Using Innovation and art for academia and prayer: Bringing Bible scripture to life with interactive online art exhibitions

The Visual Commentary on Scripture, TheVCS.org, is the first significant online project to introduce visitors to the entirety of Christian Scripture in the company of art and artists.

In this talk, the Revd Canon Professor Ben Quash, the project’s director, will share some of the challenges and discoveries he has encountered so far in this ambitious undertaking.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture – https://thevcs.org/

You are speaking at Bradford Cathedral in October about The Visual Commentary on Scripture project. Could you give us an introduction to it?

It’s a huge project to create a series of online exhibitions around passages of scripture. There will be three works of art connected to each exhibition, and each one will have a passage of scripture at the heart of it. The eventual ambition, which is a huge one, is to cover all of the Christian Bible, which could be something like 1500 exhibitions by the end of the project.

We’ve now got about 110, so we’re well under way, and we launched the project last November at Tate Modern in London to symbolise the fact that we very much want this to be a conversation with, not just historic Christian art works, but modern and contemporary art as well. We want to try and harness the enthusiasm that people have for modern and contemporary art galleries, and use that enthusiasm to also bring them into dialogue with the Bible, and expose them to some of the excitement and interest of the Biblical texts.

It’s really innovative, and no one has done anything quite like it before, so we’re very excited about it. Watching the website grow from week-to-week is something that many of our users are enjoying too. There’s something new for them every week or two and that’s going to continue for a long time to come.

How long has this project has been planned?

It’s been a long journey. The initial idea for it probably dates back to 2014, and a life-altering conversation with two friends from the USA who have a long track record of supporting work at the intersection of theology and art (including some magnificent exhibitions at the National Gallery in London on Christian themes).  Many more conversations followed, with a wide range of people, to try and get what we thought was the right format for it. We had a six-month research and development period where we spoke to big international groups of academics as well as church leaders and people in the art world to work out what they’d most value, and then on the back of that we developed the concept as it is now.

After that period, the proper work on it began in 2016, but a lot of the early work had to go into building the architecture of the website. Although I think it’s quite an elegant site and simple to use, nevertheless (as with all of these sorts of things) it’s much more complicated than it looks! In particular, hosting really high-quality, high-resolution images on this scale is something that needs a lot of capacity. One of the great joys of the website is that all of the images are very high resolution and zoomable, so you can spend a long time just moving around a work of art, often slowly and contemplatively, and the longer you spend with it the more you find. That’s something I think will be a resource for those that want to use the website not just academically but meditatively, and as an aid to prayer or Bible study. It’s been really encouraging for us that increasingly church groups are using it for Bible study and discussion groups. That’s one of the wider audiences that we’re keen the website should have.

We had to reach a certain number of pieces before it was worth going live with it, so our aim was to get enough exhibitions up there to make a splash when we went live, which is why it was nearly two-years from starting the website design up to the point when we launched. It’s been a long journey to now, and now we’ve got the huge task of populating it with more and more exhibitions. A lot of the crucial work is already under our belt as the design is there, and the more exhibitions that are there for people to visit the clearer to new contributors it is about what’s being asked of them, and they have lots of models to work from. I feel like it’s now maturing. There’s lots of growing to do in terms of new content, and given that there’s three works of art for exhibition, that’s 4,500 pieces by the end, which is a lot of art!

Do you think that the use of modern technology can bring classic art and texts to audiences in a more accessible way?

I think that young people, in particular, are very much centred on images in the way that they communicate with each other and think about the world, so the sharing of visual images with the help of social media in particular has made images a kind of currency, almost a language. One of the things we sense that makes this the right time to do what we’re doing as a visual commentary is we’re offering unprecedented visual aids, as young people are very much at home with looking at and sharing art. The fact that this can be a way of introducing them to the Bible, or if they already have a relationship with it, it can be a way of deepening their relationship with it. This was one of our biggest motivating factors for the project.

It’s even good for young members of churches that haven’t had much to do with visual arts. Protestant churches have not historically done a lot with them, but they are more interested in it now than they have in the past. This could be something of an ecumenical moment: an opportunity to use art to build bridges between different traditions of the church, from the ones who have a long historical relationship with art, such as Catholic or Orthodox Christians, and those that haven’t.

I think that people who are not part of the church and don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience of Christianity, but who nevertheless have a passion for the visual arts, are also a key audience for us. They are aware that a lot of what they are seeing, even in quite modern works of art, have Christian content and religious messages. We want to help those people understand what they’re looking at, by giving them the resources to see and understand Christian iconography and symbolism, stories and so on.

Also on the website there are references and bibliographies; can it be used as a springboard for the audiences to find out more?

We want to give the people who want to read further the tools to do that. The references and bibliographies are there to allow you to go deeper into something that captures your attention or sparks your imagination. You can look those works up and find out more.

You are coming to Bradford Cathedral to speak about the project; what can people expect from your talk?

I’ll be introducing everyone to the site, and I want them to explore it with me. We’ll visit some of the exhibitions and try and open up some of the things I find most exciting and some of my favourite ones, and say why, to see what people’s responses are to it, and which ones speak most powerfully to them. I want it to be a two-way conversation and often seeing how people react for a first-time, with their first impressions of the art can be a brilliant way to discover what really matters to people and what motivates them, or moves them. The role of emotional responses is just as important as the intellectual ones, and art is an excellent way of getting very direct and honest responses from people.

I’m hoping that the conversations we will have when I come to Bradfird will open up all kinds of things that people can share and take away with them, and to go on and use them in other contexts later, and open their eyes to the Bible in new ways. One of the hopes I have for the VCS is that it will unlock new ways of reading the Bible and new ways of seeing it, and reading it with the mind’s eye, fully-enriched by the insights of the artists. We can share the particular qualities of the artist’s sight, with those who maybe don’t have that gift, with the result of that sharing we are taught to see more. Sight can move to insight. We don’t just want people to see more, in the sense of receiving more visual data; we want to see more deeply, and visual artists really can help us with that. My hope is that when we read the Bible in the company of artists they will help us see more, and see more deeply, things that are in the Bible as well. These are the kinds of things I’m going to explore in Bradford Cathedral.

The de Lacy lecture: Ben Quash – Reading the Bible with a Great Company of Artists, takes place at Bradford Cathedral on Wednesday 16th October at 7pm, with refreshments from 6:30pm. Entry is free and you can turn up on the day, but you can reserve your place at de-lacy-lecture.eventbrite.co.uk.

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