Dr Chloë Reddaway on the VCS (Visual Commentary on Scripture)

The VCS: New Conversations between Art and Scripture

In the paper I gave for the Lived Religion study day in December 2020, I introduced a project based at King’s College London, called the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), and spoke briefly about how its ‘digital reality’ is engaging with people’s lives.

The VCS, is a free, open access online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible in dialogue with works of art. It helps its users to (re)discover the Bible in new ways through the illuminating interaction of artworks, scriptural texts, and commissioned commentaries.  It brings together the disciplines of theology, art history, and biblical scholarship, and its authors are theologians, biblical scholars, art historians, art critics, artists, and curators.

The VCS is composed of virtual exhibitions in which a biblical passage is accompanied by three artworks, with a brief commentary on each one and a longer commentary drawing them together. The exhibition which I used as an example for the symposium audience was Philosophy, Pleasure, and Folly.  The biblical text here is Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26 and the artworks are an early 18th century painting of citrus fruit by the Italian painter, Bartolomeo Bimbi, Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, and one of Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster prints, of a crashed car.

While nothing replaces the physical experience of standing directly in front of an artwork, the digital experience can be valuable in other ways. It overcomes many barriers to access, and offers a high resolution, zoomable view of artworks from across the globe, enabling observations which might easily be missed in the physical world.

Over the past decade, digital religion has expanded in line with the increasing use of technology throughout our lives, but in 2020 we found ourselves in a pandemic. In a time of Zoom worship and digital religion, the VCS virtual exhibitions facilitate new possibilities of seeing and reading, bringing the biblical text and the selected works of art alive in new and vivid ways.

The VCS is an academic project, not a mission, and our users are varied, but for some, the VCS has become part of their religious life.  Increasingly, churches are looking for new ways of enlivening their online engagement, and individuals are looking for resources which lift their spirits and offer them a new form of spiritual nourishment.

Among the many pressures of the pandemic, its effects on digital religion and people’s engagement with online resources is a subject worthy of its own study. It certainly seems to us, at the VCS, that this online gallery, library, and source of ideas and inspiration, could not have been better timed.  As physical religion has been constrained, digital religion and its resources, have been booming, and the digital space for the interaction of art and theology has burgeoned.

Dr Chloë Reddaway
Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College London
https://thevcs.org/


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