The New Religion by Conor Walton reviewed by Joseph Bravo
Conor Walton says that the inspiration for this artwork was his love of Renaissance painting and his affinity for the works of Giovanni Bellini in particular. Walton appreciated the solemn tranquility and understated grandeur of Bellinni's great altarpieces. Yet he didn't feel that he good in good faith create an altarpiece in the dogma of Roman Catholicism. He felt that to do such a thing would be inauthentic and exploitative. Instead, Walton appropriates the sacra conversazione to incorporate a more scientific epistemology and still invite a metaphysical subtext to be derived from the narrative.
The painting is quite plausibly a respectable homage to the religious aesthetic tradition and even to a spirituality of a more secular sort. The artist systematically replaced the Christian iconographic components with those of the biological sciences. Walton's saints' are the founders of modern biology: Charles Darwin, the founder of modern evolutionary theory, Gregor Mendel, whose experiments with peas laid the foundations of genetics, and James Lovelock, the father of earth-systems science or 'Gaia' theory.
The imagery and narrative are undeniably provocative but are not intended as an assault so much as a negotiation. The apotheosis of Darwin almost begs credulity and its irony is not lost on the artist. But the invocation of Darwin is done with a sincerity rather than glib humor. Darwin had reconnected man and Nature thus reintegrating humanity into an ecological context. This was perceived as an affront to the metaphysics of humanity but could also be viewed as an extension of the metaphysical franchise to all of existence. The blue drapery indicating the sanctity of the chimpanzee Madonna is rendered with a reverence that befits the significance of shared ancestry. It is to invert the Scopes Trial meme and embrace its implications. One cannot help but speculate if the presence of the giraffe is an oblique reference to Darwin's evolutionary predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lamarck?
The inclusion of Gregor Mendel is an olive branch to the more traditionally faithful and a reminder that science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Mendelian genetics would enable a more systematic approach to fecundity that would have far reaching implications. A scientific epistemology has an appropriate domain even within the context of spirituality.
James Lovelock holds the Venus of Willendorf and this too is a dove of sorts as Lovelock's Gaia Theory would provide a more expansive paradigm for conceiving of the Earth as a living fecund entity and this too would have metaphysical implications. That Lovelock is shown proffering the Venus to a Neanderthal philosopher is a tongue in cheek reference to personifications of fertility. The Neanderthal looks back as if in discourse with Lovelock in an effort to explain his own fate.
Walton's saints are seekers of greater truths but his martyrs are the victims of ecocide and extinction. The dodo is a not so subtle reference to ecological oblivion. The rhino bleeds from the mortal wound it has suffered, ironically because of a superstitious belief that its horn will provide human vitality. The highland gorilla hangs its head as if in mourning with awareness that its species teeters on the precipice. This ongoing mass extinction is catastrophic on a cosmological scale. The angels are the artist's own children whose beautiful music may one day be silenced as a result of a lack of sustainability. For the artist, the gravity of the situation is dire and the stakes are evidently high in terms of their ecological, ethical and metaphysical consequences.
While the painting reflects a pathos befitting tragedy, like all devotionals, it provides a blessing of hope. The chimpanzee Madonna and her progeny imply an overcoming optimism that life itself will prevail.
Yet make no mistake about it, despite the altarpiece's sincerity indeed perhaps because of it, Conor Walton is understandably aggrieved. He does not subscribe to either the notion of a man made in God's image or a God made in man's and he has seen the ecocide that both ideas have hubristically wrought. It is not without some legitimate provocation that the artist admits that he wanted to "paint a picture in which our understanding of the deepest mysteries is frankly mocked."
But at the end of the day, Walton says his primary objective was to paint an homage to Bellini. It may be an open question as to whether he has honored Bellini's legacy or defiled it? The artist's professed intentions were certainly the former. As Walton points out, "The Renaissance was in fact a period of great religious turmoil, widespread scepticism, and a desire for religious renewal that expressed itself in the revival of old cults and openness to strange new ideas." The artist's sense is that his own worldview and Bellini's were "remarkably congruent." According to Walton, "Intellectually, Bellini may still have been a Christian, but the religion of his eyes was Naturalism, and this (more than any Christian theological concept) is to my mind what his pictures embody most deeply."
The truly provocative power of Conor Walton's painting, The New Religion, may lay in the fact that the artist so successfully captured the spirit of Bellini's Renaissance Naturalism yet authentically conveyed it in the zeitgeist of a more ecologically apocalyptic age.