In his November 18 general audience, Pope Benedict offered a sophisticated capsule history of the Christian architecture, focusing on Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres and Notre Dame. More than that, Pope Benedict explained their deeper religious meaning—in terms that are strikingly similar to the themes that govern the Way of Beauty program at Thomas More College.
The College’s Artist-in-Residence David Clayton, greeted the papal address with glee. “These statements by Pope Benedict vindicate our approach—which perhaps shouldn’t surprise me, since I’ve based so much of what we do on the pope’s own writings,” said Clayton.
Clayton will discuss the Pope’s remarks and Thomas More College’s Way of Beauty Program on Air Maria Radio on Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:00PM. Clayton will be featured on the program, “Sacred Treasures with Kathy Duggan,” which can be heard live at www.radiomaria.us.
The pope told pilgrims, “the force of the Romanesque style and the splendor of the Gothic cathedrals remind us that the via pilchritudinis, the way of beauty, is a privileged and fascinating way to approach the Mystery of God. What is beauty, which writers, poets, musicians, and artists contemplate and translate into their language, if not the reflection of the splendor of the Eternal Word made flesh?”
Clayton said that Thomas More College’s required Way of Beauty sequence teaches students the history, meaning, and practice of Christian art in several genres. The program is designed to help recreate among students the integrated Catholic sensibility that gave birth to such wonders as the Gothic cathedrals.
“The course is directed towards the creation of beauty as well as its appreciation,” said Clayton. “We chant the Liturgy of the Hours, relating the structure of the Office to the Mass and the heavenly Liturgy. We link the form found in the music to the principles of geometric harmony found in the visual arts. Then we use those principles for drawing. So the Way of Beauty courses weave together geometry, musical harmony, and theology—just as the great artists, writers, and thinkers of the Middle Ages always tried to do.”
Clayton also trains students to create sacred art. A graduate of Oxford University, Clayton studied the theology and technique of Eastern Christian art from a Russian master, and the classical techniques of realist painting once practiced by the likes of Velasquez at an exclusive atelier in Florence. Now he offers training in those traditions to interested students—and to visitors who wish to take part in Thomas More College’s Way of Beauty summer program. Recently, an icon created by Clayton was blessed in the College chapel as part of the College’s consecration to the Sacred Heart.
The selection from St. Augustine chosen by Pope Benedict in his address is one that Clayton has long pondered himself. St. Augustine wrote, “Ask the beauty of the earth, ask the beauty of the sea, ask the beauty of the ample and diffused air. Ask the beauty of heaven, ask the order of the stars, ask the sun, which with its splendor brightens the day; ask the moon, which with its clarity moderates the darkness of night. Ask the beasts that move in the water, that walk on the earth, that fly in the air: souls that hide, bodies that show themselves; the visible that lets itself be guided, the invisible that guides. Ask them! All will answer you: Look at us, we are beautiful! Their beauty makes them known. This mutable beauty, who has created it if not Immutable Beauty?” (Sermo CCXLI, 2: PL 38, 1134).
To this, Pope Benedict added: “Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord help us to rediscover the way of beauty as one of the ways, perhaps the most attractive and fascinating, to be able to find and love God.”
“Traditional artistic training not only taught people the skills, but also the ability to apprehend beauty,” Clayton said. “This aspect can be taught to all, and learning it can transform a student—open him up to beauty, increase his capacity to love what is good, and elevate his soul to God.”
Echoing the Pope, Clayton continued, “The traditional quadrivium is essentially the study of pattern, harmony, symmetry and order in nature and mathematics, viewed as a reflection of the Divine Order—which is best reflected in the rhythms and cycles of the liturgy.” To this end, all Thomas More College freshmen learn how to chant the office of Lauds.
The pope’s talk laid heavy emphasis on the centrality of harmony and symmetry in sacred art: “Gothic cathedrals showed a synthesis of faith and art expressed harmoniously through the universal and fascinating language of beauty, which still today awakens wonder. Thanks to the introduction of pointed vaults, which were supported by robust pillars, it was possible to notably raise the height [of these churches]. The thrust to the sublime was an invitation to prayer and at the same time was a prayer. The Gothic cathedral thus wished to translate in its architectural lines souls longing for God.”
Pope Benedict XVI continues, “Moreover, with the new technical solutions, the perimeter walls could be penetrated and embellished by colorful stained glass windows. In other words, the windows were transformed into great luminous figures, very adapted to instructing the people in the faith. In them—scene by scene—were narrated the life of a saint, a parable or other biblical events. From the painted windows a cascade of light was shed on the faithful to narrate to them the history of salvation and to involve them in this history.”
“This is precisely the style of art history emphasized in the Way of Beauty classes,” Clayton said.
Oxford University-based theologian and editor Statford Caldecott acclaims the Way of Beauty course as “one of the most original features of the revised curriculum at Thomas More College. At the same time, it is one of the most traditional, in the best sense of the word. A recovery of such a vital element in the Liberal Arts is long overdue,” Caldecott said.
Rev. John Saward agrees. The author of The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty (Ignatius Press), he writes of the Way of Beauty program: “I am tempted to apply the phrase Cardinal Newman used to describe the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England: Here is the promise of a ‘second spring.’ At the very moment when functionalism and nihilism seem to be triumphant in secular society, a program appears in a Catholic college that demonstrates the undying vitality of arts ordered according to truth, goodness, and beauty.”
One who completed Clayton’s training in icon-painting, recent graduate Joe Ellis (Class of 2009), adds: “Learning the history of iconography fit perfectly into our education as modeled after the medieval monastic college. The icon class was the perfect combination of all of our major studies: it incorporated the mathematics of Euclid, the philosophy of the early Church, the literature of the Gospels, and the inquiry into the psyche of both the artists and their subjects,” he said.