Here are paintings of the recently canonized saints by Clemens Fuchs, who is an Austrian artist trained in the academic method. He was studying at the Charles H Cecil when I was there about 10 years ago and later taught there (along with another artist who has been featured on this site and some may remember, Matt Collins). You can read more about Clemens at his website http://www.clemensmariafuchs.com/. The church, incidentally is St Charles Church ( that's St Charles Borromeo), a splendid baroque church in Vienna.
Demonstrating the contrast been portraiture and the baroque style of sacred art. I have written in the past about the different approaches to portraiture and sacred art in the Western naturalistic form of the baroque (in the article: Is Some Modern Sacred Art too Naturalistic?) . I this I discussed the fact that many examples of sacred art are painted as though they are portraits and end up looking like a staged tableau in which the boy or girl nextdoor is dressed up in old fashioned clothing. Consider the work of someone I met when I was studying the academic method in Florence, Matthew James Collins. I know of know one else who knows more about the art of the baroque and High Renaissance periods. Matt is an American who still lives and works in Italy. His portfolio ishere (look at his sculpture and landscapes of the Italian countryside too) I was looking at this portfolio a few days ago and several paintings of faces caught my eye. First this portrait left. It has all the right elements: it is painted in some areas loosely, and in some with more detail and tighter control, but always with precision. The variation in focus and colour content reflect the Christian understanding of the human person: those areas that we look at most, especially the eyes and the mouth, and which reveal emotion and thought and aspects of the soul, are those we look at the most when we look at someone. These are the parts that contain the most detail and the most natural colouring.
If you look at the right side of the face, the part that in this portrait is more distant than the other. To make this read properly, the artist must make everything on this side of the face slightly smaller than the left; and the right edge must be blurred enough to give a sense of a turning edge, but still sharp enough to retain the right sense of contrast with the background. This is terrifically difficult to get right - even Titian and Rembrandt (for the most part absolute Masters) got it wrong occasionally. In this portrait Matt has captured it. Notice how even the glint on each eye varies to reflect the slight perspective - the right eye is more distant and the glint is smaller and less bright. These tiny specks of white can make or break a portrait.
Part of the essence of the baroque style is a strong emphasis on tonal description and the reduction of natural colour in all but the main focal points of the painting. Even if you master this, which is hard enough, then there is very often a problem in that the shadow areas look flat and dull. Matt has introduced some energy into the shadow by using a different of colours in any one area that are, broadly speaking, tonally equivalent (ie if you took a black and white photo there would be very little contrast) but of slightly different colours. This gives life and variety to the composition.
Notice also how he varies the background tone in order to enhance local contrast, so next to some dark edges of the head the background is slightly lighter and the opposite for light edges. However, he does so while avoiding a distracting, exaggerated patchiness and maintaining a unified impression.
It is an exceptional portrait, in my opinion. But the focus on the individual that we see here and is necessary in portraits would not be appropriate for sacred art. And this is the difficulty for many artists today who are trained primarily as portrait painters.
Contrast it with the first head study shown below. All the essentials elements are here too and handled just as well. However, this is not a portrait. It is one of a series of studies that Matt is doing to develop his skill in allegorical or explicitly sacred art. Matt has deliberately chosen to lessen the portrait elements of the face. This is the same device used by the baroque masters of the 17th century to paint the faces of saints. It causes to focus less on the individual, and more on those general characteristics that are common to all of us but are exemplified in an exceptional way in saints. Again this is difficult to do: it is a question of a shift of emphasis, rather than featuring one aspect to the exclusion of the other). Think of any of the paintings of St Francis of Assisi by the Spanish baroque painter Zurburan. The psychological aspects are communicated through posture and gesture as much as facial expressions but if this is overdone, the result is sentimentality, or even melodrama. This emphasis on the general can be seen, for example, one of the most famous pieces of sacred art produced in the 17th century, by Velazquez. The face of Christ is in shadow and is clearly very different from a portrait (I have put a detail of the face from this painting at the bottom.)
Matt does not have a large portfolio of sacred art to point to at the moment. He is a working artist with a young family portraiture and landscape are his staples. He mentioned to me ruefully, that even when people do commission sacred art, they want the 19th century style and so most of his sacred art has more of this negative aspect than he would choose to paint if he was not painting for sale.
Matera is in southern Italy (just inland from the arch in the boot-shaped country). In the later classical period and through to the Middle Ages it has been occupied by Romans, Lombards, Byzantines, Germans and Normans and the handover was usually less than peaceful. The area is known for its underground churches, rather like the catacombs but dating much later. My former teacher when I was studying the academic method in Florence, Matt Collins, now lives there. Matt is an American and one of the few people around that I know who has applied his academic training to painting in the baroque style (as distinct from the 19th century). As well as oils, he is an expert in the technique of fresco and runs regular classes in Italy teaching this ancient and very durable technique. The underground churches of Matera contain many frescoes and they have survived the Romans and all the waves of conquerers, only to be damaged recently by modern-day vandals and graffiti artist. What a shame! Matt describes them in his blog and it is his pilgrimage that the title refers to. The painting shown is Matt's landscape of the approach to the entrance of two underground churches. To read more about his, go to his article by following the link here. You can also see more of his work there too.
The photograph above is of the entrance to the ravine, and below, of the entrance to one of the churches in the hillside.
Inside with the apse with niche and altar
And finally, just if any are wondering what Matt's art is like here is a beautiful still life displaying the classic baroque stylistic element that readers of this blog will recognise - the variation in focus; the depletion of colour and reduction of contrast away from the natural foci of the composition.
Matt Collins is an American, originally from Chicago, who was my teacher when I studied portrait painting in Florence. Aside from the daily critiques of my work, he was always very happy to answer questions about the baroque style and direct me to further reading. He has been therefore, very influential in giving me what understanding that I have of this great Christian tradition. I had lost contact with him after I left Florence, until I was asked to be on the advisory board of the Foundation for Sacred Arts. When I looked at the works the Foundation had presented at a recently staged exhibition, there was one submission that caught my eye as being consistent with the baroque tradition. It was painted by Matt and it is the one shown here.
He no longer lives in Florence, still lives and works in Italy. He paints, sculpts and does traditional etching with great skill. In addition to this I do not know anyone who knows more about the teaching methods and techniques of the High Renaissance and baroque periods than Matt, so I would enthusiastic direct all readers to it his recently created blog, here.
Some regular visitors to my blog may recognize his name. He has contributed detailed comments about technique and teaching methods to several of my articles, all of which add greatly to what I have written. His first blog posting is particularly interesting. It is about printmaking and he includes several examples he has produced himself which I have reproduced here.