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The Beuronese School: Nature and Grace in Liturgical Art

The major styles of sacred art – the Iconographic, the Baroque and the Gothic – are all well known to Catholics, even if they can’t identity these styles by name. Sometimes a school of sacred art develops, however, which owes a debt to one or the other of these styles but is, as the expression goes, “neither fish nor fowl.” Such is the case with the Beuronese School of Art.

Stylistically, the Beuronese School is an interesting cul-de-sac that sits outside the mainstream of the Christian tradition. It is named after the southern German town of Beuron, the location of the Benedictine community in which this mid-19th century school originated. The best-known artists who painted in this style in Europe are Desiderius Lenz (d 1928) and Gabriel Wuger (d 1892), both Benedictine monks from Beuron.

In the United States, too, the Beuron style can be found. The walls and the ceiling of the abbey church of the Benedictines at Conception Abbey, Missouri, are decorated primarily with authentic examples of the Beuronese style. The abbey website states that the work on these walls was done between 1893 and 1897 by several Conception monks, most notably Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921). Sitting at the feet of the masters, so to speak, the latter two monks had studied art at Beuron.

The original 19th century Beuronese artists were reacting against what was the dominant form of sacred art employed at the time by churches of the Roman Rite. Overly naturalistic and sentimental form, this art was also stiflingly academic and produced by the French academies and ateliers. The exemplar of this decadent form is the Frenchman William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Authentic Christian art has a style that is always a carefully worked out balance of naturalism (sometimes referred to as “realism”) and idealism. The naturalism in art tells us visually what is being painted. Put simply, if an artist wants to paint a man it must look like a man, with a human trunk, a head, limbs and so on. The artist then achieves the idealistic element in his composition through a controlled deviation from strict adherence to natural appearances by which the artist reveals invisible truths. For example, an artist’s style can communicate that humans have a soul and a spirit, and that these are known as the intellect and will.

It is this deviation from strict “photographic”* naturalism that characterizes the style of art. All work produced in a particular artistic tradition will have in common certain methods (called “controlled abstractions”) by which the artist reveals the Christian understanding of what his work portrays. It is through perception of these methods that we are able to recognize an artist’s style. For example, we recognize the iconographic style because a painting in that style renders the eyes of the subject enlarged, the mouth diminished, and the nose elongated in a particular way. Tradition developed these elements of iconographic style to help the observer see beyond the particular characteristics in the person portrayed to the truths they represent, truths, in the case of iconography, appropriate for a saint.

It is easy to distort appearances, to hide the truth and to create the equivalent of a visual lie through style. Many advertisements present airbrushed photographs – that is, photos that have been deliberately distorted to exaggerate such sexual attributes that advertisers hope will help sell their products. This deception, perfected by the venal “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue, tells us that it is not enough for the Christian artist to be able to stylize. Indeed, the Christian artist has a great responsibility and must reveal the truth through his stylizations, rather than to deceive by hiding or distorting these truths. As even this brief foray into aesthetics indicates, art is serious stuff; if the artist gets these fundamental principles wrong, he can lead souls astray.

With this same sense of responsibility and aware of the deficiencies of the sacred art of their time, Beuronese artists sought to introduce an idealization into their style by seeking inspiration from ancient Egyptian art and from ancient Greek principles of proportion. Visually it is easy to see the influence of the Egyptian papyri; but in addition the Beuronese artists used a canon of proportion derived from the ancient Greeks (although this is speculative on the artists’ part, given that the canon of Polyclitus, an important primary source on such matters, is lost). The link between ancient Greek art and Egyptian art is not an unnatural one. Plato praised the Egyptian style and historians speculate that Greek art from the classical period (around 500 B.C.) was influenced by Egyptian art.

Yet the Beuronese artists did not break completely with the style of the day; in fact, these artists trained in the same methods of the 19th century atelier that they were rejecting. The resulting artwork is a curious mixture of 19th century naturalism stiffened up, so to speak, by an injection of Egyptian art and Greek geometry.

What of the painting of Beuronese art today? In his 1947 encyclical about the sacred liturgy, Mediator Dei, Pius XII made it clear (in paragraph 195) that we should always be open to different styles of art for the liturgy, provided that such styles have the right balance of naturalism and idealism (he uses the words “realism” and “symbolism” to refer to these qualities). What should drive the style’s use, Pius XII advises, is the need of the Christian community and not the whim of the artist or patron.

In my experience, the Beuronese style does connect with people today in a way that is appropriate for the liturgy. A piece of Beuronese art has sufficient naturalism for the observer to easily recognize the representation, while it has sufficient idealism to suggest another world beyond this one. Furthermore, contemporary culture provides natural reference points to allow modern people, even those without a classical education, to relate to this style. Art deco architecture, for example, is also derived from Egyptian styles. Strangely, many observers might find the Beuronese style with its Egyptian roots more accessible than a traditional icon in the classic Russian style of Andrei Rublev.

I have read in translation, On the Aesthetic of Beuron, by Father Desiderius Lenz, who many consider to be the main Beuronese theorist. As an account of the geometric proportions used in the human form, the book was complex and therefore difficult for any painter to use, except for very formal poses. As soon as an artist seeks to twist and turn a pose in the image, then the necessary foreshortening called for by Father Desiderius requires the painter to use an intuitive sense to relate distant parts to the nearer. In these cases, the artist may find it difficult to adhere to the canon of proportion. Therefore, when figures painted in the Beuronese style are less stiff and formal, the style doesn’t seem to work as well. On the other hand, the more relaxed poses of the Beuronese style produce art that looks like illustrations from the Bible I was given when I was a child. Such a style is good in that context, perhaps, but too naturalistic for the liturgy.

The approach of the original Beuronese School is idiosyncratic – I do not know of any other Christian style of art that looked to Egypt for inspiration. Nevertheless, when done well, the end result does strike me as having something sacred to it and worthy of attention. Perhaps the efforts to control the modern temptation to individual expression have contributed to this, too. The school stressed, for example, the value of imitation of prototypes above the production of works originating in any one artist. Furthermore, the artists collaborated on works and did not sign it once finished. Perhaps it’s not surprising, though, that Catholic monks who dedicated their lives to God and his Church would prize humility over the glory and fame of artistic immortality. In suppressing their individualism, though, paradoxically, as a group, the Beuron School achieved a certain glory – most certainly with God but also among artists here on earth!

David Clayton

David Clayton is the newly appointed Provost of Pontifex University, the Catholic online education provider currently at pilot stage; he is a visiting fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH; and author of the book The Way of Beauty published by Angelico Press in 2015.