Art, religion, druidry

Recently in Tewkesbury abbey I saw an exhibition by Christian artist and priest Iain McKillop. It was incredibly vivid, sensual, physical depictions of Jesus, focusing on his last days. As a consequence it was also heartrending and brutal in terms of subject matter. There were a lot of paintings – Gethsemane, last supper, cross bearing, depictions of crucifixion. There were also images inspired by religious crisis. It was incredible art work, and at the same time, almost unbearable to look at.

Coming to it as a non-Christian, as someone outside the story, I was simply shocked by the intensity of pain. The abbey contains plenty of older, more traditional art. Usually, the crucifixion is portrayed in a very clean, peaceful way. Beautiful colours, peaceful faces. Often Jesus looks like he’s taking a little nap, not dying by one of the most tortuous punishments ever devised. Those older paintings must have informed a lot of perceptions of what the death meant. Jesus dying is usually a gentle, soulful affair. To see it offered up, so bloody, extreme and agonised, is a bit of a shock.

As a druid, I’m very open to art, beauty and expressions of soul. I also seek to be aware of reality in all its complex shades, the pain as well as the pleasure. And still I am stumped by what I’ve seen. Trying to imagine the journey of the artist into creating this kind of work. What does it mean to live with such brutal images? To work on them, unrelentingly? And more importantly, what does the depicted pain and suffering mean?

I believe that everything has the scope to bring meaning and religious experience into our lives. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Pain is no exception. Except that kind of extremis makes it nigh on impossible to think. There comes a point when both physical and emotional pain start to blot you out, so that nothing seems real, nothing is truly experienced beyond it. Is that a religious experience?

It’s easy to turn away from that which horrifies. Especially in art. It’s easiest to close down senses, refuse to engage and go somewhere safer. I stood those paintings for as long as I could bear, and I’ve meditated on them since, and I know I do not understand. All I can offer here is a profound sense of confusion. What does it mean, to offer such suffering as spirituality? For me, pain has taken me away from my spiritual self, not deeper into it. In the aftermath of pain, I have learned compassion and tolerance, and no doubt other things too, but that requires a time after, a peace, a space to regroup and move on. There are things here I feel a need to understand, but I have no idea what to ask, or whom. (Suggestions most welcome).

Tewkesbury abbey also features modern stained glass windows by Thomas Denny. He has windows at Gloucester too. They are beautiful, vivid, detailed and use colour in the most amazing ways. The more you look, the more you see. Light coming through the glass fills the chapel with warmth and every shift of light affects the image. Standing in front of Denny’s work, I see an expression of pantheism, God shining through in all things. It’s not emotionally uncomplicated or free from shadows, but is rich, moving, challenging and inspiring all at once.

I stand before those windows and I see something that fills me with wonder and a sense of the numinous. Just encountering Denny’s art is a religious experience for me. It fills me, nourishes my soul and sends me out into the world wakeful and hopeful. My Druid self loves what he does, and the different sources of our inspiration don’t seem to matter at all. This kind of Christianity, I understand.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “Art, religion, druidry

  • Jayne

    I am not familiar with this artist, but it seems to me he is one of the very few who actually depict Christianity as I see it, a religion/belief which has (and still does for many) inflict great pain and suffering on people who do not conform. I see the crucifixion as a warning to those people and we see so much evidence of the cruelty and needless suffering inflicted on those who simply wished to hold on to their beliefs e.g the Crusades, the Witch Burnings.
    Pain, especially emotional pain can make one stronger, although I can not see how it would make one more compassionate or tolerant. The strength learned from any painful experience will help the person to step away from the experience, leave it behind and get on with life. Many who believe they have suffered in some form or other go on to inflict such pain on others, on the very souls who have supposedly inflicted it on them. Does this make you a better, stronger person, a person at peace with themselves. I do not believe so.

  • Kelley

    I’m wondering if maybe this artist wants to show the real pain and ugliness of Jesus’s death. Maybe he wants Christians to realize that Jesus suffered greatly for them. Some artists like to shock people and it sounds like these paintings would be shocking to see.

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