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Redeeming Romanticism

By Andrew Thornton-Norris

The third idea that I would like to introduce is the one that combines those of the last two posts, the inculturation of the gospel into modern culture through the redemption of Romanticism. This represents a movement back from a religion of art to a religious art which recognises the Glory of the Lord.

Romanticism and the attempt to escape it through formal Modernist strategies is the inescapable condition of modern art. This is the consequence of the spiritual individualism that is the result of the reformation, and the political and moral individualism that is its consequence. The refusal to accept the external authority of tradition or of the Magisterium means that each man is an island adrift in his own futile attempt to reconstruct a value system that re-connects him with a community and with objective reality.

This is the modern condition and its aesthetic consequence is Romanticism. The legitimate natural impulse towards transcendental beauty has no external object towards which to be directed, and so is tragically misdirected within, towards the creative impulse itself, thus becoming a religion of art. This can be seen in Wordsworth’s Prelude, Coleridge’s Rime, Beethoven’s Symphonies and Wagner’s Operas, as well as the whole movement from Impressionism towards Abstraction and Conceptualism in art.

I do not mean that these Romantic artists and the reactions to them are bad, quite the reverse, they are heroically good given the circumstances, just that they all contain a Romantic understanding of the universe, which turns art into a quasi-religious experience or act. This is damaging to both art and religion, because it expects too much of art, the replacement of religion, and thus contains flawed religious assumptions. Romanticism by the way is simply the flip-side of the Rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the endless movements that succeed them like the tides are more or less restatements of these basic positions.

The loss of the transcendent object of beauty, The Glory of the Lord (“the beauty of his Wisdom”) is the central theme of the work of Hans Urs Von Balthasar and his attempt to restore it for us. This is how Romanticism may be redeemed, and the integrity of modern art restored, through the re-establishment of the proper relationship of religion and art. The recognition that neither art nor the human person are worthy objects of worship reminds us that this is the idolatry natural to those who have not been effectively schooled in religious truth. The answer and the way to practice art successfully in this context is to re-accept the Magisterium which as always is our redemption.gustave-dore-paradiso-canto-34-1868-trivium-art-history

Catholic Artists Conference and ‘Faces of Christ’ exhibition: Sept 12-13, Shuyler NE

Here is early notice of a conference that will take place in the Fall. The Catholic Artists Conference is intended to encourage and guide Catholic artists and patrons. The central theme is prayer and it is entitled Prayer: Art from the Heart of God. You can read more about it at Speakers include most prominently Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska. I am also speaking at the conference.

In conjunction with the conference is an exhibition which is the US debut of the Faces of Christ exhibition. An exhibition of works by living artists from around the world.

I have attached below images of the conference and exhibition promotional material. To read more about the conference to go; and about the exhibition go  to

I will be posting reminders as we get closer to the date.

A Formation in Beauty – Pontifex.University will Offer a Unique Program of Catholic Studies

How what started as a budding artist’s quest for a formation in beauty and creativity became a manifesto for cultural renewal; and will now be available as a whole program of courses offered by www.Pontifex.University.

It’s not just for artists. It’s good for anyone looking for creativity and inspiration no matter what they do!

I started to research the material for my book the Way of Beauty about 20 years ago in England, where I am from originally, when I decided I wanted to be an artist to serve the Church. Of course at that stage I didn’t know that it would end up as the material for a book. I was fed up with the art I saw appearing in the churches around me and decided I wanted to do something about it by becoming an artist myself. I was full of the zeal of the newly converted and was on a mission to change the world.

clayton-the-way-of-beauty-267-px-400pxThe problem was how to get the necessary training. I knew that no existing art school would give me what I was looking for. I needed the traditional skills and although it was difficult to find people who still taught drawing and painting with rigor, it was just about possible. The real problem was knowing how to direct those skills once I had them.

Two things were necessary for such a formation. First, was a Catholic inculturation, so that I understood how to recognize what it is that makes some forms instrinsically Catholic – the iconographic, the gothic or the baroque styles of art for example; and others instrinsically anti-Christian and anti-Catholic – cubism or abstract expressionism for example.Secondly, I needed a spiritual formation that would develop my sense of the beautiful, and would engender creativity and an openness to inspiration.

No one I knew could tell me enough about either so I started to do my own research into both the traditional understanding of the basis of Catholic culture; and I how artists were trained.

The Way of Beauty contains all the details about what characterizes Catholic art, Catholic culture and the spiritual formation that engenders those personal qualities needed in the creative forces behind such a culture. In short a formation in beauty.


It describes how the worldview of the artist is manifested in the style of his art, for good or ill, by giving an overview of the all the stylistic characteristics of the great artistic traditions of the Church; it describes the mathematical basis of traditional compositional design principles and proportion (explaining why this does not include the Golden Section or the Fibonacci series!). We can see this manifest in the proportions of buildings and in geometric patterned art. The book also describes how the numbers that govern the patterns in art, ar the same as those that govern the pattern of right prayer. It describes the traditional prayer pattern of artists (which happens to be exactly what Pope Benedict XVI recommended for the New Evangelization by the way!)



Although the formation that it describes is, as best as I could discern, the perfect program of Catholic orientation for an artist, I realized that it offered something that would be of interest to many more. Every artist understands the need for inspiration, but in fact I realised that what I had discovered was training in creativity that could be applied to any human pursuit. Man has free will and ultimately, he is free to reject or accept God’s inspiration, but his freedom is increased if he has a greater awareness of what direction that inspiration is guiding him. Furthermore if he follows that inspiration he will flourish in what he does all the more, for it will be in accord with what he is meant to do. This formation could be used, therefore, as a Catholic orientation for any other, more vocational formal education – engineering or science for example. Furthermore, could be general formation for people at all levels of interest, even if they are simply looking for personal enrichment.


If I was going to argue that this formation should be part of everyone’s education, then I would have to know more about the traditional of understanding of the Church of the purpose of education, and what such a general education is comprised. So this set pattern for the next stage of my personal research and what became the first section of my book.

My discovery was exciting. As I read the writings of the Church Fathers, and others such as Newman and the popes since Pius XI on what Catholic education ought to be I found out that this program of inculturation and formation in beauty had always been right at the heart of every Catholic education. It was just that barely anyone around seemed to know it (even amongst those who are serious about being true to the magisterium). Divine wisdom is the goal of education, imparted by supernatural means!


The great Catholic artists were given this training in the past not so much because they artists, but rather because they were Catholics!

After the book came out, I was delighted to be invited to become Provost of  www.Pontifex.University which is a new explicitly Catholic online education platform to recruit teachers and create a program of courses as described in the Way of Beauty as first program. I am so excited about this. Now, this traditional formation in beauty will be widely available as a series of courses for all levels – from Masters level through to those who want to audit for personal enrichment. We are at pilot stage right now, but plan to launch the first part of the program later this year.

Photos from the top: Fra Angelic: the Annunciation; 15th century gothic style (yes gothic, not Renaissance do – the courses and you’ll find out why!)Zurburan: St Francis of Assisi at Prayer, 17th century, baroque style; traditional geometric patterned art in Rome, 13th century with 19th century restoration; Attingham House, 18th century, showing traditional proportion (look at the window sizes!); Rembrandt: the Artist in His Studio, 17th century, baroque;







The Walled Garden – A Collection of Poetry by Andrew Thornton-Norris

I want to direct your attention to a collection poems by Andrew Thornton-Norris called The Walled Garden. It has been positively reviewed by figures known on both sides of the Atlantic such Annette Kirk, Fr Aidan Nichols, Fr John Saward and Roger Scruton who said of Andrew’s poems that they ‘convey a gentle Christian vision, pertinent to the world in which we live.’

Quarterly Review‘s Michael Davies hailed it as ‘a return to the great tradition’. You can read his wonderful and detailed review of Andrew’s poems in this collection here.

Andrew Thornton-Norris’s work is accessible and noble and speaks to someone, like me, whose eye’s ordinarily glaze over at the mention of poetry – honestly, read my article The Need for Beauty and Form in Poetry if you don’t believe me.  I never studied literature formerly at any level (I never did an English Literature class at high school – an omission in my education for which I am profoundly grateful).

Andrew’s poems have simultaneously the simplicity and the depth of a psalm, or an Ambrosian hymn. This is not surprising for he has a deep understanding of the connection between faith and the culture; and between the Faith and Western culture.   It  is because he understands both the cultural traditions of his faith, and the culture of modern man that he knows how to make the first speak within the second though his poetry.


For evidence of his understanding of the tradition, I suggest you read Andrew’s book, the Spiritual History of English.  In this book he analyses the form – the underlying sentence structure and vocabulary – of the English language since the time of the Venerable Bede and he demonstrates how it has changed to reflect the culture of faith from which it emanates. As he describes modern English is less able to articulate the ideas and beauty of the faith than it was in the time of Shakespeare. You can read my review of this brilliant book in an article entitled A Book For Anyone Interested in the Evangelization of the Culture.

31zXCvZG-lL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_As the title of my review suggests, Andrew is not pessimistic however, and is ready to try to influence the culture through his own work and restore what has been lost and, who knows help to raise it to something even greater. This is the what all who are creative must do. As he wrote so revealingly in a recent blog post on the Beauty of Catholicism blog, ‘The modern artist or writer of faith has to inculturate his faith and work into the culture and the artistic forms of modern society in exactly the same way that a missionary has to inculturate his message into that of an alien culture. For that is exactly the circumstance that we face today, an alien culture, albeit one formed historically by our faith; and our challenge is to make our work “relevant,” comprehensible and attractive to the modern consumer of that work, without diluting its content or alienating ourselves.’

I recommend also Andrew’s course, The Romance of the Soul, which is a study of mystical poetry, including the work of poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante, St John of the Cross, T.S. Eliot and John Burnside, which is offered at Pontifex.University. He is also a regular contributor to the American magazine, the Imaginative Conservative.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here

The day I wandered after dusk
Across ploughed field and shadowed copse
And wondered of the busied world
If I should ever step there again.

For my heart was bleak as the plain ploughed field
And my mind was dark as the shadowed copse,
Where roosting fowl did cluck and screech
And flitting bats did dart among the flies.

Darkening skies of grey and silver and blue
With bursting coloured sunset nearly out of sight
As India from my nation’s realm withdrew
And peaceful evening skies let no respite.

By Andrew Thornton-Norris – London, United Kingdom – 19 February 2012


The painting  is by Alan Thompson, and English artist.

Our Lady of the Mount, Anjara, Jordan – a church and a story that reveals more of charism IVE

A mission parish of Argentinian order, Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE), it commissioned four large new panel icons of the Mysteries of the Rosary; and is the place where in 2010, a statue of Our Lady wept tears of blood.

It is funny how one story leads to another, or perhaps I should say two others. I posted a recent article about my visit to the seminary of the Argentinian order Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) in Washington DC. First, I was contacted by English icon painter, Ian Knowles, who told me that this is the order that had commissioned him to paint icons of the Mysteries of the Rosary for a church run by them in Jordan. It is the Shrine of Our Lady of the Mount.

This was further evidence that the order is committed to the creation of beauty to evangelize the culture, as the description of their charism says, see here, item 5. I wanted to know more about the church and started to dig around. then I found out that it is also that it is the site of a miracle validated by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in which a statue of Our Lady wept tears of blood in 2010. The statue is old, perhaps 150-200 years old, and was purchased by the church shortly before the miracle occurred.


Culture, beauty, prayer and devotion to Our Lady, all aspects of the charism of the order and somehow all of this is entwined in a dynamic mix for the mission of the Church in this one shrine in the Middle East.

For the icons, there are some photos below at the bottom of the blog post. Immediately below is artist Ian with one of the panels in progress (who incidentally I met several years ago when we both attended a class taught by Aidan Hart!) .


I am so heartened to hear of IVE wanting to encourage ‘eyes-open prayer’ through the commission of these icons. It shows, in my opinion, a true understanding of the New Evangelization as, regardless of the miracle, the simple beauty of each in the church, will encourage a deeper prayer that engages the whole person.  This will facilitate a supernatural transformation of the person in Christ and lead, in turn, to the transformation of the culture as each person contributes to it, gracefully and beautifully by simply going about their daily business.

The same can be said of the statue. For all the headlines in connection with the miracle (which I very happy to accept occurred), it is the supernatural transformation of mankind in Christ – partaking of the divine nature – that is the truly astounding fact of the Christian faith; and this is an extraordinary privilege that is open to every single human person and leads to a life of such joy. Sometimes it needs the exceptional, headlining events such as miracles, to inspire the prayer that will engender what I think are the greater, yet so often neglected and misunderstood truths of the Faith.


The account of the miracle is on the National Catholic Register, here. The account of the Pope’s visit is on the IVE site, here. The order is devoted to Our Lady with a special devotion to the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Lujan, a South American holy image. What struck me in the account is how Argentinian priest of the order Fr Nammat says quite matter-of-factly that he doesn’t know why the miracle should have occurred, except to remark that the ‘Arab spring’, which began the persecution of so many Christians (and Muslims) in the region began shortly afterwards, and perhaps there is a connection.

Below: Ian’s Sorrowful Mysteries, with detail below that. You can just make out the Arab script in the



..and the Joyful Mysteries:





Institute Verbo Encarnato (IVE) – the Institute of the Incarnate Word

the-ive-press-crestAn order that embodies the principles of joyful evangelization in accordance in the spirit of Pope St John Paul the Great and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

This past week, I was lucky enough to be invited to give a couple of talks on art and culture to seminarians of IVE, the Institute of the Incarnate Word. This is an order of priests, religious and of lay people (in a 3rd order) founded 32 years ago in Argentina and which has seminaries in the US (in Maryland in the Washington DC conurbation where I visited), in Italy, Brasil, Peru, the Philippines, and in Argentina. They have missions in many parts of the world including Iraq, the Gaza Strip and Papua New Guinea; and monastic foundations in Spain, Argentina, the Middle East and Italy.

My visit coincided with their 32nd anniversary on the Feast of the Annunciation (that’s how I know precisely how long they have been going).It was celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. The celebrant was Bishop Quinn of Winona, MN. He and his Vicar General who flew in for the day just to celebrate Mass for IVE (IVE has a minor seminary in Bishop Quinn’s diocese). Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington DC spoke at the Mass (all three attended the very festive celebration meal at the seminary afterwards). This was a beautiful and dignified Mass in which the choir of seminarians and sisters from the order chanted Gregorian Mass IX for the Ordinary of the Mass and the music included beautifully sung and moving polyphony.

Before I go on, I should declare a personal bias. I became aware of them for the first time only a few months ago, because a parishioner from one of their parishes in San Jose contacted me and said that the priest there, a member of this order, was quoting my book the Way of Beauty in his homilies and encouraging people to read it because it reflected, he said, the charism of the order. Naturally I was excited and curious and got in touch, and given this interest in my book have a natural in what they are doing.

As a result of this initial contact I was asked to speak about the Way of Beauty to the priests, seminarians and sisters who live at the seminary. I was very happy to do so, of course, but my feeling as I came away from these three days I was the one who benefited the most, through my contact with them, worshiping and praying with them and through the many conversations I had.

There are so many good things I could say about my experiences in the last few days, but rather than list them all (perhaps various aspects will come out in different blog posts in time) I encourage people to read about them in their website and especially the description of their charism. My personal impression is that the qualities of joy, vigor and dignity that come through in the description of their charism is there in each person that I met. Their liturgy is solemn and dignified, their intellectual formation is rigorous and is centered on the philosophy and theology of St Thomas, and they have a special devotion to Our Lady,



Above: celebration of Mass by Cardinal McCarrick at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last year. The image is  Our Lady of Lujan (see below)

I want to highlight one example of what I saw that I think says a great deal about IVE. In the seminary in Washington DC there were priests, 40 or so seminarians and perhaps a similar number of sisters. I met people from Argentina, the US, Columbia, Ireland, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, ,Guatemala, England, and Australia that I can remember. Most were young (under 35), however, I noticed a number of men with grey hair (or very little hair) and assumed that they were long time members of the order. It was only  as I started to talk to them that I found out that some  were seminarians studying for the priesthood as well.

One whom I spoke to quite a bit was was 68 years old, currently a deacon and due to be ordained this May. He described himself not as a late vocation, but rather as a delayed vocation. He said that from the time he was a young boy he had wanted to be a priest and had tried several times but had been thwarted for various reasons at various early stages in the process. Latterly he was barred from being a diocesan priest because he was too old to start. He told me that IVE has a policy of never barring anyone who they feel has a genuine vocation because of age. This was great for him – he told me he had never been happier. It was also good for the community at the seminary, I felt. It had a balancing effect on the spirit of the community. So that within each year, even the novice years, there were people with more life experience in other ways and this enriched community life for all. These are all good, practical and charitable reasons to have such a policy; but the most important reason for having such an open policy, it seemed to me, was something else. It comes from an understanding of what personal vocation is.

When we are fulfilling what God wants us to be then we contribute in charity, beautifully and gracefully to all around us. That man’s personal vocation began the moment he entered that order and was on the path that God had set out for him. This means that in the economy of grace he is giving to all around him, as well as receiving. It would be easy for IVE to think of the training period in the seminary is one in which they make the investment of money and time in his training, and only when he is ordained they start to reap the rewards. If that were so, then it would make no sense to take on older seminarians, because they won’t have time as priests to pay back the investment made in them (however you would measure such a thing). However, when the economy of grace is brought into the equation, we can see that IVE has to benefit from anyone in their presence who is living out their personal calling in life. It is an act of faith on the part of IVE that trusts in the principle that God will provide for us if we do God’s will and help others to God’s will too.

You can find out more information about IVE in the US by visiting If you want to see the home site for the organization based in Argentian (in Spanish) then that is

Below: Our Lady of Lujan, patroness of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. She is the patroness of the order too. The story of the beginning of the special veneration of this image of the Immaculate Conception, dating from 1630 when a miracle occured is here. I didn’t know until I saw this image that the national flags and colors of the shirts of the national soccer teams of Argentian and Uruguay are in the colors of Our Lady of Lujan. (Perhaps England could take a leaf out of Argentina’s book, have their soccer team wear the color of Our Lady of Walsingham, and then we might win the World Cup again!)



For information on the iconography of the Immaculate Conception see and article I wrote here.