The Way of Beauty
The good life is the joyful life
Is commerce and trade instrinsically moral?
Critics of capitalism would say no. Some, who acknowledge that the free market works to a degree when considered in cold economic terms only, argue that it is impersonal and encourages a selfish, individualistic outlook that is contrary to the principle of love that governs properly ordered personal interraction. Therefore, they say, it undermines faith and contains the seeds of its ultimate demise. This view can be reinforced, strangely, by some advocates of capitalism who say that in consideration of the economy, the generation of wealth is the only thing that matters and provided no laws are broken, then all moral considerations are private and for each person to sort out for themselves in isolation. Some Catholics who believe in the free market struggle to reconcile this with some papal encyclicals on Catholic social teaching that are critical of some aspects of capitalism. They do so by saying that in some matters the popes go beyond their authority. They might correctly highlight social injustice, they say, but when they start to analyse the economic causes and recommend economic policies to help, they are misguided and what they say is wrong and will not work.
Fr Sirico in his book does not take the position of any of these camps. He argues for the good of the free market, and does so on two counts.…
Anyone can learn to sing the psalms Following a recent article about us singing Vespers at a local hospital, a number of people have been asking me about the music for the psalm tones that we use when we sing Vespers and Compline for the US Veterans at the VA hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire.
In response to this I have put all the tones we have on a newly published page on this blog ‘Psalm Tones’ (see above). Before I describe what you will find there, I would just like to describe the last time we went to the veteran’s hospitial in Manchester, NH. We arrived as usual and were greeted by Fr Boucher in the chapel. Nobody else was there. Fr Boucher thanked us warmly for coming and told us that several veterans had wanted to come but were too ill to go from ward to chapel, and two had died earlier that day. Fr Boucher wanted us to know how important therefore, our prayer was. So we sang Vespers and Compline just as intended and as beautifully as we could for those who could not hear us.
Coming back to the tones: these are so easy to pick up that even I can do it. Just to give you an idea, I am at the level of being able to pick out a tune on the piano with one finger reading notes from a treble clef (bass clef is beyond me).…
For the feast of St Nicholas, here is an unusual representation of the saint. It comes from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. It is not generally part of the iconographic tradition to have sculpture, although relief carving is common. I am told that statues are not banned in Eastern churches, but it is not part of the tradition. This makes sense to me. The iconographic tradition seeks to portray man partaking of the divine nature in union with God. In accordance with this, icon painters seek to destroy the illusion of depth in icons to represent the heavenly realm which is outside time and space. Sculpture by its nature is three-dimensional so would undermine this convention. Relief carving, is common, however, this is really creating a two-dimensional image in shadow rather than creating three dimensional images; and so is consistent with the iconographic prototype.
At the Museum of Russian Icons they have a large collection of Russian St Nicholas statuettes. I am always intrigued by these. They are not fully three-dimensional, but neither are they as flat as a relief carving. They remind me of early gothic sculpture in their degree of three dimensionality and because they are polychrome. I have explanation as to why these statues were made. Or why it only seems to be in connection with certain saints. St Nicholas is one and at the museum they have a lot of similar statues of another Saint Nil, but only these two.…
Recently when I went home to England we had a reunion of old college friends of mine. Most were not believers of any sort – I had known them since I was eighteen and so the friendships pre-date, by a long way, my conversion (I was 31 when was received into the Church and have just turned 50 fyi). It was great to catch up with everyone and see how they were getting on. I was interested by a recent decision of one. She had given up teaching genetics at Imperial College, London and was now working for a company that would go into investment banks in the City and teach executives how to meditate to help them deal with the stress of the job. She been introduced to meditation when she took up yoga for the physical benefits and then was attracted to the ‘spirituality’ that is attached to it.
In order to convince the executives that there is something to this Eastern meditation, they would be armed with statistics from scientific research. She said that there had been observable improvements in the condition of heart patients in hospitals when people meditated. The research shows, she said, that even if the patients did not meditate with the visitors or even if they were unaware it was happening, just have meditation going on in the building seemed to have a positive effect.
I was happy to believe that she was right and that the research backed her up.…
The principle of universality is not something I had considered in any depth at all until recently, when it was mentioned in a talk about sacred music. I have been reflecting on its meaning in other aspects of the culture and what it says to me about how I should approach my own painting. Here are some first thoughts.
The word ‘catholic’ means universal. The Catholic Faith is offered to and has meaning for every human person regardless of where and when they live; Catholic culture should always, to some degree be universal too, that is, it should appeal to all peoples in the world;. recently I heard universality in the context of sacred music described in the following way: something will have universal appeal if it does not exclude anyone from any other culture from appreciating it.
The idea, it seems to me, is an extension of that expressed also by the phrase ‘noble accessibility’ (previously discussed in this column), which says that the music that is meant to be sung by a congregation must be simple enough so that they can; and the music that is more difficult to perform and so realistically can only be sung by a choir, must be easily appreciated by the congregation and not abstruse. At the same time, there must be no compromise on the ‘nobility’ that is the beauty of any piece of music. This principle makes high demands of the composer, but not of the listener.…
Here is a recently completed icon by the British icon painter Peter Murphy which caught my eye. It is an image of the three angels from the account of the Hospitality of Abraham and it is in the style of the St Alban’s Psalter. For comparison, the curious may wish to visit the Wikipedia page of the original psalter, which dates from the first part of the 12th century, is here.
I find the images in the Romanesque period psalter very interesting because stylistically they always strike me in the design of the figures and drapery as owing something to earlier Ottonian styles of art; but also some of the faces are in profile, anticipating an element of the future gothic style. Peter has captured all of this in his work very well I think.
It is good to see an artist seeking not only to reproduce works from the period that he loves, but also seeking to produce original designs in that style. Very helpfully for me, it arrived in my Inbox just as I was writing last week’s piece about how important creativity in traditional forms is if we re-establish our traditions as living traditions.
For any who wish to contact him, Peter Murphy’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org …
I have not met a mother yet who does not think that her baby is the most beautiful baby there is. When I first heard a mother saying it, I thought perhaps there was some element of irony. All babies are beautiful, I thought, but you don’t really believe that yours is the most beautiful do you? I once aired these doubts. I laughed and said to the mother that every mother I had met thought that. Yes, she replied in absolute seriousness, without even a trace of irony: ‘Except that my baby really is the most beautiful.’ This is how the eyes of love see the beloved. I imagine this might give us insight into how God sees every single one of us. The mother is not blinded by love. Just the opposite – the scales have fallen off her eyes so that she sees the true value of that one small person.
It may exist, but I have never seen the same level of devotion from fathers. In men this natural instinct seems to be misdirected and applied to more superficial things. I have seen devotion to fourth rank professional soccer team, Tranmere Rovers (who at this time in the early Eighties were averaging gates of 800 people) so great that when I asked him to explain why his beloved team was languishing at the foot of the table he replied in all seriousness, again no irony whatsoever, that it was all down to a complete season ‘bad refereeing’…but next season he tipped them for promotion.…
In a very hopeful move the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments will be restructured to focus much more strongly on art and music in the liturgy. This follows directly an moto proprio issued by the Pope in September. The full article in the CNA here (h/t Sara Kitzinger).
We all keep our fingers crossed. Whether or not this has a good effect depends upon how standards are judged by those involved and how they are communicated through the Church. One of the great shapers of my sense of liturgical art and the form that is appropriate for the liturgy is the small, but rich, passage about sacred art in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. If we see this understanding permeating what is done, then it could be very powerful.
We can’t take it for granted, however. I have seen enough initiatives involving art historians and experts, some even started by Pope Benedict in which he then had little direct involvement. The result was that although the words about beauty and liturgy at its inception sound good, when I saw the form of the art that they felt embodied it, it was disappointing and puzzling, to say the least.
St Luke and Our Lady, pray for us.
The image below is by an unknown Russian icon painter, of St Luke painting the icon of the Mother of God Hodegetria
Traditional proportion can be incorporated into the design of just about anything once you know how. Here is an example a rockery (as we say in England) or ‘rock garden’, as I think Americans refer to it. It is part of the developing garden at the Thomas More College future campus at Groton, Massachusetts.
We placed rocks into a steep bank in three tiers. The relationship between the three lines is based upon traditional proportion in which the first relates to the second as the second relates to the third. The spacing and change of angle is intuitively applied. Top left are three lines I have painted in watercolour on paper to illustrate. The designers of the basic shape of the arrangement of rocks in the garden were three students at Thomas More College in( alphabetical order!) – Cecilia Black, Nicole Martin and Erin Monfils. Once three walls had been put in, it was clear that they were unstable. We get heavy snow in the winter and it was likely that the snow would collapse each little wall. So without straying from the basic shape I stepped each wall into the bank in such a way that it imitates natural outcrops of stratified rock (or that was the idea anyway – I’m just a beginner and this looks as good as I remember in my parents’ garden).
I also introduced some deviations from the simple original shape so that while still following the general form, it looked less rigidly applied.…
Dudley Moore parodying Beethoven piano sonato and Schuber lieder (‘Die Flabberghast’) I saw the first video below on Damien Thompson’s blog on The Daily Telegraph website. It is Dudley Moore playing his own composition, a parody of a Beethoven piano sonato based on the melody of Colonel Bogey (or if you prefer the tune from the Bridge Over the River Kwai). It is recorded in the Sixties.
I have spoken about how important creativity within a tradition is for keeping it alive and opening the door that leads to the timeless principles that are at its core for modern audiences. In the context of sacred music, I described this a need for composers whose work has the quality of noble accessibility, see here.
This is not sacred music, but it is just the sort of creativity that will open the door to the real thing, drawing people in through more than just he music. I find it brilliantly funny.
Moore was organ scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford. After university he achieved national prominence as jazz pianist and then as part of the Beyond the Fringe comedy quartet with Alan Bennet, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. Jonathan Miller, who went on to become a famous opera director (among other things) is the figure opening the piano lid for him before he performs. Alan Bennet and Peter Cook especially also became household names in Britain. Bennet is a playwright and Cook a comedian with whom Moore eventually formed a famous duo.…