Roger of Helmarshausen O.S.B. – Theophilus the Presbyter: Part 3 – The Prologues

Last February, in Parts 1 and 2 of this article, I shared with you some thoughts on an important figure in the history of Western European art: the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen, also known by his pen name, Theophilus the Presbyter.

Dom Roger was born in the late 11th century during a dramatic time in Western European history. In 1066 the Normans successfully invaded England and defeated the Saxons, which forever changed the history of England and the Continent. In 1084, St. Bruno founded the Carthusian Order in France, and in 1098 the foundation monastery of Citeaux saw the beginning of the Cistercian Order.

In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in an attempt to restore Christianity to the Holy Land. In 1115, St. Bernard became the abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux; and remained its abbot until his death in 1153. In 1120 we have the extraordinary sculptor Gislebertus working on the tympanum of Autun Cathedral in the Burgundy region of eastern France, and in 1150 we have Abbot Suger beginning the rebuilding of the abbey-church of St. Denis in Paris, which ushers in the beautiful Gothic period in Western art and architecture.

It is within this dynamic and exciting environment of the early 12th century that the Benedictine monk, Roger of Helmarshausen (considered by many, but not all scholars, to be Theophilus the Presbyter) compiles and writes his important manuscript De diversis artibus (On Divers Arts), also known as Schedula diversarum artium, or simply the Schedula. His book contains three chapters of which only one (the most extensive and detailed) deals with metallurgy, the other two deal with painting and the making of stained glass.

Many scholars believe that On Divers Arts was written/compiled between the years 1100 and 1140. Besides its importance as a medieval artistic treatise, On Diverse Arts is known as containing the first very early description of oil paint, thus, conclusively proving Georgio Vasari (1511-74) was mistaken in claiming that the van Ecyk’s were the first to develop the use of painting in oils.

Dom Roger’s artistic skills revolved around metallurgy, specifically in the crafting of exquisite gold and silver liturgical furnishings, an example of which can be seen in the image below of a Portable Altar, c. 1120, Oak box, clad in partly gilded silver, feet of gilded bronze, 165 x 345 x 212 mm (approx. 6.6 by 13.6 by 8 inches), found in the Cathedral of Paderborn, Germany.

2altar

Dom Roger’s contributions to the understanding of late 11th and early 12th century Western European sacred art are so numerous as to be out of the purview of this post to catalogue them all. My goal today is to mention how specifically a contemporary sacred artist in the Western Tradition could benefit in reading his book On Diverse Arts.

This is my main point: if a sacred artist picks up Dom Roger’s book and quickly scans through the Prologues to each of the three chapters in the book they will miss the entire point of what he was trying to accomplish. It is a book that requires the reader to view its contents not as another medieval manuscript of pigment recipes or the social anthropology of a highly skilled 12th century artist. Clearly, Dom Roger is inviting us into his working world and the spiritual perception of the application of prayer to work, which is true to the motto of his Benedictine Order: Ora et Labora.

Each of the three prologues discusses the development of specific spiritual values in relation to the sacred art (painting, glass making, or metalworking) the student is pursuing. There is a progression through different skills and obstacles that the student must master in order to reach the heights of individual artistry.

St. John Climacus and other Patristic Fathers in discussing a soul’s spiritual journey speak of a similar progression up the “ladder of ascent” to the Godhead and spiritual union with God. The soul’s journey is fraught with problems and obstacles, yet, those souls that persevere are rewarded for their efforts. Dr. Heidi Gearhart, presently of Harvard University, also speaks of this idea in her research on Dom Roger when she identifies the intention that he is interested in a progression forward, an ascent, through different and more complex art forms to the pinnacle (in his mind) of artistry – which is Dom Roger’s own specialty: the art of gold, silver, and bronze metal work.

The First Prologue to the chapter on painting emphasizes the need for the sacred artist to be humble in his/her approach, they should not neglect the wisdom of the past, nor should they be idle or selfish with the artistic gifts they have received. They have the duty to pass on to their receptive students the wisdom of the arts that they have been given by God, and have gained through study, and experience; and lastly, your art should always give glory to God and to His holy name.

In the Second Prologue, which is the preface to the chapter on glass making, we read that Dom Roger is emphasizing his adherence to the guidance of Holy Wisdom. In a passage of mystical quality he says “I drew near to the forecourt of holy Wisdom and I saw the sanctuary filled with a variety of all kinds of differing colors, displaying the utility and nature of each pigment…” He goes on to say that he can accomplish superior effects through the use of glass alone, thus, “without repelling the daylight and the rays of the sun.”  We wonder whether Abbot Suger in Paris was familiar with Dom Roger’s experiments with glass prior to or during his renovation of the abbey church of St. Denis – the precursor of French Gothic churches.

The Third, and last, Prologue, the preface to the art of metal work, takes us into the recesses of Dom Roger’s soul, for in this preface he is stressing that the Holy Spirit bestows on the sacred artist the grace of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These Seven Gifts: Fear of the Lord (which means that we do not desire or act to offend God in any way), Understanding, Counsel (Spiritual Prudence), Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Wisdom have been given to us through the compassion of God. These Gifts are given to the artist who sincerely desires them through the Sacraments of the Church, sincere prayer, and activity, which acknowledges the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. The sacred artist should always be open to cooperate with the grace of God. Dom Roger implores his students to understand that their work should reflect the truth that it is executed under the authority, direction, and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Dom Roger’s perspective is solidly within the Benedictine tradition of attempting to live within a state of spiritual wisdom, and to transfer that wisdom, through teaching and practical workshop application, to another generation of monk/artists. Humility, creative technique, investigation, silence, prayer – listening to Holy Wisdom – enable him to succeed at his art.

His approach is to remain true to his spiritual values as a Benedictine. He recognizes the absolute significance of the role that the Holy Spirit plays in assisting, molding, and inspiring the artist in his or her efforts to create artworks which give glory to God and to share their knowledge with those who are willing to learn.

My next post on this subject will present a brief overview of some salient research by an outstanding scholar of this period of European art history: Dr. Heidi Gearhart of Harvard University.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved         The quotations are taken from the John G. Hawthorne and Cyril S. Smith translation from the Latin of Theophilus’ On Divers Arts, published by Dover Publications, New York, 1979.

One thought on “Roger of Helmarshausen O.S.B. – Theophilus the Presbyter: Part 3 – The Prologues

  1. I was glad to see that our university library has a copy of this book.
    It also seems to be readily available online.
    Thanks for the info!

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