Variations in Christian Art. Mennonite, Mormon, Quaker and Swedenborgian – A review

Former CTE General Secretary Rev Dr Paul Goodliff reviews a new book on the art of four different Christian traditions. The section on Quaker art is authored by CTE's Chair, Rowena Loverance.

Four substantial and illuminating chapters on the art of four different religious movements comprise this book, an exploration of the varieties of pictorial and sculptural art from both trinitarian and unorthodox movements. The Quakers, are a member of Churches Together in England (CTE), and the Mennonites, while not a CTE member, are most closely associated with the Baptists, which are. Both have their roots in the seventeenth-century radical Reformation and Dissenting traditions. The Mormons and Swedenborgians, meanwhile, are sufficiently adrift from orthodox trinitarian Christian belief to be viewed by most within the traditional churches as unorthodox, and lacking in commitment to the central tenets of the faith. However, such questions are secondary when it comes to the art these movements have produced, and show how varied are the artistic responses to religious movements often situated on the margins.

The reason for reviewing this book for CTE is simple: the contributor for the chapter on the Quakers is the current Chair of Trustees of CTE, Rowena Loverance, and in pursuit of full disclosure, she was a most supportive and wise line-manager during my period as General Secretary of CTE. I consider her a friend, and so I am not as objective a reviewer of her chapter as I might be for the other three. Nevertheless, her chapter is both comprehensive, and erudite, and a welcome survey of the art of a movement that has over its 400 year history, had an ambiguous relationship with the visual arts (as, indeed, with music). The radical spirituality of its founding father, George Fox, meant that he inveighed against the arts in general. It takes some strength of purpose, then, to buck that trend and produce paintings and sculptures. And this perhaps explains why the art that was produced has a strength lacking, perhaps, in that of the more vernacular Swedenborgian and Mormon products.

“Bring us to the heart of the Quaker faith”

From the rather sentimental The Presence in the Midst by J. Doyle Penrose of 1916 to the bass-relief work of Sylvia Shaw Judson (such as her stations of the cross of 1961), via the American naive art of Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom series of the early 19th century, the range of art produced by Quakers and those associated with the movement is represented. Certain themes repeat, such as the demands for peace and the pacifist cause, (Joseph Southall combined this cause with that for social justice). Peter Peri’s post-war art reflects the Quaker conviction about the presence of God in every person, and his set of figures in the undated sculpture Quaker Meeting (probably 1960s) brings Penrose’s depiction of a seventeenth-century Buckinghamshire Meeting into the modern world.

I do not think it merely personal bias to observe that Loverance’s chapter was closest to my own interests, and is superbly written in such a way as to bring us the heart of Quaker faith, even through mediums that it has often eschewed. She has done us a great service in bringing so much to light.

Mennonite art begins with printing plates and the printed book. Rachel Epp Buller traces the early pictures, often polemical celebrations of its martyrs (such as the celebrated Dirk Willems, depicted by Jan Luyken) through the folk art traditions of Mennonites in both Germany and the United States. Of particular interest is the art of quilt-making, which continues to this day. The section on modern art by Mennonites illustrates the link between this craft and the work of Warren Rohrer, whose Barley (1972) resembles a simple quilt. Rohrer and Robert Reiger both embrace elements of abstraction in their art, rooted in their Mennonite communities. Other contemporary artists are discussed, and a section of art in Mennonite churches demonstrates how, predictably, such contexts make elements of the faith more explicit.

“A review of religious art beyond the mainstream”

Heather Belnap contributes the chapter on Mormon/Latter-day Saint art, which seems to me to be more consistently indebted to the folk art tradition (C.C.A. Christensen)  and the grandeur of the nineteenth-century American landscape tradition (Edwin Evans). While twentieth-century Mormon sculpture seems closer to the realist art that inter-war Fascism dictated was ‘people’s art’ than the modernist art of its contemporaries. More recently, Trevor Southey’s paintings, such as Brother’s Keeper (1969), while retaining a determined realism, seem less dominant.

Finally, the editor of the volume, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, writes on Swedenborg and five artists, all from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries: William Blake, George Inness, John Flaxman, Hiram Powers and William Page. This is art influenced by an ideology, rather than practiced by formal adherents (Flaxman never left the Church of England) and is as varied as Quaker art. George Inness’ Lake Nemi (1872) is in the grand American landscape genre, while the American artist Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave is firmly in the Neo-classical style.

Much of the material in this book was entirely unfamiliar, and we are indebted to this review of religious art beyond the mainstream. Fully noted, referenced and with full bibliographies, this is scholarly and expensive. I might have preferred rather more illustrations and representations of the artists’ work, but what is there is well presented. I commend it to all interested in religious art from the margins of the radical and Dissenting traditions, and the new religious movements of an earlier generation.

Variations in Christian Art Mennonite, Mormon, Quaker, and Swedenborgian. Edited by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2024 (also available as an e-book).

Rev Dr Paul Goodliff was General Secretary of Churches Together in England from 2018 to 2023. He is a Baptist minister and is currently Visiting Tutor in Christian Doctrine and Tutor in Pastoral Supervision, at Spurgeon’s College.