Theophilus, the Art of Iconography, and the Contemporary Sacred Artist – Part 2

Please take a moment to read the first part of this multi-part essay that I posted a few days ago. I am requesting that you do this in order for you to understand my perspective on creating contemporary sacred art within the Latin Rite.

Creating sacred art for me is a service ministry. It is a ministry through which a sacred artist unites him or herself to God’s Redemptive efforts. If you are a Baptized Christian who has been educated in the faith, regardless of the Rite or the denomination, you know that the Christian faith requires you to cooperate with the grace that the Holy Spirit provides to you through Scripture and the Sacraments. If one does this, and maintains a disciplined prayer life, you are cooperating with the Spirit in the duties that you must perform in your life.

For a Christian, human history is more than the individual searching for God. As the book of Genesis (3: 8-9) tells us, God walked through the Garden of Eden searching for us – for our spiritual parents: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The Lord asks that question of us, too. 

Jesus is constantly calling out to us, constantly searching for us, constantly knocking on the door of our hearts hoping to hear our loving response. Christianity is the faith through which a searching God shows Himself to be so loving and so merciful as to persevere, to the point of sacrificing His own Son, in the effort of bringing rebellious humanity back into His family.

So the history of Christian sacred art shows us that people desired sacred icons (Greek, eikon: image) to reference that sense of family, in the same way that we have photographs today of family members, living and dead, which remind us of the love shared and their importance to our lives. These photographs or images are not idols. Even if a loved one does kiss a photograph or a sacred icon or image, the meaning behind that gesture is that the kiss – the love and respect – is not meant for the celluloid, or the wood and pigment; rather, it is meant for the prototype, for the person it represents, the loved one, God, His saints and angels.

Unfortunately, the faith family that is the Church split in the Great Schism of 1054. The Latin Rite and the Greek/Russian Rite split along cultural, theological, philosophical, political, and artistic lines. This Schism is one of the great scandals that has affected Christ’s Church.

The Schism, however, did not affect trade and the exchange of ideas among the laity. Commerce continued and new products, artistic materials, and techniques were evaluated, bought, and sold. The development of the Latin Rite artistic tradition after the Schism indicates that in Western Europe the linking of faith with the creative impulse was very strong and did much to solidify and unify the various cultural groups within the Latin Rite.

But, what was the Latin Rite tradition post AD 1054? What were the techniques of the Latin Rite artists of the Romanesque and early to mid Gothic period? Were there artistic manuals that were more than just recipe books on preparing pigments and varnishes and which discussed the spiritual underpinnings of the artisan’s art?

Where to begin?

As mentioned before, I happily discovered Pope Benedict XVI’s book –The Spirit of the Liturgy. This became my starting point, with its expression that the three periods within the liturgical art of the Latin Rite can be found in the Iconographic, Gothic, and Baroque styles of art.

I was searching for the techniques that Catholic artists would have used approximately one thousand years ago. Sacred artists within the late Iconographic period and early Romanesque period (AD 900 – 1300) would have approached their art within a disciplined theological, semantic, and aesthetic viewpoint. As Western Europeans, however, they easily accepted innovation and even experimentation if it provided a final product which met the artisan’s demanding and critical eye, and especially that of the master artisan of the workshop.

In the Spring of 2012 I discovered a twelfth century book entitled On Diverse Arts by Theophilus the Presbyter (translated by Hawthorne and Smith, Dover Press, 1979, 216 pages). This book is the critical corner stone of my attempt to link contemporary sacred art with its medieval roots. For Theophilus the Presbyter – a twelfth century master artist – is an individual who can still effectively speak to us in our own time. Theophilus has the perspective and the attitude that provides us with a foundation for our spiritual view of art.

This does not mean that we are slavishly going back in an attempt to reproduce the twelfth century. To do that would not be honest, rather, while staying true to the theological, semantic, and aesthetic beliefs of artists like Theophilus we are able to reinterpret and refresh our current situation in light of the contributions and truths discovered and lived in the past. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not limited by space and time.

O Beauty, ever ancient, O Beauty, ever new.

One of the key ideas of Theophilus that needs to be shared with Christian sacred artists is that the Holy Spirit is moving through our creative efforts, and is actively involved in the artist’s daily work. It is my belief that Theophilus sees the role of the artist as a person with a specific vocation, a calling, who is to unite his call by God to create beautiful works of art with his own prayer life and the Catholic spiritual view of reality.

Many, but not all art historians, believe that Theophilus is the pen name for a Benedictine monk by the name of Roger of Helmarshausen. Roger was a master at metalworking, specializing in gold and silver, and lived in the Benedictine monastery located in the town of Helmarshausen in modern day Germany.

In his manual, On Diverse Arts, Theophilus not only lays out his spiritual vision in three specific prologues to his chapters on painting, glassmaking, and metalworking but he provides specific directions and guidance to fellow artists. For example, he lays out – step by step – the process for creating a sacred image: the types of pigments to use, specific colors for the base coat, shadows, colors to use for hair, beards, skin, drapery, etc.

Theophilus’ union of a sincere spiritual perspective with technical guidance shows him to be a master teacher and mentor. He accomplished this within his own Benedictine monastery at Helmarshausen and his reputation expanded throughout the Rhine-Meuse River Valley in Germany.

In my next post I hope to discuss the spiritual importance of Theophilus’ three chapter prologues, and ultimately their relationship to the contemporary Catholic sacred artist.

In my fourth post in this series I will discuss a marvelous doctoral dissertation on Theophilus that was written in 2010 by Heidi Gearhart, Ph.D.

And in my fifth and last post in this series I will discuss how, in the mode of Theophilus, I am developing a practical sacred art workbook that provides step-by-step advice for the contemporary sacred artist. I have two of the four chapters completed and I will probably self-publish it for my sacred art workshops prior to a publisher (hopefully, :{) !) formally printing it.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Theophilus, Iconography, and the Contemporary Sacred Artist – Part One

Today’s sacred artist within the Western tradition may have been exposed to many different artistic traditions. Artists may have been classically trained in a formal academy such as the Florence Academy of Art, or, they may have been educated at a secular institution that emphasizes a modern abstract expressionistic form of art. Other models are available, too. Some artists may have been self-taught, or, as in my case, study with specific masters of sacred art that offered intensive workshops to interested groups or individuals.

Upon my retirement from a career in education, I finally had the opportunity to study and actually make art. I knew that the form of art that I wanted to pursue was sacred art and sacred iconography spoke to me as a specific art form. Sacred art necessarily carried with it two elements that were critical for me: a devotion to conversation with God while making the art and an interest in a specific historical methodology for the creative process.

Between 2006 and 2010, I happily studied with four contemporary masters in the field of sacred iconography. They taught me different approaches, techniques, and the use of a variety of materials. This was all well and good, a necessary series of steps for a student artist to go through in order to develop some sense of familiarity and a working comfort level.

After spending time with the last two of my art teachers (Marek Czarnecki and Anna Pokrovsky Gouriev) an important question  had to be answered. They wisely asked all of us to eventually answer this question: “Do you want to paint sacred images in the Russian Orthodox or the Western Latin Rite tradition?”

You see, Marek is Roman Catholic and Anna is Russian Orthodox. They both paint/”write” sacred icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Anna’s mother, Ksenia Pokrovsky (marylowell.wix.com/hexaemeron-6#!__xenia-pokrovsky) is a master iconographer who has added a great deal to our understanding of the techniques of sacred iconography within the Russian Orthodox and earlier Byzantine traditions.

Ksenia founded the well known Izograph School of Iconography near Boston, MA, and Marek and Anna assist her with teaching, the creation of sacred icons, and restoration work. Their work is quite beautiful and I highly recommend them to you, your parish, or an educational institution that is interested in high quality iconographic work in the Byzantine tradition.

It is important for a contemporary sacred artist to understand the artistic approaches of the Byzantine/Russian tradition. I learned a great deal from them, not only about sacred art but about myself; yet, their question continued to haunt me. For the year or so after I studied with them I continued to paint in the Russian Orthodox tradition. My first teachers in this art form – Peter Pearson and Dimitryi Andreyev – had built a strong foundation for me. Dimitryi’s father Vladislav, founded the Prosopon School of Iconography, another influential school, in New York City (www.prosoponschool.org).

So, with all of this rich and fruitful tradition passed on to me by four wonderful and prayerful people, I was still left with the unanswered question: Orthodox or Latin Rite? My training had been in pure Orthodox tradition. Wonderful as it is, I still had not answered the question Marek and Anna had posed. Before I could answer it I had to discover if there was a Latin Rite tradition to painting sacred images/icons. This brought up the question of “Why is it that when we hear talk of “sacred icons” today it is always in the context of the Byzantine Catholic/Greek/Russian Orthodox Rite?”

The Western European/Latin (Roman) Rite of the Catholic Church had co-existed and was in communion with the Greek Orthodox/Byzantine/Eastern Rite since the first century. It was 900 years old prior to Russian Grand Prince Vladimir of Novgorod formally converting the Russian people to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church. So you would think that there would have been some communication between the Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic Church and the sharing of information and ideas about sacred art.

So, why do we now just associate sacred icons with the Eastern Rite tradition? It is primarily because of the western European sense of artistic experimentation and creativity that developed around the 12th century. Different artistic, theological, and philosophical traditions developed within Western Europe that affected the Latin Rite of the Church and produced different artistic results. Yet the Byzantine Rite’s art continued to influence Latin Rite artists all the way up to the fourteenth century.

Whereas the Greek/Byzantine/Russian Orthodox approach to sacred art and icons remained steadfast to tradition. While there were different “schools” of sacred iconography within their tradition and different masters anchoring those schools, they always remained faithful to the basic tradition of painting/”writing” sacred icons. You begin to see a shift in thinking within this tradition in the early 18th century when influences from the Western European artistic tradition begin to seep into the Orthodox schools and workshops.

Usually when we think of Latin Rite sacred art we have the images of Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael immediately pop into our mind. As Pope Benedict XVI has said in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy the Latin Rite had three specific stages of sacred art develop in its history: the Iconographic, the Gothic, and the Baroque. Each one of these stages contributed to the liturgical life of the Church and had a unique catechetical message for the faithful. It is not to say that the Renaissance artists, many of them working with sacred themes, did not contribute to the artistic tradition of the Church. They certainly did, however, their emphasis, at times, was more on pleasing the patron then on fostering a sense of prayer in the individual penitent.

So, I spent the year 2012 investigating the sources of the Latin Rite’s artistic tradition. The next few posts will reveal what I found, and the fact that a very talented 12th century metalworker and artist, the Benedictine monk Roger of Helmarshausen (also known as Theophilus) was at the forefront of the Latin Rite’s artistic techniques.

It was what Theophilus taught me that finally allowed me to answer Marek and Anna’s question and change my artistic technique. The witness and work of the good Benedictine Theophilus continues to inspire me in the teaching of my own students the prayerful benefits of sacred art. More on Theophilus in the next few days!

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved