Matthew Alderman, KM
I was honored to have the opportunity to interview Matthew Conner, a talented and rising young liturgical artist. His is a striking style that, while firmly traditional in framework and content, shows a subtly inventive mind at work, transcending mere imitation. His luminous paintings, full of starry church-ceiling skies and strikingly realistic faces ringed with flat gilt haloes, are an arresting and reverent blend of the stylized and the realistic, and a deft grasp of the symbolic shorthand of the Christian iconographic tradition. It is like nothing being done today—though I hope he is first of many.
Via e-mail, we discussed his origins in the South and its influence on his other major project, the Bestiarium Appalachianum, his approach to sacred art, his use of precedent, and even the role of joy and wit in sacred art, topically from the simple to the complex. He commented to me that it reminded him of St. Thomas’s saying, “ut per rivulos, non statim in mare, eligas introire, quia per faciliora ad difficiliora oportet devenire”—“You should choose to enter through the streams and not at once into the sea, because you should come to the more difficult things by way of the easier things.”
Have you always been interested in art? How did you come to study art in the first place? Did your faith play a role in this decision?
Drawing has been a part of life since I can remember. It has been a given like having a hand. So studying art in grade school seemed natural and my parents, God bless them, have always been supportive. There was a sure understanding of a grace and a talent given which ought to be used.
I see you are a fellow Southerner. While I live near Boston, I am an “old Floridian” on my father’s side. Did your childhood in this context color your artistic interests and religious faith?
A fellow expatriate then. I had the grace to grow up in a culture infused with Christ, even if in a Flannery O’Connor-esque mode of distortion, as well as parents who raised my brother and me with a great devotion to Our Lord. Scripture, like drawing, seems almost connatural.
Growing up and living in the rural South, one is surrounded by Creation. The vastness of “the other.” The profound silence and slowness of it, a watchfulness, have always seemed related to an artistic or poetic calling.
You have also lived between the North/South, urban/rural dichotomies. What has your experience been?
The South is a fascinating place to be a Catholic—culturally, it is the fruit of Baptists and Methodists, but there’s something about the Southern mind which lends itself to the multi-layered, subtextual, quietly dramatic thinking that is so very Catholic. Admittedly, it also sometimes means manners over honesty, for good or ill. New England, for all its moldering Irish and French churches, still has a blunt, brusque Puritan soul. On the other hand, that means you never don’t know what a Massachusetts man is thinking. Bless their hearts.
Speaking of divides and dichotomies, tell us about your education—how did your artistic training differ from New York to Chattanooga? Were there differences in philosophy at each school?
There were differences. One entered the state university in the “big city” next door with the naive idea of coming out as a lesser Michelangelo only to be confronted with all manner of Freud and contemporary theory. Intellectually, it was very interesting but largely incomprehensible and unsatisfying. So while the big-tent postmodern ideology did leave a small foothold for representational painting, technical support from faculty was largely unavailable.
At the end, I knew that I really did not know how to paint. Any facility was just trial and error. I ended up at the New York Academy of Art. It was an atelier which had grown into an accredited master’s program. It was a strange blend of a very structured, traditional artistic training with upper coursework trying to return to the conversation with postmodernity.
How did your transition from Visual Effects painter to religious artist come about? Tell us a bit more about your background in mat painting—how is this traditional practice integrated into more modern special effects today?
Visual Effects is one of the few industries available to representational artists. One is always striving for invisible effects. The industry gives a great breadth for creativity and generous, talented co-workers.
The spiritual masters refer to the passive purgative phase of the spiritual life, wherein one passes from one’s own attempts to flee vice and embrace virtue, i.e. the active purgative phase, to a state where God, in His grace, begins to help strip away. It is not always pleasant. I hesitate to assess my place in the spiritual life but after nearly a decade in the industry, I came to a point where I could not do it anymore. I was completely spent, professionally and personally. I left the industry and the city.
The only thing that really made sense as an artist and a person was Christ and the Church. Nothing else mattered enough. Nil nisi te, Domine. In a way it was a great relief. Art school was a great cultural and personal search for meaning. Now one entered in. Suddenly the Western art tradition made sense.
What was your first iconographic commission?
A reproduction of an illuminated, Greek Evangelion leaf.
Impressive! You draw on a wide variety of traditional precedents, medieval, Byzantine and Renaissance. How do you order and govern such artistic allusions
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, identifies the three traditions which you mention as the ones theologically suited to Christian worship. Each has its own perspective and method. The Benedictines enjoin a novice to submit and enter into the liturgy and life of the Church. However, in this obedience, one is given a formation and a context for intimacy and worship of God.
Similarly, one needs to enter into, be formed and loyal to a particular school. As with a vocation, different artists gravitate to the charisms of different traditions. As one learns to understand the rationale of the schools, one can take some liberties. However, something like trying to “update” the Novgorod icon with Renaissance naturalism runs completely contrary to the former’s methodology.
Bl. Columba Marmion notes that while a Benedictine monk can learn much from another order, say about prayer from St. Therese of the Holy Face, his holiness will be essentially Benedictine. Likewise, an artist working out of the Gothic tradition could implement elements of other schools; however, the work should retain its Gothic identity, lest it become confused or contradictory.
This reminds me a little of the British neo-Gothicist Sir Ninian Comper’s architectural doctrine of “unity by inclusion,” if perhaps with a more concrete sense of preserving the core of each stylistic tradition. It fascinated me in Spain to see essentially Gothic choirscreens built out of individual Renaissance artistic elements—Gothic remained the dominant note, preventing the whole falling into a stew of mere eclecticism.
Is there a place for innovation and “interest” in traditional religious art? How does the painter order his interior life and skill to discern when such “license” is appropriate?
Lectio Divina is one of the most personal forms of prayer available. In the third phase, meditatio, one applies one’s reason to understanding a particular passage. However, in this time of study, it is prudent to consult commentaries by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. They also act as wise counselors, unfolding the text as well as ensuring that the individual is not veering off on an idiosyncratic or unsound tangent.
If an artist is grounded in Tradition, there will be a greater awareness when a given innovation or license is just a flowering or a potentially heretical imaging. Our Lord reminds us, “I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” Pope Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” and Bl. Cardinal Newman’s “development of doctrine” presented similar ideas in the fields of liturgy and dogma.
Do you use live models for your figures? What is your process for using references? Does prayer play a role in your artistic process?
I don’t [use live models]. We worked exclusively from live models in the Academy. After a while you build a tolerable mental understanding of the body. References are used for difficult aspects or added variety. If one looks at the drawings of Fra Angelico, Raphael, or Dürer, one can see the back and forth of mental models and observation.
As to the second part of your question, prayer is crucial in the artist and the artistic process. Like St. John the Baptist, the artist is a mediator between Christ and His bride the Church. St. Paul says, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me,” and St. John the Forerunner, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The believer’s death, burial, and resurrection with Christ ironically does not destroy the individual but purifies and divinizes the intellect and imagination. One needs the constant grace from God to be able to correctly portray the eschatological realities which the liturgies are entering. Without prayer, intimacy with God, the silence, it would be difficult to have the sheer mental clarity to depict intimations of the divine.
Tell us a bit more about how you integrate symbolism into your images. How do you tackle a subject with multiple artistic and theological “angles” like your two very traditional approaches to the Burning Bush?
Symbolism is a rich but tricky element. In the beginning of the Summa Theologia, St. Thomas describes the simultaneous, four-fold meanings which God gives to Scripture. Man, qua imago Dei, similarly tries to infuse a multiplicity of meaning into things. The difficulty is that there can be multiple, conflicting traditions. Is an elephant a symbol of strength and intelligence or of prideful Adam unwilling to bend his knees in obedience?
Sometimes symbols can be woven together to create a very rich visual environment. One thinks of your High Altar at St Paul’s, Madison, [Wisconsin], which combines the image of Our Lady and the infant Christ with the more subtle sword and book motif of St. Paul. Sometimes the traditions are so distinct they cannot be suitably integrated. In the case of Burning Bush imagery, I just could not integrate the two traditions so just made two paintings.
Thank you for the reference to my own work. It is important to me to both incorporate both the universal—images of Our Lady and Christ, the crucifix, etc.—and the specific—symbols and images of the local patron—into the iconographic scheme of a church. The interior decorators who developed my initial scheme further added parallel scenes of the lives of Christ and St. Paul along the nave which speak to the same notion.
With regards to contradictory symbols, as someone who has drawn or painted St. Joseph a surprising number of times, I have to make the choice on each occasion whether to show him as venerable and elderly, an aged protector of the Virgin—the medieval tradition—or young and virile, the Counter-Reformation patron of the Universal Church, the workman. I try to think of which would be most appropriate within the context in terms of the message I am attempting to convey.
The two opposing medieval readings of the symbolism of the elephant are an excellent example of this, and bring me to my next question. I have been delving into medieval bestiaries—illustrated books depicting natural or legendary or semi-legendary animals, often with moral or allegorical lessons drawn from their behavior—for some time now and I am delighted to see you taking on the genre as well within an American regional context.
Where did the idea for the Bestiarium Appalachianum come from? What do you hope to achieve in it?
The bestiaries are an established genre. Émile Mâle, in his The Gothic Image, describes the great joy our ancestors had in the Creation. These texts combined the Classical, pre-Modern natural history with an allegorical reading. These formed the famed two books of Revelation, Scripture and Creation. The broader cosmology of the bestiaries support the source and summit of the liturgical arts.
[For readers who may not be familiar with the reference: Moses is described in Exodus 34 in some translations as coming down from Sinai with a shining face, streaming with rays of light. As the same word in Hebrew is used for both “horn” and “ray,” the Vulgate translation gave him literal horns. In art, he has been shown either with two rays of light streaming from his head, or with actual pointed horns. Some have defended St. Jerome’s word choice here, suggesting that the horns were a symbol of divinity.]
I was very struck by your St. Margaret of Antioch— it is both a very holy work and has a touch of “wit” to it, which is very medieval. Is there a place for a certain “lightness of touch” in religious art? What role do “difficult” legends like St. Margaret’s dragon or supposed “mistakes” like Moses’s horns have in our art and faith today?
Thank you. The Psalms often speak of the joy of the redeemed in their worship of God: “Thou hast given gladness in my heart” or “Then was our mouth filled with gladness; and our tongue with joy.” It is appropriate in the secondary elements and genres for a broader emotional register. One thinks of architectural decoration or medieval marginalia. However, there should be an august sobriety to man’s worship.
Yes, the dubious saints are a question. What does one do with St. Maurice and the martyrs of the Theban legion, St. Ursula and her company of Virgins, “Pseudo”-Dionysius and the like Hagiography is not accorded the infallible character of Sacred Scripture. Just like any family story, [saints’ legends] change with the telling, dropping non-essential parts, emphasizing important ones, sometimes merging to draw out an element.
So while the strange stories may have morphed over time, it seems that they must retain some vital kernel: persons and events so impactful that the local communities could not forget. I don’t think we have to be naive. Even Bl. Jacobus de Voragine is a bit skeptical of some stories. However, I wish to give the Church the benefit of the doubt and believe that there is something worth keeping in these difficult passages.
That is a commendable one, and one I essentially share myself, and try to incorporate into my own work.
What painting is your “dream commission” that you have not had the opportunity to do yet?
A reredos or a polyptych with a theological narrative and more complex imagery could be nice.