Three questions about religious art for the Archbishop of Westminster


Should religious art be repatriated to churches and other places of worship?

According to Ruth Gledhill in the Times,

‘The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, says that The Baptism of Christ, painted in the 1450s by Piero della Francesca, should be displayed in a religious setting such as Westminster Cathedral. In a lecture as part of the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust’s Roots of Faith lecture series supported by Sky Arts, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the Cardinal said: “I would like to see this painting taken down from the walls of the National Gallery and placed in a Catholic church in London because it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art: it is a work of faith and piety, an expression of the Church’s life and a way into prayer.”’

This is an interesting idea, but the choice of this particular painting to focus on begs a number of questions…

baptism-11First, the painting was sold in 1861 by the Abbey it was originally commissioned for. Surely if it’s going back somewhere, shouldn’t it go back to Borgo San Sepolcro? This is all the more clear given the Italian backdop of the baptism, which would seem as out of place in an English church as it might in an English art gallery.

Secondly, it reminds me very much of the work of Stanley Spencer, who spent much of his career depicting biblical scenes against the vernacular backdrop of Cookham in southern England. He was plainly inspired by this painting of the baptism of Christ in an Italian stream, and by Piero della Francesca’s other masterpiece, the Resurrection.

But on the whole, Spencer’s work was never intended for churches, though he designed on paper a ‘church-house’ in which to place several of them. Does the Cardinal think all ‘works of faith’ should be sent to churches? – because Spencer’s are clearly works of faith, and so are those of many, many other artists. As a Methodist, should Spencer’s art be sent to Methodist churches? (the Wesleyan chapel at Cookham where he worshipped with his mother is now the Stanley Spencer Gallery!)

Thirdly and most importantly, given that these paintings have a rich history to them, which includes the story of how they have been hung in a variety of locations, wouldn’t the Church do better to spend its efforts commissioning new artworks to inspire the faithful? Most churches I have visited (and I’ve visited hundreds) have either:

  • no art; or
  • quality art but nothing contemporary; or
  • religious kitsch (‘it is a mistake to treat it as a work of art’)

In all three cases there is a marvelous opportunity for the church to regain its place as a patron of the best art available in our time. Why continue to leave this role to art galleries? Where is the Piero della Francesca, of the 21st Century?

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