Monday, 28 March 2011

A hermeneutic of wonder

This is the phrase that has been buzzing round my head since Saturday when Maggi Dawn came to Chelmsford to lead a day based on her book The Writing on the Wall. Through a series of lectures, discussions, a quiz and various reflections, Maggi opened up for us an exploration of the Bible maggiand it’s relationship with high art and popular culture. This was much more than just a dip into her book, as Maggi used worked examples to illustrate her themes and interact with a very engaged and enthused group of over fifty people.

The first session began with an introduction exploring the influence of the Bible on western culture and the importance of knowing the biblical text in understanding art, film and literature. This was followed by a reflection and discussion on the way in which artists have interpreted the stories and illuminated them in different and often contrasting ways. An exercise comparing depictions of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to Thomas by Caravaggio and Granville Gregory provoked a lively discussion.

MitorajMaggi then took us into an exploration of The Annunciation. We began with the text from Luke 1:26-38, with people sharing their images and understanding of the story, before looking at how various artists have explored and interpreted the story. Reflections on the paintings by Fra Angelico and Millet, Igor Mitoraj’s wonderful sculpture The Doors of the Annunciation and the poetry of Muir and Rowe helped us to look at the story in different ways and to question our own presuppositions. The session was a carefully crafted and illuminating example of the question:
What if we allow art to be a lens through which we revisit our theology?
I found myself reflecting on the cycle of interpretation that we are drawn into as Christians and how important it is to surface this process not only to examine what we impose on the text but to open ourselves to glimpse fresh insights through the eyes of the artist. So the story of The Annunciation inspires great works of art and those works of art influence how we interpret the story; a classic simple example is the image of Gabriel with wings depicted in Renaissance portrayals of the story. Other artists then challenge that image and take us back to the text. A good contemporary example would be the portrayal of Gabriel as an ordinary man in the BBC production The Nativity. Other themes we looked at in the story included the responses of Mary and the passage of time.

After lunch we kicked off with a quiz that served to further illustrate the influence of the Bible on our culture and language (and highlighted my ignorance). The main session in the afternoon was a sustained reflection on the way that art can change how we see the world and in the Christian context illumine the way in which we engage with scripture. At the heart of this session was a fascinating case study on the life of Abraham. This was rich material for a sermon series or set of Bible studies as we considered depictions of key moments in the story and works on the theme. Maggi drew on insights from Coleridge, T.S Elliot, Kierkegaard, Phyllis Trible, Rublev, Caravaggio, Segal, Rembrandt amongst others. The afternoon concluded with responses to interpretations of The Crucifixion and Jacob Wrestling the Angel from a wide range of artists. The quality of the contributions from the discussions reflected the high level of engagement with Maggi’s themes.

Having let a couple of days pass before recording my responses to the event, I am left with the phrase ‘the hermeneutic of wonder’ (Wordsworth?). As we allow a conversation to develop between the Bible, the artist and ourselves so we are opened up to new possibilities, to creative and challenging insights. Familiar stories and texts from scripture come alive as we learn to sit with layers of meaning and wrestle with questions and ambiguities raised and explored by the artist. The Arts, as Maggi so ably demonstrated, are not there just to decorate, make pretty or illustrate, but to communicate and reveal things that otherwise might remain unseen or constrained.

There is another opportunity to explore The Writing on the Wall with Maggi in Barking on May 7th. Places are still available and details can be found here.

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