With Cosmo Sarson’s recent saluting saviour and Magnus Gjoen tempting us to ‘Break Glass for a New Beginning’ we’ve become increasingly aware of an intriguing resurgence in religious iconography…
The History of Art is full of religious or sacred art bursting with doctrinal imagery, from Pieter Bruegel to Hieronymus Bosch and Leonardo da Vinci. But since a secular and universal notion of art arose in 19th century Western Europe there has been a distinct lack of angels, lambs and epic Biblical scenes. Until now that might be.
The Huffington Post recently published an article titled ‘The Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art’; whilst Jonathan Jones of the Guardian wrote about art and religion being intrinsically linked in his piece ‘Art is the Religion of the Modern World’, arguing that “Museums are temples and paintings are relics.” Turning to our vast collection we’ve found some diverse examples of contemporary art incorporating Christian imagery. Religious iconography may have been largely absent since the origins of modern art but it’s clear that there is a growing strain of current artistic practice giving it some serious consideration…
Cosmo Sarson is the talented artist behind this summer’s Street Art sensation – an incredible, giant mural of Jesus breakdancing in the Stoke’s Croft area of Bristol. The controversial saluting saviour was inspired by a newspaper cutting of Pope John Paul II enjoying a break dancing display at the Vatican in 2004.
Evidently exploring Christianity in his street art, Cosmo Sarson explained, “There is already a tradition of dancing Jesus, as in the Sydney Carter's hymn, 'Lord of the Dance'. The model for this painting is actually a deaf dancer friend of mine who can dance by feeling the rhythm through the floor vibrations. I like this fact, as I feel it relates to the miracles Jesus performed: getting the blind to see; the deaf to hear; and the crippled to see.
Cosmos Sarson’s ‘Breakdancig Jesus’ was the winner of a major arts competition. According to one of the judges, Sean Redmond, "The work raises questions about the role of organised religions in contemporary society and also about how Christ would interact and communicate with contemporary culture if he returned today."
Magnus creates new and modern takes on old masterpieces, questioning the correlation between religion, war, beauty, destruction and art. He has been heavily influenced by his time spent in Italy, with its awe-inspiring art and architecture from Roman and Christian times. Of his art, he once said “this is salvation for a godless generation.” His solo show at artrepublic Soho was titled ‘Break Glass for a New Beginning’ and described as “Exodus for Generation-X”.
For his solo show, Magnus Gjoen re-imagined Genesis and the Resurrection in a modern light. He read a lot of the bible in preparation and many traditional religious motifs appeared throughout the exhibition, from angels to Adam and Eve and Jesus on the cross. An original fibreglass sculpture of Jesus in the familiar crucifixion pose was inspired be an earlier print of his, in which Jesus is holding guns in his outstretched arms. Titled ‘Mala Fide’, meaning ‘Bad Faith’ in Latin, the piece is a candid comment on the many conflicts started “in good faith” or in the name of religion.
His print ‘Break Glass for a New Beginning (Eden)’ is evidently an exploration of biblical themes and imagery. In our Q&A, Gjoen elaborated, “Break Glass for a New Beginning illustrates Adam & Eve looking through a concave window given the opportunity to decide and think for themselves, "Should we break the glass, entering Eden and start this cycle again?" or "as we know we have a choice should we do things differently?" Gjoen’s fascinating work raises numerous questions about religion, ‘Where would art be today had it not been for religion?’, for example. It is clear, however that he doesn’t necessarily have the answers, “Both good and terrible evil has come from religion however now that our free society is no longer held together by its spell, are we all doomed? I'm not so sure,” he ruminated.
The artworks of modern day Surrealist Nancy Fouts frequently explore themes of time, nature, humour and religious iconography. She playfully distils and disrupts the roles and associations of objects, icons and relationships. She certainly doesn’t shy away from religious themes in her sculptural arrangements which are drawn from Surrealism and the Absurd.
Nancy Fouts created an entire series of works which parody Christian merchandise. Pieces such as ‘Jesus With Wings’ (2012) and ‘Everlast’ (2013), are altered figurines of Jesus in the crucifixion pose. They include Jesus with a skipping rope, saluting a boxing victory and providing the underarm support for a crutch. These idiosyncratic compositions subvert expectations, challenge convention, and provocatively deploy Nancy Fouts’ black humour in addressing the role of religion in the modern world.
Damien Hirst’s work investigates and challenges contemporary belief systems, and dissects the tensions and uncertainties at the heart of the human experience. As a child he attended a Catholic school and references to Christianity are common in his art. His work ‘Mother and Child Divided’, for example, subverts the familiar icon of mother Mary and baby Jesus with a violence Hirst found in religious imagery itself.
“I have a lot of strong memories of religious imagery. We had a big illustrated bible and when I was young I would go straight to the crucifixion or severed head pages”, revealed Damien Hirst. Since the early 1990s, he has combined Christian iconography with the vocabulary of medical science, which for him, is another form of religion. A famous example of this is ‘Away from the Flock’, a lamb pickled in formaldehyde solution and encased in a stainless steel and glass box. The title is a term specifically associated with Christianity; “to leave the flock” means to leave the Church. Furthermore, Christ is often represented as a sheep in religious art.
The Sanctum Series is a collection of six colour photogravure etchings featuring profoundly beautiful butterfly altarpieces. As well as their titles, which refer to different spaces within a church, and their resemblance to the stained glass windows of a grand Romanesque cathedral, the butterly subjects of the Sanctum Series are traditionally symbolic of the resurrection. If you look a little deeper it’s suprising just how much religious iconography there is in Damien Hirst’s contemporary art.
Dolk Lundgren is an internationally recognized Norwegian stencil artist. Frequently likened to Banksy, he explores pop-cultural references in humorous or critical contexts. His latest street art and limited edition prints reveal that he isn’t one to shy away from examining the role of religion in contemporary society.
‘Leap’ features a small girl leap-frogging over a member of the priesthood. Dolk has cleverly replaced the child’s father with a ‘Father’ of the church and the title suggests a play on the term ‘leap of faith’. Dolk’s work is often open to interpretation and frequently political and there have been suggestions that this piece is a comment on the negative press surrounding the Church and child abuse.
The figure of the priest has previously appeared in Dolk’s art work. His 2009 print ‘Priest’ featured a monochrome priest with a dripping yellow halo holding a paintbrush. The piece is clearly a street art reworking of traditional religious art. Perhaps Dolk is arguing, like Jonathan Jones, that art is the religion of the modern world?
From the crucifixion imagery of Eel’s ‘Indifference – Red’ to the Virgin Mary praying in K-Guy's urban art pun ‘Linda EVANGELISTa’, it seems as though there is a growing body of Christian iconography in contemporary art. After modernism and post-modernism, abstraction and minimalism, it seems as though Religious Art is back in vogue!
Contemporary artists do what artists have done throughout the ages: explore, critique, celebrate, lament, transform and subvert, perhaps it was inevitable that they would turn their attention back to religion sooner or later.