Friday, August 16, 2013

Copying with Understanding - Modern Work in the Style of the 13th Century School of St Albans

This summer we held a painting course in Kansas City, Kansas at the Savior Pastoral Center Kansas. This was an unusual class in that it was not icon painting, but painting gothic style images. The originals are in illuminated manuscripts done by artists from the 13th century School of St Albans. Of those who came to the class, some were quite experienced, even to the level of teaching others, and some were completely beginners. It was hosted by the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas which runs the center and I am grateful for all the work that their staff did in organising and supporting this class. 
I thought I would show some of the work done by students that will help explain the process by which these are painted. This one is a St Christopher painted by a master of the school called Matthew Paris.
What was particularly exciting for me is the ease with which people took the style. I mentioned last week that the method by which you transmit style in a tradition is to copy with understanding. It is also that way that you can re-establish a tradition that is no longer living. This is what the masters of the High Renaissance did when they created a new style by copying Greek and Roman sculpture; and what Russian expatriates in Paris did in the mid-20th century when they re-established the iconographic tradition in its earlier authentic form so successfully. I am interested in seeing the same happen for the gothic tradition so this is why I have been experimenting in teaching this style. 
The 'understanding' referred to can be an intellectual understanding of the symbolism of the content, or how the stylistic elements relate to the Christian understanding of man, for example. One can also understand in a more intuitive way and this when there is a natural feel for the style - then you have a sense of how to introduce differences without compromising what is essential to it. What was apparent to me is that students had a much greater intuitive feel for this style than beginners do generally when teaching Byzantine style icons. I first noticed this natural affinity for gothic images when teaching younger students at Thomas More College, New Hampshire, where I work. I cannot prove it, but my feeling is that this is because the gothic belongs to the Roman rite and so Catholics of the Western Church relate more readily to what they seeing, even if they don't know why.
As a result of this I could give students a little more freedom in choice of colour and design (in for example the ornate borders) than would normally be given at such an early stage. Initially some, particularly those who had been taught in classes taught by Orthodox were sceptical about their validity as sacred images. This is because the Orthodox generally not recognise the Western liturgical traditions of the gothic and the baroque, as authentic. Once they got going they found they took to it very easily and enjoyed the freedom I gave them in the class. 
These images are good for teaching for another reason: they have such strongly articulated lines to describe form. Generally, people find it easier to start with lines than trying to modelled shapes, which requires high skill in blending.  I would encourage anybody who is learning (or teaching) sacred art to think about copying this period.
We worked on high quality watercolour paper and painted in egg tempera. The work featured here is by students, Paul Jentz and his mother Christi (who kindly took and sent me the photographs) and they worked from the image shown top left. First they constructed a grid as a help but drew the design by hand; then gradually they added thin washes of tempera paint to build up the colours.
Next week I will show some more finished images of a Visitation, again based on one from the School of St Albans.
We have already booked up to do two more courses next summer, so those who are interested might even contact the center now. This year the places went quickly and we could have filled the class more than twice over. The center website is here.

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