Visual Literacy and Theology

I have just attended an excellent seminar by Dr Chloe Reddaway from the National Gallery in London where she presented a stunning overview of the representations in art of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Her main aim was to focus on a significant aspect of the theology portrayed in images of that encounter – the New Creation that is brought to birth in Christ and the active part played by these two women in that act of (re)creation. A survey of some couple of dozen pictures brought more theological insight than most exegeses of that biblical text I have ever heard or read. From explorations of liminal spaces depicting thresholds of new life to depictions of the primal void of creation, she showed how art can draw the viewer into an expanding community of those who embrace the already-and-not-yet new creation through their recognition of the creating presence of God within, between and among us.

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But I was also fascinated by a side-comment about the carelessness with which most theologians treat our visual expressions of theology. We would never, she said, consign our biblical texts to ‘cultural history’, so why do we do so with our visual canon? She suggested that we should take seriously the challenge to read these works as carefully and as creatively as we read our scriptures. There is, indeed, a growing number of theologians and spiritual writers who draw on our visual canon but it is still not seen as a mainstream activity. This is a great pity, given the potent role of visual art in human expression and in the spiritual quest. Indeed, humanity’s first religious expressions were in cave art, which predates writing.

When I was training to be a priest, I was taught how to read biblical texts in their original languages, how to interpret theologians who wrote about these texts, I was even taught how to sing them! But I was never taught the value of looking at a painting or given the conceptual and analytical tools to interpret it. I have tried to pick some of these up along the way because I like to look at great art – it moves me and draws me into contemplative modes of seeing – but it would be wonderful if we gave more people more confidence in looking at a work of art and seeing it as a primary piece of theological expression and exploration.

I hope the kind of vibrant and creative theological work done by people like Chloe Reddaway is the beginning of a new and mainstream focus on the visual means at our disposal to encounter the Word made flesh.

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