Art History for Normal People: Beuron School

Art and Liturgy - Beuron Dome Mural - Mater Dei - Detail.jpg

The Beuronese School is an artistic movement that has fascinated me for a while. It’s come up a few times recently in my work with Granda, so I wanted to write a bit about it, even though it will be out of chronological order.


Introduction • Mesopotamia • Egypt • Ancient Greece (Part I) • Ancient Greece (Part II) • Ancient Rome • The Monastic Period • Romanesque • Gothic • Proto-Renaissance • Italian Renaissance (Part I) • Beuronese

The name comes from a Benedictine archabbey, Beuron, located in the southwestern German town of of the same name.

Art and Liturgy - Beuron Archabbey Church of St Martin
Chapel of St. Martin inside the Beuron Archabbey. Photo by Zairon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The abbey was founded in 1863, and shortly thereafter some of the monks moved to the United States. They settled in northwestern Missouri and founded Conception Abbey, which today is probably the finest example of Beuronese art and architecture in the world. (It’s only two hours from my house but I still haven’t had a chance to go.)

Art and Liturgy - William Adolphe Bouguereau - Virgin and Lamb
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Virgin and Lamb, 1903

The Beuron School evolved mostly as a response to oversentimentality of the florid Romantic style, a type of art my mom might call “pukey.” Bouguereau is sort of the example par excellence, but of course he was a Very Good Painter. There were many less-talented people working in the same style — babies and lambs galore. It was the 19th century equivalent of the print of Jesus playing baseball that hung in your second grade classroom.

A common criticism of this style was that it was a little too photorealistic and failed to capture the Divine. For example, in the painting above, Jesus looks like a pretty cute but average baby. There’s no indication that He’s the Word made Flesh. The same with Our Lady, whose features are so distinct that she could have been the artist’s neighbor or cousin. Critics argued that sacred art deserved a more idealized approach, designed to communicate eternal truths rather than a nice scene.

The founder of the Beuron School, Desiderius Lenz, sought this more idealized approach in antiquity, especially Greece and Egypt, where the arts adhered to a strict “canon.” Dr. Janet Rutherford tells us that by first studying the principles underlying ancient Greek pottery and its geometric figures, Lenz discovered

applications of the golden ratio (Greek letter “phi”) to area and volume that had not been known to Renaissance thinkers, because in translating Euclidean and Platonic geometric writings into Latin, the Greek word for “area” had been mistranslated to read “line.” The rediscovery of root rectangles revealed the compositional principles of both Egyptian and Greek schemata. [1]

In short, Lenz felt that it was an artist’s duty to reveal the underlying order of the universe, created by almighty God.

Lenz would go on to develop his own canon (search Google Images for “Desiderius Lenz Canon“; because of copyright issues I can’t repost them here). He theorized about an intrinsic relationship between this perfect geometric order and Gregorian chant, a sort of harmonic unity that would inform his artistic and spiritual life. (Rutherford notes this merging of disparate observations within a harmonic whole is fundamentally Platonic, “in contrast to the Aristotelian/Thomist Dominican approach to art represented by Father Pie-Raymond Régamey, who was responsible for giving commissions to artists such as Henri Matisse and Le Corbusier.”)

The art that resulted is stiff, flat, and strongly vertical. The forms are restrained, as if carved in stone. And every person, plant, and animal is perfectly idealized.

You may notice here a similarity to the Art Deco style, which has been in vogue in popular culture recently. Art Deco was itself a modern reinterpretation of classical forms and geometry.

Over the years I’ve been interested in the work of Dr. David Clayton, who thinks and writes a bunch about reclaiming a visual style for the Roman Catholic Church naturalistic enough to be approachable for modern viewers, but “other” enough to have a sense of sacrality and timelessness suitable for the liturgy. (To borrow a term from Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, an art that is “liminal” — that sets us on the threshold between the created world and the Heavenly Jerusalem. [2])

Art and Liturgy - 13th century Gothic illuminated manuscript - School of St Albans - Dr David ClaytonFor example, the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox rites have their iconography, which is obviously beautiful and a well-defined part of their patrimony. But to us Westerners, not steeped in that oriental tradition, it’s got a weird look.

Clayton writes that the School of St. Albans — a sort of iconographic style rooted in medieval English paintings and illuminations — and the Beuronese movement come close to striking that balance between naturalism and otherworldliness.

Other commentators, like Fr. Lang, connect the Beuron School with the “excessive symbolism” to be avoided in sacred art, as directed in Pope Pius XII’s Mediator Dei. [3] But I understand “symbolism” in this encyclical to mean mere abstraction. For example, it would be inappropriate to decorate a Catholic church in an abstract expressionist style, where this splotch represents the Trinity and that splotch represents a saint.

In this July’s issue of Magnificat, Fr. Alex Schrenk writes about the mural of American saints in the lobby of the USCCB. [4] The painting was completed by Jan de Rosen (1891-1982), the same artist who completed the mosaic of Christ in Majesty at the National Shrine. In both cases, Schrenk notes, de Rosen’s style owes much to the Beuronese movement,  “characterized by a lively synthesis between the East and West, modern and ancient.”

Today, the style seems to be making something of a comeback. For example, look at the ongoing renovation of St. John Chrysostom Church in Englewood, California (recently featured in Church Madness).

Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Kearney, Nebraska, also features a reredos in this style. St. Peter Church in Lindsay, Texas (scroll halfway down) is richly decorated with Beuronese murals. You may also want to search photos of St. Joseph Cathedral (Wheeling, WV), Holy Rosary Cathedral (Toledo, OH), or the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Salt Lake City, UT) — all the work of a German-American muralist named Felix Lieftuchter who was clearly inspired by the Beuron School.

There is no single style uniquely appropriate for sacred art; almost every style is capable of communicating eternal truths. Beuron is nifty because it seemed to sprout out of nowhere and then die off almost as quickly. Despite its lack of popularity, it is a movement particularly well-suited to convey the ontological reality of the Church as Mystical Body and the sacred liturgy as foretaste of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

  1. Dr. Janet Rutherford, “Back to the Future,” Sacred Architecture, Vol. 17.
  2. Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, Signs of the Holy One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 37
  3. Ibid., 111-112
  4. Fr. Alex Schrenk, Magnificat, Vol. 19 No. 5 (July 2017)