Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How Do We Revive the Gothic Tradition Without Creating Pastiche?

When I was given the courage to follow my dream of being an artist (by some inspired vocational guidance 20 years ago) I wanted to paint like the Italian gothic artist Duccio. My reasons were based upon personal preference rather than a deep knowledge of Catholic liturgical art. It was just that I loved what I saw when I went to the National Gallery in London: it had enough naturalism to make it accessible, and enough idealism that gave it a sense of the sacred. It was later that I read The Spirit of the Liturgy in which the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the gothic an authentic liturgical tradition.

Once I had decided I wanted to paint like him, it raised the problem of how to learn to do so. I didn't want to create pastiche, but to learn in such a way that it might become my natural way of painting and so if required, I could paint new works of art in this style. The problem was that as far as I was aware, this was not a living tradition and there wasn’t any practising artist who could teach me.

I had a sense that historically, the gothic was a transitionary phase between the iconographic and the classical naturalism of the High Renaissance/Baroque (transmitted through the ‘academic method’ of the academies and ateliers). The methods of both of these traditions were still just about alive, I knew, if not always applied in the full glory of the past. So I decided to seek a training in both traditions and hoped that through this, somehow, I would be able to take elements from both and patch together my own gothic style.

This twin training was extremely valuable to me to this end, but not in the way I had imagined. Rather than learning stylistic elements from two traditions that I could combine to create a hybrid, I learnt how a tradition preserves and passes on its core principles and so was able to see how the gothic could be reestablished as a tradition in its own right, without reference to the other two if necessary.

Both the academic and iconographic methods emphasized the importance of two aspects in the training: first the observation from nature and second the copying, with understanding, of masters in that tradition. The balance of these two aspects was different in each tradition (with the emphasis on observation from nature much stronger, as one would expect, in the naturalistic tradition).

This aspect of understanding when copying is important. Aidan Hart, my teacher, always stressed this strongly. When we studied an icon, he would relate the form of the painting to both the natural form and the theology. Take the example of the eyes: he pointed out that the eyes in an icon have no glint. This is because a glint is reflected light, and this is absent in the icon because it portrays eschatological man who shines with uncreated light which is stronger than the reflected light.

Sometimes he would point out features that might seem at first glance to be an arbitrary stylization but were in fact related to natural form. For example, the dark line above the eye is the deepest point. Below it, the eyeball is curving forward out of the orbit and above it the skull coming out from the orbit towards the brow. (This line only appears in nature if we have deep set eyes.) To accentuate this as a shadow line it is often painted as a red or red-brown shadow line. A warm, reddish shadow is often used in the deepest shadow of flesh even when painting naturalistically (this is what I was taught to do when I was studying in portrait painting in Florence).

So from this lesson I learnt that if I want to learn any tradition, I must learn to draw skillfully from nature as well as copy masters. If I want to paint figures in the style of musclebound superheroes, I would sign up for life drawing classes and copy lots of pictures of Spiderman and Superman. Similarly, if I want to paint like Duccio I can copy his work, while considering how the style relates to the theology; and (as we know the gothic masons did from their surviving manuscripts) draw from nature.

The study of iconography taught me that a tradition can be reestablished as living tradition successfully, even if the line of tradition has been broken. The Enlightenment affected the culture in both East and West and this caused a break in the iconographic tradition. The iconography which we see today is a living tradition that was reestablished in the 20th century through the devoted work of Greek and Russian iconographers and scholars. These pioneers analysed the tradition for its essential elements, and then sought to account for these by relating them to theology of eschatological man. (The work has not been done yet. It has been developing and changing even in the time that I have been exposed to icons over the last 20 years.)

A similar process is now going on in in the West, both in regard to re-establishing the Baroque and gothic traditions; and in taking a discerning look at the Orthodox interpretation of the iconographic tradition, which is at times limited by its focus on the Greek and Russian traditions to the exclusion of other iconographic forms, for example the Romanesque or the Celtic forms of iconography.

I am confident therefore of a flowering of Catholic culture, especially when one sees how it is underpinned by the liturgical renewal that is taking place under the guiding hand of the Holy Father.

A Madonna and Child by Duccio

A detail from the Christ Pantocrator showing the red lines that mark the deepest recess of the upper lid of each eye.

The triple portrait of Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck that shows the same feature above the eyes, this time in a naturalistic portrait (a detail is below)

A modern portrait of a young man. I included this to show two things, first that the shadow is painted in a deep red ochre, and second that not everyone has such an obvious shadow line above the upper lid of the eyes. In those with deep set eyes it will be less pronounced.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: