“Custodians of Beauty”: A Sacred Arts Guild is Born

In addition to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter, the month of April will mark another special occasion: the formal public launch of one of Alberta’s newest art initiatives, the Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA). Inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s call for the faithful to be “custodians of beauty,” SAGA hopes to become a catalyst for developing a community of artists and others who are interested in the study, preservation, and renewal of traditional methods for creating liturgical and sacred art within the Christian tradition.

Ruth Fyten working on an icon of Archangel Gabriel

In recent years, there has been growing interest in such traditional forms of sacred art such as iconography, manuscript illumination, stained glass, and classical oil painting. This has been reflected in a growing number of opportunities for similar types of workshops and courses in Alberta. Interest in these workshops has grown equally among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Evangelicals.

While many are drawn to the contemplative and personally transformative nature of these workshops, there is another dynamic at work. Artists desire to reconnect with the rich artistic history of the Church and bring sacred art back into the liturgical life of their local parishes.

Now a group of artists in Alberta is forming a guild designed to promote increased awareness and appreciation of ways that the beauty of liturgical and sacred art can enhance our understanding of the Christian faith. The group also wants to encourage the production and use of original works of liturgical art in homes, parishes, schools, and other public spaces.

Martinho Isidro Correia

The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta will be officially launched on April 20th, 7 pm at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1423 8th Ave. Calgary. The Guild will provide information on the Guild and its planned activities. Special guest, Martinho Isidro Correia, a classically trained artist who teaches at the Angel Academy in Florence and member of the Guild’s Board of Directors, will give an illustrated talk on the history of Christian sacred art and its recent renewal. Correia claims the modern disintegration of the link between faith and the arts has led to a loss of mystery and a “profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the Mass and its symbols.” He hopes that a new Catholic artistic renaissance, as exemplified in this new Sacred Arts Guild, will “help communicate the fullness of the Christian message.”

The event is free and open to all. It will be a great opportunity to meet people interested in the renewal of the sacred arts.

The establishment of SAGA has come out of the experience of a group of individuals who have been taking sacred art workshops together for many years. In some cases, the artists travelled abroad together to study with noted teachers and to visit churches and art museums known for their collections of sacred art.

Maria Muszynski, copy of medieval manuscript illumination, God as Creator

Although the opportunities to study sacred art locally has grown in recent years, some lingering questions remain. What happens after the workshops are over and artists return to their local communities and parishes? How do they find others who share their new passion for sacred art or fellow artists with whom they can share ideas and learn new techniques? In between workshops, how do they continue to improve their skills and sustain their desire to keep painting?

In response to these needs, a small group of artists began meeting together for “open studios” where they can paint together, share experiences and tips with each other. The ecumenical nature of the group has opened up opportunities for enriching discussions of each other’s traditions and understanding what each tradition brings to the sacred arts.

Out of these relationships and friendships grew a desire to find a more established means for staying in touch, encouraging each other, and building a sense of community among those with a passion for sacred and liturgical art. Hence the vision for the Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta was born.

Membership in SAGA is open to anyone, both artists and non-artists, professionals and amateurs, lay and clergy, who are interested in promoting a renewal of the sacred arts.

Calligraphy and Copies of Masterworks by JoAnne Ronan

To achieve its goals, SAGA is planning to sponsor a variety of activities. It will continue to host monthly Open Studios, sponsor occasional workshops and talks for its members, and provide information on other study opportunities available in Alberta. Over time, the guild hopes to develop a directory of artists and artisans who are involved in the liturgical and sacred arts in Alberta and are available for church and private commissions.

In order to reach out to the broader community and parishes, the Guild plans to sponsor occasional “pop-up exhibitions” for parishes after weekend services as well an annual juried exhibition of sacred and liturgical art.

In August, the Guild will be hosting Peter Murphy, the founder of the St. Peter’s School of Sacred Arts located in Canterbury England. He will be teaching a week long workshop on the egg tempera painting and gilding techniques of the early Italian masters, such as Duccio, Lorenzo Monaco, and Fra Angelico.

Peter Murphy, Early Romanesque Trinity

On August 10th, Peter Murphy will also be giving a free public lecture at St. Stephen’s Protomartyr Church, Calgary on the theme: “English Icons: Is There a Distinctive Western Tradition of Iconography?” Murphy’s talk will address the question of whether iconographers in the West, particularly those who are not Orthodox, are limited only to drawing on and copying Russian and Greek models of icons. In answering this question, Murphy will draw on his extensive research on Italo-Byzantine mosaics and English Romanesque manuscript illuminations to demonstrate how he is seeking to develop a distinctive English style of iconography. The photo of Murphy’s Early Romanesque Trinity Icon, accompanying this article, shows how he has drawn on the famous Trinity Icon of the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev and illuminated manuscripts such as the St. Alban’s psalter to develop a distinctive and modern style of icon.

Murphy is looking forward to returning to Calgary and supporting the newly formed Guild. On his previous visits, he recalls witnessing “the joyful and prayerful collaboration of local members of Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic and Roman Catholic congregations in the creation of traditional Byzantine icons, using centuries old methods and materials.”

Instructor Peter Murphy demonstrating egg tempera

Murphy believes that the formation of the Guild “presents a unique opportunity to bring together, in the true spirit of ecumenism, sacred arts practitioners from various vibrant church communities to create something of true beauty and everlasting value in Alberta.”


For more information on SAGA and its activities or to subscribe to its monthly newsletter, email: sacredartsguildofalberta@gmail.com You can also follow the Guild on twitter or join the Guild’s Facebook Group. The Guild’s new website will be launched later this spring.

Mark Charlton

About Mark Charlton

Mark Charlton, Ph.D. recently retired from an academic career spanning over thirty years. He has published a number of articles on Canadian and international political issues, including several textbooks which have been widely used in Canadian universities. He most recently served as Vice-President Academic at St. Mary's University, Calgary. After taking a workshop with a Russian iconographer over a decade ago, he has become increasingly interested in iconography, egg tempera painting, and other traditional forms of sacred art. Mark is founding President of the Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta. He lives in Calgary with his wife Lucille, a retired English teacher and avid weaver.
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