Faith in the signs and wonders

Christian Art

July 27, 2007

This is not the book I anticipated reading, but it is all the better for that. I had expected a history of Christian images, but Rowena Loverance has written on the assumption that there is such widespread ignorance of Christianity today that a very different approach has to be found. She has therefore started with some basic human themes, and used these as a way into Christian art. The chapter headings give some indication of these themes: becoming fully human, representing women, stewarding the earth, making a difference, coexisting with other faiths, and so on.

Loverance interprets Christian art very broadly, as any art that emerges out of, interacts with or sheds light on the Christian faith. This allows her to select works of art produced by non-Christians - or even those who are anti Christian. Besides this inclusive understanding of what counts as Christian, the book has two major strengths. First, Loverance’s knowledge is extensive. By specialty a Byzantine archaeologist turned art historian, she has led educational tours to many places in the world. Second, she has the wonderful British Museum collection available to her, and it is this on which the book is based. The result is that readers, however knowledgeable, will be introduced to artists from many different cultures with whom they are not familiar. The book is rich in illustrations from China, Ethiopian and other parts of Africa, Mexico and Oceania, as well as Europe and the Byzantine world. It includes only minimal references to great paintings in other galleries but focuses on works in a variety of forms and materials that it is easy to overlook: medals, tapestries, ivories, sarongs, baskets, etchings and prints. This again opens the reader up to the less familiar.

One salutary aspect of Christian Art is that it will question the outlook of those who distinguish between revered ancient objects and craft work from our era. Loverance has no fear, for example, in considering the Hinton St Mary floor mosaic in the same section with a plaited mat from Western Samoa. Here, and at least once in each chapter, she tries to give a more extended discussion of some works so that each is seen in its cultural context with some understanding of its purpose.

There is a chapter on “The story so far”, a history of Christianity in relation to its art and artefacts, which is an exercise in inclusive compression. It contains some arresting facts, for example that the Mongols presided over a major revival of the Church of the East, so that by the early 14th century it had more than 300,000 adherents. But for those unfamiliar with this history it is probably too compressed, and once or twice in the book Loverance seems to assume too much of the reader. For example, words like “hesychast” and “apophatic” would seem to need more explanation than she gives.

Those who know more may sometimes long for a footnote about where some work can be followed up, and a fuller bibliography - for inevitably in a work such as this, a huge number of works are referred to in a brief and tantalising way.

There are a few questionable assertions. The icon The Ladder of Divine Ascent of John Climacus at Sinai is not 6th century but 11th or 12th. Veronese changed the title of his painting in Venice of The Last Supper to The Feast in the House of Levi not so much for the hedonism in it, but because the patrons objected to the fact that the main feasters were German. And I do not think Stanley Spencer “accentuates the horrors of the battlefield” in his Burghclere series. He shows soldiers polishing their belts, as he shows nurses making beds in the hospital, because of what we might call his mysticism of the homely and everyday.

Inevitably, the works discussed are selective, but I thought Loverance might have looked a little more to Ireland, as well as to the rest of the globe. And in the Byzantine world I would have chosen what is, with the anastasis, the most creative of the artistic achievements of the icon painters, the Koimesis (the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary), which in the Orthodox schema is intended for the West wall of a Byzantine church.

Museums today have a major social and educative role in reflecting the variety of cultures and faiths (a current brilliant example of this is the exhibition at the British Library on the three Abrahamic faiths and their sacred texts). The British Museum is uniquely well placed to celebrate cultural richness. Loverance, with her innovative approach and wide knowledge, has served this purpose admirably.

Richard Harries (Lord Harries of Pentregarth) is an honorary professor of theology at King’s College London.

Christian Art

Author - Rowena Loverance
Publisher - The British Museum Press
Pages - 248
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780714150536

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