Pattern, Geometry, and Abstract Christian Art


"Geometric pattern is the abstract art of Christianity."

© Lawrence Klimecki


We tend to think of abstract as something that has come about only within the last one hundred years. But liturgical artists have had their own form of abstract art for nearly two thousand years. Geometric pattern is the abstract art of Christianity.

God made all of creation, visible and invisible, to teach us about Himself. When we perceive the order and pattern that is inherent in creation, the numbers that underlie all of creation, we see the thumbprint of God.

Geometrical forms, built up from mathematical (numerical) forms, are a symbolic expression of Christian Truth. They represent the thoughts of God.

In the Christian world, numbers have both a quantitative meaning and a qualitative meaning. They tell us the amount of some thing (quantity) but they also tell us about the thing itself. (qualitative.)

A carton of a dozen eggs, for example, holds a quantity of 12 eggs. But the number 12 also has a symbolic meaning. it may represent the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, 12 signs of the zodiac, or 12 months of the year. Which of these symbols the number represents will depend on the context in which it is used.

In the context of a work of sacred art, depending on the other elements of the work, 12 eggs could represent the New Covenant, a new Church emerging from the "sealed tomb" of the old Law, resting on the foundation of the twelve apostles.

But this qualitative and quantitative language of numbers can also be used to construct abstract, i.e. non-representational, patterns that can lead us to contemplate heavenly things. Medieval manuscript paintings often have a geometric pattern serving as the background as a symbol of the order of heaven.

The work above is a design for a church floor, completed as part of the Masters of Sacred arts program at Pontifex University. It incorporates a specific type of scrolling pattern known as a guilloche. This is a meditation on Christ in the form of a geometric pattern.

Down the middle axis of the design are three shapes. The first shape at the top contains the symbol for "alpha," the first letter of the Greek Alphabet, The bottom shape holds the symbol for "omega," the last letter. Alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, come together in the middle in a "Christogram" a symbol representing Christ. Jesus Christ is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Christ is the mediator between man and God. In the ancient world, the number "2" was a mediator between the numbers 1 and 3. The number "2" then, represented a mediation between two extremes, heaven and earth, divine and human, God and man. We might also say then that Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, mediates between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

Flowing around these central shapes is a bough of laurel leaves in a guilloche pattern. Laurel leaves are a symbol of victory, Christ is victorious over sin and death. The laurel bough weaves around eight medallions which contain another type of Christogram, in this case a cross and the letters INRI. They serve to remind us that Christ obtained His victory through death on a cross, a death at which He was proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

And "eight" medallions also have a hidden meaning. Eight is the number of the victorious resurrected Christ and a redeemed world. Eight is the sum of "7" the number of totality and completion, and the number "1," representing the singularity of God. The number "8" is used in baptismal fonts as a symbol of a new life brought from darkness  into light.

The victorious Christ is the eight day, heralding a new birth and a new creation. He brings the world from darkness into light.

There is no reason we cannot imbue the design of our churches with such geometric patterns and symbols that hold a rich symbolic language revealing the truths of the invisible world that are hidden within the visible. All it takes is the knowledge, and the will.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at 


How Does An Artist Deal With Rejection?

How Does An Artist Deal With Rejection?

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

The Artist Lives for Christ

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

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

12th Century Wall Painting in Durham Cathedral - A Tradition for Today


How about this from Durham Cathedral - St Cuthbert in the style of the School of St Albans? It is in the Galilee Chapel at the Romanesque cathedral in northern England. I suggest that this approach of simple line drawings describing form, and simple coloration is one that artists of today could adopt. If they do so, a wonderful new 21st-century gothic style can emerge for the greater glory of God and the Church! If done' properly this would be simultaneously contemporary and traditional in a way that speaks powerfully of the Faith.

This shows that the miniature illuminations of Matthew Paris, which www.Pontifex.University promotes, can work well on a grand scale on walls too. Here is a miniature by Matthew Paris, from the 13th century.

I say on this pilgrimage of life, let's set the bow of the barque headed firmly towards heaven, with tradition at the tiller!

Artists! Learn to paint in the style of the School of St Albans in the www.Pontifex University. My course, A Study of Artistic Method for Patrons and Artists not only teaches you how to paint in egg tempera, but it explains the principles by which you can make any style of art you like your own; and it so happens that the style I focus on in the class to illustrate is the School of St Albans style, as seen in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral!

Here are some more photos of Durham Cathedral to give you some context.

Should An Icon of a Soldier Show Him With Fatigues, Chainmail, or a Roman Kilt?

Painting the 21 Christian Coptic Martyrs

Anyone who has ever seen an icon of St Therese of Lisieux painting or John Paul II will know how difficult it is to paint an icon of a modern figure. There are two problems associated with them that I can think of:

Firstly, when the facial features are well known through photographs, there is a tendency to over naturalize the facial and the mismatch with the stylization of the rest of the figure and it ends up looking like an iconographic version of a head-in-the-hole picture

Second is dealing with contemporary clothes. While it seems to have been fine in the middle ages to paint the soldiers of their past in contemporary chainmail because the idea of awareness of what the biblical soldiers might actually have worn was different (here's Samual anointing David and David slaying Goliath).

...I don't think it would work today. We would use historical dress. When it comes to contemporary saints, such as the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs beheaded by ISIS, the iconographer can't suddenly put them in historical clothing to give the aura of holiness but must aim to represent the clothes they wore in an iconographic way.

Here is an icon by a neo-Coptic iconographer of the 21 martyrs. Notice the sensitive way that the painter has handled the faces and the clothes, to create a contemporary icon very well, even portraying the bright orange jumpsuits that the prisoners wore.


Artists! Do the Master's in Sacred Arts at www.Pontifex.University

John Paul II Foundation for Sacred Arts - An Innovative and Entrepreneurial Answer to Paying Artists Well for Good Work

Here is an exciting and innovative approach to financing original works of sacred art. It comes from the recently formed John Paul II Foundation for Sacred Arts.

It is a free market approach in which artists are motivated to create work of sufficient quality that it will fulfil its purpose fully, which means that it will connect with congregations in their worship. If he fulfils both of these criteria, then through this system, he will generate enough return that he will have more than a living wage.

Instead of a traditional endowment or commission model, the Foundation partners with artists in an entrepreneurial venture to fund a given project at cost. This format makes funding sacred art financially accessible to donors of all levels. Grants are crowd-funded and paid in installments throughout the creative process to pay the artist’s material costs and living expenses. Upon its completion, the artist retains primary ownership of the work, while the Foundation enjoys a share in the proceeds of any sale of the work, associated prints, or revenues from displaying the work.

The great strength of this, is that once the artist is selected for crowd-funding, he is still not guaranteed success. The funding will only come if the crowds are interested, so to speak. In other words, it must appeal to large numbers of ordinary, non-elites as well.

This is the ultimate test of beauty - it appeals to the cognoscienti and hoi polloi alike. As Benedict XVI said in A New Song to the Lord (p123): "It is precisely the test of true creativity that the artist steps out of the esoteric and knows how to form his or her intuition in such a way that the other - the many - may perceive what the artist has perceived."

This is saying that while all that is popular is not beautiful; all that is beautiful will be popular (provided enough people are exposed to it). Therefore, the judges who consider its appropriateness for sacred art must consider also whether this is likely to connect with congregations. If they get it wrong and no one wants to fund it, they won't make the same mistake twice! It is, in part at least, self-selecting.

Some artists may still argue that they won't be able to access this funding unless they can first jump through the hoop of judges' selection. This is true. But if that happens to you...start your own crowd-funding foundation! The best will rise to the surface and the crowds will decide which judges they trust, and whose art they want to back.

The Foundation is inspired by the personal experience of its founder, Fr. Michael Burbeck, who had a profound conversion sparked by the transcendent beauty he found in the great churches of Europe. This encounter with beauty set him on a path to the Catholic faith and, ultimately, the priesthood.

He told me:

As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.” Similarly, because of beauty, I found the Catholic Church, fell in love with her, and was convinced of the truth of her teachings. That is the power of sacred art.”

The art I encountered was the fruit not only of a culture of faith, but of a system of patronage where art and artists were promoted and financially sustained. That system no longer exists, and yet, as Pope St. John Paul II says so plainly in his Letter to Artists, “the Church needs art.” The John Paul II Foundation for the Sacred Arts exists to help meet that need — to promote sacred art by partnering with artists who share our belief in the evangelical power of beauty.

The Foundation is currently funding its first work, a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Cameron Smith - a full-scale re-presentation that the artist describes as “faithful to the message and spirit of the original mystical image … simultaneously familiar and strikingly new.” It is our hope that this work of authentic beauty will bring the image and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe to a new generation.

This is so different from the most common model of organizations founded to promote beautiful art in the Church. The standard format that I have seen is to have a call for artists, organize an exhibition, and then have an event with prominent speakers to draw people in to see it. The weakness of this model is that the assumption is that the artists are already out there and all we need to do is publicise their work. What happens in practice is that the exhibition is forced to lower standards in order to have enough art to show. People listen to the high ideals of the rhetoric, and they can see that the art doesn't match up to it and as a result very little happens except that it undermines the message.

Every time such an event is organised, I always hope I will be proved wrong and perhaps things have improved enough now so that such events will be successful. If so, terrific! Nevertheless, the John Paul II Foundation at least provides some alternative approach that can be responsive and allow the style that connects with congregations today to emerge organically and naturally if it isn't there intitially.Regardless, the John Paul II Foundation at least provides an approach that can be responsive and allow the style that connects with congregations today to emerge organically and naturally if it isn't there intitially. This need not be an alternative - it is method that could be added to existing intitative as well, it seems to me.

For more information or to make a donation, visit their website: or contact

For more information on Cameron Smith and his work, visit Two examples of his work are shown below.

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.


A Simple Recipe for Artistic Success

In my opinion there are two simple goals for an artist who wants to make a living: first is that he creates good works of art; and second he knows how to sell it. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but I didn't always see it that way, and when I talk to unsuccessful artists I hear many who still don't. I regularly used to complain that the culture doesn't support art, or most people have plebeian tastes and don't appreciate good art (people today get all their information from the internet and blogs for heaven's sake); or that the Church doesn't train its priests to be good patrons. All of this may be true some degree and even relevant to some degree; but complaining about it never got me anywhere. Rather than expecting society to change until it demands what I am already producing, I was forced to conclude that my success depends more on creating forms that appeal to people. Furthermore, I had to work out how to do it without comprimising on the principles of tradition. The main barrier to my accepting this is my pride: if my work is not selling at high enough prices then I must accept - in this age of the internet when marketing has never been easier - that the most likely reason is that what I produce just isn't good enough. This presented me with a choice: keep complaining or strive to improve. I have chosen to follow the second option (and have much progress to make).

In fact an artist can do both: improve his work and transform the society to which he aims to sell it, thereby creating a demand. The means by which he will do so is the same in each case, through the creation of works of beauty. It is beauty that will change the world. So I need first to create it, and then strive to get people to see it. If people value what I produce sufficiently, then they will pay me for it. The truly beautiful will transform those who see it, and people will want it. If this is not happening, I must work harder to create something that they will value more - I must become a better artist, or a better salesman, or both. This is the principle of noble accessibility coming into consideration again. We have to create forms that are so powerfully beautiful that they connect with people today. The nature of beauty is that tends to creates the desire for it once seen. As John Paul II put it in his Letter to Artists in the context of art, beauty is the 'good made visible'.

In that same letter, John Paul II was so confident in the supernatural power of beauty to do this that he called for a new epiphany of beauty. He did not appeal to society as a whole, or even the Catholic community to change itself and become more tasteful; nor did he even appeal to educators to change society so that it would appreciate good art (not that either is undesirable); but rather he addressed his call to artists. The clue, its seems to me is in the title of the document. It is the artist who will effect this epiphany through the creation of beautiful works of art.

Pope Benedict after him chose to address artists for the same reason, as did Paul VI before him. Each is echoing what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council articulated. In his letter, he talks about art both inside and outside the church and points out that the beating heart of the tradition is sacred art. He writes: 'At the end of the Council, the Fathers addressed a greeting and an appeal to artists "This world - they said - in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. In this profound respect for beauty, the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Consilium recalled the historic friendliness of the Church towards art and, referring more specifically to sacred art, the ''summit'' of religious art, did not hesitate to consider artists as having a ''noble ministry'' when their works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people's minds to him. Thanks to the help of artists ''the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind''.

(In this he distinguishes 'sacred' art from 'religious' art. I am assuming here that he considers 'sacred art' to be that worthy of veneration and appropriate for the liturgy - in accordance with the criteria laid down by Theodore the Studite- and to be distinguished from the more general criterion of protraying religious subjects.

This, by the way directs our focus in education today. The greatest need in all the arts is for people who create beautiful work. Therefore education should be directed as much to the stimulation of creativity, as to cultivating an appreciation of what is good. Patrons have a huge part to play in the creative process and education of future patrons, lay and religious, is certainly part of this. John Paul II called also for a dialogue between artists and the Church, in accord with the 7th Ecumenical Council, which stated that artists are merely executors of ideas and the ideas originate with the Fathers. Ideally, this dialogue would be a real one between the artist and living breathing Fathers. However, when an artist chooses to conform to principles of tradition, he is in connection with the Fathers of the past who directed those artists who formed the tradition. The reason that the Popes addressed the artists, I believe, is that it is the artists' responsibility to initiate this dialogue today by demonstrating that he can produce works that possess this transforming beauty. This will then draw the other parties into the dialogue.

The successful Christian artists that I know who are working in traditional forms have certain things in common. Each produces work of high quality and they assume that this is the basis upon which people want to buy it. Each knows how to sell his work and each manages to support their families comfortably through their artistry.

I have never heard either complain that the culture or the Church doesn't appreciate what they do. The majority of these artists have not been through any formal long term training and are mostly self taught. Regardless of how they were trained originally, the successful artists are constantly looking at new methods and materials that will help them to improve, largely teaching themselves now. And all are great students of their traditions: if there appears to be a need for innovation and there is any doubt as to its validity, they always seek advice from those who are aware of the great body of Church teaching, the theologians, philosophers and liturgists.

None has a precious attitude to the craftsmanship. Making money from what they do is as important as being able to do it. This is good, I feel, for if they cannot pay the bills by doing it, then they cannot keep on doing it; but also because the market is the most efficient mechanism for the distribution of goods that we have today. Postscript Incidentally, this is something that all manufacturers might take note of. This says that if what they make is beautiful then people will be attracted to it and will pay a premium for it. The success of Apple computers is based upon this premise. Mass production doesn't need to detract from this. In fact, if an object is beautiful, then mass production means more beauty than if only a limited number are produced. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that ugliness is intrinsic to the manufacturing process. The cost of making something beautiful is not necessarily greater than the cost of making something ugly and even if it is, it is as likely to be an investment that pays off, as in the case of Apple where people will pay more for a more appealing design. The reason, I believe, that we associate mass production with ugliness is that since the rejection of tradition values in art and design, most designers simply don't know how to make something that participates in the timeless qualities of beauty. The quality of the article that is mass produced is dependent upon the quality of the original design. If the design is bad, then we have ugliness in great quantity; and if good, then it produces beauty in great quantity. And that is a desirable thing...isn't it?


A Traditional Western Icon - from the Rheinau Psalter

How we might re-establish Catholic traditions in sacred art After my references to Western icons and also my assertion of the importance of re-establishing the gothic style as living traditions, people have been asking me to give examples of the images I am talking about. I am going to do a regular series of features of such examples in order to promote these styles. My hope is that we in the West will follow the remarkable work of the Russians and Greeks who reestablished the iconographic tradition in the Eastern Church in the middle of the 20th century (figures such as Ouspensky and Kontoglou). The first stage in doing this is the artistic study - copying with understanding - of the works of a past tradition. And then the second stage, if this is to become a truly living tradition, is the creation of new works that are consistent with the core timeless principles of the tradition. The great achievement of our Eastern brethren is to moved through to the second stage. In the West our artistic heritage is richer (in the sense that we not only have iconographic tradition, but also the gothic and the baroque as authentic and complementary sacred art traditions). This means that in once sense, given there are three traditions, the task ahead is greater but in another, because we can follow the methods used by the Russians and Greeks (and more recently Copts with Dr Stephane Rene doing great work) it is less because we can use the principles that they used.

We have made a start at this effort in cultural reform at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and my classes there now focus on these Western forms. What is interesting is to see how the students take to these forms very happily and seem to enjoy creating them. As a result they are producing some of the best work I have seen students of mine produce. (I will post some of their work at the end of the semester once they have finished their projects). My sense is that just seems more natural to us Western Catholics to paint like images like this than to paint Eastern icons. Similarly, the Way of Beauty Summer Atelier (see here for details), which is offering an icon-painting summer school will focus on these forms, which come from illuminated manuscripts. These are excellent examples to study if you are a beginner because they are strongly line based, rather than relying on the modelling of form through gradual blening of tone and colour. This latter requires sophisticated handling of the paint which is very difficult in egg tempera, the medium used. We use egg tempera paint on high quality watercolour paper to replicate these manuscript images.

The image shown here is a remarkable plate from a 13th-century German psalter. Rheinau is the town in Germany where it was created. The artist's name is unkown. It is consistent with the iconographic prototype. The draughtsmanship is wonderful. I love the contrast between the sure smooth flow of the lines that describe the human forms, which contrast with the vigorous angular handling of those lines which describe the drapery. Artists today could learn from this, because this use of a faceting in the description of drapery helps to give the image a greater strength and less sentimental feel. Sentimentality is the scourge of modern sacred art. This device is not limited to iconographic or gothic art - even Bernini used it when he sculpted drapery in the baroque era. Note also how the Rheinau image conforms to the Western preference for patterned borders (which is not unknown but certainly less common in the Eastern variants).

Some might question the ideas this is iconographic by pointing the fact that some of the figures are in profile (not seen in icons usually). However, it seems to me that the artist is being selective in accordance with the iconographic convention. The two figures who have halos, Christ and St Peter are not in profile. All the other figures, with Judas most prominent, are part of the crowd of men who are arresting Christ. These are not saints and so this is indicated not only by the absense of halos but also by drawing them in profile.

Giusto's Institution of the Eucharist

This article is by Dr Caroline Farey of the Maryvale Institute. She and I worked together to design the Institute's degree level diploma (6 US credits): Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective. A distance learning course requiring one residential weekend, this can be taken either by application tothe Institute in Birmingham, England; or in the US through their centre based at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas (link here). Dr Farey writes:

Between 1465 and 1474, Giusto executed the Communion of the Apostles (The Institution of the Eucharist) which Vasari has described, and is now in the museum of Urbino. It was painted for the brotherhood of Corpus Christi at the bidding of Frederick of Montefeltro, who was introduced by Caterino Zeno, a Persian envoy at that time on a mission to the court of Urbino. Giusto is Joos van Wassenhove who was a Netherlandish painter, part of whose career was spent in Italy, where he was known as Giusto da Guanto (Justus of Ghent). He brought to Italy some of the characteristics of Dutch painting and combined them with the local Italian style.

This painting unites Jesus Christ, the Church and the Eucharist in a single harmonious illustration of the Catholic faith. It is perhaps important to begin with an initial teaching point: it is worth helping people realise that such a painting as this is has both an historical and a contemporary dimension to it. We do not need to believe, therefore, that the artist wishes us to see every part of the painting as an historical depiction. He is not necessarily wishing to communicate to us that the upper room really looked like this, or that the table was historically laid out like this, or that the apostles necessarily knelt to receive the body and blood of Christ as he has painted it here. Of course, they may have done. However, what the artist is also trying to show us in the painting is that what Christ did at the last supper with the apostles he, personally, still does for his disciples today at Mass.

One way to introduce this painting to those whom we are catechising is to begin by teaching about the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper from this piece of art. Then we can continue by explaining what the painting reveals about Mass today.

Christ at the Last Supper

Let us look at this painting first of all as depicting an event in the life of Christ.For this we can follow the Gospel accounts, especially that of St Luke.

  • In the Gospel of Luke chapter 22 we read that, during the Last Supper, a dispute arose amongst the disciples as to who was the greatest. Jesus replied to them ‘which is the greater, one who sits at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves’(Lk 22:27).Much in this painting depicts this dialogue. The Persian in the turban and the members of the confraternity in the red hats are disputing and Christ is portrayed as the one who is not sitting at table now but is among his disciples, serving.Look at the bending figure of Christ, beautifully depicting the reality of Christ the Servant.
  • We can also see here an artistic depiction of the central truth of the Faith, that God condescended to be born and to live among us, that the divine Second Person of the Trinity took flesh for our sake In the General Directory for Catechesis the part on the Pedagogy of God opens with a quotation from Hosea, ‘I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them’ (Hos 11:4, in GDC 137). The bending figures of the apostles around Christ also emphasises this mystery. By contrast, the Persian in the turban stands erect, with his head and shoulders thrown back. The painting is also showing us the amazing truth that Christ only ever serves himself to us – ‘This is my Body’. The Church, in her Tradition, follows this truth without deviation, accepting that Christ gives his whole self to us.
  • Christ, the one who serves, is portrayed as ‘greater’ by his stature and centrality in the picture. You can see that Christ is painted disproportionately larger in height than any other figure.
  • Directly in front of Christ on the floor we can see the jug of water and basin.The Gospel of Lukes tell us that the disciples were to meet a man carrying a jar of water and to follow him into the house which he enters (Lk 22:10).
  • John’s Gospel also links the Last Supper scene to water: ‘He rose from supper, laid aside his garments …poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (Jn 13: 4-5). It seems that in this painting this may have already happened – look at the bare feet in the picture!
  • John’s Gospel also speaks of Judas as the one with the money box, or bag (Jn 13:29), and we can see him in this painting clutching a moneybag in both hands, looking back into the room as he edges out of the open doorway into the night with dawn breaking already in the distance.
  • Eleven reverent apostles remain, three kneeling on the right and eight on the left. One in white at the back, perhaps the young John, still holds a bottle as though he had been serving, too, with his other hand raised as he gazes adoringly at Christ.
  • The one next to him is quite different. See how he seems to be staring intently at the disputants.He is holding a lighted candle, representing perhaps the light of faith, of truth, of Christ. He has seen the truth of Christ as the greater who has come among them as a servant and longs for the disputants to be enlightened by this same truth!

Christ in His Church

Let us look now for every indication that the painter is portraying Christ as present and active in his Church. What does the picture tell us about the Mass as it is celebrated in the Church?

·The building is the first sign, with its pillars and its windows portrayed like the apse of a Cathedral Church.

·The sanctuary lamp hangs directly above the figure of Christ, in shadow in the central round window between the pillars of the apse where the tabernacle would usually be found.

·The table is painted as though an altar, and the chalice and sacred hosts are placed as though on the altar at Mass.

·The apostle in white at the back on the left hand side acts like a server acolyte at Mass and the one beside him carries a tall candle.

·The jug and basin directly in front of Jesus remind the congregation of the sprinkling of water that can take place before mass on Sunday to remind us of our Baptism.

·Christ takes up the position that we normally associate with the priest.The priest is called ‘in persona Christi’, ‘in the person of Christ’ at this moment of distribution of the sacred species and throughout the Mass.

  • The apostles are painted kneeling and receiving the body of Christ on the tongue, as they would have done for most of the Church’s history until recently, as a sign of the holiness of the moment, hence the use for many centuries of the name ‘holy communion’.

This is the greatest moment possible on this earth of communion with Jesus, the Son of God, and it is the holiest moment possible, receiving the body and blood of Christ himself. The angels kneeling and adoring above the scene help to indicate this holiness.