03 February 2009

Pro Arte Beuronensis

After reading Fr John Meyendorff’s article on the Orthodox Church in Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, the very first thing that I read about Orthodoxy was Photios Kontoglou’s hard-hitting, but, I felt, persuasive apologia for traditional Byzantine iconography, ‘The Hopelessness of Death in Western Religious Art and the Peace-Bestowing and Profoundly Hopeful Orthodox Iconography’ (printed in English, in, I believe, The True Vine—my own copy is buried in a box somewhere in my house). I very quickly wrote off Western religious art. If it wasn’t the fleshy naturalism of the Renaissance and Baroque eras (made for churches like this), it was the tacky, quickly dated, and hopelessly subjective modernism of the post-Vatican II years (made for churches like this). Neither one seemed right to me.

But then I was surprised to make a discovery. It was about two and a half years ago, when I was first looking into the history of the St Benedict medal. I learned somewhere (most likely here) that the medal as it’s typically produced now had been designed in something called ‘the Beuronese style of sacred art’, at the (I found here) ‘St Martin's Archabbey, Beuron, Germany’. Now, this name, ‘Beuron’, was familiar to me. In his wonderful conversion-to-Orthodoxy story, Fr Placide (Deseille) made a passing reference to this place, saying of his aunts that ‘the great abbeys of Beuron, Maredsous, and Solemnes were the high places of their Christianity’ (Archimandrite Placide [Deseille], ‘Stages of a Pilgrimage’, The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mt Athos, trans. and ed. Hieromonk Alexander [Golitzin] [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1999], p. 63). It was precisely this passage that sprang to mind when I came across that reference to the design of the medal. It sparked my curiosity as much as the expression ‘the great abbeys’ had fired my imagination.

The story I discovered is a long one, and I haven’t been able to work out all of the precise details. What I do know, is that the main figures in the development of Beuronese art were a group of German artists named Peter Lenz (1832-1928), Jakob Würger (1829-92), and Fridolin Steiner (1849-1906). The three young men went to Rome to work with some members of what had been the ‘Nazarene’ movement, a brotherhood of German artists devoted to St Luke the Evangelist (the first iconographer, according to tradition) who had lived a semi-monastic existence painting religious and neomediæval subjects in a simple, serene style. One critic in 1820 ascribed to the Nazarenes’ work the qualities of ‘simplicity, holiness, and purity’ (Fr Kenneth Novak, ‘The Art of Beuron’, Angelus Online). George Eliot referred to the Nazarenes as ‘the chief renovators of Christian art, . . . who had not only revived but expanded that grant conception of supreme events as mysteries at which the successive agess were spectators, and in relation to which the great souls of all periods became as it were contemporaries’ (George Eliot, Middlemarch I, Vol. VI in Works of George Eliot [NY: The Century, 1910], p. 310). James D. Merritt notes the Nazarenes’ influence upon and anticipation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England (Introduction, The Pre-Raphaelite Poem [NY: Dutton, 1966], pp. 9-10). A meeting with one of the Nazarenes, Peter von Cornelius, had a tremendous influence on the art of Ford Maddox Brown (1821-93), who subsequently was a mentor to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a contributor to the Pre-Raphaelite periodical, The Germ (in a letter to Maddox Brown, Rossetti apparently writes ‘that if he ever does anything on his own account, it will be under the influence of such inspiration’—Joseph Knight, Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti [London: Walter Scott, 1887], p. 22).

So, to return to Lenz, Würger, and Steiner, they were highly influenced by the Nazarene movement. But, in addition, they became fascinated with the ancient Egyptian art that had poured into Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. According to Novak:

Lenz [the primary theorist among them] thought sacred art should reflect the natural laws of aesthetics through formulae he believed were forgotten after the Greeks and Egyptians. Geometrical proportions determine ideal forms, and the result is an innate harmony comparable to the mathematical relationships in musical composition.

Believing a monastic brotherhood to be the ideal context in which to put their ideas into practice, the three talked about forming a monastery. But in 1868 they met Fr Maurus Wolter, abbot of the new Benedictine monastery of Beuron. Wolter had initiated a close relationship with the centre of the Gregorian chant revival, Solemnes, corresponding with the abbot, Dom Prosper Guéranger, and even going so far as to model Beuron on the Solemnes Congregation. The cultivation of traditional Gregorian chant at Beuron dovetailed nicely with the approach to the visual and plastic arts of Lenz, Würger, and Steiner. The three were tonsured as monks of Beuron, taking the names Desiderius, Gabriel, and Lukas. They began an art school at Beuron that—besides designing the St Benedict medal—built churches, painted murals, created mosaics, and even hand-crafted church furnishings and altar vessels in Europe and later in America, based on the principles developed by Desiderius Lenz. Novak lists a few of these (apparently taken from Lenz’s writings):

The art speaks to the mind of the viewer. The art is itself worshipful and invites the viewer to worship. It does not stand out boldly of itself but is part of an environment of worship.

Works are anonymous, done by group effort, and not for the glory of the artist, but of God.

As in icons, the Beuronese style favors imitation over originality, with freehand copying revealing an artist's true genius.

There is full integration of art and architecture. Painting and sculpture are not ‘stick-ons’ to an architectural plan but an integral part of it. Beuronese art encompasses painting, architecture, altar vessels, and furnishings.

One can see some examples of these principles in practice at the Archabbey of Beuron itself here, in the crypt of the monastery church at Monte Cassino here, at the Mauruskapelle here, in the Basilica at Conception Abbey in Missouri, at the Abbey of St Hildegard here, at Maria Laach Abbey in Germany here, and at the chapel of the Gymnázia Teplice in the Czech Republic here. There is a beautiful photo of a Beuronese chapel at Daniel Mitsui’s blog here, and a few images at ‘History and Sources’ here. The photo above is of the 'Great Hall' at St John's University in Collegeville, MN, which was apparently restored some years ago.


Pintradex said...


The images from the Abbey of Beuro are striking. I wouldn't say it is a "flawed" expression as the site says, as the art at Beuro does convey a transcendent quality, and it was born from a sincere desire to glorify God. Any 'flaws' could have been worked out by maintaining and perpetuating that school of art. There is a harmony in that the detail doesn't draw attention to itself but almost forces one to use peripheral vision in order to view the whole of the church at once. Also from the site:

This is why the relationship between Beuronese art and the simultaneous revival of the pure music of Gregorian chant was so compelling...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...


Such a treat for eyes tired of the ugly modern world.

Aaron Taylor said...

Glad you liked it guys!

Justin> I agree that it isn't 'flawed', and I'm not sure what that guy thinks the 'flaw' is, precisely. I suspect it's just another example of contemporary Catholic traditionalists being far too influenced by the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. The Beuronese is probably too 'primitive' for him.

Kevin> Did you see my example of a post-Vatican II church? Not such a treat, by contrast...

Anonymous said...

Primitive art meets traditional iconography in a very peaceful way. I've appreciated American folk art before and I wonder if this is a possible orthodox way to merge east and west. Byzantine art and chant can be a little off-putting at first because it is foreign to us. Gregorian Chant doesn't do the same for me as this Beuronese art does though. Byzantine chant, which I'm warming up to, seems more (I hesitate to say) masculine and robust. It offers a strong support. The art seems neither masculine or feminine, but angelic and peaceful. Hmmm.

Thanks for the education!