The Way of Beauty
The good life is the joyful life
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 email@example.com …
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.…
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.…