Thursday, October 04, 2012

An Art Curriculum for Catholic Children

[Many of you will know of the Orthodox Arts Journal which we have mentioned before on NLM. I recently suggested to one of its writers, Jonathan Pageau, that he might wish to write a little guest piece for NLM as a sort of interchange between the sites. Thankfully, he was happy to oblige and sends us in the following which is actually associated with the FSSP parish of St. Clement's in Ottawa, Canada.]

by Jonathan Pageau

Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel (NDMC) is a small Catholic private school run by francophone parish members of the St-Clement parish in Ottawa. It offers a classical curriculum and traditional catechism to about 60 students presently from kindergarten to 10th grade.

The Principal of this school is an old friend of mine, with whom along with a few others, I had rediscovered the meaning and value of Tradition. This path finally brought me to Eastern Orthodoxy while leading him towards FSSP and traditional Catholicism. Some time ago my friend and I had discussed the possibility of my teaching art for them. As a liturgical artist with a desire to reawaken the traditional arts and their theological importance, this opportunity was one I could not refuse.

By considering the best of Catholic art, and after a bit of advice from David Clayton, I set up the curriculum around Pope Benedict XVI's theory of art as expressed in his book:“The Spirit of The Liturgy”. The approach is anchored highly on the human person as an image of God and how the invisible and visible meet in Man. This means that we take image making from two poles, one which is based on proportion, rule and ideal, and one which is based on observation, detail and particularity. Drawing exercises move along those poles as we work towards finding balance between the two. All students begin by learning to draw a face through discovery of proportion, balance and symmetry found therein. This approach is extended to the human body. Then as the children perfect their knowledge of the ideal form, they will also be brought to draw strictly from observation, a hand, a drapery or another child’s face. As the student’s knowledge grows, we integrate basic Christian iconology, and so for example the children will learn the elements of a crucifixion and will be asked to produce one based on what they have learned, copying as well from traditional images.

I have found this approach to give amazing results as even the children that seemed to have the least “talent” have advanced their drawing skills by leaps and bounds and have learned to enjoy something they had once found daunting.

Pope Benedict’s theory of the three great Catholic Artistic traditions, namely Iconographic, Gothic and Baroque, forms the backdrop for the Art History and Theory we look at with the older kids. This had brought up several surprising and thoughtful discussions. The most striking to me has been the question of what is “Real”. I was not surprised to discover that the students had an immediate attraction to Baroque forms, and the reason they gave me was that it was more “realistic”, that it was more “true” than what they saw in Iconography. In pondering this question with them, I asked them if it was “true” that an object was smaller as it was further away from the viewer... Another questions I posed was if since we recognize a person by his face, whether the back of the head is as “real” or “true” as the face. These theoretical considerations encourage the older students to meditate on some of the deep issues that have very much to do with the relationship between the ideal and particular that we simultaneously explore in the drawing exercises.

I leave you with a series of drawings made by the students that reflects the approach we have chosen for our art curriculum.

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Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Student, 13 years old


Drapery study, 1 hour. Student, 14 years old


Christ Pantocrator. Student, 10 years old


Hand study. 1 hour. Student, 9 years old


Proportions of the face. Student, 7 years old