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Register Now: Conference to Showcase World Premiere of Oratorio About St Rita

Full details are now available online for the conference about sanctity, beauty and catholic artistic expression taking place at St Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas; May 19-21.

It has been organized to showcase the world premiere of a specially commissioned Oratorio about St Rita. The oratorio, A Rose in Winter – the Life of St Rita of Cascia has been composed by Frank LaRocca and librettist Matthew Lickona. The performance will be conducted by Dr Alfred Calabrese.

Scheduled speakers are the composer, librettist and conductor; as well as Dr Ron Rombs and Dr Kathryn Rombs of the University of Dallas, Fr Michael Digrigoria OSA, Fr Joshua Whitfield of St Rita’s Church and myself. Titles and abstracts of the talks are on the website.

For more information and register go to

My hope is that they might commission a piece of art work to go with it! Judging from the selection on Google images when you put her name into the search engine, there aren’t many high quality holy images of her around! I like this one, which I found on the internet, but with no mention of who the artist is.



Adult Coloring Books – A Business and Evangelization Opportunity for Catholic Artists?

My brother sent me a link through to this article on the MPR website. This story seems to be getting around – it was on the New Yorker website too! It seems that there is a new trend of adults buying coloring books for themselves. Within a couple of years this has gone from nowhere to sales of millions, yes millions, of books. The top sellers are based upon intricate line drawings of decorative arrangements of flora and scenes from fantasies that stimulate the imagination.

It strikes me that the possibilities of engagement with non-Catholics and even non Christians are huge here. What about a coloring in Book of Kells? or any other illuminated manuscript such as the Westminster Psalter? How about the sort of illuminations that one sees on altar cards. If adults find the coloring in of scenes from the Game of Thrones or Harry Potter absorbing and therapeutic, I suggest that the effect would be even better if the imagination was directed towards heavenly realities.

Traditional Proportion in the Buildings of Annapolis, Maryland

Here are some photographs of buildings and streets in Annapolis, Maryland.

Annapolis is the state capitol and one of the oldest cities in the US. In common with all state capitals it has at its centre a domed capitol building which is the home of the state government. It has a large number of houses in the colonial style. What interests me is that many of the buildings still display the classic threefold proportion. Have a look at the window sizes particularly and you see that rhythmical progression of gradually decreasing size as you go up for three layers (or more), with the first relating the second and the second relating to the third. Many houses from this period have had the windows replaced in standard sizes as the wooden frames rot. Double glazing usually comes in standard sizes and these do not correspond to the traditional range of proportions. When this is done it destroys so much of the beauty of the old houses.

Annapolis is the home of the US naval officers college and and old port.

The proportions of these buildings are derived from those used by the ancient Greeks which were subsequently used by the Romans and then Christian culture up to about 1900.American colonial architecture is similar to the British Georgian style, which is based upon Italian Palladian architecture of the High Renaissance. The proportions for this came from the rediscovery of a text book on architecture written by a Roman architect called Vitruvius. The Roman text book was published in England in the 17th century, in translation (although given a Latin title) under the name ‘Vitruvius Brittanicus’. As a British colony, this style was used in America (with the addition of French style window shutters!) and then retained after independence.

If you want to know more about the mathematics of this proportion my courses on Pontifex.University will teach you about it; otherwise you can read my book, the Way of Beauty which is the text book for all these course. In this description you will discover how the mathematics of proportion is derived from the numerical description of the patterns of the motions of the planets, of musical harmony, and of the pattern of time the worship of God in the Church’s liturgical year. All of this, for the Christian points to one ultimate source, the beauty of God in heaven.

If there are any architects reading this who are looking to make a name for themselves, then take note. A modern building could as easily be built using these proportions as any other, and the beauty of the buildings that use them always attracts attention. So here is a way of raising your reputation as an architect, and adding value to buildings at very little extra cost.


It’s not always possible to have three storeys in a house – but even if you have two, as in the photo above, the basement window is made (through the size of the glass panels within it) to look as though we are seeing the top section of a much larger window that projects below ground, so maintaining this sense of threefold rhythm.

You can see the state government house in the distance with the dome.

Actually (just in case any were going to comment on the fact) this isn’t in Annapolis, but in Frederick, Maryland, which is smaller town of similar age.  I took these photos, above and below, on the same trip to Maryland.







Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and the Immaculate Conception

The baroque style exemplified

It might be said of Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) that he is one of the last great painters of sacred art who painted in the baroque tradition (when he died, in Spain, he was swimming against the neo-classical current). Tiepolo is a master who added his own developments to the form of the baroque as it developed in the 17th century, but without compromising on the principles of the tradition. This makes him worthy of attention today.

The mark of a living tradition is that it able to reapply its principles without compromising on those aspects that define it; when it does this it always speaks to and of its time. This is different from pastiche, which is a rigid copying of style. (Although frankly I think pastiche is underrated – I’d take decent pastiche of the 17th century baroque over modernism every time.)

I saw this particular painting, above, the Immaculate Conception, once at an exhibition about the baroque at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This style of the Immaculate Conception was developed in Spain. Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) who was the teacher of Spanish baroque masters Alonso Cano and Velazquez (he was also Velazquez’s father-in-law).  He described the iconography of the Immaculate Conception in his influential book, The Art of Painting (Arte de la Pintura) published posthumously in 1649. (By the way, I have only ever seen small excerpts of this book in English and have not been able to get hold of a translation of the full document. Can anyone help here at all?)

With reference to the Immaculate Conception, Pacheco wrote: “The version that I follow is the one that is closest to the holy revelation of the Evangelist [St John writing in the Book of Revelation] and approved by the Catholic Church on the authority of the sacred and holy interpreters…In this loveliest of mysteries Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth…And thus she is praised by the husband: tota pulchra es amica mea, a text that is always written in this painting. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle…She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon.”

He also specified that her hands are to be folded on her bosom or joined in prayer. The sun is to be expressed by a flood of light around her. The moon under her feet is to have the horns pointing downwards, because illuminated from above. Round her are to hover cherubim bearing roses, palms, and lilies; the head of the bruised and vanquished dragon is to be under her feet. She ought to have the cord of St. Francis as a girdle, ‘because in this guise she appeared to Beatriz de Silva’, a noble Franciscan nun, who was favored by a celestial vision of the Madonna in her beatitude.

All these accessories are not absolutely and rigidly required and the 17th century Spanish artist, Murillo, who is perhaps the painter most known for the Conception, strayed from Pacheco without being considered the less orthodox for it. An example is shown right. His moon, for example, is sometimes full, or when a crescent, the horns point upwards instead of downwards. I prefer Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception to this or any of Murillo’s that I have seen.

The rose symbolizes Our Lady, and the white colour, as with that of the lily, symbolizes the purity of the Virgin. Palms, deriving from Palm Sunday, symbolize spiritual victory and triumph over death (often used with martyrs). In this case it is emphasizing Mary’s crucial role in the victory achieved by her Son. The dove, of course, symbolizes the Holy Ghost.

In this example, Tiepolo varies the focus and where he mutes the colour he uses tonal variation to describe form, in characteristic baroque mode. Look, for example, at the mantle. This is intended to be seen in our mind’s eye as uniformly blue in accordance with Pacheco’s specifications. However, only part of it in his painting of it is actually blue. Much is rendered tonally in brown ochre and sepia.


Tiepolo is noted for giving his paintings a lightness and airiness that did not exist in those works by artists who worked in the previous century. He has achieved this by using colours in a higher register than many of his 17th-century counterparts would have done – more pale blue, bright yellow and orange for example. Also he deftly varied the colour that he used for the purely tonal description. As mentioned in connection with the mantle, he uses sepia and brown ochre. Elsewhere he uses yellow ochre. Contrast this with, for example, Rembrandt’s St Bartholomew: all his tonal description is in a dark sepia, which creates a sense of heavy shadow wherever it is used. Tiepolo used quite a range of colours as well. For example in his John the Baptist Preaching, we see him modelling tonal areas in blue-greys and green-greys. all this helps to lend a mood in a Tiepolo that is more joyful and less somber than a Rembrandt.

Rembrandt – St Bartholomew

Tiepolo – John the Baptist Preaching

If you are interested in knowing more about the basis of the stylistic elements of baroque art, then you might like to read my book, the Way of Beauty, or take the program courses offered by www.Pontifex.University.


Fra Angelico and the Gothic

The gothic style exemplified.

When, many years ago, I first decided that I’d like to try to paint in the service of the Church I decided I wanted to paint like Fra Angelic (or perhaps Duccio). I suppose you might as well aim high!

Fra Angelico, who worked in the 15th century, had the balance of naturalism and idealism that appealed to me. It seemed just right for prayer. It’s just an anecdotal observation, but when I meet people who have the same outlook in regard to the liturgy and orthodoxy in the Church, it seems that invariably they feel the same about him as I do; and John Paul II described him in his Letter to Artists as one whose painting is ‘an eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith’.

Unfortunately, the late-gothic style of Fra Angelico is not a living tradition and I couldn’t find anyone who painted that way who could teach me. I decided that as it appeared to sit stylistically between the Romanesque (which is an iconographic form) and the baroque and these were forms that are taught today, to some degree, I would learn both and try to work out how to combine the two. I am still working on that now!

What is it that characterizes gothic figurative art?

We start to see a change in figurative art  which begins in the 13th century. The Romanesque style, that dominated in the West up to this point was still fully consistent with the ancient iconographic tradition (that originated in the early years of the Church and is the dominant style of the Eastern Church today). Around the 13th century a change began to occur in how people thought about the nature of the world around them. It was still very Christian, but gradually there was an increased appreciation of the beauty of the world around us and in the reliability of the senses to communicate reliably the true nature of our surroundings to us. As a result, it was no believed that the world we live in, although fallen and imperfect, is nevertheless good, ordered and beautiful. So there may be evil and suffering in the world, and it may not be as good and beautiful as it ought to be, but it is nevertheless God’s creation and still good and beautiful. People thought this before the 13th century too, but there was less faith in the idea that what we perceive with our senses is the true picture and consequently, there was, relatively, more interest in the beauty of the world to come.

What caused this new naturalism in art?

This new interest in the present world caused both the rise of naturalism in art and the development of science fostered by the Church. I have read of two main reasons for this. One is the incorporation of the philosophy of re-discovered works of Aristotle (who trusted the senses more than his teacher, Plato) into Christian thinking, by figures such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. This provided the intellectual basis for the development. Second is the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi. He loved nature as the work of God and as Franciscan ideas spread so did an enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, nature.

Let’s look at a very famous fresco by Fra Angelico of the Annunciation on the walls of a cell at San Marco in Florence. He consciously employs some of the developments of the new naturalism: there is cast shadow, there is single-point perspective creating a sense of depth in the covered cloister; the archangel is in profile. But there are also stylistic aspects that we are accustomed to seeing in iconography: the figures are painted in the middle distance, the edges of each shape are all sharply defined and the colour is evenly applied (unlike the baroque which has selectively blurred or sharp edges and selective use of colour or monochrome, usually sepia, rendering).

If, incidentally, you are interested in knowing more about the basis of the stylistic elements of both the iconographic style and the gothic then you might like to read my book, the Way of Beauty, or take the program courses offered by www.Pontifex.University. Also, very soon I am going to start a whole series of blog postings that will explain the basis of these styles – starting with iconography.

Coming back to this painting by Fra Angelico, if we examine further, we can see that the light source that is casting shadow is from the left. If cast light were the only source, the face of the Archangel would be dark, yet it is bright. Fra Angelico is showing the face of the Archangel glowing with the uncreated light of holiness, which is what we are used to seeing in the Byzantine iconographic form. So we see, both iconographic style and a new naturalism!

So much significance in one little shadow – what it says about Our Lady

I was giving a lecture once about this painting and a student asked me about the shadow. He pointed out that Our Lady is a saint, he could see that her face wasn’t in shadow and there was strong halo, representing he uncreated light coming from her. But also pointed out that there is a strong cast shadow on the wall behind her. Wouldn’t you expect her radiance to obliterate that, he asked? I agreed with him, you would. But I couldn’t say why Fra Anglelico had painted it like this. I speculated that perhaps it was due to the fact that there were two light sources from the left – the natural light and the uncreated light from the angel and that the combined intensity of light would cause the shadow against the wall. I had to admit even as I said it that my answer sounded contrived. Nevertheless, putting aside my inability to account for it, it did seem that Fra Angelico was being quite deliberate in his manipulation of light and shadow. Another Annunciation, shown below, has the same effect of this cast shadow of Our Lady.

The questioner suggested an answer: Fra Angelico was a Dominican, and not a Franciscan. At this time the question of her Immaculate Conception had not been decided and the Dominicans, who did not accept the Immaculate Conception and were in dispute with the Franciscans over the issue, who were. Perhaps, suggested the questioner, Fra Angelico was making a theological point to the Franciscans, by dimming her light ever-so-slightly, he was suggesting that she wasn’t born without original sin (which is what is meant by the Immaculate Conception). This was an ingenious, and I couldn’t say that it wasn’t what Fra Angelico had in mind. I certainly preferred it to my answer!

Later, however, someone in another class, a priest, gave the most convincing reason so far. Luke 1 tells us that the words of the angel Gabriel were:, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”. This is the most compelling reason I have heard so far!


Magnificent New Russian Cathedral Bases its Style on Traditional Western Sacred Art

Here is an inspiration for artists in the West!

The latest edition of the Orthodox Arts Journal has a feature on the recently dedicated Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God at Yasenevo, which overlooks Moscow. It is was dedicated by Patriarch Kirill and appropriately (given his recent meeting with Pope Francis) the mosaics especially draw inspiration from traditional Western iconographic forms. As the article explains, they looked to the Romanesque churches of Sicily built in the Byzantine influenced Romanesque style in the 12th century under the patronage of the Norman king, Roger II. In doing this, the art conforms fully to the principles that define the iconographic tradition, but in an exciting way that is unusual in Russia.

Below, the interior mosaics and the (very Russian) exterior of the cathedral:

Compare and contrast those with the interior and exterior of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Sicily

I have only seen the photographs that are included in the article, but based upon these I would say that this is a model lesson in how to draw into your own tradition outside influences without compromising core principles. It is fresh and exciting and this is the mark of a truly living tradition.

Furthermore, there is plenty of more conventional, Eastern style iconography here too, and the external appearance of the Church clearly that of an Eastern church.

I suggest that Catholics in the West should look at the way in which the Eastern Church so successfully reestablished its iconographic tradition of art in the  mid-20th century. (The leader figures were Russian ex-patriots, theorists and painters living in Paris, the leading figures were Vladimir Lossky, P. D. Ouspensky and Gregory Kroug – we will be talking more about them and style of Russian icons in coming weeks!).

The new iconography is so much more than an unthinking recreation of the past – which would be pastiche. The best of the icon painters of of today who work in this tradition are producing work that bears the mark of its time and place; and can stand alongside the great artists of the past.

This is what I hope to see applied to our distinctly Western traditions of liturgical art in the future. If any of you are interested in knowing more about icons and also my ideas on how we might re-establish a culture of beauty in the West you can read the book The Way of Beauty. This book is the basis of a whole program of study available at www.Pontifex.University – a generic formation in beauty that will give you a deep understanding of the basis of culture, it will cultivate (if you will forgive the pun!) creativity and an openness to inspiration.


You can read the whole article in Orthodox Arts Journal, here.