The old adage “everything old is new again” is still getting good traction, as artists and art-lovers around the world are rediscovering the beauty and ancient tradition of the Sacred Arts.
One such place where this is happening is at St. Mary’s University in Calgary, Alberta, where a Certificate in Sacred Arts program has been attracting students for a number of years.
Dr. Mark Charlton, recently retired Vice President Academic and Dean of St. Mary’s, is the Coordinator of its Sacred Arts program.
“I took an iconography workshop myself in Vancouver, B.C., and when I came home I thought that I’d like to take another workshop here in Calgary, but I couldn’t find one,” says Charlton. “So we put on a iconography weekend workshop at St. Mary’s with instructor Marianna Savaryn, and it sold out right away. That’s when we realized we were on to something.”
Since then, the program has been offering a wide variety of workshops in art forms such as stained glass, carving icons in wood, mosaics, illumination, Byzantine iconography, fresco painting, Celtic designs and tapestry weaving. Some instructors have been local artists, but others have come from the U.S. and Europe.
Students can come and try one workshop, or go on to put in 120 hours of classes and earn the Sacred Arts Certificate. But as enthusiastic student Pat Burchnall will warn you, the workshops can be addictive. She already has her Certificate, and is racking up additional hours by attending more Sacred Arts courses at St. Mary’s this year.
“I was one of the first ones in the door when the program started,” says Burchnall. “And since then I’ve fallen in love with the creative holiness of these courses, and also the history. I’ve always had a passion for history.”
Burchnall was recovering from cancer when she signed up for her first course. She decided she wanted to do something that was “just for me”, as she puts it – and art came to mind. She had never studied art in her life at all, except as a child at school in Britain. For Burchnall, the Sacred Arts workshops have been very therapeutic …and exciting.
“I didn’t really have any expectations of myself, which is possibly why I enjoyed the whole thing so much,” laughs Burchnall. “But when, for instance, I took the Old Masters oil painting course, it just blew me away that I could actually put something together. I put it all down to God’s grace and the amazing instructors. I’d never touched oil paints before, and I had no idea what I was doing at the beginning.”
Charlton has noticed that the courses can be very healing for some students on a number of levels, and he points out the spiritual nourishment they can provide, too.
“I think the Sacred Arts fill a bit of a void in our rushed lives,” says Charlton. “There’s a timelessness to it, and it can be very meditative and contemplative. Plus, there’s a sense of connectedness to something that’s not only beautiful, but that flows out of a deeper tradition. Many of these techniques go back hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Charlton also points out that there is an ecumenical aspect to the program, too. Students come from a range of denominational groups – Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestant evangelicals. There is also a broad range in the ages of those signing up.
Pat Burchnall agrees that the workshops are a wonderful place to connect with a stimulating mix of people, and also to connect with God.
“You know that Bible verse that asks us to ‘pray without ceasing’? Well, I’d read that many times, but I didn’t get it,” says Burchnall. “But I found it here, in the Sacred Arts – because when I work on my art, I find myself praying in my head. You become very focused in a grace-filled, prayerful sense, and that’s been a real gift for me in this whole process.
Martinho Correia is a Canadian-born, European-educated painter and educator. He instructs painting classes in St. Mary’s Sacred Arts program, and also teaches workshops at the Angel Academy in Florence, Italy to students from all over the world. Correia, whose father is Portuguese, spends part of each year painting in a small fishing village in Portugal, where his family has a home. His skill at painting figures makes him a great new example of the long tradition of realistic painting in the style of the Old Masters.
“I’m interested in the tradition of the figure, but comic book heroes inform my work, too, in terms of their energy,” says Correia. “Many of the new artists working today were very much influenced by figures in comic books, which are purely conceptual. But some new artists are almost too realistic; their work is beautiful technically but missing the mystery behind it. Art should have this continuum between looking at nature and also infusing it with the conceptual. When you think about it, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is like a great big comic book.”
Correia is excited about passing on the traditions of realistic painting, philosophy and theology to students and other artists.
“I hope to take part in a “new Renaissance” in which we rediscover these traditions,” says Correia. “I definitely see a renewed interest, especially among young people. People start with taking workshops, and then they get hooked. I love teaching – it’s really enjoyable. I taught elementary and junior high school Art in Calgary when I first graduated. I later decided to focus on being an artist, but after spending a lot of time in the studio I need human contact, so I hope teaching will always be a part of my life.”
As for Pat Burchnall, she never dreamed that one day she’d be producing beautiful art and earning a Sacred Arts certificate at a university, but she’s thrilled with the new world that’s opened up for her.
“As far as the iconography goes, the courses and instructors have given me the confidence to work on some of my own pieces at home,” says a delighted Burchnall.
But she still plans to continue taking courses for the camaraderie and the group environment. She sees the program as a great opportunity to keep learning, and to share her new passion with other like-minded people.
“I’ve discovered that we have hidden gifts, but we might not be aware of them,” says Burchnall. “This has given me the opportunity to try something totally new. It’s really been a beautiful experience, and it’s helped me to see the beauty around me.”
Visit www.stmu.ca/sacred-arts for more information about St. Mary’s Sacred Arts Program.