When I became a Catholic in the early 1990s, I decided that I wanted to paint sacred art.
It was Beauty that won me to Faith. In particular, it was watching the art, architecture, and music at the London Oratory work so powerfully together in the Mass that caused my conversion to Catholicism, by the grace of God.
My conversion at the hands of Sacred Beauty was so powerful that I was surprised to discover how rare the experience has become in ordinary Catholics life. Banality and ugliness are more common than beauty, I discovered. Finally, I decided to stop complaining and do something about it.
I knew that I needed training to paint sacred beauty, but had no idea where to get it. I didn’t know where to start looking and nobody could tell me. I even tried to look up ‘Catholic Art Schools’ under C in the London telephone directory. I found nothing, of course.
Gradually it dawned on me that the reason my search was fruitless was that the school I long for did not exist, not in London, in England, or anywhere else that I could find. There were some places that offered part of what was needed, but nowhere that offered a training that could give me both the practical skills and the necessary intellectual and spiritual formation.
I wanted to know, for example, how Fra Angelico or Duccio were trained so that they could work within the tradition, but at the same time produce something gloriously new and previously unimagined.
So, my search broadened. I dove into traditional teaching methods, seeking to apply them to myself first and then to use what I learned to found the school for which I had fruitlessly searched. Hubris? I was lucky to have a great spiritual director who encouraged me. His motto? ‘Pray for rain and dig for water!’
I discovered the common principles of training that connected styles as different as Russian iconographers and Italian baroque artists: a deep mystagogical catechesis and Christian inculturation. Mere technical skill is not enough. A deeply Catholic art teaches the artist to seek technical skill as a means for achieving the ultimate end: the search for divine wisdom and a supernatural transformation in Christ.
I was amazed. Why isn’t this put at the heart of all Catholic education?
I now started to research the Church’s writing on education. To my surprise, I discovered that this is just what the Church said Catholic education was about, although barely anyone seemed to know it.
Here is Pius XI writing in 1929 in Divini Illius Magistri, for example, “The proper and immediate end of a Catholic education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by Baptism. For precisely this reason, Christian education takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view of reducing it in any way but in order to elevate, regulate and perfect it.”
In 2014, I wrote a memoir-cum-manifesto The Way of Beauty. The book shows how liturgical catechesis and renewal could help build Catholic families, parishes, schools, and universities—and make converts.
Out of the blue, I was approached by some who shared this powerful Catholic vision for education. I was invited to create the very first program, a Master of Sacred Arts, as Provost of a groundbreaking new online university www.Pontifex.University.
The Masters in Sacred Arts was launched last year. It is a heavyweight 30-credit degree with a lightweight $9,000 total price tag (with further discounts for priests and religious). Several dozen students are already enrolled, with many more auditing or taking single classes.
After years of theorizing, I now get to see seminarians, priests, religious, and gifted lay people getting the education for which I had longed, and then actually producing beautiful new art. Watch for the first fruits of new evangelization as our students and their work move into parishes, schools, and universities.
Pontifex University is a Roman Catholic university, loyal to the Magisterium, and grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Our online MSA is a mystagogical catechesis that integrates theology (mostly scripture and liturgy), philosophy, art and the study of Catholic culture, along with the mathematics of beauty (traditional proportion and harmony).
We have a growing list of partners, institutions, and teachers who offer the highest standard of training, including Anthony Visco, Martinho Correia, Hexaemeron.org, and the Bethlehem Icon Centre. Students who have Masters-level credits in any other artistic disciplines may seek to transfer them and so create a Masters of Sacred Arts with a concentration in, for example, sacred music. We have a team of great teachers, such as Dr. Carrie Gress, author of the Catholic bestseller, The Marian Option, who teaches a unique introductory philosophy course surveying the transcendentals, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Dr. Michel Accad, is both a trained philosopher and a practicing cardiologist who is published in both The Thomist and The Lancet. Dr. Accad teaches the Philosophy of Nature and Philosophical Anthropology. Chris Carstens, the editor of the excellent Adoremus Bulletin, teaches a course on the words of the Mass based upon his wonderful book on the subject, Mystical Body, Mystical Voice.
Pontifex University will soon offer masters and doctoral degrees in theology and philosophy. But there is a very good reason why we chose a program that offers a formation in beauty and creativity as our first.
Our unique Masters of Sacred Arts program makes a clear statement about our special educational ethos: Authentic Catholic education should center on beauty as a path to an encounter with Christ. In this way, and through this Way, our lives will reflect divine wisdom, divine beauty and inspire the evangelization of the culture.
David Clayton is the provost of Pontifex University, who writes at TheWayofBeauty.org. He is also an icon painter and the author of several books including The Way of Beauty.