Flashes of Glory—and Brutality
A conversation with artist Kieran Dodds and academic Christian Gonzalez Ho on their new exhibit, ancient pilgrimage sites, and the church of the future.
As you scroll through this story, you are embarking on a form of pilgrimage.
We tap incessantly at our phones for the same reason our forebears traveled repeatedly to the Holy Land, says art historian Christian Gonzalez Ho: to commune with something greater than ourselves, to express a “longing to go to another place, or to have another place reach [us].”
Gonzalez Ho and photographer Kieran Dodds are the creators of a new exhibit, “Heading Home: Glimpses of New Jerusalem.” The show is curated by John Silvis and running this fall and winter at the Ahmanson Gallery in Irvine, California. Featuring Dodds’s photographs of pilgrimage sites on the route between London and Jerusalem, placed in an interactive gallery space designed by Gonzalez Ho, “Heading Home” asks us to revisit the ancient practice of pilgrimage and consider its relationship with contemporary Christianity.
Images of stops along the pilgrimage route—the Florence Duomo, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—are paired with sound installations and physical structures that reinterpret the experience of interacting with each site. Christianity Today spoke with Dodds and Gonzalez Ho about the possibilities and challenges of interpreting these sites for modern believers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yi Ning Chiu: Let’s start with the origins of this exhibit. Why did you two choose to focus on this topic for this moment?
Kieran Dodds: I was invited on this pilgrimage trip by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson, curated along the theme of the New Jerusalem—the Eternal City, you know, at the end of Revelation.
We were looking toward the breaking through of this city as a place where there is no more crying or pain, because God is with his people. What we saw was how the church had really been focused on that vision through the centuries, and this shaped how it displayed itself in different times and cultures.
After ruminating on the experience for about a year, I had the real pleasure to work with Christian and create a show in two gallery spaces. Gallery One is centered around classic framed works. I employed tilt shift lenses, which are usually used in architecture, to give us a perspective shift in each image. People [at various pilgrimage sites] then appear to be miniaturized, making the images look like architectural models—models of this New Jerusalem.
Then I’ve got some grids, which are large pictures but split into grids like a mosaic, referencing the idea of mosaic as all these fragments you need to make one image. In a sense, the [pilgrimage] was us picking up these different fragments and visions of a New Jerusalem to bring them together.
Gallery Two was an installation with a structure and projection space, which Christian was really focused on, so Christian had better talk about that.
Christian Gonzalez Ho: One of the first things that I thought about when designing the gallery space was how people generally interact with photography in a consumeristic way. We are flooded with images all the time, and we forget that the act of looking at media or engaging with any type of film, photography, music, etc., is a longing for pilgrimage—it’s an engagement we undertake while desiring to go to another place.
So the whole theme of pilgrimage struck me as very contemporary. Now, you know, our technologies are so closely fit to our bodies and our consciousness that we don’t realize they’re taking us on journeys. Another aspect of this exhibition was to cause people to become aware that they were moving their bodies as they were looking at images and entering these spaces. For example, in order to view some of these images you have to bend under a pavilion that is only five feet tall.
I mean, bending down to look at your iPhone or pulling it out of your pocket is a devotional act. We’ve lost the understanding that our repeated actions are fill-ins for ritual and devotion. We wanted people to notice that what they do with their body in this gallery space is a devotional act.
YC: It’s interesting to think about these daily routines as contemporary forms of pilgrimage, especially as people have varying degrees of familiarity with the concept of Christian pilgrimage and of what the practice consists of.
Considering how diverse the present-day church is, and how much or how little people may know about historic pilgrimage sites, how do you want audiences to respond to what you’re presenting?
KD: I mean, I wrestled with this after the trip—how can you even try and compare an exhibition space with these sites, which are some of the best examples of human creativity ever made? We cannot recreate them, of course, but what we can do is to try and give a glimpse of the beauty of the experience of being in these places.
The idea was to create a new sense of place. When you arrive in the gallery you have to look around because there are different projectors that create images to be gazed up at. Inside the “octacube,” an eight-sided plywood structure that brings audiences to stand in a linen cube at its center, you crane your neck upward to the screen. The structure simultaneously references Renaissance-era baptistries, which are octagonal, and the New Jerusalem, which Scripture describes as having the dimensions of a cube (Rev. 21:16).
One of the central themes of this exhibit comes from a photo of sunlight beaming through the oculus of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and how it appears to show light resolving on an empty tomb.
I want to reverse that idea: Is light coming in to illuminate the tomb, or is the empty tomb releasing light into the world to make sense of what lies beyond? The gallery provides an opportunity to have a physical interaction with these images, and to see the ambiguities that arise when you study them together.
YC: In the past few years, the notion of pilgrimage sites and what they represent may have become even more foreign to large swaths of the church. I’m thinking about the ways in which people who were accustomed to, say, one service a week, had this basic practice disrupted by the pandemic. Options like commuter churches, Zoom services, and sermon podcasts give us the option of a disembodied relationship with our communities.
Within this context, the historical church seems like an afterthought. How can Christians in our cultural moment find significance in these images?
CGH: That’s a really interesting question. Although people talk about disembodiment as something that occurred during the pandemic, I believe it was already happening. This is why pilgrimages were created in the first place: because alienation is fundamental to the Fall.
We are fundamentally separated from ourselves, our bodies, God, others, and the cosmos. So when pilgrimages emerged, they were a way of removing us from the mechanisms of enslavement. Think back to Moses and the children of Israel. The request to go into the wilderness was a request for a pilgrimage, because there needed to be a removal from the environment of enslavement into a sacred place where they could worship. And so I think it’s interesting because people have not only experienced disembodiment in our time but in every time, so pilgrimage has always served as this way of becoming embodied once again.
So this show is not an attempt to reproduce pilgrimage sites as if you’re there—its structures are created with two by fours. They’re very crude material. For people who are beginning to explore the history of pilgrimage, I think of this show as an invitation. The gallery, the images, the act of building are urging us on pilgrimages toward Christ. They are crude attempts to approximate the glory.
KD: We also wanted to strip back the elements of each image to show the aspects of our faith tradition that unite us with the believers who preceded us. For example, there’s an octagon shape in a photo of the Baptistery of St. John. It represents the eighth day, which is the day after the resurrection. When people are baptized, they go through the eighth side into the new life.
We just loved that. The building wasn’t a puzzle to be solved, a “da Vinci code” with a puzzle we had to unfurl. It was there, speaking to people something that the church once understood and that we’ve forgotten. These images are attempts to show all these incredible things that have been given to us through the centuries to weigh and understand.
YC: The idea that these sites continue to speak to the church is so gorgeous. I love that, and I also struggle to reconcile the beauty of the pilgrimage route with its history. As the two of you prepared this show, did you wrestle with how Christian pilgrimage informed the Crusades?
KD: Yeah. Well, I mean, the buildings themselves are this kind of strange mix of extraordinary wealth and gold and stand in contrast to the pilgrims, who were probably covered in rags and struggling. But along the path, there are other structures representing this sort of rich legacy of pilgrimage, which I didn’t realize were there. Hospitals, hostels, all these Western institutions [developed in part] to help pilgrims as they journeyed along the way. So there’s that aspect of it: Do disparate elements of the church go together?
It’s not something you can resolve lightly because it’s history, and history is problematic because humans are problematic. Yet even in the fractured brutality of human history, there are these flashes of glory which endure, which all nations are drawn toward, literally. They come from across the world to see these sites today. And that is the bit we are trying to pick up on, to give a framework for people to make their own minds up as they look into these things.
YC: I appreciate how you want people to see the ambiguities. Interestingly, while some portions of the church may be deeply suspicious of pilgrimage and its history, there are other portions that idealize it. For example, there is a complicated relationship between evangelicalism and the idea of returning to a divinely appointed city, or a divinely ordained government.
When Christians are coming from that angle, how do you want this exhibit to contribute to their thinking?
KD: I can’t believe I’ve not mentioned it before, but Augustine’s City of God was really fundamental to this. We thought about the two cities—the city of man and the city of God, and how we were seeing glimpses of the city of God in the city of man. Augustine calls the city of man the “pilgrim city,” in which we can see the city of God beginning to descend.
City of God was written in a time where Rome was being destroyed. The city was being razed. So you look at these pilgrimage sites and think, well, this is a reminder to Christians of the temporary nature of the earth. We are trying to build cities and empires and political allegiances. We should be reminded that it is a pilgrim city we are traveling through.
Kingdoms rise and fall, and that, I suppose, would speak to Christians who try and pin their hope on some political empire that will solve all things. And there are political solutions to some things, of course, but I think it is very interesting that the Christian faith arose and was scattered across the world. Through this scattering is one way we see the New Jerusalem, intentionally moving across the earth.
CGH: Alexander Nemerov, my adviser, was sharing something in class this week, and I think it might be a helpful way to understand this. [Rogier van der] Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross is a pretty well-known piece, and Alex was explaining how this portrait was commissioned by the Great Crossbowmen’s Guild, which had been involved in the Crusades.
If you look at Jesus, he’s positioned in the shape of a crossbow ready to fire. But Jesus’ body is completely slack. There is no arrow. His body is a broken weapon.
Some people will look at this image and say: Look at this. This was commissioned by the Crossbowmen’s Guild and advocated for the violence that accompanied Christian pilgrimage via the Crusades. And I think that our history of violence is something that we have to reckon with.
Yet the person of Christ can undermine our bent toward destruction. That is why he is so fundamental to this conversation. He is the endpoint of the pilgrimage. No matter what side of the conversation you come from, you are ultimately unstrung by this weaponless weapon that’s so beautiful.
YC: The body of Jesus as a “weaponless weapon” is incredibly moving. It’s striking that this painting is conceptualized and funded as a direct result of the Crusades, but also subverts the absolute worst human impulses that the Crusades often represented.
Now that we’re considering the end goals of pilgrimage, I want to ask—how do you want this exhibit, which largely focuses on the past, to shape how people imagine the church of tomorrow?
CGH: The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty says when he sees an object, he always feels that there’s still some meaning beyond what he currently sees. There’s always a horizon of unseen or even invisible things around my present vision. I think this exhibit is not about telling people to build another church, but it’s about Christians seeing these sites and recognizing what we believe.
We are not here to create derivative images of what’s popular or beautiful in a particular moment. It’s about the knowledge of this real place, this New Jerusalem, and building frameworks that invite people to experience that reality.
KD: I think for me, the theme that keeps surfacing is the image of an empty tomb echoing out across the world. The shock waves of that event are still being felt today, and the way it shapes society is so diverse. The sites we visited are all products of their own time and place but reference the others. All are environments built to emphasize the negative space of the empty tomb.
I just love the fact that we saw culturally interpreted views of the Resurrection. If you get all these different fragments of Christian structures and societies gathered together, they will give you a unified picture, a glimpse of what the heavenly city will be like.
At the gallery opening, I thought, in Rome you do as the Romans do. In Florence, you do as the Florentines do. But when you’re in Christ, you do as the Christians do, and you build the New Jerusalem by living as you are called to do in your own space and time.
Yi Ning Chiu
Writer & Teacher
Yi Ning Chiu is a contributing writer to Christianity Today and a columnist for Ekstasis. What did you think of this interview? Share your thoughts with a comment!
New Releases: Things we’re excited about at Ekstasis
Kieran Dodds’ exhibit and book Now We See Glimpses of New Jerusalem: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Heading Home.
New Finds: Treasures from the ether
“Concepts create idols, only wonder understands.”
— Gregory of Nyssa