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.

The Life's Work of the Artist is to Create Beauty

The Life's Work of the Artist is to Create Beauty

Many artists, especially those basing their work on traditional forms, are familiar with the "cult of the new." There seems to be an idea, within the rarified world of fine art, that "new" is better than "good," or "beautiful." This has led to some of the more extreme examples of modern art that sell for staggering sums and leave people shaking their heads over what is perceived as "art."

But outside of this "art bubble" there are artists who respect the traditions of the past and build on them, taking those ancient forms and breathing new life into them for a new generation. These are artists who recognize that their role is to pursue beauty and show it to the world, even if the world around them no longer understands the power of the beautiful.

The Artist As Prophet

The Artist As Prophet

We tend to think of a prophet as one who predicts the future, but that is not at all the ancient understanding of the word. The word "prophet" means speaker, or one who speaks. In Christian use, a prophet is one who has a special connection to God and speaks on God's behalf.

By virtue of our Baptism we are invested in the threefold office of Christ, priest, prophet, and king. The degree to which we fulfill each of these offices will depend on our individual gifts and calling. We are all called to be prophets, as well as priests and kings, to the degree our gifts allow us.

Art, Artists, and a Theology of Beauty, Part II

Art, Artists, and a Theology of Beauty, Part II

A beautiful spirit may shine even through a form that has been weakened. Drawing on both old and new testaments the early church fathers developed the doctrine of "kenosis" from a Greek word meaning emptiness. In the context of a theology of beauty kenosis refers to a humiliation of form, an emptying of one's self, so that the divine beauty shines more brightly. In the Old Testament this theme is taken up in the suffering servant.

How Does An Artist Deal With Rejection?

How Does An Artist Deal With Rejection?

Rejection and failure are facts of our existence. When an artist's work is rejected or negatively critiqued, he or she is often told "don't take it personally, they are not rejecting you, just your work." This is a reflection of post-enlightenment thinking that considers art an end unto itself. It considers art in a vacuum, unrelated to the context in which it was created or the purpose it serves because to our modern way of thinking, those considerations are irrelevant.

The Artist Lives for Christ

"He who does Christ's work, must stay with Christ always."

One of the greatest Christian artists is Giovanni Fiesole, better known to the world as Blessed Fra Angelico, the "Angelic Brother." Fra Angelico is a patron saint for artists. His style of painting beautifully bridges the iconographic and gothic traditions. Giorgio Vasari, author of "Lives of the Artists," referred to Angelico as a "rare and perfect talent."

Where can Catholics Go to Learn to Paint in the Naturalistic Tradition?

If you are interested in the baroque, where do you go to learn to paint? In a past article I wrote about possible places to study the iconographic technique in depth. However, the baroque is also one of the three liturgical artistic traditions of the Church (the third is the gothic) and anyone who is serious about being an artist for the Church should consider whether they want to learn this form. One place to consider is Ingbretson Studio in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The ideal education would consist of the following: first, a Catholic formation (perhaps studying a liberal arts degree at a Catholic college); second a sound knowledge of the Catholic traditions in art. For those who wish to learn this aspect in isolation the Maryvale Institute’s excellent distance-learning programme Art, Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective is recommended. They are about to offer this in the US, through the Diocese of Kansas City, which saves students on this side of the Atlantic from a trip over to the UK for the one weekend residential requirement. Full-time undergraduate-level students can receive both of these aspects at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire by taking their liberal arts degree which includes my Way of Beauty program as part of the core syllabus.

The third aspect is to learn the drawing and painting skills. The skills are those of the academic method. This is the rigorous drawing method that is named after the schools that were created in the 16th and 17th centuries (especially that of the Annabale Carraci, his brother Agostino and his cousin Ludovico. The method has its roots in the methods used by the Masters of the High Renaissance going back to Leonardo. This method is different and far more rigorous than that offered in the drawing classes in a mainstream college-level art department.

This training usually begins with cast drawings because casts have no colour and so the eye learns to ‘see’ in tonal values. The cast are carefully chosen to be model examples of beautiful sculpture. This way the taste of the student is developed as well as his skills. After this students progress onto the use of colour; perhaps through portrait painting or still life (I did portrait painting). The value of an academic training cannot be underestimated. It is being able to draw and paint accurately that enables the artist to realize his ideas. Whatever style he seeks to work in he needs a high level of skill so that he can create an image that conforms to what it ought to be, corresponding to the well conceived idea in the mind of the artist. Even my icon painting teacher Aidan Hart encouraged me to study naturalistic art for a year in Florence saying that all the best icon painters were also skilled draughtsmen. I do not regret following his advice.

Most of the schools that teach this method now are termed ‘ateliers’ after the French word for workshop. They are small schools in which the main teacher is a Master painter. A few were established in the 1970s by individuals taught by an artist called R.H. Ives Gammell in Boston, who at that stage was an octogenarian. Gammell, who trained as a young man in the early years of the 20th century, almost singlehandedly kept the academic tradition going after all the art schools in Europe and the US had ceased to teach it. The best teachers of today that I know of (on both sides of the Atlantic) received their training from him.

If you want to investigate the available ateliers yourself, a starting point is the Art Renewal Centre website, where you can run down the list of approved ateliers. Do be discerning. Have a look at the work by students and teachers in their galleries - this will indicate the style that they will teach you. It is important that you respect what is going to be passed on to you. From my point of view, while many of these ateliers will train you to draw, there is a danger in some tend to push a particular version of 19th century academic art that is detached from Christian worldview. If you are not careful this could affect your style detrimentally. The result will be either the extreme of a cold, sterile detachment (a form of neo-classicism) or a the end of a saccharine sentimentality.

If, on the other hand, you are armed with a full knowledge of the Christian context of this tradition (such as the courses at TMC or the Maryvale Institute would give you) you should be able to make good use of the skills you learn. You can contrast some aspects of 19th century atelier art with the baroque style of the 17thcentury by reading these two articles, written earlier, here and here respectively.

Another problem which would be a concern for some is that one cannot assume that a taste in traditional art necessarily means that a traditional attitude to faith and morality pervades in the atelier you attend. Many have a hostile attitude to the Catholic faith and morality, and students will have to be ready to face this just as they would in more conventional art schools. Quite apart that an immoral atmosphere is undesirable in itself, the worldview of the artist affects the style in which he paints, whether done consciously or not. When studying n an atelier, we take precise direction via the critiques of the Master who runs it. For the period that you are his student, your work reflects his taste and style. Having the humility to be told what to do in such minute detail is a necessary aspect of the training. However, if this taste and style reflect values that are flat contrary to your own, then the learning process is not such a happy one. As a quick test, take a look again at the online galleries of work, especially paintings of the human person, at those same ateliers listed on the Art Renewal Centre. Ask yourself in each case if you think that the figure has been portrayed with the dignity that reflects the Catholic understanding of the human person.

The one place that I know of in which the training is of the highest quality and that Catholics can flourish without compromising their faith in any way is Ingbretson Studios in Manchester, New Hampshire. Paul Ingbretson is a modern Master of the Boston school and is one of those I mentioned who was given his training by Ives Gammell in the 1970s. He has been teaching ever since. His school has an international reputation (we were all well aware of it, for example, when we were studying in Florence).

For those who are about to go to college but don’t want to leave their art behind while they study a traditional liberal arts programme at a Catholic college, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts is the one place where you can study both. By coincidence Ingbretson Studios is just 10 minutes drive from the TMC campus. This semester, undergraduates have been able to choose to study academic drawing for a full day a week. Those who have a strong enough interest will also have an opportunity to train full time for three solid months each summer if they wish to do so. This is part of the college art guild of St Luke in which students are able to learn also traditional iconography and sacred geometry.

The painting at the top is The Incredulity of St Thomas painted in 1620 by Gerrit van Honthorst, which is in Madrid's Prado.

The photographs above are of the first drawings by students on the Thomas More College summer programme, which is taught by Henry Wingate, a former student of Paul Ingbretson, and which is repeated this summer. These represent about 5 full days' work.

The photographs below are of Thomas More College students on their first day at the Ingbretson Studio this past week. Notice how when they draw they are not looking at the cast. They are drawing from memory. Standing a few feet back, the compare drawing and cast and decide what original mark or correction to make, then they walk forward and draw it. Having done this they then retreat, once again to compare drawing and cast to see if what they did was correct. And the process is repeated over and over again.



The photograph above is of a still life setup by a more senior student at the Ingbretson Studio, and below are a couple of finished student cast drawings.