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Earthly Visions:
Theology and the Challenges of Art

by timothy gorringe
yale university press, 254 pages, $45

With religion’s expiration, the great artworks of the past had to be rescued—if only for the ecstatic feelings they might still evoke. Bloomsbury bohemian Clive Bell put it this way: “When I speak of art as a manifestation of the religious spirit I do not mean that art expresses particular religious emotions, much less that it expresses anything theological . . . . When I speak of Christian art, I mean that this art was one product of that state of enthusiasm of which the Christian Church is another.” For Roger Fry, another member of the Bloomsbury Group, Raphael’s Transfiguration could excite the same emotions even in the pagan spectator. The theological was irrelevant. 

But that was a century ago. This approach, known as “formalism,” is no longer fashionable among art historians, whose discipline now gives utmost attention to historical context and has—most recently—been undergoing a slow “postsecular” rehabilitation alongside the rest of the humanities. This is driven less by personal religious conviction than by the need to amend the inevitable distortions that resulted from centuries of scholarship that failed to account seriously for a phenomenon as massive as religion. The secular grip on art history was once unbreakable, but with each new art-historical publication emphasizing religion, the pale and lifeless fingers are being slowly lifted away.

T. J. Gorringe’s exquisite and substantial book Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art might be called Bloomsbury in reverse. Just as Fry and Bell secularized Christian art, so Gorringe Christianizes the supposedly secular. The difference, of course, is that he need not ignore historical context. “The turn to the secular,” he suggests, “may not be a sign of Christianity losing its grip, but, on the contrary, of realizing its true implications.” If “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” then portraits, landscapes, and still lifes have long served as “secular parables” and can continue to afford that service today.

As is frequently remarked, the Protestant Reformation’s prohibition of religious imagery provided a “push” toward a secular art independent of the Church. But, claims Gorringe, professor of theology at the University of Exeter, there was a “pull” as well: “There is not simply an iconoclasm, but also an iconpoiesis in the Reformation which understands that the world mirrors the divine in its banal, day-to-day reality.” Gorringe remarks that this new, sixteenth-century spirituality also had Catholic expressions. When, for example, Teresa of Avila found God amid the pots and pans, she unintentionally endorsed the kitchenware still lifes of Chardin.

Unlike some books in the “theology and art” genre, Earthly Visions does not suffer from inadequate engagement with the history of art. Because there are few disciplinary rewards for mastering the range of art history, as opposed to mastering a narrow specialization, as a professional theologian Gorringe may be more widely read in art history than many other art historians—certainly not in depth, but possibly in surface area covered.

Consequently, Earthly Visions is a treasure trove of sources. The book contains welcome insights from opposite poles of the art-historical spectrum, Kenneth Clark and John Berger, two tracks upon which Gorringe’s insights seem to glide. The book has the feel of one developed over an extended phase of teaching and thinking, not in the rush to acquire tenure.

Gorringe is not at a loss for examples of his secular parables. Indeed, the book could have been written several times over with the same thesis but different choices. His decisions, however, are good ones. Beuckelaer’s The Four Elements evidences not worldly autonomy but a “Christian optimism” and a celebratory theology of creation, betrayed by tiny gospel scenes hidden behind luxuriant piles of produce. Together with the majority of Renaissance art historians today, Gorringe understands that to call Botticelli’s Birth of Venus “secular” is anachronistic. He cites Botticelli’s contemporary, the poet Buonincontri, who upended the classical pantheon in what could be called reverse Santeria, seeing Mercury as “Logos” and Venus as Mary.

Though no conservative, he is especially keen to liberate our understanding of many artists from its Marxist captivity. In the peasant scenes of Pieter Brueghel the Elder we see “not class ridicule but an essentially comic understanding of the world.” The foregrounded plowman in Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, for example, represents a “massive dignity.” Louis Le Nain’s peasant paintings are “transposed versions of the Holy Family.” The majestic peasantry of Millet and Van Gogh are products of discerning Christian vision, a claim easily documented from the writings of the artists themselves.

Gorringe’s chapter on portraiture culminates with Rembrandt, whose faces betray “an astonishing account of the doctrine of justification by faith.” In a chapter on nature, Gorringe emphasizes Jacob van Ruisdael’s Reformed Protestant convictions, which caused him to infuse his landscapes with theological and moral themes. “We have a paradoxical situation, in the early twenty-first century,” he explains. “We are skilled at de-coding advertisements . . . yet we are embarrassed by the suggestion that landscape might be anything other than a literal record.”

Gorringe’s is not a triumphalist account. He is well aware that secular interpretations of art history were not without basis, and he does not hesitate to admit that Poussin may have been “more an ancient Roman than a Counter-Reformation Catholic.” With Friedrich, whom Gorringe allies with the liberal German theologian Schleiermacher, landscape had become “melodramatic and solipsistic.” This cult of nature was chillingly expressed by Turner’s dying words: “The sun is God.” And yet landscape, especially with Cézanne’s return to Catholicism, continued to operate as a secular parable, despite an increasingly irreligious atmosphere. In a wonderful chapter on still-life painting, Gorringe draws on eucharistic theology and names the genre “the painting of the Magnificat: It puts down the proud and raises the humble.”

Dismissal of the Middle Ages is the backbone of the secular narrative that Gorringe hopes to overcome. Consequently, it is strange to see him occasionally do the same. The Dark Ages are reasserted as dark, as if all the recent scholarly work to shed light upon late antiquity were in vain. In addition, the twelfth-century pope Innocent III’s pessimistic appraisal of humanity is quoted to exemplify medieval gloom, followed by—in the very same chapter—a defense of the contorted portraits by Gorringe’s contemporary Francis Bacon as “help[ing] us see the truth about human beings.” Might the same courtesy be extended to Innocent? This residual disdain is especially curious considering the fact that the Byzantine icons brought back with the Crusaders are what catalyzed Renaissance art.

In a final chapter on abstraction, Gorringe considers whether abstract form can serve as a “parable of the divine nature which we cannot conceive.” After surveying such artists as Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock, he leans toward earthly vision: “Granted, God is ineffable, but God gives God’s self to be known in the appearances, supremely in the Incarnation, but in the epiphany of the face, and of other created reality.”

The art world, however fragmented, is populated by the likes of Peter Fuller, who wrote, “The best we can hope for is that aesthetic surrogate for salvation: redemption through form.” Gorringe retorts: “There is no redemption through form, though if Christians are right in their claims about the Incarnation there is no redemption without it either.”

The book concludes by suggesting that abstraction was “an art of inward emigration, which refuses to face up to the critical issues of the day and has nothing of any consequence to say. And is it in that sense a truly contemporary art?” It is a nice riposte, but the history of art since Rothko, of course, has not stood still. Pop art assaulted the modernist pieties that Gorringe legitimately questions, and agenda art has overcompensated for perceived irrelevance by revisiting politics with a vengeance.

Still, perhaps an excursus on contemporary art is too much to ask of an already wide-ranging and well-crafted book, which encapsulates one of art history’s best possible futures. For Karl Barth—one of Gorringe’s most consistent inspirations—“there is no such thing as secular history in the serious sense of the word.” Secular art history, Gorringe suggests, may be mythological as well.

Matthew J. Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.

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