Listen to this article
In a typically tricky week for the Church of England, some jolting news: for the first time ever, a moving image artwork is to be installed, for the long term, inside a British church. But you’ll have to watch it very carefully. The artist is Bill Viola, famous for his super-slow-motion videos, whose latest installation, “Martyrs”, is to be unveiled this month in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is a smart combination. Viola’s videos are rich in religious references, and intensely spiritual in their intent. The slow-mo has a hypnotic effect. The precise gestures and positioning of his characters deliberately evoke Renaissance painting, and their minute shifts of expression are wholly absorbing. It is as if devotion has suddenly acquired an extra dimension.
“Martyrs” is the first of two pieces that will be placed behind the high altar of Britain’s most famous place of worship. It will be joined next year by a companion piece, “Mary”. Together they will address “some of the profound mysteries of human existence”, says the artist.
Elsewhere, another tentative meeting between religion and contemporary art, most of which, let’s be truthful, has little appetite for the studious contemplation of profound themes. On Wednesday, Leicester Cathedral will be unveiling “Speaking in Tongues”, a large-scale painting by Paul Benney, which depicts the artist’s friends as Apostles, with flames hovering above them.
Unsurprisingly, the imagery in both of these works is connected to Christianity. And yet the artists are at pains to describe the eclecticism of their own religious feelings. Viola says he has been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and Sufism in his work; Benney’s depiction of light emanating from the head as an animation of the spirit has associations, he says, with the Pillar of Fire in Judaism and the Aureole in the sacred art of ancient Greece.
Both men’s works, in other words, seem devised to look outside their immediate context. Their Christian themes are conduits to broader reflections. Not only is the Church of England unembarrassed by this; it seems actively to encourage it. Indeed, it may reflect what the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, meant when he described Britain as a “post-Christian” society this week.
Responding to a debate initiated by prime minister David Cameron at Easter over the nature of the nation’s Christian status, Williams explained what he meant by the term: “It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted. A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists.”
It was a boldly nuanced response, formulated at his peril. These matters are easily, and wilfully, misunderstood. I once helped write a story on my local evening newspaper about a cleric who had advanced a highly sophisticated questioning of the literalness of religious narratives. Later on, I spotted the billboard headline that was supposed to sum up the story: “There is no God, claims city vicar.” It was quite a scoop.
For a church that is happy to place doubt, as well as faith, at the centre of its intellectual inquiry, contemporary art is good news. In its conceptual audacity and forthright challenges to aesthetic conformity, it is designed to stir its audience. That might be said to be the opposite of what a church is supposed to do, but it isn’t.
Proper religious investigation is, like the best contemporary art, open-ended and provocative. Viola’s work, as well as Benney’s, stands in opposition to complacency. They ask questions; and anything that takes place in a religious setting that encourages more questions than answers sounds good to me.
Art, in the meantime, also has plenty to gain from being housed in such spiritually laden venues. There was a reason why they put the work of the best painters in churches for most of western art’s history. We have lost some of the solemnity of that relationship. There is a superficial, even tawdry feel to many inferior contemporary art shows.
In a world not replete with visual images, the Renaissance masters sought to inspire wonderment, fear, rapture among the congregations that admired their work. Today we are cluttered with images, and all those responses are available at the squeeze of a remote control button. Art needs to find new places to rediscover its impact. Churches are not only an exciting opportunity for today’s artists. They are a refuge.
More columns at ft.com/aspden
To listen to culture columns, visit ft.com/culturecast
Get alerts on Rowan Williams when a new story is published