Thursday, December 23, 2010

Audio Recordings of Kenrick-Glennon's Workshop on Sacred Arts

A FEW MONTHS ago, artist David Clayton gave a series of talks on sacred art at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. An Englishman and former engineer, Clayton is a Catholic convert, studied Eastern and Western iconographic painting, and now teaches at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.

Yesterday the Seminary posted Clayton's talks online:

Talk 1 — overview
Talk 2 — the iconographic tradition
Talk 3 — the Baroque tradition
Talk 4 — the Gothic tradition

These are enhanced audio lectures, having illustrations from the talk.

I must admit that art theory has often left me cold. The theory used before the 20th century usually seemed — to me — to be incomprehensible: the supposed influence of the Golden Ratio never seemed clear, and many of the supposedly unbreakable rules seemed arbitrary to me. However, purported applications of these rules were often unconvincing to me. In this sense, I have much sympathy with those artists, notably the Impressionists, who rejected this system. On the contrary, the newer art theories found today, usually derived from Marxism, are even more incomprehensible — and the final works of art produced from these theories is ugly at best, and are provably harmful to the soul.

Clayton's approach to art theory is refreshing; it goes back to the classical sources found in the ancient and influential Greek schools of Pythagoras and Socrates, and continues through the Christian traditions of the Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque, and Eastern iconographic styles. This art theory is very comprehensible, and is based on simple numerical proportions and geometrical relationships. Under this system, an artist does not have to be a mad genius, nor does he have to be ‘creative’ — he just needs to be humble and diligent. The classical tradition is not egocentric, but rather is harmonious — Clayton shows a photograph of an English street with a mix of buildings of various eras, yet all remain harmonious with each other, since they all incorporate the same harmonious ratios.

Clayton regrets that there are very few Magisterial guidelines regarding sacred art, and no handbooks. But there are traditions we can follow. He notes that all the great artistic styles began on the altar, and derive from a liturgical source. As Clayton gave these talks at a seminary, he reminded his audience — future priests — that they will become patrons of the arts.

Following Pope Benedict's book “Spirit of the Liturgy”, Clayton describes the three authentically liturgical figural artistic traditions:
  1. Iconographic depicts Eschatological Man — the Saints in Heaven — this is specifically non-naturalistic and other-worldly. This style is often associated with the East, but the Iconographic is very much a part of the Western tradition also.
  2. Gothic depicts Man on Pilgrimage. Under the influence of Aristotle, Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Francis of Assisi, this tradition is more naturalistic. It artistically shows emotion, and the suffering of Christ on the Cross became prominent during this period.
  3. Baroque (at is best) shows Fallen Man who has hope for Heaven. There was no theological imperative for this direct imitation of ancient Roman art, but Clayton states that it is liturgically good if properly executed (and he shows some counterexamples of poor Baroque). The great academies of art were founded during this period, and they lasted until they were taken over and closed down by revolutionaries during the 19th and 20th centuries.
I might add that Modernism and its derivatives depicts Man in a state of unrepentant mortal sin, on his way to Hell. I would think that this kind of art is not suitable for liturgical use.

In addition to these figurative traditions, Clayton also covers the abstract geometric decorative art that typically makes up the bulk of the artwork found in old churches. This art most obviously shows the theories of proportion and number found in the liturgical tradition. This kind of abstract decorative art is typically completely missing from modernistic buildings, which prefers blank walls, floors, and ceilings.

[For an excellent architectural overview of the tradition, I recommend the book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Denis R. McNamara. This book is more specifically liturgical.]

There has been a resurgence of classical art academies in recent years. These all derive from a single, elderly American artist who studied at the last of the old art academies before it was closed down. However, these are not in the Catholic tradition — and many are in fact hostile to Christ. These are mainly in the Enlightenment arts tradition, and have an over-emphasis on painting the nude. Clayton thinks that artworks produced by these new academies tend to look too much like portraits because of excessive naturalism. Instead, Clayton is forming an explicitly Catholic school of the arts according to authentic Catholic tradition.

According to Clayton, the general aim for liturgical art is “To instruct and inspire the faithful to love God and mankind.” This ought to remind us of the Two Great Commandments:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that summary; I was wondering what those sacred art talks were like. I love the Kenrick-Glennon podcasts of their days of recollection for the seminarians-- usually very hard-hitting spiritual talks.