Skip to content

Archive for

Postscript – the Anglican Restoration of Medieval Rood Screens…And Reredoses

After my last post about rood screens I was contacted by reader Dr Simon Cotton from England who wrote as follows:

The Norfolk screen shown in your interesting article is that at Tunstead. For a selection of pictures (not mine), including the saints on the screen, see here.

We know when the screen was made and also when it was painted. Over 35 years ago I turned up a series of late 15th century Norfolk wills containing bequests to this; it was called ‘new’ in a will of 1470, and money was left for its painting between 1474 and 1490.

By the way, no mediaeval rood groups survive in situ in English (or Welsh or Scottish) churches. Any you see today are replacements between the late 19th century and c. 1960 (when they became vieux jeu to church architects). I’ve attached a jpeg of Comper’s [Sir Ninian Comper] restored rood group (c. 1930) to the mediaeval screen (substantially its original colouring and gilding) at Eye in Suffolk. Comper also provided the canopy of honour, in the mediaeval style.

Here are two articles, written in 1987 and 2014, for archeological publications in which he describes the sources for our knowledge on the rood screens. It is interesting to me that so many were made from money left in bequests.

And once again, whether its cathedrals, railway stations, rood screens, telephone boxes, or a charming English village in its familiar pastoral setting; we see that so much that is good in the world has come from the inspiratio of the liturgical forms of High Anglicanism. How much more powerful it will be, with the Real Presence at its heart, when the Anglican Ordinariate develops its own cultural voice rooted in its Catholic liturgy.

Some readers pointed out that the medieval screens would probably have had curtains. I’m guessing that the extremely ornately carved High Anglican screens would not have done. I don’t feel they lack for this. The ornate, almost filigree carving that you see on the screens creates a general image of a gossamer like veil before the altar which I personally find appropriate and appealing.

The final photograph is of a high altar and reredos, also by Sir Ninian Comper at Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk (added by me). And yes, reredoses is the plural of reredos!

Provost of Pontifex University to Speak at November Conference on Beauty

Others speakers include Sir Roger Scruton, Alasdair MacIntyre and Mgr Timothy Verdon.

The Fall Conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, called You Are Beauty, is from November 10-12. To register and for more details go here.

There is a long list of high-profile invited speakers which includes my new favorite on the subject of beauty and culture (and a few other things besides!), Sir Roger Scruton; and Mgr Timothy Verdon, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mary Ann Glendon, Elizabeth Lev, Dony McManus and Etsuro Sotoo, sculptor of the Nativity Façade of the Sagrada Família Basilica, Barcelona, Spain.

I will be attending and am speaking at one of the panel sessions on the Saturday morning. So perhaps we’ll see some of you there!

Iconostasis, Rood Screen, Altar Rail or Shag-Pile Carpetted Step?

Are We Creating a Holy Place…or Fitting Out the Living Room?

The nature of the dividing line between sanctuary and nave in a church has been a hot topic over the years. I raise the subject today not to spill yet more ink in complaining about the removal of altar rails in churches over the last 50 years or so, although it is something I do feel strongly about. Rather, I am interested in trying to establish how, with due regard for tradition, we might encourage in the Roman Rite a renewed engagement with art in the liturgy, in the such a way that it deepens our participation, rather than distracts from it.

One thing that always strikes me when I go to an Eastern Rite Catholic Church, (recently I have been attending St Elias Melkite Church in Los Gatos, California,) is how much more naturally priest, deacon, cantor and congregation engage with the icons during the liturgy. In contrast, in the Roman Rite, even in traditional congregations, apart from perhaps the crucifix and altarpiece, the choice of art seems to be governed more by the priest’s personal devotion than liturgical considerations, and there appears to be very little engagement with it during the liturgy itself. At best, sacred art provides a decorative backdrop that helps set an appropriate mood for the worship of God with direct engagement in the liturgy itself, which is largely a hands-clasped and eyes-closed activity.

First a quick presentation of different options available to us.

According to my research, the original division in both East and West was more like today’s altar rail, with gaps or doors for processing. The typical “transenna” might have looked as this one at Sant’ Apollinarre in Ravenna, which I understand was restored in the 20th century.

Another example from the 12th century, at San Clemente in Rome, which seems to follow the early traditional style.

In time, from perhaps the 9th century onwards, the transenna grew upwards into a screen, as in this 9th century example from Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome.

Gradually, we see images being added, as in the Byzantine-Venetian Torcello Cathedral, built in the 7th century, but restored in the 9th and 11th centuries.

This then developed into the Western rood screen, “rood” being an old English word for the cross. The example below is a 15th century screen from Cornwall in England.

The lower portion would originally have had images in it, as in this example below from Norfolk. (The cross is now missing.)

In the East, especially in Russia in the 15th century, we start to see the development of the solid iconostasis, the form that we tend to associate with Eastern churches today. This is a 15th century Russian iconostasis.

This is the iconostasis of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Cathedral in Jerusalem.

Even in Eastern churches, icon screens are not always so high as to completely block the view of the apse. Here is a new icon screen from St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.

In the West, after the Council of Trent, in order to encourage greater connection between congregations and the sanctuary, many rood screens were removed, although they were never formally forbidden. The norm became the communion rail.

The multi-image altarpiece, the reredos, had developed in prominence – one might even think of it as an iconostasis behind the altar, even before the removal of rood screens. These can be painted or, as in the example above, sculpted.

Then we have the more recent practice of removing even altar rails.

Where do we go from here? Assuming due regard for tradition and good practice, what are the choices in regard to the encouragement of engagement with art?

For the Roman Rite, the critical points seem to me to be this:

The line between sanctuary and nave should be apparent in order to indicate a “holy ground,” so to speak. This is why I would have altar rails at minimum – the carpeted step does not separate the two areas sufficiently. (I am not expecting much pushback from NLM readers on this!)

The images that work with the rail, screen and altar must be an integral part of the worship of God in the liturgy. Their positioning, therefore, must be such that at critical moments in the liturgy, our attention is drawn to those images, which in turn direct our attention to the events taking place in a new light. They must be prominent enough that they are seen, but not so prominent that they distract.

I would opt for communion rail with reredos, or a rood screen, in the Roman Rite, and encourage clergy to engage with images to show us the way, just as I have seen in the Eastern liturgies. In the Eastern liturgies, even when the altar is hidden by the iconostasis, we are aware of what is happening at key moments by audible chant; and the priest or deacon will emerge at specific times to pray before chosen icons and in so doing direct the attention of the congregation to it.

Maybe this practice of showing us the important images in the course of the liturgy is something that we could do in the Roman Rite – perhaps it might bring deacons or servers into greater prominence in the Mass. Very obviously turning and looking at the image at key moments, censing images that relate to the feast or saint of the day or to the mysteries referred to at moments in the Mass, if done judiciously can, I suggest, increase personal engagement with the truth that the image is pointing us to.

When I was working at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, we gradually renovated an unusually shaped chapel (wider than it is long). We introduced the practice of taking communion on kneelers that were brought to the edge of the sanctuary space by the server during Mass. I painted the art in order to encourage this engagement. We did look into creating a raised rood screen, but architecturally it would have been too expensive, so instead we put a low hanging cross at the point where the screen would have been. The image of the cross was designed so that when in the eucharistic prayer the priest says the words, ‘In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty,…’ We can see the angel at the foot of the cross supporting Christ in sight of the Christ in Majesty behind. At the end of every Mass, we sang the St Michael Prayer and said angelus – the priest would face the image of St Michael and Our Lady when he did this, the servers and the congregation followed his lead.

This photo was taken before the Christ in Majesty which is 6ft x 3ft was painted and erected in the middle, up high on the back wall.

Similarly, the practice in Eastern Rite churches of putting a special icon for the day into prominence on a stand in front of the iconstasis could perhaps be introduced in some way in the Roman Rite, by putting the relevant image front and center in the nave, before altar rail or rood screen.

All of these ideas are made on the further assumption that good judgment is exercised in considering the styles of art and in the canon of imagery on the reredos or rood screen. I have already written many times on the consideration of style, but in a future article will discuss possible principles that might be applied for the development of an appropriate canon of imagery for today.

How Do We Re-Establish an Artistic Tradition and Make if Relevant Today?

Pontifex University Will Teach the 13th Century English Gothic Style of the School of St Albans.

When I have had discussions about reestablishment of beautiful sacred art in the Roman Catholic Church (as opposed to in the Eastern Church) it usually comes down to picking an style from the past and then using that starting point from which a style for today emerges. So some feel that the Western Church should adopt the iconographic tradition – and then we get into discussions about which particular iconographic tradition we should go for: should it be the Greek style, the Russian style or a historic Western style such as the Romanesque? Fra Angelico’s name also often crops up as a model for today. Some feel that he has sufficient naturalism to appeal to the modern eye, and sufficient abstraction for it to seem other worldly and holy. A third is the style of English illumination in the early gothic/late Romanesque style of the Westminster Psalter, which as painted in the 13th century.

I first started looking at this latter style when I was looking for alternatives to Greek and Russian icons as teaching models for the students I was teaching to paint when I was Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.


I noticed that when we studied images from this period the students engaged with them much more readily – they like them more than Eastern icons and seemed to understand more instinctively what they were painting. As a result some quickly developed a feel for what they could change without straying outside the style they were working in. In contrast, most who had not seen it before found the style of the Eastern icons slightly alien, and in class they had no instinctive sense of what they could change while remaining within the traditions. This meant that we had to copy rigidly for fear of introducing error. It was a bit like learning words from a language by rote without understanding the meaning of what you are saying. This is not always such a bad thing – copying with understanding is an essential part of learning art, but at some point the students must apply his understanding in new ways. This latter point seemed to be reached more quickly by these Roman Catholic students when working in the gothic style. Perhaps if I had been teaching a class of students who had grown up in the Melkite liturgy, the story might have been different!

I refer to this period as the School of St Albans because the most famous artist of this period in England is a monk called Matthew Parris who was based at St Alban’s Abbey in England. There is a self portrait below with more works by him after that. The scenes below the portrait are from the life of St Thomas Becket and St Edward the Confessor:

So if we decide that this has the right style and balance of absraction and naturalism for today’s Church, how do we re-establish this as a tradition?

In answer to this, I look to the work done in restablishing the iconographic tradition in the Russian and Greek churches in the 20th century. This was done by a little group of Russian ex-patriots living in France – Vladimir Lossky, Paul Evdokimov, Leonid Ouspensky, Gregory Kroug. A Greek icon painter called Photis Kontoglou who had contact with them and took their ideas to the Greek Orthodox Church. In the middle of the 20th century these figure developed and applied a theology of the form of icons by which they established a set of principles that define the iconographic tradition. Lossky, Evdokimov, Ouspensky and to certain extent Kontoglou were theorists; Ouspensky and Kontoglou were also practitioners. Kroug was an icon painter who to my knowledge did not write extensively about icons but he, along with Ouspensky and Kontoglou painted wonderful icons. The icon below is Ouspenky’s St Seraphim.

In the mid-20th century, 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. 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 developed the principles that artists needed in order to create new works consistent with the tradition. 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 for certain if the formulae that Ouspensky, Lossky and Evdokimov developed correspond precisely to what Rublev, for example, 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.

Furthermore, while the icons that these figures painted were clearly connected to ancient icons, they also incorportated discerningly the forms of 20th century art. If you look for example at the icons of Gregory Krug, I suggest that his style has the marks of someone who has seen 20th century secular art – it is a personal observation, but I see elements of the cubism of Braques in Kroug’s style. I don’t know if this was done deliberately – quite possibly not, it might have come out naturally as Kroug made use of the images stored in his memory as he employed his imagination to create the idea of the icon he was going to paint in his mind.

So how do we do the same for the gothic School of St Albans?

I think the answer is to copy and seek to understand, so that we can articulate a set of principles that define the tradition as a guide to future artists. Here are the common features that strike me:

  • A strong emphasis on line-drawing. The description of form is not through modelling with graded colour and tone, but rather through simple flowing lines.
  • The figures themselves are well observed and naturalistic, though still retaining a symbolic quality. The degree of naturalism is higher than most icongraphic styls.
  • However the relationships between them are not defined by a natural perspective. They live, so to speak, in the middle distance and in the plane of the painting in the same way that iconographic figures do. This is something that artists can control quite easily once they understand how to do it.
  • Simple colouration – often with light washes and with the ground/foundation visible in parts.
  • The inclusion of geometric patterns, especially in the borders.

I would use egg tempera, mosaic or fresco as media as they are suited to the ‘flatness’ of this style. In the learning process the most convenient medium to use is egg tempera. It is cheap and clean and can be used in the sort of small space – on the kitchen table – that most people are likely to have available to them. I would work on high quality paper as readily as gessoed panels.

A large part of what will characterize the the new style will the drawing. The artists who excel at this will be expert draughtsmen who understand how line can describe form even when there is not tonal gradation in a drawing. I anticipate that a 21st century neo-gothic style would emerge naturally – the artist would naturally and unthinkingly be fusing the elements of his own artistic likes and dislikes, but as the main object of study participating also in the essential elements of the original gothic style. As result I would expect the 20th century School of St Albans to be similar to, but distinct from the 13th century gothic, and distinct also from the Victorian neo-gothic style.

At each stage as an artist, if I was taking on this style as my own, I would be asking myself (as directed by Pius XII in Mediator dei) what the original artist was trying to do, and should I do precisely what he did, or does the need of the Church today differ in a way that requires some modification? For example, I would think about the style of dress for the figures in each case – chainmail for a soldier is fine for a scene from the life of Thomas Becket, or even for a figure that symbolises to us today the idea of chivalry; but probably not for the soldiers present at the Passion. The iconographic tradition could help me in this respect. However accurate they really are historically, the style of dress used in iconography is carefully worked out to establish the idea in the the modern worshipper who looks at them that the figures portrayed are in a different time and place but is familiar to us in such as way that it reinforces what we know.

As regards the development of a theology of form, although these English illuminations come from the gothic period historically, I do not see anything in these works that contravenes the iconographic prototype of the Romanesque. They are really a more naturalized style of Romanesque art and the Romanesque conforms to the iconographic prototype. Therefore, I think that we could adopt the essential principles of iconography, as developed by these mid 20th century pioneers, but apply them in a particularly Roman Rite way.

Alternatively, some may wish to push the envelope slightly and move into a genuine gothic style (for example allowing figures in profile). I have discussed this at some length these distinction in my book, the Way of Beauty.

If you want to see examples of art in this style, go to Google Images and look for examples from the following books: Queen Mary Apocalypse, English Apocalypse, Westminster Psalter, Winchester Psalter, Douce Apocalypse, and the Psalter of Henry of Bloise.

So that’s it – I encourage you to go ahead and be radical traditionalist in the authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council. This is precisely what Caravaggio was in his day, following the Council of Trent when he formed the baroque style that did so much for the Catholic counter-Reformation. We need artists who are post-Vat-II tradicals who can do something similar today

If you feel you need some help in getting going, as part of our painting program, I plan to create and introductory online painting course for Pontifex University that will be available in the Spring. In it I will set out these principles and demonstrate how to make a start in egg tempera.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Pontifex University Students, June 22nd – July 4th, 2017

Earn 3-studio credits towards your Masters in Sacred Arts.

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land, assisted by priests of the Melkite Church, will be offered in conjunction with the Institute of Catholic Culture. Pontifex University is offering 3 studio credits for all those who attend this pilgrimage and submit a paper – these could be the first three credits of your Masters in Sacred Arts!

Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, who teaches three theology courses for the Pontifex University Masters in Sacred Arts is among the primary instructors (he teaches alongside his brother, the Institute of Catholic Culture’s Fr Hezekias Carnazzo!). We will visit many of scripture’s most significant places including: the Mount of Olives, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the Jordan River.

Seeing and worshiping in these places associated with the prophets, the Apostles, Our Lady and Christ himself will bring the lessons of scripture and the sacraments to life in a profound way. Additionally, this pilgrimage is intended to be an immersion into the liturgy, culture, images, music and architecture of the Holy Land mediated by the local Melkite Church.


The Melkite Rite, which has its origins in the Middle East, is one of the Byzantine rites of the Catholic Church. The traditions of the Melkite Church reach back to Apostolic times, and bear eloquent witness to the harmonious interplay between Catholic liturgy and the culture of the region in which that liturgy developed. Those who wish to transform the culture of the West would do well to learn from this relationship between the liturgy and sacred images and in turn with the broader culture.

For more information on the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land view the Brochure here:


If you are interested in the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, download and fill out the registration form here:


The painting above is of Nazareth in the 19th century by David Roberts




The Two Michelangelos: Part 3


The most striking feature of the above painting “Supper at Emmaus”,  is the beardless Christ. While it is true that early representations of Christ were beardless, based on the model of Apollo, the bearded Christ, based on the Mandylion, became convention around the 6th century. There must have been a very good reason for Caravaggio to have broken with convention. If we look to the Sistine Chapel again, specifically the Last Judgement, we see the same face and gesture used by Caravaggio on the figure of Christ painted by Michelangelo:

38.Last Judgement and Emmaus copy

Caravaggio has echoed Michelangelo’s decision to use the youg beardless Christ (aka Apollo) This is our first clue as to the deeper meaning of the”Supper at Emmaus”.

Once again Caravaggio dresses his apostles and bystanders in contemporary dress. Compare the reaction of the apostles to the innkeeper, who is seemingly oblivious to the scene transpiring in front of him as the risen Christ reveals himself to apostles (from Luke 24:30 – 31). The innkeeper represents us, the everyman, who asks, “Would I have seen this miracle?”
A further clue to the meaning is the fruit basket, beautifully painted but leaning precariously on the ledge. This basket refers to the Last Judgement. From the Old Testament book of Amos 8:1-3: “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the Lord said to me, ” The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. “In that day”, declares the Sovereign Lord,” the songs in the Temple will turn to wailing. Many many bodies flung everywhere! Silence!

The painting is about salvation and judgement.

Many of the observations in these blog posts are sourced from the work of Italian art historian and painter Rodolfo Papa ( I studied with Professor Papa in Rome. His studies and books on Caravaggio and sacred art are very interesting but unfortunately (for now) they are only in Italian.

I also highly recommend Dr. John Spike’s book on Caravaggio which is also another source for these posts.
The best book for high quality reproductions is by Sebastion Schutze. It is 12 x 16 inches and is full of hi-res close ups. One can see paint quality in the images. Highly recommended for the Caravaggio enthusiast.

Vocations Weekend for Men at Benedictine Monastery in Massachussetts

November 4-6, Petersham, Mass. 

I have just been sent information about this ‘vocations weekend’ for men. The monastery chants the liturgy in Latin – seven Offices a day and daily Mass.  It is a daughter house of a wonderful monastery in northern Scotland, Pluscarden, where I have stayed many times.



Podcast on Catholic Exchange About the New Masters in Sacred Arts

I was interviewed recently by Catholic Exchange’s Michael Lichens for their weekly podcast, here is the connection for any who are interested.