Looking at the 13th Century English Gothic School of St Albans as a Model for the Roman Rite Today
The test of the validity of this is not the historical accuracy of the principles as proposed, but rather the quality of the work produced by the artists who follow them, and the resilience of the tradition they established – can it outlast the generation that created it? We simply don’t know for certain if the formulas that Ouspensky, Lossky and Evdokimov developed correspond precisely to what Rublev, for example, would have been aiming for hundreds of years ago.
I feel that iconography has passed the test. We are now several generations of teachers and students past Ouspensky. The very best of today’s icon painters are producing icons in this style that stand alongside the great works of the past, and moreover, they are engaging with modern people in the place where they are meant to, in the context of the liturgy.
The analysis of these 20th century Russian ex-pats may very well have little credibility in the art history departments of our secular universities, where I am guessing it would be dismissed as purely personal speculation. But that doesn’t prevent what they proposed from being good and valid, given the end that they had in mind, namely, the creation of beautiful art that is in harmony with the liturgy.
Furthermore, while the icons that these men painted were clearly connected to ancient icons, they also incorporated with discernment the forms of 20th century art, as we may see, for example, in the icons of Gregory Krug. His style has the marks of someone who has seen 20th century secular art; this is just a personal observation, but I see in it elements of the cubism of Braques. I don’t know if this was done deliberately; quite possibly it was not. It may have come out naturally as Krug made use of the images stored in his memory, and employed his imagination to create the idea of the icon he was going to paint in his mind.
So how do we do the same for the Gothic School of St Albans?
I think the answer is to copy and seek to understand, so that we can articulate a set of principles that define the tradition as a guide to future artists. Here are the common features that strike me:
A large part of what will characterize the new style will be the drawing. The artists who excel at this will be expert draughtsmen who understand how line can describe form, even when there is not tonal gradation in a drawing. I anticipate that a 21st century Neo-Gothic style would emerge naturally; the artist would naturally and unthinkingly fuse the elements of his own artistic preferences, but as the main object of study, participate also in the essential elements of the original Gothic style. As a result of this, I would expect the 21st century School of St Albans to be similar to, but distinct from the 13th century Gothic, and distinct also from the Victorian Neo-Gothic.
At each stage as an artist, if I was taking on this style as my own, I would be asking myself (as directed by Pius XII in Mediator dei) what the original artist was trying to do, and should I do precisely what he did, or does the Church’s need today differ in a way that requires some modification? For example, I would think about the style of dress for the figures in each case. Chainmail for a soldier is fine for a scene from the life of Thomas Becket, or even for a figure that represents to us today the idea of chivalry, but probably not for the soldiers present at the Passion. The iconographic tradition could help me in this respect. However accurate they really are historically, the style of dress used in iconography is carefully worked out to establish the idea in the the modern worshipper who looks at it that the figures portrayed are in a different time and place, and yet familiar to us in a way that reinforces what we know.
As regards the development of a theology of form, although these English illuminations come from the Gothic period historically, I do not see anything in these works that contravenes the iconographic prototype of the Romanesque. They are really a more naturalized style of Romanesque art, and the Romanesque conforms to the iconographic prototype. Therefore, I think that we could adopt the essential principles of iconography, as developed by these mid 20th century pioneers, but apply them in a way particularly for the Roman Rite.
Alternatively, some may wish to push the envelope slightly and move into a genuine Gothic style (for example, by allowing figures in profile). I have discussed this at some length these distinction in my book The Way of Beauty.
If you want to see examples of art in this style, go to Google Images and look for examples from the following books: Queen Mary Apocalypse, English Apocalypse, Westminster Psalter, Winchester Psalter, Douce Apocalypse, and the Psalter of Henry of Bloise.
So that’s it – I encourage you to go ahead and be radical traditionalists in the authentic spirit of the Second Vatican Council. This is precisely what Caravaggio was in his day, following the Council of Trent when he formed the baroque style that did so much for the Catholic Counter-Reformation. We need artists who are post-Vat-II tradicals, and can do something similar today.
If you feel you need some help in getting going, I plan to create an introductory online painting course for Pontifex University that will be available in the spring. In it, I will set out these principles and demonstrate how to make a start in egg tempera.