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Religious Themes in Art - Blog Entries

Have been looking at the section on Signs and Symbols in the Junior RE course. Some of the students have taken well to it - one student who was great at coming up with suggestions for various symbols said he was really "in the zone" on this topic. Tomorrow we'll be working on Icons, in particular Rublev's Trinity Icon (left) - there's good stuff on that in Orla Walsh's book Know the Way. If the internet is working in my room tomorrow I'll be using a nice little web resource on the icon - check it out here. The reflections are simple, and navigation through the resource is easy too.

Started a module on the virtues with 5th Year students today. Used a worksheet to start with, which helped get the students thinking. To finish I got them to do some artwork on the first virtue I tackled - Justice. I got some interesting specimens. Interestingly no one went for the traditional scales of justice figure. The most striking one was a guillotine on fire! Another had an electric chair being rejected. I have a series of these Virtue Worksheets available on request - use email link above.

Have just come across a beautiful Stations of the Cross presentation online that could be used in class as part of the preparation for Holy Week. Stained glass artist Richard King produced this work which is available as an online slideshow - the pictures move on rather quickly so you may want to use the pause button. The original work is in Swinford Church. See it here.

Faith in the Frame is a low-key new series about religious paintings, showing on UTV Sunday nights. Last Sunday prestigious chairman Melvyn Bragg and his panellists locked at the medieval Doom panel paintings in St Peter's Church, Wenhaston, Suffolk. Doom paintings were a gene of their own and depicted rather scary visualisations of Judgement Day. Most of these were destroyed after the reformation by Puritan reformers but this one was whitewashed instead of being destroyed, and much later was rediscovered when a fortuitous downpour washed it clean again. Fr Anthony Sutch wasn't too keen on the sight of Archangel Michael appearing to bargain for souls with the devil, but he wasn't averse to the idea of judgement being prominent - people nowadays had too much of a lovey-dovey Jesus in mind and presumed too much on salvation. He felt to an extent that judgement was within ourselves, and was a consequence of freedom. He reminded us that the cross was originally in the middle of this painting, so that mercy and forgiveness were central, even on a visual level. Church historian Eamonn Duffy thought judgement was about facing up to adult consequences of our actions - in effect the painting, on one level, was a call to grow up! I can't see myself using the programme in RE class - I'd say students would find the discussion boring, and the painting is somewhat graphic, but I found it helped me with my understanding of religious art - not my strong point.

Críostaíocht is a new programme on TG 4 Wednesday nights. The series started with a look at the flesh and blood nature of Christianity, as shown in various practices and especially in classical art. Actually, there was too much blood for my liking! We got too many close ups of enthusiastic young men in the Philippines getting actually nailed to crosses and beating themselves to the point of bloodletting with whips, and of paintings where the artists put huge effort to capture pain and suffering, especially of the Christ figures and miscellaneous martyrs. The artists strove to move us emotionally by the careful depiction of suffering, but also to flex their artistic muscles with flair and abandon. Presenter Christy Kenneally seemed well disposed to Christianity, but used rather emotive language, especially at the start. There was talk of Christianity being "fixated on flesh, blood and physical suffering", seemingly "obsessed with the darkness of death", "illustrated with nightmares of torture" amounting to "a horrific hymn of praise to pain".
There's much more to it than that of course, but I suppose it's worth asking why there has been so much emphasis on suffering. Was this mainly the Church, the artists or the believers? And so we got a tour of Christian history that took in the Council of Nicea which confirmed the true humanity of Jesus (as well as the divinity!) leading to more of a focus on his physical life, including the suffering. There was also a focus on the Eucharistic presence of Christ's body, but nothing on John Paul II's theology of the body, which would have made a useful addition to the programme.
With the overdose of blood and suffering I doubt if I'll be using it in my teaching.

The Art of the Cross was a fascinating and well-timed documentary on TG4 on Holy Thursday. While film versions of the passion of Christ attract a lot of media attention, the classic artworks well deserve the attention this programme gave them. Christianity was described as one of the most image based religions, with the cross as the most painted subject, whether in the context of suffering, triumph or both. Many early crucifixion scenes showed Christ triumphant on the cross, but the Italian painter Cimabue showed Jesus twisted in pain, with such a saddening facial expression. What struck me most about Giotto's crucifixion scene was the awful distress on the faces of the angels he painted around the cross. Van der Weyden paid minute attention to detail in his oil paintings - so obvious in his focus on Mary's tears in his work "The Deposition". Grunewald went for the jugular with his gruesome depiction of Jesus' torn and tortured body, leaving little to the imagination. Later artists like Francis Bacon and Picasso, though not believers, were fascinated by the cross while Chagall painted crucifixion scenes to symbolise the ongoing mistreatment of the Jewish people under Nazi rule. For Salvador Dali's famous crucifixion, he hired a Hollywood stuntman to hang on a cross so that he could use him as a model! Copies of all these artworks are readily available in the shops and online - just waiting to be used as an aid to prayer. They could be incorporated into a slide presentation and used for meditation in the school prayer room or for discussion in the classroom. I'd love to see a similar documentary on the art of the resurrection, perhaps an even greater challenge to artists.