Art led worship (John Reilly)

I really like the idea of using works of art as a focus for worship. Good religious art helps us to see the world in a different way. If it’s based on Bible stories then it can help us see those stories in a different way. What really appeals to me though is that our response to such art is very personal and I want to use the art to stimulate people to share those responses with each other.

The technical challenge though is in reproducing the art to facilitate this. Narrative religious art is often multi-layered. It is often important to be able to stand back to appreciate the whole picture and also to peer in close to study aspects of detail. Neither projecting a single image onto a screen in the distance or printing it on a piece of paper small enough to be held in the hand work particularly well. Fortunately we have ten Amazon Fire tablets that were purchased for children’s work at church which offer offer an image that can be viewed whole or zoomed and panned to study specific details. 25-35 people generally turn up for evening worship so this could form the basis for discussion in groups of three people sharing a  tablet.

I pinched these and set them up to look at this web-page through the default web browser (Silk).  It actually turned out that format also works quite well for individual reflection on a mobile phone (although they were a little small for shared use even in twos and threes). I also printed out some copies in case there were people who just couldn’t cope with the technology!

My real interest was in allowing people to discuss their responses to the paintings in very small groups. This was a corporate act of worship, however (typical attendance 25-35), so there would need to be some group reflection to provide cohesion. This would only be possible within the time available if there was some structure and commonality between the triplet conversations  so I thought it best to supply some open questions to help guide this. This made it a little easier to choose music in advance (the music group required to know what songs I wanted to use in advance). I decided to leave space for prayers after each discussion but that these should be  extempore, rising out of the discussion.

The service worked really well. There was certainly a great buzz of discussion over the pictures and stimulating such discussion had been my primary aim. The use of leading questions did help draw the group conversations together and provide some cohesion as intended as well. I got several comments back afterwards about how it was good to do something a little bit different. The use of tablets worked well for those who wanted to use it but over half the congregation opted for the paper printouts. On reflection there was no particular advantage of tablets over paper (apart perhaps from keeping down the cost of printing, I went through a whole colour cartridge for just 10 A4 copies of each of two pictures).

John Reilly

John Reilly (1928-2010) was an English Christian artist influenced by the contemporary art world but exploring Biblical themes in the tradition of the Renaissance masters. He is quoted in his Church Times obituary as saying:

My paintings are not concerned with the surface appearance of people or things, but try to express something of the fun­damental spiritual reality behind this surface appearance. I try to express in visible form the oneness and unity of this invisible power, binding all things into one whole. I try to express some­thing of the universal and timeless truths behind the stories of the Bible.

He is represented in the Methodist Modern Art Collection by three paintings (this service focusses on two of them, Cain and Abel and The Feeding of the Five Thousand) which date from 1958, quite early in his career. I chose to use these paintings from the collection because they are full of details which I think force us to re-evaluate our response to stories that are many of are extremely familiar with.

Later he developed a rather different and very individual style using abstract geometric forms and vibrant colours but still addressing Biblical themes. The painting below, The Miraculous Catch, is a good example.



The service

Song: Come to us, Creative Spirit . Chosen as a celebration of human creativity.

Bible reading: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-8)

Picture: Cain and Abel (John Reilly, 1958). Link to page Methodist Modern Art Collection, click on image below for higher resolution.


This painting represents the time after God has received and responded to the offerings from Cain and Abel.

  • What do Cain and Abel’s body language tell you about their respective characters?
  • How does the painter’s representation of the territory that Abel inhabits differs from that inhabited by Cain?
  • How does the painting make you feel about Cain and Abel’s different lives?
  • How does the painter’s use of light reflect God’s different responses to the brothers’ different offerings?
  • Did God act fairly in rejecting Cain’s offering of grain but accepting Abel’s offering of a lamb?
  • Where are Cain and Abel looking and why?
  • Does the painting help you understand why Cain murdered Abel?
  • Was Abel entirely innocent?

Prayers (based on the preceding discussion)

Song: For the fruits of his creation . Chosen as a contrast to the Bible story. The hymn calls for a “just reward of labour” whereas the story seems to represent an unjust reward of labour.

Bible reading: The Feeding of the Four Thousand (Mark 8:1-9)

Picture: The Feeding of the Five Thousand (John Reilly, 1958). Link to page Methodist Modern Art Collection, click on image below for higher resolution.


    • Why have I chosen to read the story of the feeding of the four thousand when this picture is entitled the feeding of the five thousand?
    • What are the similarities and differences between the people on the right and the left in terms of:
      • body posture,
      • grouping of characters,
      • facial expression,
      • light and colour,
      • quantity of food?
    • The painter seems to see this miracle as about much more than “just” increasing the amount of food available. What other changes has the miracle brought about?

Prayers (based on the preceding discussion)

Song: The Church of Christ in every age.  Chosen as it too uses sharing bread as a metaphor for broader Christian service.

One more look at both picture focusing on their historical context (both pictures were painted in 1958).


  • What was mood in UK at the time of painting (1958)? How is this reflected in the paintings?
  • What was happening in the rest of Europe at the time? How is this reflected in the paintings?
  • How do the paintings speak to us about divisions in our world today?

Prayers (based on the preceding discussion)

Song: For the healing of the nations (chosen as a response to the divided world that is portrayed in these paintings).

The grace (shared)