Book Review: In Search of the Sacred Image
Book Review: In Search of the Sacred Image

Book Review: In Search of the Sacred Image

Sacred art must return to the sources

Review by Katherine Turley

Fr Aidan Nichols is well known for his writing on art and faith. In this book he walks the reader through the complex story of the nineteenth and early twentieth century European rediscovery of medieval art and the attempt to recreate a sacred art modelled on and inspired by the aesthetics of the “Primitives” – those painters who pre-dated the High Renaissance: artists like Fra Angelico, van Eyck, Giotto and Cimabue, and, in Russia, writers of the old icons, such as Rublev.

It is also the story, incidentally, of the convergence of the “Primitive style” with the interests of the early twentieth century avant-garde: “Never have I seen such a revelation of mystical feeling,” wrote Matisse in 1911 on seeing some of the Old Russian icons, including Rublev’s The Trinity, newly cleaned. “Nowhere have I seen such a richness, such a purity of colour [...] . We must come here to be instructed. For it is with the Primitives that it is proper to seek inspiration.”

The “searchers” of the sacred image of the title are, first of all, then, those nineteenth and twentieth century artists, theorists, and art historians who, seeking fresh inspiration for a new age, turned back to learn from the style and iconography of the medieval period. The aesthetic they discovered there, founded on creation and the revealed glory of Christ in the Incarnation, was largely confused and swept away, Fr Nichols has long argued, by abstraction, architectural modernism, and “the minimalist practice of iconography.”

But the “searchers” of  the  sacred  image  are also ourselves. Or should be. While the book is an historical study – and a complex and demanding read – it is, as Fr Nichols says, driven by a liturgical, catechetical and doctrinal impulse. What lessons for sacred art can be learnt from the nineteenth and early twentieth century artistic ressourcement? What sacred images should surround the faithful during the liturgy and be available to them in instruction, meditation and prayer? These are the questions that underpin the study.

The crisis of sacred art

The book covers the period of sacred art from the early nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War. It builds, therefore, on Fr Nichols’ monograph on the Victorian art critic and painter John Ruskin, All Great Art is Praise: Art and religion in John Ruskin (2016), and leaves off where his essays, Redeeming Beauty, Essays on Sacral Aesthetics (2007), which tell the story of the “crisis of sacred art” in the 1950s and beyond, begin. Comprising six chapters, it opens with the story of the early twentieth- century rediscovery of the early Russian icons painted before the westernising influence of naturalism. Cleaned and glowing, many of these fourteenth and fifteenth-century icons were displayed to great acclaim in an epoch- making exhibition in Moscow in 1913, news of which was carried back to the West by artists such as Matisse. The discovery of the dazzling colours and pure lines that lay beneath repainting, metalwork and dirt are presented as a kind of analogue to the rediscovery of western medieval art and the foundation of nineteenth-century movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England, the Nazarenes in Germany (initially based in Italy) and later in France, and the Beuron School, attached to the Benedictine monastery of Beuron in Swabia.

Maurice Denis

If the reader is hoping to see some of the images spoken of, they will not find them here. This is a book as much about the reception of art, the narratives and counter-narratives that shape taste and sensibility, as about art itself, and the story, perhaps necessarily, is carried in frequent quotations from secondary sources. These, arguably, are themselves part of the tale. The only reproductions of images to be seen are on the front and back cover. These are details from the painting of Maurice Denis, “Le Mystère Catholique”, and from his decoration of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Vésinet, both painted in 1899. Denis was a devout Catholic, a supporter of Maurras’ Action française, a theoretician and painter, and an admirer of both Byzantine art and the Italian Primitives (and, in due course, later styles). The images on the covers give a tantalising, but perhaps not altogether convincing, glimpse of the artist whom Fr Nichols describes as representing “probably the furthest a Western Catholic can go in the direction of a fully adequate sacred art, lacking as he or she does a background in the canonical iconography of Byzantine-Slav Orthodoxy, the most successful of all historic styles the Church has employed.”

Denis’ early, ardent diary entries  written after visiting the Louvre in 1886 where he discovered Fra Angelico, reveal his theological acuity and  why  Fr  Nichols  foregrounds him: “Painting is an essentially religious and Christian art.” The proclamation of the Word Incarnate must be made, the Second Council of Nicea, the Icon Council, attested in 787, both by word (language) and visual image. The teaching was reaffirmed in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and in its companion text on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. As Fr Nichols has put it elsewhere, the Church is “‘iconofier’

– bearer of images and mother of artists”; she must take up this role again. In his youthful diary, Denis expresses a similar insight: “If this character [of painting as essentially a religious and Christian art] is lost in our impious age, it must be refound. And the means is to return to honour the aesthetic of Angelico. [...] we must make an effort, a great effort, to lead back art to its great master who is God”; and he goes on to reflect, “the Church, holy souls, must inevitably grasp that realism and naturalism ... are incapable of satisfying them.” What is needed is the “Christian vision of the real”. It must show us images, that is, of transfigured humanity, of the Saviour, above all, and the Saints.

The high challenge in producing such art is acknowledged by Denis in his mature work, Théories, published in 1919:

I would like people to know what difficulties, what snares an artist meets who, in the absence of traditions de metier, is constrained to orient himself among false doctrines and paradoxes and to seek by reason alone the study of the Masters the means of ordering his effort.

Together with Georges Desvallierères, Denis founded a school of sacred art along the lines of an apprentices’ studio. The initiative may be paralleled with the Confraternity of St John the Evangelist, founded by Lacordaire from his priory near Viterbo in 1839. Its founding Rule asked that painters, “touched by the spectacle that the world presents”, place themselves under the patronage of St John who “penetrated most deeply into the mysteries of the divine beauty and love, those eternal objects of the contemplation of true artists”.

A sacramental view

Fr Nichols draws some conclusions as the book closes. What is needed is a more profound reception of the teaching of Nicea II and a “deeper sacramental view of the image” by the Christian West, without which “the criteria of its critics can only be inadequate indeed”. He stops short of calling for schools of Christian art falling  within  the  territory of every Bishops’ Conference, a suggestion he made some thirty years ago in an article that should be read alongside this book, “On Baptising the Visual Arts: A Friar’s Meditation” (New Blackfriars, 1993). A short, stimulating and important article, it holds, in seed, many of the reflections in this book.

In Search of the Sacred Image is a challenge. It is so in two senses: the story of the currents and counter-currents of artistic endeavour, debate, aesthetic evaluation and re-evaluation of sacred art during the hundred and fifty years covered is exceptionally complex. Even as condensed and synthesised by Fr Nichols, the story told makes for a dense, demanding read. The dependence on lengthy quotations from secondary sources to carry the narrative forward (though arguably part of the story and perhaps unavoidable in a relatively short book covering a long period of sacred art) can fatigue.

Intimate connection with the liturgy

The book is a challenge, however, in a more important sense. It presents itself as a point of departure not arrival. Exhausted by the still not fully resolved “crisis  in sacred  art” of the 1950s (and other more recent global crises), we are encouraged to ressourcement to return to the sources. To revisit, that is, the Church’s rich iconographical traditions, reviewing them to see how they may enrich and catechise us and above all “voice” the Divine Liturgy. Vatican II’s Sacrum Concilium, the document on the Liturgy, explicitly states that the distinguishing feature of sacred (as differentiated from religious art) is its intimate connection with the Liturgy.

Fr Nichols is good at book titles. This one recalls the Psalmist’s injunction: “Constantly seek his face” (Psalm 104/5:4), and its peerless Augustinian gloss: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are made restless until they rest in you” (Confessions 1:1). It also testifies to Fr Nichols’ own attentive responsiveness to the pronouncements on art and faith by our last three Popes, and to his own persevering search for the divine image.

Katherine Turley studies and writes about medieval literature and art; she is an Oblate of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde.



Faith Magazine

November - December 2021 2021