Art and Sacred Places


About ASP

ASP Blog

Support ASP

Get Involved

Past projects



Latest news and comments



Registered Charity No: 1157364




Watch this space for regular news about the world of contemporary art and faith.

Art and Sacred Places will be publishing short articles on relevant topics by eminent contributors.


Dr Jonathan Koestle-Cate, ASP Trustee and Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, has given kind permission for us to reproduce here his article "Secular Pegs and God-Shaped Holes: The Uneasy Alliance of the Religious, the Spiritual and the Secular in Recent Art for the Church" published by Equinox Publishing Ltd 2012.

Read Dr Koestle-Cate's article here

March 2014

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and Dean of King's College London, now Fellow and Honorary Professor of Theology there, and Honorary Fellow of Selwyn College Cambridge and St Anne's College of Oxford, has with The Times given kind permission for ASP to reproduce the following article, published on 18th January 2014, entitled 'Modernism is a Door to the Metaphysical'

Professor the Rt Revd Lord Harries writes:

David Jones, the modernist poet and painter wrote, "I have been on my guard not to condemn the unfamiliar…for it is easy to miss him at the turn of a civilisation." He looked for Christ not only in the myths and geography of Wales and the mud of Flanders, but in the turn of Europe's civilisation, the modernism that erupted just before World War I. At the same time he was acutely aware of a major challenge: the images and narratives that had united Europe for more than a thousand years, no longer did so. He called this "The break". There was no "symbolic order" to use Peter Fuller's phrase. So how could a Christian artist convey Christ at such a time? To this must be added the very rapid and radical changes of artistic style that followed on from modernism to our own time.

Modernism for Jones, as for so many religious artists since then, turned out to be an enormous liberation. For its defining characteristic is that a work of art exists in its own right, and is not simply a representation of something. So much Christian art before then had simply been attempts to visualise what went on in the past- pictures of Jesus in Palestine being born in a stable, performing his miracles, dying on the cross and so on. That is fine up to a point, in that it conveys the fact that the life of Jesus was a real human life. But it does not convey any sense that this life was also a disclosure of the very heart of God. How to do this has been an issue since the time that Christians first started painting their story in the Catacombs in the 3rd century. How can the transcendent be conveyed through the mundane, the divine through the human? How can a human story convey the sense that something else is going on, that another dimension is present? Modernism, in releasing artists from the idea of representation, and the artistic movements that have followed, opened up possibilities of doing this in fresh, often very challenging ways. Sometimes it is the abstract element in a work that can to do this - or even a totally abstract painting, as witnessed by the extraordinary spiritual effect that some of Rothko's paintings have on people.

It is no accident I think that a century that saw the birth of radical new movements in art was also one which felt anew the religious impact of Romanesque carving and the mystical appeal of icons. Both are very different in their approach to that of the high Renaissance. And whilst the artistic brilliance of the latter can be hugely admired, it is the former which seems better to convey a mystical other. Icons are not representations, and do not use ordinary perspective. Painted (or "written") as the Orthodox prefer to put it, they set an aspect of heaven before the worshipper and invite them to share that life. Modern Western art does not do that, but it does have a greater capacity than straightforward representations to convey a sense of something other.

Paradoxically modern art, which seemed, and can still seem, so hostile to traditional religious imagery, has turned out to be a surprisingly good friend. One fruit of this is the extraordinary amount of good quality work commissioned or shown in churches and cathedrals over the last 60 years. It began with that remarkable man, Walter Hussey, when as Vicar of St Mathew's, Northampton, in the 1940's he commissioned first Henry Moore and then Graham Sutherland to do work for his church, as well as Benjamin Britten in music. He continued this high level commissioning when he went on to be Dean of Chichester. It is above all due to his influence that in the last sixty years, work by some of the iconic names in modern art, Anthony Caro, Elizabeth Frink, John Piper, Marc Chagall and Jacob Epstein have been commissioned for churches and cathedrals. This renewal of Christian art continues even in our own time with, most recently, a work by Maggi Hambling being done for an ordinary parish church.

Professor Lord (Richard) Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford, is the author of The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate).

January 2014

Dr Jonathan Vickery, Associate Professor at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, at the University of Warwick, and Director of the MA in Global Media and Communication writes about the meaning of the sacred and how art can only approach it with great difficulty.

Dr Jonathan Vickery writes:

There is a paradox at the heart of the coupling of 'art' and 'sacred places'. The history and development of both are so intertwined, they seem naturally inclined to each other. Yet at the same time, the contemporary spheres of art and the sacred are mutually alien and estranged, and require particular intellectual interventions, cultural projects or cultural policy initiatives to reunite them.

Not all spaces used by religion or faith communities are 'sacred'. There is something distinct about consecrated or 'sacred' spaces - spaces that have become 'places' through an intriguing confluence of narrative, values, revelation and spiritual authority. Sacred places have changed, of course, but not altogether succumbed to secularisation, and in their own marginal way have flourished. There are always dangers. It is easy to use sacred places as yet another platform or attractive 'plinth' for displaying contemporary art installations. Many sacred places (mostly Christian), like it or not, are now absorbed into the cartography of the cultural tourist industry, as popular visitor locations. In one sense, they become involved in another moral economy.

But how far and in what way has the sacred changed in relation to the social accessibility and visitor popularity of the 'place' of the sacred? This perhaps depends on the various theologies of the sacred that function within each religion or faith or each institution's interpretation of their obligations to the sacred. For some the 'sacred' is more emphatic than others; for some it is transient, only operative within the context of a consecrated rite or activity or prescribed day; for others, the sacred cannot be physically desecrated, as it is a spiritual phenomena. Yet there is always something distinct about the tangible concrete sacred 'place' that sets it apart from castles or other heritage locations. For sacred places, the universality of 'the good', which may not emerge as a fixed set of ethical imperatives, is nonetheless unavoidable (even if it is often ignored).

Even in religions that prohibit certain types of image-making (Judaism, Islam), we find profound traditions of artistic expression. It was the early Renaissance that saw the pulling apart of the medieval interrelation of 'the true, the good and the beautiful' (verum, bonum et pulchrum), and with it (in the West, at least) any necessary relation between art and religion, spirituality or faith. Art and religion were forced to evolve their own spheres of meaning and validity. Yet they still seemed to maintain a mutual affinity, to the extent that art often assumed, or was placed in, a quasi-spiritual cultural role. For both appealed to a realm of human value and a meaningful existence beyond human desire and social acquisitiveness; both appealed to an expanded sensibility and to modes of human communication that transcended the utility of the everyday. They both still have the power to generate a sense of community and of cultural identity. Whatever your philosophical or theoretical conception of the sacred and of art, their social endurance demands that we consider both their origins and contemporary significance.

So art and sacred places, it would seem, can forge some kind of relationship in contemporary society. The nature of this 're-uniting' of what was originally a mutual relation is not so straightforward, for we find that the historical reality of their estrangement has radically changed the character of each. They have become something quite other than what they were, and being reunited does not result in a happy celebratory unison. This, perhaps, is more of a puzzle for 'sacred places' than it is for art. Art seems to have flourished throughout modernity, in its enforced contingency from the spheres of power, spiritual and secular. Art has flowered in its state of marginality, and not just from the evolved orders of 'the true' or 'the good' but even of itself, of 'beauty'. It long ago relinquished any sense of self-certainty, and happily inhabits the realms of relativity, doubt, and the ephemeral. The sacred, however, can never reconcile itself to the contingent, for it cannot escape 'the good', however mysterious or variable truth and beauty.

In contemporary society a sacred place cannot but proclaim the loss of the communal experience of 'the good', a place where life's antagonisms were reconciled and we could locate a sense of a source of our being. And however mysterious or unintelligible to the dominant orders of 'the true' the sacred remains (to science, or modern philosophy) it cannot help but refer us to an order of reality that is trans-human and salvific.

Of course, I am generalizing, for sake of argument. But I think it's fair to say that admitting to the category of 'the sacred' as a cultural category should incline us to acknowledge its difference and its antagonism to our culture and our consumer society. I personally like to think of the sacred as the 'edge' of the social world, or a place of cultural disorientation, where I am exposed to my own inability to comprehend enormous tracts of human experience and meaning; or where I find histories, personal or communal, that are not reducible to the history of society, capital or the state.

The 'universality' of the sacred as a 'place' for contemporary culture will confront us with our fears about 'master narratives' and religious monoculture or dogmatism and intolerance. Yet, there is something about 'the good' that we need to pursue, in the face of other forms of universalised (or globalised and consumerised) culture. It was 'the good' that connected our practical everyday and sense of self, with a ground of being or source of 'rightness'. If there is anything that needs pursuing in today's world it is this. In this context, 'art' becomes less a form of cultural display than a spiritual quest, a philosophical inquiry, and on the part of the artists as much as viewers, an expression of a profound need.

January 2013

Dr Jonathan Koestlι-Cate is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London, and a frequent contributor to debates on art and the church. In 2012 he completed a Ph.D. on the subject of contemporary art in ecclesiastical spaces.

Dr Jonathan Koestlι-Cate writes:

The contemporary relationship of art and sacred places, though rich with possibility, can be fraught with difficulties, no more so than when art enters the church. Common to the history of modern art and the sacred spaces of the Christian tradition has been the anxiety that still governs the minds of many worshippers and visitors regarding the incongruity of modern art within churches, with its perceived predilection for transgression and sacrilege. As one active proponent of art in churches has put it, art's inimical tendency to act as a provocateur can make it 'an unruly and divisive congregation to be included in the life of the church'.

Such concerns are still central to current debates. Nevertheless, the difficulties of cohabitation should not deter, and may even be a positive aspect of a work of art's relationship with a sacred space (indeed, modern art for the church is equally capable of banal conformity, which for many of its supporters is perhaps more of an issue than its more contentious manifestations). For certain of the more contrary, even deliberately controversial, advocates of art in churches it is imperative that a work of art positively and non-passively engage with the ecclesiastical space, even jar or quarrel with it if necessary. By initiating conflict, so the argument goes, the potential for dialogue may be realised.

Critics of so combative a stance would no doubt complain that it does a disservice to art in sacred contexts, reaffirming misperceptions that others have tried hard to overturn. There is a persistent tendency to cast modern art and religion as 'enemies', as if each is necessarily antithetical to the other. Eleanor Heartney, for one, has vigorously disputed this claim. Her work specifically challenges Catholic denunciations of artists like Andrιs Serrano and David Wojnarowicz whose purportedly sacrilegious works are, she claims, actually rooted in a Catholic corporeal sensibility, yet even as recently as 2011 were subject to censorship or attack by reactionary elements.

To be fair, those whose stated aim is to capitalise on, rather than reduce, the perceived divide between art and religion do so not in order to segregate them as two spheres that should be held apart, but in order to recognise their specific competences, contrary to an ecclesiastical tradition in which art is simply part of the whole. Their view is that art is, and should remain, another way of expressing spiritual truths rather than a vehicle for the church to express its own values.

A more justifiable complaint is that all too often the 'two worlds' of church and art are, as Robin Jensen put it, 'mutually wary, sometimes even hostile, often with little understanding or appreciation for the other,' the hope being that ways may be found to assuage their mutual mistrust. Surprisingly perhaps, it is more typically the secular art world rather than the church that maintains the greatest resistance. It persists in seeing not only an unbridgeable gulf between the worlds of contemporary religion and contemporary art, but expresses little or no desire to see that gulf bridged.

Initiatives like Art and Sacred Places, whose broader remit extends beyond solely ecclesiastical contexts, are among those working hard to mitigate this situation, and indeed it has developed rather stronger lines of communication with the wider art world than the church usually achieves. Even so, however silent the art world may be on church-based art more generally, it is certain that a lively and progressive alliance of the church and the arts is thriving, such that many of the concerns over their allegedly reluctant partnership no longer appear to reflect current practices. As the number of projects of recent years makes clear, the question is no longer, why is there a lack of dialogue between art and the church, and what is to be done about it, but rather, what is the nature of the dialogue in which they are presently engaged, and what sort of positive dialogue might we envisage for the future?

Concomitant with such questions has been a greater encouragement towards a different kind of integration of the arts into some of Britain's major churches and cathedrals. Many of the installations and commissions of the past two decades have done much to stimulate a re-appraisal of the church's attitude towards the culture of which it is ineluctably a part, and to which it seeks to address itself, with the potential to develop anew an invigorating and enriching relationship between not only the art and these spaces, but also with those who visit them.

June 2012

Professor John Haldane, Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews, talking about the Bristol City Council commissions at Roman Catholic Faith Schools, traces the history and influence of artwork for schools.

Professor J. J. Haldane writes:

From the early part of the twentieth century it was realised that art might have a special role in general education, both as practice, and as object of study: in each case introducing pupils to the idea of creative expression.

In the 1940s the School Prints movement championed by Herbert Read and Brenda Rawnsley brought original lithographs by Henry Moore, Picasso. Braque and others into British classrooms and since then there have been other schemes to bring art into schools.

The commission by Bristol City Council of two unique artworks for two city Catholic secondary schools (St Bede's and St Bernadette's) marks a new development in the interplay between art and education. The two artists, Michael Pinsky and Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, have each engaged imaginatively with the physical, functional and cultural environments of the schools.

Pinsky's' Intersection' weaves together an image derived from crosses hand-drawn by pupils of St Bernadette's. The particular religious symbolism of the cross is obvious enough, and a mainstay of Christian art and decoration; but it is also a universal mark, an element of drawing, a means of signing, a method of marking place and position. All of these are recalled in the work but beyond that it brings them together into a net(work) a fabric of signatures representing an actual school population and their successors.

Hadzi-Vasileva is also concerned with symbolic meaning but in the form of a stucco and gilt wall and ceiling relief. The ramifying lines suggest patterns both branching above and rooting below ground, and the design manages to be both figurative and abstract, and on both accounts a representation of growth and development, referring externally to the landscape beyond and internally to the progress of pupils through the school and into the fertile ground of knowledge.

Art has a special role in introducing and keeping fresh the alchemy by which matter is transformed into objects and places of wonder and beauty. The City Council, the schools, the artists, and Art and Sacred Places which was involved in the commissions, all deserve thanks and congratulations on playing their part in providing the opportunity for that alchemy to be practised.

November 2011


The Revd Keith Elford, the founder member and former director of Art and Sacred Places, takes up the theme of Bishop John's July commentary. Keith is now Honorary Vice-President of Art and Sacred Places.

The Revd Keith Elford writes:

Bishop John speaks of the role that art can play in adding the voice of contemporary feeling and concern to the complex story of faith and culture embodied in the church building. I would like to consider another reason why artists have a great deal to offer the church and its community.

For centuries the church was at the centre of public life. It defined it and provided both public and private meaning. In these days the church is no longer at the centre of our culture and no longer a focus of unity. (There will be many, including Christian believers, who do not regret this change reflecting a conviction, sometimes borne out in history, that political power does not bring out the best in religion.) Instead, even though the Church of England remains established and its leaders are still public figures, the experience of being in the church is often that of being part of a rather embattled minority.

The story modern believers live with is one of decline. The Church is adept at ignoring this much of the time but the facts remain: fewer people believe or even understand what the church believes than in the past; fewer people attend church and the Church has far less influence on what happens in society. In this atmosphere church people have tended to do what embattled people often do: they have retreated into safer places, that is, into the congenial world of the Church. They focus on internal concerns and keep their heads down.

Churches are now, typically, intellectually and culturally conservative. And if the thought that they might be anything else surprises you then it shows how far we have come from the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, from the subversive impact of the early Church and even from the reforms of the sixteenth century which gave rise to the creation of the Church of England and spawned a number of other protestant churches. The Church changed the world.

And now, at just the moment when the Church most needs to be engaging with the meaning of the world around it, thinking new thoughts and addressing the vital question "what does it mean to be a Christian in a world like this?" it is least willing to respond. Asking and answering this question intelligently is the only possible foundation for a renewal of the Church.

I am not suggesting that a conversation between art and faith is 'the answer', but it can help. It is one way in which the Church can help itself to think differently, to engage. When a contemporary artist creates a work of art in response to a Christian building, or simply shows a work in that environment, the artist brings modern convictions, ideas, perceptions and questions into the Church. The physical proximity of the work and the sacred space sets up a dialogue between the traditional and modern worlds. It provides an opportunity for the Church to engage with a voice from outside and is a real opportunity to learn and grow.

Of course this is a two way street. Each acts as a challenge and stimulus to the other. The dialogue between ancient and modern offers "insiders" and "outsiders", believers of all stripes, agnostics and atheists even, the opportunity to arrive at a deeper and richer understanding of things that are important to us all. We might all learn something.
October 2011


We are delighted that our first contribution is from the Rt Revd John Gladwin, under whose auspices Art and Sacred Places was founded:

The Rt Revd John Gladwin writes:

Buildings speak. They tell us not only what they exist to achieve but also something about the vision and beliefs of those who created them and about the prevailing culture in which they are set. Churches are no exception to this truth.

When a work of contemporary art is placed in a church building it adds a further sentence to the story of the building. Just as the building is not simply a functional reality but a statement of truth and of culture so a work of art placed in an established place of worship is not primarily about adding to the beauty but entering the meaning of the place.

Churches are about God and about our human understanding of the divine. They are rooted in the Christian tradition and history. So entering them we encounter many worlds of meaning within these bounds. Those worlds may have been shaped by the communities' experience of plague or of triumph in war. The mystery of the unseen being of God is transformed into images in human life as we try and make sense of what is happening.

When I was Provost of Sheffield we had two exhibitions in the Cathedral organised by the Contemporary Arts Group in the city. The second was more successful and challenging than the first because the community of artists had come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the church. That was not easy because Sheffield Cathedral is an architectural nightmare! 20th century efforts at turning the old parish church into a massive new and modern Cathedral thankfully ground to a halt with the outbreak of the Second World War. So only a part of the 20th century vision was embodied into the building.

Yet, for all its complexity the church spoke profoundly of crucial aspects of the spiritual history and journey of the people of Sheffield. So even a temporary exhibition needed to understand all of that.

This is what makes the work of Art and Sacred Places important. The movement takes its time to try and interpret what a church or Cathedral is all about and then bring into it something new from the world we are in to add that crucial contemporary sentence to the meaning of the place.

This is important because we must do what we can to bring the life and dilemmas of the 21st century world of spiritual life and faith to bear on our churches. Generations to come will then have the opportunity to know something of what our life was all about.

July 2011

Art and Sacred Places - MMXVI-MMXVII