3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Banks are, let's face it, not getting any more popular. But sometimes they do something right. That unattractive acronym HSBC (once the more human-sounding Midland) has just announced pound;1.5 million-worth of support for four youth arts organisations under the title Centre Stage.

This will provide funding, over three years, for the National Youth Orchestra, the National Youth Theatre, the National Youth Ballet and the National Opera Studio. Together they will take part in gala performances in 2001 and 2002. Meanwhile, other events run separately by the organisations will be supported too.

The National Youth Ballet will commission and perform a new work, Toad, based on The Wind in the Willows, and, for the first time, they will be able to take it on tour. Representatives of the company, looking very elegant in tights and white sweatshirts bearing their logos, were on hand at the launch to celebrate. Two of the under-10s wore mini-tutus and big smiles. The NYT and NYO will be able to hold auditions all over the country, starting this month. Ed Wilson, artistic director of the NYT, says that they will go to 13 centres to give as many people as possible a chance to join. Auditions, and the rest of the NYT's work for the year, had been in jeopardy after the loss of their core funding. There's still a pound;250,000 shortfall and a visit to the Edinburgh festival is unlikely, but the London season will go ahead.

Centre Stage will also fund NYO's summer course and the Proms concert which results from it. The National Opera Studio now has funding for its schools matinee and showcase events. Information: NYT 0171 281 3863,; NYB 01959 561884; NOS 020 7261 9267; NYO 01423 502774 Young people are still enjoying participation in the arts - Ed Wilson says that would-be members of the NYT outnumber available places by 10 to one - but there are jeremiahs constantly reminding us that the screen is king. A new report for the Arts Council of England, The Roles and Functions of the English Regional Producing Theatres, contains the sentence: "Electronic popular culture forms reaching large audiences at low consumption costs threaten the core audience for live performance of all kinds." It goes on to claim that "fewer people leave school with a knowledge of and an affection for core texts" and that theatres strapped for cash have been forced into "a 'spectacle gap' between subsidised theatre and a sophisticated mixed-media event based culture". There is certainly no reason to be complacent and some organisations have already taken up the challenge - of which more next week. A period of consultation with theatre professionals has just ended but there is likely to be time for wider consultation later this year. Keep an eyeon it at Aficionados of the arts are sometimes accused of proselytising. Well, like any convert, those with the good news want to share their discoveries, so I suppose it's fair comment. But missionary work on behalf of one particular religion in a multicultural society, especially through the arts, is generally deemed to be beyond the pale. The director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, is being accused of just this by some reviewers. The exhibition, Seeing Salvation, is supported by the Jerusalem Trust and the Pilgrim Trust and there is a television series, introduced by Neil MacGregor, on BBC2 on four Sundays from April 2 to Easter Day.

The second millennium of Christianity is given as the reason for collecting together representations of Jesus. To begin with, as Christianity grew out of Judaism, there were no attempts at portraits, in accordance with Judaic tradition. The first pictorial representations of Christianity occur in the catacombs - the underground burial chambers outside Rome - but they are composites of the Greek letters chi and rho, the first letters of Christ, or carvings of fish, representing the acronym made from the initial letters of the Greek words for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour, which spells "ichthys", fish. Gradually, the notion of the Good Shepherd began to appear in pictures, but the familiar representation of Christ - long-haired, bearded - came with the need to emphasise his humanity in the Middle Ages. There emerged "true" images like the one said to have been imprinted on St Veronica's handkerchief as she wiped the sweat from his brow on the road to Calvary.

Each room in the exhibition represents the solving of an artistic problem in the light of a lack of contemporary reference - the Gospels are simply not interested in describing physical appearance. Neil MacGregor argues that non-Christians can enjoy the exhibition and, given the inclusion of so many familiar and unfamiliar pieces, this is probably the case. "The Light of the World", Holman Hunt's image of Christ knocking on a door and holding a lantern, went around the world with Britain's colonial influence and will be known to the owners of childhood bibles and prayer books. But there are also paintings - by, for instance, Titian ("Noli me Tangere"), Murillo and Mantegna, exquisite woodcuts by Duerer and controversial 20th-century examples by Stanley Spencer ("The Resurrection, Cookham"), Graham Sutherland and Dal!.

Whether we like it or not, the Church was a major benefactor of Western art - MacGregor says that a third of the National Gallery's collection has a religious basis - and part of its function was to spread the Gospel. Information about associated events: 020 7747 2885.

Heather Neill

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