Here, Idris Murphy introduces us to his upcoming exhibition of paintings – a luminous mystical response to the stark presence of the desert landscape, a meditation that invites theological and philosophical responses to the mystery we feel in a sense of place.
A new and dynamic online resource – The Visual Commentary on Scripture – has recently been launched by a team centred at King’s College London that is providing resources for those interested in the visual interpretation of the Bible, including general readers, scholars, preachers, and study groups. The project draws on diverse scholars in art and religion from around the world and will eventually build a library of up to 1500 commentaries that give a visual insight into the Biblical tradition. Each entry is curated like a small exhibition, and provides three key images that offer visual insight into a given passage. A longer overview is then provided where we both read and see the various insights into the process of understanding the meanings contained in a passage.
The project team is led by theologian Professor Ben Quash of King’s College who here offers a helpful introduction to the value of the project:
This unique project demonstrates the value of the visual arts in expanding our means of understanding, and our response to texts and their interpretation. There are currently over 80 completed commentaries now available on the website.
Professor Ben Quash explains that the project offers three main purposes:
First, it seeks to instruct those with little knowledge of the Bible about its contents. We hope this will be part of the strategic ‘impact’ of this project.
Second, it uses the warrant of the incarnation to affirm that physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight.
Third, the VCS aims to refresh viewers and engage their affective responses as well as their intellectual ones, affirming that images are made ‘to be gazed upon, so that we might glorify God and be filled with wonder and zeal’.
The Visual Commentary on Scripture is an exciting development. It is a richly-engaging resource that has been made easily accessible. It will be a valuable resource to students of the Bible, and those who teach and reflect on its ongoing relevance and authority. Bringing the world of the visual arts into this process of interpretation heightens an awareness of the lived experience of the biblical world as well as our own contemporary context. It allows for a renewed valuing of the visual arts as a means of accessing the world of the biblical tradition in conversation with the current horizon of our lives.
ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL AND WORIMI LAND.
I had seen an exhibition of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in which he featured the Franciscan Stations of the Cross. I knew nothing of that tradition, and one Easter, as an Easter discipline for myself, I decided to ‘pray’ the Stations of the Cross by painting my own series. It dawned on me, slowly, that this exercise was an existential prayer. How do we live when we know that we are mortal? How do we live when we know that we are finite? How do we live when we experience suffering?
That led us in 2007, at St Ives Uniting Church in suburban Sydney, to try something new. We invited 15 leading artists to participate in an exhibition. Each would be allocated a different station, randomly, and would have 9 months to work on a response. I wrote a ‘pastorally informed’ commentary on each of the traditional Franciscan stations (14 plus ‘resurrection’), and that commentary became the brief for the artist. I tell artist’s that I am not looking for illustration of the story; more, I am looking for their engagement with the questions the station raises for them.
We have been doing it ever since. After I retired, we decided to do it at Northmead, where the church works with the Creative and Performing Arts High School, and we have shown the work at ACU Strathfield and at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra.
When I approach artists, I ask them not because they are religious or not religious, Christian or not Christian; I ask them because they are good artists who have the capacity to address significant existential questions through their art.
Each year when I receive the works for the exhibition, I am excited by the artist’s integrity, and their capacity to give us works that reflect the deep questions of being. My background is as a pastoral theologian, and I see lived experience as primary text for theological reflection.
Each year we have large numbers of people walk through the exhibition as part of their Easter discipline, or ‘just out of interest’. Always, people are deeply moved; it is not unusual to see people with tears running down their faces, or, to hear them say, ‘I can identify with that’.
Last year, a teacher at a local Catholic Primary School taught a special unit to her grade 5–6 class on religious art through the first semester. She had one of the artists address her class at school, and brought 47 kids who pressed their noses against the art works, and who listened and looked with engaged interest. They went back to school and made their own ‘religious’ art works, and later had a wonderful exhibition of them. This year, that teacher will bring the staff of the school for a staff meeting at the exhibition and they have asked for a talking tour of the work.
We now have a number of events associated with the exhibition: the formal opening, a wine and cheese night, a jazz night, a Good Friday service, a grief workshop, a number of guided tours, the moderator of the UCA will offer a retreat for ministers and key leaders, and, most especially, an Eremos led a quiet half day. Our hope is to build the idea of groups of people making an Easter pilgrimage in which they might walk the way of the cross where there is a contemporary reading of Jesus walk.
You can access the catalogue here. The catalogue includes the commentary or brief given to the artists, images of all the art works, and some comment on the process of making the works by the artists.
Station 11: Jesus is nailed to the cross
Artist: Harrie Fasher
Artist’s comment: I have a spiritual connection to the earth, and find great solace walking and drawing in the landscape. The work I presented for the 11th station, Christ being nailed to the cross, is a steel study of a dead lamb, an Indian offering washed up from the ocean, and a study of feet nailed to the wall. The lamb, soft yet lifeless, represents purity and the earth. I built it in steel, a hard cold material that has been imbued with the properties of life lost. The offering was collected in India for its shape and texture, it holds memory of colour, ritual, and life. And the drawing is a literal representation of the station, feet nailed, produced by the meditative action of looking. Together the three works contemplate what such a sacrifice symbolises in our contemporary society.
Station 9: Jesus Falls the third time
Artist: Blak Douglas
Artist’s comment: So really my knee-jerk response from the outset was to paint a large cross in a landscape filled with Grass Trees (‘Black boys’) yet the cross has been hit by three large spears. Perhaps accompanying words are to the following effect. This piece personifies my lifelong frustration of being wrongfully encouraged to embrace the religion of colonialism and white suppression. From being ‘christened’ Adam Douglas Hill and registered ‘Church of England’, yet being only three generations removed from my tribal Dhungatti peoples. Having to participate in scripture on Tuesday mornings in Primary School or face the cane. Witnessing successive patriarchal governments be sworn in on King George’s bible, feigning honesty, and professing to uphold sound governance on a stolen land. This image – ‘Three strikes & you’re out’ – is metaphoric of how I’d like to see the illegal dominant faith upon this continent fall.
Station 14: Jesus is laid in the tomb
Artist: Jo Braithwaite
Artist’s comment: In this image, I battled to create an image that I hoped would reflect optimism through solidarity.
DOUG PURNELL IS A PASTORAL THEOLOGIAN WHO IN HIS RETIREMENT IS FOCUSING ON A COMMITMENT TO A FULL-TIME STUDIO PRACTICE OF PAINTING THAT EXPLORES THE NATURE OF ABSTRACTION AND MARK MAKING. HE WAS FOR 17 YEARS THE DIRECTOR OF THE BLAKE PRIZE FOR RELIGIOUS ART. HE LIVES AND PAINTS ON GADIGAL LAND.
With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.
I return this week to the images I have begun exploring how remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation. This second image is an exploration of what it looks like to really experience the trauma of truth revealed.
This second image of power and control revealed a provocative and powerful expression of wounding that also offers the hope of possibility. The strength and depth of the colour and light in the painting dwell beneath the surface. The warm glow of strong yellow light is visible as it is breaking through the darkness leaving open wounds in the surface. Light seems to be pouring through the surface and reflecting toward the viewer from beneath the surface of the painting. The central focus of this work is obvious, and it is hard to look away but equally hard to stay with what may be an eruption, an injury or the trauma of birth. There is however a soft veil that seems to shroud this image offering some form of grace or protection from the trauma of truth.
The following vignette from a minister in a suburban Anglican parish illustrates the possibility that there are those in the church who will be offended by the need to be regulated and leave the congregation in anger.
I had spoken with this woman about the need for us to do things differently from now on and she saw the regulations as an infringement on human rights. I agreed that may be so but assured her that his is how we will do things from now on. She said that she would not be willing to change and threatened to leave the church…and that is what happened. She left in anger and we have not heard from her since.
In this exchange, it seems that the minister is earnest in her desire to ensure that her church complies with the regulations and keeps children safe. She is surprised to hear that one of the members of the ministry team sees the regulations as an infringement on human rights but she is willing to agree that this may be so, noting that we will do this anyway.
This is a moment in a pastoral relationship when some deeper truth about each of their experiences might have been revealed. There was the possibility that this conversation could have been a moment when what was said about the impact of the changes was heard “… with the intimacy of care and of understanding at the same Time” (David Whyte). Unfortunately, the trauma of this truth was not seen or heard or held with care and understanding and so the relationship has been damaged. Conversations such as this are taking place in many congregations where a painful and open wound has been revealed. Having heard and seen this truth our congregational life will never be the same; but is it possible that this challenge to the status quo could be the catalyst for new growth? When confronted with the trauma of truth it can be tempting to react quickly with an attempt to fix the problem that is before us but Rowan Williams warns us not to miss the larger questions that lead us to deeper understanding:
We’re encouraged to assume that the solving of the problem immediately in front of us is what matters, and we lose track of the larger questions about the meaning of our social institutions, the purpose of our social institutions in the long term, and equally impatient of understanding exactly how we got here. (Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 56)
The wound of wonder
Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in Strange Wonder, declares that wonder is a wound in the experience of the everyday. The findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse have created a wound in the experience of everyday life in the church and it is possible that this wound is an opportunity for wonder and new life in the church. The trauma of truth that has been told and heard has interrupted the ordinary experience of congregational life in a way that demands our attention. The way in which we attend to this wound will either promote healing and growth or compound the damage.
Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue considers the possibility that the wound may be the source a new voice requiring expression:
A wound awakens and focuses the reserve of the immune system. The overriding desire of the body is to seal the opening, to heal and restore its inner darkness. Yet the wound takes time to heal. While the wound is open new light flows into the helpless dark and the inner night of the body weeps through the wound. In the rupture and the pain it causes, a wound breaks the silence; it cries out…It is no wonder then that the wound as a sore point of vulnerability cries out for some new form in which to express itself. (Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, 190)
John O’Donohue claims that it is the work of the artist to stay with the wounds that interrupt our everyday experience, returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance in the hope of excavating something new. It is possible that in considering how to address the trauma of the truth that has been issued from the sore point of vulnerability in the life of the church, art and artists may be able capable of returning time and again to the threshold of disturbance, hear the cry and in doing so, discover something new that speaks to the larger question of how we find ourselves in this place. The challenge for the church is now to welcome what is discovered when we are called to these places and spend time with the emergent images as they seek to birth of something new.
LIBBY BYRNE IS AN HONORARY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE (WHITLEY, UD), LECTURER IN ART THERAPY (LA TROBE UNIVERSITY), AND MEMBER OF THE CENTRE FOR RESEARCH AND SOCIAL POLICY (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
With thanks to Rod Pattenden for his recent article, Seeing over the fence.
I need not look over the fence to see the way in which the experience of being in church is changing as we gradually and collectively awaken to the truth of the experiences of abuse and trauma that have emerged from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. In my own backyard, my local congregation, I find myself seeing and hearing the impact of sexual abuse within the church and with each painful story my trust in the institutional church is further diminished. With each new story and conversation, there is an increasing challenge to the spiritual health of the people who remain in the pews. As I think about life in my own backyard, the spiritual health of my congregation needs time and attention before we can understand how to heal and reconcile what we now know about our lives in the church and our life in God. As an artist, my work is, as Rod Pattenden suggests, to help people visualise the trauma and pain of our experience, in sign, symbol, and art making. I hear the call to work in the studio making images that may bring healing and reconciliation but I am sitting with the question of how to ensure it is seen and appreciated in my own backyard, where rules and regulations seem to be the weapon of choice for defending the institution.
The Anglican church is currently investing considerable energy in the development of procedures and policies designed to ensure that churches are safe places for children and vulnerable people. It remains to be seen if this approach will be successful in eliminating the abuse of power within the church and also how this newly regulated relational environment will affect the spiritual health and emotional wellbeing of those invested in regular congregational worship. In his recent work, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, Rowan Williams warns us of the dangers of not understanding how we have become the people we are now.
Not understanding how we learned to be the people we now are has an immediate and highly dangerous effect on the kind of society we are and might seek to be, just as it might have a dangerous effect on any individual who tries to block out the memory of the experiences that have, as a matter of fact, made them who they are. (p. 57)
To consider how the church has learned to be the people they are now maybe we should begin by appreciating the impact of the systemic use of institutional power in pastoral and congregational relationships. How do the people in the pews who remain regular attenders in public worship experience and exercise power in the congregation? In the spirit of a Practice-led theological inquiry I have begun to explore this in the studio. The first of these images is an exploration of Tension on the Surface.
There are tensions on the surface of this image that have resulted in a furious working toward solutions with whatever materials are at hand. Having attempted to cover the content of this ambiguous and organic work with robust and impermeable house paint, the layering of white acrylic material has resulted in the creation of a non-reflective fragile surface that is easily damaged. The white acrylic paint is literally a skin that is being shaped and reshaped as it responds to external pressure. The wrinkles on the surface are points of interest but the tension also reveals a warm organic oil based yellow ochre that beckons the viewer to go deeper. The viewer’s focus is spread across the damage on the surface and it is hard to know whether to settle here or consider the deeper life of the work. It is challenging to consider what has been lost or gained in the frantic need to shore up a solid and impermeable surface.
The response to the new rules from those working within the church has been mixed with some people seeing them as self-evident statements of ethical behaviour and others feeling the burden of compliance mixed with the fear of retribution. Commentator Muriel Porter has even suggested that the rules are “… absurdly severe restrictions … imposed on the private lives of … clergy”. Her argument is built upon the biblical principle known as the priesthood of all believers which suggests that all parishioners are equal co-workers with priests in ministry. The reality of life in my backyard suggests that once we ordain and employ people to take up authority in the church the expression of this biblical principal is open to reinterpretation. The hope that is at the heart of the principal is reshaped each time power is exercised and experienced in pastoral relationships.
The systemic and structural power that remains central to the machinations of the Anglican church continues to shape pastoral relationships at the congregational level. For those who trust and love the church and their ministers, there may be a perceived need to come to their defence by opposing the restrictions on their behaviour. For others, their trust and love for the church has been so damaged that this argument only heightens the tension on the surface as it becomes a spurious distraction from the challenge to consider the nature of power and control that is still being expressed in the church hierarchy.
What does it meant to spend time with the trauma of this truth being revealed? For this I need a new image entirely.
LIBBY BYRNE IS AN Honorary Research Associate (Whitley, UD), Lecturer in Art Therapy (La Trobe University), and member of The Centre for Research and Social Policy (RASP). SHE LIVES ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
As both an artist and a pastor, I am well aware of the capacity for works of art to bring healing, to provide a container for grief and loss, and to create a future based in hope. I have also experienced the capacity for works of the imagination to break down the supposed barriers between the church and its community, between the holy and the profane, the sacred and secular, and to create a fruitful conversation about life’s meaning. I have great hopes that the arts provide us with resources for engaging the culture we inhabit and for dealing with any of the big difficult issues we face together. But despite these hopes, I am really struggling with how to respond at a visual level to the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, and the terrible stories that have surfaced into public consciousness. As an artist, I wonder how to help people visualise the trauma and pain of such experiences, and how the Church as an institution allows for this to be made present in sign, symbol, and art making. How might art help the healing process and bring reconciliation and understanding?
It was about fifteen years ago through my work with the Blake Prize that I first began to observe visual responses to this issue. In 2008, Rodney Pople submitted a work entitled Last Supper, a work that proved to be something of a premonition of the impending crisis for organised religious institutions. A reference to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has been pushed to the back of the picture as something of incidental interest. What takes centre stage is a vast chandelier that seems to shudder under its own weight of self importance. Not a light but a weighted piece of staging that is about to come crashing down. The metaphor is clearly about a structure that has become too focused on its own importance and grandeur, so much so that even the Last Supper has been pushed to the periphery. Rodney Pople went on to deal more directly with these issues. In one of his later exhibitions, held in trendy Paddington in Sydney, a group of pious folk camped outside praying for his soul and for those brave enough to enter the gallery under prayerful siege.
But Pople was correct in anticipating that there would be a shaking of foundations and a rattling of fences. It was during 2015 when the Royal Commission heard stories in the city of Ballarat that ribbons began appearing on the fence of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. They were tied on the fence as a simple memorial to those who had died or still suffer as a result of a history of abuse. This simple act of remembrance has spread quickly around Australia and is now found all around the world. This gesture has, however, not always been well received by those on the inside. Whether it was Church authorities or parishioners there were reports of ribbons being removed. The visibility of the act of colourful ribbons fluttering in the breeze was perceived by some as a protest of anger at the Church or at least a criticism of its silence and lack of visible response. St Patrick’s Cathedral has continued to dialogue with this wider ribbon community and there are now plans for the fence to open up into a memorial garden where a more permanent space of recognition is be created. Through the visual form of ribbons, known locally as the ‘Loud Fence’, boundaries have been shifted and a new more open conversation has begun.
In Geelong, at St Mary’s Basilica, the Loud Fence response took a different turn. One of the key priests on staff actively worked with survivors through the Life Boat Project and with the assistance of a group from a Men’s Shed found a means of preserving the ribbons and the heartfelt gestures that had created them. A container in the form of a boat has been introduced inside the Basilica where ribbons can be permanently stored after they have flown on the fence. This shifts the visual reception of the ribbons to a more permanent memorial where they are being treated with dignity and respect. This boat has become part of the interior fabric of the Church alongside other memorials that remember significant moments of national and local history. What is being preserved is not just silk threads, but the deeply-felt gestures that have been repeated over and over again as people express their sense of grief and loss. Gathering them up for preservation emphasises the importance of these small acts of grief and remembrance. Someone is listening, noticing, seeing. The Loud Fence project looks for a community of people who speak up and act on behalf of those who are victims.
In my local city of Newcastle, like in many cities around Australia, ribbons appear and disappear off the fence of the local Cathedral. It is a disputed space between those who want this to be visible and those who wish it to remain hidden or at least managed out of sight. This is a pressing issue as in my city the extensive volume of abuse and the individual number of stories is staggering. Thousands of people in my local community are suffering the long-term effects of grief and trauma, including their families, neighbours, as well as the educational and religious institutions of the region. It must be one of the largest contributors to mental illness and social trauma in my local community and it is otherwise hidden. But it is also appearing more often in the work of local artists, like in the work Cracked by Janita Ayton. Here, the soft pages of a Bible have been repetitively folded over to spell out the word cracked. This is only observed when the Bible is opened and the word then literally spills out. Clearly, the culture of secrecy and power that once clothed the Church has now been cracked. For the first time in Australian history, the Church has been drawn to public account for its actions, inactions or shameful cover-up. This assumed privilege due to social power or religious authority has been found wanting. The Church is not above the law; it is accountable to the people it seeks to serve.
Cracked is an artwork that visualises the crisis of authority facing organised religion. But it also offers, to my mind, a way forward. When something is cracked, then what is contained inside can get out. Rather than fear being the first response, a response that reinforces denial and secrets, here is an invitation to find within the life of the Church a range of other responses that focuses on victims and those impacted by this history of abuse. The Church has nothing to fear in losing its well-preserved social power if it, in turn, recovers what is at its heart in terms of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Self-preservation cannot be the default position of the Church when facing this sort of accountability in the public square. Here is an opportunity to visualise compassion and a form of agency based on love. The loss to the Church in the face of this ongoing scandal is incalculable, but the opportunity for the Church to renew its purpose will be life-giving and renewing. Cracked leaves me with the possibility of such a hope.
Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and theologian interested in the power of images. He lives and works on Awabakal and Worimi land.
Last night, we went to the Christmas Sydney Town Hall Concert. It was a family event organised by my wife Heather; a wonderful gift for our extended family. I sat next to my 8-year-old grandson, Tom, and invited him to anticipate the ‘fanfares’ that came at regular intervals in the concert. The ‘fanfare’ to me is a loud crescendo of orchestra and organ, working together to lift the whole work to another level, and to attract my attention so that I know that something special is happening. I enjoy the way the fanfare calls my attention to something special, and it invites me in to pay close attention.
This morning, I have come into the studio, and with lots of energy have used smaller brushes very freely, energetically, and gesturally, building on a structure made with my freehand scribble that grows from the discipline of decades of looking and drawing to the point that all that drawing influences, shapes, and forms the scribbles that I make. And, in the midst of my frenetic activity on plywood boards, a thought emerged in my head – that what I was painting, and the manner of my painting, was, ‘fanfare’.
I want to use colour, line, subtle layering, and gestural mark-making to announce the mystery for which I have no adequate name. Our culture for millennia has used the word, or sound, ‘God’ to give name to the mystery and centuries of scholars have worked to ‘grasp’ that mystery. Simpler minds (not meant as a derogatory comment in any way), have personified the mystery to make it easier to grasp and to talk about … even to relate to.
In the concert, the fanfare was used five times, each to announce a special carol or notable verses or stanzas within the carols; each announcing the arrival of someone special (Jesus, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Son of God). In my paintings today, I want to create works that somehow evoke the crescendo of the whole organ and orchestra, working together, calling us to notice that which is special. For me, what is special is that we humans can be aware of the mystery, and then have a willingness to be open to, and, to be willing to be addressed by, (the voice of) that mystery. In so doing, my hope is that the viewers might be enabled to live into the fullness of their being.