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Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 Images by Richard Harries

09 April 2020

Nicholas Cranfield is impressed by these essays on 30 works

THIS is a wonderfully enviable book. I wished that I had been commissioned to write it, as it made me realise just how leaden my own attempts are in trying to link the Revealed in art to the Lived in Christ.

Challenged to choose just 30 images to tell the story, and to write no more than 900 words about each, Lord Harries has produced a profoundly theological and readable account of the Christian faith (Faith, 3 April).

It is shot through with his note-perfect observations that made his contributions to Thought for the Day so vivid; Paul of Tarsus, characterised as a jihadist, “was not the kind of person you would invite in for a meal”. Indeed not; neither in Barnes nor in Blackheath, I heard myself say.

The reflections are grouped in three parts. “In Time” runs from creation to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, in Masaccio’s vivid painting in Florence (c.1425), in just four chapters. “In History” follows God’s chosen people from the Exodus to the fulfilment of revelation in the life, Passion, and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The final section of ten essays (“In Christ”) examines the fulness of post-resurrection consciousness in the Church from the first Easter morning to the feast of the Trinity.

His survey concludes with a flourish with the Rublev icon of the Trinity from the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow. Dating from the same time as the Masaccio Expulsion, it has gained hugely in popularity in the past four decades in the West, and is almost archetypal for what we imagine a Russian icon to be.

The author invites us to “see” with him, using a wide vocabulary of media, stretching from sixth-century mosaics, of Moses at the burning bush (St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai) and the women at the tomb, in Ravenna, to one from 1991 (Hildegart Nicholas). He includes sculpture — David Wynne’s Noli me tangere in an Oxford quad (there is another version in Ely (Faith, 27 April 2018) — etchings, and linocuts.

A Greek mosaic at Hosios Loukas of doubting Thomas occasions a discussion of the problem of suffering in the three Abrahamic faiths; the feast day of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin Mary leads to a reflection on the soul.

To illustrate Pentecost, Harries had intended to use the colourful Pfingsten by Emil Nolde (1867-1956), a work that he had considered before (The Image of Christ in Modern Art).

That Nolde was a violent anti-Semite who yearned for Hitler’s approval for his work did not stop the 2018 Edinburgh Festival from giving this colourist oxygen. It was not until 2019, when Angela Merkel stripped his work from her official residence, that the sordid truth, concealed for years by the Nolde Foundation, was laid bare. In its place, we are given Nicholas Mynheer’s 2003 painting of the Worcester College Oxford Choir.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images
Richard Harries
SPCK £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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