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.