Pagan Themes and the Christian Artist

Pagan Themes and the Christian Artist

Should a Christian artist paint themes from pagan mythology, other religions, or even fantasy motifs?

Many artists who are deeply grounded in their Christian faith, especially those just starting out in their career, have questions about what is and is not appropriate subject matter. In a previous post I addressed nudity and the Christian artist, today I would like to address subjects that don't seem to have anything to do with Christianity at all.

The story of our salvation is really the only story, and we retell it in endless variations. Even the ancient pre-Christian mythologies echo the story of Christ and His salvific role.

Think of it this way. Imagine time as a slow moving river. All of human history takes place within this river, from the first humans upstream to the present day somewhere further downstream. Each of us live out our lives in a current of this river, overlapping with others.

As humans our perception of time is linear. We look back upstream and see a sequence of events that have led us to where we are now. But God stands outside the river. God stands on the riverbank observing the passage of the stream. To God, all of our history is happening now, at different points along the river.

Is Nudity Appropriate in Christian Art?

Is Nudity Appropriate in Christian Art?

Nudity has long been a staple of fine art, but many people feel it is inappropriate for an artist who is also a faithful Christian to portray nudity in their work.

Is it? The answer, as is so often the case in matters of faith and morals, is - it depends.

To modern sensibilities art is decoration. Usually, we are not called upon to look past the surface of what is presented. And so we focus on the external, that which we can see.

But creation consists of what we can see and what we cannot see, the visible and the invisible. It is the role of the artist to create work that draws us past the surface, what we can see, to contemplate the transcendent truth that is presented to us, that which we cannot see.

A New Blog on Catholic Culture and Beauty by Pontifex U. Professor, Dr Carrie Gress

A New Blog on Catholic Culture and Beauty by Pontifex U. Professor, Dr Carrie Gress

Carrie Gress is at once a mother, journalist and writer, and a philosopher who specializes in beauty and aesthetics and studied Jacques Maritain for her doctorate.With such a wide range of interests, all of which are integrated with her faith, I would say she was a Renaissance lady if I wasn't somewhat negative on Renaissance culture! So, how about baroque lady instead?

Should We Paint God the Father?

One of the most famous pieces of sacred art that exists is Michelangelo’s fresco, in the Sistine Chapel, of God giving the spark of life to Adam. Despite its popularity and familiarity, I had often wondered about the validity of representing God the Father. My own instincts run against the idea of portraying God the Father in a painting at all, even when I was a child (I always thought that the white-whiskered God looked more like God the Grandfather, than God the Father). Later on in life, this was reinforced by the fact that my icon painting training led me to believe that it was wrong.  I was pretty sure, but not certain, that it was not part of the tradition. Certainly, I have never painted an icon of God the Father. Furthermore, the theology of Theodore the Studite in regard to sacred imagery, which is accepted by both Eastern and Western Churches, bases the argument for the creation of any figurative art upon the fact that we can portray the person of Christ as man. The person of God the Father is a spiritual being and most certainly not man. This would seem to suggest that we should not portray the Father as man either.

I quietly suspected that the white-bearded God of Michelangelo or William Blake or even my favourite baroque artist Velazquez were all in error, his Crowning of the Virgin by the Trinity is to the right. I wasn't too worried about Blake, an eccentric non-Catholic, but Michelangelo and Velazquez?

I was approached recently to do a commission that involves the portrayal of the Father. Rather than reject it out of hand, I thought I had better find out where the Church stands on this.

Here’s what my first investigations have revealed. For the first thousand years or so of Christianity, East and West, there was little portrayal of the Father figuratively. Then images started to appear in both the Eastern and Western traditions, though it was more common in the West.

There are two simple arguments that I have found for the representation of the Father: the first is that Christ said in John 14:9 that whoever has seen me has seen the Father. This would seem to open up to a representation of the Father as the Son. So, one could say, seeing an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is also seeing one of the Sacred Heart of the Father, with the heart of the Father understood as a symbol of His love.

The second is that the white-bearded figure, which we are all familiar with is the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:9, 13, 22). This is the source of so many familiar portrayals of the Father. In the East there is a tradition known as the New Testament Trinity. This title would distinguish it from the Hospitality of Abraham (in which three angelic strangers represent the three persons of the Trinity). Right is a Greek Orthodox New Testament Trinity from the ceiling of the entrance Vatopedion Monastery at Agion Oros (Mount Athos), Greece. The Catholic Church, allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as the Father, which justifies the portrayal of the Father. (I have been told that Pope Benedict XIV [fourteenth, not sixteenth!] in 1745 pronounced this, though beyond a Wikipedia reference I have not been able to validate this). It also allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church, since the synod of Moscow in 1667 has forbidden the portrayal of God the Father as a man. Consistent with this it interprets the Ancient of Days strictly as the Son. It is this decision of the pronouncement by the Russian church that gave me the idea, wrongly, that it had never been part of the Eastern tradition and that the whole present Eastern Church forbids it.

There is a Western tradition of portrayal of the trinity in a type known as the Throne of Mercy, in which the Father sits on his throne and presents his crucified son to the viewer while a dove rests on the cross or hovers just above it. It was this that was explicitly mentioned by Benedict XIV. A 16th century German version is shown left. This tradition goes right back the Medieval times in the Western Church and we have this continued even into the 20th century with Eric Gill in England doing woodcut of this image in a modern gothic style.

So where do I stand on this now? Clearly the portrayal of the Father as a grey-haired man is permitted. I would feel on safest ground following the traditional presentations, such as the Mercy Throne image. Outside that, I would be consider images, but would be cautious, unwilling to promote, as Caroline Farey of the School of the Annunciation put it to me, ‘any trend of anthropomorphizing God the Father in case the transcendence of God is further compromised in people's imaginations.’

It is worth pointing out also, that when God is portrayed as a single person in the form of the Ancient of Days, we cannot be sure that it is the Father who is portrayed. The artist might, quite justifiably, have the intention of representing the Son. I have not, for example, been able to find an authoritative text that tells us precisely which person of the Trinity either Michelangelo or Blake intended us to be looking at (I would welcome comments from readers on this point).

Below: an early gothic Mercy Throne; a 20th century version by the Englishman, Eric Gill; an early gothic pieta in which God the Father supports the son; a baroque Mercy Throne by Ribera, 17th century; and William Blake's Ancient of Days.

Just Because I Like It, It Doesn't Mean It's Good

If I can't trust my taste in food, can I trust my taste in art? I like chocolate cake. I don't know for certain, but I am guessing that there aren't many nutritionist out there who would argue that chocolate cake is good food. So here's the point. If the food I like isn't necessarily good food, might it be true also for the art I like?

Good art, I would maintain, communicates and reflects truth; and it is beautiful. There should never be any conflict between the good, the true and beautiful for they are all aspects of being and exist in the object being viewed, for example a painting. However sometimes it might appear as though there is a conflict. We might think something is false, yet find it beautiful for example.

Or that something is ugly but good. I have heard some people say that they like Picasso’s Guernica, see below, because its ugliness speaks of suffering. I would say contrary to this that if it is ugly, and it looks it to me, it must be bad. (I might go on and explain that this is contrary to truth because Christian art reveals suffering, but always with hope rooted in Christ, the Light of the World who overcomes the darkness. Such a painting, if successful will always be beautiful. what Geurnica lacks is Christian hope. ) In regard to the general principle, who is right? How can we account for these apparent contradictions between the good and the beautiful?

Many today would respond by asserting the subjectivity of the viewer. That is, they would say that my premise is wrong and the qualities good, true and beautiful are just a matter of personal opinion; and they are not necessarily tied to each other in the way I described. If they are right then there is nothing disordered about liking ugliness; or hating beauty; or thinking that something is both ugly and good at the same time.

I do not accept this. The answer for me lies in accepting that we have varying abilities to recognize goodness, truth and beauty. This gap between reality and our perception of it has its roots in our impurity. Since the Fall, we see these qualities only ‘through a glass darkly’ so to speak and our judgement, to varying degrees, can be disordered. This is where food comes into the discussion.

Now, more than chocolate cake, I love fluorescent-orange cheesey corn puffs. In England are they are called Cheezy Wotsits (pictured right...and don’t they look delicious!). I have an insatiable appetite for these wonderful dusted pieces of crunchy manna. The dust they are coated with is 'cheese-flavoured' - there's no pretence that there is any real cheese involved (and those brands where the manufacturer claims that real cheese is one of the ingredients, are inferior in taste in my opinion).

I could happily enjoy three meals a day consisting of nothing else and never get tired of them. But I don’t do that because I know that however much I like them they are not good food…or not if you eat them in the quantities that I want to eat them anyway. I would end up overweight and have permanently colour-stained fingers and lips.

So where does this leave us in trying to decide if a work of art is good. There are no rules of beauty by which I can decide how beautiful something is on a scale of 1-10. There is no artistic expert doing the equivalent what the nutritionist has done for the Cheesy Wotsit: a scientist with beauty meter that gives a definitive answer. For all that I might use ideals of harmony and proportion when creating art, the process of apprehending beauty after the fact is always intuitive. When I see a tree, I don’t go out and measure to see if it’s beautiful. I look at it and decide that it is. It’s just like harmony in music. The composer follows the rules of harmony, but listener just listens and decides if it is beautiful.

But the fact that it is difficult to discern, doesn't mean that it is not an objective quality. It just means that I should try to be as discerning as I can. And here's how I approach this problem: because I know that the good and the true and beautiful must all exist in equal measure in any particular object, I ask myself certain pointed questions to help me judge them and only if the answer is yes will I select the piece:

Is it communicating truth? This means that I look at the content and the form (see Make the Form Conform) and ask myself if what is being communicated is consistent with a Catholic worldview. If it isn’t I reject it, regardless of whether or not I like it.

The second question I ask myself is do I think it is beautiful? If I at least try to make a judgement on beauty then at least I stand a chance of getting it right. And this probably isn't as unreliable as you might think. When I go through this process with the classes I teach I ask them if they like a piece. Very often there is a split within the class. However, when I ask the question: do you think this is beautiful? There is almost always a much higher degree of consensus. Christopher Alexander, an architect, wrote a book in which he described an experiment he carried out. He presented people with an object and then asked a range of questions and observed the degree of consensus. He found ‘do you like this’ had a low degree of consensus; ‘is this beautiful?’ was higher; and ‘would you like to spend eternity with this?’ gave almost complete unanimity. He was framing the questions so as to get people to think gradually more about the nature of beauty, and when he did, there was consensus.

And finally do I like it? So it’s not that taste is completely unimportant, but that it is just one aspect of choosing.

If the answer to all of these is yes I choose it. Even then, does this mean that I have made an infallible choice? No. As I mentioned before, there is no visible standard of perfect beauty by which I can measure something on any verifiable ‘beauty-scale’. God who is pure beauty is the standard, and I can’t see Him. However, what this does do by using reason to some degree, is to increase my chances of getting it right.

If I was choosing a piece for a public viewing, and especially a work of art for a church, I would play safe and seek not only those works that passed the above criteria when I consider my own opinion, but also for which there is a broad consensus that they are good, true and beautiful. How do I know which these are? Tradition tells me. Tradition is Chesterton’s democracy of the dead – taking the highest proportion of yesses, when considering all time, and not just the present. So for liturgical art, the authentic traditions are the styles of the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque. These styles have passed the test of time and I would choose art in these forms.

One last point, art is like food in another way. The more I am exposed to what is good, the more I learn to like it. My taste can be educated. So the more I expose myself to traditional art, the better my taste will become. Just as the more I eat salad, the more I will like it and the maybe one day I will grow out of Cheezy Wotsits...although I hope that day never comes.

Evangelii Gaudium - Pope Francis talks of the Way of Beauty

This is the first short article in which I offer some reaction to the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis. In this he referred directly to Pope Benedict's phrase, the 'via pulchritudinis' as a vital component in evangelisation and of the importance of the arts.

'167. Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus. This has nothing to do with fostering an aesthetic relativism which would downplay the inseparable bond between truth, goodness and beauty, but rather a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it. If, as Saint Augustine says, we love only that which is beautiful, the incarnate Son, as the revelation of infinite beauty, is supremely lovable and draws us to himself with bonds of love. So a formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith. Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables”. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others.'

So he stresses the objectivity of beauty and how that which is genuinely beautiful points to God. In regard to art in particular he stresses the importance of creating new forms but that this should be done by 'building on the treasures of the past'. This means, as I read it, doing what Christian artists have always done: looking at the forms of the cultures of those with whom they wish to communicate with, in a discerning way; deciding what is consistent with the principle of objective beauty (and here we look to traditions to guide us) and then applying them in the context of those Catholic traditions (and, incidentally, exactly what happened after the Council of Trent as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation).

This is very different from what those who reject tradition might wish to do - simply incorporating modern forms without any regard to those of the past and assuming that by making the content Christian we have something that is good. To my mind the Holy Father is absolutely right and it is consistent, for example, with what Pius XII said in Mediator Dei in regard to figurative art; and in general to the writing of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI on such matters.

Given that this constitutes a small part of the whole document, one might think that he does not give it great importance. However, his reiteration of the writing past recent Popes, suggests that one should read this document not as an isolated statement that replaces previous ideas, but in the context of a much larger corpus - as one that re-emphasises, builds on and adds to, albeit incrementally, what came before.

Also, given that the document is an apostolic exhortation following a synod, one wonders how much we should look at this as a personal statement of the Pope, and how much it is in fact an account of contributions made by others. I am not expert enough to answer that question. Except to say that much of it reads to me like the section on art does - the restatement of things said before without any attempt to give new insights: it is simply giving the message, 'this is still important'.

Is My Taste in Art Reliable?...and Is Yours?

No doubt many who read this I imagine will offer a sharp No! But suppose you disagree with my judgment when I say that I think a work of art is good - can we say who is right and who is wrong? If we look to Church for guidance here it doesn't seem very helpful at first. The Church doesn't set out, to my knowledge, any hard and fast rules for what is appropriate style of imagery for our worship. This is a frustration to some, who wish that there were some so we could get rid of all the ugliness and sentimentalism. While to others it is their cue to allow just about anything into our churches and create the disaster of the last 50 years. If we lived in a time when the tradition of painting sacred art was still strong and living, then there probably wouldn't be any question in most people's minds, we would just happily and unquestioningly follow the current trend that and get on with it.

But we don't, and therefore in choosing images for the liturgy or for the 'domestic church' or prayer corner, there will be an element of personal taste involved. The fact that the Church does not stipulate a cannon of approved style leaves room both within existing traditions for personal responses and tastes, the flourishing of local variations and the possibility development of new styles that nevertheless sit within the bounds of what defines that tradition; and beyond that it also gives room for the development of styles that are so distinct that they would represent the establishment of a whole new tradition. I anticipate that any new style, perhaps one that marks our era, will start with one maverick artist who goes against the grain and who, it turns out, produces something that is recognised by those who choose art for our churches and other artists as capturing something that speaks to a particular need of the time.

This was recognised by Pius XII in Mediator Dei: 195. "Recent works of art which lend themselves to the materials of modern composition, should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive "symbolism," and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist. Thus modern art will be able to join its voice to that wonderful choir of praise to which have contributed, in honor of the Catholic faith, the greatest artists throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, in keeping with the duty of Our office, We cannot help deploring and condemning those works of art, recently introduced by some, which seem to be a distortion and perversion of true art and which at times openly shock Christian taste, modesty and devotion, and shamefully offend the true religious sense. These must be entirely excluded and banished from our churches, like "anything else that is not in keeping with the sanctity of the place."

Clearly from the latter part of the quote above, he is not saying 'anything goes' either. But how can we discern the difference? Freedom can be misused and so if we are going to look outside the traditions forms, we should be cautious. For the further we stray from traditional forms, the greater the chance of us mistakenly choosing the ugly, the superficial, the sentimental and the kitsch even if we can't see it ourselves. It is always worth taking into account that none of us should trust our taste absolutely - I therefore use the principle that in choosing art for public consumption, I will not stray outside the forms of the liturgical traditions of the Church. As NLM readers will know I accept the authority of Pope Emeritus Benedict when he states that there are three - the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque 'at its best' (the 17th century and extending further for some artists). In following this guidance therefore, we should not only be careful in accepting modern forms, but also those of the High Renaissance and naturalistic tradition of the 19th century (and artists such as Bougeureaux) which he does not include in his list of liturgical forms. Nevertheless, no one can rule out all artists from any particular era for even in the worst of times, there are likely to be individuals who are inspired and worthy of attention.

Let us suppose for a moment, though, that despite all of this I am drawn to something that is non-traditional and which, I am convinced, is good, true and beautiful nevertheless. How do I know I'm right and that this is an exception to the general guidelines given above? Every single one of us must be prepared to consider the possibility that to some degree at least, the judgments we are making are flawed. How can I tell? First of all I regardless of how much I like something I do my best to avoid anything that looks, very distorted and ultra modern in style - the chances are that these are not good for prayer. Similarly even if things seem skillfully drawn, if there is a sugary sentimentalism to the image or it looks 'kitsch' then avoid it. Then I find that asking the questions such as the following will help:

Does it reflect truth? Here I am considering if the content is reflective of what I know to be true. Does it conform to the gospel account of a scene, for example?

Is this beautiful? It might seem a statement of the obvious to put this in here, but it is surprising how often I might decide that I am drawn to something which I can't actually say that I think that it is beautiful.

Would I like to spend eternity with this? I got this question from a book by the architect Christopher Alexander who found that if you asked people for their preferences based upon different ways of asking the same question you got different answers. He found that because people have differing ideas of what constitutes beauty, you get less conformity of response than if you ask people to consider the same thing but by thinking about what the properties of beauty are. I thought this one was ingenious.

Do I like it? We don't want to eliminate personal taste altogether. Once I have got past the first set of questions then while these will not infallibly lead me to what is good and true and beautiful, it will at least increase the chances. Then I will choose something that I like. The good is, after all, the desirability of being and so at some level I have to think about how desirable something is if I am considering how good it is.

Bad or good? Bougeureau, Leonardo and Botticelli from the 19th century and the Renaissance; and the 20th century artist Marc Chagall. What do you think? I'll tell you my thoughts at the bottom....





File:The Prophet Jeremiah - 1968 -Wull.jpg

I would consider none of these true liturgical art, which may be surprising to some readers. None conform to the established norms of the iconographic, the gothic or the baroque.

Some Thoughts on How Criticism Might be the Basis of Constructive Dialogue

I wrote this article in response to some comments and criticism of works of art made by readers on another blog after my earlier article on the work of the Spanish artist Kiko; many of my remarks about the tone of the commentators does not apply to readers, who are always generous in spirit even when being critical. However, I thought that some of the points about the basis of criticism might be of interest to you, so I reproduce it here... It seems to be an aspect of human nature that criticism flows more easily than praise, and this is never more apparent in the comments at the bottom of blogs! However, some subjects particularly seem to attract the concern of readers and whenever I feature art that draws on the iconographic prototype but deviates from Russian or Greek variants, I always hold my breath. I know it will attract a hail of criticism from people who worry that it does not conform to what they believe to be the standard for all sacred art. Criticism and differing opinions are not bad things in themselves. After all, we are trying to re-establish a culture of beauty in the West and beauty by its very nature it is difficult to pin down precisely. One should expect differing reactions and ideas of what is good. So please, let’s have them. However, I would like to make some points about the nature and tone of some of the criticisms made. First, a request: if you are stating opinions, please do so in the spirit that concedes that others may have other perfectly valid opinions. Like email, blog comments seem to be a forum in which it is difficult not to express things abruptly and so appear rude. It’s not always easy I know, to make sure that what we write has a gentle manner. I would ask us all to try. Aside from discouraging the more timid to respond, for fear of getting more of the same thrown back at them, my concern here is for any contemporary artists whose work I am portraying. Artists must expect criticism of their work, but they should not have to put up with rudeness. Sometimes in embarrassment, I have had felt compelled to contact the artists to them for tone of the comments. If you can explain why you think as you do, that would be helpful, especially if you don’t like something. If you do not, then what you are giving us is just a subjective opinion. I am not suggesting that we always have to justify our opinions. After all, we’re not always sure ourselves why like or don’t like something. But if they are opinions, let’s make it clear that this is all they are rather than presenting them as indisputable truths. For example, one work of art was dismissed brusquely ‘pseudo-Byzantine fluff’. Without explanation this amounts to little more than the equivalent of blowing a raspberry at the artist (albeit elegantly articulated). The writer could have stated in addition: how the art in question deviated from the iconographic prototype (which I am assuming is what he was referring to by using the word Byzantine); why he felt that it was wrong to deviate from the iconographic prototype at all (this is not a given); and also, what does he mean by fluff – if he is saying that it is superficial and lacking in meaning? If so what is lacking? Is it possible to characterize why? Otherwise, 'I don't like his work' says it far more accurately; and less rudely. There are recurring themes on the New Liturgical Movement comments section seem to indicate assumptions about what Catholic art should be that I feel are not correct. I make the following points in respect of these:

1. The iconographic prototype: I am referring here to the art of eschatological man, the form that portrays mankind redeemed and in the heavenly state. The icon is not the only legitimate form of liturgical art and there is no basis for saying that as a form it is superior to any other tradition of liturgical art. And Catholics are not bound by the iconographic form. Therefore, it is simply not a valid criticism in itself to say only that it deviates from the iconographic prototype. If you are going to say this, say how and say why this is problematic. Furthermore, the analysis of the stylistic features of the tradition and the theological explanations for them as we most commonly hear about today didn’t happen until people started to re-establish the form in the Eastern Church in the 20th century. This analysis is still developing. For example, I was taught certain painting methods used in Italy were never used in icons because they contravened the theology that I was told was the foundation of the Eastern method. Subsequently X-ray analysis has demonstrated that this 'Western' method was used in early Eastern icons and might well be the older method of the two. This caused a revision of the statement of allowable methods, and the theology amongst the people who originally taught me. Catholics especially should be aware that this modern analysis of icongraphic form, though largely very helpful and important, is a work in progress and can sometimes reflect the narrow focus of the predominantly Orthodox who developed it. I have spoken to many people emerge from icon painting classes with the mistaken impression that anything that differs from the form they studied (most commonly Russian and or Greek) is not an icon and not true liturgical art. This is a prejudiced view that doesn’t take into account that there are many other forms, including Western forms, that are consistent with the iconographic prototype; and that the Western artistic tradition is richer, in the sense that it includes the icon but has in addition other authentic liturgical forms that not iconographic. Archeologism: the comments of some seem to stem from an assumption that culture existed in a perfect form at some point in the past and that the work of man over time has caused it to degenerate. The main concern for those who believe this, therefore, is a strict conformity to the past glorious (sometimes arbitrarily assigned) age. Working from tradition, in contrast, is more nuanced. It respects the past and does not seek change without good reason, but always seeks to understand why something was done in a particular way. It accepts that sometimes we must develop and reapply the core principles in response to contemporary challenges or if there is a need to communicate something new. Sometimes this development will be so great that a new tradition is established. The gothic is an example of this. It developed out of the Romanesque, which is an iconographic form, and became a distinct tradition in its own right that presented a different aspect of man. Dealing with imperfection: even if something is partially wrong or in error or even just disliked, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from it. Christian art has always drawn from non-Christian art forms. It has been able to do so in the past because it does have some objective criteria which it can apply in order to discern what is good and what is bad. So for example, you see the first Christian art it developed from the late classical form. Some of the styles and subject matter remained unchanged, some were rejected (for example the nude), and then some features were added that were uniquely Christian. Readers will know that I am very interested in the re-establishment geometric patterned art tradition. Islamic art is likely to be one place that we look to in order to invigorate the Christian tradition today. As a general principle, given that we are in a process of re-establishing a culture of beauty, I would generally advocate a conservative approach to what goes in our churches at the moment. However, in the context of this forum, I am always interest to look at work by Christian artists that draws on these traditions even if it steps outside the bounds of what would be ideal for the liturgy. Flexibility and adaptability underpinned by good discernment is the source of richness and vigour in Christian culture. To come back to the gothic again. At some point an artist will have added shadow to the painting and although this had not been seen before, some who saw it will have had the confidence to say that although this is new and does not conform to the existing tradition, it is good nevertheless. No doubt along the way there were innovations and experiments that were rejected as a whole, but nonetheless contributed something to what eventually became an acceptable variant. To this illustrate this piece I have given below some that probably fall into the last category. A reader recently brought the work of the Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov to my attention. He worked in the period around the turn of the last century and died in 1926 and his work is typical of much Russian sacred art of this period. This is a late 19th century naturalistic/iconographic hybrid and is neither baroque nor the style of Russian iconography (it makes me think of an Eastern version of the Pre Raphaelites with its highly coloured, hard-edged forms). I probably wouldn't commission such a work today but I would be a lot happier walking into a church adorned with his art, as shown below, than the vast majority built since the war. There is enough here, I would suggest, for us to benefit from looking at it. When these hybrid styles always look better when painted in fresco, rather than oil, I always feel. Fresco is a medium which tends to look flatter and less sensuous than oil and so naturally diminishes some of the excesses of a naturalistic style.

Why the Church has Different Artistic Traditions

The iconographic, the Gothic and the Baroque are Complementary Here is a passage taken from the Office of Readings, Saturday, 6th week of Eastertide. It is part of St Augustine’s Commentary of the Gospel of John: "There are two ways of life that God has commended to the Church. One is through faith, the other is through vision. One is in pilgrimage through a foreign land, the other is in our eternal home; one in labour, the other in repose; one in a journey to our homeland, the other in that land itself; one in action, the other in the fruits of contemplation.

The first life, the life of action, is personified by the Apostle Peter; the contemplative life, by John. The first life is passed here on earth until the end of time, when it reaches its completion; the second is not fulfilled until the end of the world, but in the world to come it lasts for ever….”

This passage seems to me to describe very well why the Church has different liturgical artistic traditions. The form of the iconographic tradition is governed by the theology of the ‘world to come that lasts forever’ symbolized by St John.

Gothic is art of the ‘pilgrimage through a foreign land’, as Augustine puts it. Stylistically the Gothic is a naturalized iconography. I have written about this here. However, the fusion is not arbitrary. This is a naturalization that is integrated with the theology of pilgrimage that Augustine describes. In this regard it should not be confused with the degenerate forms of iconography that dominated the Eastern Church from the period of the 18th century. (It was not until the 20th century, with figures such as Ouspensky, Gregory Kroug and Fotis Kontoglou that the iconographic prototype was re-established in the main churches of the East.)

Historically, the Gothic can be seen as something that develops gradually from the Romanesque (a Western variant of the iconographic form). It is almost as if the art form gradually appears from heaven, descending down to earth to join the pilgrims. Duccio, for example, who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries has a style that is very closely related to the iconographic. Fra Angelico, in the 15th century, uses both the iconographic visual vocabulary as well as naturalistic ones (such as perspective and shadow) in a theologically coherent way.

Where does the third authentic liturgical tradition of the Church, the Baroque, sit with these? It was during the Baroque of the 17th century that the integration of theology and form in the most naturalistic of these styles occurred. The controlled variation in colour and focus (described in more detail here) were given theological meaning: we live in a fallen world, with evil and suffering present, but there is hope because God is present – in Baroque art contrast of light and shadow is always painted so to communicate the idea that the Light overcomes the darkness.

Although we cannot reach heaven fully in this life, supernaturally we partially and temporarily step into it through the liturgy and the sacramental life. This is a transforming process that by degrees takes us towards that heavenly state.

In this context, the Baroque is the ground zero, the starting point of our pilgrimage, and the gothic describes the partial and gradual ascent to that heavenly state in this life, before reaching the final repose. The Baroque and the Gothic together represent that aspect of our life in faith symbolized by St Peter in the picture that Augustine paints.

Therefore, these three styles are not in opposition to each other but are complementary. In the light of this I hope to see all three traditions. As each tradition develops, if it bears the mark of a genuinely living tradition, it will be consistent with the timeless principles that define it will, without deviating from the core defining principles, to reflect the time and place that it comes from. Those aspects that are subject to change will be the common ground for each of these traditions. It is possible to envisage a church containing all three traditions that are distinct, yet because they bear the mark of their time, yet containing aspects of form that are common and through this participate in a unified artistic vision.

In regard to the idea that both the Johannine and Petrine aspects of Christian life should be communicated, I leave the last word to St Augustine. Here is the closing passage from the same reading:

“We should not separate these great apostles. They were both part of the present life symbolized by Peter and they were both part of the future life symbolized by John. Considered as symbols, Peter followed Christ and John remained; but in their living faith both endured the evils of the present life and both looked forward to the future blessings of the coming life of joy.

It is not they alone that do this but the whole of the holy Church, the bride of Christ, who needs to be rescued from the trials of the present and to be brought to safety in the joys of the future. Individually, Peter and John represent these two lives, the present and the future; but both journeyed in faith through this temporal life and both will enjoy the second life by vision, eternally.

All the faithful form an integral part of the body of Christ, and therefore, so that they may be steered through the perilous seas of this present life, Peter, first among the Apostles, has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, to bind and loose from sin. And also for the sake of the faithful, so that they may keep the still and secret heart of his mode of life, John the evangelist rested on Christ’s breast.

It is not Peter alone who binds and looses sins, but the whole Church. It is not John alone who has drunk at the fountain of the Lord’s breast and pours forth what he had drunk in his teaching of the Word being God in the beginning, God with God, of the Trinity and Unity of God — of all those things which we shall see face to face in his kingdom but now, before the Lord comes, we see only in images and reflections — not John alone, for the Lord himself spreads John’s gospel throughout the world, giving everyone to drink as much as he is capable of absorbing.”

Images from top: Baroque -  St Peter being Freed by an Angel (Guercino); iconographic - St John with Christ at the last supper; Gothic - St Peter preaching (Fra Angelico)


Summary of the Kenrick Seminary talks on art

By Mark Scott Abeln on his Rome of the West blog For any who are wondering whether or not it's worth the effort to watch them, here is a summary of the four talks at the Kenrick-Glennon seminary by Mark Scott Abeln. His blog is worth a look. He is a skilled photographer and he has insights how the principles I have been articulating in art and architecture apply in the art of photographer. The 'Rome of the West' for those of you, like me, who didn't know is his home town of St Louis. Photograph: the Cathedral Basilica of  St Louis, in St Louis, Missouri.