A cruciform tree, a radiating Cain eyed by a simmering Abel and a doveish floating vision: these are just a few of the images you will see as part of the vital and (until recently) little-known Methodist Art Collection (http://www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection), which has now gone online.
The collection is an extraordinary achievement of quiet but committed curation, and includes some very well-regarded twentieth century artists, as well as a number of less publicly profiled (but equally evocative) contributors.
How did one of Britain's historic denominations end up with a rotating and touring collection of some of the finest examples of contemporary art exploring the pain and poetry of spirituality in a troubled world?
The story is as intriguing as the collection itself - one I first had the opportunity to view at close quarters back in 2002, when my friend the Rev Tom Hurcombe (and sculptor the Rev David Moore from Milton Keynes) brought it to St Mark's Church in South Norwood for one of its regular public outings.
Like many viewing the collection for the first time, I was taken aback by its quality. If you're harbouring expectations of religious schmaltz or Christian kitsch, forget it. There is some very challenging material in the Methodist Art Collection, as well as unusual perspectives on familiar themes. There is also warmth, colour, craft and hope.
The unusual collection began in the 1960s, when the art enthusiasm of Methodists Dr John Gibbs and the Rev Douglas Wollen, combined with the assistance of a charitable fund, led to the idea taking shape and form.
The exhibition includes more than 40 works by Graham Sutherland, Elisabeth Frink and many other top-rank artists - from William Roberts’s ‘The Crucifixion’ in the early 1920s to Ghislaine Howard’s 2004 ‘The Washing of the Feet’.
These modern creative expressions of Christian faith come alive through a range of materials; from oil through to tempera and gouache, from acrylic through to aluminium.
Sometimes, David Moore's provocative sculpture has been dipslayed with the collection, though it is not part of it.
Now, as Toby Scott, director of communications and campaigns for the Methodist Church, observes: “The touring Collection if often on display, but its online debut makes it available to everyone at any one time."
He adds: "The works challenge the way we think of God, and how we visualise Jesus. Religious art has been at a cornerstone of western art for centuries, but these works of art continue to find new ways to depict the divine. The website is delight for art lovers and anyone seeking a different way to think about faith.”
Most of the online works are accompanied by commentaries, either from the artists themselves or by art critic Francis Hoyland.
David Webster, internet communications coordinator, explains: “This is a great new resource for people, whether Christian or not. Looking at the images in the art collection is an exciting way to reflect on the Christian message. Now they are accessible online this will also make more people aware of the Collection, and hopefully inspire them to visit the touring exhibition.”
Information on the works and on the artists can be found, together with reflections and related biblical passages, in The Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art: An Introduction by Roger Wollen, published in 2000 by the Trustees of the Collection (ISBN 0-9538135-0-9).
In full colour, it is obtainable at £3.50 from Methodist Publishing - www.methodistpublishing.org.uk.
Those wanting to make use of these fine works of art might like to note that the images presented in the online collection are covered by a copyright agreement with the artists or their estates which allows them to be reproduced in conjunction with an exhibition of the collection or within the purposes of the Methodist Church.
This means that they can be downloaded for use in worship, for group study or for private meditation. They are suitable quality for digital projection or for printing, but only at a small size.
All other use of images for publication purposes must be approved. Please contact Peter Forsaith, Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History at Oxford Brookes University, for permission - firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information on use of images visit: http://www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentogod.content&cmid=...
Thanks to Karen Burke and the Methodist communications team.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. www.simonbarrow.net
See also: 'Optimism, suffering and artful hope' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9903