NOT many artists have received an impromptu endorsement of their work from a Pope, but, when Nicola Green met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2011, he told her: “I just want you to know that this subject of interfaith is really important to me, and I’m pleased you are doing this, and I want to bless your project.”
The ten years that Ms Green spent following religious leaders around the world is documented in a new book, Encounters. A related exhibition, already open at St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, is set to travel abroad. It includes portraits of 31 religious leaders from 19 countries. Twelve of them have been made into life-size models.
“It’s the first time all the religions and all the religious leaders have been together in one artwork,” she says. Meetings between leaders of different faiths may be commonplace nowadays, but, Ms Green says, this is a relatively new phenomenon. While there were sporadic episodes of co-operation between religious leaders during the 20th century — for example, during the civil-rights movement in the United States, and fighting apartheid in South Africa — 9/11 was a watershed moment.
“The past two decades have seen the growth of the interfaith movement at an academic and leadership level,” she explains. “Various religious leaders around the world started to make an effort to meet each other. . .”
Ms Green persuade them to let her sit in on these meetings. She listened to them trying to work out how to articulate in public their respect for other religions “without undermining their own, and without upsetting the more orthodox parts of their own religion”.
THE idea for the project came to her after she had finished working on artwork about Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. She recalls: “I was having breakfast reading the newspaper, and saw that the Dalai Lama was meeting Archbishop Rowan Williams, and it’s only the second time it has ever happened. I thought, ‘This is really interesting,’ and rang up Lambeth Palace and said: ‘Please can I come and sit in on this?’ They said ‘No,’ but I carried on asking until eventually they said ‘Yes.’”
It was 2008. She recalls: “Because they were sitting next to each other, not opposite each other, there was a different dynamic. There wasn’t that confrontational element. They ended up holding hands for over half of the meeting.”
With support from Lambeth Palace, she persuaded religious leaders to co-operate with the project, but there were challenges.
The initial reaction of the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks was cautious. Pope Benedict’s team were also resistant when she first met them on his visit to the UK in 2010.
Ms Green recollects: “Pope Benedict had a private audience with Rowan. Rowan said ‘I want my photographer to be there.’ They said ‘No.’ Rowan insisted on it. Eventually, I sat in on the private meeting between the Archbishop and the Pope. They looked at the Lambeth Bible, which dates from before the split with Rome. They had an amazing conversation about that. It was a remarkable conversation for me to witness.”
Ms Green saw history being made in real time: “I would say to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chief Rabbi: ‘Do you realise what you’re doing?’” She took more than 10,000 photos in total, at various meetings, but never wrote anything down. “It was almost because I was an artist and I was recording it visually, that they felt safe.”
MS GREEN grew up in the Church of England, and the death of her young sister made her ask deeper questions: “In my twenties, I rejected all faiths, and then went on a journey of wanting to understand other faiths, and have now returned to my own faith.”
Undertaking the project has left her generally admiring of religious leaders. “Whether they are right or wrong, my experience was that most of them were pretty learned, and knew a lot about their own religion. . .
“The temptation is for humans to make the other something fearful and different, and almost fought against. Watching these leaders make an effort to think and understand how they could move beyond that has definitely helped me.”
She is, unsurprisingly, clear about the place of art in faith. “The majority of our communication is non-verbal. . . Most of what we know about other religions and cultures in the past comes from art, artefacts, and objects, more than words. Words can often be quite difficult and divisive. The visual image is an incredibly powerful tool.”
Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews. Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue is published by Brepols.