The Way of Beauty

David Clayton
with an interview with David Clayton by Peter Stanford

The author is an artist who is endeavouring to set up a new kind of art school, the Academy of Visual Arts, inspired particularly by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of sacred art. We have asked him here to define his goals and his approach. [This article appeared in Second Spring issue 4.]

In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists. In this he called for a 'new epiphany of beauty' and for a 'renewed relationship between Church and culture' in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. A 'new epiphany' will not just happen by itself. This article aims to set out a basis upon which art schools can be founded that will give artists, including Catholic artists, the training to create beautiful art.

The Pope calls for good 'secular' as well as 'sacred' art work. (For the time being let us define sacred art simply as art with a specifically religious purpose. It might be intended for private devotion in the home, for example, or for incorporation within a liturgical celebration or building. It is not necessarily sacred in itself, but is dedicated to a sacred purpose.) There is in fact a strong connection between the two. Historically, one might even argue, as I have heard it said, that the fine arts were born on the altar – that religious inspiration and patronage lay behind all the great cultural movements of the past. If this was true once, it can be so again. Once standards of beauty have been set, once a vision of human existence and its ultimate meaning have been established for all to see, the culture at large will tend to measure itself against these standards, and to draw inspiration from this vision. Beauty is its own argument.

I am hoping for the eventual appearance of a new, post-Vatican II style of Catholic art, as distinctive as the Gothic or the Baroque which characterized earlier Christian eras. But this is unlikely to happen unless the training of artists instils within them the virtues and skills necessary to create prayerful, beautiful art that is capable of drawing us closer to God by uplifting the soul.

The method suggested here is based on the way artists have always been trained in traditional societies the world over: that is, through disciplined imitation. This makes artists adept at conforming their skills to the creation of art with an external purpose. The need for beauty in the making is important for the fulfilment of this purpose. It is proposed here that beauty is never simply 'in the eye of the beholder' – a matter of personal taste. We may disagree about what we find attractive, but there is an element of objectivity that has to be acknowledged. And this implies that the artist can be educated to discern and to love beauty.

What is Beauty?

Beauty cannot be sought directly, in 'abstract' as it were, and the artist need not even be very interested in a 'theory of aesthetics'. Nevertheless, some consideration of the nature of beauty is necessary for those devising the training of artists. In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II cites the famous and mysterious phrase of Dostoyevsky: Beauty will save the world. Does this mean that the beauty that is in the world will save it? Or must we look for a beauty from beyond the world? The answer, I believe, is a bit of both. The beauty that is in the world comes from beyond it. It directs us to where it comes from. The Christian religion, especially, is all about this saving beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in the first pages of the first volume of his series The Glory of the Lord: 'We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.'

So what is beauty? I see it, like its sisters, truth and goodness, as an objective quality. It is a quality in a thing that directs us to God. It calls us to first to itself and then beyond, with an invitation to go to Him. If we heed that call we respond with love to that beauty and open ourselves up to it and to its ultimate source, the inspiration of the artist, God. When we do this it elevates the spirit and provides consolation to the soul. Beauty is the quality in a painting through which the artist can 'bear witness to the Light'.

Beauty is not the only thing in art that directs us to God. Sometimes, the subject matter, even if poorly represented, can do this also. It is possible, therefore, to have ugly art that fulfils its liturgical function in a mechanical sense. For example, an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, though poorly painted, may still be recognizable as such, and so in some way will direct our thoughts to Our Lady in heaven. But this ugly picture would do the job so much better if was beautiful as well. (And just as it is possible to have an ugly image of a beautiful object, it is possible to have a beautiful image of an ugly object!)

Beauty's call can manifest itself in different ways. It could be as a shout or trumpet blast, revealing God's glory, splendour and might – I feel that Turner's dramatic seascapes do this. It can be a beacon, iridescent with reflected light, the source of which is beyond the world – here I would choose Monet as an example. Aidan Hart, the Orthodox iconographer, refers to this as 'burning-bush art' – because it 'burns' with the fire of God's glory.

But, in contrast, the call of beauty can be as the 'still, small voice' that punctuates the silence. These might be the shadowy, numinous paintings, perhaps with a melancholy edge, that suggest a presence of something that is beyond what is portrayed and seems to reveal the hope and solace that lies there. The portraits of Rembrandt and the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi come to mind.

Beauty can also call us like the 'cry of one in the wilderness'. It acknowledges the despair and pain of human suffering, but it does not leave us in desolation. For at the same time it seems to reassure us of the hope that is in the world to come, which transcends suffering. This hope is present even in death. Grünewald's crucifixion, is perhaps, an example of this. When paintings of this type show human suffering, we grow in compassion and love because we empathize with the suffering and sense the hope that lies at the root of all suffering, through God. In contrast, the distorted figures of Francis Bacon, though brilliantly executed, mock those who suffer and diminish our love for mankind and God. So for me, although Bacon's art is powerful, that power has been misdirected and is not beautiful, therefore it is simply not good art.

The Response to Beauty

Just as beauty can manifest itself in a variety of ways, so our reactions to it can be varied. We may respond fully, with love for God. This love is fuelled by grace. When this happens we experience a powerful call to God and recognise it as such. In its fullest sense, it is similar to the response to Christ by some of those who saw and heard him in his ministry. (In his Letter to Artists, the Holy Father described beauty as 'the Good made visible'. Christ, the Word made flesh, is the purest example of this, making Christ the Form of beauty.) When St John describes the effect of Christ on those who saw and heard his ministry, he says that some reacted positively to the Light, 'grace answering to grace' (John 1:16).

Others, when confronted with the same example of beauty, will respond knowing that it is good, but will not know the full meaning of that call. When Samuel was a boy he heard the 'still, small voice' (1 Samuel 3:3-19). He responded three times and responded obediently. But he did not know that it was a call to God for he was 'a stranger to the divine voice', and ran to Eli each time. Finally, Eli had to tell him to whom he should go. Drawing a parallel, many will recognize beauty and be attracted to it, but never move beyond that, unless something acts as Eli did for Samuel so that they may know the full truth. These people are the aesthetes who see beauty as an end in itself. It is as though they savour the smell of cooking, but never eat the meal. The passage in Samuel, where Eli taught Samuel to know the voice for what it was, suggests again that our ability to apprehend beauty can be taught and can develop.

Some, of course, will see what is beautiful and be unmoved, or even respond negatively. They may lack the grace to make any sort of loving response. Some hate what is good. We are all free to ignore or reject God's love. However, when this happens, we are unlikely to say: 'I see an object of beauty, which I know to be a call to God. I do not love God therefore I choose not to respond lovingly.' Beauty provokes first a response that takes place deep in our hearts. For complex emotional or moral reasons to do with our own upbringing or personal history, that response may involve a feeling of displeasure. Equating feeling with judgment, we may see what is beautiful and call it ugly. Or we may do the reverse, opening ourselves to the ugly and mistakenly calling it beautiful. Some even claim to have a preference for what perturbs the soul, what shocks or depresses, claiming that this alone can be 'real' or 'true', according to their own view of the world.

No one is purely loving or, indeed, purely self-centred, and so no one is ever likely to be completely consistent in his or her reaction to beauty. Without a pure visible standard available to us, which we could use to measure beauty objectively, it is difficult to know who is right and who is wrong. This difficulty is what gives rise to the currently fashionable, though false, idea that beauty is a subjective quality. Certainly, to know something as beautiful is a fragile kind of knowing, for it requires heart and mind, will and intellect, to be in harmony. But just as in the case of truth and goodness, we can be educated to improve our perception of beauty.

Educating for Self-Expression

What kind of education am I suggesting? How can we base a training programme for artists on the assertion that beauty is somehow objective? The answer I have come up with is simple. The objectivity of beauty implies a certain transcendence of time and fashion. To identify art that is worthy of study and imitation, we must look to those artists whose work has by common consent outlived their own time. Fashions and trends do not necessarily point to beauty, and their influence will be greatest in the work of contemporary artists. For this reason, we look – to begin with, at least – at the acknowledged masters of the past.

There is no hatred of modernity involved in this, no desire to 'turn the clock back'. We want to learn from the past in order to move forward into the future. This is not to say that there are no masters of good modern styles in existence. It is very likely that there are. It is simply saying that the uncertainty in identifying them is great because they cannot (by definition, if they are modern) have passed any test of time. It will be difficult therefore to obtain the necessary consensus and select, with any confidence, artists of contemporary styles for our core repertoire of masters. I do not see that we lose anything by this, for we do not need to agree upon an exhaustive canon of great art before we can make any progress. We only need enough examples to allow the students to learn what they need to know. In deciding what these will be, the school will also designate the media studied (egg tempera, watercolour, oil, etc.). Eventually the students, or apprentices, will become in turn masters of their craft, able to demonstrate the true originality that flows from submission to a reality beyond oneself: to objective truth, goodness and beauty. Once firm foundations in skill and discernment have been laid, the students, inevitably, will begin to follow their own intuition and look to incorporate any influences that they judge to be good. These could be from any time, including the present, and in any medium.

The Church needs beautiful and inspiring sacred art. Why not simply equip artists with the necessary drawing and painting skills, then give them their commission, together with some guidelines or patterns for modern iconography, and suggest that they pray to God for inspiration and paint the best they can? The problem that faces us is that the ethos of individuality and self-expression is so ingrained in our society that many will be unable to recognize and co-operate with divine inspiration when it comes. Art is nowadays often regarded merely as a form of self-expression. Therefore the danger exists that once having acquired the ability to draw and paint, the artist will fall in love with his own skill. If this were to happen, the temptation to draw attention to himself (perhaps through a flamboyant use of that skill) would be great, whatever the subject matter or the purpose of the art he is creating. Humility is traditionally inculcated through the practice of obedience to a master. Because of our difficulties in obtaining a consensus on masters of modern styles, it must be taught through an apprenticeship in time, in which the greatest artists from the past are imitated.

Establishing a 'Canon'

Our apprentices would also learn something of the ethos of the great artists and their cultural milieu, partly through historical study. This process will not be an uncritical one. We cannot know precisely what was in the mind of any artist when he painted, even those who worked within a clearly defined tradition. So part of this process will be one of discovery, for pupils and teachers alike. The important point is to learn to associate the art of the past with its purpose: a purpose external to the self. It is my conviction that it is only when this habit of the subjugation to the patterns of tradition is ingrained in the soul that there can be confidence that the artist could achieve an expression of the true self: that authentic individualism in which God is able to work through the person to achieve something genuinely original.

This process of discipline before freedom will allow the originality of each artist to shine through without being forced. As the prayer of St Francis of Assisi puts it: 'In self-forgetfulness we find our true selves.' In this way, the authentic individuality of the artist would emerge quite naturally, without being forced for its own sake. For some this will mean the creation of new and previously unimagined styles, and for others it will mean working within existing traditions, including those of sacred art, in their own unique way. Whatever form their work takes, artists cannot help but reflect the age they live in. This is as true for the most devout cloistered monk as it is for those who are fully integrated with society. A distinctive look, one that characterizes our time, will eventually emerge.

As far as religious art is concerned, special attention would be paid in our school to the Byzantine tradition of Iconography, which has maintained clear guidelines and standards over a considerable period of time, and has a particular value in terms of the evident integration it achieves between form, content and function. The school's repertoire could also include secular art (the portraits of Rembrandt, the land- and seascapes of Turner, etc.), and art from other cultures (Chinese or Japanese watercolours, Mughal and Russian miniatures, etc.).

It should go without saying that Christian art is not the only kind that is beautiful or good. Any art is beautiful to the degree that it incorporates the timeless principles that comprise beauty. Various attempts have been made to isolate and list these principles, but the academic study of these would not necessarily greatly help an artist to paint. It is more important, in the end, that the artist should gain through experience an intuitive sense of those common principles. The careful study of natural forms would facilitate this – landscape, still life, and especially the human figure and portraiture, and their expression with the acquired skills appropriate to a given medium. These are an essential part of the education of the artist, even one intending to work in the field of sacred art.

Spiritual Formation

The modern world has seen a development of 'art for art's sake'. This phrase is usually applied to art that is intended for display in galleries and so is seen by some as having no purpose beyond its own creation. However, whether such art is intended as decoration or education, or merely as entertainment, it still has a purpose and so is not created as an end in itself in the mind of the artist. The question is not whether the work is intended to fulfil an aim, but whether that aim is a worthy or noble one.

Now the artist is a man or woman like any other. Morality and spirituality must be taken into account. But it is important also to remember that moral rectitude or piety is no guarantee of artistic quality. Furthermore God can inspire whomsoever he pleases: there is no accounting for inspiration or those who will respond to it. How do we balance these considerations? It seems clear that a person will be more inclined to submit his creative skills to the will of God if he is habitually turning to God in the other areas of his life. For this reason there should be time spent in the school on the study of religion, philosophy and theology, all of which, in combination with spiritual guidance, can contribute to the growth of the individual. Another way of putting this is that an art school of the kind I am envisaging should aim to support its students in their spiritual journey, and guide them sensitively towards sources of wisdom.

Catholics in particular should receive an education in the iconographic content of sacred Catholic art as well as a full liturgical education – the context into which their art may end up being placed. This might include an account of the meaning of the different parts of the Mass and other rites; an exploration of ideas of sacred space and time and the meaning of the sacraments; an explanation of how the Church year is linked to the principal mysteries of the life of Christ and the lives of the saints; an introduction to the history of the liturgy and its development.

Criteria of Admission

It is not assumed, however, that only practising Catholics would be admitted to the school. Provided that the principle of objective truth is not compromised, people of any background, even avowed atheists, could be admitted without necessarily undermining the ethos necessary for the study of art – if not sacred art. Only relativism is excluded, for relativism is incompatible with the search for truth. Relativism is driven instead by an intolerance of disagreement. Rather than saying, 'Let's agree to disagree,' it says, 'Disagreement is agreement.' This is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled with truth, and cannot be accommodated in the ethos of the proposed school.

There is a practical point to consider also. In the US there is a large Catholic population that could provide pupils, teachers and patrons; and an established tradition of universities and colleges that have a religious affiliation. In Britain, where I live, none of these conditions exist. What I can foresee happening in Britain, however, is the establishment of a school of art in which, after their foundation training, students will be free to specialize in or take their inspiration from any artistic tradition or religion, and where particular attention is paid to the Christian heritage of sacred art, which is in such need of renewal.

This openness would be no bad thing if, again, the principle of devotion to objective truth can be retained along with the spirit of tolerance. It would create an environment in which there will be disagreement, but at the same time mutual respect. Such a school would attract many people who would not wish to come to a 'Catholic' school of art – perhaps initially simply by the chance to get a decent training in currently neglected skills such as drawing and painting. Once admitted, these students would receive an exposure to Christian art in the foundation years of study that they might not otherwise have had. Provided that such a school does not compromise in offering the Catholics who do attend exactly what they need, then we stand to lose nothing, and to gain much. (I would, of course, value the comments of readers on this point.)


In the light of this I suggest the following principles that might define the teaching ethos for our 'Academy of Visual Arts':

1. Artists should aspire to be good artists. Good artists create good works of art. Good works of art possess or reflect both objective truth and beauty.

2. Artists can be educated to grow in their love of goodness, beauty and truth. Such an education will enhance their ability to manifest these transcendental, objective qualities in their work.

3. Artists have a responsibility to provide a social and spiritual service to mankind. Good art, whether sacred or secular in subject or context, uplifts, enlarges and inspires the hearts of those who see it to a deeper love for the Creator and his Creation. This is manifested in a deeper love for mankind and increasing compassion for human suffering.

4. Artists need to acquire a deep understanding of their craft, and a sufficiently high level of skill to enable them to work effectively to commission with an almost unconscious fluency.

5. Artists are called to creativity, in the likeness of their own Creator. Authentic originality in a work of art is not absolute: it derives from the artist's submission to objective values beyond the individual self.

6. Artists belong to a tradition, which is the handing-on of the knowledge and positive experience of the past. Respect for tradition is concretely expressed by apprenticeship to the great artists of the past ('masters'), in order, through humility and training, to achieve mastery in turn. For some this will mean continuing to work in their own unique way within established and prescribed sacred forms; for others it will lead to the creation of new and previously unimagined styles.

7. Provided they share a belief in the objectivity of truth, goodness and beauty, and are well disposed to the above principles, our Academy will admit students of any religious faith or none. Since we hold that the good artist must look beyond the individual self for inspiration, we will encourage them to develop a living relationship with the Source of life. We will support our students in their religious search as well as their artistic training.

David Clayton's education was in engineering, but he works as a freelance sub-editor and journalist. As an artist he has had commissions for churches in the USA and UK. He grew up in Cheshire, and is currently living in London, devoting his time to the setting up of the art school described above. His personal web-site is at


David Clayton

An interview by Peter Stanford
The Tablet, 17 April

FOR many in Western society churches have become little more than ornate museums. While they would never think of attending a service in, say, Notre Dame in Paris or Saint Peter's in Rome, they would regard both as an absolutely essential part of any tourist itinerary when in those cities. There is, of course, the architecture and there may be for some hardened agnostics a fascination in catching, as they would see it, a glimpse of a dying philosophy – organised religion – at work. But for most it is the religious art that draws them in. They can marvel at the accomplishments of the painter who has captured so vividly The Temptation of Saint Anthony or the Harrowing of Hell without connecting to any spiritual significance in what they see. These paintings are for them the equivalent of illustrations in a book of fairy stories, utterly unconnected to real life.

Yet these paintings offer a key to why Christianity retains at least a place in the collective psyche of the West. They are a living, vibrant part of our cultural heritage. In 300 years' time, though, what artistic legacy will religion be perceived as having left in our own age? Largely, I fear, none for the time-honoured tradition of religious art as something that attracts the greatest and most innovative painters and sculptors of the day has all but died.

Pope John Paul II bemoaned this neglect in his 1999 Letter to Artists. He appealed for a 'new epiphany of beauty' and a 'relationship between Church and culture' in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. His plea has not fallen on deaf ears. The British painter David Clayton was so inspired by the Pope's words that he has been working for the past year to establish on these shores a new style of art school, inspired by Catholic and Orthodox traditions of sacred art. Or rather, new to this epoch.

The Academy of Visual Arts will, hopes 41-year-old Clayton, make an impact far beyond the cloister. 'The Pope in his letter', he recalls, 'also called for good secular artwork. There is in fact a strong connection between the two. Historically one might even argue that the fine arts were born on the altar – that religious inspiration and patronage lay behind all the great cultural movements of the past. If this was true once, it can be so again'. If his voice – still touched by his upbringing on the Wirral near Liverpool – and manner are gentle, they cannot disguise the determination with which Clayton is pursuing his goal. He was a late starter as an artist – he studied material sciences at Oxford – and a late starter as a Catholic. He converted in his late 20s after turning to prayer and finding it answered. His career as a painter is flourishing. He has a 6ft portrait of Saint Luigi Scrosoppi in London's Brompton Oratory and he has just been commissioned to paint a crucifix for the Benedictines at Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland.

But it is the search for a deeper, God-given purpose in what he does that drives him – the challenge, as he puts it, of moving beyond 'the creation of art with an external purpose'. When one of his tutors at Chelsea Art School suggested that tempera would suit his style, it led Clayton to investigate the use of the technique in icon painting. This took him to Aidan Hart, the celebrated Orthodox iconographer, and his own moment of epiphany. 'Iconography has a prescribed and rigid style that stops an individual's style coming through and leaves them open to inspiration,' Clayton notes. In particular, the goal in iconography of capturing a heavenly beauty, with saints transfigured and bathed in their own light, seemed to him to answer in a direct way that summons to beauty.

The experience with Hart set him thinking. There is little or no tradition of teaching icon painting in this country, but it highlighted for Clayton a larger gap. And from that has slowly evolved in his mind the concept of an Academy of Visual Art. His proposal is to bring together three key but inter-linked principles – the teaching of traditional technique, the opening of the artist to inspiration, and the pursuit of beauty.

On the question of technique, Clayton believes that there is no longer a British art school that places any premium on the rigours of the once dominant sight-size approach of drawing natural form. Only in Italy did he find such teaching, and he aims to import it as part of the new academy. For him, though, it goes much deeper than a simply revisionist agenda. 'I feel that the process of apprenticeship to a master is valuable. In the academy I would like to begin with a process of disciplined imitation, which would help develop a humility in the pupil in regard of his or her art, and openness to external inspiration. Artists need to learn to look beyond themselves. Too much art today is all about artists saying, 'look at me'. There is little interest in what it looks like.'

It is tempting at this stage to see Clayton as an Archbishop Lefebvre of the art world, rejecting everything modern as bad. He rejects out of hand any such suggestion. 'What I am against', he explains patiently, 'is the idea of art for art's sake. Inspiration is not a feeling or emotional reaction. What it should be about is conforming to the requirements of another. The key thing is to define a good and noble purpose for what you are doing. As long as that purpose is good you could say that ultimately it comes from God, as all that is good comes from God. In trying to conform to that purpose, the artist uses all the skills and powers of reason at his or her disposal, for if God does chose to inspire us, He will act through all or any of our faculties.'

The product of such a process will be, he is convinced, beauty – something he defines simply as 'the good made visible'. It is an objective not a subjective quality and carries with it, in a phrase from Dostoevsky quoted by the Pope in his Letter to Artists and reproduced on the Academy's website, the potential 'to save the world'.

This is not an easy gospel to preach in a secular and sceptical age, but he has the zeal of a missionary. He rejects the charge of separatism by pointing out that his school could just as easily be open to non-believers as Catholics if they were prepared to abandon relativism and pursue wholeheartedly the goal of beauty. 'To my mind even what you might say is non-religious art can inspire and move us through its beauty and so is touching our spirits.'

And he is undaunted by what would seem to some the uphill struggle of gathering the financial means to get such a venture off the ground. Charles Saatchi, the great British patron of contemporary art, is unlikely to cough up, but Clayton has attracted the interest of backers in the United States and the encouragement of the Prince's Foundation.

Last year he organised as a first step a series of classes in premises owned by St Patrick's Church in Wapping, east London. He has embarked on the long road – gradually building up the programme and prompting the art world to think afresh about the ideas that he is promoting. He is convinced that there is an appetite out there. 'I think that people are searching for the truth. As a Catholic I think the Church represents the embodiment of Truth. But at the moment prejudice stops many people from looking at the Church seriously. If we produce beautiful art, which is the distinctive art of the Second Vatican Council then it will inspire people to look at the Church and overcome prejudice.'

David Clayton can be contacted as [email protected] or visit