The Beuronese School of the 19th century

The Beuronese School is an interesting cul-de-sac in the Christian tradition. It is named after the town of Beuron in Germany which is the location of the Benedictine community in which the school originated. The style is an attempt in the 19th century to revive Christian art, reacting against the dominating over sentimental naturalism of the time, which draws on Egyptian art and canon of proportion that was said to be derived from that of the ancient Greeks (although this is speculative, given that the canon of Polyclitus is lost). The artists themselves were trained in the methods of the19th century atelier and the result is a curious mixture of 19th century naturalism stiffened up, so to speak, by an injection of Egyptian art and geometry. Examples are to be found in central Europe and also at Conception Abbey in Missouri. I have read an account of the geometric proportions used in the human form in translation of the book written by their main theorist, Fr Desiderius Lenz, On the Aesthetic of Beuron. It was complex , so much so that my reaction was that it would be very difficult for any painter to use the canon succesfully in any but very formal poses (although it might be possible for sculptor to follow it). As soon as you have to twist and turn a pose, then the necessary foreshortening requires the painter to use an intuitive sense as to how the more distant parts relate to the nearer. To be able to do so would require the artist to have many years’ experience of working within that proportion, to the degree that it would be unnatural for him to do anything else. For this reason those that have more formal poses are the most successful works. Those that attempt a more naturalistic pose work less well, in my opinion, and look like illustrations from the bible I was given when I was a child.

The approach of Beuron school is idiosyncratic and as such sits outside the mainstream of Christian tradition. It does not as far as I can ascertain have its form integrated with theology in the way that the iconographic, the baroque or the gothic do. Nevertheless the end result does strike me as having something of the sacred. Perhaps their efforts to control individual expression have contributed to this. The school stressed, for example, the value of imitation of prototypes above the production of works originating in any one artist. The artists collaborated on works and did not sign it once finished, so it is not always clear who the artist is.

My approach in seeking to reestablish our Christian culture is look first at the mainstream of tradition, so this is not a school I I would look at in regard to my own painting, but that is not to say that no one else might consider them as examples worthy of study.

The main artists in Europe are Lenz (d 1928) and Gabriel Wuger (d 1892). The artists of Conception Abbey, their website tells us, were trained in Beuron but moved to Missouri once the abbey was founded.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, at St Gabriels, Prague

At the Abbey of St Martin, Beuron

Crucifixion by Bruger

The interior of Conception Abbey, Missouri and below, two frescoes from the church