Art, faith, and seeing with new eyes

Yesterday I went to the opening of an exhibition by the artist and ordained URC minister, Elizabeth Gray-King. It’s part of the Believe in Shipley festival of Christian faith, on now until 2nd October 2016 – if you’d like to see Elizabeth’s work, it’s on display at Saltaire Methodist Church daily, from 2pm to 4pm, during this period.

The exhibition is called ‘Neighbour and self’. Through 18 pieces, Elizabeth Gray-King takes the viewer on a profound meditative journey of how God calls us to love our neighbour, and ourself, both, and equally.

This is the picture that caught my attention most strongly (which is not the same as being my favourite). It’s called ‘Holy Saturday‘:

(you can see this and more of Elizabeth’s work on her website.)

This picture disturbed me greatly. For a long time, I’ve thought of Holy Saturday as a very special day – that liturgically empty day, when God is dead. The day suspended between the brutal agony of Good Friday, and the incomparable, incomprehensible, overwhelming joy of Easter Day, when the world is changed utterly and forever. The pivot point, between then, and now. A blank day, a day of nothingness. If someone had asked me what it looked like, I wouldn’t have had an answer. In fact, I would have said that it couldn’t be depicted, that any attempt to do so would be futile. Best leave it alone, void and mysterious, to be experienced annually  – at least, as far as possible, amidst the insistent, unavoidable mundanity involved in living in the real and messy world.

So Elizabeth’s picture felt as if it was trampling on some turf that I hadn’t even realized was hallowed; forcing itself into a private space that I had hedged round and considered holy and inviolate without even realizing it. I hadn’t wanted a picture of Holy Saturday. And here, all uninvited, I was being given one.

You can’t un-see things once seen. And so, as I wrestled with my totally unexpected feelings of loss and sorrow at feeling a private sanctuary invaded, I forced myself to engage with the picture. As I looked more closely, I realized that I couldn’t tell for sure whether the figure was female or male (the leg looks more female than male, but is the face that of a boy or a girl? is it the edge of a woman’s breast, or a man’s chest muscle?). It is a sorrowful and confined figure – but stirring in its confinement. A hand is clenched in front of a downcast face. The other arm is moving, lifting, perhaps about to point, away from darkness and into light. Rainbow colours are seeping in. The very fabric of the picture is anchored firmly in one corner, but bursting the bonds of its frame elsewhere. The picture quivers with potential, charged with that sense of being on the cusp of great change.

And I was changed. I lost my possessive grip on my sense of what Holy Saturday ‘ought’ to be about. I lost my indignation at what I had at first thought to be an attempt to capture visually a mystery that I cannot pierce. I realized that this was a picture, not (or not just) about the Holy Saturday that we must go through each liturgical year, in order to reach resurrection joy – the Holy Saturday that in my imagination I had privileged and idealized. It is about the Holy Saturdays that each one of us goes through, as we become the people we are called to be. The process involves pain and struggle. Parts of us may need to die, in order for us to be reborn into the world as new creations. Some people go through that process multiple times, each time needing to reach that dark, dead, quiet place before rebirth is possible. For Christians, it is a holy process. In the tomb, God was dead – but death could not hold him. For Christians, in our Holy Saturdays, however we may feel, we are not abandoned. There is no place we can go where God is not.

This is what art does. It can console and comfort, but it can also unsettle and disturb. It challenges, and dispels complacency. At its best, it shows us something about the world, and ourselves, whilst pointing beyond both. It It gives us a new way of seeing. In that respect, it is rather like faith itself.

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