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Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions at Chester Cathedral

08 October 2021

This Chester exhibition is about diversity in art, says Jonathan Evens

Blue Christ by Lorna May Wadsworth

Blue Christ by Lorna May Wadsworth

“GLOBAL Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions” is “a great mosaic of images from around the world”, the Dean of Chester, the Very Revd Dr Tim Stratford, says.

The exhibition, made up of more than 50 paintings, African and Chinese sculptures, and orthodox icons, seeks to challenge the Western depiction of Jesus Christ and his followers. The Dean says: “We are very familiar with pictures of Jesus Christ cast in our Western European image. This exhibition helps us see him through the eyes of other cultures, enlarging our understanding of God.”

The idea for the exhibition was first voiced in a meeting of the Bishop’s staff team for Chester diocese when, in the context of a discussion about Black Lives Matter, the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, the Ven. Ian Bishop, said: “Wouldn’t it be good if the Cathedral was able to pull together an exhibition of images depicting Jesus from around the world?”

The Dean brought the idea to his colleagues; and the Precentor, Canon Jeremy Dussek, undertook to identify and collect works from churches across the UK. He has worked with the Art and Design Department of the University of Chester, who have curated an exhibition that inhabits the cathedral’s liturgical spaces, as opposed to one displayed in a particular segment of space.

The works, which include contributions from artists such as Mark Cazalet, Peter Eugene Ball, Lorna May Wadsworth, and Meg Wroe, reveal, the Dean suggests, that “human beings can’t help but see God through their own cultural lenses.” The exhibition “brings a whole host of cultural lenses together” to form a “great mosaic of images”, revealing that “God is a God of many cultures and is embraced by many peoples.”

Gareth RainsforthChristus Rex by Peter Eugene Ball

There have been similar exhibitions and books in the past including “Images of Christ: Religious Iconography in Twentieth Century British Art” (1993), Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (1997), Christ for All People: Celebrating a world of Christian art (2001), Presence — Images of Christ for the Third Millennium (2004), and “Jesus Laughing and Loving” (2012). The frequency with which such projects are realised suggests not only that contemporary artists continue to be fascinated by the person of Christ and that we need a significant diversity of images of Jesus in order to encounter him deeply. Such is, after all, the Way of Affirmation.

The Dean highlighted two images that had held him gazing at them for some time and spoke about the challenge that they pose. The central piece in the exhibition is Wadsworth’s depiction of the Last Supper, her composition based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. She portrays Jesus as a black man and worked with the Jamaican-born fashion model Tafari Hinds, who modelled for the representation. The Diocesan Inclusion Officer, the Revd Vanessa Layfield has said: “The A Last Supper image of a black Christ may be shocking to some, but why? One might argue that an image of a white Christ is just as dishonest as an image of a black Christ; for Christ was neither black nor white, but a brown Middle Eastern Jew.”

It’s interesting, the Dean notes, “to see this black Jesus hanging as a reredos in the Nativity chapel. Above it, there is a Victorian Nativity window with a very white baby Jesus in it and that amplifies what these images are about, as they’re in liturgical space that is dominated by Victorian British images of Jesus.”

Wadsworth’s Last Supper was subsequently “shot by somebody with an air pistol or an air rifle” (News, 15 November 2019). So, “there is a hole in Jesus’s side” as a result: “The history of the picture itself, and the kind of re-injuring of Jesus is very powerful. And that probably wouldn’t have happened if the image of Jesus had not been black. Of course, we don’t know that. But, certainly when I see it, that’s what I see.”

Also on display is Meg Wroe’s reimagining of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon. Wroe uses the Russian artist’s famous composition to demonstrate community solidarity and sensitivity for all those displaced and maltreated. Her icon belongs to Southwark Cathedral and is a much loved addition to its collection. “This icon is very familiar. If you stand a long way from it, you think you’re seeing Rublev’s icon, but as you approach the three figures in this icon, to my eye, I would say they look as if they are from the from the Indian subcontinent. It is done to demonstrate community solidarity for displaced and maltreated peoples and the Rublev icon is an image of Trinity as community.”

A Last Supper by Lorna May Wadsworth

The exhibition is a collaborative venture by Chester Cathedral, the University of Chester and the Diocese of Chester and represents a desire by all to promote equality and diversity in a community partnership.

Canon Lameck Mutete, Chair of the diocesan Race and Ethnicity Forum says: “It is our hope that the ‘Global Images of Christ’ exhibition will not only be an opportunity for us to listen, learn and be transformed, but bring all God’s people to an understanding that the God we worship is neither black nor white but a God of all people.” Ms Layfield suggests: “The exhibition helps us to reconsider our unconscious bias which causes us to make assumptions about others and in so doing perhaps creates a divisive rather than an inclusive Church.”

His idea realised, Archdeacon Bishop now says: “This is an exhibition that will challenge your perception of who Jesus is and how he is perceived across the world.”

“Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions” is open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. until 30 October. chestercathedral.com

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