Review: The Bible as Visual Culture

John Harvey, The Bible as Visual Culture; When Text Becomes Image, The Bible in the Modern World 52 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press) 2013, xii + 200pp, £50/$80 hardcover.

John Harvey, Professor of Art at Aberystwyth University, Wales, has provided a book of ten chapters, plus introduction and end-matter (rich with figures and plates), with a unique purpose: to ‘explore what happens to the biblical text when it is converted into visual culture….’(7). As a book which ‘contributes to the interdisciplinary study of the Bible and its visual culture’ (2), it is intended to join the hermeneutical methodologies of biblical studies with those of the study of visual culture and to inform practitioners of both how either methodology might be of benefit to the other by acknowledging their distinctions while emphasizing their overlap in ‘aims, functions, and methodologies’ (3). Harvey identifies that

…the traffic of academic interest between the study of the Bible and the study of visual culture is presently and principally travelling from the former to the latter. In this respect, the book endeavours to foster a more balanced reciprocation of ideas and criticism between biblical- and art-orientated scholarship by emphasizing approaches to ‘reading’ Scripture visually, informed by art-historical and visual-cultural methodologies… The intention is to enable biblical scholars to see images, and art scholars to read the Bible, more closely. (13)

As a historian of visual culture, Harvey’s book is, unsurprisingly, structured in a roughly chronological manner. It begins with one of the earliest examples of biblical visual objects, the rainbow of the Noahic Covenant, continues through biblical and artistic history up to present day and then ends on his own personal art practise. Given the vast amount to be covered, Harvey has made active choices of what to exclude; thus, some readers might find a favoured expression of religious art to be absent. Nevertheless, one should approach this book as any other work of history – seeking with curiosity how the insights of this writer might illuminate one’s own understanding.

The book is well and accessibly written, though the initial three chapters cover material that, allowing for differences in illustrations and examples, might already be found in the work of a variety of other writers exploring art/artifact and theology (i.e. David Brown, David Jasper, or Stephen Pattison to name but three). In this respect, some readers might find these chapters introductory. Though, for those new to the field, this will certainly be welcome.

In the fourth chapter, ‘The Vision after the Sermon: A Revival of Biblical Images’, Harvey touches upon new ground by discussing vision experiences, both biblical and extra-biblical, as visual culture. Beginning with Evan Roberts and the Welsh Revival, Harvey discusses the place of visions in Christian revival movements.This chapter also offers a level of ecumenical discussion that is lacking elsewhere and addresses the iconographic nature and heritage of visions among Protestant and Roman Catholic ‘percipients.’

‘The sermon after the Vision: Image as Text’, follows and inverts the theme of the fourth chapter. It describes how the muteness of paintings leads to the development of textual and verbal interpretation in support of preaching. That is until art modernised, abstracted and became increasingly self-referential: ‘and, as soon as evangelicals could no longer connect art to religion, they had no further use for it’ (101).

In the sixth chapter, Harvey moves attention from the Victorian era art to Modern Art. Engaging artists like Newman and Rothko, Harvey suggests that Modern Art promises a transcendent reality beyond the reach of the ‘conventional iconography of Judaeo-Christian art’ (123). The seventh chapter, however, is less about an era of art as it is about art’s capacity to communicate internal states of being. It particularly explores presentations of guilt and ‘spiritual poverty’ that communicate a theological perspective.

In the eight chapter, ‘The Iconography of Profanity: Visual Blasphemy’, Harvey moves creatively and convincingly beyond the linguistic ties common to the concept and makes the point that blasphemy ‘can assume forms beside the strictly textual or verbal’ (143). Pointing to a number of examples of visual blasphemy, from satirical cartoons to conceptual art (as in Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ), Harvey insists that the study of visual blasphemy remains as important to the ‘theologian and biblical scholar as it is for the historian of art and of visual culture’, because it forces us to ‘consider what God is really like and to re-examine the issue of whether he should be represented at all’ (156).

In the ninth chapter, Harvey argues that prohibitions against images in worship led to a visual culture that was mass produced, and functionally focused: aids for memory (i.e. memory verses), identity ( i.e. reminders of piety), and evangelism (i.e ‘wear and share’ items which could be given away). Seeming to disapprove of these kitsch artifacts, he leaves this chapter with the challenging question of whether or not ‘the quality of the visual culture may serve as an index to the quality of the faith’ (177).

The tenth chapter explores the biographical, art-historical and theological roots of Harvey’s own artistic practice, which, taken as a whole, might be seen as highly conceptual (involving non-literal/figural aural and visual expressions of biblical text). This chapter closes with an exploration of what might be possible in the future with developing digital media and sugges that these developments (coupled with social and religio-cultural changes) will lead to ‘a biblical visual culture of considerable complexity and density which will require a Swiss Army knife of interpretive and interrelational competences on the part of scholars’ (199).

There are, however, some challenges in this text, such as frequent and numerous typos and, as some might question, an exclusivity given to the Authorised Version of the Bible for quotations. Also, less attention to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might have permitted additional attention to the biblical-visuality of other Christian traditions. Nevertheless, The Bible as Visual Culture is a creative and original book and is recommended for those exploring how methods of Biblical scholarship and visual culture might inform one another. Given its accessible style, original perspective and, at times, unique content, it will be a helpful and informative read for students and established academics alike.

 

Article by Thomas Brauer

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