Real-time renaissance of now
Sacred artwork has suffered at various times over the centuries. The iconoclasts of the 700s and the 1500s are two notable examples—the first remedied by Saint John Damascene and the Second Council of Nicaea, the other by Pope Saint Pius V and the Council of Trent.
Dulling of the sacred
Yet there has possibly been no worse time for sacred art than in the second half of the last century. Despite having more money, methods, and materials at hand than at any other time in history, it was decided in many places that the Church needed a break from its past.
Not only were altars demolished, frescoes whitewashed, and statues removed from churches, but low-quality replacements were often put in their places. It was not just a matter of having no imagery, but of promoting deliberately vague imagery—the type that needs a sign underneath stating what the given “artwork” was intended to symbolize.
To make matters even worse, sacred music— the greatest artistic treasure of the Church, according to the Second Vatican Council—was also removed and replaced by lackluster tunes. Palestrina and Byrd were replaced by Simon and Garfunkel. Confused silence among many parishioners eventually became desensitized acceptance as the years went by.
Spark of renewal
Slowly, however, more Catholics became interested in a renewal of art in the Church. Some major examples of this are Duncan Stroik founding the Institute for Sacred Architecture in 1998, the semi-dormant Church Music Association of America starting to experience huge growth around 2007, and the Catholic Artists Directory being formed last year.
Quite fittingly, the Directory was officially launched on September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the Church commemorated the birth of the most beautiful queen ever—the Queen of Heaven and earth— painter Gwyneth ThompsonBriggs announced that artists are ready to bring about the rebirth of beauty in the Church. The Directory is a grouping of various artists dedicated to preserving and promoting sacred art in the Western “realist” tradition— the type that needs no signage for clarification. It was formulated by Saint Louis, Missouri resident Thompson-Briggs— after discussions with calligrapher Elizabeth Lemme and sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith—as a way to connect artists with patrons, since both are needed to create worthy works of art.
Most members of the Directory are painters or sculptors, but also included are illustrators, calligraphers, and composers. There is even a bookbinder (Joel Trumbo) and a choir that specializes in Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony (Cantus Magnus, conducted by Matthew Schellhorn). Thompson-Briggs is open to adding architects, stonemasons, woodworkers, goldsmiths, glaziers, and candle makers—as long as they are dedicated to the timeless principles of traditional Western art.
True beauty –reflecting the Creator
Although this necessarily entails beauty, the artists are not focused on beauty for its own sake (otherwise known as glamour), but on beauty that points back to its Creator because it is in harmony with — and a revelation of — goodness and truth. The specific styles of art include High Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque, but the fundamentals go back to Plato.
Indeed, as Thompson-Briggs explained, “the Platonic and Scholastic traditions call beauty the splendor of truth—and also, sometimes, the splendor of goodness. In other words, beauty reveals the reality and goodness of what is, pointing all things back to their origin and end, God.” She added that “beauty is the condition for the intelligibility of reality, which is why so many philosophers compare beauty to light and why theology tends to associate beauty with the Son who reveals the Father and the Trinity.”
Thompson-Briggs, who, in addition to her extensive artistic training, has advanced degrees in physics and engineering, said she hopes “the Directory becomes the first stop for anyone seeking to commission a work of sacred or devotional art.” She also hopes the Directory grows to include the top artistic talent worldwide and that it will “inspire emerging artists to perfect their skills and advance the new Catholic Renaissance.”
Hearts for the heavenly
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski knows a thing or two about inspiring emerging artists. In addition to being a theologian, philosopher, speaker, and author, he was a founding member of Wyoming Catholic College and choir director there from 2007 to 2018. The Wyoming Catholic College Choir premiered many of Dr. Kwasniewski’s compositions and recorded several CDs—mostly of Advent and Christmas music.
Dr. Kwasniewski observed that there is now a general will for higher quality artwork in the Church, but that a specific route for bringing this about was needed: “There is enough interest in restoring Catholic culture and carrying it further by those who are tired of decades of banality and sterility. What we need is a serious backing to go towards the fine arts. We need to find ways to connect patrons with talented traditional artists.”
This was exactly the inspiration for the Directory, which, although very young, has already drawn many inquiries and a few commissions. Although commissions tend to be for artwork within church buildings, they can also be for schools, hospitals, businesses, and even private homes—but always with a spiritual component.
Andrew Wilson Smith enjoys taking a patron’s idea — or a loose grouping of ideas — and coming up with an integrated finished product. He said, “I find that my clients tend to have a sense of the message that they want to communicate through a work of art, but they don’t quite know how to get there. My job in this context is to start with a few scattered ideas and develop them into a coherent whole.”
Thompson-Briggs agrees with this philosophy, adding: “Since making and commissioning art is remote from most people’s experience these days, patrons usually need artists to guide them through the proposal stage.” Once ideas are clarified, it is easier to determine if the patron and artist are a good fit, and, if so, the work can then proceed.
However, some artists in the Directory have given up commissions in the past because a good fit was not found with potential patrons. Projects reminiscent of the 1960s and 70s were turned down because they did not reflect the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Catholic faith. As Thompson-Briggs explained, “If the point were simply to get commissions rather than to produce excellence, we wouldn’t be working in traditional forms.”
Despite the growing interest in beauty within the Church, there is still a moneyed segment intent on strange productions. This makes the Directory all the more important, since it facilitates the connection of those who wish to commission traditional works and those who can make the commission come to life. As Smith said, “The virtue of the Directory lies in its simplicity. We are not trying to do anything more ambitious than link artists and patrons directly. No amount of blogging, academic conferences, and so on will have as big an effect on contemporary Catholic culture as will the actual production of new works of high-caliber art.”
TRENT BEATTIE is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.