Work by Pontifex University Faculty Member Selected for Exhibition as Tribute to the Work of Norman Rockwell

Work by Pontifex University Faculty Member Selected for Exhibition as Tribute to the Work of Norman Rockwell

Illustration is often seen as a low art and is used as a pejorative term by modernist abstract or conceptual artists for those that try to depict the figure more naturalistically. I take the opposite view. The highest art is that which illustrates - or illuminates - well the highest truths.

Further thoughts on the sculpture of Thomas Marsh


Demonstrating how to balance the idealism and realism

After Carrie Gress's interview with sculptor Thomas Marsh on the Pontifex University blog, here, which I referred to last week, I thought I would enlarge on my comments on Marsh's sculpture. Marsh is one of the few artists I have seen who has a high level of skill and who seems to understand how to balance idealism and realism. This really should be something that every Christian artist should understand, but seem to nowadays. What is noticeable is that he varies the degree of idealization according to the subject of his scultpture. Here's what I mean:

First is that I think the quality of his craftmanship comes through in his portraits, which in my opinion are stunning. The individual character of the person shines out of his work. Here are some examples.

The mark of a unique person is present, though slightly reduced, in this sculpture of a surfer, which is not intended to be a portrait, but an idealized personification of a surfer, and a tribute to surfing. Again, this is skillfully rendered.

Contrast this with the face of Our Lady shown below, in which the idealization is taken a step further:

Notice how the portrayal of individual character is least evident here. The face is idealized in a way that partially resembles, it seems to me, the idealized features of an ancient Greek Venus. Any portrayal of Our Lady must reveal her as a unique person, as a portrait does, of course. We discern the general through the particular. But at the same time, it must emphasize those qualities that are common to all of humanity, and present them in their best light, for these are the qualities that we can emulate in her. Those aspects that are unique to Mary cannot, by definition, be imitated. It is this emphasis of the general that leads the artist into a portrayal of an idealized form in sacred art. The exact nature of that idealization can vary - in the iconographic tradition it is different from classical naturalism. But it must be there.

The degree of idealization is slightly less in the surfer, because he is meant to portray not those aspects that are common to all people, but rather those aspects that are common to all surfers when they are presented in their best light.

Another wonderful example of sacred art by Marsh is this relief sculpture: "Sorrow 1" from the Seven Sorrows and Joys of St. Joseph, a meditation which is very beloved by the Oblates of St. Joseph,(see a small religious order devoted to "serving God in imitation of St. Joseph." Sorrow 1" is part of a 2006 landscape architectural prayer walk (co-designed by March) on the grounds of the Oblates' U.S. provincial headquarters in Santa Cruz:

Relief sculpture is, one might say, not a representation of the form directly, but a painting in shadow. Here is a picture of the Sorrow Walk:

In the interview  Marsh refers to a commission he is about to begin for a series of statues for a Rosary walk. I look forward to seeing it completed.

Interview with Sacred Artist Thomas Marsh, by Dr Carrie Gress


Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 8.58.41 PMHere is another piece by philosopher and member of the faculty of Pontifex University, Dr Carrie Gress. This first appeared on the university blog, Carrie's personal website is She is interviewing the sculptor Thomas Marsh who lives in Virginia. I think that the quality of his work speaks for itself. One comment I would make is that he percieves the difference between sacred art and portraiture, judging from the face of Our Lady which is shown in the photographs presented here. In sacred art the object is to portray the general characteristics of the saint's humanity. This is done through the particular, so we must see a unique person, but those unique characteristics are not emphasized as much as in portraiture - where the whole point is to emphasize what makes the subject different from everyone else. The result is a more idealized image, and this is what we see in the facial feature of Our Lady, which seem to draw on the Greek ideal for inspiration.

Carrie writes:

For sculptor and painter Thomas Marsh sacred art doesn’t need to fall into the trap of religious kitsch or modernist fads. From Santa Cruz to Washington, D.C., Marsh’s work can be seen in churches, monasteries, monuments and memorials. Trained in the realist school of painting and sculpture, Marsh works to capture something unique about the human spirit that conjures up something deeper in the soul than novelty or saccharine sentimentality. Through his work of both the sacred and secular, Marsh is trying to capture a type of contemplation akin to prayer.

I spoke with Marsh about his realist training and its evangelizing potential.


Gress: You are a sculptor, specializing in sacred art. What led you to this vocation?

Marsh: My love of sculpting the figure goes back to childhood, at about age 8, when I borrowed some plastilina clay from my sister who was a college art student at the time. I made a number of character studies simply because it was fascinating.

I didn’t consciously focus on being a sculptor as my vocation until I was 18 and had just enrolled as an architecture student at Iowa State University. I took as many art classes as ISU had to offer taken mostly through the Architecture Department which, fortunately, had not abandoned classical principles of training in realism in their drawing classes.

I then transferred to a small, private, heavily endowed art school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Layton School of Art, and earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Painting in 1974. As was the case with the Architecture Department at ISU, the Painting Department at Layton maintained a high degree of classical training, where the Sculpture Department did not. However, I was blessed to be given the use of a professional sculpture studio (the sculptor had recently passed away) so at ages 21-23 I had a marvelous, private, professional studio for my sculpture work.

From 1974-77 I studied sculpture at California State University, Long Beach, where I received my Masters in Fine Arts in sculpture. Through my graduate professors I had direct artistic genealogical links to Ivan Mestrovic and Rodin. After receiving my MFA, I became the apprentice to the modern figurative master Milton Hebald for a year in Italy. The time spent in Italy, many trips since, has been deeply formative of my love for great Christian art.


Gress: How did you go about following your passion for art and the beautiful?

Marsh: “Art” and “the beautiful” are not synonymous, since one is human action producing a creative structure with aesthetic attributes, for the perceiver’s aesthetic experience; and the other, the concept of “beauty” or  “the beautiful” is a principle, a universal in the world of the spirit, which is no less real than the material.

My passions for each are inextricably intertwined. From that early childhood love of sculpting the figure, my passion for beauty in art evolved as my level of aesthetic understanding grew.

Looking back, it felt more as if my passion had been “drawn out” or “pulled out” by the great universal principles of art, such as, form, representation, complexity, emotional intensity, and beauty… rather than my having “followed my passion.”

Gress: Do you consider your work to be evangelical?

Marsh: Yes, I pray to God that my work is evangelical! In 1987, I gave a public lecture at the University of San Francisco titled “Figurative Art and the Human Spirit.” In it, I outlined my theory that the era of modernism in art was dying or even effectively dead. History has to a large extent, borne out that prediction.

My reasoning was and is as follows: expression theory is the intellectual foundation of modernism. Put simply, that means that the idea or concept of the work of art, its “expression,” is more significant than the attributes of the work of art itself. In order to aesthetically evaluate works of art based on their ideas alone, there is no fundamental criterion for aesthetic value, except “the new.” Hence, we witnessed the ever faster spiraling of art movements for most of a century. But this spiral eventually negated itself, when the “new” became tedious: it was no longer shocking or novel or exciting.


I predicted that a different, though not new, dominant role for art in human life would emerge: art as a vehicle for personal and social transformation. This transition from modernism based on expression theory to art as a vehicle for transformation is still in process, and is quite visible now. The mainstream art world, including major museums, serious galleries, and art critics in major publications, still holds fast to the modernist premise. But it’s clear that their citadel is crumbling, and that now the dominant role of art in human life is art as a vehicle for personal and social transformation.

Art in the service of evangelization is certainly transformative art! On a very particular level in visual art, my own work attempts to embody the work of art with forms that facilitate heightened awareness of our human spirit, or personhood. It is this experience of personhood that is the manifestation of the soul in human earthly life. My work is evangelical even beyond literal representations of Biblical figures because the human figure in art has the capacity to draw us into this experience, and such experience, as a parallel to prayer, has the power to draw us closer to God.

I also have done secular work all my life as a sculptor, painter, and drawer. Even secular work, such as the surfing monument in the Santa Cruz, California or the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C., or (especially) portrait work, has the capacity to bring us closer to God.

Gress: What have been some of your recent projects?

Marsh: In 2013, I completed a St. Joseph, Patron of the Unborn figure for St. Vincent’s Hospital in Orange Park, Florida near Jacksonville. This is a small healing shrine, though the figure is life size, in the vestibule of the Chapel at the hospital. It is meant to facilitate the prayers for and about those women who have had abortions, or who have suffered miscarriages. It is patterned after a larger version of this same concept, installed on the grounds of the Oblates of St. Joseph in Santa Cruz, CA in 2001.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 9.07.34 PM

In 2014, I completed two castings of a work, St. Joseph, Protector of Preachers, one in bronze for the Priory of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one in gypsum cement casting for the interior entrance to the church. This work has a narrative dimension, and at the same time facilitates our human spirit experience through the stylistic character of my figures. St. Joseph, and a dog – these are the Dominicans!

I am poised to begin a major work: a Marian Rosary Prayer Walk which integrates a larger than life figure of Mary and a 75’ long landscaped rosary prayer walk.

Gress: Your work, particularly when it comes to Christ and the angels, offers a very lifelike representation emphasizing their strength and masculinity. Is this intentional?

Marsh: This approach emphasizing the masculine strength of Christ and the archangels Gabriel and Michael, and also St. John, all at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is very deliberate! I have also tried to bring this approach to the figures of St. Joseph, Patron of the Unborn, in Santa Cruz, California and in Jacksonville, Florida; the figure of John the Baptist at Mission San Juan Bautista, California; and the figure of Christ on the cross at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Madera, California.

Surfer Monument 1998

I’m a realist sculptor who strives to create original and meaningful work in the genre of ecclesiastical and liturgical sculpture. Unfortunately, much of the sculpture in today's Catholic art world is filled with clichés and copies (just pick up any religious art catalogue), not to mention mediocre sculpting. I feel strongly that the fortis et suavis (strong and gentle) character of Joseph, and Christ, should be the model for male figures, and for the overwhelming/terrifying/awe-striking figures of archangels. In today’s social and political context, where the natural complementarity of the sexes is being questioned, I feel is it critical to imply the God-created natural law basis of the male side of human male-female complementarity.





Spanish Polychrome Sculpture, Ancient and Modern

When I think of sculpture, I usually think first of something that is monochrome - in one colour, that of the material that it is made from. Perhaps stone or cast in bronze. If I think of coloured sculpture, what probably comes to mind is the kitsch stuff of gift shops. There is however, a wonderful tradition of  ‘polychrome’ meaning many colours sculpture. First, many of the statues that we now see in just stone would have originally been painted (for example the pre Renaissance sculpture of the Middle Ages. There is also a great baroque tradition of polychrome carving and some of the greatest examples are from the Spain in the 17th century.

In the examples show, which are from this period, you can see the same stylistic features used by the stone sculptors of the time, even though these artists are not ‘painting in shadow’, as stone sculptors such as Bernini did (as I wrote about last week, here). For example, they display the same exaggerated angular folds in the cloth to give the form vigour. One of the greatest of these Spanish artists is a man called Alonso Cano.

There is an artist in Spain today who is producing work in a similar vein called Dario Fernandez. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any images that I am able to reproduce here, but there are plenty on his website and he is well worth looking up.

Works shown (all from the 17th century), from top: Scourging at the Pillar, Gregorio Fernandez; John of God, Alonso Cano; The Scourging at the Pillar, Alonso Cano; Suffering Christ, Gregorio Fernandez; St Teresa of Avila, Gregorio Fernandez; Christ of Sorrows, Pedro de Mena; Crucifixion, Juan Martinez-Montanez

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

A Processional Cross by Philippe Lefebvre

Here is a newly completed wood polychrome and gilded processional cross made by Frenchman Philippe Lefebvre. I love the balance of naturalism and subtle abstraction that he has incorporated into this. In Mediator Dei, Pius XII said, you may recall: '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.'

He is telling us that the Christian artist must represent natural appearances and through the medium he chooses reveal also the invisible truths of the human person ('symbolism'). There is wide scope for individual interpretation of how this might be done, even when working within the forms of an established tradition. It is incumbent upon each artist to find the balance that appeals to people of his day. This may mean working precisely in the way of the past, or adapting and building on the past in order to achieve this end and create something new. In doing so he must avoid the errors of straying too far in either direction, towards extreme naturalism ('realism') or abstraction.

When I see this work by Philippe it strikes a chord with me - it is almost as though it is a three-dimensional Fra Angelico.


The Suffering and Death of Christ in 15th Century Relief Carving

Following on from last week's relief carvings of the Entry in Jerusalem, here are some images relating to the Passion: two Western 15th century relief carvings appropriate for Easter - the crucifixion and a deposition; and late gothic painting of a deposition.

The carvings are English in a gothic style (where there was no Renaissance). They are carved in alabaster which was quarried in Nottinghamshire. What is interesting is that when painting in the same century, the Flemish artist Rogier Van Der Weyden painted his figures as though they were occupying a foot-wide space projecting out to plane of the painting. Employing, very clearly, a far greater degree of naturalism than the English sculptors did, he nevertheless painted a backdrop so as to eliminate the chance of the illusion of too great a depth.

All of this helps to ensure that there is a balance between adherence to natural appearances, which communicates visual realities; and stylization through some departure from strict naturalism, which lends a symbolic quality to the image and communicates invisible realities. Keeping the image to a space that doesn't deviate far from the plane of the painting and restricting the illusion of depth communicates the presence of the heavenly dimension, which is outside space (and time).





Two Relief Carvings of the Entry into Jerusalem

Here are some images selected, at least initially, with Palm Sunday in mind. They have three things in common: they are of the same subject - the Entry into Jerusalem; they are both relief carvings; and they are both by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti, who worked in the first half of the 15th century, is famous for creating the bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence. The first is wood polychrome, that is painted wood, and the second is from the north doors of the Baptistry, cast into bronze.

Relief carving commonly seen in the sacred art of the Eastern church (I have written about this here). Its limited three-dimensionality ensures a flatness that suits the intention of the iconographic style to portray the heavenly realm, which is outside time and space. I would love to see artists from the Roman Church following the example of their Eastern brethren and producing relief carvings in Western forms. The most obvious place to start would be to develop the Western iconographic forms, such as the Romanesque as there are close parallels with what the East has done. However there is relief carving in more naturalistic forms too. Ghiberti worked in the period when the Renaissance and the gothic overlapped and to my eye, the polychrome reminds me of a gothic carving, while the bronze relief seems to have aspects of a classical naturalism that points forward the masters of a hundred years later.

The reason that relief carving might be effective today is that the strange world that it occupies, which sits somewhere between two and three dimensions always seems to lend to the image a symbolic quality. This would help to counter the great disease of modern naturalistic styles, which is sentimentality. All Christian art, no matter what style, involves a balance between naturalistic appearances and idealism (or stylisation) which communicates invisible truths (Pius XII talked of a balance of 'realism' and 'symbolism', in Mediator Dei). The tendency of artists today is to swing to the extremes. Those who wish to paint or sculpt naturalistically tend to forget the symbolic content; and I am suggested that relief carving would push them into including it.







Video of Sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith at Clear Creek, Oklahoma

Here is small video of sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith who is currently working at Clear Creek monastery. I enjoyed seeing him work and the hints we got of the process by which he actually works. I also enjoyed the views of the monastery. I would have loved to have seen a little of more of him working and little less of the human interest aspects (such as scenes of him wet shaving), but that's just me I guess. I wrote a piece, here, last year about his methods and his work at the monastery. He had described this to me over the phone, but I found it interesting to seem him doing it on film.

Readers Give Information about Statues, Icons and the Eastern Tradition

Readers may remember that I have posted a couple of pieces recently featuring sacred images from the Russia that are statues (not relief carving, full 3-D images). As I mentioned, I had been under the impression that although they were not forbidden, that by tradition they were not produced and was surprised that the examples shown existed. I suggested that the reason they were discouraged was because it is difficult to produce a three-dimensional image that is consistent with the theology of sacred images as applied to the icon (for example, the deliberated elimination of space to suggest the heavenly realm). But I couldn't give much more information about their existence and place in the tradition of the Eastern Church.

I was happy to receive responses from two Orthodox Christians in regard to the attitude to statues in the East which are helpful, I think, and I reproduce them here.

 The first is from Bishop Jerome, Bishop of Manhattan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and this seems to summarise the situation nicely. He says: "The reason that statues are avoided in the Orthodox Church (and in some of the Eastern Catholic Churches) is not that they were seen as "heretical", but as part of the struggle to overcome the iconoclasts. Prior to the iconoclastic controversy, there were bas-relief representations of holy figures in the East, and in Russia the iconoclasts seem not to have been as virulent as they were in Constantinople. Three-dimensional figures were used to some extent again in Russia in certain places, such as the cathedral of the Ss. Peter & Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, here the Royal Gates were topped by a small statue, or in the dome of St.Isaac's cathedral where there are statues of Angels."

HodegetriaThe second made reference to an article published in a magazine published by an Orthodox church in Texas, Ember Tidings about statues in the Eastern Church, here (h/t Fr Anthony). This gives some history of the creation of statues, reinforcing the summary of the situation given above by Fr Jerome. It closes with the following point: 'The 1920’s discovered the Orthodox painted icon, the 1970’s the Orthodox statues. It appears the sometimes heated "two dimensional vs. three dimensional image" argument could be another example of culture intruding upon the faith.'

This second article brings up a couple of interesting thoughts. First, some of the examples that are shown in the pictures are of statues East and West. This shows clearly that the tradition of statues was well established early on and not always a minor part of the sacred imagery as it became later in the Eastern Church. It also reinforces one of the points made above. It does seem to me that a strict application of the theology of the icon as I have been taught it, would mitigate against the production of three-dimensional images. But the existence of a strong tradition of statues raises this question in my mind: if the statue which by its nature occupies three-dimensional space is permitted, does this mean that there ought to be greater freedom in 2-D images that create the illusion of space? Has anyone thought about this at all I wonder? Perhaps one could, for example, make the distinction between real 3-D space and illusional space critical in permitting statues? 


Pictures from top: the Good Shepherd, 3rd century from the catacombs; 10th century Contantinople; Our Lady of Monserrat, Spain, 12th century.