Saturday, December 29, 2007

Another Christmas Gift


I am slowly getting better at doing this one. Now I just need to learn to take better pictures! These Christmas gift icons are actually smaller than I usually do them. Usually they are 9"x 12", or so. These are about half the size. There is still one more Christmas icon that I did that I need to post a picture of. Lord willing the picture will be up soon.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas

Or should I say, "Happy Christma-hana-kwanzika"? Here are a couple of Christmas gifts I made for some people:




Thursday, December 13, 2007

Growth and Decline in the Episcopal Church

Is the following true of continuing Anglicanism?

"Indeed, as Church policy, in both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church since 1800 it cannot be seriously maintained that the conversion of souls from a state of being lost has held a very high priority. As a consequence, neither Church has shown much growth, and such growth that has come about has been either biological growth among members or transfer growth in terms of taking in members of other denominations. This latter is, indeed, virtually the only source of membership growth in the Episcopal Church.

The effectiveness of the Episcopal Church as an evangelistic church is insignificant because there is really no consensus among us as to the necessity for seeking to convert the unconverted. To be effective in evangelism, it is necessary to have general recognition of the vital necessity for salvation in terms of a visceral as well as an intellectual conviction such that subordinate purposes are organized around evangelism as our number one priority. The Episcopal Church is and had been ineffective because its leaders lack such a common agreement.

The effort to substitute other goals as our number one priority has only demonstrated the extent to which we have politicized our theology in the service of an alleged prophetic role. It is as though our theology has lost its vertical axis and we are only able to display horizontal Christianity. Lacking, as we do, any deeply held consensus as to mankind's eternal lostness apart from Jesus Christ, we have substituted a theology which avers that the proper role for Christianity is that of liberating man from oppressive social structures and not from sin."

"Growth and Decline in the Episcopal Church"
Rev. Wayne B. Watson, 1979

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Minister's Duty in Life and Doctrine

"But to you, I say, of the clergy, these things are spoken properly; to you these powers are conveyed really; upon you God hath poured His spirit plentifully; you are the choicest of His choice, the elect of His election, a church picked out of the church, vessels of honor for your Master's use, appointed to teach others, authorized to bless in His name; you are ministers of Christ's priesthood, under-laborers in the great work of mediation and intercession, you are 'for the people towards God' (Ex 18:19), and convey answers and messages from God to the people. These things I speak, not only to magnify your office, but to enforce and heighten your duty; you are holy by office and designation; for your very appointment is a sanctification and a consecration, and therefore whatever holiness God requires of the people, who have some little portions in the priesthood evangelical, He expects it of you, and much greater, to whom He hath conveyed so great honors, and admitted so near unto Himself, and hath made to be the great ministers of His kingdom and His spirit."

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)
excerpt from Sermon X
The Minister's Duty in Life and Doctrine

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Why hast thou forsaken me?


I just recently completed this large (about 46" x 48") oil painting entitled "Why hast thou forsaken me?" I am pleased with it because it brings together a number of stylistic elements that I have been fooling with for the last few years. It combines representation with abstraction; a sense of space with flatness; and smooth glazing with rough brush strokes. The large, dark, form behind the cross signifies that moment when Our Lord uttered "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Friday, November 30, 2007

My New favorite Phrase: Ghostly Father

I was reading Martin Thornton's book "Spiritual Direction" the other day and came across the phrase "ghostly child", which is a person under spiritual (ghostly; geist) direction. That makes his spiritual director the "ghostly father". So I told my wife that I was going for my monthly meeting with my "ghostly father", and she looked at me like I'd gone mad.

Monday, November 26, 2007

St. Etheldreda


Here is an icon of St. Etheldreda I recently did. It was a commission for a retired bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church. She holds a church because she restored an old church and founded an abbey (also the reason she has a pastoral staff) on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

One of My favorite Interviews

Andy Warhol is one of the most fascinating artists of the 20th century. I highly recommend the book "The Life and Death of Andy Warhol" if anyone is interested in learning more about this highly unusual man. Here is an interesting interview with the artist himself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Predestination Bible Study

There are certain doctrines that I find more interesting to study than others. This is only natural. One doctrine that I have never been very interested in is the doctrine of predestination. My pragmatic mind just doesn't see the importance of getting too wrapped up in something as mysterious and divisive as the nature of God's divine election. But recently, due to popular demand, I lead of study of the history of this doctrine in my Tuesday morning class. I also lead a discussion on it during the Sunday School hour last week. It was amazing to see the passion that this doctrine arouses in some people. It just goes to show we are all different, and perceive some doctrines of the faith to be more important than others.

Predestination, or election, is biblical and catholic when it is understood in the ancient sense of St. Augustine and the Synod of Orange. Predestination in this sense is what is taught in the 39 Articles. The Articles, following the scriptures, ancient catholic tradition, the majority of the Reformers, and agreeing with the Council of Trent, affirm predestination to life only, as well as the free will of man. The Calvinist doctrines of Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints are not affirmed by any of these authorities. Further, as the Articles of Religion must be taken as a whole, we are bound to affirm that predestination occurs within a sacramental and ecclesiological framework. Thus, with Francis Hall and others we can say that it is the baptized who are the elect, but just because one is elect it does not follow that he or she is necessarily going to persevere till the end.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wedding Feast at Cana


This is a 2' x 2' icon I did recently that depicts the Wedding Feast at Cana. It is based on a Greek icon that I received as a gift from a friend whose wedding mass I served at a few years back.

The perfect synthesis of representational and non-objective imagery in a lot of classical/traditional Christian art is one of its most overlooked aspects. This synthesis is especially evident in iconography.

This icon is for sale for $800.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Willow Creek Model of Church

There is a fascinating book out that analyzes the effectiveness of the Willow Creek/mega-church model of Christianity that has so captivated the American Evangelical scene in the last few decades. The book is the result of an in depth study, three-year study done by WCA on whether or not the corporate, program-driven approach to ministry is effective in terms of producing mature disciples of Christ. Essentially Hybels and company admit that it has not been effective in that area. Participation in "programs" does not automatically make one into a mature believer. Hybels is to be lauded for his honest and frank assessment. I would encourage everyone to check out the links above.

As Anglicans we sometimes get discouraged because our congregations are rather small, and we take that as a sign that we are not being effective, or that something is wrong with us or our tradition. But clearly that view is not accurate. Sure, many of our congregations could use a shot in the arm in various ways, and many of us could be less lethargic in terms of outreach and evangelism. But there will always be a place in our society for the small church. In fact, I think that as the world becomes more diverse and "corporate" people will start to look for small parishes where they can get some one-on-one attention from their pastor and be connected to the church of the apostolic age. There are people that only a small congregation can reach. Further, any church that does not have apostolic faith and order is lacking a major element of the Christian religion.

I believe that our day is yet to come. Although Anglicanism is going through a rough time lately in history, I believe that God will use us in a vital way in furthering His kingdom.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Couple of Anglican Updates

Did you know that "Theological Outlines" by Francis Hall is back in print? You can get for $27 at Wipf and Stock. Theological Outlines is a quick reference/bare bones version of his 10 volume systematic theology. It's nice to have around, and who knows how long it will be back, so buy it now while you still can.

Also, a couple of really bad looking Anglican websites have been updated, and now they look pretty good: St. Alban's, Joppa, MD (my wife did that one); Reformed Episcopal Seminary; and the Anglican Catholic Church. Nothing is more important these days in terms of advertising than having a decent web presence.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Baptism of Christ


Here is a picture of a painting I recently completed of the Baptism of Christ. It is, obviously, based on the traditional iconographic composition of the subject, but it is not an icon. It is a 46" x 48" oil on canvas (traditional icons are always done in egg tempera). The unusual looking object coming down from the top of the painting is found in all iconographic representations of this image, and what it signifies is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Our Lord at His baptism. (There is a small bird in bolt that may or may not be visible on the digital image.)

Woman Finds Art Masterpiece in the Trash

A lady found a painting by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo in the trash while on a walk in NYC. The painting had been stolen over 20 years ago. She didn't know who did the painting, but saw that it had a certain power, so she rescued it. Now it is being sold at auction for $1,000,000.

I keep waiting for the day when I find some lost masterpiece like that either in the trash or at a yard sale!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Biblical Criticism and Art Criticism

Many people look at the Bible as a CNN news report that explains exactly who did what, when, and how it happened. In doing so they completely neglect the various types of literature that make up the canon of Scripture, the context in which they were written, the mindset of the communities who produced the book, the social customs of the community, and so on. Because they are blind to these things, or do not consider them, when reading the Bible, they often come up with bizarre interpretations of certain passages. But employing tools like genre criticism, canonical criticism, narrative-historical criticism, and all of the rest of them, help us understand the text better. This is one of the main reasons why seminarians spend so much time studying higher criticism in seminary! It is helpful in most ways.

I think the same thing goes on when some people view art. Works by modern masters, such as Anselm Kiefer, are misunderstood and often derided by the average person because the viewer knows nothing of what the artist trying to say or accomplish. He doesn't understand the point of the medium or technique (genre). For many (but not all) great modern and postmodern artists, the last thing they are interested in doing painting a very realistic Madonna... not because they can't paint it, or don't see the value in it, but because they are trying to accomplish something else. We can appreciate modern and contemporary art (and music, and literature) if we try to learn something about what is behind the piece.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Promotion is Key

A cousin up in CT who is an art dealer told me years ago that if I wanted to be a an artist I had to paint as much as possible. And so I have. I have obsessively painted for years now all sorts of stuff: murals, watercolors, oils, cityscapes, nudes, still life, landscapes, the figure, religious works, etc. Most of the great artists from the last couple hundred years were very prolific.

But one day I realized that, in addition to doing all of that painting, I must actively promote my work. One of the goals is to sell these things! Otherwise they just pile up and get in the way, and that makes you depressed. Some artists (like myself) are tempted to survive off of the same people who always buy your art. But what happens if they do not buy anymore, or if they die, or something? What happens if you need to increase your income? Anyway, I can hear what people are saying: "Gee, you have an amazing grasp of the obvious." But hey, I am a little slow sometimes, so give me a break please! Now I devote a fair amount of time each week specifically to promoting my work and getting new customers. This, in addition, to creating new works like I always have. I have already begun to see this pay off in some small ways.

I guess I would liken all of this to studying philosophy, or theology, or some other great science or field, just for its own sake, and never sharing that knowledge with others. I do not see the value in that. Granted, it is better than sitting around and watching TV or whatever. But all of these gifts and interests should in some way I think serve the common good of people and society. And that can't been done when they are kept under a barrel. Moreover, are we being good stewards of what God's given us when we hoard it and keep it to ourselves? I don't think so.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Priest, Psychologist, and Art Critic

The other night on EWTN, Fr. Benedict Groeschel proudly proclaimed that he had never stepped foot in the MoMA, because he couldn't stand looking at all of the ugliness and disorderliness of "modern art". Apparently while he was doing his doctorate in psychology he took some courses in art history and art criticism. I couldn't disagree more with what he said. There is definite order in modern art - it might just not be readily apparent with some artists. Certainly the early work of people like Frank Stella, Leger, and many others, is very rigid and ordered. There is even order in Jackson Pollock paintings as Francis Schaffer showed in How Shall We Then Live. And besides that MoMA has many other paintings in it that are done in a more traditional style that he would probably enjoy. For example, I believe now there is a show of Lucian Freud prints and Seurat drawings. So I don't know what father was talking about in that interview. It really makes no sense to me.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sermon Giving

My spiritual director says that many times people will come up to you after a sermon and talk about what they "heard you say" in the homily and about "how it touched them"... even if you didn't say anything like what they thought they heard! The point is that people will hear certain things in a sermon that you don't say, or didn't intend to say. Obviously this gives one reason to be careful in what one preaches. But it also helps one see the various ways that God works... God says something to someone through the preacher's simple, flawed, human words - even something that he didn't intend to say!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Question: What is the root of all kinds of evil?

Answer: The LOVE of money.

I have heard it stated probably five times (at least) last month on some five different high-profile news and television programs that "money" is the root of all evil. Uhh, no. Timeout. Back up for a minute.

The bible says the LOVE of money is the root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) I wish the braintrust at CNN, A&E, CNBC, and other networks would get that right. They always misquote the passage... and then they use their misquote to attack the church and the bible! What a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. They might learn something if they actually read the bible.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Converts to Anglicanism

I had the opportunity recently to talk at length with three men who are converts, or on the path to conversion, to Anglicanism. They had lots of questions about a variety of doctrines and practices, and had had interesting faith journeys. One of the things, I think, that is so important for us to communicate to converts and help them grasp is that our tradition appeals ultimately to that of the undivided Church. Classical Anglican Reformers, such as Cranmer, Laud, Hooker, Taylor, and others, sought to conform their thought and praxis to the ancient church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. So when they ask (as they often do), "Do I have to believe X to be an Anglican?" Or, "Can I be Anglican and believe X?" (and it is always some "hot button" issue), they really have to ask themselves if it is a doctrine that has an ancient, catholic precedent to it. That is the ultimate test. When we do that, certain "extreme" beliefs and practices can automatically be ruled out as un-Anglican.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Icon-Style Guitars


Here is a picture of two icon-style guitars that I recently completed. Actually I just did the painting. Lee Connah built the instruments, which are modeled after a Martin Backpacker Guitar. I call them "icon-style" guitars because these are not real icons, in the sense that are meant for devotion. The guitars are built out of found objects (such as siding), plexiglass, and various guitar parts. The painting is done in egg tempera. Parts of the guitar, such as the neck and the siding back have been left in their unfinished state. Originally the guitars were going to have a cycle of paintings on them based on the lyrics from Lee's album "Folk Hero Sandwich", but I did not realize he wanted these so soon for a show, so I did not have time to develop that idea. Instead I went with what he originally requested: icons. A rather strange request, but then again my buddy Lee is a strange genius! So it's quite fitting. Overall, they are truly a collaborative artistic effort. I hope they get a good response at the show.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Art Belongs to the Practical Order

There are two virtues of the mind, or orders, according to Maritain: the speculative, the sole end of which is knowledge, and the practical, which tends to something other than just knowledge - mainly putting something you know to use to create something. Art belongs to the practical order because its orientation is towards doing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Art and Scholasticism

While on vacation I swung by the Newman Bookstore in Washington and picked up a copy of Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. As I have been personally studying St. Thomas this year, and especially Thomistic philosophy, I thought this would be a good read, and a way to bring two of my interests together. I plan on writing a summary of each chapter for everyone's edification. I will say that it would have been nice if Etienne Gilson had written the book... I find him much easier to understand than Maritain. But then again, maybe the translator is to blame. Or maybe it's just me.

So his first essay is "The Schoolmen and the Theory of Art". He says that the Schoolmen never composed any treatise specifically about art. Instead, what they thought about art is to be gleaned from their writings on other topics, such as logic, moral theology, and more. One can find a far-reaching theory of art looking through all of their works in this way. Interestingly, Gilson, in his book "The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas" says much the same thing about there being a "Thomistic" philosophy. It is an anachronism to some degree to say that there is such a thing. The so-called philosophy of St. Thomas is something that has been gleaned from a larger body of work that is theological and devotional in nature. But, back to Maritain, he says that the theory of art that can be uncovered is a theory of art in a more "general" sense... not merely fine art, which is a modern error. Art includes the art of the shipwright as well as the art of the painter. Recourse must also be made to the "... metaphysics of the ancients..." and specifically to their understanding of beauty.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Collaborative Art Project

I am currently working on a collaborative art piece with artist/musician Lee Connah. He is having a show at a gallery in Baltimore in October of some of his handmade musical instruments. I am working on two "icon" backpack guitars for the show - it should be interesting. I will post a picture of them when I am done.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A Tale of Two Cathedrals


My wife and I just returned from vacation. While away, we got to visit the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, which had recently undergone a huge renovation. The last time I was there was to see the famous "Timla Relic" a few years ago. Unlike some horrific church renovations that have gone on in recent years that were supposedly meant to "update" the church, this restoration was meant to "return" the interior of the building to its original Federal-period design. And I must say that it a very tasteful renovation. They did a really good job. It looks almost like an old early Episcopal church - white washed interior, minimal designs, etc. The interior is now very bright because they removed the stained glass (dark blue Willet windows), and uncovered the original skylights in the dome. They kept all of the good stuff (the high altar, altar rails, etc.), and brought some cool old stuff back (e.g. the nation's first RC episcopal throne). The basilica (technically a minor-basilica) was designed by Latrobe, and is the nation's first catholic cathedral. It was built in the neo-classical style rather than the gothic because the former was seen as being enlightened and forward looking. It was the site of many famous plenary councils of the Roman church in America. They have a museum below in the newly designed crypt which includes vestments and appointments of many famous American prelates, such as Cardinal Gibbons (see picture of his vestments used at the 3rd Plenary Council above). All in all, it was a great place to visit, and if you are ever in Baltimore I highly recommend a trip.

The other cathedral we visited was the National Cathedral. It's always fun to visit that place and imagine that it is still the "good old days" in American Anglicanism. My favorite artistic part about the cathedral is - everything. The windows, woodwork, stonework, etc. is unparalleled in my opinion here in the USA. The bookstore had some nice titles, but also some weird, new age stuff as one would expect. The cathedral contains a number of wonderful stained glass windows and mosaics by Rowan LeCompte, who is one of my favorite church artists and a fellow "Balti-Moron".


Here is a picture of some of the great wood carving in the National Cathedral (from the choir). It shows an Anglican consecration (making a man a bishop). I couldn't find a plaque explaining if it was supposed to be a scene from history, or if it was just decorative.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Artistic Outing In Lancaster


Today my wife and I went to the Charles Demuth studio and museum in Lancaster, PA. Demuth (1883-1935) was an American artist associated with the Precisionist school. I had never seen much of his art before, but it was interesting to see how similar in some respects my cityscapes are to his.

Like many artists, Demuth was a rather unconventional character. He was homosexual and, after his father died, lived at home with his mom for most of his life. He painted most of his greatest works in the upstairs room of their house (now the museum). Unfortunately Demuth died an early death at age 50 due to diabetes.

The museum was also hosting a show of work by the first generation American abstract impressionist artist Melville Price. Price was a friend and contemporary of Pollock, DeKooning, and others. Like many artists of that era, he created art for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which was a New Deal initiative establish by Roosevelt. In terms of style his work could best be compared to DeKooning's, or to the early work of Mark Rothko. He eventually left NYC after gaining some notoriety to take up teaching in Philadelphia. Like other artists who did the same thing (e.g. Grace Hartigan) this apparently relegated him to "second-tier" status. Hence, he is not well-known today.

Monday, August 20, 2007

J.I. Packer's Remarks Regarding Anglo-Catholicism

Note: I have decided to delete this post since the link to the article is no longer working and since it has been revealed that J.I. Packer did not write it.

JGA+

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New Art

Not that my site is ready yet, or anything like that, but I do have a few pictures of some newer work - religious pieces - posted on there that you may wish to look at (just thumbnails are posted, though). I am currently only painting religious scenes. People who have followed my work over the years know that I have painted religious subject matter here and there (Annunciation, Purgatory, Hell, various Pietas, monks, priests, etc.) But it's always been a side thing... just "here and there", as I felt like it. Now it's my main thing. I suppose being a priest makes this type of subject matter even more important to me. Painting them sort of melds everything together. It's also a good way to meditate on the mystery being painted.

Stylistically these works are more measured and subdued then my work from the last few years. I have been wanting to "empty out" my art, and make it a lot more quiet and simple. God, after all, is pure simplicity, and heaven is eternal quiet (see Kreeft, Everything You Wanted to Know About Heaven). Although on the surface the work looks rather different from my very recent pieces (circa 2004), those who have followed my art over the years will definitely see the continuity (i.e. use of line, shape, large fields of color, etc.). Art - serious art - develops organically. This new work represents a growth in me artistically and spiritually. It shows not only a personal/stylistic continuity, but a conceptual and historical one as well. The problem with much so-called religious art is precisely that it lacks continuity... just think of avant-garde pieces that try to show some religious scene, such as a crucifixion, with a pile of rocks, or dangling ropes in a dimly-lit warehouse. I don't think that is necessarily bad, or evil, but, it definitely lacks continuity. The greatest painters of the past built on the ideas - including compositional formats and color palettes - from previous generations of artists (e.g. iconographers).

This work is also a form of rebellion. It is my rebellion against a culture that pushes religion out of the public square, and against a segment of the church that allows this, either explicitly or implicitly.

So, I hope, as I post pictures of this work down the road, people like it and understand it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Priest-Artist

Being a priest is being an artist in way. The mass is so beautiful, so mysterious.... as Paul Claudel once said, the most beautiful and august gestures ever confided to man were done so in the mass. In the mass, space and time ceases, and heaven and earth unite... just like an artist when he is painting, or a musician, when he is performing... he is outside of himself, and becomes one with the act of creation, and one with god. So being at the same time a priest and artist is not that far off.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Myth of Catholic Art

Here is a great article written by artist Maureen Mullarkey for Crisis Magazine.

The Myth of Catholic Art: An Unmanifesto
By Maureen Mullarkey

Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to art? What is legitimate Catholic art? How can a Catholic make a significant difference in the artistic community? How should Catholics approach secular art? What might be included in a manifesto for Catholic artists? These questions are direct and compelling. They are also tricky to address because the assumptions behind them are complex and hidden.

It would be better to shift attention from straitened definitions of Catholic art toward something more generous to the arts themselves and more useful to Catholics in the public square. But where to start with questions that lead in different directions? Taken together, the mix of popular devotion, kitsch, and commercialism seems a persuasive argument for iconoclasm. But Catholics are not iconoclasts—far from it. So, to paraphrase Orwell, we need to be careful what we do with images because of what images can do to us. Art’s expressive power is not necessarily benign; bad art has its own deleterious effect, working on religious sensibilities like corrosive salts on a fresco. Images resonate apart from their subject matter.

It would be handy to have a sequel to Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste. Call it “Unholy Pictures: The Triumph of Religious Kitsch.” The enthusiasm American Catholics withhold from music they lavish on images (though not necessarily those of a high order). Not everyone can hold a pitch, but anyone can hang an inexpensive imitation of Juan Gutierrez’s Assumption, with the Virgin borne aloft by choirs of putti.

While mimicking Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting, such things are far removed from the achievements of that age and are, by contrast, a kind of sentimentalized anti-art. They do violence to their prototypes and distort their subjects. Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of Him.”

And of His mother, too.

Buying into the Myth

Catholics tend to embrace imitations of the pre-modern without criticism, especially when it comes to religious items. Whatever most resembles Renaissance realism or the Baroque figuration of the late 16th and 17th centuries is considered more spiritual and more authentic than anything that reveals 20th-century authorship. Too frequently, this means the kind of art rampant on cards in funeral parlors, the visual equivalent of sob songs. Insensibility to issues of quality in art—or disinterest, if you prefer—is partly a by-product of the same sociological factors that Day outlines in his book. But today’s Catholics have moved well beyond the immigrant experience of earlier generations. They have become a significant presence at the highest levels of income and education.

So there must be something else afoot. And there is: Pius X’s condemnation of modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has reverberated in unsuspected ways. The shadow of heresy-by-association blankets the fragmentation and disjunctions of modern art (much of its disillusion a reaction to the horrors of war). Since modern art challenged the authority of preceding art, it was itself disdained as an expression of the same heretical impulse.

But this oversimplification is far less interesting than the reality. The entire history of Western art has been a succession of challenges to previous art as well as a story of intricate branching and wandering, with many false starts along the way. People of faith, skeptical toward unnuanced Darwinian hypotheses about the origin of man, nevertheless accept wholeheartedly mainstream Darwinian views of art history. Following this received wisdom, they surrender themselves to the myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, positing an unbroken line of progress from classical times to the Renaissance. (Some stretch it to the 1880s and the beginnings of impressionism, but no later.) After that, in the modern era, the presumed ladder of ascendancy collapses. Believers jump ship to take up the unsmiling game of modernist-spotting.

The volume and scope of art dismissed by this attitude are staggering. Étienne Gilson, Catholic philosopher, historian, and contemporary of Jacques Maritain, sought to restore balance to the issue. In his 1955 Mellon Lectures, later published under the title Painting and Reality, he argued that modern abstract art, far from being a falling away (from representation), had actually restored art to its essential dignity. He insisted that, in the wake of the Middle Ages, Western art had become devoted to a kind of literalism—call it empiricism—that reduced art to imitating the visual world. According to Gilson, modern art rediscovered the idea of art as a means of creating forms for interpreting the world, not merely copying what greets our senses.

With characteristic brio, Gilson held that humanity continues God’s work of creation through the arts. The imitatio Dei, then, is not a matter of copying but of comprehending, and finding forms in which to render that comprehension. Gilson would have had no trouble recognizing the abstract substrate of Byzantine art without insisting that its forms were immutable or inherently sacred.

But even to consider art in the realm of heresy is to adopt a secularist fallacy: the notion that art is a vehicle of transcendence. This last point concerns us most because it capitulates unwittingly to the very secularism that crisis readers reject. Moses did not come down from Sinai with a code of aesthetics; Jesus, craftsman that He was, kept silent on whether Solomon’s architects were men of taste.

Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. That being the case, it’s poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book, The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as “a man using Art.” He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: “Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.”

Believing this—as I do—the term “Catholic artist” seems precious and self-conscious. It risks becoming one more assault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. Frankly, it would be an act of mercy to scrap the category “Catholic art” altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; likewise, it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship. There is only good art and bad art; Catholicism is no determiner of either.

Changing Perspectives

Religious feeling and artistic power cannot be conjoined by fiat. Some of the finest religious images of the 20th century have been made by artists across the spectrum of belief and unbelief. One of the few Catholics among them was Graham Sutherland, whose renowned tapestry for Coventry Cathedral, Christ the Redeemer Enthroned in Glory (1946), melds Byzantine frontality and format with modernist handling. Sutherland was both a convert and thoroughgoing modernist painter.

Stanley Spencer, Sutherland’s contemporary, sought the religious dimensions of ordinary life in a series of stylized modern paintings that placed the Crucifixion and Resurrection in his own thoroughly Protestant village of Cookham-on-Thames between the two world wars. Early modernism abounds with haunting religious imagery, much of it by painters making use of a still-extant vocabulary of shared biblical motifs for their own purposes. Max Beckmann comes straight to mind. His Deposition (1917) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1917) are apparitions of stunning clarity and perception on the eve of World
War I. And no one who has ever looked upon Lovis Corinth’s Red Christ (1922) could be surprised by Mel Gibson’s depiction of a Roman scourging.

To be sure, it’s a bit late for Catholics to begin championing the formal principles of high modernism. That was yesterday’s war. Besides, modernist tenets, established in a triumphalist mode, have passed from being novel and threatening to being an accepted mode already weakened and on its way toward demolition. So I’m not at all advocating a latter-day acceptance of the dogmatism of modernist artistic dictates. But unless Catholics recognize 20th-century achievements in the arts—and they are considerable—we hamper our ability to engage in conversation with our own so-called postmodern moment.

Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image journal and writing in First Things several years ago, had this to say: “That the aesthetic language of Modernism in turn became exhausted is not a count against it. Such is the nature of aesthetic change. Postmodernism has its own opportunities and dead ends.” We have to be careful not to emphasize the dead ends—the challenges—at the expense of the opportunities. The virtue of hope demands it. Moreover, the capacity to distinguish among challenges is a component of effectiveness in the public square.

Historical perspective is helpful. It surprises Western Christians to learn that the Orthodox deem all of what we consider sacred art—from Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel to Bernini’s marble Madonna and Child in the Vatican—to be, in reality, wholly secular. Michel Quenot, in his well-known study of the art and theology of the icon, summarizes the Orthodox position:

The sacred art of both East and West expressed the same realities up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with an identical impetus that sought to reveal “things invisible.” It was that marvelous period of Romanesque art which unveiled a world beyond the laws of gravity, and even showed us how stone could be spiritualized.

Then came the evocative, more individualistic pictorialism of Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio. Departing from the artistic traditions of the Eastern Church, these three prompted a turning away from hieratic Byzantine depiction and pointed toward the realism of the Renaissance. In the Orthodox view, the desacralization of Western sacred art begins with the very ducento art that we revere. With the drama and humanity of Cimabue’s crucifix—the heightened emotion of its Christus patiens—for Santa Croce in Florence, sacred art begins its descent into “religious art”—which, in the Orthodox tradition, is no more than secular art making use of religious subject matter.

Wide attention has been given recently to the $45 million purchase of Duccio’s masterpiece, the Stroganoff Madonna, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For all the press coverage lavished on the purchase—named after its last owner, Count Gregorii Stroganoff—comment has centered more on its aesthetic value than its cultural significance.

This tiny panel, no bigger than a sheet of stationery, marks a discreet but substantial move away from reigning standards of the time for sacred art. The iconic gives way to the human in the slight swelling of Mary’s breast and the gaze of mother and Son toward each other, not outward toward the viewer. Most significantly, they appear behind a trompe l’oeil parapet, an unprecedented spatial device indicating real—not sacral—space. The panel suggests a human narrative in human time, a spiritual kingdom depicted in terms of a temporal one. Such shift in sacred imagery was a scandal to the Eastern churches and played its role in the division of Eastern Christianity from the West. Yet the icon tradition itself developed out of secular traditions: the pagan icon genre and
Roman portraiture.

At this very moment, particle physicists are pondering the existence of perhaps as many as eleven dimensions. Too astonishing to grasp! Is it feasible, then, to insist that a two-dimensional iconographic surface is “more accessible to mystery” (Quenot’s phrase), or that, turning west, Gothic forms come closer to the sublime than modern ones? Mystery is everywhere, our origin and our destiny. We inhabit mystery, breathe, embody, and return to it. Denying our capacity to express a sense of wonder and reverence with the means of our own time seems a sin against the Spirit who murmurs to every age.

We moderns marvel at the carved tympanums, columns, capitals, and crypts of Romanesque sculpture. We delight in the highly stylized depictions of natural or mythological forms that decorate the abbey church of Saint-Denis or the cathedral at Rheims. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux dismissed the “ridiculous monstrosities” of his era with the indignation of a modern critic in the bowels of Chelsea or any other art district. He begins with an attack against the immoderate size of churches and moves on to decorative style:

What is the point of this deformed beauty, this elegant deformity? ...You can see a head with many bodies, or a body with many heads. Here we espy an animal with a serpent’s tail, there a fish with an animal’s head. There we have a beast that is a horse in front and a she-goat behind.... In the name of God! If we are not ashamed at its foolishness, why at least are we not angry at the expense?

What Bernard disdained, most of us would weep to have for ourselves. Art keeps moving, not necessarily forward but in multiple directions at once, constantly absorbing or discarding influences. Beholders are called to keep up with the dance in order to address the contemporary artistic experience as it affects not merely the eye, but the memory and the spirit as well.

A Form for Our Time

So then, what is sacred art? Inseparable from liturgical function, sacred art is simply that which stimulates worship and accompanies prayer. For us Westerners, function determines sacrality, not style. Decorum, certainly, demands that style be appropriate to the subject. But decisions about appropriateness entail a certain generosity toward our point in history. Charity, then, becomes the motive for acquiring the necessary sophistication to make fitting judgments. Anything less is ingratitude for the gift of this moment.

One of the best recorded instances of Catholic rejection of modern approaches to a sacred subject occurred in 1950. Germaine Richier sculpted a crucifix for the altar at Notre Dame de Tout Grâce, Assy, at the invitation of Marie-Alain Couturier, Dominican monk, artist, and founder of the periodical L’Arte Sacré. The corpus was a scream of pain, torn and faceless like a bomb victim. It was a harrowing but vital image to terminally ill French patients in the wake of World War II.

The crucifix created outrage worldwide among Catholics who neglected to consider that the Body of Christ continues to be rent in modern ways. Removed for a time, it was eventually restored at the request of the patients of the hospice served by the chapel. One of them wrote: “Here is a crucifix I can pray to.” What matters is not whether Richier’s crucifix satisfied a traditional canon of forms but whether it succeeded in arousing in the dying a sense of the profundity of the Crucifixion, moving them to prayer. It was never quite clear how much opposition to the work was triggered by the image itself or by public knowledge of Richier’s atheism.

So now, where have we come to along this string of anecdotes and reflections? Only to this: We look to the past with love, and the view graces us in the present. But theological hope prompts us to look toward the future, which calls us from what we are now to what we will become.

We don’t need Catholic artists to recreate the Gothic or bring us souvenirs from the classical rediscoveries of the Renaissance. The Christian mystery was not exhausted by Gothic piety, however much we’re endeared to the art that expressed it. Neither is it summed up in our formal inheritance from the Renaissance. The reliquary prestige of art from past centuries must not obscure the dignity of man’s creative initiative at whatever point in history he finds himself. The essence of classicism lies not in its forms but in its reticence, its respect for the humane potential of balance and restraint.

We need artists who—without affectation or reliance on anachronism—can keep us mindful of that. And we need audiences open to the reminder.


Maureen Mullarkey is a painter and art critic for the New York Sun.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wesbite Update

My personal art website is undergoing a major transformation, so please bear with me. I hope to have it up sometime before the new year. Developing a website is harder than people think. Not only must design and layout be taken into consideration, but also the purpose of the site (i.e. what does one hope to accomplish with his site).

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Stuck in a time warp?

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels has been much maligned by some traditionalists as being ugly and too "modern". While it is very different from a St. Patrick's Cathedral, or a Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, I wouldn't say it is completely ugly. Modern, yes; but ugly, no. Just because something is new doesn't mean it is ugly. Often people do not appreciate the art and architecture of their age. Only later generations come to find the beauty and poignancy that is in such works of art (e.g. the school of Impressionism). Sometimes I wonder if we who are more traditionally-minded in our faith are stuck in an artistic time warp. Did art and architecture reach its zenith in western Europe in the high middle ages? If so, what does one make of St. Peter's Basilica, or a Hagia Sophia? Are they ugly too?

I think that before we pass judgment on new forms of art, architecture, music, liturgy, or what have you, we need to consider them in their larger cultural context and think about how they fit into the scope of architectural and art history, both now and in the future. Doing so will help us view them in a more balanced way, and help us appreciate the beauty and inspiration they bring to the table. Let us keep in mind that everything was "new" at some point.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Risky Business

An artist must be willing to risk everything when creating a work or art. He must be willing to make that additional brush stroke, or draw that new line, or try that other color even though it may possibly ruin the entire work, or at the very least take it in a different direction than what he intended.

No matter how far in advance a work is planned, there are always unknown elements, or unexpected surprises that arise, and which force us make a new decision on a color or element halfway through the painting. It is this very act that is so risky. What if it doesn't work? What if it throws something else off balance? What if it ruins the rest of the painting? But the artist must take the chance. If he doesn't the work will flounder, and he will always wonder, "What if I had done it?" At least for his own peace of mind he must take the chance.

If the new element does ruin the art rather than help, it can sometimes be undone (if you are painting in oils). But many times it cannot be undone (e.g. watercolor). That is just the risk of being an artist, though. No one ever said being an artist was easy.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Art Blog is Back

I have decided to reintroduce my art blog. Welcome back, me.