Conference Review: The Figure of Christ in the Long Nineteenth Century

On May 7th 2016, Nineteenth-Century Studies at ARU welcomed delegates to our inaugural conference, on the theme of The Figure of Christ in the Long Nineteenth Century. Papers covered a wide range of themes, from disability to ecocriticism, and presented a broad and fascinating array of approaches to the topic.


William Holman Hunt – The Shadow of Death

Professor Valerie Purton (Anglia Ruskin) started the day with the first keynote address on ‘Tennyson, Lacan, and the Raising of Lazarus. Her paper explored Lacanian ideas of the self in relation to Tennyson’s work, and the Christological approach to Prince Albert after his death. This provided an excellent set up for the rest of the day, as these themes also flowed into the panel discussions.

Our first panel centred on Christology and Victorian Literature. We heard four very different but nonetheless connected papers. Dr Clare Walker-Gore (Cambridge) discussed disability and illness through a Christological lens in the novels of Charlotte M. Yonge and its opposition to the muscular Christian focus on healing; Dr Jo Carruthers (Lancaster) spoke about fallen women as Christ figures in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, discussing the interplay of ‘passion’ as a human emotion with the ‘Passion’ of Christ. Leanne Walker (University College Dublin) gave a paper on the language of violence and militarisation of Christ, exploring how Christ figures in late nineteenth-century literature draw on Medieval traditions of Christ the warrior. Finally, Dr Mark Knight (Lancaster) presented on the role of Christology in Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, studying the poem through it New Testament references, and approach to the theological self.

After lunch, our second panel took a more historical turn, focusing on political factions within the nineteenth-century church. Dr Michael Sanders (Manchester) spoke first, exploring Chartist Christology and the notion of practical Christianity and the death of emotional attachment to Christ. Dr Carol Engelhardt Herringer (Wright State) then discussed Jesus’ Judaism in the nineteenth century, analysing the erasure of Jesus’ Jewish identity and what that rejection meant in the context of Anglo-Catholic Eucharist Theology. Dr Ralph Norman (Canterbury Christchurch) then presented on Newman and the absence of Christ in High Church Sermons, analysing the different approaches to Christ’s ascension and how Newman engaged with those. Dr Gareth Atkins (CRASSH) followed this with a discussion of nineteenth-century freethought, focusing on saints and their roles in Victorian theology.

Our second keynote, Professor Chris Rowland (Oxford) moved the discussion into art history, with his paper on Blake, Enoch and the Emergence of the Apocalyptic Christ. Chris discussed the semantics of the term ‘apocalyptic’, and studied Blake’s problematic place in Biblical interpretation with his images of a revolutionary Jesus pronouncing the end of an era of Old Testament law. The paper provided the perfect lead into our final panel of the day, the theme of which was visual representations of Christ figures.

Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas spoke first, analysing the construction of Prince Albert as a Christ figure in Victorian society. He discussed Albert as a Christian soldier in death, looking at several memorial portraits. Dr Naomi Billingsley (independent) followed this with her paper on Blake, studying the images of Christ as an artist in his Biblical watercolours, comparing the principles of Christ’s life with those of Blake’s theory of art. Laura Fox Gill (Sussex) then spoke about the power of passivity and Milton’s influence on the works of both Turner and Melville, looking at the echoes of Paradise Lost. Our last panellist was Dr Andrew Tate (Lancaster) who gave a paper on Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World which neatly connected many of the day’s themes: apocalypse, passivity, and the Christological self.

To finish the conference, our third keynote speaker Professor Emma Mason (Warwick) gave a fascinating paper on Christina Rossetti’s Ecological Jesus, engaging with ecocritical theory alongside Rossetti’s theology. Her discussion of a green Christian tradition and ecology as the interconnectedness of things alongside what it meant for the Christian Rossetti to connect with flora was a lively and engaging way to finish the conference, wrapping up several of our themes whilst providing plenty of ideas for stimulating discussions at the following reception and dinner.

Many thanks to all our delegates for all their contributions, and for helping to make a long day such an interesting one! We hope to see many of you again at our next conference.

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