Lynn Johnston and Kaytie Holdstock reflect on the pilot of their primary school project, which connects Religious Education with Art. 

We are primary school teachers by trade, and now Art and RE subject specialists within the School of Education Primary Team. From our years in the primary classroom, we are both convinced that something very powerful can happen when Art and Religious Education come together, and we are passionate about supporting our trainee teachers in developing the knowledge, skills and competences they need to embrace RE-through-Art.

Cave Art

Art and faith have been richly interconnected throughout human history, for many, complex reasons. Leroi-Gourhan suggests the spectacular Palaeolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, dated c.15,000-13,000 BCE were religious in nature and used for initiation ceremonies:

The mandalas used in Tibetan Buddhism are believed by followers to transmit positive energies and effect purification.

Within the Christian tradition, there is a long history of using paintings to share and reflect on Bible and saints’ stories – think of the paintings in the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, painted by Cimabue to share the story of the saint’s life with the poor and illiterate, the very people Francis ministered to.

Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors

We have both used religious art and artefacts to support and develop children’s understanding of religious ideas and concepts, as well as giving them a safe space to ask questions and express their ideas and reflections about spirituality. We have also used religious art as a springboard, inspiring children to create their own artworks, expressive of their profound personal responses to spiritual ideas and concepts, enabling them to engage across the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning.

Here are a few examples of the profound ways in which children respond when bridges are built between Art and RE:

Lynn shared a conversation about Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ with a group of KS2 learners. A 10-year-old made this profound comment about the way the face of Jesus is painted, with a passive and resigned demeanour, whilst directly behind him a Disciple is agitated and fearful:

“They’re wearing the same colour robe, and it’s like that’s how Jesus is really feeling inside. He knows what God wants him to do, and he doesn’t want to show he’s scared.”

A class of KS2 children in a Worcestershire school created their own artworks responding to discussions in their RE lessons about “right and wrong.” Amongst many original and thought-provoking responses, one group created a sculptural work which they named The Rainbow of Justice.

“It’s representing if people work together for justice, it will make the world a better place.”

With the introduction of the new Diocese syllabus for R.E, “Understanding Christianity,” Kaytie was tasked with producing a whole school artwork to represent the different facets of this new curriculum for the school’s library.  190 children each contributed a part of this artwork inspired by “The Big Frieze” - a pictorial representation of the story of people’s relationship with God.

We have piloted a project working with children to support them in engaging with artwork from different religious traditions and responding with their own creative output. The painting we chose for the pilot was Stanley Spencer’s Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933).

To English artist Stanley Spencer, the village of Cookham, Berkshire was “the holy suburb of heaven.” Many of his religious paintings were set in his home village.

Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors tells the story of when Sarah left her house and was terrified by a sunset rendered exceptional by the tail of Halley’s Comet. Believing the end of the world was coming, Sarah fell to her knees to pray, on the pavement of Cookham High Street. Stanley Spencer sends angels to comfort Sarah, by bringing her “emblems of what she is like” and “all those things which she loved.”

We chose this painting for our pilot project because of its simplified forms, and the immediacy and relatability of the story behind it. We asked children aged 5, 7 and 9 to say what they thought about the picture and the story behind it, and to create their own artwork reflecting “emblems of what they are like” and “the things which they love” which might comfort them.

We were fascinated by the abstract frames on the ground in front of Sarah in the original painting, so these seemed like an obvious place to start.  Using washi tape, we created these frames in different sizes on card and asked Azraea, aged 5 to see if she could fill the gaps with the things that she loves.  Albeit simple, there is something reminiscent of Piet Mondrian about the outcome.

Reading more about the original painting, we discovered that the pictures on the right-hand side are representative of the postcard rack that used to be situated outside the newsagents in Spencer’s hometown of Cookham. Artemis, aged 7, was inspired by this to create her own postcards that depict the things that she believes would give her comfort. She used ink and watercolours to produce her images which we then threaded together with ribbon to achieve a vertical display like that presented to Sarah Tubb.

Ophelia, aged 9, was keen to respond to the painting in a more literal way by creating a painting of her own. After several attempts at creating an imaginary composition, Ophelia became frustrated with the results. Best practice in art teaching always encourages working from real life observation where possible, so we set about creating our own version of the painting in the front garden. Artemis is kneeling in the middle, being comforted by the things she loves the most:  her sisters, Daddy, Rory the lion, paints, her guitar, and an exceptionally large bar of galaxy chocolate! 

Ophelia was then able to turn this photo into a painting of her own.  We encouraged her to think of the painting in terms of blocks of colour to avoid becoming caught up in the detail.  The result is a loose, gestural painting much like the work of Spencer himself. Using the strategy of creating photos to work from in the classroom is a highly effective way of supporting children’s artwork and encouraging high quality observation.   

Finally, we decided to create a more abstract interpretation of Spencer’s painting, creating these vibrant collages. We cut words out of magazines; carefully chosen to represent the things the girls love the most. We then painted over these in fiery colours, imagining what the sky would have been like the day that Sarah Tubb saw Haley’s comet. The girls then took photos of special things around the house and added them to other pictures they had found in newspapers and magazines. The final addition was a photo of themselves as they imagined they would react if they were to see something unusual and amazing in the sky. 

If you would like to know more about the Primary UG and PGCE teacher training courses then contact the Head of Department, Dan Hughes. The programmes provide opportunity to explore RE and art alongside other curriculum subjects in a meaningful and interactive way to prepare new teachers for the classroom. We would love to hear from you.