Monday 24 February 2014

Foundations of art

In the series of Oxford "conversations" in which we are engaged – the latest being described as "Humanising Work" in the post below, we plan to include one of the Foundations of Christian and Islamic Art. We will get a foretaste already in the session on Saturday, as we discuss architecture and the arts and crafts. The Foundations of Islamic Arts – indeed more than the foundations – are described brilliantly here. The article begins:
"The art of Islam is essentially a contemplative art, which aims to express above all, an encounter with the Divine Presence. The origin of Islamic art has often tried to be explained through tracing it back to some precedent in Byzantine, Sassanid, Coptic or other art, yet what is lost sight of, is the intrinsic and original unity of Islamic art and thus the 'seal' that Islam conferred on all borrowed elements."
The emphasis is on the geometrical, understandably enough, given the restrictions on naturalistic imagery. The emphasis in Christianity, at least after the defeat of the Iconoclasts in the 8th century, was almost the exact opposite. The Incarnation of Christ, and the images of Jesus clasped in the arms of his Mother (an icon that even Muhammad pbuh refrained from destroying when when he purged the Ka'bah), overcame all resistance to the idea of naturalism, even though such images were both natural and symbolic to the highest degree. The two key images that determined the foundations of Christian art were that of Christ on the Cross, and that of the Madonna and Child, the child's face pressed lovingly against that of his Mother.

From these (or from the tension between these) exploded the treasures of Christian civilization: the shapes of churches, the glories of stained glass, and gradually the splendors of naturalism, as the golden backgrounds gave way to atmospheric landscapes, and the formalized poses of the icons were transmuted into detailed portraits of people known to the painter and his patrons. The accurate naturalism of the earlier Fayum portraits was retrieved and rescued for the tradition of Christian painting, even if it led through the Renaissance to the Baroque and (in its decline) to a period of degeneracy and sentimentality from which we are still trying to escape.

Tuesday 11 February 2014


The next in our series of colloquia in which Christian and Islamic thinkers engage in a conversation about notions of society, the secular, and the human vocation takes place on Saturday afternoon 1st March at St Benet's Hall, Oxford (free admission).

Saturday 1st March 2014 2:00 – 5:00 pm
2:00 – Crafts: Karim Lahham (Tabah Foundation)
2:30 – Architecture: Warwick Pethers (Gothic Design Practice)
3:00 – Teaching: Roy Peachey (Woldingham School and Cedars School, Croydon)
    and Dr Talal al-Azem (Oriental Institute and Pembroke College) 
4:00 – Discussion: chaired by Stratford Caldecott and Karim Lahham

For further information look at this page or contact us at 

Sunday 9 February 2014

Education and Evangelization

The call for a New Evangelization – the “urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularized environment” (Benedict XVI) – has huge implications for Catholics in education, both at home and at school. Both are places of evangelization. “The mission of the Church is to evangelize,” according to the Congregation for Catholic Education, “for the interior transformation and the renewal of humanity. For young people, the school is one of the ways for this evangelization to take place.” The home is the first and most important school we attend, and parents our primary educators, no matter where we go later.

The Catholic understanding of evangelization places a priority on personal conversion and “interior transformation” – in that sense it is radically distinct from proselytism, which aims at exterior measures and effects (bottoms on seats, faces in pews, money in the collection). This is something we need to get right, as Pope Francis keeps insisting. If we do, there is just a chance that fewer of our children will lapse as they grow older, and more will find themselves able to speak of their faith with confidence to the world around them.

Evangelization does not stop with religious instruction or liturgy but even affects what is taught and the way it is taught. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, faith changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. Once that primary lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects any longer. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so. (Chesterton once said, “Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.”) Faith alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth (what used to be called the saving of our souls).

(This post is based on a longer article from Columbia magazine, now available.)