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Sacred art must look beyond surface to underlying reality

By Susan Gately - 13 October, 2013

'Road to Emmaus' by John Dunne

‘Road to Emmaus’ by John Dunne

True art can help people face the reality of life, their suffering and even their addictions, according to a well known Irish sacred artist. 

“They might not be able to change those things, but at least they can recognise them and face them,” John Dunne, a sacred artist, who will be a key note speaker at a conference next weekend in Dublin, said.

According to Dunne, the Renaissance emphasis on the surface of things, is very present in Christian art today.

“We have inherited styles of art from the Renaissance. During that period, the emphasis changed from the inward looking to the surface,” he told CatholicIreland.net

Paintings like Vermeer’s ‘Martha and Mary’ or Titian’s ‘Salome’ show the “blossoming” of the visual world, he commented, “but something was lost in the process”.

Vermeer's 'Christ in the house of Martha and Mary'

Vermeer’s ‘Christ in the house of Martha and Mary’

“In Renaissance art, there is an emphasis on perspective and the idealising of the figures. In Vermeer’s ‘Christ in the house of Martha and Mary’ the three figures, Martha, Mary and Christ are all like beautiful models – a typical Renaissance naturalistic work”.

This “naturalistic work” is in contrast to pre Renaissance art which was more “expressionistic” according to Mr Dunne.

In Giotto’s ‘Lamentation’, for example, there are no dimensions or perspective. “Everything is moving towards Christ”.

“What is happening now is that people go for ‘naturalism’ – art they can see and understand which focuses on the surface of things. But the pity is that when you just focus on showing something as it is, you forget that there is a reality underneath that image,” he said.

Mr Dunne, a member of the Nazareth Commmunity, and a renowned Irish painter, described this as “the artist’s dilemma”.

Giotto's 'Lamentation over Jesus'

Giotto’s ‘Lamentation over Jesus’

“We have to find a style that expresses the underlying reality, the ultimate concern of painting in life. If we don’t realise that, we lose our grip on reality.”

Mr Dunne will be speaking in greater depth on ‘The Artist’s Dilemma’ at a conference on ‘Sacred Art: A Spiritual Affair?’ next Saturday 19 October 2013 at Christchurch Cathedral Dublin in the music room.

Registration on the day is from 8:45-9:15 followed by the conference from 9:30am to 1pm.

Other conference speakers include Graham Howes, Fellow Emeritus, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge and Trustee of ACE (on ‘Sacred Art – a secular affair?’); Jim Malone, Professor (Emeritus) of Medical Physics and former Dean of Medical School/Faculty of Health Sciences at Trinity College, Dublin (on ‘Secular Art – a spiritual affair?’); and Pamela Hardesty, artist and lecturer at Crawford College of Art and Design (on ‘Making Holy’).

A display of Ms Hardesty’s art will be on exhibition at the conference.

Heart of Ireland  by Pamela Hardesty

Heart of Ireland by Pamela Hardesty

John Dunne, who is Chairperson of Arts and Spiritualty Ireland, organisers of the event, told CatholicIreland.net that many of those expected at the conference will be artists and academics from all fields of art, but he appealed to non artists to attend to the conference.

“When people in parishes look at the art in their churches, much of what they see is banal.”

“I’d like them to look at something new in sacred art, and perhaps they can use their knowledge then to ask clergy and others to provide art that speaks to people today, rather than highly focussed, glossy covers.”

Arts & Spirituality Ireland (formerly Arts & Christianity Ireland) is an association that seeks to promote the study, development and appreciation of the visual and other arts as they relate to the Christian and other established spiritual/religious traditions in Ireland.


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