Art is no fringe attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power in our present existence.
Abraham Kuyper


Harries, Richard:The Image of Christ in Modern Art

Book Review

Richard Harries: The Image of Christ in Modern Art, Surrey, Ashgate, 2013.

by Transpositions, Eric Lewellen

In this insightful new survey, former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries presents the original view that the modern art movement has helped rather than hindered work connected to traditional Christian iconography.

The focus of Harries’ book is expansive. He considers images of Christ produced in Europe over the course of the past hundred years by artists of various religious affiliations. The work contains 82 illustrations spread over 156-pages of text, affording readers the opportunity to interpret each piece alongside Harries as they proceed through the text.

The opening chapter details the artistic climate in the early stages of the twentieth century. Harries asserts that this period was characterized by an acute awareness of the event that poet David Jones refers to simply as “The Break.” This rupture had two major effects: First, the dominant cultural and religious ideology that had unified Europe for more than 1,000 years no longer existed. All that was left were fragmentary individual visions. Secondly, the world is now dominated by technology, so that the arts seem to be marginalized. They are of no obvious use in such a society, and their previous role as signs no longer has any widespread public resonance.

From Harries’ perspective, this situation posed both a challenge and an opportunity for artists wishing to relate to traditional Christian images. One the one hand, since Europe’s previously shared Christian narrative had been lost, their attempts to inhabit that narrative placed them on the fringes of the modern artistic vanguard. On the other hand, their marginalization “delivered them from the twin tyrannies of literalness and pastiche”. If they were to attain cultural relevance, they would have to find ways to depict traditional Christian images in new and arresting ways. The remainder of the book is devoted to showcasing artists who took up this challenge.