Holy Smoke

How a ‘biblically illiterate’ generation can discover Christian art

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In this episode

Carmel Thompson

The new Holy Smoke episode is a significant departure from our usual formula. It’s a discussion about the profound and neglected meaning of Christian art. Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London is interviewed not by me but by Carmel Thompson – my sister, who has appeared twice on Holy Smoke to talk about her battle with ovarian cancer but is determined not to be defined by her illness.

Carmel, unlike her lazy brother, is a passionate enthusiast for exhibitions. Ben is a high-flying authority on art and theology (and also an Anglican priest, though this isn’t mentioned in the podcast).

This is a truly engrossing episode inspired by Carmel’s conviction that art depicting Christian subjects – and that includes most of the great art produced in the West up to and including the Renaissance – is too often examined from a purely aesthetic point of view.

Ben Quash is currently building a hugely ambitious online resource, the Visual Commentary on Scripture, in which art historians and theologians seek to reconnect Christian art with the beliefs that gave rise to their creation.

He’s the ideal interviewee, in other words, and not just because of his academic expertise. This is a delightful and often moving conversation that addresses the question of how modern art-lovers, many of them suffering from what Ben calls ‘biblical illiteracy’, can open their eyes and their minds to a spiritual tradition that has become utterly marginalised in the 21st century.

Obviously you’ll get far more out of this discussion if you can see what Carmel and Ben are talking about with such infectious enthusiasm, so here are the artworks chosen by Ben:

• The panels from the Maestà altarpiece for Siena Cathedral by Duccio di Buoninsegna, completed in 131.

The Descent from the Cross by Rogier Van Der Weid (1399-1464), painted for the Chapel of Our Lady Outside the Walls at Leuven in modern-day Belgium.

• Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Jesus, but also a self-portrait, painted in ‘1500 AD’ – the artists’ initials as well as, of course, Anno Domini.

• Stanley’s Spencer’s disconcertingly ‘chunky’ Christ, as Carmel described him.

• The disconcerting (to put it mildly) depiction of the Crucifixion (1959) by F.N. Souza, a British artist born in Goa to Indian parents.

• And the ‘kinetic sculpture’ of Doubting Thomas by Michael Landry (born 1963), which invites visitors to jab the wound of Christ by pressing a foot pedal that activated a mechanical arm.

Finally, very strongly recommended, the website for VCS, the Visual Commentary on Scripture.