Back to the Future

Ecclesiastical Art after Postmodernism

by Dr. Janet Rutherford, appearing in Volume 17

“The old Christian art should rise up again to renewed life: in its spirit, not in its form” 
—Peter Lenz, The Aesthetics of Beuron

Is there a future for ecclesiastical art that continues in the traditions of the past, without being merely imitative: recycling past styles and models? I would like to suggest that there is, but that only by rediscovering the principles upon which the art of the past was based will artists have the necessary understanding to create art for the future. Western architecture is of course founded on geometric and physical principles that have been known since antiquity. For this reason architects who wish to continue in the Gothic or classical tradition are able to do so creatively, without being reduced to simply copying existing buildings. By contrast, decorative art is in a state of crisis. The arbiters of artistic fashion have deliberately withheld from art students the principles of Western aesthetics, in much the same way that many children of the 1960s were never taught to spell or punctuate. Unless artists in the West re-learn classical aesthetic principles, we will be left staring at the great white void of minimalism, as exemplified by the “renovated” monastery of Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic, bequeathed to posterity by John Pawson.

Aesthetics and Sacramental Symbolism in the Fathers of the Church

But to create ecclesiastical art, knowledge of aesthetic and compositional principles is not enough. For in the context of theology, and thus liturgy, aesthetics is not as an isolated subject. Like the Pythagoreans and Platonists of antiquity, the fathers of the Church regarded aesthetics as a keystone of the entire doctrinal and symbolic structure of theology—not to be separated, for example, from moral and sacramental theology, or the symbolism of the liturgy. For this reason forming an ecclesiastical art for the future is only in part a matter of teaching artists classical compositional principles. More fundamentally it involves an understanding, on the part of everyone involved in decisions about church decoration, of the sacramental and liturgical theology of which Christian aesthetics is but a part. A vitally important part of what the fathers have to teach us grew out of the first great iconoclastic controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. Though the crisis itself mainly affected the churches of the East, it led to the development of the aesthetic theology surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and it is therefore a good starting point.

The newly dedicated chapel at the Monastery of Nový Dvůr in the Czech Republic. Photo:

The Doctrinal Importance of Imagery

The fundamental iconographic principle deriving from the events surrounding the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) is that imagery in Christian churches is not only permissible, it is necessary. By creating images of Christ and his saints, we affirm the unity of the Person of Christ and the full reality of his Incarnate human nature. This important principle surely needs restating urgently today. Indeed, the chapel of the monastery at Novy Dvur would have met with the complete approval of the iconoclast emperors of the eighth century, who held that the only material things that have any sacramental character are the Eucharistic elements, and that the only permissible Christian symbol is the cross. The only sacred things in this chapel are indeed the reserved Host in the tabernacle and the cross on the altar. The doctrinal necessity of depictions of Christ and the saints in churches is part of Christian orthodoxy, and it is on this basis that we must build.

The Essential Unity of Architecture, Art, and Liturgy

Another important principle to arise from the Eastern iconoclast crisis was that there should be an essential unity between the church building, its interior art, and the sacramental symbolism of the rite they enshrine. In Orthodox churches this unity is represented in part by each image occupying a determined place in the entire schema of a church’s interior, just as each saint and heavenly being occupies a particular [23] place in the heavenly kingdom. But I am not suggesting that the schema of Orthodox churches ought to be imposed on Western churches. An organizational schema provides a narrative that unfolds as the eye moves through a church. The centralized plan of Orthodox churches (deriving from ancient martyria), with its square nave, combined with a central dome, draws the eye along a different path than does the cruciform plan of many Western churches. Of course there are centralized neoclassical churches in which the hierarchical pattern of Byzantine iconography has always been appropriate, drawing the eye around and up into the dome. But even here, the existence of the iconostasis and consequent invisibility of the sanctuary in Orthodox churches make an exact adoption of their schema inappropriate. In a cruciform church of course the eye is drawn down the nave, into the sanctuary, and ultimately to whatever is on the east wall; and the organization of imagery should follow this path. The principle of iconographic integrity is therefore not a matter of imposing a particular schema on all churches, but involves understanding the underlying symbolism of both the liturgy and the church building.

The important principle here is again that a church’s architecture and art should affirm the complete unity of the divine and human nature of Christ, just as this is enshrined in the Eucharistic liturgy. Orthodox iconography does this by making two-dimensional images (suggestive of the heavenly nature of the resurrection body), but using the symbolic language of “icon writing” to teach Christ’s human nature and true incarnate vulnerability. Affirming both natures of Christ is also inherent in the two complementary symbolic understandings of the liturgy that Orthodoxy has. On the one hand, we are called to anamnesis1 of Christ’s earthly life, ministry, sacrifice, and Resurrection. But we are also called to see the place that the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ have in the entire history of salvation, from the Creation to the eschatological banquet. These two complementary Eucharistic symbolisms ought, on the principle of integrity, inform both the symbolic organization and form of a church’s interior imagery.

On this principle, then, we can decide on the organization of imagery on the basis of a given church’s architectural type. The content of that imagery is open to a wide field of choice and will inevitably be informed by a church’s dedication. The point is that all the images should cohere in a unified symbolism suggestive of one or other (if not both) of these two symbolic narratives: that of the life of Christ (and his saints) and that of salvation history as a whole. If these principles are adopted, the only thing that is prescriptive is that, in either narrative, the altar symbolizes the Passion. Wherever the eye has started its journey, when it arrives at the altar it has arrived at the Passion, whether in the story of Christ’s life or in the entire history of salvation. Images of the Resurrection, Ascension, Christ enthroned in glory, the eschatological banquet, etc., would therefore be most appropriate wherever the eye naturally goes next: the east wall or the ceiling (if not both).

The Form and Style of Artistic Depiction

Deriving from the need both to have art integrated with architecture and to do equal justice to the divine and human natures of Christ, we can then ask: What form or style of architectural and artistic representation is appropriate for a given church? Moving on from the principle of symbolic integrity, I would like to derive a principle of stylistic complementarity. Having affirmed the unity of the divine and human natures of Christ in the symbolism of the organizational schema of the imagery, we need to create liturgical spaces in which we can worship God as entirely integrated people, that is, with both our faculties of reason and intuition, or thoughts and feelings. Just as we affirm the integrity of Christ as one Person, human and divine, so, in order to be conformed to his image, we need to approach God as integrated human beings, whose thoughts are informed by our feelings and whose feelings are reasonable. Here we can draw on the teaching of the fifth-century Church father, Diadochos of Photike. He believed that as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, our feelings became disconnected from our reasoning; and that only the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ make it possible for human beings to regain their integrity. This seems to me to be very close to the thinking of Benedict XVI on the necessary integrity of thinking and feeling. To worship God with our minds alone would be to reduce ourselves to the state of the iconoclasts, to split ourselves in two, and at the same time to deny the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures. On the other hand, to rely only on our emotions could lead us anywhere, since we would not be able to make critical judgements about the innate goodness or evil of what our feelings were drawing us towards. The architectural form of the building, therefore, together with the schema and type of its imagery, should, as a [24] symbolic unity, draw us as whole, integrated people to complete attention to what is happening in the liturgy.

I think that when viewed in this way, the architectural and artistic style of a church should strive to be complementary rather than identical, helping to unite our rational and intuitive natures in an integrated attentiveness to God as whole people. One way of doing this might be to combine realistic, emotive art with architecture that is ordered and symmetrical, and in that sense “rational”. Neoclassical architecture combined with highly representational art, as found in many churches of the High Renaissance, is an example of this.

Gothic architecture on the other hand has always been intended to elevate the imagination and spirit into realms of contemplation inaccessible to verbal reasoning. On the principle of complementarity I would therefore argue that in Neogothic churches the most approriate art is that which is figural but not representational, such as the idealized, abstract art of the middle ages.

But are we simply to be left with the option of replicating mediaeval and Renaissance styles? It is precisely by having an understanding of the principles of integrity and complementarity that the designer can be liberated to explore a wide variety of artistic idioms to create appropriate liturgical space: one that incorporates symbolism of the life of Christ and salvation history, and integrates representational art that can be applied to austere, symmetrical architecture to achieve this. The more pressing problem is knowing how to create modern idealized art to complement emotively uplifting architecture. What we need is western art that enshrines the same principles as those found in eastern iconography, while remaining in the western tradition of art. I am therefore not suggesting the slavish adoption of the compositional principles of Orthodox iconography. This iconography—literally “icon writing”—needs to be read by those nurtured in the Orthodox tradition. It cannot simply be lifted out of its context and put into another ecclesiological culture (particularly since it has a sacramental significance in Orthodoxy that art does not have in the West).

The use of single perspective composition, for example, is characteristically Western, and I think should continue to be normative. But there are compositional principles common to the idealized art of both east and west, and it is on this basis that new art can be created. For the sake of convenience I am going to call this new geometric art appropriate for Gothic churches not “Byzantine” or even “medieval,” but “Platonic,” since it will be composed on Euclidean/Platonic principles combined with the use of a single perspective. But it will, like Byzantine and medieval art, not be highly modeled but look relatively “flat” (or in the case of sculpture, “stiff”). So where should we begin our journey towards modern Platonic church art?

The Mother of God Enthoned in Glory with Saints Benedict and Scholastica, Saint Maurus Chapel, Beuron, Germany. Architect Desiderius Lenz, artist Gabriel Wüger. Photo: Wuger

Peter Lenz and the Aesthetics of Beuron3

To those who wish to develop the interior iconography of neoclassical churches, I leave the foregoing observations, and the suggestion that fully modeled, naturalistic art composed in dynamically complex schemata would be the best starting point, because it would complement the order and symmetry of the architecture. But I would like to concentrate on the future of neo-Gothic art. The medieval ideals of neo-Gothic art and architecture were part of the wider cultural movement of European Romanticism. The Tractarian Movement of the Church of England was part of this movement, and Pugin’s conversion to Catholicism bequeathed to Britain the neo-Gothic as a dominant influence for both Anglican and Catholic churches. From Britain it spread throughout Europe and the British Empire. In the middle of the nineteenth century the sculptor and painter Peter (in religion, Desiderius) Lenz, whose early training had involved making neo-Gothic furniture, was dissatisfied with naturalistic Renaissance art. Through studying classical and early Christian art he discovered exactly what the artist Jay Hambidge was to find in the early twentieth century: the Euclidian geometric principles that underpin Egyptian, Greek, and some Byzantine art.4 Significantly, both Lenz and Hambidge, with their trained artists’ eyes, first discerned these geometrical compositional features in the study of Greek vases. What they found were applications of the golden ratio (Greek letter “phi” j) to area and volume that had not been known to Renaissance thinkers, because in translating Euclidean and Platonic geometric writings [25] into Latin, the Greek word for “area” had been mistranslated to read “line.” The rediscovery of root rectangles revealed the compositional principles of both Egyptian and Greek schemata. But while Hambidge was to continue his researches to incorporate principles of phyllotaxis, and came to concentrate on the dynamic symmetry of both root rectangles and the logarithmic spiral,5 Lenz was overpowered by the proportions present in drawings he found of Egyptian art. His reaction was so strong that it constituted for him an artistic conversion. He rejected the naturalistic art of the Renaissance and was convinced that he had found the universal canon of proportion and arrangement that had been present in early Christian art but had been lost in subsequent generations. At the same time he remained committed to medieval aesthetics that incorporate both Gothic architecture and “flat” art. The artistic result of Lenz’s thinking can be seen in his own work and in the School of Beuron art generally. His geometric principles are to be found in his unfinished The Aesthetics of Beuron.6 Lenz was in many ways a visionary, akin to William Blake, and his canon is so esoteric that it is difficult to understand its principles. But the presence in his art of root rectangles (particularly √5, also important to Hambidge because of its special relationship to the golden ratio, together with symmetrical composition and simplified abstract representation, is obvious. On these, if not on the entirety of Lenz’s canon, our future Platonic art can be based.

It is significant that, just as Pythagoras discovered the 1:0.618 ratio first by noting the relationship between the relative length of strings on a musical instrument and their musical pitch, so Lenz became absorbed in the relationship between these ratios by experimenting musically with an instrument known as a monochord. He was indeed first drawn to the Benedictine monastery of Beuron through the book Choral Music and Liturgy by Benedikt Sauter, who had spent time at Solesmes, and was convinced that there were inherent principles of harmonic unity that represent universal numeric relationships.7 This is a given of Platonism, and through his extensive reading of Platonists both pagan and Christian (particularly Saint Augustine), Lenz became convinced that the universals expressed in the chant of Solesmes and Beuron were the very ones he was seeking to embody in his art. For Plato and those in the Platonic tradition, the purest art is that which conforms most fully to the great underlying fundamental geometric principles: not the precise observation and representation of natural objects that was sought in Renaissance art. What both Sauter and Lenz were doing was in fact rediscovering the Pythagorean Platonic belief that, given that there are geometric principles that are inherent in all things, the characteristics of form have in and of themselves an effect that is moral.8 Indeed the ancient Greek “modes” (scales) of music, upon which the “tones” (scales) of Orthodox chant are based, were thought to have a moral influence when played to people, a belief accepted by many Church fathers.9

The link between Platonic (Beuron) art, Platonic (Solesmes) Gregorian chant, and the Benedictine order is thus not only close, but intrinsic.10 Through his study of Gregorian chant Lenz came to emphasize the simple numbers closest to unity, namely 1–6. From the “hexachord” of Gregorian chant he developed his “senarium,” in which each number was represented by a different shape, with 6 (thought by both Vitruvius and Augustine to be the perfect number) expressed as a six-pointed star, the key component of Lenz’s canon.

Albert Gleizes and Platonic Art in the Twentieth Century

Lenz’s theoretical legacy reached a wider audience as a result of the translation of The Aesthetics of Beuron into French by the artist Paul Sérusier, a pupil of Paul Gaugin. Sérusier also gave a more practical explanation of Lenz’s rather esoteric writings in his ABC de la Peinture (1921). Through the [26] works of Sérusier, Lenz’s theories of both liturgical art and music came to the attention of the equally esoteric artist, Albert Gleizes. Gleizes was as convinced as Lenz had been of the fundamentally sacred character of Platonically proportioned art. He also agreed that the same Platonic ratios underpin Gregorian chant. At this point tensions between the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions arise. Crudely put, the distinction between Platonism and Aristotelianism is manifest in our distinction between the arts and sciences. The thought processes of Platonists tend towards the synthesizing of disparate observations into a unified whole. This involves identifying universal underlying principles, in the way that Byzantine/Orthodox iconography does, and which Lenz and Gleizes attempted. Aristotelians on the other hand prefer to identify, analyze, and categorize discrete objects and phenomena.11 Gleizes believed that the Platonic/Aristotelian dichotomy was represented in the “Platonic” Benedictine Gregorian chant and Beuron art, in contrast to the Aristotelian/Thomist Dominican approach to art represented by Father Pie-Raymond Régamey, who was responsible for giving commissions to artists such as Henri Matisse and Le Corbusier. Régamey’s dislike of Gleizes was indeed part of his more general disapproval of the tradition of Beuron art and a thoroughly Thomist hostility to Platonism.

But in keeping with the principle of complementarity that I have outlined, I suggest that the tension between the Platonic and Aristotelain traditions should itself be seen as a corporate human manifestation of the “schizophrenia” described by Diadochos of Photike: the disjunction between the rationally analytical capacity of human beings and their ability to synthesize perceptions into a unified whole. On the principle of complementarity as I have described it, I would like to argue that “scientific” Renaissance art, with its basis in observation of nature, should not be regarded as the antithesis to abstract Platonic art, but rather as its complement. They should in turn both be employed in churches whose architectural style is complementary to their own.12 Combining the principle of complementarity with an overall scheme that follows the narrative either of the life of Christ or of the history of salvation (themselves affirming the complementarity of Christ’s divine and human natures) would satisfy the principle of the necessary symbolic unity of building, art, and liturgy.

The dome of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Swan So Fine

The Future of Ecclesiastical Art in the West

So how do we go about creating Platonic art “for today”? The very question is mistaken and derives from postmodernism. We have been forced into such a high degree of historical self-consciousness that we have been made to “try too hard” to belong to our age. But all art is going to reflect the period of history that the artist belongs to, as long as it is based on understood principles and does not merely copy past styles. Once artists are taught the aesthetic principles and theology that underpin the art of the past, they cannot help but create art that is “of their time.” This phenomenon can indeed be seen in many new Orthodox churches. Their architectural and iconographic principles have not changed since the fourteenth century, but no one seeing, for example, St Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff, Wales, for example, could doubt that it had been made at any time prior to the late twentieth century. To the past then we must return, to study the great art of both the Renaissance and the Platonic tradition, in order to create new art to incorporate into the churches of today. But only a knowledge of both the aesthetic principles and the liturgical symbolism of the art of the past will capture its spirit, so that it can be given a new form for the future.

The interior of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Swan So Fine