Art as Parable? Provocative new Yale book provides theological readings of secular art

Eathly Visions: Theology and the Challenge of Art

Eathly Visions: Theology and the Challenge of Art

Yesterday Yale University Press published Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenge of Art, a book which is bound to provoke debate within the art history community. We take a look at this fascinating book, which provides theological readings of great secular works of art, and challenges the establishment notion that spirituality and religion were becoming increasingly irrelevant in art since the 15th century.

Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenge of Art by T.J. Gorringe is a stimulating book, and one that could potentially ruffle feathers. It argues that great art can function as a ‘secular parable’ – that is, like the parables of Jesus, art can lead viewers to reflect on the reality and presence of God in the world.

Throughout the book Gorringe examines and deconstructs significant secular works (paintings depicting mythological themes, genre paintings, portraits, landscapes, still life and abstract art), showing how each type can point towards God, whether by envisaging an alternative future, creating aesthetic delight, or teaching us to see things differently. It is a provocative and ambitious study, challenging the notion that art since the 15th century has become increasingly secularized.

Gorringe gives careful consideration to each work’s historical background and artistic context, as well as to art historical and critical appraisals. With an ecumenical approach, he then provides an insightful argument for how each piece can be read theologically. Although readers may sometimes disagree with his theological stance or his interpretation of specific works, his engaging commentary provokes reflection and challenges deeper questioning and awareness.

Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Vegetables (c. 1620-5)

Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Vegetables (c. 1620-5)

In the opening chapter of Earthly Visions, Gorringe sets out his argument, providing a short theological reading of Nathaniel Bacon‘s Cookmaid with Vegetables (above), which depicts a young women, sitting my a window, surrounded by a bountiful harvest. Gorringe makes the point that whilst our immediate response as a modern Western audience might be to identify the painting as salacious (‘almost an early seventeenth-century version of the Page Three girl!’) Gorringe insists that the painting is not meant to be read this way. Instead, he argues, that the woman represents Ceres, the godess of plenty, and that the painting is an optimistic and life affirming celebration of abundance:

To produce abundance such as this, in a world where general famines occurred every decade, was to tiptoe back into Eden.

For Gorringe, Cookmaid with Vegetables firmly asserts its faith in a world riddled with famine and poverty. By evoking the Garden of Eden, it invites us to celebrate the beauty of God’s creation, but by keeping the context firmly within a contemporary setting, Bacon is drawing on a tradition of ‘secular parables’. Like religious parables, they seek to ‘provoke, tease, challenge, illuminate and surprise’ but whilst affirming our faith, they are set firmly within the secular world:

Secular parables, then, are part of God’s revelation. They are this without losing their secular character or undergoing any inner transformation, without any question of transfiguration or transubstantation. As part of the process, as part of God’s exercise of freedom, they acquire a function and capability as thus exercised which they did not have intrinsically.

For Gorringe Nathaniel Bacon’s painting is firmly part of this tradition, inviting us to reflect on the inherent beauty of the world we inhabit. It offers a ‘glowing faith in the goodness of created order’, a life-affirming counterpoint to a world of ‘savagery, poverty and climate change’.

Page Spreads from Earthly Visions

Page Spreads from Earthly Visions

From this opening argument, Gorringe looks in tremendous detail at great works of so-called secular art, taking us through major paintings by great masters as well as lesser known artists. Taking us right up to the present day contemporary art scene, Earthly Visions provides an alternative look at art history, ideal for art enthusiasts of both the religious and secular persuasion.

Earthly Visions is available now from Yale University Press

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