Is some sacred art too naturalistic?

15 04 2010

This article arose from a conversation with Shawn Tribe of the New Liturgical Movement website where it first appeared, who mentioned to me that he felt that many of the best examples of sacred art in the naturalistic style that we are being painted today lack something when compared with the baroque masters of the past. He felt that they looked too individualised – like portraits of the person next door, which makes it difficult to identify the figure portrayed with the saint and the ideals that the saint represents.  Is it possible that these modern examples of sacred art are too naturalistic? I agreed him and the following are my thoughts on the subject:

There has been something about many modern examples of sacred art in the Western, naturalistic tradition – and here I am talking about those who are the best we have at the moment and who are genuinely trying to work within the Christian tradition – that doesn’t seem quite right to me also. These artists are highly skilled and this obvious, yet while I like the portraits painted by the best of them, I am not as enthusiastic about their sacred art.

In writing this I wish to note, that I am speaking here of the best Catholic artists of today, who are seeking to re-establish the Christian form. My intent is encourage artists on to even greater things, not to discourage. Most of us artists are aware today that we are just doing our best to contribute to a hoped for ‘new epiphany of beauty’ and we are not yet emulating the glory of the past. We see ourselves as setting the foundation for future generations to do the required work. This is why I haven’t used modern examples in the discussion. Also, I am presenting what is a personal contribution to a continuing discussion, rather than a definitive opinion.

All Christian figurative art is a balance between naturalism – likeness to physical appearances – and abstraction. The latter is the stylization that enables the artist to reveal invisible truths by visible means. We are used to a high degree of stylization in icons, but are less aware that is there too, though more subtly employed, in naturalistic sacred art too. The problem with the modern sacred art is that this balance, though perhaps right for portraits,  is not right for sacred art.

I think perhaps the seeds of this lie in the difference between 19th century academic art, and the baroque of the 17th century. I am influenced here not just by my own taste but also by Pope Benedict XVI who has written that generally he favours the art of the baroque period over that of the 19th century. (I don’t claim to know his thoughts on this particular point however.)

Most of the best artists today who are painting in the Western naturalistic tradition were trained in ateliers that teach the academic method as it was in the 19th century. Although the techniques learnt were the same in each case, the there were subtle differences in style between 19th century naturalism (sometimes called ‘Realism’) and 17th century baroque and this reflects a difference in the ethos that underlies each. The impetus for the formation of the baroque was the Counter-Reformation, which built on the work of the great artists of the High Renaissance, which preceded it. Although not all baroque art had an explicitly sacred purpose, stylistically it had its roots firmly in the liturgical art form.

By the 19th century, the art of the teaching academies – ‘academic’ art – had become detached from its Christian ethos. So although there would be individual artists who were Catholic, it was no longer broadly accepted as a Catholic form. In this period, in regard to the painting of people, the main focus was portraiture, as this was where the money was to be made, rather than liturgical art. That is not to say that there was no sacred art all, but that portraiture became the driving force and so this is what formed the style. Characterising the difference in a nutshell: in the 17th century, you had artists whose training was directed to the painting of sacred art turning their hand to portraiture (and other mundane subjects); in the 19th century (and even more so today) you have the reverse – artists whose training is directed to portraiture (as well as still life and to a lesser degree landscape) turning their hand to sacred art.

Portrait painting, by its very nature, stresses the individual characteristic of the person. The Romantic period of the early 19th century added a new dimension. The artist was encouraged now to communicate in addition, their personal feelings about the person. This idea was not accepted by everybody immediately, but from this point we see a steady development of a sense of intimate involvement with the sitter. I do not object this to this in all cases — I think it can work very well in portraiture. I love the portraits of the great 19th century artists (especially, for example, those of the American Boston school, which is the original source of the training I received in an atelier in Florence 100 years later). Although the unique aspects of the person are important in sacred art too, it must not be at the cost of communicating those aspects which are common to all of us. It is a matter of setting the right balance.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are in the likeness of God in those aspects that are subject to the Fall and so can be improved with God’s grace. These are the very aspects that saints reveal to us as an ideal and which are presented to us as an inspiration to do the same. In this they point to the Christ-like qualities that we should all aim to imitate. It is this idealized aspect that, in my opinion, is missing from the academic art both of the 19th century and it is even more pronounced in its current manifestation. The result in the context of sacred art is very often a painting that communicates an over-familiarity with the individual. It looks like a set from a Victorian melodrama – with a friend or relative dressed up as Our Lady, rather than Our Lady herself.

Contrast also William Bougeureau’s Virgin and Lamb [above], painted at the turn of the 20th century with Raphael’s tondo the Alba Madonna of 1511 [below].

Raphael deliberately idealized his work, to evoke the heavenly ideal, by basing it on the idealized features of ancient Greek art. Bougeureau’s Madonna, on the other hand, is tinged with a sentimentality that is, in my opinion, inappropriate for the subject which result, I believe, from this over intimate rendering of the person. However, looking another piece of work by the same artist, but this time a portrait, we see a work of both great vigour and beauty. His style is appropriate here, I feel. As another piece that has this staged-pose look that Shawn describes, I would cite also Jules Bastien-Lapage’s St Joan [below].

Bastien-Lepage was famous for painting rural scenes of peasants. Although rendered with dazzling skill (perhaps beyond the level of any artist I know of today) it still has the look of a model, dressed up in peasant garb rather than something that points to the saint. I would struggle to pray in front of this in a church. It is just too present and immediate. And, like Bougeureau, Bastien-Lepage’s portraits are, in my opinion, splendid.

So assuming we accept the analysis, how can we avoid it this problem today? I think that the answer lies in the training.

The style within a tradition has always been transmitted by the Masters we study. So, artists seeking to produce should study and copy, in the spirit of understanding, the works of the Masters of liturgical art they admire. Although I love the work of Raphael, and there are many aspects of his work I love to be able to emulate, I would not want to do so in this particular regard – if anything he swings in the opposite direction and the idealization is overemphasized for my tastes. I would go first for the great artists of baroque naturalism, for example, Georges de la Tour [below], Velazquez, Ribera and Zurbaran [below the de la Tours].

All of these artists, (the examples shown are de la Tour’s St Joseph and Zurbaran’s St Francis) presented saints with a balance of the individuality and idealisation that strikes the right balance. If there was a more recent artist whose sacred art succeeds, I would suggest the 20th century Italian, Pietro Annigoni. I saw his St Joseph [below] hanging in a church in Florence alongside baroque masters and despite its modern appearance in many other respects, it did not look out of place at all.

There is another aspect that could be introduced into the training of all artists that wasn’t present in the 17th century, but which nevertheless might help. Artists cannot help but be influenced by the art we have seen and we live in time in which we are bombarded by photographic imagery in all its manifestations. As a result the subtleties of the balance of the particular and the ideal that we are discussing are not easily reproduced even if we want to. I think that some exposure to a form of painting in which the idealized form is much more obvious and is clearly linked to theology would be beneficial. I would always recommend, therefore, that even an artist who eventually wants to specialize in the Western naturalistic tradition include some iconography in their foundational training. The actual experience of creating icons is more likely to impress these values upon the souls of artists so that intuitively they will include them in their own work.




17 responses

23 04 2010

Great blog. I am working my way back in through the entries. You have touched upon a very important discussion. At its base is the communication of symbols. The balance of the particular and the universal is not easy to achieve.

I would agree with you that it can be traced back to training. A training in a certain technique or tradition usually involves accepting a process. In the 19th century that process involved working directly from life, solely. One sets up the model in the desired pose and then transcribes those observations onto the canvas, stone, etc. It is very literal. Earlier epochs still held ‘Nature’ as the manifestation of God on earth. However, the particular was always subordinate to the idea. In the Renaissance and Baroque, one rarely sees a direct transcription of the model. The artist would come up with an idea(based in the language of Nature) and then use models to fill out and realize it. Michelangelo is an example of this. He would develop an idea from his imagination in his preliminary drawings. Later he would adapt model studies of the particulars.

28 04 2010
Douglas Bonneville

I’m astonished to read this article. First, I’m very excited about the blog. I’m your ninth subscriber 🙂

Second, you have articulated with great diplomacy the problem I have discussed among friends about the place of academic styles in a worship setting. Why they have prevalence at the moment, at least in terms of what has made news lately, is a mystery to me. It seems nostalgic in a wrong way. Good hearted in a sense, but lacking theological footing. While we must press on, we must press on with a clear understanding that realism does a disservice to the worship setting. I’m thinking of a crucifix by a well known Catholic painter that, while the painting is masterfully executed, makes me think of a man with no shirt in a studio with simulated day light, and not about the crucifixion. My mind goes to details about earthly things, rather than to heavenly things. His execution is flawless, but the philosophy comes up short. In summary, academic art in a worship setting gives me a feeling of embarrassment and not worship. Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but as an artist, I tend to think not.

I have in mind something I’ve not yet seen, but will know it when I see it. I think perhaps we are on the cusp of a new style for the 21st century that both nods to the past, encapsulates the visual languages of today, while at the same time purging the visual languages of today of their un-idealized “distractions”. It’s a bit wordy to try and describe, but you clearly articulated this above, from another angle:

“The problem with the modern sacred art is that this balance, though perhaps right for portraits, is not right for sacred art.”

Academic artists are skilled in the “art of the obvious”, but this is not what our culture needs. We need a modern language that is new and fresh, while containing and extending what we know about the best sacred art yet produced, perhaps summarized in Benedict’s preference for the Baroque. 20th century abstract art perhaps is a hat tip to new mysterious for our times, but only in the most puerile, rebellious way, perhaps as the simple rejection of spiritless neo-classicism. Benedict’s preference seems to me empty of nostalgia, and is rather a nod to the artists of the time who got it right for their times. In doing so, they tapped into the eternal, which makes their works still relevant today. Benedict and JPII wanted to see something new. The art of the New Evangelization, in my estimation, has not surfaced yet, I don’t think.

In essence, we need to recapture mystery as our culture is able to understand it visually and apply it to the best of what 20th and 21st century culture came up with. We can’t take back Picasso or recreate Michelangelo, so indeed we need to find a new language or languages that speak to where we are now.

29 04 2010

Thank you for this Douglas. My feeling is that we keep doing what is beginning to happen now. That is, we look to our traditions and immerse ourselves in them. This in itself is a gradual process and we are at the beginning. That is why I want to encourage what is happening. The same is going on with icon painting, another legitimate Catholic tradition. The third tradition is the gothic.

My personal feeling is that this is the one that could develop into the basis of the art of Vatican II. My own work is an attempt to reestablish this (to what degree of success is for others to say!) I feel that has the particular balance of naturalism and idealism that seems to appeal to the modern person and it retains a sense of mystery that draws one in. I am thinking of Fra Angelico as my prime exemplar. The problem with this is that it is not a living tradition in any sense. There are no masters, to my knowledge anyway, who are painting like this as their natural style. I have approached it by learning both the naturalistic and iconographic methods and then trying to imitate past works.

I do not know how it will all go, but my feeling is that once the traditions are properly established, then whichever speaks most eloquently to us today will start to develop its own life and voice and this will be the art of Vatican II. I might even be a combination of all three. One advantage of having become detached from our traditions is that we can take a look at them and in principle, reconnect with all three. It might be that what will develop is a unified vision of sacred art that selectively uses all three.

29 04 2010

Dear Douglas Thank you for your comment. Very interesting. I have posted a reply on the blog so you can have a look at it, but there is one additional thing that I didn’t say, and which I agree with you on. When the style does emerge, I have a strong belief that it will distinguish our times just as the baroque, the gothic, the Romanesque did theirs. The art will be connected to our tradition through participation in the same timeless principles, but distinctive as it applies to speak to and of our time. Best wishes David

29 04 2010
Douglas Bonneville

Hi David:

You briefly mention gothic up above. I assume you are referring to architecture, which has most certainly been a problem, most especially in churches built in the first decade after VII. Do you see a change in Church architecture you can point to? I haven’t followed American church architecture very much, but some of the new construction I have seen looks like a cross between the Romanesque and Shopping Mall, disappointingly. A change in liturgical and devotional art should seem to be married to some degree to similar changes in music, architecture, even literature at some point. Perhaps the changes in the pipeline are connected at some root level to the forthcoming adjustments to the Liturgy next year.

29 04 2010

I was thinking about gothic figurative art which stylistically is a naturalised iconography – keep your eyes on this blog and I am certain to be discussing it in time. However, what you say about architecture (and for that matter music) is true, I feel. The answer lies first to my mind in liturgical renewal, which is now happening, finally. Once we have that then the forms united to the liturgy will be beautiful. There are a few architects around resurrecting gothic or classical forms in churches. I think, just like the art, everything is getting better, but we have begun at a pretty low base!

4 05 2010
Lisa Andrews


Thank you for such an illuminating article. I am delighted to discover your blog and efforts to promote the truly sacred in liturgical art. As an artist trained in the naturalistic style, I, too, have struggled with balancing observed truth with evocation of divine truth. And my particular interest in bringing a renewed understanding of classic techniques specifically to Catholic sacred spaces left me feeling like I was marching against the tide. Your efforts and Shawn’s at the New Liturgical Movement give me hope that with intelligent discussion and critique, we can make progress. The issue will be cultivating an informed patronage that will support artists and encourage them to produce appropriate imagery, both for public spaces and for private devotion. Bravo.

10 05 2010
The Paintings of Henry Wingate « The Way of Beauty

[…] was inferior to that of the period 200 years before (see previous postings on this blog here, here and here, for more information on this). However, portraiture, and especially that of the Sargent […]

19 05 2010
Baroque Landscape « The Way of Beauty

[…] This is the first in a series of articles that I will be writing about landscape. I have written here about how baroque sacred art declined, in my opinion,  after the 17th century. However, landscape […]

6 08 2010
Baroque Sacred Art Exemplified « The Way of Beauty

[…] The light runs up and down the full figure of Christ. I was told when we were drawing and painting the figure in Florence to do the same thing so that the emphasis was on the whole person, reflecting a Christian humanism. (If you look at Velazquez’s famous crucifixion, you see the same effect, for example.) Accordingly, the features of the face are not emphasised by the artist more than the figure itself. This interest in the general at the expense of the particular, is very different from portraiture, in which the face is the most important aspect. It is one of the things that distinguishes 17th century sacred art from 19th century and much modern naturalistic sacred art, as discussed in a previous article, here. […]

6 08 2010

The Bougereau and Raphael paintings provide an interesting contrast. Leaving aside the sentimentality with which the Bougereau is not merely “tinged” but conceived from the outset there is a radical difference of approach to the practical business of producing an image. Key to Bougereau’s approach is fidelity to selected models. He is a copyist of nature. Raphael’s method involves a greater emphasis upon invention. This fact was brought home to me by seeing one of the studies he made for this painting where it is obvious that the model for the depiction of the Blessed Virgin was male – presumably a workshop assistant or apprentice.
Historically Raphael belongs to the period which saw the culmination of the traditional guild and apprenticeship system of training just before the beginning of the academies- at the other end of which we find Bougereau. Theorists from Leonardo onwards stressed study from nature as the key to artistic success. This, I venture to suggest, is the origin of what one might call “the tyranny of the model” which finds one consumation in Impressionism and another inbedevilling so much religious art carried out in a naturalistic idiom.
The solution?
Learn to draw in a conceptual manner like Raphael!

12 08 2010

Dear Patricius. Thank you for this. You put it very well and I agree with you. My sense is that although teh baroque naturalists (eg Velazquez, Ribera, de la Tours) would not have identified themselves with Raphael and more inclined to natural appearances than he was, nevertheless they did idealise by degree and certainly were not restricted to natural appearances in the way that Bougeureau was. There is a revealing appendix in John Rupert Martin’s great book, Baroque, which is an excerpt of a piece written by Rubens. In this he stresses the importance of cast drawing as part of the training and how important the choice of cast is, because, he says, (and I paraphrase) we rely on the images impressed upon us in training for this process of modifying what we see. If we don’t train with good images then we will instinctively reach for those in our memory anyway and won’t have control over what they are.

12 08 2010
Roseanne Sullivan

Finding this is providential. I needed this! This principle will guide how I do sacred art. Gratias ago tibi!

1 11 2010
The Beuronese School of the 19th century « The Way of Beauty

[…] style is an attempt in the 19th century to revive Christian art, reacting against the dominating over sentimental naturalism of the time, which draws on Egyptian art and canon of proportion that was said to be derived from that of the […]

13 12 2010
A 20th-Century Deposition (by artist Carl Schmitt) « The Way of Beauty

[…] time ago, I wrote an article (Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic), about the tendency amongst modern naturalistic artists to paint sacred art in which the […]

16 12 2010
jim janknegt

I think the goal of studying from nature and from models is to learn to work from your imagination without the use of models. This forces one to not get too specific or be tied down to a particular way a model looks. I always paint from my imagination.

25 01 2011
Where can Catholics Go to Learn to Paint in the Naturalistic Tradition? « The Way of Beauty

[…] art with the baroque style of the 17thcentury by reading these two articles, written earlier, here and here […]

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