Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden [Part 2]

Editor’s note: We are very pleased to present the second part of an interview with distinguished artist Penny Warden. In the first part, she discussed her personal journey to become a practicing artist and the role of religious art in contemporary culture. In today’s second segment, she discusses the intersection of theology with her own work and comments on some of the technical aspects of her painting.

To what extent does conscious theological reflection enter into your artistic practice?

As far as my religious paintings are concerned, very much so. Just before I got married I felt called to be a deaconess, as it was in the days before women could be ordained priest-or even deacon! However, once again I was discouraged from this particular path, this time by my bishop, because of the complications of marrying a clergyman who was about to become an army chaplain. However, the calling to help in a ministry and ultimately reach out to people was far from gone. I hope I have in some way achieved this through my art instead. For example, The Phoenix paintings came out of my continued search for answers to the problem of suffering. The Stations of the Cross in Blackburn Cathedral are inherently devotional, enabling people to encounter at a personal and spiritual level the Christ that the images portray; hence, I think theological reflection is essential.

The Stations of the Cross commission, called The Journey, consists of fifteen six-foot oil paintings which hang throughout the cathedral to form a ‘walking route’ – a ‘journey’ – to follow the way of the cross with Christ on his final journey. Whilst the stations are rooted in an historical event, they speak universally of the human condition. ‘The Journey’ of Christ to his inevitable death is symbolic of all who suffer. It is with this theological reflection in mind that each station has been painted in such a way as to challenge and speak to all who view them.

What are the challenges of painting explicitly religious images rather than ‘neutral’ pictures? Do you feel a stronger need to ‘get it right’ when you paint a religious image compared to when you paint other topics? Do you even mentally separate paintings in such a way? Do such questions even enter your mind?

For me, imaging the body of Christ in a series of fifteen life-size, permanent paintings was an extraordinary privilege but carried with it a huge artistic responsibility. To display one’s religious artwork in the context of a sacred space as opposed to it being viewed in a gallery or museum inevitably invites the viewer into a deeper faith or spiritual experience of that art. An image depicting a suffering Christ that serves as a reminder of the sacrifice He made for the sake of humanity is not a neutral image and therefore carries more responsibility.

Painting a ballet dancer from a photograph is a very different process from creating an image that emerges from my mind that needs to express emotion and suffering. A photograph of a dancer is a given, but to create an image which portrays the anguish of Christ’s Passion within the figure can take many hours of drawing to ‘get it right’. Once I have a drawing I can work from, I can thenpaint it in a similar way to my more neutral work, although I take a slightly different approach to the splashing and throwing of the paint. In the ballet dancers, the splashes purely express movement. In the images of Christ, the splashing may indicate pain as well as movement.

The challenge to ‘get it right’ is particularly important when art is going to be so prominent within a public religious space and is going to be used for educational and devotional purposes. This was particularly highlighted by the fact that my paintings of the death and resurrection of Christ were placed in the south transept of the cathedral above the large baptismal font. The theology of baptism is a very personal identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in being baptised, the candidate is to ‘die to sin’ and ‘rise to new life in Christ’. Thus the paintings have a function of reinforcing theology; they need to express Christian beliefs. This is why I find it both an immense privilege and challenge—to try and find ways of communicating in a way that has authenticity for me, integrity for the religious building, and meaning for the viewer.

South Transept, Blackburn Cathedral

In working on a project like ‘The Journey’, which depicts established scenes from the crucifixion narrative, how do you as an artist establish a balance between responding to what is given and creatively expressing your own artistic vision?

The Journey paintings are very far removed from the traditional Stations of the Cross that one finds in other (mainly Roman Catholic) churches and cathedrals. My Stations of the Cross are life-size, contain one figure only, and do not have any images of the cross in them! An awareness of the purpose of Stations to fulfil both an instructive function and a recollective function is essential.

This is a formidable creative challenge and a solemn responsibility, but one that I have shared with countless artists throughout the centuries. Awareness of the creative boundaries are inescapable for the artist commissioned to produce art for permanent display in a cathedral. How then could I use my creativity andthe way I paint to express the inexpressible? How can a visitor to Blackburn Cathedral perceive an elusive God in my paintings?

My aim in painting these Stations then, was to translate the familiar images of Christ’s final journey of trial, condemnation and eventual crucifixion, into a new arrangement of colour and form. I reduced the images to a minimum, one lone(ly)life-size and faceless figure, so that the viewer—instead of just observing a past event of someone else’s story—could enter instead into a dialogue with this figure. We are not just observers of the journey of Christ. We can paint our faces on these suffering figures. We use his journey to help us understand our journey.

Jesus Is Given His Cross. 90 x 180cm. Oil on canvas

A number of your projects—The Journey, The Dance, the Phoenixseries—engage somehow with the possibility of hope in the midst of suffering. How do you try to express a feeling like hope, and is there another painter whose depiction of hope stands out to you as successful?

Within my Phoenix paintings there is a deliberate resonance with the Christian image of suffering and death. This is a series of deeply poignant images. These paintings try to speak of the anguish of human existence, and of our feelings of abandonment and alienation. For as Kierkegaard wrote, ‘Deep within every man there lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions upon millions’.

The absence of a cross, together with the vibrancy of the colours used, aims to express that which survives the desolation and destruction – the human spirit. St Paul writes, ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’(2 Corinthians 4:8 NRSV).

Like the ancient Egyptian mythological bird the phoenix, which destroyed itself only to rise again from the ashes, the paintings point to the hope of resurrection and immortality.

Phoenix No. Two.  90 x 180cm. Oil on board

To express hope in The Journeya fifteenth Station was added—The Resurrection. This is rare as traditionally the Stations would end with Jesus being laid in the tomb. As Martin Israel says in his book Precarious Living, ‘nothing that is created is destroyed by God because of his love for his creation. Death of the body is merely a state of transition in the development of the soul filled person. . . . The love of God, shown in the passion of Christ, assures us that nothing created by him will ever be allowed to perish’.

The Resurrection. 180 x 180cm. Oil on canvas

In The Danceat Trinity hospice, hope is expressed in the final painting called Foundand the painting of a dove above it. This figure is the uplifted patient or relative who first entered the hospice so downcast. Through the love and care that they have received at Trinity, they have been transformed in body, mind and spirit to a place of greater understanding, acceptance and peace. The uplifted head and outstretched arms, in great contrast to their former physical state, is a sign of what Trinity hopes to bring to all who come through its doors. As Cecily Saunders, the founder of the hospice movement, said, ‘We accompany them as far as we can. Then we have to let them go, knowing that they will be met’.

Found. 156 x 195cm. Oil on canvas

The following are a couple of letters, amongst many, I received from patients and a family. ‘We had the great joy seeing your paintings in the chapel at Trinity Hospice. We both found them overwhelmingly beautiful and moving, and so full of inspiration and hope. During the last year I have been diagnosed and treated for cancer. I only wish the paintings had been in place throughout the year. In all we’ve read and all that has been said to us this year, nothing has encapsulated so well as The Dancethe message of hope we’ve needed, and still need, to experience.’

A toddler, the grandchild of one patient who was dying in the hospice, pointed to the dove and said, ‘That is the birdie that is going to take my granddad to heaven and look after him’. 

 Thus far I have not discovered any painter whose depiction of hope particularly stands out to me as successful, butI’m sure they must exist! However, Antony Gormley’s sculpture Angel of the North certainly inspires hope. As he says, it is ‘to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears’.

I am also inspired by Gillian Wearing’s recent sculpture in Parliament Square—the first sculpture by any woman in that space—of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett holding a sign saying, ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’. Her lifelong battle to win votes for women is a sign of great hope.

You frequently paint images of the human body, and your images show careful perception of the figure even when the figuretends towards contortion. How does the human figure itself play into your understanding of Christian faith?

What is it to be a human being? We are, I believe, ensouled bodies, embodied spirits. We are a single integrated and unique entity seen from three particular angles. We are body. We are mind. And we are spirit. Jesus became flesh and suffered in his body. As Anthony Gormley says, ‘it is impossible to make art that can be truly shared without acknowledging the body as a starting point of common experience’.I paint the subjective experience of living in our bodies and behind our faces. Most of my spiritual figures are androgynous, uniting the male and feminine aspects of the individual into a single Being.

From the practical side, what is the process like when you receive a commission from a church or other religious organisation?

Throughout the creative process I would be in touch with the organization, sharing and presenting my thoughts and ideas. Obviously it would be very important to see the physical space that my paintings are going to go into. The budget for the commission would be very important as this will dictate what I am able to provide. Churches and cathedrals are living buildings which exist for the worship of God and the mission of the church, therefore there would be lengthy discussions and theological reflection with those who are involved in my commission.

Another important point as far as Blackburn Cathedral is concerned, is that formal approval was required from the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England. This was because the paintings were to become a permanent addition to the Cathedral and would materially affect its character.

As far as the Trinity Hospice commission was concerned, I needed to be sensitive to their mission statement: ‘enabling compassionate care on the journey to the end of life.’

Paintings exist as a static medium, but many of your paintings, whether they depict ballet dancers or Christ on the way to the cross, seem to strive for a dynamic sense of movement. How do you try to express dynamism or movement in a static image, and why is that sense of movement important to you?

 I am a figurative painter, particularly influenced by action painting—the need to surrender to spontaneous impulse—and a form of gestural abstraction—any abstract art based on the record of a ‘gesture’ made by the artist as he paints.My paintings are a felt experience;they cannot be completely anticipated or described in advance. Rather, each painting is like acting out a live drama because I never quite know what will happen in that particular painting. My paintings are an outburst of energy onto the canvas. When painting the dancers, I am seeking to capture the essential spirit and movement of that dancer; the final picture is my visual expression of the passion and energy within her. After I have painted the background colour, I draw the figure in pencil. I then paint rapidly and intensely; I work with a maximum of spontaneity, throwing and splattering the oil paint. The emphasis is on action and chance, which involves risks, but I exploit the accidents that cannot be avoided and, as a result, the final painting takes on its own life. The paintings then take at least two months to dry!

Elation. 130 x 130cm. Oil on canvas

Many of your paintings, perhaps even the majority, use red as their dominant colour. What significance, if any, does red have for you?

Red plays a big part in expressing energy and passion in my paintings. The various reds I use also help to project the suffering and drama of the figure.

 Several of your projects have been created for specific physical spaces: what are the challenges or advantages of working in such a defined space?

 The advantage of working in such a defined space is that it stretches me creatively.

As far as the challenges are concerned, the first would be to satisfy the vision that the commissioners have for that defined space. The theme and task the Chapter of Blackburn Cathedral (the cathedral clergy) had set itself was to open the cathedral to as wide a cross-section of the community as possible, and for it to be a focus of unity to all people of faith. My fifteen six-foot paintings will be on display for generations to come, and as the then Dean of Blackburn, the Very Rev Christopher Armstrong said, ‘The Stations will be of national significance and complement the already impressive stock of modern art at the Cathedral. They will assist the Cathedral in its missionary mandate to tell the story of Christ’s last few hours to a puzzled and agnostic generation. These “Stations” will engage with people where they are, in all the conflicts and sorrows which life brings in the 21st Century’.

The commission for Trinity Hospice, as mentioned above, specified that the paintings must reflect the mission statement of the hospice—’enabling compassionate care on the journey to the end of life’and represent the essence of hospice care in terms of helping individuals find a new way to be with whatever they were facing.

After seeing the physical space, a particular challenge would be the size and shape of my canvases. For example, for aesthetic reasons, in Blackburn Cathedral, I wanted the eight paintings that would be hung both sides of the nave to be of uniform size and shape. I decided on a three-foot-wide x six-foot-tall canvas. This severely restricted me artistically as to how I could represent a figure falling, a figure carrying a cross or a figure lying in a tomb! I would have to capture the anguish and emotion of Christ’s passion within the figure through the shape and stance of the body.

Another challenge would be my choice of colours. My figurative work is mostly painted on a strong vibrant background. The background colours of each of the Stations were chosen carefully depending on what it was portraying as well as the physical location of the painting in the cathedral. Since the nave at Blackburn had no stained-glass windows, my paintings needed to compensate for this and bring much needed colour into the cathedral. At the same time, I needed sensitivity in my colour choice so as not to overwhelm the congregation!

The Nave, Blackburn Cathedral

On the theoretical side, have any art theorists or critics particularly informed your ideas of what a painting should be or do?

Patrick Heron’s book Painter as Criticinfluenced and confirmed the approach I take to my own paintings. He says, ‘Art is not created in a state of mind which primarily seeks to communicate. In order to communicate you must have your eye fixed on the audience.To demand a certain result from art in advance is utterly to misconceive the central creative process itself. It is to suppress spontaneity, to batten down on the subconscious. The work of art is in some profound sense an independent, live entity. It has its own life. It draws nourishment from its creator that he was totally unaware of having put into it: and it redistributes nourishment to the spectator (including the artist himself for he is also is merely a spectator once the work is completed).Art is literally an act of discovery. Art reveals aspects of reality we have never consciously known before. Whether his art results in inspiring us or depressing us is something the artist cannot determine and should not try to determine. Its success or failure as a transmitter of thought and emotion simply cannot be planned and guaranteed beforehand. The sole preoccupation is with the trapping of his vision, his faith will be that if he does this disinterestedly, ultimately he will in fact communicate with an audience. The true artistconfronts, not an audience but Reality, and Reality alone. . . . The quality of vitality in art is something very closely connected with risk and pure doing’.

Lyonel Feininger says, ‘If artists emptied their minds of preconceptions and applied pigment with maximum of spontaneity the images they made would be an expression of the deepest level of their being’.

Frances Bacon states,‘Painting is the pattern of one’s nervous system being projected on the canvas.’




  • Jake Morley currently teaches English at The Stony Brook School in Stony Brook, NY. A former Senior Editor for Transpositions, he is completing his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. His broader research interests include theological aesthetics as well as the relationship between poetry and theology, while his more specific research covers English poetry from Spenser to Milton and the application to literary study of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Jake's previous academic work includes an MA in English from Middlebury College and an MA in systematic theology from Wheaton College.

Written By
More from Jake Morley
Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden [Part 1]
Editor’s note: We are very pleased to present the first part of...
Read More
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,544,209 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments