Last summer Chester’s Cathedral played host to an event not seen before within its gothic facade. ARK, described as “world class modern and contemporary sculpture exhibition”, emptied out the seating to make way for what was to be the largest contemporary and modern exhibition of sculptures in the region. Art and faith, for one brief summer, were found as one.
Open to all, the exhibition challenged the extent to which secular art could speak to faith. Sculptures by Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth and others created truly startling juxtapositions. You didn’t need to have been raised in an aesthetic household to find the contrast at times moving, at times alarming, and at times beautiful. This inclusivity is declared openly in its openly utopian mission statement:
ARK is for everyone.
For those new to sculpture and for aficionados.
For adults and for children.
That isn’t to say that the exhibition did not raise a few backs, nor baffle a few visitors. Whether a similar event is to happen again remains to be seen. But, ire and wonder aside, ARK did at least build a bridge that deserves to be crossed: a bridge upon which The Art of Lent firmly plants its feet.
Extolling the spiritual and emotional virtues of an artwork over its technical and historical context, esteemed art critic Sister Wendy Beckett uses Lent’s reflective opportunities to consider the personal benefits of art. Between the days of Ash Wednesday and Easter, The Art of Lent gives a daily painting and reflection. Each reflection, by their own individual merits, is insightful and poignant in helping readers living a more illuminated life. The book is, itself, arranged into weekly themes of Silence, Contemplation, Peace, Joy, Confidence, and Love. But what it achieves is something considerably more synergistic to the soul.
It has long been believed, preached and, even, threatened that the art galleries and institutions are coming to replace the Church. The war for meaning seen as forgone, and the painters, sculptors and writers are the victors. But this is not the case. Art does not hold the monopoly on the future on emotional instruction for humanity - nor is it merely a tool of propaganda once used by Christianity as a brick-and-mortar institution through centuries past through countless Madonnas, frescoes, and cruciform expressions of both suffering and hope. Sister Wendy Beckett lives as a testament to the possibilities of bringing together art and Christianity.
Above it all, though, The Art of Lent offers a new, meaningful way to look at art.
It is no understatement to say that a great many people file into the great art galleries of the world with little to no idea of what to actually do once inside. We are encouraged by small, laconic placards to look at the masterful images before us as part of an institution, rather than as a place emotional instruction. We are told that Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is exemplary of the Dutch Golden age, rather than being instructed that forgiveness need not be understood to be accepted, and that it is something we are never out of reach from giving or receiving. Or we are told that Claude Monet’s Camille on Her Deathbed is part of the Impressionist movement, but are given no indication of the comfort that can come from putting the self aside in favour of caring for another in times of crisis. We enter galleries, are fed a breadcrumb trail of dates and movements, and then leave unable to recall but the barest speck of information about what it is we have just seen. What The Art of Lent offers is more than just a series of deep reflections. It is a way to see art as nourishing to faith, as well as instructive to life.
Credit where it is due, the bringing together of emotional instructive pathways and artistic classics is not unique to this particular book. Figures such as Alain De Botton champion the holistic merits of art, and writer and theologian Henri Nouwen even wrote a book-length reflection of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. But, as a guide to reading art in a way that is spiritually and personally enriching, I have yet to find one so succinct as Sister Wendy Beckett’s.
The Art of Lent is an SPCK Lent devotional for 2018, and is available to order today.
January 25th, 2018 - Posted & Written by Aaron Lewendon