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Review of John Reilly’s work by Emma Spencer BA

At the beginning of my study I hoped to discover how it was that John Reilly managed to advance the already prolific history of Christian art. Faced with the glories of the Renaissance and the innovations of modern art, what could Reilly possibly achieve?

It seems evident to me now that his main achievement lies in a combination of traditional Renaissance elements and modern ideals.

His Christian belief forms the basis and initial inspiration of his art though the style has advanced into something more conceptual, based on a strong knowledge of the Christian faith and profound metaphysical ideas about the oneness and unity of life.

As Reilly continues to take traditional Christian narratives as his subject matter, he will never completely divorce himself from that tradition. However, his innovative style, perhaps beholden to modern movements such as Cubism, and artists like Picasso and Kandinsky, allows him to show the Bible stories in a new way – incorporating into their meanings a broader application which can apply to the modern viewer.

Reilly’s style contains elements of the iconic tradition. Such a tradition which professes to create a link between the human and the divine, is very important if Christian art is to be anything more than mere illusions of Scripture. I believe that Reilly employs an awareness of similar principles when he creates his semi-abstract works.

Reilly made a break with tradition. He leaves out specific details to make plain for the viewer, the sentiment of the story and its relevance to their lives. At the same time however, he continues the great tradition of educating through images of Biblical narrative. The ability of art to teach the doctrines of the Christian faith is one that sustained it through much of its early life. Reilly’s narratives do teach but rather than forcing the viewer to accept at face value the “facts” of the Bible stories, Reilly presents them in symbolic form, increasing their attraction and relevance to contemporary life.

Ultimately I trust that I can conclude with confidence that Reilly offers a type of image not seen before in the tradition of Christian art history. Whereas Renaissance traditions offered little room for the artist to explore creatively with abstract theological concepts, modern movements perhaps too much, allowing artists like Kandinsky to stray into obscurity.

Reilly’s lucid abstractions have the ability to inspire and to teach, are both intensely personal and open to free interpretation by everyone. By offering a variation on the well-trodden themes of Christian imagery, he offers his audience an opportunity to exercise their own freedom of religious expression. Through his own enlightened form of expression, he paves the way for the free expression of others in a secular pluralist society.

The reductive quality of his method encourages this autonomy, offering viewers the bare essentials from which to form their own opinions. This method of abbreviation retains a certain sense of drama whilst losing none of the potency of truly spiritual art as embodied in early icons.

Reilly’s abstract technique is employed in such a manner that whilst it offers a new lease of life to a conceivably obsolete art form, it retains its integrity by sustaining major Christian themes and iconography. In this way it appeals to both the secular audience and the traditionalist, maintaining and encouraging the history of Christian art.

(This is the “Conclusion” of the thesis put forward by Emma Spencer who aimed to argue that Reilly’s unique style successfully adapts the great tradition of Christian art, giving new meaning and potential to the stories of the Bible. The full thesis can be found in John Reilly’s book, “The Painted Word”).