Skip to content

Bethlehem Icon Centre Featured in British National Secular Press

Ian Knowles, the British icon painter and Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre (whom some readers will remeber from a article posted last year, here about his work in Jordan commissioned by the Argentinian order, IVE) has been featured in a recent issue of The Daily Telegraph, the British national daily.

What seems to have piqued the interest of the writer, Raf Sanchez, is the fact that this school has a clientele of largely Palestian Christians. Indeed one of the patrons is the Melkite Bishop of Jerusalem. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church originates in the Middle East and can trace its roots right back to the Apostolic era. Middle Eastern Christians are in the news at the moment for all the wrong reasons – the great persecution they are experiencing, especially in Syria – but Ian’s work with Palestinian Christians is seen by Sanchez as sign of hope in difficult time.

At the request of the Mother Superior of a local convent, Ian painted the Mother of God – dubbed Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls – on the wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem.

You can read the article, entitled British Painter Revives Christian Ancient Art Form in Occupied West Bank, here.

I met Ian first several years ago when we both took a class from the British icon painter, Aidan Hart.


Next Melkite Liturgy on Berkeley Campus, January 29th

Another Melkite liturgy has been scheduled for later this month, on January 28th at 5pm at the Gesu Chapel of at the Jesuit School of Theology, in Berkeley, California, located at 1735 Le Roy Avenue.

The last liturgy was deemed a great success (over 60 people attended). Many came, we were told, because they read about it on this site, so thank you NLM!

The liturgy on the Berkeley campus is celebrated by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo. Fr Carnazzo is pastor of St Elias Melkite Church, in Los Gatos, CA. He is seen in the video which is taken from the St Elias website.

The liturgy in Berkeley will be celebrated by Fr Carnazzo and Fr Christopher Hadley. I will be present, singing the “eison,” or drone, as part of the choir, so we hope to see some of you there.  Here is a clip of him at St Elias.

Fr Carnazzo, incidentally, is also teaching a series of classes for www.Pontifex.University, in which he explains content of the canon of holy icons of Church and connects it to Scripture and to the feast days of the liturgical year, both West and East. As such, they are courses simultaneously in theology, in which the imagery deepens understanding of mysteries and doctrine described, and courses in the art of the Church by which students understand its roots in Scripture and Catholic doctrine.

My Own Meeting With Fr Joe – the Man Who Saved Tony Hendra’s Soul

My last posting was about a monastic chant forum at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. This reminded my of my own visits to Quarr in the years just after my conversion. On my first visit I spent an afternoon with Fr Joe, who was made famous after his death in 1998 because of the book written about him by Tony Hendra. Hendra is a British comedy producer and actor known on both sides of the Atlantic for his work on, for example, British TV’s Spitting Image, American TV’s Saturday Night Live and for the part that I knew him for: playing rock-band manager Ian Faith in one of my favorite movies ever, This is Spinal Tap.

With Quarr on my mind, I thought I would relate my experience of meeting Fr Joe – he made an such an impact on me that I would often tell the story of meeting ‘a monk a Quarr’ even before Tony Hendra wrote about him.


Hendra, left, in This is Spinal Tap

When I lived in London in the 1990s, a priest at the Brompton Oratory encouraged me to go on a retreat at Quarr Abbey. I think he suggested it so as to develop the contemplative side of my spiritual life and because he thought that perhaps I might have vocation to the religious life. So I duly went down to the Isle of Wight to experience a Benedictine monastery for the first time. Fr Ronald, the Oratorian, asked me to, ‘Say hello to Fr Joe for me,’ when I was there.


I found my first visit to a monastic community strange – it was so other worldly that I didn’t particularly take to it on the first occasion. It was only later that I started to love the chanting of the psalms. One thing that I found strange was the way that as a guest, I didn’t seem to have any contact with the residents. I saw the monks at meals, but we weren’t allowed to talk and were at separate tables anyway. When I did see any walking around the grounds they would put their heads down and avoid eye contact. It wasn’t until I read the Rule of St Benedict that I understood that to promote humility, they generally do not initiate conversations with guests and will only speak to them if spoken to first.

Eventually in frustration, I just approached one of them and said I had a message for Fr Joe: ‘Fr Ronald says “Hello”‘. The monk I approached came to life and thanked me for the message and asked if I would like to meet Fr Joe myself and give it to him personally? Hesitantly I said yes, I wasn’t sure what I would say to him after I said those few words.

So I was shown up to his room and was handed a large cup of coffee and by the monk who showed me the way and ushered me into Fr Joe’s cell. Fr Joe was sitting up in bed next to a window with a view of the grounds and the sea. I thought I had been told that he was recovering from a stroke. I didn’t think about it at the time, but he had a large padded white patch taped over one eye, which wouldn’t have pointed to a stroke. I found out from the book many years later that he had cancer of the sinuses and it was extremely painful because the tumor was pushing one of his eyeballs out of its socket from behind.


Despite the pain he must have been going through he called me over and I was struck by how cheerful he was. With a broad smile he asked me to sit close to him. I did so and then he looked at me, with an eyes-twinkling expression (even though one eye was covered), waiting to hear what I had to say. I passed on the message. Then started to ask me all sorts of questions about how I knew Fr Ronald and told me a bit about himself. I am sketchy on the precise details, but as I remember it, he told me that he had lived in the monastery since he was 17 years old and was now 90 years old, so he had lived there seventy-three years. At that point I couldn’t imagine remaining sane by leading a life where I had nothing to do for seventy years apart from singing, eating and hoeing the vegetable patch . If anything I felt sorry for him. The only reason that he could be so cheerful, I thought, was that he had never had any experience of the sort of things that really make like worth living – most of which hadn’t even been invented when he left the world.


He asked me what I did for a living. I remember hesitating and thinking that he must be so far from worldly things that I didn’t know if he would have any idea what my life could possibly be like. I wondered if I might even have to explain what a job was, never mind what mine as a recruitment consultant entailed. Nevertheless I told him and he listened and nodded as I gave him various details and seemed to understand.

Then asked me if I had any problems.

I was going through girlfriend difficulties at the time and rather vaguely indicated this expecting him to take the conversation no further, as his lack of personal experience would mean that he was unable to make any comment. To my surprise, he not only had some comments to make, but asked me some very pointed questions about my personal conduct. I remember thinking, how do you know about that sort of thing? Because of his warm manner and deep and genuine interest in me I found myself revealing very personal thoughts and conduct. It struck me later how quickly he had put me at ease and gained my confidence.

After the questions, he then gave me some advice about what to do. I wish I could remember the details but I can’t. What I can remember is that what he suggested was so simple and on-the-money that it was obvious, to me at any rate, that it was right. I know that I did resolve to follow his advice. At a certain point, perhaps after about 20 minutes or so with him, he apologized and said that he had to let me go because he was about to receive some treatment. But he as he did so he encouraged me to visit and come and see him again.



When I returned to London I told a friend of mine, David Birtwistle, all about Fr Joe and how amazed I was at his wisdom given his total lack of experience of the things he was commenting on.

David was my mentor, an artist and a Catholic, who had drawn me to Catholicism when I was a bitter atheist (he was my sponsor when I was received into the Church). David was, to my mind, as wise as Fr Joe. It was David, for example, who took me through a set of spiritual exercises that allowed me to discern my personal vocation and become an artist, I wrote about it here.


So when I described the meeting to him, David said something profound to me, and it was David’s comment as much as the meeting with Fr Joe that I would relate whenever I spoke of this in the following years. David said: ‘Well doesn’t that tell you something? Fr Joe is close to God. Because God is the Truth those who have a relationship with God havea a grasp of truth and understand what it means to be in relationship more profoundly than if they relied solely on experience of human relationships.’

This was true. I learned from Hendra’s book that many other people were drawn to Fr Joe and so as well as the way that David described, he will have learned things about many aspects of the secular life by listening to so many people about their experiences and difficulties. Also, the monastic community is a place, I now realise where people experience human relationships intensely and again, Fr Joe will have learnt from this. Nevertheless, what enabled him to offer insights into my situation so well, I believe, was exactly what David had put his finger on – divine wisdom.

I would often relate this story in response to an argument often used by Protestants against preistly celebacy: that single priests can’t offer advice on relationships because they have no experience of marriage. Aside from the fact that the primary role of the priest is to aminister the sacraments, not to act as a marriage guidance counsellors; Fr Joe demonstrated to me that personal experience is neither the only nor the greatest source of wisdom.

As another facet to this story, David never told me that he knew Fr Joe personally as well. He had spent a period discerning a religious vocation himself and had spent several months at Quarr Abbey in the late 1940s. David is now dead too.

Even though I would not have said that I particularly enjoyed my first visit to Quarr, I found myself thinking of Fr Joe and beautiful setting and the chant more and more in the following months. So I decided to go back and my intention was to see Fr Joe again. But by the time I got there he had gone. He had died just a few days before and there was a huge display flowers and wreaths with dozens and dozens of cards.


Now, fast forward to a conversation I was having with a parent of one of the students at Thomas More College about 5 years ago. He was telling me about this amazing book he had just read – the Hendra book – about a wise monk at an abbey in the Isle of Wight in England. Gradually I realized that he was talking about Quarr abbey and I assumed that he must be talking about the Fr Joe that I had met. I immediately went out and bought the book and realized that it was.


Hendra more recently

As I read Tony Hendra’s book and his descriptions of the abbey and the grounds and of Fr Joe and his conversations with him it not only reinforced memories, it gave me a lot more detail about the man than I had ever known. All of it supported David’s assessment of him, as one who was close to God.  It also struck me that there is a lesson here on how to be an evangelist. Here was a man who lived in one place for pretty much the whole of his life, never wrote an article, or gave a TV interview in his life, yet the Holy Spirit brought people to him and he affected them profoundly.

It is just as Pope Benedict described in his little paper on the New Evangelization. The method of the Evangelist is prayer….I wonder if Pope Benedict ever met Fr Joe? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Monastic Chant Forum at Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, July 2017.

Fr Benedict Hardy of Pluscarden Abbey, has sent me detials about the next meeting of the Monastic Chant Forum which will take place at Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight in England this coming July.

The meeting will take place from Monday 17th (arrivals before supper at 7pm) to Friday 21st July (departures in the morning: the Quarr daily Mass is at 0900).

The speakers are

Dr. Giedrius Gapsys of the Ecole de Chant Grégorien de Paris;

Dom Xavier Perrin, Abbot of Quarr, and

Sr. Bernadette Byrne, Choir Mistress at Ryde.

The theme is “Gregorian phrase analysis and practice”

Dr Gapsys writes:

“This is one of the most crucial points in Gregorian studies, and still a very practical one! Text, melody, neums and mode are the ‘four points of the compass’ that enable us to find our way to the Gregorian phrase safely, and in this way to ‘bring our chant to life’.”

The hope is to attract as many from the monastic world as possible. The presence of monks and nuns from a variety of different communities will be deeply appreciated. But also: others will be warmly welcome, and offered accommodation as space allows.

Fr Benedict said to me:

In my opinion, anyone at all attending this meeting will come away with a much enhanced understanding of Gregorian Chant, and an ever deeper appreciation of its value as great music, as sung liturgical worship, as prayer. They will also have experienced a thoroughly enjoyable few days, in a most fraternal and congenial setting.

There will be a modest residential fee of £150, or £30 for single days, payable to Quarr Abbey, c/o the Procurator, Fr. Brian Kelly. They hope to secure a grant to cover the course costs, as usual, but cannot yet promise success in this, so there may be an additional course fee.

For accommodation at Quarr, please contact Fr. Brian at: Information about St. Cecilia’s Abbey Ryde from Sr. Bernadette Byrne at

We are used to the idea of monasteries being considered power houses of prayer who prayer the liturgy on behalf the Church and the world. There is an additional very concrete reason why it is important that religious communities continue to offer ever better chanted liturgies and so events such as this are to be supported. It is through retreats and visits to the monasteries and convents around the world that many people are first exposed to the beauty of chant and encounter the power of the liturgy of the hours. Such visits, whether as part of group, guided retreats or as personal visits are popular with many people who would not normally think of themselves as interested in liturgy or even Catholicism.

This can draw people to the Church and help make more people aware of what the liturgy can be. Through such contacts people can come away with a desire to see something better. It might mean recognition that they have a religious vocation, but it is as likely to create a desire for chant in the liturgy in their parishes. It is through my visits to Benedictine monasteries including Pluscarden and Quarr that my eyes were opened to the beauty of chant and the power of the liturgy of the hours.

For any who might be wondering where they’ve heard of Quarr before, perhaps its through the popular book, Fr Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra. I met Fr Joe the first time I visited Quarr.

Holy Iconsmith? Iconwright? More Reasons Why ‘Writer’ is Wronger

There were some interesting responses to my article about what we ought to call the process of creating icons, here. In fact a lively Facebook discussion ensued.

The more it developed the more it became clear to me that I will not use write and it relates to the characteristics of the English language. As Adam Wood pointed out (some may know his name from the Chant Cafe) the person who writes a play is called a ‘playwright’. That’s wright, not write, someone who crafts the drama. This elevates the status of the playwright from a mere writer. Similarly, someone who is skilled with words can be called a ‘wordsmith’, (although this is perhaps more colloquial).

So this seems to suggest that in English it’s actually the inverse of what is being imposed ie ‘painting’ is higher than ‘writing’. If we wish to elevate the status of the writer, then we attribute to his ‘craft’ the status that we give to the work done by an artisan. And if we wish to elevate the status of the icon painter who creates icons we emphasize his craftsmanship. So in English, painter is fine – and better than ‘writer’; as would be iconwright or iconsmith if we want to affect a bit faux-intellectualism for good measure.

This is the reverse of the Greek and the Slavic languages such as Russian and Ukrainian (which refers to the process of decorating eggshells as ‘writing’ too, a FB contributor told us).

Furthermore, if we refer to the icon painter, in Greek graphos, as a writer, then to be consistent we should also say that the photographer writes a photograph; and cartographer writes a map!

I think its easier to stick to plain English. I have trouble enough getting that right without worrying about Greek, Russian and Ukrainian as well! I hope no one is upset by the use of the word ‘paint’…but as the saying goes, if you want to make an omelette you have to crack a few eggs (but hopefully not these beautifully crafted Ukrainian ones).

Incidentally, the painting at the top is St Luke Displaying His Painting of Our Lady by Guercino, the Italian 17th century baroque holy painter/smith/wright.

Notice how he is aware of the tradition that the St Luke’s painting was a Virgin Hodegetria, one of the standard iconographic prototypes.

Beta Testing Holy Icons on Facebook. Creating the New Epiphany of Beauty with Social Media

When John Paul II wrote his famous letter to artists in 1999 he called (in an oft quoted passage) for a ‘new epiphany of beauty’. It is not surprising that this phrase caught the imagination. It seemed to confirm what so many people felt in general about Catholic culture (not just art) of the 20th century: that Catholic culture was not beautiful…but it ought to be.

What seems to be less known is that John Paul II also felt that the mechanism by which this would happen would emerge out a dialogue between the Church and artists. In the opening section he told us that,

In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future. In fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity.

Then after explaining the importance of beauty and art, and summarizing the great artistic traditions of the Church in the past, he closes with a section entitled, Towards a Renewed Dialogue, in which he tell us:

The Church is especially concerned for the dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists, as called for by my revered predecessor Paul VI in his vibrant speech to artists during a special meeting he had with them in the Sistine Chapel on 7 May 1964.(17) From such cooperation the Church hopes for a renewed “epiphany” of beauty in our time and apt responses to the particular needs of the Christian community.

But what form can this dialogue be? One answer is to have enlightened patrons, especially clergy. Such people are capable of engaging with artists constructively. One such example whom I am aware of is Fr Charles Byrd of Our Lady of the Mountains in Jasper, Georgia. This is as small rural parish, yet he has managed to reorder his church and commissioned art and music. He has raised the money through the enthusiasm of a congregation of just a few hundred people. I have written in the past about this, here, in connection with the commisioning of a St Ambrose icon.

I will talk more of the Our Lady of the Mountains project in future blog posts as this is nearing completion.

Another way in which artists can dialogue with the Church is to engage with other artists and with Catholics who would not otherwise be involved in the creative process at all. This last aspect is a bit of market research whereby the artist can see how well his work connects with people.

Currently, I am putting the finishing touches to an online class for Pontifex University called How to Adopt An Artistic Style as Your Own – A Study of Artistic Method for Patrons and Artists. Case Study: Illumination in the Style of the English Gothic School of St Albans 

The intention of this class is both practical and theoretical. On the theoretical side it is to give artists and patrons an understanding of method by which, for example, the Russian icon painters and theorists who were living in Paris in mid-20th century re-established the iconographic tradition so successfully. The hope is that by passing on these principles to those who might be influential in the Catholic church we might see a similar re-establishment of our Western traditions of sacred art in service of the liturgy. For our case study we apply these considerations to the style of English gothic illumination which flourished from about 1100-1300AD. To demonstrate how this might be done – and this is the practical side of the class – I demonstrate how to compose, draw and paint a  picture in accordance with these principles. As such it is also an introductory class the method of painting in egg tempera. One could approach the class as artist – where you actually learn to the painting and have personal critiques on your work; or as a potential patron of the arts, by which you see all the practical instructional material too, but are tested on your understanding of the artistic process through written exams.

This latter ‘patrons option’ is a vital aspect of this course. I know as an artist that the quality of what I produce goes up when the person commissioning the work understands what is artistically possible and has a clear idea of how of what art is for.

So this is dialogue between artist and patron is one form of potential dialogue between the Church and the artist. Whilst creating the course I engaged in another type of dialogue that I also think will help increase the chances of this mission being succesful.

As I painted the demonstration icon for class, which I chose as the Baptism in Jordan, I recorded on video and still photographs what I was doing in order to create the demonstration material for the class, which will be offered online. This meant I took a series of photographs of the painting in various stages of completion. Simultaneously, I posted some of these photos on Facebook and invited comments.

I was a little nervous when I did so, because I was exposing myself somewhat. However the feedback, while not always positive was always constructive (and polite). Furthermore it came from quite a spectrum of people, ranging from internationally known iconographers such as Dr Stephane Rene, to Pontifex University students and even to the six year old son of friends in Washington DC (comments relayed by his mother!).

As a result of this I was able to some degree modify the final form of the picture and gain valuable information for the design of such images in the future.

First here is the original image I based my own icon on:

Winchester Psalter, c 1200

Then you can see the drawing I made with the lines painted in with walnut ink. As you can see, below, I decided to add in features that commonly appear in Eastern icons, for example the personification of the Red Sea and the Jordan which were driven back (cf. Ps 113) back by God to allow the people of God to cross; and the gates of Hades. Also, putting Christ standing on a dry base rather than immersed in the water emphasizes the connection between Jesus and Joshua. Joshua crossed the Jordan on the dry river bed and he is seen as a prototype for Jesus (the name Joshua even being a variant on the name Jesus, which means ‘God saves’. You can look up the significance of these on the internet.

Then I posted the above inked drawing onto Facebook and invited comments. People focussed immediately on the nudity of Our Lord and the symbolism of the elements described above. I had deliberately chosen to have Christ nude because this scene and the Garden of Eden are perhaps the two where nudity is important to the story. We had just been studying this icon in reference to a study of the story of Joshua in Fr Sebatian Carnazzo’s scripture class, also offered by Pontifex University as part of the Masters in Sacred Arts program. In this class he explained how people used to be baptized naked. They would come into the baptistry wearing old clothes, cast them aside, and then after baptism put on the new clothes of the grace. You can see the angel holding the new garment for Christ in the drawing. Furthermore, I had written in the past about John Paul II’s call for artists to portray the human person, ‘naked without shame’, and his assertion that it was in the gothic and iconographic styles that this was most appropriate (as distinct from more naturalistic styles). So I wanted to try and create something in accordance with what he had asked for.

Below you can see the first version with color:

And below this are some of the comments that were made in regard to the above. As can see some openly said they didn’t like it and why. This is just small part of the dialogue that took place:

Here you can see people commenting on the way I have painted and my choice of the gothic style. Elsewhere there view negative views expressed about my choice of making Christ naked. I explained in response to those who commented that I had seen the figure, in accordance with the iconographic and early gothic traditions, clothed in glory that is so dazzling that detail is obscured. People accepted my explanation but it was clear to me that this is not how it really appeared to them. So I had to rethink my approach.

In the end I decided that it was more appropriate to have a loin cloth (as has been the practice in Eastern icons since about the 16th century, or if I with to make the point of his nudity, have the legs crossed the other way so that there isn’t a sense of missing detail and that Christ being portrayed as androgenous.

In general, the old images from the Western tradition tend to have him fully immersed if he is nude (as in the original from the Winchester Psalter above), as in the following gothic illuminations:

I think in the second one, above, I little more work could have been done by the artist to shroud the underwater part of his figure in mystery!

Around the 16th century, Eastern iconography settled on a portrayal of Christ in the Jordan in a loin cloth:

As I thought through the history of the tradition and the comments of my Facebook friends, I felt that I would choose to have a nude Christ in future in accordance with the Western tradition, and have him fully immersed in the water, but in this depiction the best I could do would be to add a loin cloth, as below:

I wasn’t altogether happy with the final result – the folds aren’t particularly convincing and Christ looks like he’s about to take to Centre Court in Wimbledon with a pair of freshly starched tennis shorts! I would do better in future if I planned it from the start. Nevertheless, I found the process very useful indeed and would certainly do this again as part of this development of a new tradition.

Why do I think this Facebook discussion is so valuable?

It comes down to the nature of beauty. If my work is beautiful it will be enjoyed by more people. So while I have to be discerning in who I listen to, this process constitutes, in effect a bit of market research: it is telling, other things being equal, how much did people like the image and that is related to how beautiful it is. Within the bounds that define the tradition of sacred art, I wanted to connect with as many people as possible at a natural level. On the whole people are rarely rude to your face – if they don’t like it they just ignore it and stay silent. I have to bear that in mind as I read the comments and try to think as much about what they are not saying, as what they are saying.

What social media allows for is a chance to expose an artists work to his market in both finished and work-in-progress form. This being the internet, reach is quick and geographically huge. I had people from thousands of miles away reacting with considered comments in a matter of minutes. It is true that I m working through small scale photographs of the icons, which is different from people seeing the original, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages in this process.

Beyond responses the simple question, do you like this, I was interested in the comments made by expert iconographers about the content and composition.

There were others too who wouldn’t call themselves expertss but in many ways their comments were just as useful. I was trying to discern from them whether or not the truths that I intended my pictures to communicate were grasped by the whole range of people who were likely to use such a picture in their prayer and worship. It was I discovered that my work initially failed, in part, to do this that I made the decicison to change my original icon.

Not only did this help me in the creation of a painting, it gave me lessons to pass on to those who will take my class next semester. I constructed a whole lesson around this process of dialogue between Church and artist and the study of John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, using this example as one case study. What I hope artists and patrons will realise is that this has to be a dynamic process in which each is constantly responding to the other so that the quality of art produced steadily improves.

The long term goal of the Pontifex University Masters in Sacred Arts is the emergence of patrons and artists who can work together to put all of this theory into practice in the creation of beatuiful art. The Russian ex-patriots who re-established iconography so well in the mid-twentieth centuries had their theorists who laid the foundations – for example Vladimir Lossky and Paul Evdimikov. But they had also, and crucially, gifted artists who worked with them and manifested that theory as actual holy icons that connected with the people of the Church in their time. This started in the Russian Church but under their inspiration it happened also the other Eastern Churches, for example the Melkite, the Greek and the Coptic. These artists who lead the way were figures such as Leonid Ouspensky, Gregory Kroug, Fotius Kontoglou and Isaac Fanous.

Although I would love to think that it might be so, but the indications are that I am not one of the artists who will be a 21st century Fra Angelicos and who will inspire the new Catholic art. However. it is wholly possible that the figures will inspire the new epiphany of beauty in the Roman Catholic Chruch are amongst those students who are taking the Pontifex University Masters in Sacred Arts.

Lincoln, Nebraska Shows Us the Way

Here is a blogpost from Liturgy Guy about Lincoln, Nebraska. The facts and figures seem to back up the argument he makes, that orthodoxy in liturgy and catechesis keeps the faithful in the Church and the seminaries full.

Even so, it is not as though Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln is resting on his laurels. I attended a weekend conference in Lincoln last August in which Adam Bartlett (of Illuminare Publications and Simple English Propers renown), Matthew Meloche and several other excellent speakers (apologies for not listing you all) gave several presentations about the music in the liturgy. Bishop Conley lead the way catechising his flock with talks and homilies on all aspects of beauty and the liturgy. This included, if I recall, an explanation of ad orientem celebration. I don’t know what the numbers were precisely but a large proportion of the parishes were represented and usually by more than one person; and many were choir directors and pastors.

Furthermore, this indicates that the battle is not about EF vs OF. Rather it is about liturgy done well vs liturgy done badly; and orthodoxy vs unorthodoxy in catechesis. I encourage you to read the article.

As a symbol of what’s going on, the picture that follows is of the old church at the Newman Center of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln;

and now here’s the new church, St Thomas Aquinas at the Newman Center of University of Nebraska.


What does this tell us? Modern is old and tired, traditional is radical and new! Here’s the movement for today – radical traditionalism. Are there any more radicals out there? Let’s hope so!

We at Pontifex University are proud to be at the cutting edge of Catholic tradicalism. Bishop Conley has endorsed our programs saying about us:

“Pontifex University offers formation in the ‘way of beauty’ for the whole person, giving students an intellectual, spiritual, and human sense of God’s revelation to the world through beauty.”

The Painted Word! No, We Don’t Write Holy Icons

Here’s a quiz: I am holding a paint brush, I am dipping it in paint, I am applying the paint to the surface so as to manifest a two dimensional picture of an image that is held as an ideal in my imagination. What am I doing?

Answer: painting, right?

Wrong. It’s writing. Or at least it is according to some people, if the object you are working on is a holy icon.

So, for example, those who think this would say that St Luke not only wrote inspired scripture, he also wrote an icon of Our Lady and Our Lord!

But is this right? Is painting really an inherently distinct and inferior activity to writing as an insistence on the use of the word write would seem to suggest? Also, why pick out a verb that relates to one particular aspect of Christ every single time, ie the Word? We say also that Christ is the image of the invisible God so why not make this aspect govern our verb use when creating holy images? If Christ is an image, then it seems that references to the ‘painting’ of an image seem reasonable. This after all is part of the justification for creating images worthy of veneration, according to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. And if we really do have to only think of Christ as the Word, then (reductio ad absurdum) why not be consistent and rather than talking of Our Lady giving birth to Our Lord, why not say she ‘wrote’ the Word made flesh?

Furthermore, why not use the principle of hierarchial vocabulary when we are talking of writing as…well writing – stringing words together to make sentences and paragraphs? We might say that the writer St Luke wrote his gospel, but hack David Clayton only hacked this blog piece, for example.

To my knowledge it is only in the English language and only since the 20th century that people have referred to the writing of icons in this particular way. It is true that in Greek and, I discovered recently, Russian that the verb, to paint a picture, is the same word as ‘to write’. However the same word is used for the painting of all pictures – not just icons but landscapes, portraits and so on also. The verb ‘to paint’ which does exist in Russian is used for a lesser form of painting – the painting of houses and fences and so on.

This doesn’t mean that those of us who speak English can’t decide to use the word ‘write’ for an icon if we want to. Perhaps it would be valuable to distinguish the creation of holy icons not only from the painting of the walls of a room, but also other lesser forms of art. However, as Catholics we do not necessarily acknowledge that the iconographic style is inherently superior to other all other styles of sacred art. If we follow the ideas of Benedict XVI then, I suggest, we woule refer to gothic and baroque art as works that are ‘written’ too. So Blessed Fra Angelico wrote the Annunciation:

Either that or, to be consistent, extend the use of the word write beyond just icons; or stop using it for paintings altogether and be happy with saying that just as Fra Anglico painted, so did St Luke.

Also, contrary to what some Catholic believe, it is not the case that all icon painters or Eastern Christians use the word write for what they do. My own teacher, who is Orthodox, always used to say that he thought that the use of the word ‘write’ was ‘a bit precious’. This did not mean that he didn’t think that the painting of icons wasn’t a noble activity.

In 1975, Tom Wolfe – the guy who wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities – wrote a brilliant essay about the absurdities of modern art called The Painted Word. He pointed to the fact that the whole art scene is a gallery-art driven business in which the sellers manipulate the market by appealing to the vanity of buyers and intellectuals.. They flatter them by making them think they must be very clever to understand the nonesensical art theory that was used to justify the art they were looking at and which mystifies all clear thinking people who have no pretences to being an aesthete.

The title of the book, the The Painted Word,  arises from the fact that the flattery of the clients was so important to sales that the ideas behind the theory was considered more important than physical manifestations of them, the art itself – to be an modern art officianado is be clever because you understand it, not necessarily because you like it. The artists, faithfully following the theorists in order to sell their work at inflated prices, gradually moved into greater and great abstraction, trying to show the pure non-physical idea through a physical medium. They struggled to do so because the ideas weren’t really coherent. In the end the connection between art and ethos was so obscure that they had to write a long explanation next to the exhibit in order for anyone to understand what was going on. The natural extention of this, Wolfe points out, is to abandon conventional art altogether and just paint the words that represent the idea. This is indeed what happened to modern art. It became an high stakes game of painted word association.

Wofe’s description of the inadequacies of modern art highlight by contrast the richness of traditional sacred art. Because the ethos of Christian sacred art is rooted in truth we can manifest those ideas well. So we not only have writers who write the Word in words, we have painters who paint the Word made flesh as an image, and can even do so in such a way, so the Catechism tells us, that they are able to communicate things that words alone cannot. Furthermore, the Christian tradition also has those who paint words beautifully when they write the Word – they are called calligraphers! The creator of the Lisfarne gospel, shown below, was simultaneously a painter of words, and writer of the Word I suggest.

Where do I stand on this issue? Personally, I am less worried about what you call the activity of painting/writing icons than I am about how well it is done. To insist on the use of the word ‘write’ in a way that is not common practice in the English language feels to me like a bit of unnecessary faux-theological political correctness. So I don’t mind if others do it, but I’m not moved to do it myself. As far as I am concerened, the word ‘paint’ describes more than adequately what the sacred artist does and we don’t need to play word games in order to raise the status of the artist’s vocation. Ultimately, it is artists themselves who will do that by raising the quality of the work that they produce.

Postscript: those who wish to know a range of views held by Orthodox Christians on this matter might be interested in these three thoughtful articles in the Orthodox Arts Journal, here: Is Write Wrong?, here: A Symptom of Modern Blindness; and here: From Logos to Graphos, Lost in Translation. (I love the headlines of the articles by the way. Congrats to the OAJ sub-editor who composed them – they’re so good I thought of stealing them for myself!)

Join a Benedictine Pilgrimage France to Scotland, Summer 2017

Here is a chance to join monks from the US and UK on a pilgrimage from Burgundy to Elgin in Scotland.

I just received an email from Fr Dunstan who is one of the monks at St Mary’s Monastery, Petersham, Mass. ( He asked me to publicise a pilgrimage that is taking place this coming summer organized by St Mary’s mother house, Pluscarden in Scotland which is over 1200 miles, broken up into week long, 100 mile stages.

The pilgrimage goes from the mother house of Pluscarden in Burgundy to Pluscarden which is just inland from the coastline in Scotland that runs from Inverness to Aberdeen.

More information: –

Pluscarden Pilgrimage

Pluscarden Abbey

St Mary’s Monastery

For those who can’t make the trip to France and Great Britain, you can join them spiritually with prayers for their mission, as explained in the website; or even go and visit St Mary’s in Massachussetts on a personal pilgrimage. Both Pluscarden and St Mary’s have full chanted liturgy in Latin according to the Vatican II reforms – seven Offices and Mass each day.

The pilgrimage is a fundraiser to complete the restoration of the buildings at Pluscarden Abbey which date back to 1230, when King Alexander ll built a monastery for a community of monks from Burgundy.

After the Reformation of Parliament in 1560, religious life at the monastery was discontinued and the property passed to a series of lay owners who allowed it to fall into ruin. In 1897, the monastery was bought by the third Marquis of Bute who hoped to restore the buildings to religious use, but died only three years later. The property passed to Butes youngest son, Lord Colum Crichton-Stuart, who lacked the means to continue the restoration work. Eventually, Lord Colum gave the property to the Benedictine monks of Prinkash Abbey, near Gloucester, for them to restore the monastery to its original use. In 1947 Ian Lindsay drew up plans for the complete restoration of the buildings.

In 1948, five monks took up residence, monastic life began again and restoration work on the buildings commenced. In the 66 years since then, about two thirds of the original buildings have been restored and an ivy-clad ruin has become a working Benedictine Abbey.

I have been to Pluscarden many times and love it there. The above picture is of the potato harvest at the abbey. I occasionally went on a retreat to Le Barroux in southern France and was struck by the contrast. In Scotland it’s cabbages and potatoes, in France it’s vinyards and rows of rosemary and lavendar. You can decide which represents an authentic example of labora!

I have a personal interest in that I am an oblate of Pluscarden and one my paintings a two-sided San Damiano crucifixion hangs over the altar in the abbey. It is 6ft long and is painted on both sides so that both congregation and the monks in the choir can see the image.

Wonderful New Icons by Maxim Sheshukov

Thanks to the Orthodox Arts Journal for bringing to my notice the icons of contemporary Russian icon painter, Maxim Sheshukov.

Here is a modern style that works within the icongraphic prototype. I notice that he does not feel compelled to follow one of the ‘rules’ of iconography. When I first started to paint icons was told that the background had to be gold, or painted gold (a mixture of white and yellow ochre) or cinnabar, a bright red that denotes the presence of the Holy Spirit. This rule seems to have fallen by the wayside now and as long as there is no illusion of depth created, it seems just about any background color will do.

Without further comment I’ll let you enjoy them…

Zacheus climbing the sycamore tree.

The stoning of St Stephen

Peter weeping

St Ephrosynos the Cook

The Sacrifice of Isaac

The betrayal of Christ

St Joseph the Betrothed Dreaming

The Martyrdom of St Ignatios the God-bearer