What makes Oxford University Great?

24 06 2010

Beauty, Grace and Superabundance in Education
When I was studying in painting and drawing in Florence I started to wonder why we haven’t yet seen a modern Master. We all knew that we weren’t up to the standards of the past great Masters, such as Velazquez or Reni. Judge for yourself, I have attached photos of my own work. I must admit I am quite pleased with them and it is an amazing improvement in only one year of training and as such a tribute to the quality of the teaching in the school. But I know I’m no Velazquez.

My story aside, why don’t we see better artists coming through? Many in Florence felt that some of the training methods had been lost. Others suggested that we didn’t train for long enough and didn’t start early enough in life. There might be some truth in this but I don’t think these are the main reasons. When I thought about it, something intrigued me: Velazquez surpassed the skills of his teacher (a man called Francesco Pacheco). I had always thought of education as a process of a teacher passing on knowledge and advice to a pupil on the basis of experience and their own education. If this was so, I realized, education would necessarily mean a diminution of knowledge from one generation to the next. No one can pass on everything they know so they are always necessarily passing on directly less than they were given. One would expect Pacheco to be better than Velazquez. Why was the reverse true?

The answer, it seems to me, is grace. Some might say not grace, genius. But then the question as to what genius is arises and I think that points to the same answer. A genius has a special gift from God and the ability to direct it well under the guidance of inspiration. Every education, whatever is being taught, therefore, should be designed so as to maximize inspiration from God during the process.  Velazquez’s training took place in a Christian society that understood how an artistic training could engender openness to inspiration and the humility to cooperate with it when it comes. First, specific to art, the baroque tradition was understood to be Christian (although not called ‘baroque’ yet), so the artists understood how to use the visual vocabulary they were being taught. I was taught the stylistic elements justified by an appeal to the tradition and good taste, not to theology. So we knew what the masters did, but not why. Second, the environment is made as beautiful as possible in accordance with tradition harmony and proportion, which is a physical manifestation of the rhythms of the prayer of the Church, the liturgy. And third, they prayed for inspiration in accordance with these rhythms.

I found out later that all education during this period and prior to the Enlightenment followed certain patterns. Exactly the same principles of beauty and prayer were the basis of the education in Oxford and Cambridge. The educational community of each college prayed the daily rhythms of the liturgy of the hours throughout the day. Furthermore, at Oxford and Cambridge this continued even after the Reformation and, perhaps surprisingly, continues to this day. The Anglican office of Evensong is sung regularly at the colleges of the university and the grace that this bring into the establishment for the benefit of the students should not be underestimated. It has often struck me as strange that these two universities should still be rated so highly in the world when they are relatively small by modern standards, and in a country that is no longer as influential as it once was. They punch well above their weight. Part of the answer is the sheer beauty of the buildings of the university. People want to go and live there, and so they attract better teachers and better students. But it is also, I would say that they maintain the form of a liturgical rhythm in their academic year, built around Christmas and Easter; and in the daily structures by having the liturgy of the hours in Anglican form. What we are seeing is the ordering of time and space according to heavenly principles for the benefit of the students (though I doubt more than a handful at Oxford are aware of this). They stand out today because these structures were abolished in continental Europe with the Napoleonic occupation and modern American universities, on the whole followed the continental model of university when they were established.

It should be said that of course God can inspire whomsoever he pleases and is not limited by the sacraments. There is no accounting for who might be able to cooperate with grace in this regard, even if they seem to resist it in all areas of life. For this reason, there is always the possibility of a wonderful artist, for example, popping up out of nowhere, even today. But as a principle of education that will give us more than the occasional genius it makes sense to create an institution that makes it easier for the student, rather than more difficult, to cooperate with grace.

The principles that I am referring to are described in much greater detail in an article on our recently set up website that will be an archive for longer articles. The site is www.thewayofbeauty.info and a link through to the article itself, Art, Grace, Education and the Beautiful Business is here.

The principle that is being invoked is one of superabundance – the creation of something good out of nothing. It was described by Pope Benedict in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Just as it is possible to harness it to make a better education in a university, it can be used in any institution. In his encyclical, the Pope was talking about business and the creation of wealth. He was giving us a clue to a life of great abundance, yet few from what I could tell seemed to see it as I did. I refer to this in more detail in the same article referenced above.

We have done our best to invoke these principles at Thomas More College. Not just in our art classes for the undergraduates and the summer program, but also in the life of the students. We communicate the value of the full liturgical experience to every aspect of their lives. Lauds and Vespers take place daily during the term and students are encouraged to participate. It is important that there is no sense of obligation in this regard, outside what is necessary to the teaching of it. It must be something that is freely participated in, in order to have value. Our experience is that a core few come as often as they can, some others come regularly but not daily and of course some never come. However, I am sure that the fact that it is happening is helping the whole community, even those who don’t participate. This is fine. I unknowingly benefited from this at Oxford where I was a student for four years, never once even entering the chapel the whole time I was there. But perhaps this is in part what drew me to a later conversion. Certainly on leaving Oxford where I felt part of a community in a way I never felt before, I felt a sense of desolation that increased and only left me once I converted. Then it was replaced by the full source of joy, something even greater, rooted in the Church.

The photographs, incidentally, are of Oxford. At the top we have the grand Magdalen College, and the two at the bottom are of the smaller but charming front quad of my college, St Edmund Hall.




11 responses

27 06 2010
Bill Wood Jr

Oxford has such a beautiful campus. It is definatly The Way of Beauty.

27 06 2010
Bill Wood Jr

As I already said, Oxford has a beautiful campus. It is defently The Way of Beauty.

27 06 2010
Matthew James Collins

Interesting post, as always. In addition to ‘grace,’ art has lost its central role in our culture. Velasquez was one of the few students to surpass his master. But we have to remember Pacheco had numerous assistants(Alfonso Mano, etc). His bottega was the most prestigious of Seville. The production of art in the 17th century was a collaborative process, not the misunderstood individual against society of today. Students of the of the past were not studying but working. Art education was in fact ‘on the job training.’ All the assistants received the same technical training. Art evolved from it constant practice. There was always work for a competent artist, so he could risk and push himself.

Bernini is another example of the Baroque’s approach to recognizing genius. Today we appreciate Bernini for his fantastic technique. However he was not the most virtuoso marble sculptor of his time. Giuliano Finelli was. Bernini employed highly skilled assistants to help realize his ideas. He ‘Genius’ or ‘Divine gift’ as it was referred to in his time was his artistic sensibility and vision.

In the 17th century, art was interlaced with daily life. A daily life focused on the Christian faith. It is not surprising that so many works of that period still speak to us today. The richness of the human experience was profoundly explored because the culture rewarded the truly creative.

Unfortunately, that kind of gift is not appreciated today.

27 06 2010

Interesting and informative stuff as usual, thanks Matt. I’m going to have to investigate Finelli – I’ve never heard of him. Thanks

8 10 2010

You mentioned Alfonso Mano…what do you know about him? I have been looking for information on Alfonso Mano for years because I have one of his original oil paintings in my collection.

8 10 2010

Do you mean Alfonso Cano? 17th century, taught by Francesco Pacheco ( the same teacher as Velazquez) and known particularly for his woodcarving. But if you have an Alfonso Cano then you are a rich man!

12 10 2010

No unfortunatley it is not a Alfonso Cano unless the auctioneer back in the 20’s put the wrong last name on it. LOL His name is Alfonso Manes-Mano and he was born in Paris France. However not too sure about the rest of the story or painting. It is an oil painting in the original hand carved frame of venice italy. It is around 45″ by 65″ so it is not a small painting. And yes if it was an Alfonso Cano, I would quit my job! Kind of ironic that Alfonso Cano and Alfonso Mano were in the same places however.

12 10 2010

Ha! Oh well hard luck. i was going to claim my 10% as well! I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. Good luck though. David

12 10 2010

Trust me I would have been more than happy to give you 10% for your help. So lets see I owe you $10 bucks since the painting is probably worth $100. LOL Do you know where I can go to find out more information about the painter or getting it appraised. I do know Alfonso Mano was born in the 1800’s so the painting is at least 100 years old if that means anything.

12 07 2010
Will Burrows

Very interesting blog David.

Surely a gifted pupil has the opportunity to surpass the master because they have the chance, at a young age, to learn what is the summation of a life-time’s work by the master. So, with the same or similar gifts and talent, they can achieve most of the steps a master has taken many years of labour to come to, guided and supported, then use that as a launching-pad for their own steps into skills, knowledge and wisdom. So the pupil and master move the base-camp higher up the mountain ready for the pupil to make their own push towards the unattainable summit.

12 07 2010

Thank you Will. The question, I suppose, is how can they make their own push without grace and inspiration?

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