Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Coptic Orthodox View of a 21st Century Renaissance in Catholic Culture

I want to draw your attention to a new blog from my friend, Dr. Stephane Rene, who is one of the foremost proponents of neo-Coptic iconography today. You can find it here: copticiconography.com.

Stephane is not only a wonderful painter; he has a deep understanding of the Christian tradition, and he is always worth reading and listening to. He is based in London and teaches at the Prince of Wales’ school of traditional arts in Shoreditch. Here is an example of his work.

His latest post is intended for a Coptic readership, and is an appeal against the influence of Western kitsch art in Coptic iconography. It is interesting to me to see how sentimentality and kitsch are so virulent they can infect just about any milieu, even one that I had viewed as resiliently traditional as the Coptic culture.

While he is critical of some Western traditions, most notably the High Renaissance, (and he is in good company here; Benedict XVI was too), he is refreshingly open to the first developments taking place in what he sees as a renewal of sacred arts in the Roman Catholic Church. As a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, he is making such observations as an outsider. After first making some kind comments about my book, The Way of Beauty, he mentions two artists by name. One is known to me already, Ian Knowles the British iconographer whose style is influenced by that of his teacher Aidan Hart. The other is a French painter that I had not seen before, François Peltier who, he says, “has a more contemporary approach and uses modern materials, but his content and vocabulary are steeped in tradition.” The image below is one of his Stations of the Cross.

This is interesting work. It brings to mind the scripturally based work of the 20th-century Jewish French artist Marc Chagall. Benedict XVI is an admirer of Chagall’s art; I wrote in an article in 2011 that while I can see potential for devotional art in his style, I was skeptical about its value as liturgical art and the likelihood of it inspiring the rejuvenation of tradition. At the time I wrote:
Chagall’s work is highly individual in its stylization, and it relies much more on an interpretation of ideas that is directed by intuition rather than reason. Unless we can discern the principles that underlie it and characterize them very clearly, we can copy his work, but it is going to be difficult to do so with sufficient understanding for it to be the basis of a new tradition.
There is another factor that mitigates against Chagal: we live in the age where the tradition is one of anti-tradition. Today’s artists spend most of their time trying to be different be from everyone else. So even if Chagall does represent the beginning of a fourth liturgical tradition and somebody worked out his system of iconography, no tradition derived from it is is going to emerge as long as artists spend most of their time chasing ‘originality’ and consciously trying to differentiate themselves from other work.
Time will tell!
I’m not sure it is to my taste, but perhaps time is telling me something after all through the work of M. Peltier! Below is his Divine Mercy, which I prefer to the common image, as he has managed to purge it of the sentimentality which is so strong in the original.

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