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Interview: Chloë Reddaway, research fellow

11 February 2022

‘Depicting Christ is audacious. I’m amazed people attempt it’

Martin Phelps

Art is a way of seeking God. There’s very little theology I enjoy reading, even if the content is interesting, whereas great artworks draw me to them and transform my experience of the world on both sides of the frame.

I’m interested in how art can form, and transform, the viewer’s relationship with God. I’ve been part of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s [College, London (KCL)] since it started in 2009. Currently, I’m working on “The Visual Commentary on Scripture” [thevcs.org]; and “Theology, Modernity and the Visual Arts”, a project with Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, where I’m also the McDonald Agape Theology and the Arts Research Associate.

I teach for King’s, Duke, and other places. This term, I’m working with the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth, and Samford University’s London students.

Few things have been more rewarding than teaching in a gallery with a group of students who are really excited about what they’re seeing. I had the immense privilege of being Ahmanson Fellow and Curator in Art and Religion at the National Gallery. The Gallery and KCL run an MA in Christianity and the Arts, and I spent a glorious three years there trying to understand how very strange some paintings of Christ are, and how valuable that can be. Time alone there before opening hours is magical. My research resulted in a film series, The Audacity of Christian Art, and a book, Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and familiarity in Renaissance paintings of Christ.

Depicting Christ is audacious. I’m amazed people attempt it. One response to the extreme difficulty of depicting Christ is through a sense of strangeness — making a familiar subject unfamiliar again. I see this in artworks which use unexpected iconography, disturb our sense of place and time, shift the imagined boundaries of earth and heaven, or somehow breach their own surfaces to become both unsettling and vulnerably open to us. They push us to reconsider what we are seeing and allow ourselves to be amazed.

Like words, images can’t fully describe God. But when the visual language of painting disrupts itself, it opens questioning, challenging dialogues between viewer and painting. These very personal exchanges can take us through that estrangement to the rediscovery of what is familiar within the strange, and the renewed within the familiar — and to the ultimately unspeakable, unpaintable mystery of the incarnation.

The National Gallery’s Millennium exhibition “Seeing Salvation” showed there’s a huge audience for Christian art. Its art-and-religion department brings together research, teaching, exhibitions, and events. The current Fellow in Art and Religion, Ayla Lepine, has just established a London Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, and a Sacred Art in Collections Pre-1900 Network.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture is a free, online publication. Each virtual exhibition has a biblical passage, three high-resolution zoomable artworks, a short commentary on each, and another commentary drawing them together. You’ll never read the biblical passage or see the art works in the same way again.

We already have 265 exhibitions online. The authors are theologians, biblical scholars, art historians, curators, and artists. The artworks date from c.7000 BCE to the present day: Hans Holbein talks to Banksy.

Last year, we launched resource packs for study groups, and lots of churches used them in Advent and Lent. The theme for Lent 2022 is “In the Wilderness”, with artworks ranging from medieval illuminations to contemporary photo-realism. They invite reflection on divine provision in hardship and isolation, and the examination of ourselves as individuals and communities in the light of God’s commandments and covenants. We also have reading programmes for individuals following a liturgical season or theological theme.

Some churches use art imaginatively in their buildings, in preaching, and in community engagement. St Martin-in-the-Fields commissions exhibitions, and art resources like Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story [online] are wonderful. Pick up back copies of Art and Christianity. There are plenty more examples.

But art is often treated as a luxury.
I wish an art-and-theology module were part of the training for priests and Readers.

My grandparents ran a carpet factory in India,
and my mother has a fine eye for colour and design. My aunt is a dancer, and an uncle was a conservator of historic buildings. Art was always part of life.

I was shocked that my degree in philosophy and theology said nothing about art.
Trying to divide the material from the spiritual is a depressing exercise, serving neither God nor creation. Anything can lead us to God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God. I don’t always read St Paul with joy, but I take Romans 8.38-39 to be foundational in that respect.

We’re meaning-hunting, story-telling, art-making people.
I meet God most often in people, in places, and in pictures. Creation is saturated with the presence of God. People were made to be in God’s image. At their best, artworks distil and illuminate the divine presence around and within us.

Trevor Williams understood my longing
for theology to take seriously what it feels like to be a human seeking a relationship with God, and suggested that I took an optional dissertation paper with Sister Mary Charles Murray, an art historian and a member of Oxford’s theology faculty.

Our home had open doors:
somewhere for celebrations, and a place of refuge for many people. Everyone was welcome, and everyone mucked in. My mother’s family is French-British-Maltese-Italian-Turkish-Smyrniot-Greek, and I’m the third generation of women born in India, while my father’s family is very English.

I still live in an extended family,
and we drive each other crazy and keep each other sane in equal measure. I couldn’t have managed lone parenting without our wider family. Life’s never tidy, but the centre holds firm.

From a very early age, I felt a sense of reverence,
and something like concentrated peace. I joined the Church of England as an adult, but I grew up attending a Roman Catholic church with my grandmother, who taught me more about God by example than I later learned from reading theology at Oxford. Art broadened and deepened my sense of God, and fed my awareness of divine abundance.

I can’t even draw convincing stick men,
and, ironically, I have a terrible visual memory; but I love colour and texture and form. Arranging a room, choosing fabrics, or decorating a table makes me happy.

I’m enraged by domestic abuse and how it wastes lives.
The lack of funding for refuges, and the injustices visited on victims by the legal system, which ought to protect them, make me furious. The Church needs to take a lead in talking about this openly, loudly, and frequently.

The people I love flourishing make me happy.
Finding the right words. El Greco’s painting of the Visitation. Dancing. Giving parties. Dusty little churches. The Royal Opera House. Sunlight on hills. Jewel colours. Solitude. Tea, cake, and a good detective novel. The sound of my children’s breathing when they’re asleep.

The Virgin’s womb is full;
the tomb is empty; and the mercy of God is wider than my imagination. That gives me hope.

I pray that I might behave as if what I believe were true;
for a more radical trust in God.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with the composite character traditionally thought of as Mary Magdalene.
I always read John 20.1-18 with a sense of homecoming, and I always come back to Titian’s Noli me tangere with renewed wonder. Mary is poised between the death she expected and the life she found. What’s happened is just dawning on her. There’s an extraordinary delicacy in this revelation, and the gestures and light with which Titian endows it. I’d love to hear about what it was like to have her love for Christ in his life transformed in this way after the resurrection, about finding herself in a “graveyard” that became a new Eden under Christ’s feet, and about female evangelism.

Chloë Reddaway was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and familiarity in Renaissance paintings of Christ is published by Brepols at £85 (Church Times Bookshop £76.50); 978-2-50358-120-0. The Audacity of Christian Art: The problem with Christ is available on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel.

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