There are many artists today working towards the reestablishment of the great naturalistic tradition of sacred art which was at its height in the 17th century, and this is to be encouraged. The artists coming out of the ateliers and studios that teach the traditional academic method who are adding greatly to this cause, and while there are some great painters of portrait and still life, I think that very often there is something wrong with the sacred art that they paint.
Someone recently asked me about this. He felt that they looked too individualised – like portraits of the person next door, which makes it difficult to identify the figure portrayed with the saint and the ideals that the saint represents. Is it possible that these modern examples of sacred art are too naturalistic he asked?
I think that the answer is yes. All Christian figurative art is a balance between naturalism – likeness to physical appearances – and abstraction. The latter is the stylization that enables the artist to reveal invisible truths by visible means. We are used to a high degree of stylization in icons, but are less aware that is there too, though more subtly employed, in naturalistic sacred art too. The problem with the modern sacred art is that most people who are trained academically today are trained to paint the human person as portrait painters. The balance between naturalism and idealism is differs – what is right for portraits, is not right for sacred art.
I think perhaps the seeds of this lie in the difference between 19th century academic art, which is a degraded from of the baroque of the 17th century, which is an authentic Christian tradition (although at first glace they look similar).
Most of the best artists today who are painting in the Western naturalistic tradition were trained in ateliers that teach the academic method as it was in the 19th century. Although the techniques learnt were the same in each case, the there were subtle differences in style between 19th century naturalism (sometimes called ‘Realism’) and 17th century baroque and this reflects a difference in the ethos that underlies each. The impetus for the formation of the baroque was the Counter-Reformation, which built on the work of the great artists of the High Renaissance, which preceded it. Although not all baroque art had an explicitly sacred purpose, stylistically it had its (Read More)