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Do We Need A New Christian Symbolism in Art – Aren’t Pelicans and Peacocks Redundant?

Should we resurrect the old Christian symbolism? Or are pelicans and peacocks just nonesense, like cabbages and kings.

Is there a danger that trying to reestablish traditional Christian symbols in art would sow confusion rather that clarity? Lots of talks and articles about traditional Christian art I see discuss the symbolism of the iconographic content; for example, the meaning of the acacia bush (the immortality of the soul) or the peacock (again, immortality). This is useful if we have a printed (or perhaps for a few of you an original) Old Master in church or a prayer corner as it will enhance our prayer life when contemplating the image. But is this something that we ought to be aiming to reinstate the same symbolism in what we produce today?

Should we seek to educate artists to include this symbolic language in their art?
If symbols are meant to communicate and clarify, they should be readily understood by those who see them. This might have been the case when they were introduced – very likely they reflected aspects of the culture at the time – and afterwards when the tradition was still living and so knowledge of this was handed on. But for most it isn’t true now. How many would recognize the characteristics of an acacia bush, never mind what it symbolizes? If you ask someone today who has not been educated in traditional Christian symbolism in art what the peacock means, my guess is that they are more likely to suggest pride, referring to the expression, ‘as proud as peacock’.

So the use of the peacock would not clarify, in fact it would do worse than mystify, it might actually mislead. (The reason for the use of the peacock as a symbol of immortality, as I understand it, is the ancient belief that its flesh was incorruptible). So to reestablish this sign language would be a huge task. We would not only have to educate the artists, but also educate everyone for whom the art was intended to read the symbolism. If this is the case, why bother at all, it doesn’t seem to helping very much, and in the end it will always exclude those who are not part of the cognoscenti . This is exactly the opposite of what is desired: for the greater number, it would not draw them into contemplation of the Truth, but push them out. I think that the answer is that some symbols are worth persevering with, and some should be abandoned. First, it is part of our nature to ‘read’ invisible truths through what is visible. This does not only apply to painting. The whole of Creation is made by God as an outward ‘sign’ that points to something beyond itself to Him, the Creator. Blessed John Henry Newman put it in his sermon Nature and Supernature as follows: “The visible world is the instrument, yet the veil, of the world invisible – the veil, yet still partially the symbol and index; so that all that exists or happens visibly, conceals and yet suggests, and above all subserves, a system of persons, facts, and events beyond itself.” It is important to both to make use of this faculty that exists in us for just this purpose; and to develop it, increasing our instincts for reading the book of nature and in turn, our faith. So the Cardinal bird might be good new introduction to the religous symbolism of the Church and not just the State of Indiana! It’s red plumage, which is similar to that of the cardinal gave it its name, but I’m not aware of it being used as a symbol of the Cardinal in religious painting.

However, coming back to the context of art again, some discernment should be used, I suggest. I would not be in favour of creating an arbitrarily self-consistent symbolism. The symbol must be rooted in truth. The symbolism in the iconographic tradition is very good at following this principle. This is best illustrated by considering the example of the halo. This is very well known as the symbol of sanctity in sacred art. There are very good reasons for this. The golden disc is a stylized representation of a glow of uncreated, divine light, shining out of the person. Even if this were not already a widely known symbol, it would be worth educating people about the meaning of it, because in doing so something more is revealed.

When however, the representation of a halo develops into a disc floating above the head of the saint, as in Cosme Tura’s St Jerome, or even a hoop, as in Annibale Caracci’s Dead Christ Mourned, (both shown, above and below) then it seems to me that the symbol has become detached from its root. Neither could be seen as a representation of uncreated light. These latter two forms, therefore, should be discouraged.

Similarly, those symbols that are rooted in the gospels or in the actual lives of the saints should be encouraged and the effort should be made, I think, to preserve or, if necessary, reestablish them. The tongs and coal of the prophet Isaias relate to the biblical accounts of his life. The inclusion of these, will generate a healthy curiosity in those who don’t know it, and so might direct them to investigate scripture. The picture shown, is one of my own icons.

In contrast consider the peacock and the pelican. The peacock, as already mentioned, does not, we now know, have incorruptible flesh. The pelican is a symbol of the Eucharist based upon the erroneous belief in former times that pelicans feed their young with their own flesh. My first though is that these symbols should not be used should not be used, because the reason for their symbolism in invalid, given that we no longer believe it to be true. However, I will admit that I am torn by the fact that both of these are beautiful and striking images, even if based in myth. Also, it might be argued, and this is particularly true for the pelican, that to use it is not resurrecting an obscure medieval symbol. It is an ancient symbol certainly – and St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn to the Eucharist, Adore te devote called Christ the ‘pelican of mercy’. But it lasted well beyond that. It was very widely understood even 50 years ago. Awareness of it is still common nowadays amongst those who are interested in liturgy and sacred art. Perhaps an argument could be made that even when the reason for the use of symbol is based in myth, if that is known and understood, and when that symbol recognition is still widespread enough to be considered part of the tradition, it should be retained. We should also remember that modern science is not infallible, and we moderns could be those who are mistaken about the pelican! My Googling research (admittedly even less reliable than modern science) revealed that the coat of arms of Cardinal George Pell has the image of the pelican. If this is so, I imagine he would have something to say about the issue also!

A baroque period (17th century) tabernacle door

The Power of the Divine Office to Transform a Church and a Culture

The Method of the Methodists!

I was investigating forms of the breviary on the internet the other day (as one does!) and came across a page about the history of the Anglican breviary, here.

Regular praying of the Divine Office was likewise central to John and Charles Wesley’s “method,” which included scriptural study, fasting, and regular reception of Holy Communion in addition to daily celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer. John Wesley’s Rule of Life is, in its essentials, thoroughly orthodox and Catholic. It has been said that if Wesley had only been born in 1803 rather than 1703, he would have been a follower of those great Oxford divines — John Henry Newman, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and Hurrell Froude — who by their preaching and Tracts turned the Church of England to its apostolic and sacramental roots.

Indeed, it was those 19th century “Tractarians” who kindled new interest in the pre-Reformation forms of celebrating the Holy Eucharist and daily prayer. In the mid and late nineteenth century, the Anglican Church in England and America witnessed nothing less than a Catholic Revival, including the rebirth of organized religious orders, renewed emphasis upon and appreciation for the Episcopate and Priesthood, the Sacraments, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrificial nature of the Holy Communion, devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, and the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.

As someone who grew up going to Methodist church and whose great grandfather was a Methodist lay preacher, I found this staggering. I had heard about John Wesley’s ‘method’ that gave the name to the Methodists, but no one every talked about what it actually was.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Clearly as a Catholic I do not now believe that Methodists and high Anglicans actually had the Real Presence at the heart of their churches, but it does suggest, if the writer of the history referred to above is correct, that so much of the strength of these two church movements was down to a devotion to the Divine Office. It was said, for example, that it was the rise of the Methodists in England that stopped social upheaval of the sort that led to the French Revolution. My old headmaster at Birkenhead school, John Gwilliam, told me this. He was a Welsh Methodist (and a former captain of the Welsh rugby team when it won a grand slam in the 1950s). He also told us that Methodism was responsible for saving the nation from mass alcoholism – Britain was drowning in a sea of gin at the end of the 18th century.

The Anglican church was responsible, in my opinion for the gothic revival which shaped the culture of the 19th century in Britain and America so strongly (as I described in a recent article, here) Given the absence of the Real Presence this is testament to the power of what authentic liturgy they had, to transform lives and society nevertheless.

It does make me wonder, also, if it is the lack of adherence to the true Method today, perhaps, that has contributed to the decline of the Methodists that is so marked in England.

The Cathedral Choir sings Choral Evensong

This reinforces the belief that I have that if we want to transform the culture and revive the Church it could happen through the Domestic Church and the family centred on liturgical piety that involves the chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours at home. Furthermore this means that we need to encourage it in the vernacular, so that people who are not fluent in Latin (ie most people) can genuinely pray it. I suggest that the Anglican Use Divine Office is a way to do this (as I described in a review of the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham).

And it is the prayer of the family in the domestic church, centered on a liturgical piety, that can drive such societal change today as well as transform the Church. We need to form people as contemplatives as a matter of course, not as the exception. Perhaps John Wesley has something to teach us in this regard!


The Two Michelangelos: Part 2

You can find part 1 here: The Two Michelangelos: Part 1

This is the “Martyrdom of St. Matthew” from the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi Francesi in Rome.

25.Caravaggio - The_Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew(c._1599-1600)

Caravaggio’s version of the martyrdom was inspired by the Golden Legend .  Matthew was murdered while celebrating mass in the Ethiopian city of Nadaber. He had refused to marry the King Hirtacua to Ephigenia, a consecrated virgin. Upset at this, the King sent an assassin to kill the saint.

The white vestments of Matthew set against the dark background bring our attention to the center of the painting, as the assassin stands over the saint, about to kill him. At left we see a group of young men (including Carvaggio’s self portrait at the back)  dressed in contemporary 17th C clothing (as in the “Calling”). This group could be the faithful who, upon witnessing the murder, ran to light fire to the kings palace. On the right is the altar boy running away from the scene while just behind him is the altar. The bottom group is somewhat confusing as it seems the figures are distorted and/or limbless. Could this refer to the cripples that St. Matthew was known for healing? The strange space they are in may be a reference to the Pool of Bethedusa – a healing pool in Jerusalem mentioned in St. John’s Gospel.

It is the grouping of St Matthew and the assassin that is most interesting. Once again Caravaggio references Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, using the body of Adam in the place of the assassin. Below I have photoshopped Adam next to the assassin to demonstrate the similarity:

Caravaggio with Adam

The assassin is Adam up right, on his feet. Adam who has become sinner and been exiled from Paradise. The assassin/Adam grabs the hand of Matthew, trying to block contact with the palm of martyrdom being offered to him by the angel above. Adam here is an image of arrogance in contrast to the redemptive power offered to Matthew. It is sin that prevents us from receiving the grace of God. In this grouping Caravaggio represents the complex rapport between human and divine.

With  “The Calling of St. Matthew”, the hand of Adam became the hand of Christ that calls Matthew. In “The Martyrdom”, the body of Adam just created becomes the arrogant body of the assassin of St. Matthew. The angel above Matthew is one of the angles from the flight of the angels within God the Divine Creator.

In the next post we will see how Caravaggio continues to reference the Sistine Chapel in his painting of  “Supper at Emmaus”.

Postscript to Recent Post: Sketches of Thomas Marsh’s Rosary Walk

Thomas Marsh, the sculptor, was kind enough to get in touch with me after the post about his work to tell me a little more about the Rosary Walk referred to in yesterday’s post about his work. He even sent me some sketches he has produced in advance of creating it, along with a description of his intentions for the church, St Isadore the Farmer Catholic Church in Orange, Virginia.

I thought that it was worth a look to see how a sculptor describes his vision in advance, both in words and in preparitory sketches:

When completed, the Rosary Prayer Walk, with an over life-size statue of Mary and the Child Jesus at the high point of the walk, will span just over 75 feet. This sacred and beautiful space will beckon those who for the first time notice the statue as they drive by the front of St. Isidore on Highway 15. It will be a magnet for those who attend Mass at St. Isidore, and for those Catholics in the region who hear about this new sacred space. What will be this beckoning force, this magnetic attraction?

In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI wrote of the “exitus-reditus” (movement outward and returning) character of worship. He likened this movement to man’s experience of God, of leaving and returning, and ultimately returning home to God forever. In this prayer walk, the Rosary is laid out before the prayerful person as an elliptical path, to descend down the gentle slope of the hill, and return upward, homeward. In the manner of Christ one climbs the slope of the hill, not only in sight of the Cross (held by the Child Jesus), but toward the sculpture of Mary, Queen of Heaven, and Christ, King of the Universe, a reminder of our heavenly home. As the high point and focal point of the design, the sculpture has a symbolic and representational power to draw us “…to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God…” (CCC 2502).

The Rosary has the potential to be experienced as movement in a large space. Usually the “small scale” practice of praying the Rosary, the traditional beads with the very physical sense of touch, offers an intimate quietness, a quiet closeness. Yet Christ often went to the mountain, to the “high place” to pray. There is an expansiveness of sight and breath, and a special depth when there are great vistas surrounding one’s prayer experience. Our Rosary prayer walk will offer such an expansive experience. The rich and fertile beauty of the rolling rural Orange County vistas, with their seasonal colors and atmospheric variety, invite one to engage such a space in prayer. To wed the Rosary with this spatial beauty has the potential to provide a profound prayerful experience, a special path to God.

On a “practical” level, there are pressing contemporary issues which so often manifest in the assault of secular culture on Christianity. We know that praying the Rosary is one of our great strengths in combatting these assaults in our trying times. What a tremendous force for good would be the praying of the Rosary on this fully human scale: one decade, ten natural steps, repeated, culminating in petitioning the Queen of Heaven as intercessor to the King of the Universe! Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy! And what a natural evangelization this would be for those who are not Catholic but notice this sculpture from the highway, and wonder, “What is this about?”

Our Rosary Prayer walk with its sculpture of Mary and the Child Jesus will create a sacred site, filled with beauty, to add to the wonderful landscape adjacent to St. Isidore Catholic Church. Beauty will beckon, and the attraction will pull us closer to God.

 In case, you think the sketches look rough, here is a reminder of what the quality of the finished work will be like –  relief sculpture of one of the meditations upon the Sorrow of St Joseph. And at the top, a sculpture of Enroljas from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.


Further thoughts on the sculpture of Thomas Marsh

Demonstrating how to balance the idealism and realism

After Carrie Gress’s interview with sculptor Thomas Marsh on the Pontifex University blog, here, I thought I would enlarge on my comments on Marsh’s sculpture. Marsh is one of the few artists I have seen who has a high level of skill and who seems to understand how to use that skill to balance idealism and realism. This really should be something that every Christian artist should understand, but seem to nowadays. What is noticeable is that he varies the degree of idealization according to the subject of his scultpture. Here’s what I mean:

First is that I think the quality of his craftmanship comes through in his portraits, which in my opinion are stunning. The individual character of the person shines out of his work. Here are some examples.

The mark of a unique person is present, though slightly reduced, in this sculpture of a surfer, which is not intended to be a portrait, but an idealized personification of a surfer, and a tribute to surfing. Again, this is skillfully rendered.

Contrast this with the face of Our Lady shown below, in which the idealization is taken a step further:

Notice how the portrayal of individual character is least evident here. The face is idealized in a way that partially resembles, it seems to me, the idealized features of an ancient Greek Venus. Any portrayal of Our Lady must reveal her as a unique person, as a portrait does, of course. We discern the general through the particular. But at the same time, it must emphasize those qualities that are common to all of humanity, and present them in their best light, for these are the qualities that we can emulate in her. Those aspects that are unique to Mary cannot, by definition, be imitated. It is this emphasis of the general that leads the artist into a portrayal of an idealized form in sacred art. The exact nature of that idealization can vary – in the iconographic tradition it is different from classical naturalism. But it must be there.

The degree of idealization is slightly less in the surfer, because he is meant to portray not those aspects that are common to all people, but rather those aspects that are common to all surfers when they are presented in their best light.

Another wonderful example of sacred art by Marsh is this relief sculpture: “Sorrow 1” from the Seven Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph, a meditation which is very beloved by the Oblates of St. Joseph,(see a small religious order devoted to “serving God in imitation of St. Joseph.” Sorrow 1″ is part of a 2006 landscape architectural prayer walk (co-designed by March) on the grounds of the Oblates’ U.S. provincial headquarters in Santa Cruz:

Relief sculpture is, one might say, not a representation of the form directly, but a painting in shadow. Here is a picture of the Sorrow Walk:

In the interview  Marsh refers to a commission he is about to begin for a series of statues for a Rosary walk. I look forward to seeing it completed.

Beauty, chemistry, and natural philosophy

I’m delighted to become part of the Pontifex community.  I met David only recently but we have so many interests in common that it seems that we have known each other for a long time!

At any rate, David has kindly invited me to make contributions to Pontifex U. and bring to the effort the angle of natural philosophy, which is the study of the cosmos (which includes us!) by means of observation, reflection, and unaided reason.

The ancient Greeks were the first to engage in that activity, and Aristotle developed it into a highly systematized body of knowledge.  That effort, of course, was embraced by St. Thomas Aquinas who, in many ways, greatly clarified Aristotelian natural philosophy.

I look forward to making periodic contributions.  Below is a post I wrote for my own blog yesterday.  If any readers are interested in medicine-related topics you can follow me there too.


About a year ago, Theral Timpson interviewed Stanford chemist Carolyn Bertozzi on his Mendelspod podcast.  I only heard the show recently and enjoyed it.  The title caught my attention: “Is the future of biology a return to chemistry?”

Bertozzi made some interesting comments about her field, which she regards as “the central science,” and Timpson probed her about her expectations for the place of chemistry in what is otherwise expected to be “the century of biology.”

The discussion was of interest to me for two reasons.

First, I agree that chemistry has a central place in our understanding of the world, especially if we look at it from within a framework of natural philosophy, which is a great passion of mine.  My next natural philosophy paper will focus on molecules, and will follow a paper on cell biology that will come out toward the end of the year.  I hope these papers will contribute toward a reconciliation of the two disciplines.

Another part of the podcast that piqued my interest is when Bertozzi told Timpson about the new center she is heading at Stanford, the ChEM-H (Chemist, Engineering, Medicine for Human Health).  She was particularly excited about the multi-disciplinary aspect of the new center.  She commented that in her previous position at UC Berkeley she was in a traditional chemistry department, and therefore mostly surrounded by other chemists.

This brought to mind passages from a book I am currently reading, titled The Way of Beauty, by David Clayton, an icon artist, teacher, and writer whom I met recently.  Originally from England, David now lives in the SF Bay area and is spearheading an effort to revive a method of formation in the sense of beauty that used to be a cornerstone of Catholic education until about two hundred years ago.

The book is terrific, a real eye-opener to an entire theory of beauty and aesthetics that I was only vaguely familiar with.  Anchored in mathematics, the tradition was first developed by the ancient Greeks, but later elaborated and given symbolic meaning by Christians, starting with St. Augustine and going through the end of the baroque period.  The tradition is very elaborate.

The idea was that mathematics and number theory help identify and connect with the order of divine creation.  In turn, human beings use mathematical theory and the sense of harmonious proportion in their creative work, both for worship but also in the elaboration of any artifacts (including functional creations, like buildings).  The concern for numbers and harmonious proportions has been essentially abandoned for the last two to three hundred years, both in secular as well as religious circles.  There is a false understanding that staying faithful to harmonious proportions inhibits creativity.

Most provocative is David’s argument that developing this sense of beauty is important not only for artists, but in any work or professional activity.  In science, for example, David relates the case of how intuition of the tetractys helped physicists postulate the existence of a certain subatomic particle and eventually discover it.

The book also mentions surviving documents from architectural conferences that took place in Milan in the late 14th century regarding the building of a cathedral.  Architects were in disagreement about a change in design midway into the project.  The building was initially started following a geometry based upon the square, and one party wanted to complete the project by switching to a geometry based upon the triangle.

The dispute was not just about the style, but about the fact that the the switch could affect the functionality and structural soundness of the building.  The principle invoked by those wanting to keep the square geometry was ars sine scientia est nihile (art is nothing without science).  In other words, man’s works must be faithful to the knowledge of the fundamental principles of science–in this case, principles of harmonious proportion.

Going back to Carolyn Bertozzi’s comments, another part of the book talks about education in general, and David has a chapter in which he discusses the organizational pattern of Oxford University where he went to school.  I was not aware that Oxford (and Cambridge) have a unique organizational structure that has been retained from when they were established 800 years ago.

Unlike most modern universities, which are centrally administered and subdivided by academic departments, Oxford and Cambridge are decentralized and composed of highly autonomous colleges.  This fosters a great sense of community among students and allows, at least in principle, for cross-fertilization of ideas and the flourishing of a wide diversity of interests.

David connects the organizational structure at Oxbridge to the fact that the founding colleges hosted true communities (in those days, various religious orders).  The mission of the university as a place of learning was communal, the buildings were designed to reflect cosmic beauty, and life at Oxford was patterned so as to be inspired by divine wisdom.  The idea of academic silos would have been considered really antithetical to the effort of learning and discovering.

At any rate, I find all this very stimulating and I hope you do too…

Workshop in Discerning Your Personal Vocation – Finding Your Purpose in Life

I have written in the past about the Institute of Catholic Culture and the great work it is doing. It is worth mentioning the ICC again, if only to bring to your attention once more the value of what they do and the success of their model of engagement, which I think could be used by other organizations. First, it connects with people at the local level and creates a community of faith and learning. Then it organizes talks and workshops for that community, which are also broadcast live over the internet, and recorded and uploaded onto their website. This makes available a large and ever-growing resource of material about all aspects of the Faith, for free.I described this in more detail here in a past blog post.

Since I wrote this first article, Deacon Sabatino, the Institute’s director has morphed, or perhaps I should say ‘transfigured’ into Fr Hezekias – Congratulations on your ordination Father! Also, as the new look website describes, the free material has been organized into a series of structured programs available for your self-education. When I was talking to Fr Hezekias about this, he told me that his materials are of such a high standard that they are used by the formation programs of several communities of cloistered religious!

For example, you might want to look up the content of my last talk given there, at the beginning of the summer, in which I give an introduction to the transcendentals – objective beauty, truth, goodness, unity…and two lesser know transcendentals referred to by St Thomas, res and aliquid. (The thing and the other thing, by which he is saying, as I understand it, that all created things are made to be in relation to something else). Go the website, here, to the Library, and then on the right hand side you will see ‘Talk Lists’ and ‘By Speaker’. If you go to that list you will see my name and the talk title ‘Lift Up Your Eyes – Understanding the Transcendentals’.

I have been invited to give another talk about prayer entitled Living Christ: Reclaiming the Church in Our Home and Life. It will be on Sunday, September 11th, at the St Ambrose Church Hall, located at 3901 Woodburn Road, in Annandale, Virginia. It will be held in the evening from 6:30 to 8:45.

In this talk, I will speak about the principles of prayer and personal reflection that are described in the book, the Little Oratory, A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home.

I will explain all that is in the book through my own story in prayer that contributed through my own experiences and the guidance that I have been given over the years to the creation of the book.  This is a story of the power of prayer to change someone. It began over 25 years ago when someone threw down a ‘Pascal’s Wager’ challenge to me: ‘Try this for 30 days and see how you feel; if you don’t like it, we’ll return your misery with interest. What else have you got to lose?’ From a very simple daily routine in prayer that I was given, a faith in God developed very quickly, and a new world opened up to me.


I should point out of course, that the Little Oratory was co-written with Leila Lawler. What made this cooperation so effective was that we were both converts who had come to very similar conclusions about praying in the home through quite different experiences. Leila’s ‘story in prayer’ – the spiritual journey by which she reached that point – is different to mine as one would expect. But I always felt that it was that dual perspective of the same truths that helped to make the book as rich as it is. Of course if you want Leila’s story in prayer, you’ll have to invite her to talk about it. She’s a great speaker I can assure you!

It was because the pattern of personal prayer that I was given right from the beginning of my journey was modelled on that of the liturgy, albeit subtly, that when much later I walked into a church with beautiful liturgy I was so receptive to what I saw, My daily prayers had formed me to be so. I had no idea about that at the time, of course; and if I had known, I would probably have refused to do any of it given my prejudices at the time. When this offer was made to me I was a miserable, bitter anti-religion atheist. I will describe how a man called David managed to attract my attention in the first place, so that, suspicious and sceptical as I was, I was prepared to pray and how very quickly because of the effect it had, I became convinced of the power of prayer. Furthermore, I was shown how by the same man how to discern my personal vocation. He inspired me to believe that God want me to be joyful and free and this lead to my changing direction altogether in my career and doing what I do now. I will talk about this too.

I am bringing my personal experiences into this for a couple of reasons – one is that it always helps to illustrate the general through the particular if we want people to remember and understand. Second is in reaction to response to an article I wrote recently that compared the ideas about culture of Roger Scruton and Pope Benedict XVI. It was called Two Conservatives Seeing Eye to Eye on Culture. In this I mentioned Benedict’s suggestion of offering Pascal’s Wager to people. Some people responded by saying that they doubted it was possible to engage people to take the wager. I want to show that I think that it is possible by describing how I was engaged and evangelized. This is a method that I have used in turn with others to some effect.

The beautiful icons, incidentally are painted by Stephane Rene, who paints in a neo-Coptic tradition.


Liturgical Form Manifested in the Mundane – the Famous K2 Telephone Box

I recently visited the OQ Farm near Woodstock in rural Vermont. It is a retreat center which is connected to The Sword and Spoon Foundation, an ecumenical group interested in promoting a Christian culture of faith and beauty. The occasion was a gathering of Christian artists, musicians, and filmmakers, who gave talks about their work and shared ideas about the transformation of the culture.

I was curious to see this place that is quietly become a hub for artistic renewal. If you look at the program of events over the summer, for example, there are two workshops by internationally known Russian iconographers, Anton and Ekaterina Daineko, who are coming from Russia to teach here. Also, the highly respected Catholic playwright and screenplay writer Buzz McClaughlin is offering a a workshop on story development. I first met Buzz about 10 years ago, and read his book on the structure of story narrative; I have kept in touch with him ever since, because his ideas regarding engagement with the culture, in the context of film, are in harmony with my own. The organizer of these events for the OQ Farm is Keri Wiederspahn, who is herself an accomplished icon painter and teacher in the Russian tradition.

One evening while I was at this event, as the sun was going down, I took a walk around the property and a particular detail caught my eye, a red English telephone box sitting between the farmhouse and the barn. This was a nice coincidence, since the K2 telephone box was described in a book I had just read, Roger Scruton’s excellent How to Be A Conservative (a review of which will appear on this blog shortly).

I asked about this and was told that it had been at the farm for some years, placed there by previous owners, but the current management had decided to keep it.

Why would someone have gone to the trouble of importing a heavy chunk of painted steel at a cost of what must have run to thousands of dollars in the first place?

I suggest that the story of the K2 telephone box can explain why, in many ways a humble piece of street furniture could become an icon of what we are seeking in cultural renewal, and how, unlikely as it may seem, the liturgy is connected to this.

This begins with the Victorian Neo-Gothic movement in architecture, which had its roots in the mid-18th century, but became popular in the first part of the 19th with the rise of High Anglicanism and the legalization of Catholicism in Britain. One of the most influential figures during its rise in popularity was the Catholic convert, architect A.W. Pugin.

It has been said that “historically, all the great art movements began on the altar,” and this includes Neo-Gothic architecture. A style which began as the model for new churches then became a standard for civic buildings and homes in Victorian England. Many of these English architects were hired by Americans, and introduced the Neo-Gothic to cities int he United States. In the eastern part of the country in particular, there are many wonderful churches, colleges, and civic buildings in this style.

Some time ago, I featured on the NLM a small Neo-Gothic church in Maine, St Andrew’s, which was designed by the English architect Henry Vaughan. He was involved in the design of many grand churches in New England, and also one of the architects of the Episcopal Washington National Cathedral.

St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan is another famous American Neo-Gothic church, built in the middle of the 19th century.

With these liturgical buildings as their archetype, we see architects bringing the Neo-Gothic style out into the civic buildings of the city. As a result, their form is derived from, and points to, that which is connected to and in harmony with the liturgy.

Here is St Pancras Station hotel in London designed in the 1850s by George Gilbert Scott, exterior and interior:

It was George’s son, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed the last completed Gothic church in England, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. This was started in the early years of the 20th century and completed in 1978, when it was opened by the Queen. I was a schoolboy living about 10 miles from Liverpool at the time, and I can remember being awestruck when I visited it. We were told stories at school of stonemasons who had worked on this one building for their whole working lives, just as in medieval times.


Contrast the above with Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral, started and finished in the 1960s. It is known by the locals as ‘Paddy’s wigwam’.

Image from Wikipedia by John Driscoll

Moving on as quickly as we can from the concrete teepee, we can consider another civic building that is derived from the liturgical style, one of the most famous buildings in the UK. Westminster Palace, including the Houses of Parliament, was designed by Sir Charles Barry. The iconic Elizabeth Tower, as it was re-named in honour of our present Queen, which houses Big Ben, was designed by Pugin, who was working under Barry on the project.

And now, in the foreground we see the familiar site of the red telephone box, looking at home in its urban surroundings.

The telephone box was designed by the same man who designed Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Although this designer was steeped in Neo-Gothic architectural design, the inspiration for this came from the architecture of the 18th century Neo-Classical architect, Sir John Soane, whose in London house is a famous museum. At the time of the design competition for the K2 in the early 1920s, Giles Gilbert Scott was a trustee of the Soane museum; his telephone box is influenced by the mausoleum which Soane himself designed. This is in the gardens of St Pancras Old Church, just around the corner from the railway station in London.

Scott designed the K2 and the subsequent modifications including the most common, the K6 designed by him in 1935. This telephone box sits as happily in the city, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, as it does beside the rural colonial architecture of America (which, incidentally, has its roots in Neo-Classical, Palladian architecture, but that’s another story.)

Scott’s sense of proportion is influenced by his training as an architect. The basic proportional scheme is common to both styles, and broadly speaking, to all traditional Western architecture prior to about the Second World War, going back to the ancient Greeks.

I think that it is interesting that one of the leading architects in the nation took the design of a piece of street furniture so seriously the he applied to it all the skill and experience that he might also employ in designing a cathedral, while realizing that one uses greater restraint and simplicity in designing a phone box than one would in designing a cathedral.

The design of the phone box directs us intuitively to the liturgical architecture that traditionally the design of the civic buildings participates in, in all styles, not just the Neo-Gothic. Ideally, this crystallizes in exemplary fashion in the place of worship, which contains the heartbeat of the city. As the tabernacle and altar should be the focal points of the church design, so the cathedral should be the focal point of the city.

The numerical source of traditional proportional schemes was originally derived in the pre-Christian classical world from the observation and analysis of the order of the cosmos, which it was believed gave rise to its beauty. These were adopted by Christian culture, and employed by architects as a matter of course until the period between the wars in the last century. Because it conforms to this cosmic beauty, this little telephone box, like a village church, looks at home in the rural beauty of both an English village and a Vermont farm. It is a simpler design than a cathedral, or a hotel, or even a farmhouse, but that is as it should be; after all, one of the attributes of beauty is due proportion – it is appropriate to its place in the hierarchy of human activity.

While the ultimate expression of this beauty will ideally be in the place of worship, this is not the end, for the beauty of the cosmos and the beauty of the culture direct us to heavenly beauty, and ultimately, to the beauty of the Creator Himself, who left His mark on Creation and inspired the culture of beauty created by man.

Here are some more pictures of phone boxes in English villages. They are so beloved that even in this age  of mobile phones, when the need for them has long since past, people keep them as familiar and beautiful icons in the scenery. Sometimes they find an alternative use for them, such as a miniature lending library.

The Vermont phone box is one of many that have been transported to the US, because of their beauty. Here is one on the campus of the University of Oklahoma:

This is the first photograph so far in which the box looks somewhat incongruous in its setting. The imposter in this scene is not the phone box, however. Rather, it is the featureless brick wall of a building, which dominates as a result of its size and aggressive ugliness. This is the building that dissents from a participation in cosmic beauty.

You might ask why the box is K2, and not K1? The answer is that the K1 design was rejected by the phone company because they couldn’t persuade the London boroughs to allow it on their streets because of its ugly design. So they ran a competition for a new design which, they hoped, would be appealing enough to persuade the local governments to adopt this new, cutting edge technology. One wishes that today’s utility companies would go to similar lengths in the design of such things as electricity pylons or wind turbines!

This is the reason why the OQ Farm is appropriate as an artistic retreat. It’s the countryside, the buildings, and even the telephone box all speaking to us of the cosmic beauty, which in turn directs us to Beauty itself, giving us, as Benedict XVI puts it, an insight into the “mind of the Creator!” This is an inspiration for all hoping to create beauty for the greater glory of God!


Reclaiming the Icon



By Keri Wiederspahn

In the wake of common desire for a new epiphany of beauty and a renewed cultural dialogue between artists, the faithful and the Church, can we as Western Catholics embrace anew the original language of our faith gifted by Christ’s incarnation through the icon?

I’m encouraged by the steps that David Clayton has made towards providing a platform to discover these answers in a balanced and clear way from the whole of our Western tradition, and I’m encouraged by the ever-broadening audience of Catholics willing to explore and reclaim the icon as a sacramental tool of prayer to aid us on our spiritual journey.  Icons bear the ability to hold a special place in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church — a timeless contemplative beauty that endures as a spiritual compass gently reminding and pointing us home.

“He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” – Col 1:15

I just finished hosting a 10-day iconography workshop in Vermont (OQ Farm: A Creative Sanctuary) for students to study with two preeminent European iconographers of our day, Anton and Ekaterina Daineko ( of Belarus.  It was a blessing to be part of an international gathering of Christian artists, both Orthodox and Catholic, and to hear stories of our collective creative calling, affirming the icon as a unique means to initiate people into the eternal and divine realities of our common faith.  These past few days were not only an encouragement to the students who came, but a critical witness to the greater evolution of artistic progress in the underserved arena of iconography in the U.S.

DAINEKO demo 2016

Anton Daineko demonstrates the beauty of line drawing to students at a recent master iconography workshop at OQ Farm: A Creative Sanctuary in Vermont

When we equip artists (and indeed laypeople as well) into the practice of skillfully and beautifully crafting an icon, we bring the icon into the forefront of the daily Catholic and Christian sacramental life.  Since the icon is one of the earliest and most powerful forms of sharing our faith (when the Church was yet one body, East and West), this is something we ought not to lose in our contemporary Catholic culture.  In recent decades it has been pushed aside for other visual representations, which have often fallen short of the original prayerful intentions of iconography.

Iconography, as a particular gift to our faith, needs an opportunity to be skillfully re-introduced to contemporary Catholic artists as well as to become more familiar and upheld in our churches.  I’m convinced that the return to serving these early Christian roots through the icon will grow and deepen our Catholic faith and allow us to gain a deeper spiritual awakening, allowing us to engage in contemplative manifestations of deeper spiritual hearing and seeing and providing a perfect counterbalance to the fast-paced and over-sensory modern lives we lead.  Training artists that are open to understanding the valuable place in our tradition that icons present and understanding their unique potential at this moment in time is something that we should not overlook or undervalue.

I’m convinced that with the current shift and stretch of the times into new technological frontiers (particularly in the past two decades), we need the peace and purity of the icon more than ever.

Of course, I say this as an emerging Catholic iconographer who both deeply hopes to affirm the value of learning this practicum while also participating in heralding the re-introduction and artful education of the icon — not as simply something ancient for our Orthodox brothers and sisters, but for us as Catholics to boldly claim as our rightful inheritance — this too, is our tradition.

Rublev Holy Trinity

Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity Icon, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 15th c.

“Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells.  Whether you read about him in the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experiences of your senses.  Thus you will see through your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard.  He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” –St. Theodore the Studite

With these recent days spent in quality hours with the Dainekos, sharing their artistic gifts as modern day iconography masters, I am deeply encouraged to have had an opportunity to glean critical techniques and theology from these gifted teachers. We need more creative and high quality teaching in this field to evolve the living tradition and allow it to more readily enter into our daily lives.  Without a doubt, through time spent learning this distinct spiritual artistic practice we can affirm the importance of icons and address the need for inspiring and accessible contemplative opportunities in our busy lives.  Herein lies the timely value of icons — drawing us into critical stillness and slowness in our lives so we can hear the voice of God, rendering us vulnerable to the very heart of the message of the gospel.  Iconography is a sacred piece of our life in the Church.  

Father Andrew church

Detail from a fresco icon by Father Andrew Tregubov, Holy Resurrection Church in Claremont, NH

“It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshipping as “fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.” -Thomas Merton

A good icon should always be a work of beauty, as beauty itself bears witness to God.  They are works of theology written in line, images and color, and aim to transform the viewer, pointing always towards the recovery of wholeness…of oneness with God.

I’m blessed to have had these past days steeped in the making of beauty, refining the ability to skillfully make the beautiful manifest and reinforcing the importance of time spent equipping artists of faith to excel in their creative and spiritual callings — a pursuit graced with helping to pave the way towards reclaiming the icon.  Pontifex has already begun to lay the groundwork to give artists the means to excel in the art of the icon, and I am eager to see this opportunity flourish in the days to come…