VTI Call for Papers and Programme

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.


Day 1
Panel One: The Visually Discursive Bible
Dr. Sheona Beaumont – Theologies of Realism: Photography in Three Modern Bibles
Dr. Amanda Dillon – Bible Journalling and the New Illuminators
Professor Ben Quash – The Visual Commentary on Scripture: Principles and Platforms
Roundtable with Maciej Urbanek’s HS and a Theology of Installation
Right Revd Dr. Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester
Maciej Urbanek, Artist
Jonathan Anderson, Associate Professor of Art, Biola University
Panel Two: Contemporary Visual Theology in Performance and Participation
Liz Crichton – Can Participatory Art Bring Renewed Faith, Hope and Love to Contemporary Christian Communities?
Revd Martin Poole and Revd Dr. Stephen Roberts – Public Liturgical Theology through Community and Public Art
Lucy Newman Cleeve – Stations of the Cross & Stations of the Resurrection: Case Study of a Collaboration with Mark Dean and Lizzi Kew Ross
Panel Three: Institutional and European Commissioning
Lilia Sokolova – Post-Secular Space: Contemporary Art in Old Active Churches in Germany
Dr. Jonathan Koestlé-Cate – A Sacred Art of the State: Commissioning in France
Dr. Harriet O’Neill and Father John Dickson – The Chapel at Royal Holloway: a Case Study
Keynote Lecture
Professor John Harvey‘The Hearing Ear and the Seeing Eye’: Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image
Day 2
Panel Four: Sacred Symbolism as Discursive Theology
Ewan King – Incarnation, the Virgin & the Visual Artist as Theologian: Marian imagery by David Jones
Dr. Marjorie Coughlan – The ‘Sacred Pastoral’ as the Manifestation of Spirituality in Bishop Giles’s Work
Panel Five: Inherited Visual Theologies and Cultural Cross-Currents
Dr. Brian Murray – Protestant Travellers in Rome and the Legacies of the Apostolic Church, 1840–1870
Dr. Gareth Atkins – “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”: Saints, Stained Glass and Ecclesiastical Ancestry in the Nineteenth Century
Revd Canon Dr. Joanna Collicutt – ‘The Stripping of the Altars’: Frederic Leighton and the Modern Shift from Religious Devotion to Aesthetic Veneration
Panel Six: Pre-Raphaelite Theologies and the Victorian Imagination
Dr. Farrukh Rafiq – William Holman Hunt and Victorian Religious Identity
Katherine Hinzman – Love Between Worlds: The Theological Aesthetic of Edward Burne-Jones
Dr. Flora Armetta – George MacDonald, Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Spiritual Photograph
Keynote Lecture
Revd Dr. Ayla Lepine – Love and Wonder: Contemporary Art in Dialogue with Medieval Cathedrals

Banner image: Jean Lurçat, Creation (detail), 1963; woven tapestry, Chapel of the Ascension, University of Chichester (commissioned by Bishop Otter College).