Why should anyone care about art history and spirituality?

It is 2012. Why should anyone care about art history and spirituality?
I think that the voices from the past, whether in art, music or literature, remind us of what is important. Great art and imagery can move us and speak to us in ways that take us beyond the immediate circumstances of our lives. They open us up to a larger, more inspiring experience of what it is to be human. Art gives us a glimpse of the transcendent and I think to be human, as St Irenaeus said, man - and we would say now, and woman - fully alive is the glory of God; and to be fully alive is to have that knowledge of the transcendent, of a greater spirit, of a greater love, something that embraces you and calls you into mystery. That is just so joyful and profound and that’s what great art does. It’s like being in love. And once you experience it, once you’ve had that recognition, you’ve been drawn to that, it fulfils one’s deepest longings.

Another thing, art uses matter. In much of the art that I look at, artists depict humans, figures that we recognise because they’re like us, so there’s that marvellous longing, recognition and identification that we share. We share our common humanity and it’s our body, our flesh, which we also share with Christ and which we also share in the Eucharist. Our bodies have the capacity for great holiness. We have the potential, we can be ennobled. Our bodies, our flesh, can be vehicles to live well and to accomplish and to seek what is good and to seek God.

What is the aim of lecturing in art history and spirituality?
The aim of my teaching is to help people develop the talents they have for interpreting and understanding visual art. I think looking at Christian art is a wonderful avenue for understanding, in this case, Christian spirituality and Christian tradition. Most people have some skill in looking at art. But traditionally we haven’t tended to teach it well in schools. I think art teachers do a valiant job, but art doesn’t tend to get much emphasis in the school curriculum. Also, art and taste is something that people hear a lot about, ‘this is good art’ or ‘this is bad art’. I think people are often very hesitant to have an opinion. I like to help people to explore and gain confidence in talking about their own reactions.

When did your love affair with art history and spirituality begin?
In the States I had the opportunity to do a Masters in Art History at the University of Massachusetts. I went into my first class, which was in Italian Renaissance art and architecture, and I remember coming home to my husband, saying, “that’s it; I know what I want to do for the rest of my life”.

The questions I always had at the back of my mind were: how do paintings, sculptures, architecture inform my understanding of the past, the different cultures? Especially, what role does religious art play in forming people’s spirituality? Having already travelled, a lot of the works of art I studied I’d seen in situ. The physical experience of seeing a work of art - whether painting, sculpture or fresco - is such a different experience from seeing it in a reproduction because you engage with it in an immediate way. I went on to do my PhD at the University of Rutgers in New Brunswick. I was supervised by two fine art historians, and worked with excellent teachers and peers, people with a passion for what they were doing and who would spend hours talking about an article or a work of art and get really excited by it. I wrote my dissertation on Antonio Correggio, an early 16th century northern Italian artist.

I concentrated on several of his religious paintings because I was very interested in how these stories shaped people’s faith, how they understood the stories and how the language and images of a 16th century artist might be drawn from people’s contemporary experience. I taught at the University of Massachusetts and at the end of 1999, we decided to move back to Melbourne; I knew I wanted to continue teaching. I attended a public lecture by Frank Brennan at the cathedral and ran into Sr Maryanne Confoy RSC, who teaches at Jesuit Theological College, who taught me many years ago at St Columba’s College, Essendon. She just said, “you should come and see us at YTU, you might like to do something in the area of art history and spirituality”. That was 2000, and I began teaching here the next year in 2001 and I’ve been here ever since. It was providence.

At the time, I was one of the few people not just in Australia, but probably even in the States or Western Europe, who was combining the disciplines of art history and spirituality. Scholars in disciplines like theology and biblical studies were realising the potential of the visual in understanding different cultures, and in understanding the way we tell stories and interpret them. I have been very lucky to be teaching at YTU at a time when the potential for collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines has really expanded.

You wrote the short notes on the artworks that feature on the 2012 Columban Calendar.
How did that come about?

The Columban Calendar has a unique place in Australian and New Zealand homes and families. It has introduced many people to fine art, to the wonderful masterpieces of the Western tradition. We sometimes forget the role the Church has played in commissioning some of the great buildings and works of art that have nourished our civilisation. It’s a grand statement, but it’s true. I was invited to come and talk to the team who design and select the imagery for the calendar. We spent the most wonderful morning talking, brainstorming and looking at images on websites. I was learning about the process of selection from their point of view and they were asking, “What are some of the avenues that we haven’t thought about, what are some of the collections, concepts, themes that we should consider?” It was brilliant. Then I was asked to provide the explanatory notes for an accompanying CD so people could find out a little more about the story, the background, the artist, the meaning of these works and I said, “yes, yes!” When you look at these paintings in the calendar, they’re such beautiful, inspiring works they speak to you.

Is religious art still alive in this day and age?
I think there’s some fantastic contemporary religious art here in Australia. I know of several wonderful, gifted, and very thoughtful fine artists who are exploring their spirituality and who are attracted to the themes of Christian art, whether it’s broad theological ideas or specific biblical stories, and doing marvellous work. In Melbourne, there’s some beautiful works in the Church in Eltham. They have a lovely Stations of the Cross, which were commissioned for the Church in the 1980s.

Do you have a favourite artwork in the 2012 Columban Calendar?
It’s so hard to choose. The Giotto is an absolute favourite, Fra Angelico, and the Caravaggio - oh such power and force. The Botticelli. The Duccio. If my life depended on it, I would probably choose the Giotto (February) and the Fra Angelico (April).

Dr Claire Renkin has lectured in art history and spirituality at Yarra Theological Union in Box Hill for the past 11 years. She has degrees in English, voice, education and art history from La Trobe University, University of Melbourne, and the Universities of Massachusetts and Rutgers in the USA. Her teaching passion is art history and spirituality, but she has also curated a museum exhibition of art and is currently researching the visual imagery of Mary Magdalen in late medieval Florence. St Columbans Mission Society thanks Kairos Catholic Journal’s Fiona Basile who took the time out with Claire to glean an insight into the importance of art history and spirituality.

The Columban Calendar

2012 marks the 90th edition of the Columban Calendar, which is well known for its traditional religious paintings and liturgical information. The first calendar was produced in 1923 and has been a feature in Australian and New Zealand homes for generations, and a major fundraiser for St Columbans Mission Society. This year, the Columbans have also produced a beautiful CD presentation which gives a brief explanation of each painting included in the 2012 Calendar. The explanations have been compiled by Dr Claire Renkin. The CD is free and is narrated by Peter Byrne, a Melbourne based broadcaster, writer and actor.

Click here for more information about the 2012 Columban Calendar


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