Visual art reviews: Shadows of the Divine | Gravity's Rainbow

A show glorying in colour achieves more impact than an unfocussed exhibition of religious art

• Ian Davenport with one of his rainbow-hued works from the Ingleby show Gravity's Rainbow. Picture: Neil Hanna

Shadows of the Divine – Art From the Methodist Collection

New College, University of Edinburgh ***

Gravity's Rainbow

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh ****

THE sky of heaven is golden, or at least painters used mostly to see it that way. When just about everything that was made as art was framed by religion, the narratives of the Bible and the saints were portrayed in a glorious imagined eternity beneath a golden sky. When the sky turned from gold to blue, however, and artists began to see that future world as mirroring ever more closely this present one, it marked the beginning of the Renaissance. The Reformation followed in turn to splinter the unity of religious belief and dismantle the framework it had provided for art.

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Indeed, in Scotland the iconoclasts splintered most of the art, too. Thereafter religious art was like Humpty-Dumpty: artists could never put Humpty together again.

Although like John Knox's Kirk most protestant churches were pretty hostile to religious art, the Reformation did not mean an end to it. It did mean the game had changed, however. A unitary church could no longer provide the default position for art; belief had to make its case. In the absence of religious universals, too, art had to reach for some other kind. It is not the truth of revealed religion, for instance, but the profound human truth of Rembrandt's imagery that makes his paintings of the Bible story so wonderful.

If in the 19th century religious art appeared to undergo a revival, really it was only borrowing the apparent certainties of a more cohesive age to endorse bourgeois hegemony in the name of religion. The advent of modernism was the herald of the end of that order. If Matisse's chapel at Vence with its wonderful glass is a rare exception, modern art can really only be religious incidentally. Rothko's chapel in Texas inspires a kind of awe, but you have to bring you own god. Mostly modern religious art is just the splintered and muddled fragments of long-shattered certainties. They are gathered up to produce the dreadful art that, in the name of modernity, spoils so many old churches.

It was therefore courageous, if optimistic, of the Methodists to defy all this history and start a collection of modern religious art. It is now quite substantial and the bulk of the exhibition Shadows of the Divine, at the University of Edinburgh's New College, is drawn from it. (It seems appropriate somehow that the statue of John Knox presides over the entrance.) There is also in addition a small group of similar works here by contemporary Scottish artists, including John Bellany, John Byrne, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski.

Most of the work in this show does have religious subject matter, but it is all a bit miscellaneous. The most impressive picture is The Pool of Bethesda by Edward Burra. The pool had healing waters – when, periodically they were troubled by an angel, the waters cured the first sick person to enter them. It was here that Christ made a lame man walk, a man who could never have been cured because he could never reach the water. But rather than the Bible, Burra seems to have had in mind a painting of the same subject by Hogarth, however. His picture is an assembly of grotesques, including, bizarrely, several chimpanzees. Christ himself looms towards us with a mad glint in his eye.

Hanging alongside, The Crucifixion by William Roberts is also impressive. Roberts had recently served as a war artist in the First World War and that experience seems to have shaped his treatment of the subject, for it seems principally to be a commentary on the behaviour of soldiers.

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Indifferent to what should be the central drama, some are battling with an angry crowd, while others are casting lots for Christ's garment.

Some of the most successful religious imagery of the 20th century took its inspiration not as in the 19th century from the decorative sophistication of Gothic art, but from the hieratic simplicity of the Romanesque. Here the simple drawing and emphatic black lines of two of Rouault's aquatints of the crucified Christ are a good example of this. In a drawing for a woodcut of the Annunciation, Eric Gill uses a similar kind of simplification.

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If anything gives these images a common theme, however, it is the portrayal of angst. As a kind of spiritual suffering, artistic angst could be interpreted as at least in the same general area as religion and artists have often used religious imagery to portray their own personal experience of life's anxieties. There is an etching here by John Bellany, for instance, called Odyssey, in which a figure is laid out as though in a picture of the Entombment. A couple of crosses in the distance endorse this interpretation, but the title, which Bellany has adopted for his own life story, indicates that it is the artist himself who is represented by the recumbent figure. Craigie Aitchison regularly used the image of the Crucifixion in this way too. In the work displayed here, the tiny figure of the crucified Christ is suspended against a pink ground which seems to be not so much the sky of heaven as the open field of the artistic imagination.

In the years after the Second World War, peace did not bring collective happiness but grim austerity, overshadowed by the awful images of man's inhumanity to man that emerged from Nazi Germany, and the sense that sooner or later we would be engulfed by a nuclear war. Angst flourished. Graham Sutherland's The Deposition draws on it and on the dreadful imagery of the concentration camps to create one of the most authentic religious images in this collection. Theyre Lee-Elliot exploits pictures of Belsen or Auschwitz even more directly to portray the shattered, emaciated body of the crucified Christ wreathed in barbed wire. Appropriately for a picture of angst, perhaps, the sky is neither golden nor pink, but sickly yellow.

This exhibition also marks the quatercentenary of the King James Bible and a copy of the 1611 Bible is on display. The ringing language of this great book is embedded in our consciousness. Here, for instance, from Isiah we have, "They shall beate their swords into plowshares, and their speares into pruning hookes," and later, "What meane yee that yee … grind the faces of the poore?" God's question could well be addressed to our coalition government. Presented in great columns of black gothic type, this massive tome looks like more like some architecture of the imagination than a mere book. It makes the art look a bit flimsy, I'm afraid.

The mood in Gravity's Rainbow at the Ingleby Gallery is very different. In the Old Testament, the rainbow was God's covenant to Noah; his promise there would not be another flood. And so it gave a cue to Knox's successors when they drew up and signed the National League and Covenant in defence of their Kirk. Gravity's Rainbow is more prosaic. It appears to take its name from paintings by Ian Davenport in which vertical runs of liquid paint pour down the wall to make polychrome puddles on the floor. They are rather beautiful. Distinctly rainbow-like and blessedly free of either angst or overt meaning, they present colour to be celebrated for its own sake.

Peter Liversidge is less convincing. I find his typewritten proposals – for instance to make a wall drawing using a pack of children's pencils – a little tedious. And when occasionally he does make something, such as a pair of yellow wall reliefs, it is not exactly overwhelming. Grace & Owens' paper stained-glass windows and colour-themed prints of plastic bags are much more satisfactory. So too are Kay Rosen's wall paintings using named colours from the paint charts of the likes of Farrow and Ball: charming essays in contemporary taste.

• Shadows of the Divine runs until 11 June; Gravity's Rainbow runs until 23 July