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Online Bible-and-art project launched at cost of £2 million

07 November 2018


Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer, c.1654-56, chosen to illustrate Luke 10.38-42 by John Skillen, Professor of English at Gordon College, Massachusettes, and the director of the Studio for Art, Faith and History based in Orvieto, Italy

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer, c.1654-56, chosen to illustrate Luke 10.38-42 by John Skillen, Professor of English at Gor...

A £2-MILLION online project has been launched this week in the hope of presenting the Bible afresh to a visual generation.

The Visual Commentary on the Bible, which went live on Tuesday, matches three works of art with passages of scripture. Each triptych is chosen by a theologian or an art historian (44 are currently listed on the site), who also writes a short commentary on each picture, relating it to the Bible passage — and then a fourth commentary bringing all four elements together. The images secured for the site are high-resolution, and there is a powerful zoom facility, so that users can contemplate the artworks in detail.

At present, there are 50 completed triptychs — the organisers call them exhibitions — and another 50 await copyright permissions. During the course of the seven-year project, it is planned to raise the number of exhibitions to 1500.

The site — thevcs.org — has been built by Cogapp and is free to use. It has been funded by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson, US billionaire philanthropists, and draws on the expertise of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London.

The director is the Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s, the Revd Dr Ben Quash. At the project’s launch on Tuesday evening, held at Tate Modern, in London, he spoke of the ambition to cover the entire canon of Christian scripture.

In an introductory video, Professor Quash says: “We’ll believe that we’ve done a good job when people who have visited our online exhibitions never quite read the biblical text in the same way again because of what the art has brought to their reading of it — and, indeed, will never look at those works of art in quite the same way again, because they’ve had a new way of looking at them that’s been generated from their conversation with the biblical text.”

VCSA page from the VCS website

Images already on the site include works of art by Barbara Hepworth, Vincent Van Gogh, William Holman Hunt, Marc Chagall, and William Blake. So far, no artist or gallery has refused permission.

Authors include Neil MacGregor, the former director of the National Gallery and the British Museum; the Revd Dr David Brown, Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews; the Revd Dr Michael Banner, Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge; Canon Alison Milbank, Associate Professor of Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham; and Eunice Maguire, formerly Curator of the Archaeological Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

Extract: ‘A record shaped by the rich’ 

VISUAL commentaries like the altarpieces selected here have one serious limitation. They could be made only because they were paid for by a patron, who usually determined the subject and frequently influenced its interpretation. It is striking that there are many more Adorations of the Magi than Adorations of the Shepherds (needless to say, there are hardly any images of the mighty being put down from their seats).

The feast day of the Three Kings is a great holy day; they were given names; their bones in Cologne drew throngs of pilgrims; Florentine trading families had a particular veneration for them.

None of this happened to the shepherds. Although Christ charged his apostles, like shepherds, to feed his sheep, few people of power wanted to identify with those outsiders who first heard the good news.

The painted record of the church, with all the insights that it offers, is a record largely shaped by the rich.

Neil MacGregor

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