The Way of Beauty
The good life is the joyful life
I was recently interviewed by Tom Fox of the Catholic Vitamins website (www.catholicvitamins.com). He wanted to talk about icons and this came under the heading of O for Orans, You can hear the interview here.
I have to admit I had forgotten when doing the interview that the connection that had sparked off the interview was the orans prayer position – in which the person is standing with arms raised – because Tom associated it with icons that he had seen. As a result I was caught off guard at he end of the interview when he asked me about it and wasn’t able to say very much. I hope he will forgive me.
So, about two weeks too late, I will pass on a little bit more. This ancient prayer posture is indeed seen in icons – left is an icon I painted of St Victoria; and below of the Mother of God (not by me). One of the things that always strikes me when I go to Eastern Rite churches is the way that they pray standing and especially if addressing a saint, will face the icon with an open posture. Hands will often be down by their side. I remember now that when I asked my teacher Aidan about this he told me that they always pray standing because it emphasises that we are raised up to the divine – we ‘partake of the divine nature’ – and so enter into a personal relationship with the Father , through the Son, in the Spirit.…
I am currently reading a new book on Newman which has recently come to my notice. It is The Quotable Newman – Definitive Guide to His Central Thoughts and Ideas. Published by Sophia Press it is compiled by Dave Armstrong with a forward written by Joseph Pearce.
It is arranged by topic in alphabetical order, over 100 of them taken from 40 different documents, and under each topic, for example, Original Sin, the Fall of Man there are a series of quotations, usually up to a couple of paragraphs long on each topic. To someone like me who does not know the full body of Newman’s well (to put it mildly) this arrangement is helpful. It seems to me that I can access directly and quickly what Newman actually said and then if I wish to investigate further, seek elsewhere the document in full via the reference. This is otherwise difficult because the titles of the documents do not always tell you what he is speaking about eg Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.
So, from the section Images, Use and Veneration Of, I have a couple of things that caught my eye: ‘In England Catholics pray before images, not to them. I wonder whether as many as a dozen pray to them, but they will be the best Catholics, not ordinary ones. The truth is that sort of affectionate fervour which leads one to confuse an object with its representation, is skin-deep in the South and argues nothing for a worshipper’s faith, hope and charity, whereas in a Northern race like ours, with whom ardent devotional feeling is not common, it may be the mark of great spirituality.…
For those who are within striking distance of Madison, Wisconsin, I am giving a talk on Saturday (November 3rd) at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison as part of a series of events to support a travelling exhibition of works belonging to the Uffizi gallery of Florence, Italy. It is a great honour to be asked to give this presentation and to share the platform with the curator of paintings at the Chazen Museum of Art, Maria Saffiotti Dale. More details of the museum and the exhibition – Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery - can be found here.
There is one gothic painting and the others are Renaissance or Baroque. There are 45 rarely seen paintings from the great Florentine gallery, including works by Lorenzo Monaco, Botticelli, Tintoretto and Titian. In my talk I will discuss how the style of these periods is influenced by Christian theology and philosophy with particular reference to some of the paintings in the exhibition.
Luca Giordano (1634–1705), The Ascent to Calvary, 1685–1686
Here is a book worth considering for students of traditional patterned art. The series is the Library of Design and the title is Treasury of Ornament – Pattern in the Decorative Arts by Heinrich Dolmetsch. This and a number of similar books by the author are available here. I came to it by way of one of the freshman students at Thomas More College, Meg Berger, who has a personal interest in these traditions. It is a recent publication of a book first produced around the turn of the last century in Germany, the first English edition coming out in 1908. Each plate is an arrangement of up to 15 or so different patterns from different original sources in each classification discussed. He covers both ‘hard’ geometric patterns and ‘soft’, more calligraphic forms in ancient non-Christian and Christian traditions, East and West. Particular examples are numerous plates in each category of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, Turkish, Persian and Indian. Two thirds of 85 plates are Christian covering Celtic, Western ‘medieval’, Byzantine, and Renaissance styles.
This will be of interest, I think, to those who are seeking to re-establish (or perhaps one might say at the very least reinvigourate) the Christian tradition of geometric and patterned art. While one does not want to look exclusively at Christian traditions now any more than those who formed these traditions in the first place did, one must look discerningly at the art of non-Christian cultures.…
Is a bird reserve created by heavy industry a natural or an unnatural landscape? I grew up in a place called Neston, within a mile from my home there is the old seaside resort of Parkgate. It is on the estuary of the River Dee on the border between northwest England and north Wales. (Directly over the estuary on the Welsh side is the town of Holywell feartured last week.) I took these photographs during the visit earlier this year. I thought that readers will find the elegant Victorian seafront buildings interesting, but would be puzzled as to why they would build it on a marsh? This is an interesting story I think.
A hundred years ago this was a thriving seaside resort with a promenade with a wall and railings and stone steps, made out of the local red sandstone, going down to the beach. The estuary here was tidal and the waters came up to the sea wall at high tide and then retreat miles at low tide, revealing a huge expanse of sand. When my family came to live closeby in the 1960s it was still there and Parkgate was known in the wider area for a shop that sells homemade ice cream. There was even a tide-filled seawater swimming pool open to the public. Then gradually the beach began to be overgrown with a natural hybrid grass called spartina. One of the things that allowed this grass to grow was that a steel company, some miles further down the estuary, took the river waters for its industrial processes.…
Here are some pictures of 13th century tiles from Cleeve Abbey in England. They are a combination of geometric and pictorial designs. The latter employing heraldic and literary themes rather than scriptural. The form will be familiar to some through the Victorian neo-gothic tiles that are more common today, and which were based on designs from this period. I am admirer of the later forms as well, incidentally. I view as an authentic re-establishment of a past tradition and worth looking at not only for the architecture and tiles of the period, but also as case study on how to look to the past in a constructive way.
Here are some pictures of an ancient pilgrimage site in Britain. It dates back to the miraculous healing of St Winefride at the waters of the spring at this site in the 6th century. It is at the town of Holywell (appropriately named) in North Wales. I grew up just about 10 miles from here, over the border in England. I was aware of the place and the reason it had been named, vaguely, when growing up, but had no idea that it was and active pilgrimage site until long after I converted. I used to go and listen to Vespers at a convent in nearby Chester and a nun told me that there were many cures and conversions as a result of St Winefrides well. (The same nun told, me incidentally, that an Irish mystic has been told in a vision that Freddie Mercury, the late singer from the rock group Queen, is in purgatory. I would certainly like to believe that it’s true!) People could drink the water or immerse themselves in the pool. Around the same time a group of Bridgetine nuns moved there to set up a new retreat centre. I had about this because they had previously been members of the community at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham. So I decided to make a visit. It is unusual in that
As you can see it is a well preserved medieval structure (dating from the 15th century).…
The model of loving compassion for others who are suffering. September the 15th was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. I found the liturgy of the Church on this day very instructive and inspirational. The message I get from this is for me, powerful, vigorous and inspiring. The writing of St Paul and St Bernard on the matter speaks of virtue in the fullest sense of the word.
It is interesting to me that so much modern devotional art of Our Lady of Sorrows – Mater Dolorosa – is, to my eye, almost all sentimental and weak. The Spanish baroque and the Flemish gothic masters are for me the model of portraying negative emotion transcended with joy that is powerful yet calm.
One of the most difficult things to deal with in life is the grief we feel when someone whom we love is suffering and we are powerless to do anything about it.
My experience tells me that this can have two components. That born of self-centredness, which is a bad feeling; and one born of love, which is opens the door to intense joy. It is this latter point that has come home to me through the liturgy on this feast day by pointing to the model of Our Lady.
When I am driven by self-centredness, I look at the person who is suffering and I feel sorry for myself. This self-pity can be intense and almost unbearable as long as I see the other’s suffering as the cause of my anguish, rather than my response it.…
A Curriculum that Incorporates Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts from his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. I have featured before work by the Canadian Orthodox sculptor Jonathan Pageau. I admire Jonathan’s work and what is useful for a blogger like me, he talks interestingly and eloquently about his work, and is happy to supply lots of photographs. Some time ago he contacted me and asked for some help in designing an art curriculum for a Catholic school in Ottowa. I gave him a summary of my idea:
Copying, with understanding, works of Masters in the great liturgical traditions of the Church – the baroque, the gothic and the iconographic. These are the three described in his chapter on art in the book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Pope Benedict XVI. Students are taught how theology relates to form as they copy great works. Studying geometry and traditional proportion
Studying nature direct.
A liturgical life that incorporates prayer with visual imagery.
Jonathan’s curriculum is up and running and he has incorporated my suggestions with a lot of careful thought and many more good ideas of his own. I was thrilled to read recently of his work in an article posted on the New Liturgical Movement website. The quality of the work produced by the children is high and he describes how pleasing it is to see their progress. There seems to be one omission in his plan. I do hope you’re going to teach them relief sculpture Jonathan.…
Dr Caroline Farey of the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, has been appointed as a participant in the forthcoming Synod of Bishops, in Rome, dedicated to the ‘the new Evangelisation and the Transmission of the Faith’.
Caroline is a regular contributor to the Sower magazine writing on art (among other things) and she is a co-creator (along with yours truly) of the Maryvale Course, Art, Beauty and Inspiration from a Catholic Perspective. she and I teach this course in Kansas City each summer. Those who know The Way of Beauty well will be aware of her writing because she has guest written a number of my weekly postings. She offers a great deal more than her knowledge about art. She is in charge of catechetical formation at the Maryvale Institute with special interests and qualifications in philosophy as well as art. She received her doctorate from the Lateran Pontifical University in Rome.
It is heartening for me that someone whom I recognize as having a very deep and authentic knowledge of the Church’s artistic traditions and the connection with the liturgy has been asked to participate at such an event.
The world Synod of Bishops, dedicated to the new evangelisation meets at the Vatican, October 7-28.
Those who are interested in taking the Maryvale course, a one year diploma at degree level, should contact either the Maryvale Center at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas or the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England.…