Rev. Fr. Kenneth Novak


 Beuronese chalice, Saint Andrew's Abbey,  Valyermo

The Angelus, November 2003 Volume XXVI,  Number 11

[...]THE three main characters in the development of Beuronese art were Maurus Wolter (d.1890), Desiderius Lenz (d.1928), and Gabriel Wüger (d.1892). Wolter, who would become the first abbot of the monastery of Beuron, had a keen interest in the revitalization of Catholic art.



IN 1863, Lenz, Wüger, and a disciple of Wüger, Lukas Steiner, joined a group of artists living in Rome who were popularly known as the “Nazarenes.” This school of German artists made Rome its home in 1810. Its six founders left the Vienna Academy of Art in rejection of the degradation of art effected by the Renaissance and modernity. They wished to again place art in the service of religion, not of man. This meant developing an art-style in opposition to the artistic tradition of the baroque and the roccoco which had headed art in the direction of ever greater psychological or visual realism and “painterliness,” that is, emphasis on the qualities-such as color, movement, light and atmospheric effects, paint texture, and so forth-that fed the senses rather than the mind. Artists tended to make themselves into celebrities and the most important thing about art. On the contrary, the art of the Nazarenes was to serve the highest ends, which ultimately meant religion, and not the vanity of courts, wealthy individuals, nor the artist himself.

THE Nazarenes formed a brotherhood and took their name from the patron saint of artists, St. Luke. They called themselves the Lukasbrüder or Brothers of St. Luke and modeled themselves on a medieval guild. In Rome-eternal and universal-fashions and customs of the day paled before the enduring truths of art and religion. They lived a monastic existence there, each with a small cell to work in and a smaller one for sleeping. They took a frugal midday meal which they prepared themselves. One brother wrote that he desired “...neither stews nor pastries nor any other spice than salt, for the face of a friend is a better spice with a meal than all the spices in India.” In the evenings, the artists gathered in the refectory to draw, discuss each other’s work, and present short talks on the questions of art and esthetics. There was no question of female models. They were ruled as likely to produce impure thoughts and thus affect the quality of the art.

  Beuron Abbey: Side Chapel,


FOR purifying both their lives and art, as well as the way they wore their hair- “like the Nazarenes”-that is to say, shoulder length and parted down the middle (some say to imitate Jesus Christ), they were disparagingly called the “Nazarenes,” a name which stuck. The Nazarenes understood that just as the “religion” of the French Revolution required something like an act of conversion on the part of its adherents, so it was in the case of the Lukasbrüder in order to transform oneself and culture (Lionel Gossman).

THE Nazarenes used traditional Christian subjects from the Old and New Testaments and denounced modernity’s arbitrary and subjective attempts to invent new symbolisms for itself. Contrary to the then-current “art of special effects,” the art-style of the Nazarenes was “conscientious, beautifully balanced, undramatic, in which movement, physical and psychological, often seemed either held in suspension or highly conventionalized.” In eliminating gimmicks, by using flat colors, limited lighting and perspective, the Nazarenes attempted to overcome the materiality of the painting in order to direct the viewer’s attention to its “spiritual” qualities, ultimately, its moral and religious meaning. It was “nonsense to praise an artist’s audacity...or to find something to brag about in it” (Franz Phorr). Charles Eastlake wrote in London Magazine (1820): “For simplicity, holiness and purity, qualities which are the characteristics of scriptural scenes, no style was better adapted than that of [the Nazarenes]...It diffuses a sort of calm and sacred dream. To censure it for being destitute of colour and light and shade would be ridiculous; such merits would, in fact, destroy its character.”

NAZARENE art was not intended for exhibition in museums and galleries. Part of the movement was to combat the modern transformation of art into a commodity to be displayed solely in homes or put up for sale in galleries. The Lukasbrüder believed art should once again become part of the fabric of a community’s life and an expression of its Catholic Faith, linked to public buildings-church, town hall, palace-or private purpose, such as prayer or recollection. The Nazarenes hoped to restore the relation between art and the people that had been obtained in the Middle Ages which would once again speak “from the walls of our high cathedrals, our peaceful chapels and solitary cloisters, from our town halls and warehouses and markets.”

OF the three men who introduced themselves to the Nazarenes in Rome -Desiderius Lenz, Gabriel Wuger, and Lukas Steiner (d.1906) - Lenz became the principal theorist, seeking a “pure” art independent of the excess of baroque and the naturalism of romantic. Like the Nazarenes, the artists who would become known as the “Beuronese” were in search of natural simplicity and clarity with an emphasis on essentials and conscious neglect of accidentals and details. They chose as their guiding principles the use of plain backgrounds and basic colors, a limited use of perspective and a repetition of decoration.

  Sede Sapientiae, Cloister


THE most significant principle of the Beuronese school was the role of geometry in determining proportions. During his time in Rome with the Nazarenes, Desiderius Lenz became fascinated with Egyptian art which was now available to be studied after Napoleon had brought back many pieces from there. Lenz 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. This is why the relationship between Beuronese art and the simultaneous revival of the “pure” music of Gregorian chant was so compelling for Lenz and others. One of the elements of the strongest variation of Beuronese art is a distinct Egyptian reminiscence. (The murals of this calendar, however, are of the softer Beuronese style which follows the trademark gentleness of the Nazarenes.) Other general principles of the style include:

  Beuronese chalice

 Statue of St. Benedict, cloister

LENZ and Wuger thought of forming a monastic community of artists. They believed that in order to make sacred art one should lead a Catholic life in community. In 1868 in Rome, they met Maurus Wolter, who had similar artistic aspirations for his young Benedictine monastery at Beuron. He wanted his monastery to play a role in the revival of Church art just as it was beginning to do in the revival of Gregorian chant (in emulation of Solesmes). Lenz was attracted to Beuron because of the abbey’s use of Gregorian chant, which he saw as parallel to his own efforts in art and architecture. Gabriel Wuger entered Beuron in 1870, followed by Lukas Steiner and Desiderius Lenz in 1872. The original “Life of the Virgin” series was painted at the Emmaus Abbey in Prague under the direction of Lenz, Wuger, and Steiner between 1880-87.

IN his apostolic letter Archicoenobium Casinense (1913), on the occasion of the consecration of a crypt chapel at the abbey of Monte Cassino decorated in the Beuronese style, Pope St. Pius X likened the artistic efforts of the Benedictines of Beuron to the revival of Gregorian chant by the Benedictines of Solesmes when he wrote, “...together with sacred music, it proves itself to be a powerful aid to the liturgy” (AAS5, 1913, pp.113-17).

 “The Mother of God Enthroned in Glory” above the entry of the Mauruskapelle, the first church building commissioned to the Beuron monks (1868-70), underwritten by Princess Katharina VonHohenzollern.

  Tabernacle: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi.

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