Monday, March 02, 2020

Announcing a New Catholic Artists Directory

NLM is grateful to receive this guest article from Elizabeth Lemme, herself a talented calligrapher and artist. In addition to David Clayton's weekly posts on new iconographers, which always bolster one's confidence in the possibility of a reawakening of sacred art, I consider this new collective venture to be one of the most hopeful signs of a Catholic artistic renaissance that I have yet seen. ~ PAK

It was in the 1950s when the Bavarian town of Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, brought forth an unexpected treasure. A community choir supported by the local fire department commissioned a WWII veteran to compose a setting of the Ave Maria and Angelus texts. This composition eventually made its way from obscurity into the spotlight, particularly by the beloved American vocal ensemble, Chanticleer. Indeed, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” now commonly sung in the repertoire of professional and collegiate choirs, is one of the loveliest choral gems of the 20th century. Would it ever have been written if a small fireman’s chorus hadn’t commissioned it? Considering this gem traveling from Furstenfeldbruck’s local stage to the international stages and choir lofts causes one to wonder what other great works of art are waiting to be commissioned from artists today?

El Camino del Peregrino, 33” x 39.” Oil on canvas. Artist: John Folley. Commissioned by a family in Florida, occasioned by the desire for a centerpiece to their living space that would serve as a touchstone for conversations with friends about the sacramental nature of their faith.
A speaker at a Catholic lecture series recently lamented the lack of sacred artists and “the need for new artistic geniuses to come forth.” More and more articles written for Catholic blogs and other publications rightly extol beauty, eloquently present aesthetics of beauty, convincingly demonstrate the spiritual need for beauty, and then lament the lack of devout Catholic artists. Beauty, beauty, beauty, we all emphatically say, bring beauty back! In actuality, however, there are Catholic artists of the highest skill tucked away in corners throughout the world, devout practicing Catholics who are steeped and disciplined in their respective crafts, be it sculpture, music composition, calligraphy, fresco, oil painting. But a work of art is usually not born on a day when the artist happens to have nothing else to do and feels like picking up the compositional pen or paintbrush for fun. A work of art comes to life firstly through the artist’s own discipline. That discipline, as demonstrated through western history of classical music and art, is then supported and allowed to be perfected by the support of a patron.

Jubilee Portal. Natural stone tesserae and gold foiled glass mosaic. Artist: Andrew Wilson Smith. Commissioned by St. Mary's Catholic Church of Lancaster, Ohio, to mark the bicentennial of the parish's founding in 1819.
The Catholic Artists Directory, founded in 2019 by artist Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, makes easily available to patrons of the arts a list of talented artists, devoted both to their Catholic faith and to their respective craft. From a scenic coastal Scottish town to a convent in the northern peninsula in Spain, to cities dotting the “middle west” of the United States to Brussels, Belgium, a collection of artists has been carefully adjudicated and compiled together with their respective online portfolios.

St. John Henry Newman’s Prayer to the Sacred Heart, India ink and 22k gold leaf on paper. Artist: Ste Duckett. Commissioned by and residing at the Parish Church of Didcot, Oxfordshire, UK, occasioned by the canonization of St. John Henry Newman.
Many of these artists have recently finished artwork, and are awaiting their next commission. The occasions to commission a work of art or music are, and always have been within the Catholic church and its culture, plentiful. What are some of the occasions which beg for a commission?

(Ave Maria from Mass of the Americas. Composer: Frank La Rocca. Soprano: Crossley Hawn. Commissioned by Archbishop Cordileone through the Benedict XVI Institute.)

While the secular museums showcase massive installments of secular art, or even while ancient masterpieces of Catholic art are housed in dusty, non-liturgical spaces owned by the State, many of the major liturgical events of the Catholic Church around the world are bereft of serious art and instead feature a hodgepodge of kitsch posters and towering speakers blaring music of popular culture. However, one recent exception to this dismaying pattern for major liturgical events across the world is Archbishop Cordileone’s commissioning of The Mass of the Americas by composer Frank La Rocca. This commission was occasioned by the 25th anniversary of San Francisco’s annual Cruzada Guadalupana festival honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rather than the patronizing music that parodies rather than honors a particular culture, The Mass of the Americas turns to serious art music while reaching deep within the traditional folk tunes and beloved hymns of the historic Americas to combine mixed chorus, organ, a soprano, string quartet, and the marimba. The embedding of beloved Mexican hymns into the complexity of a contemporary, classical music language brings forth a compelling, contemplative, reverent new Mass setting pulsing with the truth that under her mantle, Our Lady unites every human person across every culture and across all time.

AUDIO: Viens, Soleil levant; Cantate pour la Veille de la Nativité. Composer: Dimitri Arnauts. Live recording forthcoming this spring.

Indeed, every feast in the liturgical calendar is an occasion for a commission of sacred art and music. Imagine, during Lent, being able to go to a devotional concert series, a choral Stations of the Cross, a Tenebrae service with newly-composed polyphonic motets embedded amidst the traditional chants. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater wasn’t composed when he was inspired on a whim, rather, it was commissioned by the Confraternita Dei Cavalieri di San Luigi Palazzo which every year presented a Good Friday meditation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Likewise, Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t write his Cantatas because it was his nice hobby or because he was bored, rather it was his daily work as Thomaskantor in Leipzig to provide a Cantata for each Sunday and feast day. It is the hope of contemporary composer Dimitri Arnauts to restore the composition of the sacred Cantata within the context of the life of the Catholic church, including its liturgy. The caliber and discipline of musicianship required to execute a Cantata, including orchestra and choir, would draw serious musicians back towards the Church that once sheltered them, and invite amateur musicians to hone their instrumental technique under a director within a liturgical context.

Alb, white linen and handmade lace. Artist: A&M Ornamentos. Commissioned for the ordination of a priest.
Throughout history, commissions of great art have been as large as a Mass setting, or as intimate as one priest’s ordination vestment, or ex voto painting, plaque, or medal. The latter ex voto commissions, common particularly in Mexico and Italy, included artworks telling the story of graces received from petitions such as a healing from an illness. These paintings, while personal in origin, extend beyond the personal realm into evangelization across time and space, landing spaces in museums visited by art historians and tourists unforeseen by the original patron. Today, the practice of commissioning an ex voto work of art has been newly-proposed by artist Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs. Patrons commissioning an ex voto work of art contribute something permanent to the world via the works of an artist’s hands, engaging the contemplation of generations of Catholics while incarnating a truth of the Catholic faith which can evangelize in a direct, poignant manner, for decades. As effective and important as catechetical evangelization programs are for teaching the faith, one must not forget the communicative power of a work of art. A great work of art is like the sound of a bell ringing at the Consecration at Mass, inexplicably cutting to the heart and mysteriously, efficaciously drawing the human soul closer to God. Orthodox, formal catechesis must be supported by the Church, but so also must be works of art which speak directly to the heart, leading it along the many paths created by Our Lord which lead to Himself.

(Suscipe: Prayer of St. Ignatius. Composer: Nicholas Lemme. Commissioned for a Nuptial Mass.)

Besides the large scale liturgical events, a Feast Day, liturgical season, or an ex voto painting, the range of commission possibilities for the Catholic patron is abundant. A commission may arise for a work within the context of the liturgy, or in the context of parish life, or in congruence with Catholic culture. And the artists in the Catholic Artists Directory, selected from among many applicants, demonstrate the highest skill in a wide range of mediums. Stone, glass, ink, egg tempera, oil and pigment, gold leaf, and sound, the mediums from which a work of art can be born are as unique as the persons from whom they will be born. Each patron is encouraged to not underestimate the importance of their role in the artistic process, to peruse the list of Catholic artists in great detail, and to select the artist whose work rings most deeply with their desires.

The portfolios and websites of each artist are available on the Catholic Artists Directory website. A commission can be as small as a piece of paper held in one’s hands and adorned with gold leaf and inks, or as large as a marble baldacchino or new Mass setting. May the Church once again become the cradle of great art, the protector of classical artistic discipline, the source of tangible beauty, the incarnation of the highest artistic ideals. The beauty so eloquently written of by our Catholic philosophers and theologians needs to materialize under the patronage of Catholic institutions of every stripe, seminaries, dioceses, parishes, schools, altar societies, homeschool co-ops, bishops, priests, and laity, and by the hands of these willing and qualified artists.

All photos, videos, and recordings are courtesy of the respective artists.

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