Religious icons may at first glance appear to be foreign to the modern artistic sensibility, objects of a bygone era to be glanced at in museums. Far from being fossilised, however, this Christian devotional tradition is being kept alive by many artists who use the medium not only to convey religious meaning but to comment on modern society in new and arresting ways.
Nikola Sarik is one such artist. His most well-known piece to date is The Holy Martyrs of Libya, a tribute to the 21 Christians executed by ISIS in February 2015. The contrast between ancient and modern is striking; Christ, depicted in a traditional manner, embraces the murdered men dressed in orange jumpsuits, while their masked captors stand behind them. The work has the visual effect of dragging the religious dimension into the world of our current events; in turn, ancient depictions of saints and martyrs are brought more clearly into their own contemporary context as we recognise them as living, breathing people. Sarik’s deliberately flat, almost childlike style is in part inspired by 20th-century artists such as Klimt and Matisse, but is also reminiscent of the cartoonish style of Romanesque art.
Other artists use iconography to make poignant statements about suffering and oppression much closer to home. In 2016, an icon by Mark Dukes was unveiled called Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson, a reference to those killed by law enforcement officers in the US. The icon seamlessly blends ancient religious symbolism with contemporary imagery. It depicts a black madonna and the dark silhouette of a smaller figure, whose cruciform halo is also the crosshairs of a gun. Both figures have their arms raised in the traditional orans (praying) position, but the modern context gives this gesture a different meaning: hands up, don’t shoot.
Perhaps more striking still is Maxwell Lawton’s work, Man of Sorrows—Christ with AIDS, painted in the midst of the AIDS crisis. The traditional Man of Sorrows theme depicts a dejected Christ, crowned with thorns and showing his wounds. Lawton’s piece has Christ hooked up to an IV drip and covered in cancer sores typical of many AIDS sufferers. In the background, Jesus’s words from Matthew 25:40 are quoted in three languages: “The King will reply, ‘truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ” Lawton’s work emphasises the fundamental theological concept of Christ identifying with social outcasts and those who suffer, and confronts the audience with their duty to do the same in a social atmosphere of shame, fear-mongering, and ostracism.
Applicants for History of Art and Theology might wish to consider whether religious art has a place in contemporary life, and how artists can harness centuries-old symbolism to comment on contemporary issues in unique ways. They should think about how Christian art has traditionally used varied imagery to convey information or make an emotional impact, and may want to assess how the above examples fit into this tradition and whether they are successful.
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