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Visual Theology II:
Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd September 2019

‘All great art is praise’ John Ruskin

This conference aims to celebrate the life and work of John Ruskin during his bicentenary. This two day event will create a space for theologically engaged conversations about Ruskin, religion and the arts. We seek to focus on Ruskin’s religious and aesthetic writings informed by his relationship with Christianity, as well as examine his influence on those within the Victorian art world, specifically the Pre-Raphaelites.

Whilst Ruskin can be said to be a major proponent of Victorian art writing, with religion underling his mode of approach to many areas of nineteenth century public life and thought, in the twenty-first century we have somewhat of a reversal: our interpretation of religion in the arts challenges the very competencies of disciplines such as art history. Resisting attempts to historically confine Ruskin’s religious aesthetics to the nineteenth century alone, this conference suggests that Ruskin’s voice offers clear and often prophetic insight into many facets of modern image interpretation. Ruskin’s formulations, albeit many faceted, provide not only a means of examining nineteenth century religious dialogues about accessing the divine, modes of prayer, and about public art and public spaces, but also offer a linguistic opportunity for us to take Ruskin into growing scholarship studies such as biblical reception, and into contemporary art practice that draws on the spirituality he invested in visual media.

Approaches are sought that analyse specific Ruskinian or Pre-Raphaelite pictorial representations as they relate to modes of Ruskinian religious art writing and / or theological engagement. We encourage critical questions of the Sacre Conversazioni held between Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: how did they collectively or individually respond to and reshape religious imagery, what is the significance of their chosen media, what new covenants of image interpretation did they seek and successfully employ, and how critical and conversational were they? Furthermore, we seek to discuss the transference of religious symbols and threads of Catholicism from Italy to Britain, via Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites who helped make Venice and Florence a ville toute anglaises. We also ask how best to curate Ruskin’s contribution to the nineteenth century, and in what sense we or other artists receive its Christian perspective as significant?

With this in mind, we anticipate a wide and varied body of visual and theological conversations about sacred art with Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites at the core. Proposals might include, but are not limited to:

  • Divine Designs: art writing in relation to God, faith, and unbelief; seeking truth through representation and naturalism, as well as architecture; explorations of biblical symbols and the iconographic, e.g. Pre-Raphaelitism’s engagement with devotional art.
  • Responding to and Reshaping Religion: aesthetically confronting theological fluctuations; locating new representations of the faithful and the ‘faithless’; churchmanship and liturgical contexts for visual engagement.
  • Curating Ruskin, Curating Religion: negotiating desires to neutralise visual representations of the divine in public spaces; Ruskin from the perspective of ‘post-secular’ image practice and criticism; making Ruskin accessible and deconstructing his understanding of divinity for the next generation.
  • From the Sacred to the Secular: Visualising Discord: the visual record of discordant faith; identifying evocations of spirituality without a faith – e.g. the numinous light filled work of J.M.W. Turner; interpreting anxieties through symbology or biblical reception.
  • Media Hermeneutics: Ruskin on daguerreotypes, painting, stained glass, etc.; media positioning and their implied or explicit morality; pictorial naturalism and theologies of realism.
  • Institutional Theologies; exploring frameworks of institutional platforms such as state commissioning of religious art, church commissioning of stained glass, the acceleration of church building, and conscious formulation of national collections.
  • Conversing with Italy; locating the inheritance of European religious imagery amidst the Ruskinian and Pre-Raphaelite lexicon; extracting Catholic and / or Protestant liminality in symbology, architecture and fresco.

Banner image: Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Angels Leading the Flight to Egypt, 1862, St Michael and All Angels, Brighton.