Monday, April 07, 2014

Could We Paint A Wall Street Trader at Prayer in the Style of the Gothic? ...or Is It Only Suitable for Knights in Chainmail?

I have just completed a class at Thomas More College in which I taught students to paint in the English gothic style of the illuminated manuscripts of the School of St Albans. The images you see are from that class and are egg tempera on high quality paper. The gothic style, though clearly derived from the earlier Romanesque - a form of the iconographic tradition - is nevertheless distinct from it. For one thing it is more naturalistic (though not so naturalistic as the baroque of the 17th century of course).

This naturalism in style reflects a greater interest in the pilgrimage to heaven in this life. This leads not only to the development in style as mentioned, but also to a wider range of subjects painted. We see not only what one would expect in all sacred art - saints and biblical scenes for example (the example shown is the Visitation) - but also the portrayal of scenes from everyday life. Psalters of the periods would have illustrations of people working the fields and engaged in all the working activities of the time. The Westminster Psalter, which was produced in the 13th century, has a picture of a pious knight kneeling before his king.

I do not know anything about this man in particular so would speculate that this represents a model of the chivalric code of the time and the ideal that there is a natural hierarchy of being and that this should all be ordered in conformity with the common good and the Church. At this time of the crusades, knights were conscious of their role of preserving Christendom and of their need for God's protection and grace. Also, they were aware of the grey area that existed in some aspects of the life with all its temptations that a soldier of the time would lead and the Christian ideal of virtue. They exerted pressure on religious communities to pray for them and had an interested in the purity and orthodoxy communities - that they wanted to know that were good and pious religious people so that their prayer would be effective.

My source of information in this latter detail is the series of recorded lectures on the Church in the middle ages by historian Thomas Madden.

My hope is to see this gothic tradition develop in the Western Catholic Church and re-establish itself just as the Eastern Church re-established the iconographic tradition so successfully in the middle of the 20th century. Part of this process is the guided copying of past works. When enough are copied by an artist, then it becomes the natural style of the artist, so that even when drawing from nature it appears in this form.

We copied such images in the class trying to understand what we are painting as we go. I gave students a selection of four images and they were free to choose whichever they preferred. As we were painting the picture of the knight, it occurred to me that to the 13th century reader of the psalter, this would have a picture of a contemporary figure. We must aim to make this style of its time in the same way. It is only when we can look at a similar contemporary figure painted in such holy styles and it seems natural that we will have truly established a Christian culture. As an artist trying to play my part, it will not be until a can portray the pious Wall Street banker (they do exist if any doubt it) at prayer in a pin-stripe suit in the gothic style so that it looks natural.

Any who wish to play their part, there will be more classes in the next few months: July 7th-11th and July 14-18th in Kansas City, Kansas, students are free to do either or both. For those who do both, we will make sure that the second builds on what is learnt in the first: contact Kimberly Rode on;

Also, there will be another course in New Hampshire at Thomas More College this summer, July 27th-August 2nd: visit for more details and see poster below.

In addition, we are just finalizing details for a course in Calgary, Canada in the week of July 21st-25th; and in Pennsylvania in September. For further details as they become available, email me through this website.

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