John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Religious Imagination: Sacre Conversazioni
Sheona Beaumont and Madeleine Emerald Thiele, eds.

‘All great art is praise’: John Ruskin

Ruskin imagined heaven by looking in detail at our imperfect earthly world; his skill as part teacher and part preacher, encourages his readers, both then and now, to embrace the sacred through the smallest of textures, leaves, and stones. He demanded the act of looking itself be considered one of faithful devotion, and he found in the creations of the Pre-Raphaelites an affirmation of this compound spiritual vision.

When approaches to Scripture, theology, and church commissions were pressed up against Ruskinian concerns for beauty, ecology, and theophany, Pre-Raphaelitism responded not with dour visual sermons but by creating colourful and rejuvenating imaginings and displays of Christian narratives. The Pre-Raphaelite artists that feature in this book – including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais – each pursued theological understandings informed by Ruskin and his ideas about ‘vital beauty’. Others who followed, such as the Brothers Dalziels, Mary Watts, Henrietta Barnett, and Evelyn de Morgan expanded and developed what became a rich vein of religious imagination seen and felt beyond the gallery or church wall.

The interdisciplinary nature of our volume encourages a sense of mutuality in rediscovering this creative flourishing: our contributors enrich the gaps between theology and theophany, faith and representation, and aesthetics and literature. Indeed, where the nineteenth century conversations between Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites themselves become a form of ‘sacra conversazione’, this reverberates in the present day. Our collection of nine essays and two shorter studies seek to engage readers’ own religious imaginations across the various artistic and literary responses to Christian theology, aesthetics and symbolism.



Sheona Beaumont and Madeleine Emerald Thiele:
‘All Great Art Is Praise’ John Ruskin
Part 1: Ruskin’s Sermons on Visual Theology
2 Flora Armetta: Earth and Heaven: Ruskin on Dirt, Work, and Beauty
3 Madeleine Emerald Thiele: Ruskin’s Venice: Embracing Sacred Fragments of Imperfect Beauty
4 Alison Milbank: ‘Those are Leaves’: Ruskin’s Analogical Imagination and the Pre-Raphaelite Theology of Nature
5 VISUAL INTERLUDE I: An Angelic Conversation
Sheona Beaumont and Mark Dean: Sounds and Visions at The Chapel of St Michael and All Angels
Part 2: Pre-Raphaelite Conversations with Ruskinian Truths
6 Elizabeth Helsinger: Ruskin, Rossetti, and the Sacra Conversazione of Colour
7 Katherine Hinzman: ‘The Loveliest Traditions of the Christian Legend’: Ruskin, Burne-Jones, and the Imaging of the Cross
8 Suzanne Fagence Cooper: Crystal Balls: Visions of Creation in the Art of Burne-Jones
9 VISUAL INTERLUDE II: A Syncretic Communion
Lucy Ella Rose: A World Without Ceiling: Mary Watts’ ‘Language of Symbols’ at Limnerslease
Part 3: Reinvigorating Sacred Spaces
10 Madeline Hewitson: Victorian Exodus: Visualising the Old Testament in Dalziels’ Bible Gallery (1881)
11 Sarah Hardy: Heaven on Earth: Evelyn De Morgan’s Rejection of Materialism
12 Lucy Hartley: Art on Sundays: Henrietta Barnett and the Whitechapel Fine Art Loan Exhibitions

Banner image: Edward Burne-Jones, design for The Tree of Life, watercolour and gouache (1888), featuring in Chapter 5 of John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Religious Imagination: Sacre Conversazioni. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.