The major styles of sacred art – the Iconographic, the Baroque and the Gothic – are all well known to Catholics, even if they can’t identity these styles by name. Sometimes a school of sacred art develops, however, which owes a debt to one or the other of these styles but is, as the expression goes, “neither fish nor fowl.” Such is the case with the Beuronese School of Art.
Stylistically, the Beuronese School is an interesting cul-de-sac that sits outside the mainstream of the Christian tradition. It is named after the southern German town of Beuron, the location of the Benedictine community in which this mid-19th century school originated. The best-known artists who painted in this style in Europe are Desiderius Lenz (d 1928) and Gabriel Wuger (d 1892), both Benedictine monks from Beuron.
In the United States, too, the Beuron style can be found. The walls and the ceiling of the abbey church of the Benedictines at Conception Abbey, Missouri, are decorated primarily with authentic examples of the Beuronese style. The abbey website states that the work on these walls was done between 1893 and 1897 by several Conception monks, most notably Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921). Sitting at the feet of the masters, so to speak, the latter two monks had studied art at Beuron.
The original 19th century Beuronese artists were reacting against what was the dominant form of sacred art employed at the time by churches of the Roman Rite. Overly naturalistic and sentimental form, this art was also stiflingly academic and produced by the French academies and ateliers. The exemplar of this decadent form is the Frenchman William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Authentic Christian art has a style that is always a carefully worked out balance of naturalism (sometimes referred to as “realism”) and idealism. The naturalism in art tells us visually what is being painted. Put simply, if an artist wants to paint a man it must look like a man, with a human trunk, a head, limbs and so on. The artist then achieves the idealistic element in his composition through a controlled deviation from strict adherence to natural appearances by which the artist reveals invisible truths. For example, an artist’s style can communicate that humans have a soul and a spirit, and that these are known as the intellect and will.