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Visual Theology I:
Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850 – Now)

‘Prayer is the study of Art’: Malcolm Eaves, William Blake (2003)

This conference aims to create the space for theologically engaged conversations between religion and the arts, focussing on visual media produced or received in the modern period (1850 onwards). It encourages the critical explorations of Christian theology in images where such explorations account for the dynamic and reflexive contexts of ‘post-secular’ interpretation. Approaches are sought that analyse specific pictorial representations or image practices as they relate to specific modes of theological engagement, in which the operation of looking receives new descriptions of a viewer’s ‘covenant’ with images (David Morgan). Such covenants situate the otherwise abstract spiritualising of image interpretation within identifiably concrete contexts, as embodied by the artist-viewer relation and the image’s materiality in sites of production, reception, and circulation. Theology in and through these sites is taken to be discursive rather than determinative. We ask how the visual arts become meaningful and transformative when theology is considered as dialogical event in real time and image as sensory encounter. We welcome the responses of clergy and artists as well as researchers.

In the twenty-first century, the interpretation of religion in the arts is challenging the bounds and competencies of disciplines such as art history and visual culture. Pressing against its thematic reduction or historical confinement, the language of Christian theology in particular is increasingly described through studies in biblical reception or material religion as conversational, reflexive, and transformative. Across Christendom and its global breadth of ecclesiastical communities, this is nothing new, yet the divide between confessional and critical positions has long impoverished and polarised the academic analysis of the arts. This conference particularly encourages dialogue between such positions, advocating for mutually informative concepts of transformative looking as shaped by the variety of modern human uses to which images are put.

Trajectories of theological engagement across this rich hermeneutical field might include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing Religious Traditions; defining a God-relation in and via the modern material habitus; locating the contemplative inheritance of images and the visual energy of theology as prayer; learning to receive such traditionally-invested visual theologies in the twenty-first century.
  • Typological Theologies; trans-historical explorations of biblical symbols and the iconographic, for example, Pre-Raphaelitism’s engagement with religion and medieval (Christian) art; teleological impetus in images’ employment of theological visual codes, sincere or otherwise.
  • Belief and Unbelief: making and remaking faith; facing theological fluctuations since the nineteenth century; contexts of secularisation (including theory) which misrepresent ‘faithless’ image practices.
  • Psychologies of Visual Faith: Jamesian ways of looking; psychoanalytic approaches to the reception of biblical iconography; desire and persuasion in visual representations of the divine including the normative shaping of community interpretations.
  • Liminal Boundaries: the visual as it relates to the literary representation, or musical evocation, of theology throughout the modern period; synaesthesia in theological interpretation of the visual arts; identifying word/image anxieties of biblical reception.
  • Visual Inheritance; impact of digital and print reproductions of older works of art on theological discourse, whether inscribed through art historical study, devotional church publishing, or open-source online cataloguing.
  • Artistic Practice: primary source case-studies of those who exhibit or court modern or postmodern forms of conversational theological engagement; those characterised by, for example, indeterminacy, indifference, spectacularisation, or profanity.
  • Institutional Theologies; exploring frameworks of institutional platforms such as church commissioning, university research departments, or public art galleries; how such frameworks limit or define theological engagement.


Banner image: The John Piper Tapestry, 1966, Chichester Cathedral. Photograph © Sheona Beaumont 2018