE WORKS AS AN ARTIST, ART THERAPIST, AND THEOLOGIAN FOLLOWING THE INVITATION AND DISCOVERY OF ART INTO NEW WAYS OF BEING WITH PEOPLE IN LIMINAL SPACES. WITHIN HER STUDIO PRACTICE LIBBY WORKS WITH IDEAS, IMAGES, AND EXPERIENCES TO EXTEND THE WAY WE THINK, PERCEIVE, AND RESPOND TO QUESTIONS OF MEANING AND EXISTENCE.
In 2014, the ‘broken Christ’ crucifix that Michael Galovic had brought with him from Yugoslavia in 1990 was used as the core in his creation of an image of the desolation and humanity of Christ as evoked in his anguished cry from the cross and translated as, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ These are also the opening words of Psalm 22. The juxtapositioning of the broken Christ with the lances of Diego Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda (1634–35) highlights the sense of defeat and desolation as well as the continuing threat of violence. As Galovic notes:
These lances, for me, feature as an ominous foreboding symbol of ‘empire’, or system, ready and capable of destroying any human.
The image is one of almost utter desolation; light from no discernible outside source illuminating Christ’s face.
Shortly after the work’s installation in Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Rosemeadow, in February 2023, the parish priest, Father Christopher Sarkis, suggested that it might form part of a triptych. Having seen a medieval manuscript’s illustration of the resurrection, he felt that this depiction would be suitable as the final image. Galovic suggested that the first item could portray Christ’s crucifixion and death through the imagery of the Arma Christi, and the head of Christ is based on the Shroud of Turin in the lower part of the image.
The completed work would thus contain a central contemporary work in muted tones, a first panel drawing on images of objects coming from a collection that has been a part of Christian iconography with its central image, the crucifix, having been used since the fourth century CE and a third panel based on a medieval manuscript. This seemingly disparate grouping also needed to be created in a way that would form a coherent whole. While having a linear structure in time that covered the period of Christ’s betrayal through to his resurrection and empty tomb, it also needed to have links established through the use of colour and form.
In the Arma Christi, the upper register highlights the betrayal of Christ and the mockery and savagery that attended his crucifixion. As with the central image, it references Psalm 22.16b–18:
[T]hey bound my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
Christ’s final words from the cross – ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk 23.46) – with their tranquillity and faith, are embodied in the lower image, based on the Shroud of Turin, which, irrespective of its authenticity, forms a depiction of the final aspect of Christ’s human role in salvation.
In contrast to the violent instruments of betrayal, humiliation, and torture against their fiery background, it is a wonderfully expressive portrayal of calmness and completion. There is a great gentleness in the muted tones and careful delineation of the features, overlaid by the delicate treatment of the weaving of the cloth.
However, there is also a linking through colour, with the blue tones shown especially in the rooster, whip, and lance head in the top register being subsumed into the blue depiction of Christ’s face below. These two colour tones of blue and vermilion flow through to the central panel. In ‘Eloi, Eloi’, they appear in muted tones in the rocks foregrounding the spears, with the blue used on the image of the broken Christ.
They are then developed vibrantly in the final panel, which depicts two images associated with the resurrection. The vivid vermilion and oranges both frame the upper and lower panels depicting Christ’s resurrection and the myrrh-bearing women who came to anoint Christ’s body and form a significant part of each of the images.
The figure of the resurrected Christ in the top panel, surrounded by a golden-rayed mandorla, connects this image with the sacred, while the deeper tones used on the garments of the sleeping soldiers evoke Roman costumes.
In the lower image, the treatment of the angel at the tomb, with its flame-like wings and fiery countenance, creates a sense of otherness that is accentuated by the luminous white and gold of the robe. It also resonates with the garments of the two holy women closest to the tomb. Throughout both images, orange and vermilion tones highlight the fruitfulness of the trees while also forming contrasting highlights to the use of blue beneath them on the varying rock formations.
The interplay of colours creates a harmony that works beautifully throughout to unite the three images. But that is only one of its aspects. The top register of the first image, with its strong orange and vermilion tones highlighting instruments of torture and mockery, also evokes the fiery infernos of medieval hell-mouths and Renaissance depictions of hell. The contemporary image of the broken Christ, with its background imagery of war and defeat, highlights the bleakness of destruction. Yet, in the final image, all of these aspects are subsumed into the vibrancy and vividness of Christ’s resurrection, in which even the sleeping Roman soldiers had a place.
The Triptych is a tribute to both creativity and flexibility of form. In bringing together aspects of Christianity from different eras, cultures, and perspectives, it focuses on Christ’s sacrifice to redeem humanity. Each of the individual works evokes a different perspective, and through these images, the viewer is given a sense of the beauty and complexity of responses to the crucifixion and resurrection throughout the history of Christian art.
Kerrie Magee has an MA in Medieval Studies and lives in the area of the Wallumedegal People. Michale Galovic is a renowned iconographer living in the area of the Darkinjung People.
Last month, Jason Goroncy spoke at the opening of an exhibition of Wes Campbell’s artwork. Wes is a theologian, artist, and (retired) Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia. An edited version of his talk is now available on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal.
Emmanuel Garibay is a leading painter from the Philippines with an international reputation for work that reflects on issues of power and injustice. His works reflect the capacity for images to wake up the imagination to the experiences of marginalization, racism, and class difference, and to therefore affect change in social, political, and religious structures.
The work Selda, or prison cell in English, is a work that responds to current issues facing the Philippines, and, in turn, other regions around the world in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased military and political activity, and the resultant curtailment of individual freedoms. It is a large-format work made up of many smaller elements that are painted in an expressive and textured manner. The central figure of the composition is eating a golden apple, a symbol that should offer the promise to live forever, but instead has become infected with the coronavirus. To the left, a front-line health worker pales into death, sacrificed by a government that prefers to spend money on military budgets. Two authoritative figures carry a large book with the names of those who need to be sanctioned or disciplined, and then walk over a dead body. A figure in the sky is blinded by a face mask that has slipped over their eyes, a representation of delusion and false news. A woman flies a paper plane, representing the huge number of Filipino workers overseas who contribute more than ten percent of the nations’ income, while a sinister yellow cat lurks in the shadows.
Below the central figure is the kalabaw, the native water buffalo which is often used as a symbol of the hard-working prosperity of the nation; but here it has died. Underneath, a friar knocks over an indigenous woman representing the ongoing impact of political and religious colonialism. To the right, a figure with a telescope, the current president, is seen spying on the helpless, while a hand comes in with a red yo-yo, an action that names “red tagging” or accusing trouble makers of having anti-government sentiments. And then, finally, tucked in near a golden door, is the historic figure of José Rizal, the great hero of the independence movement who was executed in 1896. He was a writer, artist, and scientist, and Garibay gives him a position of understated prominence in this work, affirming the role of the artist, who might see more clearly what is going on in these fractured and overwhelming times. The entire work is imbued with a golden light, full of promise and prosperity, that turns, at times, into a sulphurous yellow, toxic and decaying. The artist does not offer a possible future, but rather a contemporary view of this historical moment, full of warnings of danger that call for urgent response.
RP. This work stands in the tradition of large mural paintings that will often convey the triumph of history or the virtues of the nation. But this work is far more complex and fragmented. The viewer has to weave these disparate elements together.
EG. The fragmented nature of these works manifests the inability of most people to find a synthesized grasp of the general situation. Some aspects of what is going on tend to be intentionally highlighted, while others tend to be obscured. We have a media that is easily co-opted by those in power. You have to make an effort to dig deeper and scrutinize, to analyze, to have a more complete and bigger picture.
RP. What role do you think artists have at a time like this? Do artists help people see more clearly?
EG. Artists have an opportunity to be much more fluid and flexible, to have the greatest degree of exposure to many aspects of life. Their life situation means they are not confined to routines and patterns like a nine-to-five job. The innate qualities of an artist—such as being sensitive, observant, and analytical—enable an artist to grasp or wrestle more with seeking clarity in one’s life situation and to understand the dynamics at play. This striving enables artists to have a more-complete understanding of life situations. When I paint, I listen to podcasts and lectures on theology, history, and philosophy. In other words, it enables me to have a wider basis for understanding things, not just through one perspective but through multiple perspectives.
RP. As an artist, you’re not only looking, but you’re also thinking about looking, and questioning your looking.
EG. In my case, I prefer to paint. It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years. It’s a direct action of you as a person. So, it is a constant affirmation of my self as a human being. Instead of exploring new technologies, it’s about resisting the need to innovate. At this point, I don’t see technical innovation as providing direction towards human development. I think it also helps people to slow down and to see. It also connects us to the past. What we have lost is a conscious connection to the past, and this accounts for why there is a massive loss of belief in this generation. This loss of belief makes us very vulnerable to all sorts of incursions by those in power to manipulate and control our worldview.
RP. You mean we lack an awareness of history, which means we are too buoyant, without a place of stability to make decisions about the present or the future.
EG. In the Philippines, it’s the fault of the Church for having misrepresented Christianity, because it was obsessed with power and authority. It forgets Christianity is the exact opposite. So as a result, it has misrepresented belief.
RP. What would you say that faith or Christianity has to offer this moment in history?
EG. I think it is more about being truly in tune with our humanity. It is one of the problems with the theology of the church fathers in the past. It emphasized too much the divinity of Christ and very little on his humanity. The deification of Christ is really about the idea of God becoming human, so that humans can understand the mind of God. So, it is a model to be followed rather just a figure to worship. There’s too much emphasis on worshipping Christ—in affect, worshipping the Church that contains this Christ. That is the main reason people have lost faith in belief.
RP. So the figure of Christ is a picturing of God. These christological images then also offer us options about what it is to be a human person.
EG. This is most emphasized in the way he lived his life, through washing the feet of his disciplines, uplifting the lowly, healing the sick, his passion for social justice. All of these are glossed over in favour of emphasizing the divinity. That is what stories are all about, and what art can do best. It can perpetuate the hope of what humanity is truly all about.
Emmanuel Garibay (b. 1962) is a leading artist from the Philippines who has a wide reputation having exhibited his work in Europe and the United States. His work explores the experience of those marginalised in his own country and is strongly informed by a theological critique of social power and politics. In 2011, the book Where God is: The Paintings of Emmanuel Garibay was published by OMSC (Overseas Ministries Study Center) in New Haven, USA, bringing his work to wider audiences.
Rev Dr Rod Pattenden is an art historian and theologian from Australia. He has written widely on the arts and creativity. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
This interview with Emmanuel Garibay is an excerpt from the new book, Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology (Pickwick, 2022), edited by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden, with a foreword by Ben Quash. This book explores the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc. It asks: What contribution do the arts make in a world facing the impacts of globalism, climate change, pandemics, and losses of culture? What wisdom and insight, and orientation for birthing hope and action in the world, do the arts offer to religious faith and to theological reflection? Marked by beauty and wonder, as well as incisive critique, it is a unique collection that brings unexpected voices into a global conversation about imagining human futures.
A video introduction and review of the book, plus details on how to obtain a 40% discount, is available here.
Michael Galovic has created a rich and complex work in response to the bleak situation in Ukraine. The work incorporates three juxtaposed images whose origins reach back to the tenth century, which are backgrounded by Pablo Picasso’s profound depiction of the destruction of Guernica, bombed by Nazi planes in 1937. Guernica was a symbolic target, being the first place where democracy was established in Spain’s Basque region.
Each of the three superimposed images is particularly apposite to the situation in Ukraine. The top image is an ethereal rendering of the Archangel Michael’s defeat of Satan in the form of a dragon, both as imagined in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven’ (Rev. 12.7–8). St. Michael is the patron saint of Kyiv, possibly since its founding in c. 882, and certainly since the eleventh century.
The second image is an icon of the Theotokos and infant Jesus. In 1037, Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kyiv, dedicated Ukraine to Mary. She is revered and sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of Ukraine’. In a similar vein, on the Feast of the Annunciation this year, Pope Francis pronounced an Act of Consecration: ‘Mother of God and our mother, to your Immaculate Heart we solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine’.
The third image is that of a Hellmouth, an image envisaging hell as the gaping mouth of a huge monster. Galovic has used a particularly vivid image from the Winchester Psalter of the twelfth century, where an angel is portrayed locking the gate of hell on the damned, who are being devoured by demons. The completed work is phenomenal, in every sense of the word!
Picasso’s Guernica captured the first instance in history of the saturation bombing of a civilian target – an occurrence that has become all too common in Ukraine. The horror and destruction of Guernica unalloyed by any sense of hope or renewal. Galovic has overlaid this bleakness with three images that challenge that evocation of despair. At the centre is the Theotokos and infant Jesus. The tranquillity of this image contrasts with the dynamism of the other two images: the Archangel Michael is captured in the moment of victory, with the defeated dragon falling from the sky, and, in the Hellmouth, the damned are being devoured by demons as an angel locks the gates of Hell.
The balance of concepts and ideas is formidable – each element is a part of history, yet given new sense and relevance in this new context. The sheer amount of thought, care, and effort that has gone into this project is awe-inspiring.
Kerrie Magee has an MA in Medieval Studies and lives in the area of the Wallumedegal people. Michael Galovic is a renowned iconographer living in the area of the Darkinjung people.
The prophetic imagination invites us to lay aside old ways of being and sources of authority, and to imagine new futures.
Claire Beausein, who divides her time between Broome and regional Victoria, formed her work by stitching together over 600 wild silkworm chrysalises gathered from the wild in Indonesia. Chalice is a powerful work that draws you in close to experience the glorious sheen on the work and the lace effect of the shadow and to stand away from it and see the possible image of a face that some have described as the face of Christ. Claire began her exploration with thoughts of a shroud which symbolises the metamorphosis of the human person into eternal life. From there, her thoughts developed into a search for wild cocoons. The colour range is from gold to very pale yellow, and they are carefully patterned. Claire described the process of putting the artwork together as a meditative act. Some of the silk thread used to assemble this work is intentionally visible on the surface but much of it is hidden as is so much of our spiritual development. Our various spiritual metamorphoses in life are often hidden from sight but seen in effect and in our witness to what has occurred within. The work is suspended by museum pins, reminiscent of the moths and butterflies displayed as collections, standing away from the cotton rag paper background. The curved shape of the lower edge speaks of the shape of a chalice which holds the wine to be transformed and the gold colour also speaks of sacred vessels. Claire speaks of the ‘gravitas of profound change with the fragility of lace’. These opposites are in tension as in our spiritual lives.
Michael Iwanoff’s work, fromlittlethings, evokes the endless nature of change in all of creation, including within ourselves. He describes it as a ‘poetic meditation on the transformative seed each of us is able to sow into our awareness, experience and life’. The whole of creation is in the process of continual transformation, metamorphosis, as Paul says: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’ (Rom. 8.22). When the work of God is finished, when the whole of creation has been returned through the glory of Christ, we shall all be one in God. What is required is to wait in hope. In fromlittlethings the hope is symbolised by the seeds held in a small bag at the base of the painting, hanging from a mantle on which there is a small copper bowl from which water evaporates. There is so much in the work that is symbolic of all manner of change, some of which we are subjected to and some that naturally flows from our very nature. In the judges’ description, they spoke of the painting holding themes of ‘homecoming, journey, and acceptance’. There is a cosmological level too in the semblance of stars, and at different angles one catches a small glittery flash of light. In Michael’s description, he speaks of ‘this metamorphosis that is honoured and that so exquisitely grows the joy of being’.
Terre Verte, a particular green pigment, is revealed in the central section of Susan Roux’s free-hanging work. She begins her description with: ‘Adrift in rivers that divide and bind lands, I chart a home anew’. Susan’s original material for this work was a series of maps which symbolise the journey upon which she has personally embarked, and the journey of life that we all travel. The maps were washed and dried and stitched on a sewing machine using a completely free form of working the material. It is an extremely laborious way of building a fabric but the effect is rich and unpredictable. For Susan, it is also a deeply meditative way of working. There are structural wires inside that speaks of our own physical structure, our skeletal strength that is unseen but completely necessary for our embodied life. As the judges said:
Viewed from a distance the piece is reminiscent of a rock, geode, or even a distant universe, evoking an almost geological sense of time-scale and transformation.
Inside, however, the terre verte, the green thread used in free stitching on a material that is then washed off the stitching leaving a lace effect, is burgeoning forth. Life and creation continue in the green, growing heart of her work. This is the sense of Spirit, of re-creation, that Susan seeks. The metamorphosis marks many places in our journey. The great metamorphic actions in scripture include Abram’s journey west, the exodus from Egypt, the exile in Babylon and the return, and, of course, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, there are many changes along the way, but the greatest is our baptism where we are changed into a new creation in Christ.
Angela Stewart’s artwork confronts you from the full distance across the gallery in the opening exhibition. There is a sense of compulsion and a desire to know the story. Her artist’s statement centres around grief, death, silence, love, loss, helplessness. Two years ago Angela’s son, a horseman, died. This artwork depicts the growth from out of the loss, the metamorphosis that grief insists upon. She will never be the same, but the horse is the symbol of the strength needed to get out of the depths of loss. It is a powerful work. In the Hebrew scriptures, the images of horses are important. If you had a horse, you went into battle with a better chance of survival than if you were on foot. In Psalm 33.17, however, we hear that the ‘war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save’. If we rely only on the things around us, the things we wrap our humanity and strength in, then we will not be rescued from our distress. It is these times that trust in the Lord is required and a time for us to move through the grief, as Angela says, to ‘recalibrate, begin, breathe, the horse, the rider, my son’. The judges’ comments say this succinctly:
The insistence of the image to be expressed captures the unstoppability of the prophetic voice – of the Divine voice – arising in unexpected places, disturbing and comforting, undeniable. This technically accomplished work plays with the inversion of light and dark, and evokes movement and disquiet with multiple images, ragged edges, and lines pulsing with energy.
The array of artworks for the 2022 Mandorla Art Award each offer us a way in which to view the theme of Metamorphosis – a profound or radical change. ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43.19). In times of discontinuity, faith becomes an important ingredient, and this has been evident in times of radical change. With the pandemic, we have all experienced the need for change, and war and climate change continue to impact us all. Yes, we need to change and the challenge is to make it positive on the large scale as well as the small. The artists chosen as finalists gave expressions of metamorphosis that are both challenging and beautiful.
Dr Angela McCarthy is Chairperson of the Mandorla Art Award. She lives and works on Whadjuk country.
their smells are distinctive on this zoom conference one Catholic, advocating the Pope’s universal love for the creation one Protestant, speaking of the gospel’s power for all people their eloquence and passion point to unity and faith
still they smell different
their voices, tones, looks, manners postures and positions give unique smells as herbs display themselves in a tea house for visitors of the Zoom
after steeping them in water – reflections, Q&A, more reflections aroma rising from their words
after tasting which tea are you going to buy or simply walk out?
XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM.