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Level 7

7AATC413 Art as a Theological Medium

Credit value: 20
Module tutor: Professor Ben Quash
Assessment: one 5,000-word essay (100%)
Teaching pattern: one two-hour class per week (10 weeks)
Availability: view module availability for current/next academic year
Pre-requisites: none 

NB There are limited places available on this module due to its taking place in part at the National Gallery. MA Christianity & The Arts students are guaranteed a place; however, students on other programmes interested in taking this module should also submit an alternative choice on your module registration form

This module will look at how art has acted as a means of expressing and developing religious ideas; a way to make theological points that has its own status alongside the academic treatise, the sermon, or the ecclesiastical pronouncement. It will investigate how pictures have both transmitted and innovated on religious tradition, and will ask whether there are distinctive things that the visual arts can achieve which other modes of theological communication cannot manage so easily (if at all).

This is one of two modules in the MA in Christianity and the Arts that relate principally to paintings in the National Gallery collection. The module is 20 taught hours, in 10 sessions during the Lent Term 2011, and will normally (though not always) be taught in the Gallery - the first hour or so on the Gallery floor, and the second hour in a seminar room.

The module has a ‘special topic’ for focussed study within the broader parameters of the module’s theme. 

Preliminary reading

  • Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991.
  • O’Kane, M., Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter  (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007)
  • Patricia Lee Rubin, Images and identity in fifteenth-century Florence.New Haven : Yale University Press, 2007. Chapter 6: Vision and Belief pp. 346-357.
  • Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. London: Continuum, 2006.

Further information

Module aims

This module will teach students to understand how art has acted as a means of expressing and developing religious ideas; a way to make theological points that has its own status alongside the academic treatise, the sermon, or the ecclesiastical pronouncement. It will investigate how pictures have both transmitted and innovated on religious tradition, and will ask whether there are distinctive things that the visual arts can achieve which other modes of theological communication cannot manage so easily (if at all).

The module will look initially at a range of examples of how theology is done in a visual medium – looking for example at how ideas about the doctrine of the incarnation are explored in Piero della Francesca’s Nativity and Baptism of Christ, or Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ Nativity, or Fra Filippo Lippi’s The Annunciation; at how particular understandings of soteriology might be at work in paintings like Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked; at the theology of Old and New Covenants in Jan Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings; and at the theological suggestiveness of Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. It might then adopt a more particular focus on some one case study or theme, which through the comparison of pictures might look at the way that changing theological emphases are registered and transmitted by artists over time. For example, different theological points are made about sin, repentance and holiness in successive images of Mary Magdalene.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, the students will be able to demonstrate intellectual, transferable and practicable skills appropriate to a Level 7 module and in particular will be able to demonstrate:

Generic skills

  • Ability to engage sensitively and critically with primary sources (works of art as well as written theology/ aesthetic theory/art criticism);
  • Ability to access and analyse relevant secondary literature;
  • Ability to summarise and present arguments in discussion and on paper;
  • Ability to research, plan and present essays to specified deadlines.

Course specific skills

  • Critical understanding of the varying historical attitudes towards visual art in the Christian era, and the key influences that fed those attitudes;
  • Critical understanding of the varying theories of art developed by theologians and (especially in the modern period) their relationship to non-theological theories of art;
  • Knowledge of the uses made of the arts by Western churches.
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