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Beta Testing Holy Icons on Facebook. Creating the New Epiphany of Beauty with Social Media

When John Paul II wrote his famous letter to artists in 1999 he called (in an oft quoted passage) for a ‘new epiphany of beauty’. It is not surprising that this phrase caught the imagination. It seemed to confirm what so many people felt in general about Catholic culture (not just art) of the 20th century: that Catholic culture was not beautiful…but it ought to be.

What seems to be less known is that John Paul II also felt that the mechanism by which this would happen would emerge out a dialogue between the Church and artists. In the opening section he told us that,

In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future. In fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity.

Then after explaining the importance of beauty and art, and summarizing the great artistic traditions of the Church in the past, he closes with a section entitled, Towards a Renewed Dialogue, in which he tell us:

The Church is especially concerned for the dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists, as called for by my revered predecessor Paul VI in his vibrant speech to artists during a special meeting he had with them in the Sistine Chapel on 7 May 1964.(17) From such cooperation the Church hopes for a renewed “epiphany” of beauty in our time and apt responses to the particular needs of the Christian community.

But what form can this dialogue be? One answer is to have enlightened patrons, especially clergy. Such people are capable of engaging with artists constructively. One such example whom I am aware of is Fr Charles Byrd of Our Lady of the Mountains in Jasper, Georgia. This is as small rural parish, yet he has managed to reorder his church and commissioned art and music. He has raised the money through the enthusiasm of a congregation of just a few hundred people. I have written in the past about this, here, in connection with the commisioning of a St Ambrose icon.

I will talk more of the Our Lady of the Mountains project in future blog posts as this is nearing completion.

Another way in which artists can dialogue with the Church is to engage with other artists and with Catholics who would not otherwise be involved in the creative process at all. This last aspect is a bit of market research whereby the artist can see how well his work connects with people.

Currently, I am putting the finishing touches to an online class for Pontifex University called How to Adopt An Artistic Style as Your Own – A Study of Artistic Method for Patrons and Artists. Case Study: Illumination in the Style of the English Gothic School of St Albans 

The intention of this class is both practical and theoretical. On the theoretical side it is to give artists and patrons an understanding of method by which, for example, the Russian icon painters and theorists who were living in Paris in mid-20th century re-established the iconographic tradition so successfully. The hope is that by passing on these principles to those who might be influential in the Catholic church we might see a similar re-establishment of our Western traditions of sacred art in service of the liturgy. For our case study we apply these considerations to the style of English gothic illumination which flourished from about 1100-1300AD. To demonstrate how this might be done – and this is the practical side of the class – I demonstrate how to compose, draw and paint a  picture in accordance with these principles. As such it is also an introductory class the method of painting in egg tempera. One could approach the class as artist – where you actually learn to the painting and have personal critiques on your work; or as a potential patron of the arts, by which you see all the practical instructional material too, but are tested on your understanding of the artistic process through written exams.

This latter ‘patrons option’ is a vital aspect of this course. I know as an artist that the quality of what I produce goes up when the person commissioning the work understands what is artistically possible and has a clear idea of how of what art is for.

So this is dialogue between artist and patron is one form of potential dialogue between the Church and the artist. Whilst creating the course I engaged in another type of dialogue that I also think will help increase the chances of this mission being succesful.

As I painted the demonstration icon for class, which I chose as the Baptism in Jordan, I recorded on video and still photographs what I was doing in order to create the demonstration material for the class, which will be offered online. This meant I took a series of photographs of the painting in various stages of completion. Simultaneously, I posted some of these photos on Facebook and invited comments.

I was a little nervous when I did so, because I was exposing myself somewhat. However the feedback, while not always positive was always constructive (and polite). Furthermore it came from quite a spectrum of people, ranging from internationally known iconographers such as Dr Stephane Rene, to Pontifex University students and even to the six year old son of friends in Washington DC (comments relayed by his mother!).

As a result of this I was able to some degree modify the final form of the picture and gain valuable information for the design of such images in the future.

First here is the original image I based my own icon on:

Winchester Psalter, c 1200

Then you can see the drawing I made with the lines painted in with walnut ink. As you can see, below, I decided to add in features that commonly appear in Eastern icons, for example the personification of the Red Sea and the Jordan which were driven back (cf. Ps 113) back by God to allow the people of God to cross; and the gates of Hades. Also, putting Christ standing on a dry base rather than immersed in the water emphasizes the connection between Jesus and Joshua. Joshua crossed the Jordan on the dry river bed and he is seen as a prototype for Jesus (the name Joshua even being a variant on the name Jesus, which means ‘God saves’. You can look up the significance of these on the internet.

Then I posted the above inked drawing onto Facebook and invited comments. People focussed immediately on the nudity of Our Lord and the symbolism of the elements described above. I had deliberately chosen to have Christ nude because this scene and the Garden of Eden are perhaps the two where nudity is important to the story. We had just been studying this icon in reference to a study of the story of Joshua in Fr Sebatian Carnazzo’s scripture class, also offered by Pontifex University as part of the Masters in Sacred Arts program. In this class he explained how people used to be baptized naked. They would come into the baptistry wearing old clothes, cast them aside, and then after baptism put on the new clothes of the grace. You can see the angel holding the new garment for Christ in the drawing. Furthermore, I had written in the past about John Paul II’s call for artists to portray the human person, ‘naked without shame’, and his assertion that it was in the gothic and iconographic styles that this was most appropriate (as distinct from more naturalistic styles). So I wanted to try and create something in accordance with what he had asked for.

Below you can see the first version with color:

And below this are some of the comments that were made in regard to the above. As can see some openly said they didn’t like it and why. This is just small part of the dialogue that took place:

Here you can see people commenting on the way I have painted and my choice of the gothic style. Elsewhere there view negative views expressed about my choice of making Christ naked. I explained in response to those who commented that I had seen the figure, in accordance with the iconographic and early gothic traditions, clothed in glory that is so dazzling that detail is obscured. People accepted my explanation but it was clear to me that this is not how it really appeared to them. So I had to rethink my approach.

In the end I decided that it was more appropriate to have a loin cloth (as has been the practice in Eastern icons since about the 16th century, or if I with to make the point of his nudity, have the legs crossed the other way so that there isn’t a sense of missing detail and that Christ being portrayed as androgenous.

In general, the old images from the Western tradition tend to have him fully immersed if he is nude (as in the original from the Winchester Psalter above), as in the following gothic illuminations:

I think in the second one, above, I little more work could have been done by the artist to shroud the underwater part of his figure in mystery!

Around the 16th century, Eastern iconography settled on a portrayal of Christ in the Jordan in a loin cloth:

As I thought through the history of the tradition and the comments of my Facebook friends, I felt that I would choose to have a nude Christ in future in accordance with the Western tradition, and have him fully immersed in the water, but in this depiction the best I could do would be to add a loin cloth, as below:

I wasn’t altogether happy with the final result – the folds aren’t particularly convincing and Christ looks like he’s about to take to Centre Court in Wimbledon with a pair of freshly starched tennis shorts! I would do better in future if I planned it from the start. Nevertheless, I found the process very useful indeed and would certainly do this again as part of this development of a new tradition.

Why do I think this Facebook discussion is so valuable?

It comes down to the nature of beauty. If my work is beautiful it will be enjoyed by more people. So while I have to be discerning in who I listen to, this process constitutes, in effect a bit of market research: it is telling, other things being equal, how much did people like the image and that is related to how beautiful it is. Within the bounds that define the tradition of sacred art, I wanted to connect with as many people as possible at a natural level. On the whole people are rarely rude to your face – if they don’t like it they just ignore it and stay silent. I have to bear that in mind as I read the comments and try to think as much about what they are not saying, as what they are saying.

What social media allows for is a chance to expose an artists work to his market in both finished and work-in-progress form. This being the internet, reach is quick and geographically huge. I had people from thousands of miles away reacting with considered comments in a matter of minutes. It is true that I m working through small scale photographs of the icons, which is different from people seeing the original, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages in this process.

Beyond responses the simple question, do you like this, I was interested in the comments made by expert iconographers about the content and composition.

There were others too who wouldn’t call themselves expertss but in many ways their comments were just as useful. I was trying to discern from them whether or not the truths that I intended my pictures to communicate were grasped by the whole range of people who were likely to use such a picture in their prayer and worship. It was I discovered that my work initially failed, in part, to do this that I made the decicison to change my original icon.

Not only did this help me in the creation of a painting, it gave me lessons to pass on to those who will take my class next semester. I constructed a whole lesson around this process of dialogue between Church and artist and the study of John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, using this example as one case study. What I hope artists and patrons will realise is that this has to be a dynamic process in which each is constantly responding to the other so that the quality of art produced steadily improves.

The long term goal of the Pontifex University Masters in Sacred Arts is the emergence of patrons and artists who can work together to put all of this theory into practice in the creation of beatuiful art. The Russian ex-patriots who re-established iconography so well in the mid-twentieth centuries had their theorists who laid the foundations – for example Vladimir Lossky and Paul Evdimikov. But they had also, and crucially, gifted artists who worked with them and manifested that theory as actual holy icons that connected with the people of the Church in their time. This started in the Russian Church but under their inspiration it happened also the other Eastern Churches, for example the Melkite, the Greek and the Coptic. These artists who lead the way were figures such as Leonid Ouspensky, Gregory Kroug, Fotius Kontoglou and Isaac Fanous.

Although I would love to think that it might be so, but the indications are that I am not one of the artists who will be a 21st century Fra Angelicos and who will inspire the new Catholic art. However. it is wholly possible that the figures will inspire the new epiphany of beauty in the Roman Catholic Chruch are amongst those students who are taking the Pontifex University Masters in Sacred Arts.

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