Liturgical Art

Strive After Noble Beauty

As mentioned here, study is one part of initial monastic formation at the Mount. Our class on Vatican II was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the sixteen documents that were promulgated by Pope Paul VI over the two year period from December 4, 1963 through December 7, 1965. Not all of us remember this time of great change; so, in the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that I was born a few months after the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, also known as Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, came to light.

Maybe that explains my interest in all things liturgical? Hmm …

While preparing for this series on Liturgical Art I was reminded of the chapter (VII) in Sacrosanctum Concilium titled Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings. Below are two quotes that captured my attention:

  • “Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities … this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory” [122]
  • “strive after noble beauty” [124]

A Beginner

When I was an oblate with a Benedictine community in Oxford, Michigan, I was searching online one day for a retreat to attend when I stumbled across an advertisement for a week long icon writing workshop. Along with the particulars was a photo of the finished product and the following: “No art experience required – beginners welcome”. Although intrigued I quickly dismissed the idea.

As it so often happens, one thing lead to another and a couple months later I registered for the workshop. Very much a beginner, I was welcomed as advertised, especially by my tablemates who were particularly helpful and patient. It was more retreat than paint; after all, the purpose of liturgical art is to grow one’s relationship with God and then respond in prayer. In fact, religious icons are said to be written not painted. The iconographer’s hand is guided by God (that’s why icons are not signed by the one who holds the brush).

Practically speaking the process is methodical, contemplative: trace the basic lines, first day “fill in” the background, second day highlight clothing, third day faces, etc. A natural quiet comes over the group, especially at certain points along the way. It can be overwhelming - consider encountering Jesus in this way.

A three part series on Iconography begins next week. Until then, strive after noble beauty ...

Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God – Rule of Benedict 43:3