Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Does the Church Need Artists Who Are Humble Scribes? Or Original Geniuses?

Looking At Rabanus Maurus, St Dunstan, the anonymous painter of the San Damiano Crucifix, and Matthew Paris: how they are connected, and what they can teach us today.

Recently, I was put in touch with a small group of artists at the newly established sacred art studio at Ealing Abbey, the Benedictine house in West London. These artists are learning their craft under the guidance of the British iconographer Aidan Hart, and forming a group that learns together, and passes on what it learns to others, so as to encourage the spread of the iconographic tradition in the Roman Church.

I was interested in talking to them about their vision of past forms of iconography that might appeal to the modern eye, and so serve as a launch pad for what might in time be the development of a distinct contemporary, but nevertheless authentic, tradition of iconography in the Roman Church. I was very pleased to learn that they shared my enthusiasm for the line-based Romanesque and early Gothic styles of the English church. (Regular readers know that I tend to focus on the work of the 13th-century Gothic artist Matthew Paris.) The artists of the Ealing Abbey studio directed my attention to the work, previously unknown to me, of St Dunstan, who lived in the 10th century, a reformer of English monasticism who was based in Glastonbury for a large part of his life. He is less known as an artist: here is his drawing of Christ in which he has painted himself adoring the Saviour.

The inscription above him reads: Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere. Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas (I ask you, merciful Christ, to watch over me, Dunstan, and not let the Taenarian storms swallow me.)

In their book The Image of St Dunstan, Nigel Ramsay and Margaret Sparks suggest that the idea for placing himself in the image came to St Dunstan from a 9th-century manuscript by another monk, Rabanus Maurus. Maurus wrote and illuminated “De laudibus sanctae crucis - On the praises of the Holy Cross”, a collection of poems presenting the sacred symbol in words, images, and numbers. One of the illuminated poems (in which every line has the same number of letters) can be seen here: as we can see, Rabanus Maurus portrayed himself adoring the cross.

When I looked at the St Dunstan image. It immediately brought to mind two others. The first was from the 13th-century England, by the monk Matthew Paris.
Here Paris has referred to himself as “Frat[er] Mathias Parisiensi[s] - Brother Matthew Paris.” It might be that he got the idea of including himself from Dunstan, who first got the idea from Maurus, I cannot say. But it occurs to me that it is just as likely that all three, Maurus, St Dunstan and Paris, were working within a tradition in which the scribe portrays himself in this manner, humbling himself before a holy patron. This being the case, it might be that none is aware of the work of any of their predecessors directly.

Another connection that occurred to me as I look at the St Dunstan image is that of the San Damiano crucifixion in the Basilica of St Claire in Assisi.

The facial features of each are striking, to me at least, as being similar to the other. I had always been under the impression that the San Damiano crucifixion had its origins in 9th century Syria, but most references I can find nowadays seem to have revised that idea, and suggest that it was painted by an Italian artist in the 12th century. So assuming the latter to be true, we might ask where the 12th century artists saw the St Dunstan image? Or are both following a established tradition for what the face of Christ looks like, with each being aware of a number of similar images? Again I do not know the answer to this question.

What does seem to be apparent, however, is that artists in the past were looking at each others’ work and happily replicating and adapting what they saw in order to create their own work. This is good practice, for it is the means by which tradition is passed on. 
Following traditional forms in art is almost antithetical to the modern mindset, in which everyone tries to be different from those who preceded them in order to demonstrate “originality.” However, as Christians, until we re-establish a mindset in which artists copy each other’s works with understanding, and deliberately seek to adapt or change only what is necessary to meet the needs of their commission, we cannot re-establish a tradition of sacred art in the Church today. A hermeneutic that dictates that artists do as little original work as possible, rather than as much as they can, is one that respects the past and, paradoxically, allows for the development of steadily better work in the future. In this sense, tradition has its hands on the tiller that guides present day artists as they develop new and inspired work. 
So whichever works from the past eventually do inspire the new tradition of the future, it will take a team of artists who view themselves as humble scribes, in the manner of Paris, Dunstan and Maurus, rather than celebrated original geniuses, for it to happen!

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