Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art

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Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art. By TJ. Gorringe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. 254. $45

What has the gallery to do with God? In his new book, Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art, T J. Gorringe offers one answer to this Tertullianesque question. Asking "How does art contribute to faith?" he answers that "great art can function as a kind of parable - to be precise, as a secular parable" (14).

Lest the subtitle mislead, "art" here is Western art, specifically painting from the fourteenth century to the present. The standard history of this period is that art gradually became more secular, and this establishes the book's challenge: how can art precisely in its secularity speak to faith? Gorringe finds the common point of contact between theology and art in that both are "interrogative," challenging how we see the divine and the world (17). Like Jesus' parables, both theology and art try to make us "see things differently," on the one hand revealing "the shalom of which aesthetic delight is a key component" and at the same time presenting a vision of an alternative future (21-22). They speak both to the goodness of creation and the need for redemption.

These two broad theological categories provide the rough framework for the rest of the book, divided into two sections. Redemption is explored in "Image" and creation in "Nature." Each section is sub-divided into three, which matches up nicely with the six traditional categories of painting in Western art: historical, genre, portraiture, landscape, still life, and abstract. Within each of these, various theological themes are sounded, including the nature of revelation, eschatology, liberation theology, theological anthropology, a theology of creation, and the apophatic tradition. The categories of painting, then, are what guide the conversation, and theological musings are sketched from these. Within each chapter numerous artists are drawn on to explore the various potential theological angles each genre may hold. The coverage is wide, ranging from Botticelli, Brueghel the Elder, Rembrandt, Le Nain, Chardin, and Constable to Millet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Mondrian, Bacon and Rothko, with many more tossed in along the way. This makes the book more like a sampler box of chocolates; it gives a taste of many possibilities while leaving the reader wanting more.

This is not to say the book is superficial. The various discussions of genres and individual painters provide ample historical context, sensitivity to contemporary critical issues, and, for a theology book, refreshing sections of formal analysis. The book is beautifully and amply illustrated, making the arguments enjoyable to follow and more convincing. …