In her new study, Christian Art, Rowena Loverance aims for more than just a study of art history. “It is not a ‘history of art’ book,” Loverance announces, “It is a ‘how to use’ art book.” Hoping to answer the question of “whether art from the Christian tradition speaks to the condition of people today,” Loverance sets her sights on the goal of making art, specifically art containing Christian imagery or values, relevant again in what has become a secular world. Starting from her admittedly “far too Eurocentric… perspective,” Loverance hopes to find an approach to Christian art that can address issues not only in Western culture but also worldwide. Seeing Christianity as essentially a “missionary faith,” Loverance seeks to instill a missionary fervor in art, hoping to make both art and Christianity meaningful again.
Loverance begins her examination of the uses of Christian art by briefly covering the history of Christianity and art in a chapter titled “The Story So Far.” Speeding through the millennia past Christianity’s Jewish and, hence, non-visual roots, Loverance races past figures such as Constantine, whose “massive Christian building programme… stimulated the creation of a Christian visual repertoire,” and Pope Gregory the Great, who proclaimed that “What scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant” in a dizzying display of erudition that may leave the reader slightly stunned. Loverance places artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and works such as his Winter Landscape With Church (above) neatly and swiftly within her amazingly comprehensive primer that cleanly and concisely gets the history aspect of her mission out of the way to clear the path for the “how to” aspect to take over.
As she investigates how art visualizes and embodies the divine, Loverance never ceases to amaze with her encyclopedic knowledge of worldwide Christian imagery. When Loverance plucks gems such as a Japanese woodcut of Josiah Wedgewood, the disabled founder of the famous Wedgewood ceramics dynasty, and shows how his story was used as a moral exemplar for Japanese children, you can’t help but shake your head at her scholarship. Dismissing the easy answers found in the canonical images, Loverance digs deep to find works such as Emmanuel Garibay’s Emmaus (above), which recasts Jesus as a Filipino woman, recovering a freshness and impact sometimes lost in the tried and true of Michelangelo and Raphael. Taking artist Cecil Collins’ statement that “All art is an attempt to manifest the face of God in life” to heart, Loverance liberally extends the boundaries of what is “Christian” art across time and culture to get at the heart of what it truly means for art to be “Christian.”
Loverance’s argument resounds most strongly when she brings Christian imagery to bear on modern problems such as ecology and social justice. Hoping to “Bring old insights to current dilemmas,” she goes back to such Biblical scenes as Noah and the flood and sees a clear application to the current melting of the polar icecaps and global warming. Noah’s gathering of the animals onto the Ark, in Loverance’s hands, becomes a call for the promotion of biodiversity and the protection of endangered species. Perhaps even more powerfully, Loverance challenges artists to employ Christian imagery in the cause of peace, citing The Throne of Weapons (above), in which guns are disarmed and repurposed as a chair, as an example of a modernization of Isaiah’s plea to beat “swords into plowshares.”
“Art, like other aspects of the faith, has a campaining role,” Loverance writes in her concluding chapter, “What’s Next?” “It should relate to wider movements in contemporary art and offer, if appropriate, a Christian viewpoint.” Saving modern art from the misperception of godlessness, Loverance reclaims a place for works such as Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (above) and sees a shared resurrection of art and faith working together to cross-promote each other. Even if you find her answers facile, Loverance performs the heavy lifting of starting the conversation. If for nothing else, Loverance must be thanked for the simple act of dismissing the silence that slowly has been killing faith and art as living entities in modern culture. “If reading [this book] leads others, as writing it has already led me, to see and to use religious art in a new way,” Loverance concludes, “then it will have been even more worthwhile.”
[Many thanks to Harvard University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]