The Visual Commentary on Scripture

A new way of encountering art and the Bible

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The Visual Commentary on Scripture, TheVCS.org, is the first significant online project to introduce (or re-introduce) visitors to Biblical scripture in the company of art and artists.

Celebrated with a launch event in November 2018 at Tate Modern, chosen not only for its leading role in promoting modern and contemporary art but for its physical relationship to St Paul’s Cathedral located directly across the River Thames, TheVCS.org seeks to connect the worlds of art and religion as a one-of-a-kind resource for scholars, educators and interested readers looking for insightful, original explorations of art and the Bible.

Led by scholars at King’s College London and funded by the Visual Commentary on Scripture Foundation, the project organisers commissioned Cogapp to design and build this pioneering online destination for visual and intellectual engagement and contemplation.

Dr Jennifer Sliwka and Professor Ben Quash presenting The VCS at the launch event in November

Dr Jennifer Sliwka and Professor Ben Quash presenting The VCS at the launch event in November

The VCS is a carefully curated online exhibition space in which to learn and reflect.

Every element of the site’s design, visual language and interaction has been devised to gently guide the visitor through new reflections on art and the Bible; from explorations of familiar ideas and themes to potentially more challenging juxtapositions which might encourage readers to reconsider texts and images with fresh eyes.

The site has been widely acclaimed and featured in The Christian PostThe Church Times and The Tablet.

The Rider on the White  Horse Exhibition by Natasha O’Hear, featuring White Horse: And I Saw Heaven Opened (Panel 13) part of The Tapestry of Light © Irene Barberis

The Rider on the White Horse Exhibition by Natasha O’Hear, featuring White Horse: And I Saw Heaven Opened (Panel 13) part of The Tapestry of Light © Irene Barberis

Exhibition metaphor

The central concept of The VCS site structure is the Exhibition. Comprising a trinity of artworks, an original commentary on each and a comparative commentary of the collection as a group, the Exhibitions are the Visual Commentary on Scripture.

It was a useful metaphor, formed during the early stages of the project, to think of each online Exhibition as a physical room:

Imagine you walk through a doorway into a square gallery space.

In the centre of the room, on a table, is a passage of Biblical scripture.

You look around you at three artworks hung on the walls to your left, straight ahead, and to your right.

You see, at face value, the group as a whole.

The Blessed  Exhibition by Rebekah Eklund

The Blessed Exhibition by Rebekah Eklund

You choose which artwork to take a closer a look at first.

Commentary  with artwork viewer

Commentary with artwork viewer

You move closer. You reflect on the artwork and its commentary.

Detail from  The Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) , St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium / © Lukas — Art in Flanders VZW / Bridgeman Images

Detail from The Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium / © Lukas — Art in Flanders VZW / Bridgeman Images

You move around the room, absorbing the other works and reading the author’s interpretations.

Then you move back towards the doorway and take a step back.

You now look upon the Exhibition with a deeper thought and understanding, and consider the meaning of the artworks as a group.

How do they deepen your interpretation of the Scripture?

How does your interpretation of the Bible passage transform your experience of the art?

This Exhibition metaphor was central to our decision-making, prioritisation and design direction. TheVCS.org needed to be contemplative, calming and credible.

Developing the identity

To develop a cohesive, meaningful and scalable visual identity, we explored the characteristics of The VCS with the team.

Using inspiration from spiritual surroundings and modern typography rooted in the Biblical tradition, we created a clean yet classic identity for The VCS. Read the full story behind the identity and graphic design for The VCS in Grant Cieciura’s post, here.

The Hospitality of Abraham  Exhibition by Aaron Rosen, featuring  Abraham and the Three Angels  by Marc Chagall, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France, MBMC6, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Photo: Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The Hospitality of Abraham Exhibition by Aaron Rosen, featuring Abraham and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall, Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France, MBMC6, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Photo: Gérard Blot © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

User testing and iteration

We focused the entire first phase of work (five months) on the architecture, design and build of the Exhibition template, testing the design with academics, clergy and art historians.

Component cards used in a card-sorting exercise with users

Component cards used in a card-sorting exercise with users

From March 2018 to launch in November, we iterated and refined the Exhibition, whilst building the scaffolding around it; the menus, listings, homepage and other ‘site furniture’, all the while keeping the Exhibition at the centre of our vision.

Content production

The website launch in November 2018 was the result of a year-long design and development project which ran alongside a mammoth content effort from leading academics, art historians and theologians; all commissioned and coordinated by The VCS team at King’s.

We worked closely with the team at King’s to develop a production workflow to track every stage of content development: commissioning authors; tracking draft statuses; copy-editing; artwork licensing; image storage; through to online publication.

This systematic approach helped to organise and maintain the high-quality levels needed for academic publishing.

Imaging the Trinity  , an Exhibition by Gesa Elsbeth Theissen, featuring  Golgotha  by Edvard Munch © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

Imaging the Trinity, an Exhibition by Gesa Elsbeth Theissen, featuring Golgotha by Edvard Munch © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

Technologies

TheVCS.org is built using Drupal 8 content management system. The Exhibition structure comprises just three content-type templates, with an additional two content types for the homepage and basic content page.

Keeping the number of content types down to this lean figure of five allowed us to focus attention on the detail of each template.

To deliver the immersive experience described in the Exhibition metaphor, we use a IIIF image viewer to allow for deep zooming into the artworks.

High-resolution JPEGs are uploaded to the CMS, which converts them automatically to PTIFFs. Stored on a dedicated AWS image server, the PTIFFs are served to the front-end to be viewed in an OpenSeadragon viewer.

Styled controls allow a user to zoom and drag the images, as well as pinch zoom on touch devices.

Deep-zoom feature on Edvard Munch’s  Golgotha  © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

Deep-zoom feature on Edvard Munch’s Golgotha © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

The responsive design allows the commentaries to be read with the artwork always in view, even on mobile.

Early user testing led us to prioritise this immersive element of the design. Author’s references to artwork details prompted readers to closely inspect the image, then return to the line they were reading in the commentary.

The artwork viewer on mobile

The artwork viewer on mobile

What’s next

Launch day in November was the start of the journey for Cogapp and TheVCS.org. The long-term vision for the project is for every verse of the Bible to be included in The VCS.

Early in 2019, we’re planning more user testing to gain further insight to inform the feature and usability enhancements for this year.

The VCS team are heroically commissioning, editing and publishing new Exhibitions at an impressive rate and we’re looking to improve the workflows and editing experience involved in that. New functionality will be introduced incrementally throughout 2019 and beyond.

We will continue to enhance the richness and accessibility of this wonderful content, and facilitate deep contemplation in a digital space.

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Find out more

We love to make ambitious ideas come to life. To find out more about our work and how it might benefit your organisation, please get in touch.