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Modern Russian Iconographers Who Break the Rules but Conform to the Principles

Thanks to Gina Switzer (an artist whose decorated Easter candles have been featured on the NLM to great interest) for drawing my attention to this write-up in the Orthodox Arts Journal of an exhibition that took place in Moscow earlier this year, a presentation of contemporary Russian icon painters.

What is interesting is the variety of styles on dsiplay that nevertheless all sit within bounds of what could legitimately be considered a holy icon. Many incorporate stylistic features that might not have been seen in the icons of Rublev in the 15th century. I would characterize what they are doing in the following way: the artist may be breaking past rules, but they never contravene the timeless principles that define the tradition. In the way I am using these words, a “rule” is precise and unbending, the particular application of a “principle” suited to a particular time and place. For example, a rule would be “only use gold for the background in an icon,” which is what I was told when I first started to learn iconography. The underlying principle, on the other hand, is flexible, and is applied in different ways according the needs of the time and place. The principle behind the use of gold for backgrounds is that the background must seem flat and not create the illusion of space, in order to suggest the heavenly realm which is outside time and space. If you look at such icons, you see a variety of background colors and even geometric patterned art, something I was told in my first icon classes should never be seen in an icon! However, they can all be used to suggest flatness, and therefore work well in conforming to the underlying principle.

Similarly, when I first learned icon painting I was told that I had to start with a dark background, and then build the form by putting successive layers of lighter toned paint on top; there was even a theological argument used to justify this. Then it was discovered that ancient iconographers used a method whereby a monochrome underpainting was laid down first, and then both light and dark transparent layers washes of paint were put over it. Because the end result – what the final icon actually looks like – was the most important principle, my icon-painting teacher immediately adopted this quicker and easier method of building form.

This flexibility is the sign of a vibrant living tradition, one in which individual expression is allowed, but always in conformity to the principles that define it. As a result, the tradition reinvents itself with each new generation and so is able to connect with the people of its day. No tradition can rely exclusively on its canon of past works to maintain its relevance; it must always create anew, or else it will die.

This is what Benedict XVI calls for in his analysis of culture in his book, Sing a New Song, in which he explains that it is the responsibility of the artist to connect with people beyond the esoteric circle of the artists and academics who “understand” the tradition. In Benedict’s phrase, he must connect with “the many.” Furthermore, he says that it is “the mark of true creativity” that the artist is able to do this. In other words, the responsibility of the artist is to be popular by creating good and beautiful works of art.

Art that is popular isn’t necessarily good, but the very best art will be popular. If the most popular aspects of mass culture today are not edifying and uplifting, then it is the responsibility of Christian artists to produce work that is and which, importantly, connects with modern people. If the artists fail to do so, the fault lies not with the audience, but with the artists for failing to create something that is beautiful enough to command a decent price. This simple test of quality is often seen as too harsh, and I find that there is resistance to it from practicing artists, especially those whose work doesn’t sell.

It is to the credit to those who in the mid-20th century reestablished the iconographic tradition in its modern form, that they laid down the foundational principle that allowed for the right sort of flexibility, and so created a living tradition. These people were Russian ex-pats living in France in the mid-20th century, most notably Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky. Lossky was a theologian, Ouspensky was a practicing artist as well as a deep thinker. A third artist whose work was influential in the same regard was Gregory Kroug.

Oupensky and Lossky had to develop the greater part of these principles themselves. There were no detailed writings about art by the Church Fathers that they could draw on to define the stylistic elements in the way that was necessary to guide artists, and which anyone who has done an icon class will hear from his teacher. They analysed icons that they judged to be good and holy, and developed a theology of form that seemed consistent with what they were looking at. This is what artists needed in order to create work. The principles of this newly established iconographic tradition tell us not so much what artists did in the past, but rather what artists ought to do in the future in order to produce work that bears the mark of the holy icon.

The test of the validity of this is not historical accuracy of the principles as proposed, but rather the quality of the work produced by the artists who follow them, and the resilience of the tradition they established – can it outlast the generation that created it? We simply don’t know if the formulae that Ouspensky and Lossky developed correspond precisely to what Rublev would have been aiming for hundreds of years ago.

I feel that iconography has passed the test. We are now several generations of teachers and students past Ouspensky. The very best of today’s icon painters are producing icons in this style that stand alongside the great works of the past. and moreover, they are engaging with modern people in the place where they are meant to, in the context of the liturgy.

The analysis of these 20th century Russian ex-pats may very well have little credibility in the art history departments of our secular universities, where, I am guessing, it would be dismissed as purely personal speculation. But that doesn’t prevent what they proposed from being good and valid, given the end that they had in mind, namely, the creation of beautiful art that is in harmony with the liturgy.

I have to admit that I do not know how flexible Ouspensky and Lossky were themselves in their presentation of this. I once had some excellent classes from someone who was taught directly by Ouspensky in Paris, and who constantly referred to him. The instructions of how to do it were presented as inviolable laws; there was no room for discussion, and from the way that she described Ouspensky, it seems this is how it was presented to her. Nevertheless, she did explain the reason for the rule in each case. Once we understand why we are doing something – the end towards which the rule is directed – then regardless of how flexible Ouspensky would have been himself, this builds the possibility of changes that can be justified, provided they bring about the same end.

Even if we discover in the future that these principles are at variance with those used centuries ago – perhaps with the discovery of the some set of ancient scrolls – this in no way alters the validity of what has been developed in the 20th century. It simply gives us an alternative set of principles available to the artist who wishes to paint for the Church.

We can look to this pattern for reestablishing artistic traditions in the Western Church too. There are different things we can do. First is to work within the iconographic style and produce styles that connect with those who worship in the Roman Rite. Icon painters such as Aidan Hart have been doing this. Aidan is Orthodox, but he looks for inspiration to the styles of the Church in the West prior to the schism that were consistent with the iconographic prototype, such as the Romanesque. As a result, he is creating a 21st century style of Western iconography that connects with worshipers in the West, who worship in both the Roman and Byzantine Rites. Moreover, he passes the Benedict XVI “creativity test” – his work connects with the many and is in great demand.

The other thing that we can do is apply the Ouspensky/Lossky type of analysis to the other liturgical traditions of the Roman Church, the Gothic and the Baroque. St John Paul II understood this, and for this reason called in his Letter to Artists for a renewed dialogue between the Church and artists. The final section of my book The Way of Beauty is my attempt to do just this. You can judge for yourself the validity of what I propose, but regardless, we need our own Losskys and Ouspenkys in the Roman Church!

I present my favorites from the article – for the credits for the artists go to the Orthodox Art Journal. The one name I will mention here is the painter of the first icon below, Fr Zinon, who is perhaps the most famous icon painter of the present day.

A Book That Tells Us What Brexit Was Really About

How to Be a Conservative by Roger Scruton and the cultural battle for the West.

If you are like me and fed up of all the news articles and Facebook posts telling you that your support for Brexit reveals you as racist, jingoistic, selfish, economically illiterate, small minded or just plain stupid, then I have the antidote for you: Roger Scruton’s How to Be a Conservative.

In this small book he  offers a brilliantly thought out practical philosophy of moral and compassionate patriotism, that cares deeply about the liberty and floursihing of poor and the rich alike, and sees a culture of beauty as absolutely necessary to transmit and sustain the core principles and values that bind the nation together (and frankly, make life worth living). It is a religion neutral, natural-law case for a just society that is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching. Scruton is an Englishman and his discussion is mostly in reference to the English situation; however, he admires and visits the US regularly as well and at various points he adapts what he is saying to the American situation.
His is a philosophical argument, that is, one that is argued rationally from the starting point of observations how people are. He is an acute observer of human nature and so his arguments convince by appealing to ordinary to common sense as much as anything else. He tells us first that his conserative instincts came in part from his father, whom he observed growing up in High Wickham in southern post-War England. Jack Scrution, we are told, was a committed socialist who sought the redistribution of wealth, but, as Scruton junior pointed out, ‘we are all conservative about the things we know about’. And what his dad knew about and loved was local history, and especially the beautiful architecture and the area around High Wickham in Buckinghamshire. This love of the local heritage compelled him to campaign for the preservation these beautiful signs and symbols of traditional English culture and way of life.

scruton_cover_3060253aNow in his seventies (and made a Knight in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list!) Sir Roger Scruton still follows his fathers instincts in this regard even though he never shared his political views. He has had a long academic career which began as an undergraduate at Cambridge, but which steadily  saw him become an independent academic as it was obvious that he had no career in the faculties of the universities of England, dominated as they are by a left wing and intolerant intelligentsia.

He does not seem the slightest bit bitter however, his writing exudes a gentle and optimistic outlook and it it is clear that he understands and accepts that no men are perfect, liberal or conservative, believing or nonbelieving.

Scruton does not tells us his personal religious beliefs, for this is philosophy, not theology. Nevertheless, his is a philosophy that sees the necessity of both religion and religious tolerance. Faith is seed ground from which grow the mores that every society must have in common if people are to feel that they belong to it. And in the West, that pattern of living is dominated by Christianity.

The picture of a society that he builds up with this natural law approach is, as far as I can tell, consistent with Catholic social teaching. One could have as easily quoted St Thomas on the natural virtues of religion, of family piety and devotion to nation to support his conclusions if the desire was to persuade Catholics of the point, but he has a wider audience in mind.

downloadScruton is a cultural conservative as well as political and economic. Culture is important in his philosophy because it is the pattern of daily living that communicates the mores of the society to the non-religious in a way in which they can absorb them naturally and comfortably, without being forced to be adherents to the religion. It is culture that is the principle of inclusion and which makes a country nation – a society in which the citizens feel they belong. It is the beauty of a national culture that tells its citizens that ‘they are at home in the world’.

Furthermore it is tradition, the steadily developing accumulation of what is good from the past, that passes on that culture to us. This is why the conservative spirit always respects what we have and even if critical, looks for modification rather than revolution. It seeks to improve by building on what is good, even in the worst situations, rather than by destroying the present in order to reinstute the past, or a new future.

And for Scruton, society is not an arbitary grouping. Man has a natural inclination to associate with others, which he must be allowed to do freely and those associations – the clubs, societies, sports clubs and so on are the sub-cultures that together form the national culture. The most important associations that are common to all people are faith, family and nation. Even those who are not people of faith, he argues, will in the well ordered society subscribe passively to it by participating in the culture of faith that binds that nation together.

This is why supra-national projects such as the European Union will always fail – without a common culture to keep them together eith either they will fragment as the national cultures within its artificial border clash; or will have to resort to tyranny to stop it happening, as happened in the former Yugoslavia and will happen in he EU if it does not disintegrate first (we can only hope).

It is also why a strict multiculturalism in which there is no absorption of the cultural practices of immigrants into a the national culture, but separation and the formation of ghettoes on non British cultures within the national boundaries. During the Brexit debate, some of the intellectual elite who seek to destroy traditional British culture deride those who wish to preserve a sense of Britishness in Britain as jingoistic, racist and ingnorant. But it is natural for those who care about Britain as it has been to wish to retain a cultural identity. What gave the greivances of those who are not happy with the changes even greater legitimacy is that the British had no choice in whether or not those changes were made. The changes were being imposed on us by the law created by unelected beaurocrats who were not themselves British and so naturally didn’t care at all about the cultural concersn of those who live there.

To object to these changes does not automatically make someone racist or even anti-immigrant (though no doubt some were both). Immigration is not a problem provided those who come are willing to become culturally British. This is not racism or jingoism, but a natural and legitimate response for anyone who loves his country. The ad hominem attacks that those who dare to talk of the value of traditional British culture have to put up with tell us a great deal about what their accusers and their attitudes, figures such as Bod Geldoff an Irishman who shouted and gestured at out of work Cornish fishermen on the Thames, feel about British culture.

All cultures and subcultures are the aggregated effect of personal interractions and so are always formed from the bottom up. It is one of the great paradoxes of man and society that individual actions that are driven by free will, and therefore apparently random and sitting outside the natural order that is described by the scientific laws of cause and effect, but they can nevertheless give rise to a discernible pattern and order when the society as a whole is observed. Generally the best influence of government can have on a culture is to protect personal liberty and allow it to emerge naturally. Top down attempts to manipulate the cultural forms directly by directing personal interraction with law are likely to stifle personal freedom and the human spirit. This in turn leads to a dimunition of human flourishing, both spiritually and economically. It  is why socialism is such an ugly and dismal failure in this regard.

Scruton is well aware that when people claim rights of action and freedoms for themselves, it will lead to clashes. He gives an example where the rights of travellers (people who in the mast might have been referred to pejoratively as tinkers or gypsies) to settle where they wish clash with the property rights of those who live close to where the travellers choose to settle. We might think also of the case where the right of the unborn clashes with the claimed right of the woman to choose to have an abortion. This is where custom, or in the extreme the law must decide whose right or whose freedom has preeminance; and it  a justice system that is rooted in a consensus of morality that will do that effectively and happily. He maintains that religion is the only viable and sustaining source of morality that works for the benefit of that society, even for the non-religious within it. In Britain this is the basis of common law.

In his critique of today’s post modern society,  Scruton still manages, consistent with his conservative ethos, to be constructive by looking for the positive as well. Chapter by chapter he analyses the institutions and ideas of today, the various “isms” – nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and internationalism so as to highlight goods to be retained as well as the bad to be discarded. So the chapter titles are, for example,  –  ‘The Good in Nationalism’, ‘The Good in Socialism’, ‘The Good in Environmentalism’ and so on. He persuades us with good humored reason, and does not try to goad us on with firey rhetoric. And through this analysis he paints a vision of a possible society that does not perfect human nature, but rather accommodates it, with all its flaws and imperfections. He promises no utopia, but rather a realistic prospect of something better.

He builds up his ideas by drawing largely on the philosophy of Aristotle and the Englightenment philosophers such as Burke, Hegel, Adam Smith and Kant and sells it to us through his witty and entertaining writing and the obvious love he has for his own country. As a Catholic I was intrigued at how much the ideas of the Englightenment and Kant espeically, which are not universally admired in Catholic circles (to put it mildly), could nevertheless be helpful.

Intrigued I wanted to know more and wondered if I was going to have to  write another chapter for Scruton’s book for Catholics called, ‘The Truth in the Englightenment and the Truth in Emmanual Kant’.

Never one to read a large amount of 18th century philosophy if I can avoid it, I started look around to see if someone had done it first. It was Benedict XVI’s little book on the subject of Europe, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures that saved me the effort. Benedict too draws on Kant and Enlightenment thinkng in his analysis.

In regard to the Enlightenment he tells us:

‘The Enlightenment has a Christian origin and it was not by chance that it was born specifically and exclusively within the sphere of the Christian faith, in places where Christianity, contrary to its own nature, had unfortunately become mere tradition and the religion of the state. Philosophy, as the investigation of the rational element (which includes the rational element of our faith) had always been a positive element in Christianity, but the voice of reason had become excessively tame. It was and remains the merit of the Enlightenment to have drawn attention afresh to these original Christian values and to have given reason back its own voice. In its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council restated this profound harmony between Christianity and the Enlightenment, seeking to achieve a genuine reconciliation between the Church and modernity, which is the great patrimony of which both parties must take care.'[p48]

One flaw of the Englightenment, Benedict tells us, is that it cuts itself off from ‘its own historical roots, depriving itself from the powerful sources from which it sprang. It detaches itself from what me might call its basic memory of mankind, without which reason loses its orientation.’ [p41]

And in regard to Kant he tells us:

‘The search for this kind of reassuring certainty, something that could go unchallenged despite all the disgreements, has not succeeded. Not even Kant’s truly stupendous endeavours managed to create the necessary certainty that would be shared by all. Kant had denied that God could be known with the sphere of pure reason, but at the same time, he had presented God, freedom, and immortality of postulates of practical reason, without which he saw no coherent possibility of acting in a moral manner. I wonder if the situation of today’s world might not make us return to the idea that Kant was right. Let me put this in different terms: the attempt, carried to extremes to shape human affairs to the total exclusion of God leads us more and more to the brink of the abyss, toward the utter anihilation of man. We must therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment  and say: Even the one who does not succeed in finding the path God ought nevertheless to try to live and to direct his life, as if God did exist. This is the advice that Pascal gave to his friends and it is the advice that I should like to give to our friends today who do not believe. This does not impose limitations on freedom, it gives support to all our human affairs and supplies a criterion of which human life stands sorely in need.’ [p51]

So Benedict, too is a conservative whose instincts tell him not to destroy, but to amend society, building on the best of what he have. Furthermore, it seems to me that Scruton has provided just the template for a way forward towards a society that is in accord with what Benedicti advises. It is through the instutions of the nation state, the family, and religion with an attitude of tolerance of non believers, that we can have a society bound by a common culture that society that, if not perfect, is free enough and beautiful enough that we can at least feel ‘at home in the world’ to quote Scruton.

Cotswolds Idyllic Rural Landscape, England

Afterword: three days after the Brexit referendum as I write this, and the bitterness and division is not subsiding. This indicates to me that although the issue is multifaceted and the points of debate are most commonly economics and immigration at its heart it is a battle for a worldview and this is why at times the two sides seem to be arguing past each other. One party is rooted in the faith of a Judeo-Christian society and which, as explained, may include those who have no faith but subscribe, broadly speaking, to the values. The other is rooted in post-Englightenment secular humanism which is marked at this stage by a dislike of Christianity and Christian values above all else (even though some Christians subscribe to it, unthinkingly in my view).

The referendum was for the right to sovereignty and a battle against European imperialism driven by unelected and unaccountable beaurocrasts pushing their secular humanist agenda. Even assuming that Brexit does actually happen (and I’m not convinced that all the forces opposed to it will respect it) there is still no guarantee that the hopes of conservatives will prevail. The forces that wish to change it are still strong and will continue to do all they can to argue for their point of view. But at least now this is a British debate and there is some chance that as the nation decides itw own destiney, for the sort of conservatism that Scrution describes to prevail, where previously there was none. I for one am glad about that.



Dominican School Offers Formation for Artists- Now Including Sacred Geometry and English Gothic Illumination Practicum

The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley University in California is offering a four-course program for artists. The Certificate in Theological Studies is a Master’s level, four-course (12-unit) certificate which is recommended for those who already have a working knowledge of a specific art medium (visual arts, music, architecture etc.), and wish to augment their expertise with a specialized focus in the relationship of the fine arts to Catholic worship and culture. These courses are open to people not otherwise studying at the DSPT.

The new information is that I have been invited to teach the elective in the Spring 2017. I will teach a practical course which will include the creation of a gothic image in the style of illuminations of the 13th century School of St Albans; and sacred geometry. In the geometry course, students will construct a traditional geometric pattern as used in cosmati floors of the period. In support of the practical skills I will teach the supporting theory as described in my book, the Way of Beauty.

The approach to this certificate program assumes the “cross-disciplinary approach” between philosophy and theology that uniquely characterizes all DSPT curricula. Furthermore, in this particular program there will be a focus on the integration of theory with praxis, particularly as it applies to Catholic worship and culture. An emphasis on the outcomes of this course is on the evangelization of the culture through a well discerned engagement with contemporary cultures, so that the creativity of the artist may be directed towards the engagement of contemporary man, without any compromise of the core principles of a traditional Christian culture.

The Certificate program of studies is organized by the Academic Dean of the DSPT, Fr Chris Renz; readers may remember that I highlighted his excellent article on liturgy and culture recently published in Antiphon.

Fr Renz will use my book the Way of Beauty as one of the texts for the opening course of the Certificate program. Anyone who has read any of my writings over the years will see why I am enthusiastic about this – these themes of inculturation, worship and fresh creativity are at the heart of my own ideas about the evangelization of the culture.

The first course of the four to be offered this coming Fall is called the Foundational Principles of Catholic Liturgy and Worship. To complete the Certificate in Theological Studies program with a specialization in Sacred Arts, the student must complete the four courses indicated below, typically over two or more semesters.

1. Foundational Principles of Catholic Liturgy and Worship (next offered Fall 2016)

2. Liturgical Piety: Anthropological Foundations of Catholic Worship (next offered Spring 2017)

3. One elective offering from any advisor-approved Religion and the Arts course. These are the courses that will particularly focus on practical elements, such as painting.

4. Christian Iconography (offered Fall 2016)

The format for all courses is once per week for just under 3 hours. They will typically offered during the weekday, which means that you have to be within striking distance of Berkeley, California in order to take it.

The named outcomes are to:

• imbue students with an understanding of sacred art and its relationship to sacred liturgy;

• provide students with the philosophical and theological foundations for the anthropological as well as the transcendent aspects of art;

• provide basic principles for using the fine arts as a vehicle for “preaching the gospel” to the contemporary culture.

Application Process

Applicants must complete the DSPT Certificate of Theological Studies application (found at the DSPT website), including a statement of purpose, official transcript, and two letters of recommendation. Application is on a rolling admission process.

Tuition and Fees

Tuition rate for 2016-2017 academic year is $715 per semester unit (all courses are 3 units). For further information, contact Fr. Chris Renz, O.P. at, or 510-883-2084. You can read about this course on the DSPT website at

Artists – Please Learn to Draw

One of the most common shortcomings in the works of artists today is poor drawing ability. There is a perception among some, especially if working in the highly symbolic styles of the gothic, the iconographic or even the style featured recently, the Beuronese style, that the artist can hide his lack of technical skill behind the stylistic elements. I have heard people say that they signed up for icon painting classes for example, because they think that they don’t need to be so good at drawing.

The same thing happens in mainstream arts schools, students opt for Expressionistic styles because they know that they can’t be held to account for how bad the drawing is – they can hide the lack of skill behind wild and flamboyant brush strokes. Many just forgo the paintbrush altogether, pick up a video camera and go for conceptual art.

This may be acceptable in the context of 20th century art styles, but I suggest this is not good enough for sacred art, no matter what style we want to work in.

In fact it is more difficult to work within a particular tradition and retain accuracy in drawing. It requires the artist to understand both where he must be precise in reflecting nature, and where he must be precise in deviating from natural appearances in accordance with the demands of the style of the tradition.

Artists quite often show me their work and one of the usual comments I make is, you need to improve your drawing. It is great that there are more and more people who are looking to traditional forms as inspiration for sacred art and so I always want to be encouraging. There is hope, drawing is a skill that can be taught. Someone who wants to learn to draw can spend time learning the academic method of drawing – this trains the eye to observe nature and then to render it in two dimensions. Another thing to consider is an illustrators’ course, in which one can learn how to create new images without always having to set up a tableau of figures posing for the image. At some point the good artist does need to be able to go beyond simply drawing what he can see. He must be able to draw what is in his imagination too.

Here are two examples of faults that I often see. I don’t like highlighting what is bad in other peoples’ work, so I’ll use examples of mine to illustrate (I have plenty to choose from!)

The first is the drapery of cloth. In sacred art, the figures are often portrayed with draped clothing. It is vital that the folds in the cloth look natural and that there is a sense of a properly proportioned figure underneath. The only way to understand this that I know is to study how material drapes over the human form. One of my frustrations when I was studying academic art was that we spent so much time studying the nude, but none devoted to studying clothes. This would have helped me.

Have a look at this painting of St Silouan the Athonite. At first glance, the folds in the cloth look natural, but if you look closer you can see that the deep red robe is done incorrectly in the region between the arms. The reason is that I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be painting and so just guessed.

In fact, it the red robe should have been doing what St Hubert’s is below (in Aidan Hart’s icon), hanging in a U shape between the arms.

and then the figure is rotated for a three quarter profile view as in this figure of Elizabeth Prout shown below. Aidan Hart has shown it with the line drawing in black on a plain brown robe rendered without additional shading or highlights.

If we want the figure to look natural underneath the drapery then there are certain pressure points at which the clothing is supported by the figure or otherwise directly acted upon by the figure, while else where it hangs free. This will usually be places such as the shoulders, elbows, knees and the crook in the elbow. If these pressure points are not place absolutely precisely the whole figure looks wrong.

We can see how well John Singer Sargent does this in the painting below, a portrait of Mrs Henry White. So much of the dress is swirling away from direct contact with her body. This means that in order for it to look as though it belongs to her he has very few of these pressure points to work with, but these must be absolutely right. In this case the shoulders and the tight fitting waist and her hips. Her left hip indicated with a tiny little detail, a conjunction of shadow and highlight. If these were not absolutely correct, the eye of the observer would pick it up instantly and everything would look wrong.

Another common area of error is in the drawing of the proportions of hands and faces. In the example below, I copied a famous icon of St Matthew. When I showed it to my teacher, Aidan, he instantly pointed out that his right hand looked distorted. I replied that I noticed this but thought that this was how it had looked in the original. Because I didn’t know if I was allowed to change it, I had left it exactly as I thought it had been done by the original artist. (I believed that when I said it, but now that I looked at it, I wonder if I copied inaccurately as well! you can see the original below and judge for yourself). Aidan immediately replied that it didn’t matter and if the original looked like that too, then the original was done badly and I should be copying errors unthinkingly. Here’s the point: just because we are working in the iconographic style it doesn’t mean that we accept anatomical inaccuracy. The goal is to be both anatomically correct and to work with the iconographic style, this is what all the great icon painters are able to do.


The image at the top is the Drawing Class by Sweerts (Dutch, 17th century)


The 19th Century Beuronese School, An Inspiration for Artists Today?

I have become aware over the last couple of years of contemporary artists looking to the 19th century Beuronese school for inspiration when painting for the liturgy. Time will be ultimate test of how appropriate this is, but my initial reaction is that this is good thing. I thought that I would give some thoughts as to why I think this.

Stylistically, Beuronese school is an interesting cul-de-sac that sits outside the mainstream of the Christian tradition. It is named after the town of Beuron in Germany which is the location of the Benedictine community in which the school originated in the mid-19th century.

The most well known artists who painted in this style in Europe are Desiderius Lenz (d 1928) and Gabriel Wuger (d 1892). In the United States, the walls and the ceiling of the abbey church of the Benedictines at Conception Abbey in Missouri, are decorated primarily with authentic examples of the Beuronese style. The abbey website tells us that the work was done between 1893 and 1897, by several monks of Conception, most notably Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921), the latter two of whom had studied art at Beuron.

The original Beuronese artists were reacting against what was the dominant form of sacred art being painted for the churches of the Roman Rite at the time. This dominant style was an overly naturalistic and sentimental form of academic art, the product of the French academies and ateliers. The most well known artist of this decadent form is probably the Frenchman Bougeureaux. (For an in-depth discussion of this over naturalism in academic art read Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic?)

Authentic Christian art has a style that is always a carefully worked out balance of naturalism (sometimes referred to as ‘realism’) and idealism. The naturalism in art tells us visually what is being painted – put simply if you want to paint a man it must look like a man, with a human body and limbs and so on. The idealistic element of the style is a controlled deviation from strict adherence to natural appearances by which the artist reveals invisible truths. The invisible truths that the artist might reveal, though style, are that man has a soul and a spirit that is intellect and will, for example.

It is this deviation from strict ‘photographic’ naturalism that characterizes the style of art (although in reality even a camera lens distorts appearances in a way that causes a photograph to be subtly different from what the eye actually sees). All paintings in any particular tradition will have in common particular methods of controlled abstraction that are carefully worked out to reveal the Christian understanding of what it portrayed. It is through perception of these that we are able to recognise the style. For example, we recognise the iconographic style because of, for example, an enlargement of the eyes, the dimunition of the mouth, and the elongation of the nose, in a particular way. These elements of iconographic style were developed to suggest to the observer a particular characteristics in the person portrayed that are appropriate for a saint.

It is as easy to distort appearances to hide truth and to create the equivalent of a visual lie through style, incidentally. Many advertising hoardings have photographs that are composed and then usually ‘airbrushed’ – that is, deliberately distorted – so as to to exaggerate in an imbalanced way the aspect of sexual attraction (and so, it is believed, sell products). This tells us that it is not enough to stylize, the Christian artist has a great responsbility and must understand deeply how his stylization is going to reveal truth, rather than hide it. If he gets it wrong he can lead souls astray. It’s not just what he paints, it’s how he paints it. (I hesitated to portray the image, below right, which I see as an example of art that has an anti-ideal. It is about at the limit of what I feel I can show and even then I felt I had to make is small.. Bear in mind it is intended for a children’s comic.)

Aware of the deficiencies of the sacred (and mundane art) of their own time, Beuronese art sought to introduce an idealization into their style by seeking inspiration from ancient Egyptian art and from the Greek ideal. Visually it is easy to see the influence of the Egyptian papyri; but in addition the Beuronese artists used a canon of proportion that was said to be derived from that of the ancient Greeks (although this is speculative on their part, given that the canon of Polyclitus is lost). The link between ancient Greek art and Egyptian art is not an unnatural one. Plato praised the Egyptian style and it has been speculated that Greek art from the classical period (around 500 BC) was influenced by Egyptian art. The Beuronese artists themselves were trained in the methods of the19th century atelier and the result is a curious mixture, 19th century naturalism stiffened up, so to speak, by an injection of what they believed to be Egyptian art and Greek geometry.

What of the painting of Beuronese art today? In his encyclical about the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pius XII made it clear (in paragraph 195) that we should always be open to different styles of art for the liturgy provided any style under consideration: has the right balance of naturalism and idealism (he uses the words ‘realism’ and ‘symbolism’ to refer to these qualities); and that what drives its use is the need of the Christian community and not the whim of the artist or patron. In my experience, the Bueronese style does connect with people today in the right way so that it is appropriate for the liturgy. It has the sufficient naturalism so that one can recognise easily what they are looking at; and sufficient idealism that it does suggest another world beyond this one. Furthermore, contemporary culture does seem to provide naturally enough cultural reference points to allow modern people, even those without a classical education, to relate to this style. Art deco architecture, for example, is also derived from Egyptian styles. Strangely, many might find the Beuronese style with its Egyptian roots more accessible than a traditional icon in the classic Russian style of Andrei Rublev.

I have read an account of the geometric proportions used in the human form in translation of the book written by their main theorist Fr Desiderius Lenz, On the Aesthetic of Beuron. It was so complex that my reaction was that it would be very difficult for any painter to use the canon succesfully in any but very formal poses. As soon as an artist seeks to twist and turn a pose in the image, then the necessary foreshortening requires the painter to use an intuitive sense as to how the more distant parts relate to the nearer. Usually this means that in these cases he is less able to adhere to the cannon of proportion so well. This might account for that fact that when the figures are in less stiff and formal, Bueronese art seems to work less well, in my opinion. To my eye, the more relaxed poses produce art that looks like illustrations from the bible I was given when I was a child. Good in that context, perhaps, but too naturalistic for the liturgy I would say.

The approach of original Beuronese school is idiosyncratic – I do not know of any other Christian style of liturgical art that looked to ancient Egypt for inspiriation. Nevertheless the end result, when done well, does strike me as having something of the sacred to it and being worthy of attention. Perhaps their efforts to control the modern temptation to individual expression have contributed to this too. The school stressed, for example, the value of imitation of prototypes above the production of works originating in any one artist, furthermore the artists collaborated on works and did not sign it once finished.

Note, the icon detail is from a contemporary icon at St John the Baptist, Euless, TX, painted by Vladimir Grygorenk

Below I show some examples of Beuronese art that I think are less successful than the examples above. The first is less formal and ends up looking like a good illustration for a children’s bible, but not so good for the liturgy, I suggest.

The next is highly skilled, but a little to close to 19th century naturalism for my liking.

Moments of Vision: a Poem

By Andrew Thornton-Norris


Moments of Vision

1. The Apophatic (After T.E. Hulme)

O moon hanging there not lighting up
The darkness but just leaving it obscure,
Reflecting light that’s hidden for a time:
You are the blessed sacrament that shines
Upon the darkness of their majesty.

2. Helen’s Face

The female body is the battlefield
In the war that’s taking place between
The Word, the world, the devil and the flesh:
The judgement cast upon it, lust that it
Betrays and crimes that are committed there.

3. The Hymn of the Nuptial Mystery

In intimate relation we are in
Eternal intimate relationship
Within our souls and beating in our hearts
The passion of transcendent being back
Together that we thought we’d left behind.

4. Lent

The Forty Days and Forty Nights is when
God’s Kingdom is the desert where we meet
Him in the hidden fasting and the prayer
That separates us from the world outside
And brings us to the peace of penitence.

5. Dead Souls

All beauty’s holy and eternal and
Destroyed by commodification,
Which brings it back to dust in an
Embittered fall from heaven earthward but
The hope of faith is in the Death of God.

6. The Flower Bed

When I went back to the place where I
Had slept and saw the mess of lying there
I felt forboding of the grave and rushed
To get away but now I see perhaps
One heaven sent and love to contemplate.

7. WWW

When the whole world and all its life
And history is here to hand and at
The touch or click upon a button then
The only way to turn to get away
Is inwards, walk into the world within.

8. Sapperton Tunnel

Between the catchment of the Severn and
The Thames, the way of life is different,
The valley sides that crumble down into
The houses flowing streamward down below,
Suggestive of the valley of the Wye.

9. The Passion of the Lord is the Birth of Love

As fires from tiny flames great cities fell
My love for you began with just a glance
A word and then the conflagration grew
Until the world was all aflame like stars
That fall from skies above into our hearts.

10. The Walled Garden

Narcissus, yellow archangel, and then,
Because of sympathetic magic, so
Called lungwort: metaphysicians of the spring;
But why are winter snowdrops purest white,
O winter what has happened to your sting?

Brief note for students

This poem deals again with the subject of central concern to me: the deepest longings of the human heart, for love, joy, and peace for example, their frustrations, and how these experiences are most perfectly responded to, of any available belief system, by Catholicism. Its form is ten titled sentences of blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter. I chose this form because this is roughly how the ideas for the individual stanzas came to me as a group all around the same time. The idea of collage, or collection of disparate elements arranged around an overall theme rather than a logical narrative or argumentative structure is a modernist technique employed in other arts as well. Here it is combined with the most traditional form of English verse. The overall title is from a collection of poems published by Thomas Hardy in 1917.He is the last representative of a peculiarly English late-Romanticism, described as the last words of a dying protestantism by John Powell Ward in his book, The English Line. That line begins with Milton and only Philip Larkin was to attempt its resuscitation, describing himself as an “Anglican atheist”. In Catholic terms, the title represents the moments of vision or contemplation when the pure of heart see God. It is therefore an attempt to redeem the Romantic form and subject through re-establishing the proper relationship of art to religion that I described in the last post.