Make the Form Conform

by David Clayton on September 28, 2009

When considering the suitability of art for its purpose, style – ‘form’ – is as important as the content. It is through the characteristic style the invisible truths relating to what is painted are conveyed. This is also how we distinguish one liturgical artistic tradition from another, for example, the iconographic from the baroque. This article describes in broad terms what characterises each of the Church’s liturgical artistic traditions. It is my intention to write a series of articles that describe in much greater detail how each tradition does this starting with sacred geometry, and how much modern art deviates from these norms.

Every time I paint I have to ask myself two questions: what will I paint? And how will I paint it? The answers to these questions govern the content and the form, respectively, of my finished painting and in turn their conformity to what is good, true and beautiful.

Most discussions of Christian art that I read focus on the significance of the content. This is appropriate, of course, but in focusing on content, one must not forget that form is a vital component. I must seek to ensure that the form conforms, so to speak, to these transcendentals. This is not only the responsibility of the artist. Patrons must be aware of this too. When as I am selecting art done by other artists, no matter what the purpose, I must have some criteria to guide me, so that what I pick is good and appropriate to the purpose.

My approach is first to disregard personal taste.  Rather than ask, do I like it? I ask first, is this true? If the content and form in combination seem to be conveying a message that is contravention of truth, then I will reject it. I must acknowledge the possibility that my judgment as to what is beautiful is flawed, so regardless of how attractive I might find the painting, I try to judge first based upon truth. I know that beauty and truth cannot be in opposition, so if reason tells me that something does not conform to truth, then I will disregard my sense of its beauty, which is more intuitive and less easy to rationalize, in this case. However, personal taste should not be ignored altogether. Once I have done my best to make a judgment in regard to truth, then I ask myself the question, do I like it? (or if it is to be seen others, will it be liked?)

It is easier to see how one can relate truth to content. If what is shown is contrary to the message of the gospels, for example, then it is false[1]. But what is truth in relation to form? This is a more difficult question to answer.

Perhaps the most important factor that governs my ability to do this is an understanding of the nature of the human person and his relationship with God and the rest of creation.

All of creation is made by God so that we might know Him through it. Therefore an image of any aspect of creation must do this also – so a landscape, for example, must portray the beauty of the scenery depicted in such a way that the image draws the person who sees it to God, its Creator. Mankind has a privileged place in the hierarchy of Creation and so when painting the human figure, there is a special responsibility of the artist to reflect the truth and beauty of the human person. Because the human figure consists of a profound unity of body and soul, the artist must reveal both. So the figure must have a recognizable human body, but in addition must be portrayed as a thinking feeling person. When we meet someone in the flesh, we know the spiritual aspects of a person most obviously through observation of their actions and words over a period of time. The artist who paints (or sculpts) is forced to create a snapshot, frozen in time. Nevertheless he must somehow reveal the spiritual through the material. To this end, the good Christian artist will introduce controlled deviations from a strict photographic representation. This partial abstraction when done well reveals more, not less, of the reality of what is portrayed.

To abstract means literally to draw out and so in this context the artist is drawing out the truth. It is this process of partial abstraction that gives an artist or artists work its characteristic style. When that style reveals truth the product is a beautiful idealization. When it hides truth, as much modern art does, the result is an ugly distortion. The work of the Christian artist, in the context of figurative art, must always contain this balance of naturalism and idealization. To do so in accordance with the teachings of the Church requires the artist to be theologian, philosopher, liturgist and craftsman all rolled into one. Fortunately, the Church offers guidance here in the form of tradition.

The identifiable traditions of authentically Catholic art are distinguishable from one another stylistically because they seek to reveal different aspects of humanity in relation to God and creation. Those who have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will be aware that there are different stages of human existence. First, there is man before the Fall, called Original Man, when Adam and Eve were ‘naked without shame’ and enjoyed innocence that comes from dependence upon God. Second there is Historical Man, mankind after the Fall, experiencing the fear and resentment that results from a dislocation in the relationships with each other and with God. Though not as good as man ought to be, Historical man is still good and has the potential for sanctity. As historical men and women, we are all too familiar with this aspect of the human condition. Third there is Eschatological Man: in this stage we fulfill our human purpose, partaking of the divine nature in heaven in communion with the Trinity in a perfect exchange of love and in perfect and perpetual bliss.

The iconographic tradition[2] reveals Eschatological Man. Drawing on biblical episodes such as the Transfiguration, the style shows for example the divine light shining from the saints and eliminates the illusion of space to show that the heavenly dimension is outside time and space.

The baroque reveals Historical Man. In contrast with the iconographic style, the baroque sets out to create an illusion of space using devices such as perspective, and shows deep cast shadow from external light sources. Shadow represents presence of evil and suffering, which is contrasted with brightly lit areas representing the Light that overcomes the darkness.

The gothic is the third Catholic figurative tradition that is cited in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Pope Benedict XVI as an authentic Catholic liturgical tradition. This appears to oscillate between the styles of Eschatological and Historical Man. Like the spires of the gothic churches, they reach up to heaven, but they are firmly planted on earth. It might be argued that this reflects the fact that although we can never fully make that transformation to Eschatological Man in this world, there is nevertheless a continuum between the two states along which we can make progress through the transforming process of participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The late-gothic artist Fra Angelico, for example, used elements of both the visual vocabulary of the increased naturalism that was developing around him, such as perspective and shadow and the iconographic prototype of light and ‘flatness’. His selection depended upon the theological point he wanted to communicate.

I am not aware of a tradition that has a distinctive form that has emerged from a focus on the theology of Original Man, although Fra Angelico’s late gothic/early Renaissance form could be the appropriate form. Certainly, if I were set the task, this would be my starting point. This is just early speculation based upon passages written by the Church Fathers that I have read, which describe the appearance of Original Man as a slightly more naturalistic Eschatological Man, clothed in splendor.

When I paint I aim to let tradition guide me in my work as far as possible. If I want to paint the human figure, the first question I should ask myself is, ‘What form of man?’ If I decide that I will to portray Eschatological Man, then rather than trying to develop my own individual style, the sensible thing is to go to the iconographic tradition and let the principles of that tradition guide my hand. This will not lead to pastiche, for every truly living tradition is defined by principles, rather than strict rules, which are reapplied in every age. So, for example, someone who knows icons can recognize within that tradition geographical variations and place it to with, perhaps, 50 years. Only if I am seeking to communicate something previously uncommunicated should I look to create something original; and then I should do as artists did in the past and seek out the guidance of the theologians, philosophers and liturgists of the Church.

Does this rule out any new forms? Hasn’t it all been done already? This will be clear as time progresses. But it is conceivable to me that discussion on how to create the image of Original Man could create something that previously unimagined in art. Certainly in his Letter to Artists, John Paul II called on artists to find new ways to represent human sexuality as gift. Maybe this will be the art of the next age? But if it is to be so, it will be a dialogue between the artists and the theologians, philosophers and liturgists of the Church that will shape the new form, just as similar dialogues shaped the established ones; and what will drive the development of new forms will be the need of the Church to articulate something new, or in a new way – not the whim of an artist who wants to stand out from the crowd.

The principles of being open to new forms, with the impetus for change coming from the Church rather than the artist; and the need for a balance of naturalism and idealism were expressed with great clarity Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, writing in 1947: ‘Recent works of art which lend themselves to the materials of modern composition, should not be universally despised and rejected through prejudice. Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve the correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism or to excessive “symbolism” and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration rather than the particular taste or talent of the individual artist.’[3]

I have only discussed liturgical form so far, which would placed inside the church, but what I say applies just as much to art that is not intended to be seen in a church, or even to devotional art. This is because all good art should be rooted in the liturgy. It is the cult that is the foundation of Catholic culture. So even if the content is not obviously religious, such as with a landscape, the form can be liturgical and so the art then becomes a profane signpost, as it were, to the sacred liturgy. The baroque of the 17th century, for example, began is a liturgical art form intended for church, but it came to dominate the whole culture of the period so that all art, architecture and music was in conformity with it. Pius XII put it as follows: ‘The fine arts are really in conformity with religion when “as noblest handmaids they are at the service of divine worship”.’[4]

And non-figurative art? Much abstract art produced since the turn of the 20th century is based upon a secular understanding of the human person that is in opposition to the Catholic teaching. So, for example, some abstract expressionists sought to portray human emotion without any reference to the body of the human person. This is, in effect, an abstraction that goes beyond the bounds of truth. It seeks to remove the soul from the body altogether reflecting the error of dualism. For the Christian, emotion, though an aspect of the soul is revealed through the body. So we cannot portray human emotion fully in art without the portrayal of a body.

That is not to say that there is no legitimate Catholic form of non-figurative, ‘abstract’ art. As discussed briefly in my last article for the New Liturgical Movement, the traditional quadrivium, which are the ‘four ways’ that were the higher part of the seven liberal arts, sought to represent the divine order mathematically. The fact that mathematics can be conceived in the abstract and represented visually, allows for a patterned, geometric art form that is conformity with truth.

The Cosmati pavements of the 13th century are examples of this art form.

The mathematical description of the divine order also allows for the structuring and organization of time and space, and the design of just about anything, that is the culture in the fullest sense of the word  – the family, society, business, education – to be ordered liturgically by conformity to the cosmic order that points to the mind of the Creator. Sacred geometry and its applications will be discussed first in the next series of articles.

This article first appeared on the New Liturgical Movement.


[1] It should be noted that this does not rule out the possibility of the portrayal of the imagination provided that it directs the imagination of the viewer to something that is true, as in good childrens stories (and their illustrations), for example.
[2] This includes all the local variations that are consistent with the iconographic prototype, for example, the Romanesque in the West.
[3] Mediator Dei, 195
[4] Ibid, 196, quoting Pius XI, Constitution Divini cultus.

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