The Visual Commentary on Scripture

A new way of encountering art and the Bible

 

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.

A Bridegroom of Blood  Exhibition by Devon Abts

A Bridegroom of Blood Exhibition by Devon Abts

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

Perugino, Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace / Scala / Art Resource, NY

Perugino, Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace / Scala / Art Resource, NY

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

Detail from Perugino, Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State / Scala / Art Resource, NY

Detail from Perugino, Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican State / Scala / Art Resource, NY

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.

Amy Sherald, Michelle laVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, Oil on linen, 183.2 x 152.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2018.15, © National Portrait Gallery

Amy Sherald, Michelle laVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, Oil on linen, 183.2 x 152.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2018.15, © National Portrait Gallery

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.

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.

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.

Exploring artworks using the full-screen image viewer on mobile. Image credits listed below.

Exploring artworks using the full-screen image viewer on mobile. Image credits listed below.

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.

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.

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.

Ludolf Backhuysen I, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 167.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.29.1, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Ludolf Backhuysen I, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 167.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.29.1, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Image credits

Irene Barberis, White Horse: And I Saw Heaven Opened (Panel 13) part of The Tapestry of Light © Irene Barberis

Perugino, Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482, Fresco, 350 x 572 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace / Scala / Art Resource, NY

Amy Sherald, Michelle laVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, Oil on linen, 183.2 x 152.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2018.15, © National Portrait Gallery. Artwork institution details: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; Clarence, DeLoise, and Brenda Gaines; Jonathan and Nancy Lee Kemper; The Stoneridge Fund of Amy and Marc Meadows; Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker; Catherine and Michael Podell; Mark and Cindy Aron; Lyndon J. Barrois and Janine Sherman Barrois; The Honorable John and Louise Bryson; Paul and Rose Carter; Bob and Jane Clark; Lisa R. Davis; Shirley Ross Davis and Family; Alan and Lois Fern; Conrad and Constance Hipkins; Sharon and John Hoffman; Audrey M. Irmas; John Legend and Chrissy Teigen; Eileen Harris Norton; Helen Hilton Raiser; Philip and Elizabeth Ryan; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman; Eileen Baird; Dennis and Joyce Black Family Charitable Foundation; Shelley Brazier; Aryn Drake-Lee; Andy and Teri Goodman; Randi Charno Levine and Jeffrey E. Levine; Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation; Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago; Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen; Sara and John Schram; Alyssa Taubman and Robert Rothman

Ludolf Backhuysen I, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 167.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.29.1, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Mobile gallery: Top row L–R

Detail, Irene Barberis, White Horse: And I Saw Heaven Opened (Panel 13) part of The Tapestry of Light © Irene Barberis

Detail, Jan Van Kessel, Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche, c.1670, Oil on copper, 70 x 105.5 cm, Purchased 2002, NG 2740, Antonia Reeve, National Gallery Scotland

Detail, Vittore Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, c.1515, Oil on panel, 74 x 113 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.28, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Detail, Patricia Cronin, Shrine for Girls, as installed in La Biennale di Venezia, curated by Ludovico Pratesi, 2015, Saris and photograph, Chiesa di San Gallo, Venice, © Patricia Cronin Mark Blower

Detail, Unknown Artist, Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, 3rd century, Tempera on plaster, 62 x 56 cm, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, Wikipedia

Detail, Joel Ben Simeon, Sacrifice of Isaac from Commentary on the Pentateuch, part 2, 1460s, Illumination on parchment, 240 x 170 mm, The British Library, London, MS Additional 14759, fol. 1v, www.bl.uk

Mobile gallery: Bottom row L–R

Detail, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Kristus (Christ); Did not Christ Appear to You (‘Ist euch Kristus nicht erschienen’), 1918, Woodcut , 320 x 742 mm, Yale University Art Gallery, 1941.675, Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery

Detail, Johann Theodor De Bry and Johann Isreal De Bry, ‘David’, from David, virtvtis exercitatissimae probatum Deo spectaculum: ex Dauidis pastoris, militis, ducis, exsulis ac prophetae exemplis by Benito Arias Montano (Frankfurt), 1597, Engraving, 21 cm, Getty Research Institute, 93-B7484, p.59, Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Detail, Unknown Artist, Coronation Gospels of Vratislav II (The Vyšehrad Codex; The Coronation Codex), 1070–86, Illumination on parchment, 41.5 x 32 cm, Národní knihovna České republiky, Prague, MS XIV.A.13, fol. 4r, Photo courtesy of National Library of the Czech Republic

Detail, Unknown Iranian Artist, Composite Camel with Attendant, Late 16th century, Opaque watercolor and ink on paper, 229 x 170 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925, 25.83.6, www.metmuseum.org

Detail, Nathan Coley, There will be no Miracles Here, 2007–09, Electric lights, scaffolding, Dimensions variable, Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art [Modern Two]; Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the Patrons of the National Galleries of Scotland 2011, GMA 5138, ©studioNathanColey Antonia Reeve

Detail, Marcelle Hanselaar, Jael and Sisera 2, 2007, Etching, edition 30, 212 x 281 mm, Collection of the artist, © Marcelle Hanselaar