As part of its effort to answer Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a rebirth of beauty and reverence in the liturgy, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, has been upgrading and improving the liturgical art of its chapel, which is situated within a converted 18th century farm building on the campus.
Leading the effort is the school’s Artist-in-Residence, David Clayton, who recently completed a six-foot painted wooden cross that now hangs over the College’s wooden altar. The cross is built, Clayton said, “to hang low so that when the priest holds the host aloft, the figure of Christ is clearly visible to everyone in the congregation. The intention here is to make sure, as Pope Benedict has urged, that the focus is not on the personality of the priest but on the person of Christ.”
Trained both in Byzantine iconography and in the realist tradition of the European Great Masters, the Oxford-educated Clayton chose for the crucifix the Gothic mode that was popularized by St. Francis and his earliest disciples.
The style, Clayton said, evokes that of Byzantine icons “except that the face, in the Franciscan manner, reveals Jesus’ suffering. There is a six winged angel at Our Lord’s feet, and in the background are geometric designs based on octagons—recalling the ‘eighth,’ or eternal, day of creation.”
Catholic architect and artist Matthew Alderman, who is widely published on the subject of liturgical art—a topic on which he addressed Thomas More College in January 2009—said of Clayton’s new work: “Unlike many Catholic artists today, he understands at a very deep level both iconography and realistic painting, and it shows in his work. It’s also nice to see someone, while working in an ‘iconographic’ mode, basing his work on Western medieval Italian art rather than cribbing from Eastern iconography, which, while venerable, is also somewhat different in content from its historic equivalents in the Latin rite.”
Fr. John Healey, of St. Patrick’s Parish in Nashua, N.H., formally blessed the crucifix during a recent Sunday liturgy at the College. He said of the new artwork: “It is deeply moving. Our Lord’s terrible suffering on the Cross for the sins of men is clear, but He retains the dignity and serenity proper to the Lord of the Universe. That balance has been a hard one for some artists to maintain, but David Clayton has done so. The cross will serve very well its role in the liturgical life of the College—as a focal point for students and faculty in their prayer, a beautiful reminder of the Person with Whom we are called, for the sake of our souls, to maintain a deep personal friendship. The place of the crucifix in the chapel is in keeping with the Holy Father’s directives found in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, where he states that the faithful and the priest should be able to look directly at the crucifix. The central prominent place of the crucifix in our chapel at Thomas More is a response to Pope Benedict’s wishes.”
College president William Fahey welcomed the addition of the crucifix to the campus. “We are deeply privileged to be playing a part, however modest, in the rebirth of reverence in liturgy and beauty in art and culture, which Pope Benedict considers so important. It is my hope that David and the other talented members of our faculty will continue to add to this Catholic renewal in the works they produce, and in the formation they offer our students.”
“It’s a very powerful addition to our chapel,” said junior William Russell. “In the short time it has been hanging over the altar, I have found it immensely helpful in concentrating my thoughts and meditations during Mass. Just having it there serves as a kind of standing invitation to come into the Chapel and spend time with Lord,” he said.
Every student at Thomas More College takes as part of its new curriculum a year-long sequence with Prof. Clayton called the “Way of Beauty,” which explores the human experience of the beautiful and its roots in the Divine Order as revealed in the structure of music, geometry, and figurative art. Each student can, at no additional charge, study icon-painting with Clayton in extracurricular classes.
Clayton has created other works for the Thomas More chapel: a tender image of the Madonna and Child, and a large iconographic representation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The latter painting was unveiled in October 2009, at a Mass that consecrated the College to the Sacred Heart. The College has been restoring and decorating for the past several years, recently acquiring through the assistance of Fr. Richard Dion a beautiful brass tabernacle.
Plans are underway to construct a carved, Gothic wooden altar with reredos that would house the tabernacle at its center, and permit Mass to be said either facing the people or, in an option Pope Benedict has advocated, facing the altar. It must also accommodate the Melkite Catholic liturgy, which is celebrated one Sunday per month at the Thomas More chapel by Fr. Roger Boucher.