ORIGINALITY AND THE MEDIEVAL STYLE
To be original, a thing must be unique. Originality in a work of art may refer to the art object itself, or it may refer to the content of the work. Every work of art as an object is original, but unique style in a work of art is not only rare, but seldom valued. Most art is produced within a given style. A work of art is known to be done in a certain style by the characteristics which distinguish that style from other styles. An artistic style is shared in common by many artists . Contemporary styles include impressionism, cubism, minimalism, abstract expressionism, post modernism, conceptualism, realism, surrealsim, futurism, and the many other fleeting styles which have all expressed the ascendant sceptical materialism of modern times in various ways. Artists working in a certain style create variations of it, so that while these works are unique within themselves, they are not unique in style.
An artist is said to work in a certain style, to adopt a certain style, to embody a certain style, and to represent a certain style. Artists are defined by the name of the style they practice as when we say, “ Raphael is a Renaissance artist and Manet is an Impressionist artist.” While the initial development of a given style is bound by history, styles may be revived and their development continued at any period. When an artist receives an idea from the work of another artist and incorporates it into his own work, he is said not to copy but to be influenced. The whole of the modern discipline of Art History is a matter of tracing these influences between artists as revealed in their works. This process of influence is itself the progenitor of style as well as the mechanism by which a style is brought to maturity and perfected. It is the “modus operandi” of style.
In the Medieval Art style we can see this same process at work. Pictorial devices are handed down from generation to generation reaching over centuries, and yet each artist is free to configure them as he sees fit within his own work. Many different styles of art may be practiced in a society at the same time. Artists may choose to work within a given style or to work “from” a style, that is, developing another style on the basis of an inherited one. There must be a conversation between the artist’s personal abilities (including both gifts of intellect and gifts of skill) and the artistic discourse available to him through the works of his predecessors. In studying these works the artist seeks to stimulate his own creative imagination with a range of possible treatments of similar subjects. Participating in this intercommunion of artists by which they revel in each other’s achievements and endeavor to raise these achievements to new heights of expression and beauty is a joy for both artist and connoisseur which excels the potential of merely idiosyncratic works. Just as the Literati of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries gloried in their knowledge of the Classical Latin authors, the Medieval artist is proud to show his artistic erudition by interweaving imagistic “quotes” from other great works into the fabric of his own creations.
An artist working in the Medieval style will take up the whole heritage of this Christian art as a treasury of ways and means by which everything is possible to him. The Medieval style was ascendant for a thousand years. Because much of it was engraved in stone or safely enclosed within libraries of guarded manuscripts, the quantity of works done in this style that remains to us is unequaled in the annals of the arts of man. Each figure, each increment of the Christian narrative has many precedents by which an artist may inform a new work. All inspiration is given by God and is given to be given away. Religious artists rejoice to see their works bear fruit in the works of other artists to the greater glory of God.
As each challenge arises in the creative process, the artist who choses to work in the Medieval style allows himself to wander the illimitable mansions of medieval art, discovering there not one but myriad suggestions to resolve the riddles of his own composition. Many artists use the medieval style to spiritualize their work and yet hope to “modernize” it by including various treatments which are outside the circumference of what is strictly possible to medieval style. This circumference of Medieval art is the boundary between that which is properly analogous to its subject, and that which is not.
These artists often “innovate” by contradicting the compositional principles proper to Medieval style. But these principles carry the analogical nature of the painting. If a structural contradiction is introduced into the painting, the style is broken. The resulting painting is neither a true analogy nor a nautral representation of its subject. It is a self-defeating work that does not present the terms of its meaning in a unified way and is better described as Surreal than Medieval in style.
The key to success is to endeavor to work within the style following the same principles of composition the Medieval artists followed. If one were to invent a new grammar and new vocabulary for the english language, however ingenious it may be, no one would understand it. Style is a language, and Medieval style is a very highly developed language that must be used on its own terms to be coherent. Seek to be eloquent in that language, not to reinvent it. If you succeed in being eloquent and creating a thing of beauty, you will have done more than mere originality can ever do.
Remember, the purpose of Medieval style is the spiritualization of art. Those artists who use it want to take their art to a higher level of reality than the material world, not a lower one. Anything that presents reality in a confused way is preternatural, that is, abnormal in aspect, as Surrealism is. But the Christian spiritual realm is a realm of clarity and purity and essential order. When we say in the Creed, “I believe in one God, the maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible”, we are saying that reality, both material and spiritual is given to us, not invented by us. What a relief that we do not have to invent it! We must only embrace its’ formative principles in order to make all things new.