At a recent symposium on the campus of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, leading Catholic artists agreed that liturgical piety is at the foundation of a culture of beauty. When art and architecture—and the culture as a whole—is deeply rooted in the liturgy it serves, liturgical piety is reinforced.
Father Thomas Kocik, contributor to the New Liturgical Movement web site and former editor of Antiphon, chaired the discussion. He began the evening by emphasizing this link between the liturgy and culture.
“The word ‘culture’ derives from the Latin cultus, meaning what we cherish or worship” said Kocik. “Christian culture is thus centered on Christ, the incarnate beauty of God. The ‘source and summit of the Christian life,’ (Lumen Gentium, #11) and therefore of Christian culture, is the liturgy: Holy Mass, the sacraments, the different Hours of prayer that sanctify the entire day. In liturgical prayer, art and culture—indeed all human activity— finds true meaning; for at the center of the liturgy is Christ, the source and summit of all human hope..” (The full text of Fr. Kocik’s address can be found at David Clayton’s blog, www.TheWayofBeauty.org).
Fr. Kocik then introduced the artists, and each gave a short description of his work and experiences as working artists, as well as the role they play in reestablishing a culture of beauty in the West.
Professor David Clayton, Director of the Way of Beauty Program at Thomas More College, spoke about the importance of reclaiming Christian culture.
“The power of culture should not be underestimated,” Clayton said. “In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI traces the history of cultural decline which began following the Enlightenment. It was then that the culture of faith was separated from the broader culture, essentially creating Catholic ghettoes separated from the mainstream. If we are to reclaim the culture for Christ, we must reestablish this connection. Artists can play a key role in this effort by leading artistic renewal within the Church that is firmly rooted in the liturgy. If this can be accomplished, then I believe that our Catholic culture will be so beautiful and compelling that it transforms mainstream culture. History proves that this approach works, and it is part of the New Evangelization that the Holy Father has asked Catholic artists to contribute to.”
David Mayernik, an internationally recognized artist and architect who serves as associate professor with the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, emphasized the preeminent role Rome plays in forming Catholic artists.
“Rome is not simply at the center of Catholic Faith,” said Mayernik, “it is an essential area of study for all artists. Rome is the fountainhead of what we as artists do. It offers us a sense of heaven. Through its art, Rome enables us to translate the ancient world, and the Church conveys this world to us while continually renewing it. Rome is the curator of Western culture, and I am committed to reflecting that culture in my architectural work.”
Portrait painter Henry Wingate, a leading naturalistic painter and teacher at the Thomas More College Way of Beauty Atelier summer program, spoke about the ways in which artists can preserve tradition. Copying the great artists of history, he said, is imperative for any aspiring artist.
“Copying the works of old masters is unpopular today, but I find great value in recreating on my canvas what the Old Masters created centuries ago. It has always been an important part of training artists in the past. Through copying, we learn directly from the greats and, as importantly, the form of the tradition is transmitted. John Singer Sargent, for example, went to Spain in the 19th Century and copied every painting by the great artist Diego Velazquez in the Prado Museum in Madrid.”
One questioner asked if some artistic skills have been lost forever and if that means, in turn, that we have little hope in recreating the glories of the past.
Mayernik said that the situation is not hopeless at all, provided that we aim for the highest standards: “Artists today are rarely critiqued”, he said. “Their work is praised for its ‘authenticity’ and ‘creativity,’ when, in reality, their work is rooted in nothing and means nothing.”
“If we are to reclaim those skills of ages past, artists must not be too easily satisfied and must be critical of their work. They must constantly seek to improve upon their work or else they simply will not improve.”
Each artist agreed that Catholic artists today must understand that they play a key role in reestablishing the habit of tradition. A sense of tradition has vanished, and it must be built again, handing on to the next generation skills and knowledge so that, with God’s grace, rising artists can build upon this art and improve the quality of work.
The evening concluded with a discussion on the ways in which artists communicate the truths of Christianity through art. David Clayton noted that artistic styles change to reflect the needs of the age: “The Baroque was a new style, but it was not revolutionary. When a new art form is developed, it is because a new need arises. A new form will develop to complement the characteristics of our modern age, and it will develop out of a dialogue between artists, theologians, and Church leaders. In short, it will communicate perennial truths in a way that modern man understands them and is drawn closer to God.”