Approaching God through Art

Sarah Middleton, is a freelance Arts Manager and a Methodist Local Preacher. As part of her MA Arts & Cultural Management degree at Sussex University she evaluated the Methodist Modern Art Collection's impact in British churches and galleries from 1962-2007. In this article Sarah talks of how the collection can help us in reflecting upon the Christian narrative and experience as interpreted by a number of artists,

Did you know that the British Methodist Church owns a remarkable art collection? Perhaps you have seen it on display in a town gallery, church or school near to you, for the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art has been touring Britain since the 1960’s and is usually shown at five or six different venues a year.

Still being added to, there are now over 40 works in the Collection. All of them reflect aspects of the Christian narrative and experience as interpreted by a range of artists. These include well known names from the British art world of the twentieth century such as Graham Sutherland and Elisabeth Frink. Contemporary British artist Mark Cazalet features in the Collection with his primitive-style cameos, Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree) and Fool of God (Christ in the garden). Ghislaine Howard, known for her exhibitions in British cathedrals, was commissioned by the Collection’s trustees in 2004 and produced an intriguing angle on the biblical episode of the footwashing.

There is a pronounced international flavour to the Collection. Amongst the recent acquisitions (six works were added between 2004 and 2006) is Jyoti Sahi’s Dalit Madonna. It depicts a young Indian woman from the Dalit community (previously known as the Untouchables) tenderly cradling the Christ child. This image has been reproduced widely over the last couple of years – in prayer handbooks, on posters and within the Methodist Church website, having captured the imagination of many. The painting itself, almost five feet high, was first exhibited as part of the Colloquy ‘art space’ at Methodist Conference in 2004.

‘Culturally challenged’?L~

As a trustee of the Collection, I am often asked how the Methodist Church came to possess these fine works of art. The question sometimes reflects surprise that Methodism should have this particular interest. “It is a well known fact that Nonconformists are culturally challenged” is a rather over-confident generalisation from an academic writing just a few years ago - but it’s not without foundation. Partly in response to such assumptions, and wanting to encourage a more imaginative approach in Methodism to the commissioning and buying of paintings, sculpture and church furnishings, Dr John M Gibbs and Rev Douglas Wollen began assembling works during the 1960’s with funds from a charitable source. A full history of the Collection up to 2002 has been written by Roger Wollen1.

In 1997 managing trustees were appointed to care for, develop and promote the Collection in order to encourage people to enter into conversations about God in Christ in the contemporary world. As part of this purpose, I was asked to conduct some research to find out how different borrowers of the Collection had exhibited the works over the period 2000-2006. It has been most rewarding to discover the variety of individual initiatives and the high level of satisfaction recorded by borrowers and visitors. Many of the 40+ loans during this period were to ecumenical groupings, several of whom wished to display the paintings during Lent – there is rich scope for study and meditation as several of the works feature the Passion of Christ. Minister of the United Church in Winchester, Rev Dr Howard Mellor, wrote: “It gave Lent such depth. We brought the paintings into the midweek and Sunday services… the theology of the atonement was profoundly before us. I think it helped the church see that words are not the only way to explore the faith”.

New ways of seeingL~

One gallery curator observed how the wartime experiences of many of the Collection’s artists had highlighted the way in which war affects our ways of seeing. Thus Sutherland’s The deposition shows a Christ figure reminiscent of a victim of a Nazi concentration camp.

Another theme running through a number of the works is that of healing. At a study day I remember projecting an image of John Reilly’s painting, The healing of the lunatic boy (illustrated below). At the end of the event, someone came up to me holding one of the postcard reproductions of the painting. “I keep this in my bag”, she told me. “I sometimes cannot find the words to describe the mental illness I suffered for many years. But I can show this painting and say ‘that’s how I was’ (pointing to the right hand side) and ‘that’s how I am now!’ (pointing to the left hand side, showing a person strong and upright under Jesus’ restorative touch).

There are various resources to assist borrowers with educational ideas and with mounting an exhibition, but each tour venue is free to choose its own slant and exhibition title. Recent titles have included A Brush with Faith, Modern Miracles, Painting the Passion, and The Divine Muse. Borrowers have cited their exhibition aims as

~**To help people look at life in different ways*~~*To promote the Christian faith through the work of outstanding artists*~~*To develop spirituality*~~*To celebrate the completion of a new church building scheme.**~

In Birmingham, Methodist minister Rev Neil Johnson coordinated a city-wide arts festival entitled Life in the face of death. The Art Collection was shown at the city’s main art gallery; at a neighbouring Anglican church an artist with Gujerati Hindu heritage displayed her work; Birmingham Children’s Hospital also took part.

Stimulating conversation and creativityL~

Hosting the Collection at Saltaire Methodist Church, the Rev Sarah Jemison arranged a creative writing session in the church, led by Bradford Interfaith Writers for Peace. Attended by Muslims, Hindus and Christians, this was an opportunity for talking together in a non-confrontational setting.

Such a group might have asked the question, What makes a work of art ‘religious’? Is it to do with the subject matter? Or the intention of the artist? Or the effect on the viewer? All of these enquiries can enrich our approach to God and our perspective on mission.

“I was delighted to have had my work selected,” said John Brokenshire, whose painting was added to the Collection in 2004. Although labelled Untitled, it had been interpreted by two of the trustees, seeing it in a private London gallery, as suggestive of the Holy Spirit, the dove brooding over creation, the same Spirit who came as the wind of Pentecost. When bought, the painting was listed in the Art Collection catalogue as Untitled – Pentecost. Inspired by this response to tackle other biblical themes, the artist subsequently painted two narrative sequences: the raising of Lazarus and the healing of Jairus’ daughter. This work has since been displayed in Sheffield Cathedral.

Church buildings are a natural place to display the Collection but its artistic reputation means it is equally well qualified for museums and galleries. This was the sentiment of one curator whose city gallery has recently been awarded the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize for demonstrating a track record of imagination, innovation and excellence in museums and galleries. The association of the Collection with the professionals of the art world is important both for the contacts it opens up and for the credibility it needs to maintain in order to be relevant to the present age.

The stimulus given by the Collection to commissioning and displaying contemporary art, thereby affirming the vocation of the artist, is something of which the Methodist Church can be proud. Do take the opportunity to see it – exhibition dates are posted on the Methodist Church of Great Britain website (see footnote), or contact Angela Dewar (email: artdewar@talktalk.net) for preliminary information on borrowing some or all of the works.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wollen, R (2003) Catalogue of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art. Published by the Trustees. 178 pp. £15.00 from Methodist Publishing House (mph, tel. 01733 325002).

An illustrated Introduction to the Collection, also by Roger Wollen, is available at £3.50 from mph.

For further resources and information about the Collection see www.methodist.org.uk (search for ‘Art Collection’)

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