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How to read a painting

18 March 2016

Theological literacy is key to artistic understanding, argues Chloe Reddaway


In need of interpretation: The Annunciation by Francois Lemoyne

In need of interpretation: The Annunciation by Francois Lemoyne

ANYONE stranded on a desert island by order of Kirsty Young is given, as a matter of course, copies of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Thus the popular Radio 4 programme recognises, apparently as basic human necessities, the Christian foundations on which so much of Western culture is built, and one of the greatest literary expressions of that culture, itself replete with biblical references.

It has become something of a cliché for university lecturers in the arts and humanities to bemoan their students’ lack of biblical knowledge, so perhaps such a desert island would be a suitable location for the remedial classes sometimes proposed. How can one teach Shakespeare to undergraduates who have little or no awareness of the Bible? How can one understand the impact of biblical forms and cadences in Western culture if one is not familiar with Shakespeare?

The same complaint haunts art-history departments, whose students (real as well as apocryphal) regularly fail to identify in paintings even quite common biblical subjects; but it is not a problem that is confined to higher education. Curators and educators in museums (not to mention clergy in charge of churches and cathedrals) are increasingly required to explain the Christian content of artworks, unable to assume that the general public will be able to recognise saints by their attributes, let alone navigate such theological complexities as the immaculate conception. The story of a visitor to an art gallery who remarked that she “liked all the paintings of women with babies, but was surprised that the baby was always a boy”, is quite probably true.

These might seem rather extreme examples, but an understanding of scripture and theology (and, perhaps even more important, of theological ways of thinking) can transform our understanding of art and culture, of the contemporary world in which we live, and its history. The desire to explore the most intense of human experiences, and the capacity to do so, is common to theology and the arts. To understand how the one informs and forms the other requires an appreciation of what Christianity has upheld as the most valuable aspects of that human experience, and thus of what has been most influential in shaping the artistic and cultural forms of our past and present.

Even where contemporary culture has rejected the Christian tenets of its past, an understanding of what it is that has been rejected is vital to understanding the forms that such rejection has taken (for instance, in some modern art).


THIS is not just a question of recognising quotations or iconography, although these are crucial. It is also a matter of being able to enter into a certain frame of mind, and to think from a theological perspective, and within theological categories. Strolling around a gallery, one may learn from a label what the subject of a religious painting is, but one is not likely to learn a great deal about how it relates to Christian belief and experience more widely. Short pieces of text stuck to museum walls are not the ideal means of communicating this. They may say what something is, but they rarely say why it matters.

Thus it would be easy to pause in front of a painting by François Lemoyne, recently lent by Winchester College to the National Gallery, and be informed that it depicts the annunciation, described in the Gospel of Luke. One might enjoy looking at it, and appreciate the sculptural quality of the angel and the exquisite colouring of the Virgin. Without some knowledge of the religious history of England, however, one might not notice that it was the only religious subject in a display of French 18th-century paintings, or wonder how such a Catholic image came to be installed in Winchester College Chapel in the late 1720s. And, without some theological awareness, one might not be arrested by the blank paper on the floor in front of the Virgin, nor the empty basket lined with a white cloth beside her, nor the attitude of adoration in which she is portrayed.

Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, approaching the image with a degree of theological imagination might lead one to experience the blank and empty elements of this scene as pregnant with possibility in a way that is particularly suited to expressing the significance of the event: the paper waiting to be inscribed, the basket possibly the future cradle for the expected child, the Virgin herself the unsullied matter on which God’s Word is to be written, as her empty womb is filled. It takes a theological mind-set to appreciate that the Virgin is already adoring the unborn Child, and to recognise the presence of Christ.

In short, there is a richness of experience that might easily be missed, and Christianity is so embedded in Western culture that the risk of missing out on this richness of experience is ubiquitous. Reducing the richness of life is, however, utterly contrary to the nature and purposes of the arts, and to the essence of Christianity. In one of his many figurative explanations of himself and his purpose, Jesus describes himself as the gate by which sheep enter the fold and go out to pasture, and as the good shepherd who cares for them. He is the way to safety and nourishment; he is the careful guardian. Between these two images comes the memorable verse, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

The abundant and life-affirming nature of art and culture is deeply enriched by Christian beliefs and ways of thinking, both in its creation and its reception. The more one knows about a work of art, whether it is a painting, a novel, a building, or a play — the more one knows about the context in which it was created, the ideas that inspired it, and the symbolic world that it inhabits — the more there is to respond to within it, and the richer one’s experience of it may be.

The authors of the New Testament demonstrated this when they wove elements of the Old Testament into their writings, enlarging and invigorating both Testaments by exploring typological and thematic connections between them. Medieval theologians famously developed ways of reading and interpreting texts which assumed multiple layers and networks of meaning within them. Recognising this density of meaning is skilful work. A little theological knowledge is indispensable to the most basic understanding of Western culture; a sense of theological ways of thinking and the cultivation of a theological imagination can transfigure our experience of it.

We may not expect to achieve the encyclopaedic theological knowledge of the medievals, but these imaginative and associative encounters with scripture offer a beautiful model for how we, in turn, might theologically approach artworks, and many other aspects of Western culture, in ways that recognise the abundance of Christ’s presence in creation.


Dr Chloë Reddaway is Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery in London, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College, London.

The painting of The Annunciation by Francois Lemoyne (1727) is currently kindly loaned to the National Gallery by the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College.

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