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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Reflections on Water Public Lecture - Water in Religious Art and Architecture

10th February 2010, 17:30 to 18:30, Room 202, Calman Learning Centre, Science Site, Professor David Brown (Theology, St Andrews University)

This is the eighth lecture in the 'Reflections on Water' public lecture series.

It is all too easy to suppose a single meaning for water in religious symbolism, whereas much of its power derives from it being multivalent, in the play of one meaning over against another. The lecture illustrates how this is so, not only in respect of Christianity but also with some other religions and indeed spirituality more generally.

So in Christianity water sometimes suggests cleansing (washing away sin), sometimes renewal (‘I am the water of life’), sometimes deliverance (the crossing of the Red Sea) and sometimes even destruction (the Flood). So even in the New Testament the baptismal theology of John is significantly different from Paul, and these differences of emphases recur not only in the history of baptismal liturgy but also find reflection in how fonts are constructed and the imagery associated with them and baptisteries (where special buildings are used). One especially intriguing focus of such tensions is in artistic representations of Christ’s baptism, with sometimes very complex imagery being employed as in Piero della Francesca famous painting of the Baptism of Christ.

Ritual washing continues to be an integral part of Islam and Orthodox Judaism, but that is by no means the only use to which water symbolism is put. There are several key passages in the Qur’an that describe the rivers of Paradise, and these were later reflected in the Paradise gardens of Iran and Spain. Rivers are equally an integral part of visions of restoration in the prophet Ezekiel and in the Book of Revelation. Far from simple, much of the imagery turns out to be strange and paradoxical.

Contemporary artists continue to employ water in commissions for the Church. Perhaps the two best known in recent years are Bill Viola’s video for Durham Cathedral and Antony Gormley’s for the flooded crypt at Winchester. Equally here it is creative tensions that help to give water its power as a spiritual symbol.

This series of public lectures will bring together eminent scientists, historians, theologians and philosophers, stimulating speakers involved in current research, to shed new light on the nature and cultural significance of a very familiar substance.

The level of the talks will be aimed at a general audience to encourage everyone from students and the interested general public to attend.


Image credit: 'History of the Water Module', R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).

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