This week in theology and art

I had the wonderful opportunity last week of touring Father Daniel Donovan’s art collection at St. Michael’s. Father Donovan has spent the last 20 years putting together an incredible selection of contemporary Canadian art, most of it in some way dealing with “spiritual themes” (themes, as he says, often more visible to him than to the artists themselves). Some of the art explicitly engages the Christian/Catholic tradition, from within and without; some comes from a much different vantage point. I went in expecting to see mostly Lawren Harris-style landscapes, which is what I usually think of when it comes to a distinctly Canadian spirituality in painting, but I was way off the mark. The works range considerably in medium and content, from sculpture to photography to mixed media, and go from the middle of the 20th century all the way up until this past week!

I must say that Father Donovan himself is something of an inspiration. He keeps up to date with the Toronto gallery scene (dare I say it?) religiously, going to something like five galleries a week. I’m lucky if I get to one every few months… usually I just tour the city vicariously through Terence Dick’s blog at Akimbo ( Andrea and I are definitely hoping to see some more shows in the near future, though, especially with the Tim Burton show opening up at the Bell Lightbox.

A particular highlight of the collection for me was the photo-based work of Barbara Steinman, which uses digital technology to alter images, such as adding a flood of flowing, cleansing water to the floors of a prison camp, or translucent icicles beneath stark modern architecture to create a mysterious, poetic new space. It reminded me of the possibilities of juxtaposition and fading in photography (crossfading, superimposition)… something I tried to explore in my most recent video project and hope to revisit. Also fascinating were a number of pieces by Jewish artists which appropriated Christian iconography (the crucifixion, the pieta, even the hellish darkness of Holy Saturday) as a way of treating the supreme human suffering of the Holocaust. It reminded me of Jay Rosenblatt’s found-footage film “King of the Jews,” which I found extremely moving when I saw it a few years ago and of which one day I hope I can arrange a screening. (

All in all, the collection is very strong and highlighted once again that the art that is most relevant to Christian theology in this day and age is not necessarily art by Christians for Christians; there’s a lot of great, “spiritual” art in the contemporary scene, we just need eyes and ears to perceive it.


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