Gothic style

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.

The Ghent Altarpiece - What Makes it So Suited for the Liturgy?

One of the greatest masterpieces ever painted, the Ghent Altarpiece (also known as the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”) was created in the 15th century by Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. While broad appeal is not the only necessary indicator of merit, it is, in my opinion, one of them. This being so, the Adoration of the Lamb passes the test with flying colors - it is the second most visited and viewed work of art in history (after the Mona Lisa).

My consideration of it was prompted by the publication of a book about the altarpiece. Called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb it is published by Ignatius Press and Magnificat (the one that produces a portable Liturgy of the Hours, sent out monthly). The book is excellent resource with large (12in x 12in) reproductions of details, which are as sumptuous as I have ever seen. The commentary, written by French art historian Frabrice Hadjadj is excellent in its description of the historical background, provenance; and in the details of the content, viewing it as a pedagogical tool. Every figure is identified and every Latin inscription is translated.

In this article I want to consider additional elements that come into consideration of the altarpiece as a piece of liturgical art, focusing especially on how its design, use of medium  and gothic style are in harmony with its purpose of promoting the right worship of God. These are the things that an artist, or patron need to be aware of if creating news works of liturgical art suited to their purpose.

I was invited by Chris Carstens, the new editor of Adoremus Bulletin to write a review of the book, and what I present here is an adaptation of what I wrote for him. I would recommend, by the way that this is read in conjunction with Chris's excellent accompanying piece contained in the bulletin, called Mystagogy of the Lamb in which he explains in detail the meaning of symbol of the lamb for Christians.

Looking now at the famous reredos: when the panels are closed we see, painted largely in monochrome, white and graded tones of sepia through to black, a depiction of the Annunciation watched by a congregation of figures, including two Sybils, the prophets Zachariah and Micah, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Also making an anachronistic appearance in the scene are the Van Eycks’ patrons, Joos and Isabelle Vijd. To include one’s patrons in a work of art is a typical device for honoring those whose generosity helped make the work of art possible. The figures of the two Johns are of statues in stone, lifeless as well as colorless.

When the doors are opened the scene is, in contrast, in glorious and bright color. It is dominated by the two largest central panels. The lower of the two is the image which gives the whole piece its name, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in which the heavenly hosts adore the Lamb of God – Christ – standing ‘as if slain’ (as it is cryptically described by the Book of Revelation (Rev 5:6)). Above this is the figure of God enthroned who looks down blessing us with his right hand.

There is some ambiguity as to whether this figure is intended to be the Son or the Father (I will discuss this later). He is flanked on the left by Our Lady, as Queen of Heaven and, in contrast to the monochrome rendering of her in the Annunciation scene, in this depiction she is painted in gorgeous blue.

On the right of the enthroned figure of God is John the Baptist, now painted in living color and clothed in apple-green robes.

On each upper extreme, the stand the figures of Adam on the left and Eve on the right, looking inwards at the event in history that began the redemption of the Fall which they caused. Our first parents are depicted by the Van Eycks after the Fall, hiding their full nudity with hands and fig leaves, and in deep shadow. In accordance with tradition, the redeemed saints in the scene (not Adam and Eve), are the source of their own saintly light which means that there is minimal cast shadow around them.

The Van Eycks’ manipulation of contrasting shadow, light and color conforms to the tradition in which shadow represents the presence of evil and suffering in a fallen world, and Light represents ‘overcoming the darkness’.

Also, the lack of vegetation and life in the image when the panels are closed points us to a time prior to the historical event of the life, death and resurrection of Christ; this is contrasted with the lush garden of Paradise restored in the interior image (when the panels are opened) with plants in full bloom.

The commentary in the book tells us of the prophesies of the prophets and of the Sybils (who are present incidentally, because their prophesies in classical Roman literature were seen by the Church Fathers as anticipating the coming of the Messiah).

The themes are strongly Eucharistic (most obviously evoking the phrase of John the Baptist, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and connecting this phrase to the Eucharist). Nevertheless, even greater emphasis could have been placed on some more broadly liturgical aspects of the work as a whole.

Liturgical art is not intended primarily as decoration or even to teach us about the underlying theology, although it does fulfill these functions. Rather, as architectural historian Denis McNamara pointed out in his recorded presentation on this site, the liturgical art is a part of the liturgy itself, and reveals those aspects of the ritual that we cannot immediately perceive. For example, when the panels of this work are opened we are seeing the heavenly hosts who join us here on earth, in reality, through the sacred liturgy in their perpetual worship of God. At that moment ours is a temporal participation in this eternal reality.

Despite the title, the Ghent altarpiece is not only about the adoration of the Lamb, but also about the worship of the Father, through the Son – the Lamb of God - in the Spirit. When we worship God in the liturgy we are drawn into the mystery of the Trinity. The altarpiece reinforces this point.

This focus on God the Father explains also, perhaps, the ambiguity in regard to the identity of the central figure of God. As Hadjadj explains, in some respects the figure of God has the characteristics of the Son – his youth for one thing - and in other respects, for example his attire and his crown, the figure has attributes generally associated with the symbolism of God the Father.

Upon further consideration, this ambiguity seems intentional. It appears to be a depiction of the Father seen through our understanding the Son. Perhaps we are meant to take the figure as both Father and Son at once. Other things in the painting seem to point to the Trinitarian mystery. For instance,the sun is rising in the East above the horizon, which is the symbol of the risen Christ, Christ in glory. But the viewer only sees half of the sun. Its upper half is replaced by an image which is, perhaps, the Son enthroned but which we are meant to see as the ‘visible image of the invisible God’. Through Christ, the Ghent piece seems to want to make clear, we see the Father.

But further details of that semi-sun also reward study. Within the image of the risen semi-sun there is a dove, which represents the Holy Spirit. So, not only do we see the Father, through the Son, but we see him in the Spirit. To emphasize this point, we see rays of light, lines of gold leaf emanating from the Spirit that touch all of those who are gathered. We, who participate in the earthly liturgy are part of the mystical Body of Christ too, and so, like the adoring saints and angels in the painting, are in reality touched by the uncreated light of divinity.

In the Eastern Church the dominating image in a liturgical setting is that of the glorified Christ. (The suffering Christ on the cross will be there too, but less prominent). However, when the faithful address the Father in prayer, they will pray to the image of the Son, because those who ‘see the Son see the Father’. Years ago I was struck by how the family of my icon painting teacher, who is Orthodox, sang the Our Father: the entire family would turn and face an image of the risen Son as they prayed.

We do not know the exact intention of the artist here in regard to this visual personification of God, but if I was painting it, I don’t think I would allow for such ambiguity. I feel somewhat uneasy with the visual conflation of two divine persons into one. Rather, as Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox do I would have an unambiguous image of the Son through whom I could address the Father. The alternative, as the Western tradition allows, is to have two contrasting yet complementary images: one of the Christ in Glory and the other a traditional symbolic image of the Father (such as the grey-bearded Ancient of Days in the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo).

How would congregations at the time of Van Eyck have engaged with this painting in the liturgy itself? The Ghent altarpiece is a reredos,a painting or program of images installed behind the altar. According to some liturgical historians, the reredos developed in the Roman Rite in the Middle Ages because of the growing liturgical emphasis on the visible elevation of the host and chalice by the priest. As a backdrop to this event, the reredos is intended to draw our attention to the elevation and to increase our understanding of what is happening.

Therefore, an artist who paints a reredos should be aware of two things in particular: first at this critical point in the Mass, the images behind the visible elevated host should illuminate the fact that Christ is really present with us. Second, the portion of the reredos which serves as backdrop for the elevated host ought to allow us to see the small white circular wafer in clear relief against the reredos. Which part of the Ghent image is designed to serve as a backdrop for the host, I wonder? Is it designed, for example, to be contrasted with the green of the foliage or with the red on the face of the altar. I like to think that the Van Eycks designed their altar so that at the elevated host appears directly in front of the rising sun, straddling the conjunction of the two panels the one featuring the sacrifical Lamb and the other, the glorified Christ/the Father. It is exciting to think that at the point of elevation the congregation would see the golden rays of the semi-sun as if they were emanating from the host itself.

Because the reredos is no longer in it’s original location but in a side chapel and no longer services the liturgy, we do not know exactly what worshipers would have seen. We also have no information about when the reredos panels would have been opened or closed in the course of ordinary use. It was common in the middle ages for monochrome images to be be used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent; and then brightly colored for Easter and the rest of the year. If this was the case for the Adoration of the Lamb in Ghent, then during these periods prior to Christmas and Easter, the panels would have been closed so that congregations saw the Annunciation scene. This scene would be doubly appropriate because Advent and Lent are also periods of anticipation of the coming of Christ, and this anticipation would have been enhanced by portraying the biblical scene which inaugurated the incarnation. Nevertheless, without precise information in regard to this particular painting it is difficult for us to say exactly how the painting helped those attending Mass relate to the actual celebration of the liturgy.

It is interesting to note that the Ghent altar’s scheme contains no image of the crucifixion. But since this reredos was very likely not the only image in the church, it was probably painted to be seen in relation to all other images that were present – including that of a crucifixion elsewhere in the church. During the middle ages, altar rails were customarily expanded upwards into a chancel screen or ‘rood’ screen – which consisted of transparent tracery and was perhaps carved in wood. This screen would often be surmounted by a sculptural representation of the crucifixion (the word ‘rood’ is an old English word for cross). If there was something similar in Ghent cathedral, then the congregation would have been able to see all three: the Lamb, the enthroned figure of God and the crucifixion simultaneously. After the Council of Trent, the call for greater visibility of the celebration of the Mass resulted in many chancel screens being removed (although in fact they weren’t condemned explicitly). I believe Ghent underwent this same sort of revision.

As for the methods of the artists: the Van Eyck painted in glazes and never used painted whites. The white we see is the polished white gesso ground (a powdered chalk, or something similar, set in an animal glue) showing through. This technique is unusual for oil painters – but is similar to the way that a contemporary watercolor artist might integrate the white of the paper into the painting.

The Van Eycks built up multiple glazes of color, giving the finished product a deep, jewel-like luster with deep pearlescent colors. In order to understand how this works it is worth considering first just what paint is.

No matter which medium an artist uses, the color in all paintings is always derived from the same inert pigment. For instance in yellow ochre, the yellow comes from iron oxide dug up from the ground. In order to get the pigment to stick to the surface, the artist must apply it after suspending it in some sort of medium which can be brushed on as a liquid, is viscous enough to adhere to the surface and capable of solidifying so that the paint has permanence. If the paint is egg tempera, the medium is egg yolk; if it is oil paint, then the medium is linseed oil or some other commonly available vegetable oil; in watercolour the medium is gum arabic. It should be noted that the oil paint used by the Van Eycks was not the tube oil paint found in art shops today. In the 19th century artists mixed the oil medium with wax to give it bulk and the physical properties that would allow manufacturers to mass produce the paint in factories by putting it in tubes that might sit on shop shelves for long periods of time without degenerating.

This change in the quality of the paint – which before this would have been mixed by the artist in his studio - affected how artists painted. It is much easier for artists such as Monet or Van Gogh to use thickly brushed opaque layers of waxy oil paint in a style called impasto. In contrast, the oil paint that the Van Eycks used would have had a much more fluid quality to it than more recent sorts of oil paint; it would have been a genuinely ‘oil like’ paint. Therefore the paint used in the Ghent altarpiece had been worked into very thin, smooth and transparent layers called glazes. The deep colors that we see in this work would have been created not by a single application but by having perhaps as many as 15 or 20 layers each just a few microns thick.

Artists favored this method because it achieved a certain special optical effect. As the light hits the surface of the painting, some of the light is reflected and takes on the color of the paint and some is transmitted through the first layer of paint until it hits the interface between the second and third layers, where the process is repeated. If a strong light, such as flickering candlelight, shines onto the painting, it creates an especially jewel-like richness on the smooth surface, as if the painting itself were the light’s source, the light rays emerging from deep within its surface. The artist who knows what he is doing manipulates this effect by subtly changing the relative tone and the precise colour of each layer. It is no accident that this effect is called ‘pearlescent’. In pearls the same optical effect is created by many layers of the transluscent deposit, put down by the oyster around a irritating piece of grit.

If you read the art history books, Van Eyck’s painting style is described as part of the ‘Northern Renaissance’. Whatever we call his style, it is to my mind more a culmination of the gothic that preceeded it than it is an anticipation of the High Renaissance that followed it. Certainly it is highly naturalistic and it has this in common with the Renaissance style. But this increased interest in natural appearances and curiosity about the natural world did not begin with the Renaissance nor with Van Eyck, but began over two hundred years before (due to the influence of the newly rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle among other things).

What links Van Eyck to the Gothic stylistically is the sense of emotional distance between the figure and the observer. The whole gothic movement has this same sense of emotional distance in common with the iconographic styles that preceded them. Although sometimes we do observe some emotion in the figures, these emotions do not engage us directly; we are still in some way detached, observing from a distance.

This placement of the figures at a distance - in the middle ground rather than in the foreground - affects the dynamic of the observer’s interaction with the image. The beauty of the painting draws us in and we want to engage, but we cannot because that distance is inherent within the composition and style. It is there even if we have our noses pressed against the panel. Our desire to be part of what we see then takes our attention beyond the painting itself to the reality that it portrays, which is heaven. So the painting first pulls us in and then it sends us up to heaven. This dynamic of prayer is built into the style of the painting and is part of what makes it a skillful execution of the artist’s skills; and stylistically appropriate for the liturgy.

A Christian artist must paint man so that he is recognizably human – in short, the image must look like a person. At the same time the artist must indicate those invisible truths by deviating from a strict adherence to physical appearances. It is through a controlled partial abstraction that the artist reveals a fuller truth about the human person. It is in the way that an artist executes this abstraction,we recognize characteristic styles.

Such styles can be done well or badly. The three authentic liturgical traditions – iconographic, gothic and baroque - are described by Pope Benedict XVI as communicating this balance of naturalism and abstraction well. Good Christian art is always a controlled balance between the representation of the physical appearances of the person, and partial abstraction by which, symbolically, the soul is revealed. (Any artists or lovers of art who are interested in knowing more about this process and how Christian artists have done accomplished it in the past should read my book, the Way of Beauty.)

The process of balancing naturalism and abstraction is done badly by swinging too far in one direction or another. Either the artist renders an excessive naturalism on the one hand, or he neglects appearances, leading to a grave distortion on the other hand. While there is always room for new and fresh art, to be Christian art it must reflect this balance. Pius XII said as much in Mediator Dei (195): “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.”

The 20th century artists named painted in styles that reflected a worldview that is governed by a dualism in which the spiritual aspects of man are exaggerated at the expense of the physical. These modern artists were not reflecting a Christian anthropology, and furthermore they knew it – the explicit aim of abstract expressionists exhibited by Newman and Rothko was to represent man as pure disembodied spirit. The corollary to this is the style known as photorealism in which there is total neglect of the spiritual and only the material aspects of man are considered and represented.

As far as our understanding of the Ghent altarpiece is concerned, Van Eyck work was both naturalistic and also incorporated a symbolic element. While the surface of each object he paints is represented in exquisite and minute detail, the overall form of what he paints, the substrate to which all that detail is fused, is distorted according to gothic sensibilities so as to give a sense of the sacred.

One of these gothic aspects is compositional - that portrayal of the figures in the middle distance, (already described above) which creates a particular dynamic of interaction with the observer, especially in the context of prayer. Another gothic aspect is found in the form of the figures. In many ways the gothic is a naturalized form of the iconographic tradition that began in the early Church. You can see this gradual increase in the naturalism of surface appearances of figures if you follow a path historically from the late Romanesque/early gothic art of the 13th century (as in this illumination from the Westminster Psalter (link to example here) through later gothic art, such as the work of Duccio (link to examples here) and culminating in Flemish artists such as the Van Eycks and Van Der Weyden (below is Last Judgement altarpiece, from about 1440)

and a detail of the central section...

Gothic naturalism is very different from the naturalism of the High Renaissance which followed Van Eyck. In the High Renaissance, the figures were painted in the foreground and engage with the observer much more directly than in gothic depictions. The High Renaissance’s underlying form (to which this naturalistic surface detail is fused) is a copy of Greek and Roman (i.e. classical) art. From the High Renaissance onwards and through to the 19th century, artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael copied Greek and Roman statues as part of their training, which in turn affected their style profoundly. So when the baroque artist Rubens painted Theresa of Avila in prayer in the 17th century, the stylistic difference we see in his work emerged from his training for thousands of hours by copying Greek and Roman statues.

The Van Eycks’ did not train by copying classical statues, and so stylistically were influenced much more by the art forms that they saw around them, which were earlier gothic and Romanesque. Despite the fact this this painting is over 500 years old, the glory of what is true and good is radiating out the Van Eyck’s work, even today. When we perceive this quality in art, or anything else for that matter, we call it beautiful. And that beauty is irresistible. This is the message of John Paul II’s Letter or Artists and the numerous writing about the via pulchritudinis - the Way of Beauty - by Benedict XVI.

Thus, the lesson that artists today can learn from Van Eyck is that if people are not climbing over each other in their eagerness to see our work, the reason is simple. It is not beautiful enough. For proof of this truth, I suggest we need look no further than the Adoration of the Lamb. Hundreds of years after it was painted, this altarpiece is still the second most viewed painting in history. Modern man has voted with his feet – or to be more precise, with adoration.

Paintings from Students at the Gothic School of St Albans Painting Classes in July

14 - 1 (1)And a review by Fr John Bambrick from St Aloysius, Jackson, NJ Here are some of the paintings done by the recent' classes teaching the gothic style of art using the 12th century English illuminations of the School of St Albans (with one contemporary French image there as well). As usual what strikes me hear is the ease with which Catholics from the Roman Rite take to these forms which are closely linked to that Rite. I have taught many classes of Eastern style icons and there is a cultural barrier to overcome that means that the quality of the painting is not as high. Some who have been exposed to the prejudice against Western forms that you hear in some icon painting classes, are intially suspicious. However, once they accept that they are allowed to like Western gothic art and that it is just as authentically liturgical and worth of veneration as a Russian or Greek icon, then they seem to take to these forms very naturally.

Students always want to change things and interpret. In Eastern icon painting classes, you almost always have to say no because the changes suggested are not appropriate. I find that in this form the students quickly inhabit the gothic world and when they suggest changes they would like to make, they are in accord with the tradition and so, provided that it won't detract from the learning process, I usually them to do it.

 Fr John Bambrick, who attended the class at TMC in Merrimack NH wrote a generous review of the week in his parish bulletin and here is what he said:

"The Week of July 28th I took a class on Christian Iconography at St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack New Hampshire.  It is a small liberal arts college with a strong traditional Catholic identity in New England.  Professors are called ‘Fellows’ at this College. To be honest I cannot draw a straight line; however through the skill of Fellow David Clayton I competed an egg tempera copy of an illumination from a Medieval Psalter.  The excellence of his teaching was apparent when the entire class completed their Icons.  If David is ever considered for canonization this could be considered one of his first miracles!  He has just published a very fine work on prayer for the family called, “The Little Oratory: A beginners guide to praying in the home”.  You can find this gem on  He also maintains a blog on Art, Religion and culture called   We also had a wonderful field trip to a Russian Icon Museum in Massachusetts.  One of the most reproduced Icons is the Mother of God under various titles."  The full bulletin is here.

Most of the students had never done a class before, although some were doing their second or third class. The image top left, which is shown again on a larger scale was done by an 18-year old who was attending his first class ever. The original images are from the 12th century Westminster psalter apart from the image of the Creator making the universe according to weight and measure and number, which is from a French manuscript of the same period.

I am receiving inquiries from about when the next class will be. So for any who are interested we will be running and icon painting class in Columbus, Ohio running from October 20-24th.  Full details will appear shortly in this blog and Facebook, but any who are interested should email me through this blog giving me your email address which I will forward to Gina Switzer who is organizing it.


The New Evangelist

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The Need for Chivalry in Modern Age, and an Example of Such a Modern Knight

IMAG0415My friend Stratford Caldecott died very recently of cancer. I heard the news at a time that I was was reading his newly published book, Not as the World Gives: the Way of Creative Justice. Contained within the book, which focusses for a large part on Catholic social teaching, especially in the light of Pope Benedict's Caritas in Veritate, he has a chapter on the evangelization of the culture. Within this, in turn, he makes a call for a new chivalry (p145):

'The Crusaders, with whom we associate the first Christendom - and who in fact represent one of its greatest failures - made the mistake of confusing and interior and spiritual struggle with an earthly and political one. The most important struggle is within. [This] suggests a way in which the ideal (if not the historical example) of medieval chivalry remains valid even today.'

He then quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar from his who felt that the West was built on the spirit of chivalry: 'Francis was a knight of Christ, as was Ignatius in turn while Newman's refinement resists every temptation to take things easy. Knighthood changes its form, but it does not change its soul...The glorification of the body of knights is no backward looking romanticism, no ancien régime that turns its face aside from the march of time, but the only effective equipment with which the Christian can meet the present day.' This body of knights, he says, 'is the fellowship under obligation to the King of Kings,' in which each strives for an inner peace, a personal transformation and then take that peace out to the world through his interactions with others; for 'how is the world to be healed, how are the peoples to be reconciled, if not through such a new body of knights which is nothing other than carrying out the will of Jesus Christ, here and now, in this time?'

It is from this body of knights that the economic social change, political change and cultural change in its broadest understanding will occur. For each person so transformed can contribute to the change of the world. 'In other words, the Evangelization of the culture takes place first in the encounter of one person with another before it affects governments or organisations.'

I think that few who have ever met Strat would deny he was one of those knights, brandishing the sword of the spirit and through each personal encounter transmitting the love of Christ. RIP

Afterword: the past two weeks I have been teaching art classes in which students learn the style of the English gothic illuminators from the period of the 13th century, especially Matthew Parris. Our classes had been discussing the relevance of painting a medieval knight today because our model for study was an image from the Westminster Psalter of a knight kneeling, see below. We discussed it and felt that the age of chivalry is not dead, or at least it shouldn't be; and assigned our knight the symbolism of the chivalrous Christian who is strong in virtue and who carries the light of Christ out into the world. For want of anything better, we called him the knight of the New Evangelization.

It was just yesterday that I discovered that in fact he is portrayed kneeling before an unknown king.



bd2448831693d213c356722a5b282686It was pure coincidence that this is the image that we were studying when I heard of Strat's death and then happened to read the above passage in his book.

The picture that I painted of this knight, top left and below, is my Christian Knight. When I painted it I thought of him as accepting his call from God to take up his personal vocation in life. But now I see him paying homage, as Strat described in his book, to the King of Kings, seeking personal transformation in Christ and accepting his role as a walking icon of Christ in the world.




Teaching the Western Tradition - Work from My Students at a Recent Painting Course in Kansas

This summer we held a painting course in Kansas City, Kansas at the Savior Pastoral Center Kansas. I taught it and it was sponsored by the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas which runs the center. I thought I would show some of the work done by students. This is unusual in that we focussed on 13th century gothic illuminated manuscripts from the School of St Albans. This one is a St Christopher painted by a master of the school called Matthew Paris. The students, Paul Jentz and his mother Christi (who kindly took and sent me the photographs) worked from the image shown top left. They constructed a grid as a help but drew the design by hand. While giving them guidance, I gave each freedom to vary the border and the colour schemes. I think you'll agree that they did a good job.

We have already booked up to do two more courses next summer, so those who are interested might even contact the center now. This year the places went quickly and we could have filled the class more than twice over. The center website is here.

At group of about a dozen adults attended the course and the level of experience varied. Some were themselves teachers of icon painting classes (who were interested in learning about the gothic style); and some were complete beginners. What was exciting for me was that all took to this western form of sacred art very naturally and were enthusiastic to keep doing it and develop this as a tradition for today.

Next month I will feature work by other students who worked on the Visitation.



Work from a Painting Class Teaching the Style of the gothic School of St Albans

13 - 1I have recently finished a course in Kansas City, Kansas and in some ways it was an experiment. I was teaching not icons, but the style of the gothic manuscripts such as the Westminster Psalter. These images are commonly attributed to Matthew Paris and the school of St Albans in the 13th century. This is the first time I have taught this style to mature students (that is those who are not undergraduates at Thomas More College). The experience proved very positive. Many of the students who came had experience of Byzantine icon painting classes and some were even teaching others. Even though these people were familiar with the Eastern styles of icons, they took to the Western form very quickly and enjoyed learning it. I cannot prove it, but my feeling is that this is because we were all of the Roman Church and these belong to our tradition. As we are doing illuminated manuscripts we painted in egg tempera on high quality paper. One brought velum. It was encouraging that there seems to be a demand for this style - we could have filled the class twice over and have already booked to do two classes next summer in Kansas, at the Savior Pastoral Center which is run by the diocese of Kansas City, Kansas. In a posting that will follow in the next week, I will show you the work of the students. First I present here the painting I did during the class as the demonstration piece, along with a photo of the original..


This one