Connecting to the Divine

On 12-14 July, the inaugural Art and Theology Symposium was held at St Luke’s Anglican church in Woy Woy. With a very high calibre of presenters it proved to be a creative and intellectual event filled with keynote addresses, short papers, and workshops. It was also a very supportive ecumenical space with attendees from Anglican, Catholic, Uniting Church, Salvation Army, Baptist and Lutheran backgrounds.

I frequented this event with a burning splinter in my mind’s eye. How can I integrate my theological background, my faith in Christ, with an emerging contemporary jewellery practice? Are they two exclusive pursuits, can they be meshed or are they so intertwined in my person that there is no separation at all?

I came away with not only things that will help me ponder and process my personal situation, but more food for thought concerning the interplay of art and theology.

A number of themes presented themselves during the weekend. These emerged in a variety of talks and workshops.

The first one that struck me was the significance of symbolism. The use of symbols has a long and varied history in art, especially ecclesial compositions. We find them in church architecture, paintings, liturgical accouterments and other artworks. The problem can be that they often need explanation for full understanding. Without a working framework for the symbolism contained, they have the potential to become meaningless and empty or merely ‘pretty’.

A number of examples were made during the talks. Watercolour artist Dr Fiona Pfennigwerth understands herself as part of the procession of scripture illuminators who have a tradition of helping readers connect personally with God and the Scriptures to their own context. Her beautifully painted books of John and the Scrolls have keys to help readers connect the symbolism in the Australian flora and scenery she has painted with the Scriptures.

Environmental scientist Dr Penny Dunstan’s installation Sixteen Earth Bowls would not have been as powerful if one didn’t know that the vessels are all made from different post mining soils from the Hunter Valley. They speak of the destruction and contamination resulting from the decimation of the land in the search for wealth.

As a Protestant, I certainly did not have any real appreciation of the rich symbolism contained in the architecture of Roman Catholic churches. A guided tour of the relatively new St John the Baptist Parish in Woy Woy quickly exposed my ignorance. The spire and the four shrines actually made a hand with the altar in the centre of the palm, demonstrating that the people of God are always in the palm of God’s hand. The use of the same pebble material in the pathway outside and leading right through to the altar and beyond represented the concept that we are a pilgrim people on a journey with and to Christ. The font, which could be walked into and out of, is the womb of the Church where people are reborn in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Every piece of stained glass had meaning from being one with each other in God to baptism. Without some explanation, I would have left simply having seen a well-designed piece of architecture.

Along with symbolism is the importance of understanding genre. Just like the Bible’s Old Testament wisdom literature cannot be read in the same way as the New Testament letters, one cannot read film like a book, satire like drama or liturgical music like a rock concert. Each has to be understood as its own form with unique language, symbolism and media.

A second strong theme was that art has consequences. As such, there is a morality and ethics to the creation and display of artworks.

This was probably most strongly communicated in Father Glenn Loughrey’s keynote address which explored neo-colonialism and nostalgia on our perception of Aboriginal art. He stated that there were no traditional Aboriginal art forms as white people understand art. That is, a product made for its own purpose or to gain income. There were traditional stories, but those were for the building up of community, for ceremony and for education and usually not permanent. What we understand as Aboriginal art today is actually a result of colonialism and far too often, is only valued when it is suspected of speaking about some indigenous insight.

Reverend Chris Bedding’s Pirate Church is an art work using the medium of satire to challenge the faith of the church. Theology is robustly explored in every script. The pirates are reminded of The Captain who was killed by the Armada, but resurrected by The Deep. The Ghostly Parrot keeps them on track as they are challenged to fight the Armada. With a deep commitment to non-violence, Bedding encourages Christians to be ‘dangerous, fearless and wild’ in their world as they follow Christ.

The third and most important theme was the absolute necessity of art. It plays a vital role in cultural and religious understanding. It challenges. It demonstrates beauty. It brings us closer to God. It disturbs. Human beings actually need art.

This means that art, and the artist who create it, have a huge responsibility. Some of the presenters asserted that art is not doing its job if it is not making us uncomfortable, causing us to question the status quo. In that sense artists are dangerous, because their art is a political and radical art of resisting the oppression of the status quo.

For Michael Mangan, his chosen art of liturgical music has a huge responsibility to make Christ truly present to worshippers and to assist them in having full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy. Therefore, writing and choosing songs needs musical, liturgical and pastoral judgement.

Art also has the profound ability to connect humans with the divine. Pope Benedict XVI’s General Audience from 31 August 2011 contains these encouraging but challenging words:

A work of art is a product of the creative capacity of the human being who in questioning visible reality, seeks to discover its deep meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colour and sound. Art is able to manifest and make visible the human need to surpass the visible, it expresses the thirst and the quest for the infinite.

Indeed it resembles a door open on to the infinite, on to a beauty and a truth that go beyond the daily routine. And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and of the heart, impelling us upward.

Dr Katherine Grocott




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