VTII Call for Papers and Programme

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni

‘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.


Day 1
Madeleine Emerald Thiele – John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and The Aesthetic Body
Conversation 1: Visions of Church
Dr. Ciarán Rua O’Neill – ‘Artistical Admiration’: John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones
Dr. Fiona Mann – A Tale of Three Triptychs: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones
Conversation 2: Missions and Messengers
Sarah Hughes – The Significance of the Pictorial Sacred Space of the Annunciation to Ruskin and its ability to Reveal Truth and the Divine
Katherine Hinzman – The Art of Ministry, The Ministry of Art? The Complex Relation of Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and the ‘Second-Wave Pre-Raphaelites’
Conversation 3: Seeing Life After Death
Simon Poë – Entering the Waters of the Dark River: ‘The Waters of Lethe’ by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
Julia Griffin – A Fitting Funeral and Burial for William Morris at Kelmscott (1834-1896)
Panel: Ruskin As Influencer
Christopher Newall and Bishop Nicholas Holtam in discussion
Conversation 4: Divine Colour and Sound
Zaynub Zanam – Songs of Praise: Dante Gabriel Rossetti as Biblical Exegesis
Professor Elizabeth Helsinger – The Nobleness and Sacredness of Colour: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Ruskin


Professor Colin Cruise
Rio, Ruskin, and Rossetti: Renovating Christian Art Criticism and Practice in the Nineteenth Century

Day 2
Service of Rededication with Mark Dean and Bishop Nicholas Holtam
Conversation 5: The Sacred in Activism
Professor Lucy Hartley – Art on Sundays: Henrietta Barnett and Whitechapel Fine Art Loan Exhibitions
Dr. Lucy Ella Rose – Mary Watts’s ‘Language of Symbols’: John Ruskin, Religion, and Feminism
Conversation 6: Philosophical Explorations on the Continent
Dr. Maria Golovteeva – Fernand Khnopff and Pre-Raphaelite Art in Belgium
Professor Stephen Bann – Religion and Beauty: Robert de la Sizeranne
Conversation 7: Ploughing the Earth
Dr. Flora Armetta – Ruskin on Work, Dirt, and Beauty
Professor Alison Grant Milbank – ‘Those are leaves’: Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Theology of Nature
Conversation 8: Spiritual Perception and (In)Sight
Paul Tucker – From ‘Ideas of Truth’ to ‘Sacred Imagination of Things that are not’: the Meanings and Uses of Images in the Work of John Ruskin
Dr. Thomas Hughes – Fading and Embodiment in Ruskin, Pater, and Rossetti


Professor George P. Landow
The Double Vision of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites

Banner image: John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, The Temptation, 1872-79; oil on canvas, St Michael and All Angels Chapel; © Marlborough College.