THIS is a small but significant exhibition, being the first time, to my knowledge, that a cathedral has shown images of the Virgin Mary as a disabled person. Images of Jesus as a disabled person have been produced in more recent years (including some by Marc Bratcher, the artist here), particularly since the publicity of The Disabled God: Towards a liberatory theology of disability by Nancy Eiesland.
Eiesland wrote that, “In presenting his impaired body to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.” This statement contains significant visual opportunities — opportunities that artists such as Rachel Holdforth, Alan Stewart, and Raoef Mamedov, among others, have begun to explore.
A recent response to the ongoing exhibition programme developed around the drawing The Blind Jesus (No-one belongs here more than you) by Stewart illustrates the kind of reflection enabled by such images: “The exhibition made me think about how I am seen by other people, what’s on the outside, and what is hidden. Our varied abilities, limitations and talents which make us up.” With “Disability and the Divine”, Bratcher is now adding to this important conversation and taking it in new directions, not least by the opportunity to show his work in a cathedral setting.
Bratcher locates his approach in the tradition of representing key biblical figures and stories within the artist’s own culture and, by doing so, also reveals the extent to which depictions of disability either have been largely absent from the historic and artistic record or have been negative depictions involving the healing rather than celebration of disability. He views his work as offering “the chance of a significant part of the Christian community, and indeed all society, to see themselves reflected in the Christian story in a way that they never have before”.
Like Bratcher, Canon Tim Alban Jones, Vice-Dean of Peterborough, has a similar hope, saying: “Whilst Marc’s pictures show us a different and surprising view of very familiar subjects, they are profoundly beautiful and moving. I hope they will start a conversation around the invisibility of people with disabilities both in religious and non-religious settings, and challenge us to change for the better.” “Disability and the Divine” is, therefore, part of a project to start a new conversation about the past and the future, and to get such images of disability and the Virgin Mary into as many churches and cathedrals as possible.
© Marc BratcherDisabled Christ on the Cross in the Time of Plague by Marc Bratcher
Bratcher contributes to this conversation by creating images that would readily fit into key periods of the Western canon of art, when the relationship between artists and the Church was at its strongest. In his images, it is only the inclusion of a wheelchair that signals difference, while also flagging historical absence. Bratcher’s approach, therefore, bears comparison with the work of artists, such as Kehinde Wiley (Arts, 28 January), who have inserted black protagonists into Old Master paintings; an approach that enables conversations about exclusivity and power.
As a severely disabled artist with cerebral palsy, Bratcher combines available technologies in a continual experiment to push at the barriers of creativity. His practice involves a wide variety of disciplines, including digital painting, photography, and artificial intelligence. His creative journey began with his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford and, more recently, during his MA in creative practice at Leeds Arts University, where he was runner-up in the Postgraduate Sustainability Awards 2020 with a crucifixion image, Disabled Christ on the Cross in the Time of Plague. He has also provided lyrics to a recent carol composed by John Rutter, “Was I The Lamb?”.
By focusing here on Mary as “a disabled mother, whether she is on her knees in a moment of grief and grace, trying to cradle the body of Jesus as best she can, or trying to hold the infant Christ child as he takes his first steps”, Bratcher also opens up discussions of perfectionism and parenthood. He asks: “Is it not possible to be both a unique symbol of immaculacy and human perfection whilst still being physically different?” Such questions get us “to think about what perfection actually is, both of the spirit and of the body”.
Bratcher believes that work such as this can “provide a stimulus and focus for better discussion and a wider understanding of the role of disabled people within society and within the Church, which better reflects the modern progressive attitudes in the 21st century”. Visiting “Disability and the Divine” will undoubtedly assist in exploring how the experience of disability relates to theology, history, art, parenthood, and other issues in the 21st century. It may also open a window on other similar images, liberatory theologies of disability, as well as, most importantly of all, the lived experience of disabled people themselves and the insights into faith and spirituality that come from those experiences.
“Disability and the Divine” is at Peterborough Cathedral until 7 July. www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk