Autumn 2013 bedazzled our artistic senses with three welcome additions to already rich libraries. The last to hit the streets was in some ways the most notable: Peter & Linda Murray’s Oxford companion to Christian art and architecture seemed irreplaceable, but the irrepressible Tom Devonshire Jones, at considerable cost to himself, has undertaken a major expansion of this classic work to bring it up to date.
Some entries in the newly entitled Oxford dictionary of Christian art and architecture show no change, for instance the entry for James Gibbs the architect of St Martin in the Fields where the new edition was launched. However sections on architectural styles are not only highlighted but also improved and in some cases expanded thanks to Allan Doig’s substantial contribution. Devonshire Jones’ stamp of authority is discernible in the addition of new entries to reflect a changing art scene as well as advances in learning during the 17 years that separate the two editions. We now find celebrations of the work of Cecil Collins and Graham Sutherland, as well as younger living artists like Stephen Cox and Mark Cazalet.
Sadly Peter Murray died in 1992 while this important compilation was in the making, but notwithstanding Linda Murray went on to complete the venture, as Michael Freeman records in the preface “with characteristic self-discipline and courage”. Compared with the original the absence of any illustrations in the new edition might frustrate some readers particularly those who might be considered to benefit most from the wisdom imparted between its covers. After all this is a work about the visual arts in their many manifestations.
The inclusions are as notable as the exclusions – Cazalet, for instance, who works across a range of media, is the subject of an entry but Bill Viola, video artist, is not. Infuriatingly the Cazalet entry ends with the instruction “See weblinks” but the URL is not given and those who are computer illiterate are disenfranchised. Similarly there is no bibliography, requiring consultees to have access to the web. Once one accepts this limitation, the value of the new edition can only be applauded for updating a key work of reference.
If the absence of images in a critical reference work is dismaying, their paucity has to be a let-down for the admirable reflection on The Cross and Creation in Christian liturgy and art by the eminently placed Canon Christopher Irvine. The emphasis on liturgy and the Word is reinforced by its publication by the Alcuin Club – the art appears to be subliminal (a mere 7 plates), which is perhaps sad given the power of art and imagery to influence how individuals see Christianity and how closely bound up with visual expression Christian thinking is both in the past and in the 21st century. Canon Irvine would have us respond and think about three-dimensional spaces through language rather than visual stimuli. As someone who was once expected to write an essay about the Temple of Apollo at Bassae without having seen it and was informed that this would be a considerable challenge (and therefore I might fail), I can attest to the difficulty of conveying the power of place and space through words alone. To experience it is all the more important and imagery is therefore helpful if that is the only way to enjoy the experience.
Perhaps it is wrong to consider this book purely in art historical terms. Its interest for many readers will be the lustre it adds to our understanding of liturgy. Irvine sets out to explore the cross as ‘the ubiquitous symbol of Christianity life and worship’ by examining its place and function in the architectural setting of Christian worship, considering the artwork placed in theses spaces, and its role in ritual and worship. The reader is drawn into a search that begins with timber as used to create a physical cross through the idea of the flowering cross to the meaning of Creation and the Tree of Life.
By leaving until last Richard Harries’s book The image of Christ in modern art, I do not necessarily promote this work above the others. It does however win hands down for being well and appositely illustrated given that it addresses representations of Christ in the visual arts since the turn of the last century. Bill Viola makes it into this book though Cazalet earns more references. The book emanates from a series of illustrated lectures that Harries gave at the Museum of London surveying the depiction of Christ from the German Expressionists through to the contemporary art scene in the 21st century. Indeed the selection of Roger Wagner’s Walking on Water III the cover is utterly compelling if, like me, Battersea Bridge and the incomplete power station that dwarfs the human figures was a familiar sight to and from shopping expeditions to get cheap food in post-War London.
Harries charts a chronological path through specific movements and their responses to the world around them in their representations of Christ. Many of the images provoke and are far removed from the anodyne, static depictions familiar for instance in C19 stained glass. Some C20 images might even trace their descent from Holman Hunt’s Light of the World, and unsettle and disturb much, if not more so, than some of the schlock associated with the Counter-Reformation. The impact of global and devastating conflicts and the banality of celebrity culture influence responses as we seek peace and tranquillity while trying to comprehend a bewildering barrage of suffering and shallowness. Harries is an informed guide through this complex world, and we emerge with him in believing that the modern movement in art is a friend rather than a foe of Christian art.
For more information on commissioning new art for your parish church, please click here where you will also find a guidance note to help you select an artist.
The second edition of The Oxford dictionary of Christian art and architecture is published by Oxford University Press at £35.00. ISBN: 978-0-19-968027-6.
The Cross and Creation in Christian liturgy and art by Christopher Irvine is published by SPCK for The Alcuin Club at £19.99. ISBN: 978-0-281-06908-8.
The image of Christ in modern art by Richard Harries is published by Ashgate at £19.99. ISBN: 978-1-4094-6382-5.