prayer art person

Lessons from Baroque Sculpture

The first name that comes to mind when thinking of great sculptors is Bernini. When we look at his sculptures there are parallels to the baroque approach to painting. Although he is creating form in three dimensions, he still ‘paints’ in light and dark so that the baroque symbolism of the Light overcoming the darkness is there. He is quoted as having deliberately cut the lines in his statues deeper to accentuate his shadow, especially, as he said, that he did not have coloured paint to work with, only contrast of light and dark. This is why he took such care to consider that placement of his works relative to the source of light. Some artists, such as Alonso Cano and the other Spanish workers in wood of the baroque period did paint their work (hence the name ‘polychrome’ – many coloured). Unless the sculptor intends to follow Cano and paint his work then he must consider how the interplay of light and shadow in his work will affect the ability of the viewer to see what is intended. One of the great problems that we see in modern attempts to create beautiful art is that it lacks power. The visual vocabulary of modern art has been developed to communicate what is bad. It cannot communicate goodness and truth well (ie beautifully) and retain its power, so if we try the result always seems to be sentimentality. We are all a product of our times, and will be influenced by the culture of the day whether we wish to be or not. This means the Christian artist must be especially aware of this tendency to sentimentality in his work.

When I was learning to paint icons, my teacher Aidan Hart, told me to break curves up into a series of straight lines in order as a way of avoiding sentimentality and giving the painting rhythm and power. Later, when I was studying Western naturalism in Florence, part of my study involved drawing casts of Bernini statues. I saw that he had done something similar. The lines of drapery are usually represented not as curves, but as a series of intersecting lines (or perhaps more accurately, as series of broader arcs). It might be surprising to some that there are such parallels between iconography and the baroque, but I discovered a number which I recognised because of my exposure to both traditions. This common ground helped to reinforce the common threads of Christian art and to distinguish the naturalism of the 19th century from the baroque of the 17th century. It is why I would always say that even those artists who wish to specialize in the baroque style would benefit from learning iconography to a foundational level as well; or at the least from a study so that those stylistic features are better understood. We live in a different atmosphere from the 17th century and a clearer, more conscious recognition of what consitutes Christian culture is probably more important now than it was then, when just to be alive would have enabled people to soak up the essence of Christian culture without even thinking about it.

The other thing that is of interest is in connection with the training and working methods of artists at that time. Bernini is known today for his dazzling technique, but at the time, his genius was considered to be the ideas and vision that he had rather than in the skill in realizing it. There were other great sculptors whose style was similar and had great skill, for example Algardi and Finelli (in fact it is his sculpture of Cardinal Scipione Borghese shown above and not Bernini's, which is right).

One of my teachers in Florence, and American called Matt Collins who still lives in Italy, wrote to me about this recently. I thought I would pass on part of the correspondence, which I found interesting and surprising. He described how Bernini ran a workshop and that for a while Bernini was not the greatest technician even in his own bodega.

'Today we appreciate Bernini for his fantastic technique. However he was not the most virtuoso marble sculptor of his time. Giuliano Finelli was. Bernini employed highly skilled assistants to help realize his ideas. His 'Genius' or 'Divine gift' as it was referred to in his time was his artistic sensibility and vision. The production of art in the 17th century was a collaborative process, not the misunderstood individual against society of today. Students of the of the past were not studying but working. Art education was in fact 'on the job' training. All the assistants received the same technical training. Art evolved from it constant practice. There was always work for a competent artist, so he could risk and push himself.

'Finelli's first biographer was a man called Giambattista Passeri. He may have known personally the sculptor. Finelli was born in Carrara in 1601. The first documentation about him is from 1616 about his relation to a Michelangelo Naccherino, a sculptor based in Naples. Naccherino moved around a lot, working in Rome and even Florence. Eventually, Finelli moved to Rome around 1620 and worked in Bernini's workshop. One of the most shocking revelations is that Finelli completed a lot of the detail work on Bernini's marbles. The virtuoso leaves on Bernini's Apollo and Daphne were most likely done by Finelli. Today, we attach 'Genius' to technique. Recent revelations about 17th century art production show that virtuoso technique was only a component of great art, not the sole determiner of 'Genius.' In fact, if you look at Finelli's independent work it is not very impressive outside of the technical realm.

'Passeri is quoted as saying: "vedendo la diligenza di Giuliano si valse di lui nelle due statue di Dafne, e di Apollo, che sono nella Villa Borghese a Porta Pinciana, nelle quali oltre il buon gusto, e disegno si vede un maneggio di marmo che pare impossible, che sia opera umana, e da essa Gian Lorenzo guadagno un nome immortale."

'It is roughly translated as: "recognizing Giuliano's capability, he(Bernini) utilized him in the production of the statues Apollo and Dafne that are in the Villa Borghese at Porta Pinciana. Apart from the good taste and competent design, one sees a treatment of marble that seems impossible, let alone a work by human hands. And it is from this that Gian Lorenzo(Bernini) name became immortal."After collaborating on many projects with little compensation Finelli left Bernini's workshop in 1629.'

Matt knows more than anyone else I know about the training methods and technique of the baroque and the High Renaissance and he has taught me a great deal over the years. He has just started his own blog which publicises his own work and discusses a lot of these technical aspects in an engaging way. Those interested should look here.

This article first appeared in July 2015.


Above, Bernini's (or perhaps Finelli's!) Daphne and Apollo

Cardinal Montalto by Finelli

Detail of Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa of Avila, shown in full below

How to Address the Crisis in Fatherhood Head On through Prayer

In this article I describe how it is prayer, above all, that binds families together; and the most powerful form of prayer we can pray in the home is the liturgy of the hours. Furthermore, with the father leading the prayers, we are opening the way for a powerful driving force that has effect not only within the family but also beyond the four walls of our home.  I first posted this exactly three years ago. It was in part a desire to see this home-based driving force for change that lead to the writing of the book on prayer in the home, The Little Oratory.

The word Oratory, incidentally means in English 'House of Prayer'. When I used to go to the London Oratory - the wonderful Catholic church in England whose liturgy was so influential in my conversion - I used to see these words on the walls around the sanctuary: domus mea domus orationis vocabitur. It was a quote from Isaiah 56:7 which is echoed in Matthew's gospel - my house shall be called a house of prayer, says the Lord. This isn't the full quote, I know there's some Latin missing there but I am handicapped by a combination of poor Latin skills and  a bad memory; but here's the point, I wanted to include at least part of it because it shows the word 'orationis' - 'of prayer' - so that you can make the connection with the title of the book.

We chose this title because we wanted to communicate the idea that even the most humble house can be transformed into a house of prayer in accordance with the ideal articulated in Isaiah, and just as the London Oratory, in all its wonderful glory does. This is how a house becomes a home, however many people live there. The book we have written, we hope, helps us to fulfill that ideal and it places fathers, when we are talking of families, once more right at the centre of family and in right relationship with all others. As one might say, the father is the head and the mother is the heart. Both are necessary!

I will be doing a series of postings over the next few weeks that draw out themes discussed in more detail in the book. Anyway, here is the article....

In the exercise of the lay office in the liturgy each person participates in the sacrifice made by Christ, the supreme act of love for humanity. When we are advocates in prayer in this liturgical setting, the participation in the liturgy becomes an act of love for those people and communities with which we have a connection. Accordingly, by participating in the liturgy the family members enter into the to the mystical body of Christ who is our advocate to the Father and so participate in that sacrifice and His advocacy, on behalf of the family, too. It is the father who is the head of the family and who is called is called above the others to be in a quasi-priestly role, and is in a special position to be the advocate to God for his family. This role is executed without diminishing or replacing the advocacy of other family members.

This role of the father as advocate to the Father is a tradition that is biblical at its source, as Scott Hahn points out: ‘[In] the Book of Genesis, liturgy was the province of the Patriarchs themselves. In each household, priesthood belonged to the father, who passed the office to his son, ideally the firstborn, by pronouncing a blessing over him. In every household, fathers served as mediators between God and their families’[1] Also, just as at Mass we pray for the head of state, family members might pray for the head of the family (and by extension, to all communities and groups that we belong to).

We hear that there is a crisis of fatherhood at the moment, and for all the ways that this manifests itself in our society, one wonders if at root, part of the cause at least is the loss of this sense of advocacy for the family by one who is assigned that special role. A visible example of this aspect of fatherhood is powerful for children in learning to pray and inspiring them to do so regularly;  and valuable for boys especially as a demonstration that prayer is a masculine thing to do.

The liturgical activity of the home is the liturgy of the hours because it need not be done in a church and does not need a priest participating in order to be valid, the lay office is sufficient. The ideal therefore is that the father leads the family in the liturgy of the hours, visibly and audibly. If this were to common practice, I believe it would help to reestablish prayer as something that men do and will promote a genuine, masculine fatherhood as well as encouraging vocations to the priesthood amongst boys through this masculine example of liturgical piety.

Something that would help to reinforce this is a domestic shrine. This is a visible focus in the home for prayer and the Eastern practice of creating and icon corner is particularly good for this.  I will never forget seeing an Orthodox family doing their night prayers in front of the icons. The father led the prayers and all sang together or took their turn singing their prayers in the simple but robust Eastern tones. What impressed me was how all the children right down to the youngest who was four, wanted to take their turns and emulate their father. At one point two of the children argued about whose turn it was and Dad had to come in and arbitrate! They had a small incense burner burning and several long slender orange ochre beeswax candles burning in front of the icons. Each stood in reverence, facing the icon corner, occasionally crossing themselves. All the senses and faculties, it seems were directed for prayer as part of and on behalf of the family.

The families who have resolved to do this say to me that full family involvement is not always possible. It is inevitable that often family members will be too busy to join in and some will not want to. Nevertheless, the father resolved to make it clear that he was committing to regular prayer for the family and that all family members were invited at least to join in, so even if the prayer took place with only the father taking part, he was prepared to make that sacrifice on behalf of his family. And when the father is not with the family, for example if at work, he still strives to follow that liturgical rhythm of prayer and when does so, he does so on behalf of his family still.

I am only recently a father, but even when I was single and I prayed the liturgy of the hours I tried to remember to think of myself as participating in some way on behalf of my wider family and the various social groups that I am a member of, including work. Through my personal relationships, and this is still the case, those groups are present in the liturgy, to some degree, when I am. It is one way I can emulate Our Lord by participating in His sacrifice, and make a sacrifice for those with whom I relate. My hope is that will play a small part in bringing God's grace into these groups of people so that they might become communities supernaturally bound together in love. In my prayers, every morning, I consciously dedicate my liturgical activity to all those groups and with whom I am connected so I think of myself as representing my family, my friends, my work, the Church, social groups and so on, perhaps naming any individuals that are on my mind at that time. if, during the day I am not in a position to recite an hour, which can be often, I try mentally to mark the hour with a small prayer to maintain that sense of rhythm.

Images: top two are both paintings of the Holy Family by Giuseppe Crespi painting around the 1700; below: the Nativity with God the Father and the Holy Ghost by Giambattista Pittoni, Italian, 17th century




[1] Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit, pub DLT, p28


How to Make an Icon Corner

Beauty calls us to itself and then beyond, to the source of all beauty, God. God's creation is beautiful, and God made us to apprehend it so that we might see Him through it. The choice of images for our prayer, therefore, is important. Beautiful sacred imagery not only aids the process of prayer, but what we pray with influences profoundly our taste: praying with beautiful sacred art is the most powerful education in beauty that there is. In the end this is how we shape our culture, especially so when this is rooted in family prayer. The icon corner will help us to do that. I am using icon here in the broadest sense of the term, referring to a sacred image that depicts the likeness of the person portrayed. So one could as easily choose Byzantine, gothic or even baroque styles. The contemplation of sacred imagery is rooted in man’s nature. This was made clear by the 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicea. Through the veneration icons, our imagination takes us to the person depicted. The veneration of icons, therefore, is an aid to prayer first and it serves to stimulate and purify the imagination. This is discussed in the writings of Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), who was one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy.

In emphasising the importance of praying with sacred images Theodore said: “Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.” [quoted by Cardinal Schonborn, p232, God’s Human Face, pub. Ignatius.]

It is good, therefore for us to develop the habit of praying with visual imagery and this can start at home. The tradition is to have a corner in which images are placed. This image or icon corner is the place to which we turn, when we pray. When this is done at home it will help bind the family in common prayer.

Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends that we consider appropriate places for personal prayer: ‘For personal prayer this can be a prayer corner with the sacred scriptures and icons, in order to be there, in secret, before our Father. In a Christian family kind of little oratory fosters prayer in common.’(CCC, 2691)

I would go further and suggest that if the father leads the prayer, acting as head of the domestic church, as Christ is head of the Church, which is His mystical body, it will help to re-establish a true sense of fatherhood and masculinity. It might also, I suggest, encourage also vocations to the priesthood.

The placement should be so that the person praying is facing east. The sun rises in the east. Our praying towards the east symbolizes our expectation of the coming of the Son, symbolized by the rising sun. This is why churches are traditionally ‘oriented’ towards the orient, the east. To reinforce this symbolism, it is appropriate to light candles at times of prayer. The tradition is to mark this direction with a cross. It is important that the cross is not empty, but that Christ is on it. in the corner there should be representation of both the suffering Christ and Christ in glory.

‘At the core of the icon corner are the images of the Christ suffering on the cross, Christ in glory and the Mother of God. An excellent example of an image of Christ in glory which is in the Western tradition and appropriate to the family is the Sacred Heart (the one from Thomas More College's chapel, in New Hampshire, is shown). From this core imagery, there can be additions that change to reflect the seasons and feast days. This way it becomes a timepiece that reflects the cycles of sacred time. The “instruments” of daily prayer should be available: the Sacred Scriptures, the Psalter, or other prayer books that one might need, a rosary for example.

This harmony of prayer, love and beauty is bound up in the family. And the link between family (the basic building block upon which our society is built) and the culture is similarly profound. Just as beautiful sacred art nourishes the prayer that binds families together in love, to each other and to God; so the families that pray well will naturally seek or even create art (and by extension all aspects of the culture) that is in accord with that prayer. The family is the basis of culture.

Confucius said: ‘If there is harmony in the heart, there will be harmony in the family. If there is harmony in the family, there will be harmony in the nation. If there is harmony in the nation, there will be harmony in the world.’  What Confucius did not know is that the basis of that harmony is prayer modelled on Christ, who is perfect beauty and perfect love. That prayer is the liturgical prayer of the Church.

A 19th century painting of a Russian icon corner


The Dynamic of Prayer with Baroque Sacred Art - Why the Style of the Painting Makes You Pray Well

And how it is connected with the rosary. Have you ever had the experience of walking into an art gallery and being struck by a wonderful painting on the far side of the room. You are so captivated by it that you want to get closer. As you approach it, something strange happens. The image goes out of focus and dissolves into a mass of broad brushstrokes and unity of the image is lost. Then, in order to get a unified picture of the whole you have to recede again. The painting is likely to be an Old Master produced in the style of the 17th-century baroque, perhaps a Velazquez, or a Ribera, or perhaps later artists who retained this stylistic effect, such as John Singer Sargent. I recently made a trip to the art museum at Worcester, Massachusetts and there was a portrait by Sargent there that was about 12ft high and forced us back maybe 35ft so that we could view the whole.

This is a deliberately contrived effect of baroque painting. These paintings are created to have optimum impact at a distance.  It is sad that the art gallery is the most likely place for us to find any art, let alone any sacred art that conforms to its principles. The stylistic elements of the baroque relate to its role firstly as a liturgical art form in the Counter-Reformation. The baroque of the 17th century is also the last style historically that Benedict XVI cites as an authentic liturgical tradition - where there is a full integration of theology and form - It should be of no surprise that this has an impact upon prayer.

The best analysis of the stylistic features of the baroque of the 17th century that I have seen is in a book about Velazquez, published in 1906 and written by RAM Stevenson (the brother of Robert Louis). RAM Stevenson trained as a painter in the same studio in Paris as John Singer Sargent. This studio, run by a man called Carolos Duran was unusual in the 19th century in that it did not conform to the sentimental academic art of the time (such as we might have seen in Bougeureau, whose painting is shown above), but sought to mimic the style the great artists of the 17th century, such as Velazquez. In this he says: “A canvas should express a human outlook on the world and so it should represent an area possible to the attention; that is, it should subtend an angle of vision confined to certain natural limits of expansion.[1]  ”  In other words we need to stand far enough away from the painting so that the eye can take it in as a single impression. Traditionally (following on from Leonardo) this is taken to be a point three times longer than the greatest dimension of the painting. This ratio of 3:1 is in fact an angle of 18°, slightly larger than the natural angle of focused vision of the eye, which is about 15°. When you stand this distance away, the whole painting can be taken in comfortably, without forcing the eye to move backwards and forwards over it to any extent that is uncomfortable.

If the intention is to appear sharp and in focus at a distance of three times the length of the canvas, it must be much painted as much softer and blurred on the canvas itself. In practice this means that when one approaches a canvas, the brush stroke is often broader than one first expected. So that if we do examine a painting close too, it is often hard to discern anything, it almost looks like a collection of random brush strokes. The whole thing only comes together and knits into an image once we retreat again far enough to be able to see it as a unified image. This property makes baroque art particularly suitable for paintings that are intended to have an impact at a distance. The scene jumps out at us.

There is an additional optical device that contributes to this. The composition of the painting is such that the figures are painted in the foreground. Two things: the placement of the horizon; and the relationship between the angle of vision of the perimeter of the canvas and that angle which spans each figure within, affect the sense of whether the image is in the foreground, middle ground or background in relation to the observer. Baroque art tends to portray the key figures in the foreground. When these two effects are combined the effect is powerful.

If we look consider the very famous painting of Christ on the cross by Velazquez, for example. Its appearance at a distance is of a perfectly modeled figure. As we approach we see that much of the detail is painted with a very loose, broad brush. I have picked out the loin cloth and face as detail examples. The artist achieves this effect is achieved by retreating from the canvas, viewing the subject at a distance and then walking forward to paint the canvas from memory. Then after making the brushstroke the artist returns to review the work from the position from which he intends the viewer to see it several feet back. I learnt this technique when I studied portrait painting in Florence. I was on my feet, walking backwards and forwards for two three-hour sessions a day (punctuated by cappuccino breaks, of course). Over the course of an academic year I lost several pounds! I was told, though I haven’t been able to confirm the truth of it, that Velazquez did not feel inclined to do all that walking, so had a set of brushes made that had 10ft handles.

This dynamic between the viewer and the painting is consistent with the idea of baroque art which is to make God and his saints present to us here, in this fallen world. There may be evil and suffering, but God is here for us. Hope in Christ transcends all human suffering. The image says, so to speak, ‘you stay where you are – I am coming to you. I am with you, supporting you in your suffering, here and now’. The stylistic language of light and dark in baroque painting supports this also. The deep cast shadow represents evil and suffering, but it is always contrasted with strong light, representing the Light that ‘overcomes the darkness’.

This is different to the effect of the two other Catholic liturgical traditions as described by Pope Benedict XVI, the gothic and the iconographic. These place the figures compositionally always in the middle ground or distance, and so they always pull you in towards them. As you approach them they reveal more detail. (See a previous article on written for the New Liturgical Movement on the form of icons for more the reasons for this).

In this respect these traditions are complementary, rather than in opposition to each other. It has since struck me that the mysteries of the rosary describe this complementary dynamic also. They seem to describe an oscillating passage from earth to heaven and back again that helps us understand that God is simultaneously his calling us from Heaven to join him, but He is also with us here and helping to carry us up there, so to speak. If we consider the glorious mysteries, for example: first Christ is resurrected from the dead and then he ascends to heaven. Then He sends the Holy Spirit from heaven to be with us. Then we consider how Our Lady followed him, in her Assumption, and she and all the saints are in glory praying for us to join them. Both dynamics take place at the Mass itself. Christ comes down to us and is really present in Blessed Sacrament. As we participate in the Eucharist, we are raised up to Him supernaturally and then through Him and in the Spirit to the Father.


[1] RAM Stevenson, The Art of Velazquez, p30.


How to Pray With Visual Imagery

It is now more than three and a half years since I started this blog so first of all I would like to thank so many of you for your interest and your comments. I am currently involved in several book projects which will be published in the early part of next year - more information to come. In order to give myself time to write these, I thought I would reduce my postings to one fresh piece per week. However, it also occurred to me that many of you who read this, will not have seen much of what I posted in the first two years. In my mind, these are foundational to my thinking and shed light on much of what I write now, so I thought they would be worth repeating. So for these two reasons I thought I would replay some of these foundational posts. So for the next couple of months, I will alternate old and new. The first replay was first published in April, 2010: When I first started painting icons I was, of course, interested in knowing as well how they related to prayer. I was referred by others (though not my icon painting teacher) to books that were intended as instruction manuals in visual prayer. I read a couple and perhaps I chose badly, but I struggled with them. One the one hand, they seemed to be suggesting some sort of meditative process in which one spent long quiet periods staring at an icon and experiencing it, so to speak, allowing thoughts and feelings to occur to me. Being by nature an Englishman of the stiff-upper-lip temperament (and happy to be so) I was suspicious of this. I had finally found a traditional method of teaching art that didn’t rely on splashing my emotions on paper, and here I was being told that in the end, the art I was learning to produce was in fact intended to speak to us through a heightened language of emotion. Furthermore, the language used to articulate the methods always seemed to employ what struck me as pseudo-mystical expressions and which,  I suspected, were being used to hide the fact that they weren’t really saying very much.

So I started to ask my teacher about this and to observe Eastern Christians praying with icons. What struck me was that prayer for them seemed to be pretty much what prayer was for me. They said prayers that contained the sentiments that they wished to express to God. The difference between what they did and what I did at that time was that they turned and looked at an icon as they prayed. Also, when at home, often happily and without embarrassment they sang their prayers using very simple, easily learnt chant. Before meals, for example, the family would stand up, face an icon of Christ on the wall and sing a prayer of gratitude or even just the Our Father.

As I learnt more about icons through learning to paint them, I realized that every aspect of the style of an icon is worked out to engage us in a dynamic that assists prayer – through its form and content the icon will do the work of directing our thoughts to heaven. In short I don’t need to ‘do’ anything. The icon does the work for me.

The iconographic form is not the only one to do this. The Western Catholic tradition is very rich and has also the Baroque and gothic art forms that are carefully worked out to engage the observer in a dynamic of prayer, although in different ways. If the icon draws our thoughts to heaven, the baroque form is designed in contrast to have an impact at a distance in order to make God present on earth. The gothic figurative art is the art of pilgrimage, or of transition from earth to heaven, and stylistically it sits between the iconographic and baroque. It is the ‘gradual psalm’ of artistic form. Just like the spires of its architecture, it spans the gap between heaven and earth so that we have a sense both of where we going to and where we are coming from. I will discuss how the form of each tradition achieves in the next articles I write.

So the advice I was given was to ditch the books about praying with icons, and learn first to pray. Then as I pray always aim to have visual imagery that I allow to engage my sight and which assists. St Augustine said that those who sing their prayers pray twice. I would add that those who look at visual imagery as well pray three times (and if we use incense four times, and consider posture five). This process of engaging different aspects of the person in addition to the intellect is a move towards the ideal of praying with the whole person. This is what praying from the heart means. The heart is the vector sum of our thoughts and actions. It is our human centre of gravity when both body and soul are considered. It is the single point that, when everything is taken into account, defines what I am doing. It is the heart of us, in the sense of representing the core. This is why it is a symbol of the person. It is a symbol of love also because each of us is made by God to love him and our fellow man. It symbolizes what we ought to be rather than, necessarily, what we are. The modern world has distorted the symbolism of the heart into one of desire and ‘heartfelt’ emotion, precisely because these are the qualities that so many today associate with the essence of humanity.

The liturgy is ultimate form of prayer. By praying with the Church, the mystical body of Christ, we are participating in ‘Christ's own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal.[1] Therefore, the most important practice of praying with visual imagery is in the context of the liturgy. For example, when we pray to the Father then we look at Christ, for those who have seen Him have seen the Father. The three Catholic figurative traditions in art already mentioned were developed specifically to assist this process.

Just as the liturgy is the ‘source and goal’ of prayer, so liturgical art is, I would argue, the source and goal of all Catholic art. The forms that are united to the liturgy are the basis of Catholic culture. All truly Catholic art will participate in these forms and so even if a landscape in the sitting room, will point us to the liturgical. We cannot become a culture of beauty until we habitually engage in the full human experience of the liturgy. In the context of visual art, this practice will be the source of grace from which artists will be able to produce art that will be the basis of the culture of beauty; the source of grace and from which patrons will know what art to commission; and in turn by which all of us will be able to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be, by travelling on the via pulchritudinis, the Way of Beauty, recently described by Pope Benedict XVI.

Of course, each individual (depending upon his purse) usually has a limited influence on what art we see in our churches. However, as lay people, we can pray the Liturgy of the Hours and control imagery that we use. The tradition of the prayer corner, in which paintings are placed on a small table or shelf at home as a focus of prayer, is a good one to adopt.  We ‘orientate’  our prayer towards this, letting the imagery engage our sight as we do so. We can also sing, use incense and stand, bow, sit or kneel as appropriate while praying. A book I found useful in this regard, which describes traditional practices is called Earthen Vessels (The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition) by Gabriel Bunge, OSB

Does this mean that meditation of visual imagery is not appropriate? No it does not. But as with all prayer that is not liturgical, it is should be understood by its relation to the liturgy. So just as lectio divina, for example, is good in that it is ordered to the liturgy because through it our participation in the liturgy is deepened and intensified. So, perhaps, should meditation upon visual imagery should be understood in relation to the use of imagery in the liturgical context. Also, I would say that it is useful, just as with lectio, to avoid the confusion between the Western and Eastern non-Christian ideas of meditation and contemplation are. I was recommended a book recently that helped me greatly in this regard. It is called Praying Scripture for a Change – An Introduction to Lectio Divina by Dr Tim Gray.

[1] CCC, 1073

The Pythagorean Prayer of the Cosmos

The powerful prayer for creativity and inspiration and joy, which is perfected in the Church (Others in series on Divine Office here) Since the ancient Greeks there has been the idea that the happy life is the result of a good life, and a good life is a beautiful life. In the 6th century BC the philosopher Pythagoras (the same one who has a geometric theorem named after him) gathered around him a religious group of ‘Pythagoreans’ who sought to order their lives according to this principle of beauty and order. They drew their inspiration from their observations of the beauty of the cosmos. When viewed in the way of the Pythagoreans, making our actions and work beautiful becomes a guiding principle in life, just like morality. Morality tends to guide by placing boundaries on our activity – it tells us what not to do. This is necessary. Beauty, however, complements this by providing a positive principle of choice. When looking at the broad open field of choices that do not contravene moral law, it opens up new paths and gives us a principle to choose between options which may all appear to be morally neutral. How do we know what the beautiful choice is? The Greeks noted that the cosmos is both ordered and is beautiful. (The word ‘cosmos’ means in Greek simultaneously order and beauty.) This connection points us to the idea that when we find something beautiful, it is the order within it that is appealing to us. They also noticed, long before the development of modern science, that the rhythms and patterns of the cosmos could be described numerically; and this numerical ordering could become, at least in part, a principle for ordering life. Time and space can be ordered numerically, whether it’s the hours in the day, or the dimensions of a building. Pythagoras is described by Plato as being the discoverer of the numerical order behind beautiful musical harmony and his influence in this area continues to this day.

The Greeks were not the only ones. Long before Christ, the Jewish people ordered time in accordance with these principles: years, months, weeks, days and hours in conformity with the patterns of the cosmos, especially the sun and the moon. They were prompted to do by the revelation contained in Holy Scripture. For the Jewish people the cosmos was a heavenly signpost, created by God, to indicate also the rhythms and patterns and worship. The seven-day weekly cycle, the feast days and the seasonal cycles of their worship conformed to the phases of the moon and the rising and setting of sun. Within each day, there was a seven-fold prayer as well, with the addition of prayer during the night. This structure was the route to joy too. The Psalms especially stress that happiness is the result of following this path. ‘Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.’ (Psalm 118:1)

Greek temple in Segesta, Sicily. Pythagoras lived in Sicily

This ancient pattern was adopted and accommodated into Christian worship (see The Path to Heaven is a Triple Helix). The Christian fathers, especially figures such as Augustine made this connection between the liturgy and the Pythagorean description of the cosmos (The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Benedict XVI describes this), to give a sense that that the cosmos was made beautiful to direct our praise to God and both this earthly liturgy and the cosmos are not only in harmony with each other, but each reflects the order of the invisible standard of the heavenly liturgy – the unending praise of God by the saints in heaven. The connection between heaven and earth was made substantial in the Church’s worship, through the Mass. The body and blood of Christ, present under the appearance of bread and wine at the centre of the Mass is the meeting point of all that exists, seen and unseen. In Him all the patterns of order and beauty are embodied, for He is Beauty itself. He is the Creator of the cosmos and it bears the thumbprint of the one who fashioned it. In the Mass we actually ingest Beauty.

Let us recall that image of the Mass as a jewel in the setting of the Liturgy of the Hours which is in turn a jewel set in the cosmos. Through this trail of beauty, the connection between the heavens and Heaven is made complete. The Pythagoreans inspired by beauty, prayed with the cosmos. The Jews, inspired by Scripture prayed the liturgy of the hours by praying the psalms at certain times of the day. Christianity is the deepest drawing together of these elements in the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of human life. Each leads us into the next, and each completes the former. This is the prayer that the Pythagoreans sought and, I’m guessing, would have loved to have known. It is the fullest source of beauty and joy.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass is the deepest education in beauty there is, it impresses upon our very souls the patterns of beauty – of the cosmos, of heaven, of Christ. It also opens us up to God’s inspiration just as He bestows it. We draw spiritual breath as He exhales, so to speak. This developed innate sense of the beautiful shapes and guides our imaginations. Because our prayer is engaging the whole person and engaging all the senses, it develops our ability to create beauty in our work, whatever we do, because we understand how it will appeal to others through their sensual perception.

Those who want to learn to do the Divine Office, you might approach a priest or religious (ie monk or nun) and ask them to show you. Alternatively, the Way of Beauty summer retreats at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts will teach you how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and how you can realistically incorporated it into a busy working or family life

Images above: Pythagoras and an ancient synagogue in Capernaum. Below: the Romanesque Cathedral at Durham in the northeast of England.


Two More Neo Coptic Icons by Dr Stephane Rene

Further to the recent posting about a Coptic style Stella Maris icon, here are two more icons by Dr Stephane Rene in his ‘neo-Coptic’ style. They were sent to me by two people who read the previous article. St Joseph of the House of David and Mary Mother of the City are in St Joseph’s Catholic church, in Bunhill Row in the City of London. I remember this Church because it is just around the corner from the offices of the Catholic Herald, where I once worked. They come courtesy of a reader who brought them to my notice. So if you're reading thank you Martin Pendergast, and to you Sr Jean for supplying the images.

The name derives from the fact that St Joseph, although poor was of the Royal House of David. There are four narrative scenes from the gospel in each corner. The one of the Holy Family in a boat is depicting them on the Nile - representing the period of exile. Notice also the beautiful patterned border that Dr Rene has designed.


In this huge icon (3 metres x 2 metres). Mary is shown coming from an enclosed garden (a reference to the sybolism in the Song of Songs). The peacock is a traditional symbol of eternal life. The stream flowing from a cave represents the womb from which Christ emerged to live among us and give us the living water.

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.

Fra Angelico and the Gothic

When I first decided that I’d like to try to paint in the service of the Church I decided I wanted to paint like Fra Angelic (or perhaps Duccio). I suppose you might as well aim high! Fra Angelico, who worked in the 15th century, had the balance of naturalism and idealism that appealed to me. It seemed just right for prayer. It’s just an anecdotal observation, but when I meet people who have the same outlook in regard to the liturgy and orthodoxy in the Church, it seems that invariably they feel the same about him; and John Paul II described him in his Letter to Artists as one whose painting is ‘an eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith’. Unfortunately, the late-gothic style of Fra Angelico is not a living tradition and I couldn’t find anyone who painted that way who could teach me. I decided that as it appeared to sit stylistically between the Romanesque (which is an iconographic form) and the baroque and these were forms that are taught today, to some degree, I would learn both and try to work out how to combine the two. I am still working on that now!

What is it that characterizes gothic figurative art? We start to see a change in figurative art around 1200AD. The departure from the iconographic prototype occurred due to a different sense of the reliability of human experience. Information received through the senses was seen much more as a possible means of the grasping of truth. Tied in with this is the belief that the world we live in, although fallen and imperfect, is nevertheless good, ordered and beautiful. So there may be evil and suffering in the world, and it may not be as good and beautiful as it ought to be, but it is nevertheless God’s creation and still good and beautiful.

This change caused both the rise of naturalism in art and the development of science fostered by the Church. I have read of two main reasons for this. One is the incorporation of the philosophy of re-discovered works of Aristotle (who trusted the senses more than his teacher, Plato) into Christian thinking, by figures such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. This provided the intellectual basis for the development. Second is the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi. He loved nature as the work of God and as Franciscan ideas spread so did an enthusiasm for, and curiosity about, nature.


Let’s look at a very famous fresco by Fra Angelico of the Annunciation on the walls of a cell at San Marco in Florence. He consciously employs some of the developments of the new naturalism: there is cast shadow, there is single-point perspective creating a sense of depth in the covered cloister; the archangel is in profile. But there are also stylistic aspects that we are accustomed to seeing in iconography: the figures are painted in the middle distance, the edges of each shape are all sharply defined and the colour is evenly applied (unlike the baroque which has selectively blurred or sharp edges and selective use of colour or monochrome, usually sepia, rendering).

If we examine the further, we can see that the light source that is casting shadow is from the left. If cast light were the only source, the face of the Archangel would be dark, yet it is bright. Fra Angelico is showing the face of the Archangel glowing with the uncreated light of holiness, which is what we are used to seeing in the Byzantine iconographic form.

I was giving a lecture once about this painting and a student asked me about the shadow. He pointed out that Our Lady is a saint, he could see that her face wasn’t in shadow and there was strong halo, representing he uncreated light coming from her. But also pointed out that there is a strong cast shadow on the wall behind her. Wouldn’t you expect her radiance to obliterate that, he asked? I agreed with him, you would. But I couldn’t say why Fra Anglelico had painted it like this. I speculated that perhaps it was due to the fact that there were two light sources from the left – the natural light and the uncreated light from the angel and that the combined intensity of light would cause the shadow against the wall. I had to admit even as I said it that my answer sounded contrived. Nevertheless, it did seem deliberate. Another Annunciation, shown below, has the same shadows.

He suggested an answer: Fra Angelico was a Dominican, and not a Franciscan. At this time the question of her Immaculate Conception had not been decided and the Dominicans did not accept the Immaculate Conception and were in dispute with the Franciscans over the issue. Perhaps Fra Angelico was making a theological point to the Franciscans, he suggested by dimming her light ever-so slightly. This was an ingenious suggestion, and I couldn’t say that it wasn’t what Fra Angelico had in mind. I certainly preferred it to my answer!

Later, someone in another class, a priest, gave the most convincing reason so far. Luke 1 tells us that the words of the angel Gabriel were:, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”


The Icons of Sr Petra Clare

When Pope Benedict XVI spoke recently to assembled artists (in the broadest sense of the term) in Rome, he was echoing John Paul II and Paul VI in calling for a new culture of beauty. Benedict emphasised strongly, perhaps even more strongly than his predecessors, the importance of the evangelization of the whole culture and how beauty is a principle that can inform all human activity – work and leisure as well as worship. When we work beautifully, we work gracefully ie with God’s grace, and we are travelling on the ‘via pulchritudinis’ - the Way of Beauty - which leads us ultimately to God and attracts others to Him.

If this broader evangelization of the culture is to happen, it must begin with orthodox, dignified and beautiful liturgy. It must, in my opinion be closely followed by the art, architecture and music that is united to it. This will set the form that becomes the model upon which all aspects of the culture are based, just as it did in the past.

At the moment, the re-establishment of iconography is slightly further ahead than that of naturalistic Western art (as a sacred art form) and our Eastern brethren are setting the pace in this respect. Like Western art, iconography (even in the East), had degenerated under the influence of the Enlightenment.  (For further discussion on this see the article about icons, here). Its resurgence began first in the Eastern Church in the mid 20th century, with figures such as the Greek artist Photius Kontoglou and the Russian émigré based in France, Gregory Kroug. Under their influence, the next generations of iconographers have come through. The Western Church has lagged behind slightly in this respect, perhaps 50 years (maybe hampered by the difficulties in its liturgy). However, just as we see light at the end of the liturgical tunnel now in the West with what I have heard people refer to as the ‘Benedictine Restoration’ (as in Pope Benedictine XVI), we do now see Catholic iconographers are beginning to emerge. One is Sr Petra Clare, who is a Benedictine nun based in a skete in the Scottish Highlands. It is a bus ride northwest of Inverness in a village called Cannich and it is a truly beautiful spot to visit if you get a chance. Here are some examples of her work. You also can see her website here. I first became aware of her work through visits to Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin in northern Scotland. She was commissioned by the abbey to paint two large icons, a John the Baptist (or John the Forerunner) and a St Andrew (seen here). They are facing the monks in the choir and visitors sitting in the transcepts have to strain their necks slightly to see them, but it’s worth the effort.

Sr Petra's style is probably closest to that of the Russian school. When I have written about her work in the past, some have questioned the validity of having an Eastern style in the Western liturgy. Shouldn't we, they say, use some of our own iconographic traditions? After all we have Carolingian, Ottonian, Celtic and Romanesque styles that all conform to the iconographic. My thoughts are that we have to start somewhere good, which Sr Petra does, and there has always been cross fertilisation in iconographic styles. Also, the Romanesque itself, was a style formed by contact with the East and when it began resembled greatly the Greek Eastern styles. Gradually, a distinct voice developed naturally. Also, I would say that Sr Petra is an experienced icon painter and without ever seeking to force it we can see her own style coming through. Who's to say that isn't Western?

Below: St Luke, left; and right, St Andrew. More of Sr Petra's work can be seen at