Art, Poetry and Mission

Silvia Dimitrova, 46, is a Bulgarian Orthodox icon and contemporary painter. She is married to Simon Potter, an Anglican teacher of design and technology at Downside, a Roman Catholic monastery and boarding school in Somerset. Ecumenical creativity.

She studied at the School of Applied Art at Troyan, from the age of 13, and then under the icon painter, Georgi Tchouchev, in Sofia, and uses the traditional technique of egg tempura on wood.

Alison, my wife, and I have been good friends with Silvia and Simon for over 15 years. I first saw her contemporary work at the London Art Fair in 2001 in Islington and the next year we exhibited her paintings in the crypt of St Mary’s Church, Islington, where I was the vicar.

Last week, over dinner at their home in Bath, the four of us discussed the commissioning of a new painting of ‘Miriam’, the sister of Moses, who saved him in the bulrushes as a baby, and sang her song after the crossing of the Red Sea. This will be the fifth in our series of seven, over 20 years, on ‘Women in the Bible’.

She may include hints of white horses on the crest of the returning waves of the Red Sea, engulfing the pursuing Egyptian cavalry. This will reflect the Catholic Tolkein’s description of Frodo, with Arwen, escaping from the Black Riders at the Ford of Rivendell, in The Lord of the Rings, which is portrayed graphically in the film version.

I propose the subjects and outline the background theology. We all ponder the topic with suggestions. Silvia studies and prays over the biblical texts and later produces a sketch, which is further discussed. Then we do not see the painting, framed by Simon, until it is unveiled at a party in our house.

The process continues with me composing a poem, which expounds the biblical text and the painting. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘poem’ reads: ‘Greek poema, early variant of poiema, thing made or created, work, fiction, poetical work.’ Poiema is the word St Paul used in Ephesians 2:10 which is usually translated, ‘For we are what he has made us’, but in the Revised English Bible is rendered in a more nuanced way, ‘For we are God’s handiwork’.

For the inaugural lecture of the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion project, which was initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Durham University and the Church Mission Society, I considered ‘Sarah the Mother of Mission’. I expounded Genesis chapter 18 and Silvia’s painting of Sarah with Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre. Three mysterious visitors announced that Sarah would have a baby in her old age. Understandably, Sarah laughed. Later, Isaac was born. The poem was written in February and concludes: ‘For incoherent jest/Coinherence sows/From mature oaks/An acorn grows.

Art and mission interweave. People can be inspired by art to commit themselves to God and his mission in the world. In 1205, St Francis was praying in front of the cross on the rood screen of San Damiano, just outside Assisi, when he received God’s commission to rebuild his Church. The Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione, served as China’s court artist from 1715 to 1766. For centuries around the world, Cathedrals have declared the glory of God and his love for humankind through architecture, art, music and liturgy. Visitors to Anglican Cathedrals in England have risen in numbers in recent years.

In April this year Mouneer Anis, the Anglican Bishop in Egypt, who is an artist, gave a paper in our Mission Theology conference in Cairo. He described how the Arkan Cultural Centre at St Mark’s Pro-Cathedral in Alexandria is helping interfaith relationships: ‘Muslims and Christians come together with art as their common ground, to study acting, graphics, voice, photography, painting, writing, calligraphy, peacemaking, short films, documentaries, as well as interview skills, resume courses, democracy and human rights.’

As I travel around the world in this new post of Mission Theologian, I am learning more about art and mission and gather works for the various galleries of our website. Two of them include Benson Ndaka’s mahogany door carvings of Kenyan theology in the library of St Andrew’s College, Kabare and Silvia Dimitrova’s paintings of ‘Women in the Bible’.

I have found that, across many cultures, works of art can entice and enthral, intrigue and inspire people about the mission of God.

Originally published in The Times on Saturday 3rd September 2016 and reproduced with the paper's kind permission.  This article also was published on Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion.  We are grateful for permission to reproduce it here on Fulcrum.

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