The Triumph of Color: Notes on the Anglo-Catholic Aesthetic

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The Altar Mosaics of Keble College Chapel, Oxford, designed by William Butterfield (Source)

Two facts have become steadily clearer to me over the course of my life as a Roman Catholic. First, that we don’t do beauty like we used to. Our churches are rife with liturgical art as dated and outré as the plastic on your great aunt’s furniture. Many of our houses of worship are stuck in the 1970’s, riddled with patently ugly, non-figurative depictions of Christ and the saints. Abstract windows cast unseemly splashes of light over softwood pews. And there are far too many carpets. My own old parish at UVA, St. Thomas Aquinas, is just now overcoming its long “awkward phase” (symbolized by an enormous chrome statue of the Angelic Doctor that looked like a cross between Buddha and the Tin Man – unhappily placed right across the street from the Chabad House).

In short, we have a problem with beauty.

The second thing I realized is that the Anglo-Catholicsor at least, those corners of the Anglo-Catholic world that held onto their patrimonydo not. And it seems to me that much of the renewal in sacred art that we’re witnessing today is indebted to the Anglo-Catholics, as any browsing on New Liturgical Movement will show. There is a distinctive style associated with the AC tradition. My hope is that by examining a few of its exponents, we might come to get a better glimpse of the art that is renewing our own Church today.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852)

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Tiles designed by A.W.N. Pugin. (Source)

A.W.N. Pugin, it must be said, was not an Anglo-Catholic. He was a Roman convert. But the story of the Anglo-Catholic style must begin with the Gothic Revival that Pugin led. He radically and even polemically departed from the old norms of Anglican liturgical design. Pugin hated the High-and-Dry preaching tabs and whitewashed walls and triple-decker pulpits of the 18th century Church of England. For Pugin, all of that represented the moral and spiritual degradation of the British people from a purer, Medieval ideal.

So he turned instead to the architecture and design of the Middle Ages. He reintroduced conical vestments to England. He set up altars with gilded angels and smiling saints and all manner of gloriously decorated tiles. He designed chalices and monstrances. He almost single-handedly re-established the rood screen as a typical feature of English churches.

Above all, he built. Pugin is perhaps best known as an architect. His first publication after he converted to Roman Catholicism was a highly polemical text entitled Contrasts (1836). He attempted to show, by way of (rather unfair) architectural differences, that the religious and social makeup of the Middle Ages was decidedly better than the squalid life of post-Reformation modernity.

It’s ahistorical nonsense, but very pretty ahistorical nonsense at that.

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One page of Pugin’s Contrasts. He’s making a threefold argument: aesthetic, religious, and socio-political. One can start to see here the origins of the Victorian Socialism associated at once with Anglo-Catholics and the likes of William Morris’s arts-and-crafts movement. There is no doubt some irony in this, as John Ruskin hated him. Yet it is hard to imagine the Pre-Raphaelites coming about without both Pugin and Ruskin (Source).

Consider how radical Pugin’s claim in Contrasts really is. He’s not saying that Catholic architecture is better than Protestant forms. He’s saying that the only Christian architecture is Gothic. It doesn’t matter if the Catholic Church had promulgated and supported all kinds of other schools over the years. The only truly Christian style was that which reigned at the high noon of Christendom. The rest were compromises with paganism. Is it all that surprising that Pugin and Newman never really cooperated? Oratorianism is a Counter-Reformation phenomenon, and both of the first English Oratories were built in a grand Neo-Baroque style. There was an amusing spat between Faber and Pugin when the latter visited St. Wilfrid’s, where he would later build a church. What started off as a friendly chat turned into a vigorous fight. Faber inveighed against rood screens and Pugin accused Faber of favoring the “pagan architecture” of, inter alia, Italy. Alas.

Pugin, however, was probably more influential than Newman or Faber when it came to setting 19th century tastes in liturgical art. As the father of the Gothic Revival, he inspired generations of imitators and rivals (including some on this list). Many of those architects were widely respected in their own day. None of them could boast of designing the interior of the House of Lords and the architecture of Big Ben. Pugin achieved a wide success that nevertheless remained rooted in his liturgical work. Everything came from his fundamentally ecclesial imagination.

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Frontispiece of Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843). Baroque, Palladian, Renaissance, and Byzantine architects need not apply. (Source)

But it was, alas, a sick imagination. Pugin was always an odd personality. He suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 40, and ended up in Bedlam. He died shortly thereafter.

His legacy is clear. Pugin represents the triumph of color over the barren church design of the previous century. God comes to us in sacraments, and sacraments are material. Pugin’s work can be read as a celebration of matter in all the various hues and tints of the rainbow. He intended to use his art as a way of reviving the Catholic religion in England. He found a ready audience in the new wave of ritualists then entering the Anglican clergy. It would probably not be too great a stretch to say that, as founder of the Gothic Revival, Pugin gave the Oxford Movement its own aesthetic, distinct from Roman Baroque and Evangelical austerity.

William Butterfield (1814-1900) and Alexander Gibbs

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The interior of Keble College Chapel, Oxford. Designed by the highly original Neo-Gothic architect, William Butterfield. (Source)

Another architect who worked alongside and after Pugin was William Butterfield. Like, Pugin, his churches dot the English landscape. But Butterfield’s work is distinguished by a salient feature not found in that of his colleague. He extended Pugin’s use of elaborate interior color to external polychromy. One can glimpse this in his most famous commission, Keble College, built in the 1870’s.

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Keble College, Oxford. Established as a tribute to the founder of the Oxford Movement, John Keble. (Source)

His design was extremely controversial at the time, derided as “the ‘holy zebra’ style” by detractors. I have heard, though I cannot trace the source, that others described the chapel as “an elephant wearing a sweater.”

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Exterior of Keble College. Photo taken by author.

Butterfield synthesized Pugin’s Gothic Revival with the insights of John Ruskin, who wrote positively of Renaissance polychromy in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Ruskin was another enormous influence on the Anglo-Catholic style, whose influence I will not attempt to trace in full here. Regardless, it is worth noting that Butterfield took Ruskin’s lessons to heart. Keble College is just one of many examples one could point to that exhibit the same style. Another is the fabulous All Saints Margaret Street, a dizzying Neo-Gothic mirage tucked away in Fitzrovia.

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Two angels in a Keble mosaic. (Source)

Coming into Keble College, you are assailed by the sheer riot of colors. It’s almost like walking into a giant candy store, only the wonderful smells of chocolate and mint have been replaced by incense and tapers. That delightful sensory onslaught stems in part from the other great feature of the chapel, the radiant mosaics by Alexander Gibbs. There is something naive in the way Gibbs’s mosaics portray the human subject. One is reminded of the illustrations in a children’s book, or perhaps even a cartoon.

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The Noah mosaic, Keble College Chapel. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Take, for example, the mosaic of Noah offering sacrifices. There is hardly any hue or tint left unused. Note the range of colors seen just in the fire on the left – there’s even a green flame! Meanwhile, the dove which hovers over the scene is not pure white, but flecked with yellow and orange, as if already anticipating Pentecost. And no two halos are alike.

This tendency towards the illustrative and cartoonish will become a major hallmark of Anglo-Catholic style throughout the rest of the period.

Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960)

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Cope designed by Sir Ninian Comper, depicting Our Lady of the Cenacle at Pentecost. (Source)

Another architect and liturgical designer who left his mark on the style of Anglican Catholicism was Sir Ninian Comper. His works are immediately recognizable by their lavish use of gilding, a charming mixture of Gothic and Neoclassical elements, elaborate recessing, and odd penchant to depict Christ as a blond youth.

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Reredos of St. Sebastian, Downside Abbey. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP (Source).

Comper worked for both Anglican and Roman Catholics. A fine example of this latter sphere of influence can be seen in his magnificent altars at Downside Abbey. However, as I am attempting to consider what art produced a distinctively Anglo-Catholic style, I will limit my inquiry to those commissions he completed for the Church of England. To that end, two sites in Oxford deserve attention.

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The Blessed Sacrament Altar, Pusey House, Oxford. (Source)

Pusey House is a “house of sacred learning” affiliated with the C of E in Oxford. Built as a monument to Edward Bouverie Pusey, Tractarian and one-time colleague of John Henry Newman, Pusey House remains a stalwart bastion of Anglo-Catholicism and High Churchmanship more broadly (not to mention some excellent gin). Its Blessed Sacrament Altar is a remarkable representative of Comper’s work.

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The golden art of Sir Ninian Comper. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Both the windows and the baldachin at Pusey’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel were designed by Comper. Above, you can see two examples of one of his favorite motifs, which I call “Jesus as a Blond Youth.”

Sir Ninian was a fine craftsman of baldachins. Although examples remain which show Christ or the Virgin, his signature seems to have been the Holy Ghost descending as a radiant dove. The Pusey House baldachin is one such example.

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Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

Here we can see in the putti just a touch of the cartoonish, like we observed in Butterfield and Gibbs. Yet Comper was quite capable of producing work of a very different nature. His baldachin at the monastery of the Cowley Fathers, now St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, is notable for its stark beauty.

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St. Stephen’s House Chapel, Oxford. Photo taken by author.

Yet even here we can see Corinthian capitals adorning the columns. It wouldn’t be recognizable as a Comper piece without them.

Like many on this list, Comper contributed to the revival of devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. The Anglican shrine possesses “three stained glass windows, the Holy House altar and two sets of vestments” by Comper.

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Sir Ninian Comper’s altar at Walsingham. A classic example of his work, drawing together numerous Comperian motifs: gilding, cherubim, Corinthian capitals, a certain illustrative naïveté, elaborated decorated canopy, and the use of sunbursts. The last motif will also mark the work of another major Anglo-Catholic stylist. (Source)

What did Comper contribute to the Anglo-Catholic style? He took the tendency towards extravagance, already seen in Pugin and Butterfield, to a new height. Yet he was able to blend eras seamlessly, mixing elaborate Gothic and Classical features into a new and distinctive style. His work represents Anglo-Catholicism at its most confident height, the Congress Movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our next two artists also produced their most important works in conjunction with that great age of Anglo-Catholic action.

Martin Travers and the Society of SS. Peter and Paul (1886-1948)

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An Advent illustration by Martin Travers. Notice his unique font, as well as the English version of the Introibo with the Virgin and Child. (Source)

During the 1920’s and 30’s, an increasingly resurgent Anglo-Catholicism reasserted itself. Several major conferences, known as the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, brought together thousands of movement leaders and adherents as well as leading to the proliferation of numerous theological tracts. One year, the Congress organizers even exchanged messages of ecumenical good will with the bishops of various Eastern Orthodox churches. Here was the age of a sophisticated and confident Anglo-Catholicism that could win converts like T.S. Eliot, who entered the church in 1927.

Yet in spite of the show of unity suggested by the Congresses, the truth was that the Anglo-Catholics were deeply divided. One nasty fissure was the liturgy. Should Anglo-Catholics use the Book of Common Prayer? Some said yes. Others, however, thought it was a deeply compromised document arising out of schism and heresy. They turned instead to the Mass of St. Pius V. As they couldn’t just celebrate a Latin Mass, they translated it, with a few Cranmerian collects here and there, into sacral English. The result was the famous Anglican Missal or Knott Missal.

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The emblem of the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

The missal was produced by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul, the leading body that represented Anglo-Papalism within the C of E. Generally, Anglicans associated with the Society considered the Pope the legitimate head of the Western Church, took part in Marian devotions, carried on Eucharistic processions, and celebrated a rite nearly indistinguishable from the Tridentine Mass. They worked against other Anglo-Catholics who sought a distinctively English liturgical ethos rooted in the Sarum Rite.

The Society chose an artist named Martin Travers to illustrate many of their publications, including the Anglican Missal. The work Travers produced would continue to shape the Anglo-Catholic aesthetic in profound ways.

For one thing, he illustrated the Mass. His vision of the liturgy was strictly Roman. You can see that he had a marked preference for Baroque vestments and altars in his rendition of “The Elevation of the Host.”

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Travers’s extremely Latinate liturgical tastes dovetailed well with the spirituality promulgated by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

In keeping with the trends we have already observed in Gibbs and Comper, Travers’s illustrations often have a naive quality about them. The works are at once highly complex and centered on a frank simplicity.

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A requiem illustration by Martin Travers. (Source)

Yet they retain a certain elegance and poise, as with this Marian image. We can see here one of his favorite motifs, figures set in sunbursts. It recurs again and again throughout his body of work.

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A depiction of Mary and the Christ Child over London. (Source)

Yet Travers was by no means simply a draughtsman and illustrator. He also produced altarpieces. His style was heavily Baroque, though he was known to occasionally draw upon Art Deco elements. Looking at anything by Travers, we get the sense of a consummate master pulling together a number of traditions with ease. The aesthetic coup he achieved was the natural parallel to the spiritual ascent of the Anglicans most devoted to a reunion with the Apostolic churchesAnglicans who made it their business to blend the Roman and English patrimonies in one sacral event.

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Travers’s High Altar at St. Mary’s, Bourne Street, London. (Source)

Like Comper, Travers was also known to remodel the work of older generations. Here we can see the fine reredos he worked upon in the Wren church of St. Magnus the Martyr, London. The Church was (and, I believe, remains) a bastion of Congress Anglo-Catholicism.

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High Altar at St. Magnus the Martyr, London. (Source)

Travers represents an Anglo-Catholic Baroque turn at a time when the larger movement was more confident than ever in the “Corporate Reunion” so long hoped for. Although that momentous reconciliation never took place, it inspired a delightful appropriation of Tridentine aesthetics. Through his drawings and ecclesiastical design, Travers was the chief conduit by which the continental tradition of liturgical art infused the Church of England.

Enid Chadwick (1902-1987)

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A marvelous and very Anglican polyptych by Enid Chadwick. The photo was taken by a friend of mine, Bishop Chandler Jones of the Anglican Province of America, who blogs over at Philorthodox. From left to right, the figures are: St. Uriel, Blessed Charles the Martyr, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Michael, Our Lady of Walsingham with Our Lord, St. Gabriel, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Edward the Confessor, and St. Raphael. (Source)

The last artist I will profile here is probably well known to those of you who keep tabs on the Catholic blogosphere. Although largely forgotten for decades, the art of Enid Chadwick has made a comeback since the advent of the Internet. Her wonderful 1957 children’s book, My Book of the Church’s Year, has been put online, and images from it keep popping up on various feasts.

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A typical Chadwick illustration from My Book of the Church’s Year. (Source)

In her work, we see once again the quintessentially Anglo-Catholic simplicity amidst ornamentation. The resemblance to the mosaics of Gibbs or the drawings of Travers is striking. Her illustrations for My Book of the Church’s Year, like all her illustrations, have a tender humanity about them. Yet they also breathe of a patriotic sentiment. Note that in the pages for March, St. David and St. Patrick are both shown with the simplified arms of their respective nations. It is. after all, an Anglican book. But on the other hand, we see St. Thomas Aquinas commended specifically for his Eucharistic writings, St. Benedict as the founder of “one of the great Religious Orders,” and an intricately decorated Annunciation. It is thus also a Catholic book. Mrs. Chadwick, like Travers before her, manages to gracefully blend the two traditions in a way that would not have been possible one hundred years earlier. Her gentle work represents a single sensibility: confident, late-stage Anglo-Catholicism.

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As with Comper and Travers, Mrs. Chadwick roots her work in a loving contemplation of the human face of God. Thus, all of her art is figurative. Unlike Comper and Travers, she never crossed the border from draughtsmanship to the world of three-dimensional liturgical design. One does wonder what the world may have gained if she had designed an altar or two. Alas. She was happy, instead, to deploy her considerable talent to an articulate, delightful, and evangelically potent form of illustration. What’s more, her art is not just an achievement in itself. It served a purpose: to instruct and edify. The popularity that these images enjoy today suggest that they still retain the power they once had. Her many books, now all out of print, will some day be returned to press or left to the public domain. That will be a very great day for the Church indeed.

In the meantime, I hope we can bring back some of her tasteful and theologically sound Christmas cards.

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A collage of Enid Chadwick’s Christmas cards, all taken from here.

One notable figure in all of these cards is Our Lady. The Madonna is the central figure of Mrs. Chadwick’s art. She lived in Walsingham most of her life, and dedicated much of her talent to propagating devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. She even illustrated the second edition of Fr. Hope Patten’s book about the shrine.

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One of Chadwick’s illustrations for the Anglican Shrine of O.L. of Walsingham. (Source)

Enid Chadwick’s work represents the final chapter of Anglo-Catholicism as an aesthetically creative movement. The latter half of her career coincided with the Second Vatican Council. One unintended consequence of the Council was that, in addition to the degradation of taste that spread through the Roman Church, the same infection spilled over to the Anglican Communion. The ghastly ecclesiastical embroidery of Beryl Dean is proof enough of the collapse in liturgical arts. So, too, are the tacky materials worn by the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury on multiple occasions. His iconic miter-and-cope set would look better in an episode of Doctor Who than at the stately cloisters of Westminster.

Yet I am not qualified to assess how far the rot has set into the C of E. At the very least, the National Trust has done tremendous work in preserving and restoring many of the churches that made up the fabric of the Anglican heritage. I know from personal experience that there are pockets of tremendous taste and devotion still left in the Anglo-Catholic world. However, I can also say that the Roman Church is still reeling in many places from the obnoxious stylistic choices of the postconciliar generation. My hope is that this essay might contribute, in some small way, to a greater appreciation of the Anglican Patrimony and what it might teach us.

A few clear lessons emerge. First, we have to get over our toxic allergy to all things Gothic (or Baroque, or Romanesque, or Byzantine, etc.). We needn’t go as far as Pugin in declaring one style to be definitively “Christian” to the exclusion of the rest, but we ought to embrace our own history. We shouldn’t fear extravagance in liturgical design as long as it’s well-executed, glorifies God, and directs the soul to worship the Eucharistic Lord. Yet we can also balance that tendency with a complementary emphasis on holy simplicity. Let us always recall that a Catholic imagination is only properly formed across several types of artistic encounter. We should foster and seek sound Catholic illustration as much as sound Catholic architecture or sound Catholic liturgical design. Finally, we shouldn’t fear radiance and color and the human face. Only then might we one day repeat the triumph of color that nearly converted a nation.

When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

 

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)