The 19th Century Beuronese School, An Inspiration for Artists Today?

I have become aware over the last couple of years of contemporary artists looking to the 19th century Beuronese school for inspiration when painting for the liturgy. Time will be ultimate test of how appropriate this is, but my initial reaction is that this is good thing. I thought that I would give some thoughts as to why I think this.

Stylistically, Beuronese school is an interesting cul-de-sac that sits outside the mainstream of 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 in the mid-19th century.

The most well known artists who painted in this style in Europe are Desiderius Lenz (d 1928) and Gabriel Wuger (d 1892). In the United States, the walls and the ceiling of the abbey church of the Benedictines at Conception Abbey in Missouri, are decorated primarily with authentic examples of the Beuronese style. The abbey website tells us that the work was done between 1893 and 1897, by several monks of Conception, most notably Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921), the latter two of whom had studied art at Beuron.

The original Beuronese artists were reacting against what was the dominant form of sacred art being painted for the churches of the Roman Rite at the time. This dominant style was an overly naturalistic and sentimental form of academic art, the product of the French academies and ateliers. The most well known artist of this decadent form is probably the Frenchman Bougeureaux. (For an in-depth discussion of this over naturalism in academic art read Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic?)

Authentic Christian art has a style that is always a carefully worked out balance of naturalism (sometimes referred to as ‘realism’) and idealism. The naturalism in art tells us visually what is being painted – put simply if you want to paint a man it must look like a man, with a human body and limbs and so on. The idealistic element of the style is a controlled deviation from strict adherence to natural appearances by which the artist reveals invisible truths. The invisible truths that the artist might reveal, though style, are that man has a soul and a spirit that is intellect and will, for example.

It is this deviation from strict ‘photographic’ naturalism that characterizes the style of art (although in reality even a camera lens distorts appearances in a way that causes a photograph to be subtly different from what the eye actually sees). All paintings in any particular tradition will have in common particular methods of controlled abstraction that are carefully worked out to reveal the Christian understanding of what it portrayed. It is through perception of these that we are able to recognise the style. For example, we recognise the iconographic style because of, for example, an enlargement of the eyes, the dimunition of the mouth, and the elongation of the nose, in a particular way. These elements of iconographic style were developed to suggest to the observer a particular characteristics in the person portrayed that are appropriate for a saint.

It is as easy to distort appearances to hide truth and to create the equivalent of a visual lie through style, incidentally. Many advertising hoardings have photographs that are composed and then usually ‘airbrushed’ – that is, deliberately distorted - so as to to exaggerate in an imbalanced way the aspect of sexual attraction (and so, it is believed, sell products). This tells us that it is not enough to stylize, the Christian artist has a great responsbility and must understand deeply how his stylization is going to reveal truth, rather than hide it. If he gets it wrong he can lead souls astray. It's not just what he paints, it's how he paints it. (I hesitated to portray the image, below right, which I see as an example of art that has an anti-ideal. It is about at the limit of what I feel I can show and even then I felt I had to make is small.. Bear in mind it is intended for a children's comic.)

Aware of the deficiencies of the sacred (and mundane art) of their own time, Beuronese art sought to introduce an idealization into their style by seeking inspiration from ancient Egyptian art and from the Greek ideal. Visually it is easy to see the influence of the Egyptian papyri; but in addition the Beuronese artists used a canon of proportion that was said to be derived from that of the ancient Greeks (although this is speculative on their part, given that the canon of Polyclitus is lost). The link between ancient Greek art and Egyptian art is not an unnatural one. Plato praised the Egyptian style and it has been speculated that Greek art from the classical period (around 500 BC) was influenced by Egyptian art. The Beuronese artists themselves were trained in the methods of the19th century atelier and the result is a curious mixture, 19th century naturalism stiffened up, so to speak, by an injection of what they believed to be Egyptian art and Greek geometry.

What of the painting of Beuronese art today? In his encyclical about the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pius XII made it clear (in paragraph 195) that we should always be open to different styles of art for the liturgy provided any style under consideration: has the right balance of naturalism and idealism (he uses the words ‘realism’ and ‘symbolism’ to refer to these qualities); and that what drives its use is the need of the Christian community and not the whim of the artist or patron. In my experience, the Bueronese style does connect with people today in the right way so that it is appropriate for the liturgy. It has the sufficient naturalism so that one can recognise easily what they are looking at; and sufficient idealism that it does suggest another world beyond this one. Furthermore, contemporary culture does seem to provide naturally enough cultural reference points to allow modern people, even those without a classical education, to relate to this style. Art deco architecture, for example, is also derived from Egyptian styles. Strangely, many might find the Beuronese style with its Egyptian roots more accessible than a traditional icon in the classic Russian style of Andrei Rublev.

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 so complex that my reaction was that it would be very difficult for any painter to use the canon succesfully in any but very formal poses. As soon as an artist seeks to twist and turn a pose in the image, then the necessary foreshortening requires the painter to use an intuitive sense as to how the more distant parts relate to the nearer. Usually this means that in these cases he is less able to adhere to the cannon of proportion so well. This might account for that fact that when the figures are in less stiff and formal, Bueronese art seems to work less well, in my opinion. To my eye, the more relaxed poses produce art that looks like illustrations from the bible I was given when I was a child. Good in that context, perhaps, but too naturalistic for the liturgy I would say.

The approach of original Beuronese school is idiosyncratic – I do not know of any other Christian style of liturgical art that looked to ancient Egypt for inspiriation. Nevertheless the end result, when done well, does strike me as having something of the sacred to it and being worthy of attention. Perhaps their efforts to control the modern temptation to individual expression have contributed to this too. The school stressed, for example, the value of imitation of prototypes above the production of works originating in any one artist, furthermore the artists collaborated on works and did not sign it once finished.

Note, the icon detail is from a contemporary icon at St John the Baptist, Euless, TX, painted by Vladimir Grygorenk

Below I show some examples of Beuronese art that I think are less successful than the examples above. The first is less formal and ends up looking like a good illustration for a children's bible, but not so good for the liturgy, I suggest.

The next is highly skilled, but a little to close to 19th century naturalism for my liking.