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Book of Enoch art exhibition moves online

A research project by Angus Pryor and Philip Esler of the University of Gloucestershire, on the little-known religious text 1 Enoch, culminated in the publication of various academic papers and almost led to a stunning live exhibition of a large-scale model of an Ethiopian church and twelve large paintings – until Covid-19 struck and lockdowns drove the display online.

Angus Pryor is Head of the School of Arts and a practising artist in the post-conceptual style. 

Philip Esler teaches and conducts research into biblical texts, paintings based on such texts, early Christianity, and ancient Jewish documents. Several years ago, he became interested in an ancient Jewish text 1 Enoch (or the Book of Enoch as it is also known) and shared his enthusiasm with Angus Pryor. 

1 Enoch was originally written in Aramaic (the language which Jesus later spoke), but was omitted from both the Hebrew and the Christian bibles (except in Ethiopia).

Genesis 5.23-24 describes how the patriarch Enoch, aged 365 years, was taken to heaven while still alive. In the 3rd century BC, a group of Jewish scribes imagined Enoch to be still in heaven, and used him as a mouthpiece for important revelations about humanity and the cosmos and the ultimate destiny of both, which went on to become the core of 1 Enoch.

The University of Gloucestershire’s five-year research project was conceived by the unlikely partnership of prominent theologian, Philip Esler (Portland Chair in New Testament Studies) and eminent artist and agnostic, Angus Pryor (Head of the School of Arts).

Philip Esler said:
1 Enoch is the most important Jewish writing not to have been included in the Old Testament. 

And within a few centuries it had almost entirely disappeared in the Christian world. Fortunately, in the 5th or 6th centuries CE a Greek translation of 1 Enochwas taken to Ethiopia and translated into Ethiopic. The complete text has only been preserved from antiquity as it forms an important part of the Old Testament of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. The world has Ethiopia to thank for the preservation of 1 Enoch.

“Despite the text’s ancient beginnings, today’s important environmental issues are given personality in the text with messages of the earth crying out against those who abuse it, while connections between homicidal violence and disordered sexual desire are also made.”

Angus Pryor said:
“In 2014, when Philip became a Professor, I attended his inaugural lecture on how heaven is presented in 1 Enoch and became fascinated by this influential ancient Jewish text. The following year, Philip and I travelled to Addis Ababa and were bowled over by the art and architecture there, as well the Ethiopian people themselves. It wasn’t long before I was compelled to start painting my own interpretation of the text.

“Naturally, the pieces will appeal to different people for different reasons, just as they do for Philip and me, but I’d like to see them used as a facilitator for discussion. Not just from a religious sense, but as a way to better engage people with some of the contemporary issues that arise, as well as with the arts.”

Philip Esler continued:
“Angus has an instinctive grasp of values that go beyond the material and he manages to reproduce these fundamental realities of the world on canvas. His works are masterpieces of religious contemporary art which draw inspiration from a number of beautiful church paintings and manuscript illuminations we discovered on our trips to Ethiopia. This has truly been one of the most creative academic experiences of my career to date. Angus’s paintings are both relatable and accessible to religious and non-religious audiences.”

Following conferences in Cheltenham and Addis Ababa, the resulting papers were published in a book entitled The Blessing of Enoch: 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology.

The professors’ joint work fed into their planned exhibition entitled Enoch: Heaven’s Messenger, consisting of Pryor’s richly illuminated model of an Ethiopian church at its centre, plus 12 paintings. Using oil on canvas, Professor Pryor created two-metre square paintings, interpreting crucial scenes from 1 Enoch. Each painting depicts an imaginative, secular response and transposition by Professor Pryor of particular parts of the apocalyptic narrative with detailed iconographical descriptions provided by Professor Esler. 

Live exhibitions were scheduled for Gloucester Cathedral and then Canterbury Cathedral, but these had to be cancelled because of the response to the pandemic. The exhibition was temporarily installed at the University of Gloucestershire’s Hardwick Gallery and a video tour created. 

With a current dearth of events we can visit in person it’s excellent that the virtual exhibition can be visited online. A virtual tour and details of the paintings are available here

Discussions are already in the works to paint additional scenes from 1 Enoch. When lockdown restrictions are fully eased, the professors hope to tour theirEnoch: Heaven’s Messenger exhibition around the UK and internationally.