There is an Italian city that remains unique worldwide. Its name alone evokes beauty. It’s a place where “you just open your eyes every morning, walking through streets and squares, going to buy bread, to realize how man is capable of making his talent immortal, creating timeless masterpieces and thus changing the world with his mind, his will, his hands. And this is no small thing!”
That city is Florence, and such a passionate description of it comes from Lucia Tanti, 42, who every year welcomes dozens and dozens of artists and art lovers to Florence, at the Sacred Art School where she is director. “Sacred art,” not simply “art” without adjectives — the institute insists – because “throughout history, humanity has always needed a ‘beauty’ that goes beyond the aesthetic category of beauty, to mean something more.”
The miracle of the Florentine Renaissance made the name Florence famous throughout the world. In only a few centuries, the city became a factory of masterpieces that have made universal art history. And although miracles rarely happen twice, the Sacred Art School was founded ten years ago with a special purpose: to give life again today to the model of those Renaissance “school-workshops” where so much beauty took shape. And this is, first of all, due to more mature and skilled artists working alongside apprentices, teaching them secrets of the trade and thus perpetuating the city’s artistic genius.
The school combines tradition and innovation. Even an institution like this, today, must be equipped with a website in Italian and English. One finds there a page describing the school’s training method based on “the relationship between knowledge and know-how”, Tanti notes, a method “that evokes the Renaissance but is also well grafted onto the contemporary world. And this is no longer the time for the abstract! This is the time,” she exclaims, “for hands that work, create and give life!”
In Florence, in fact, people study books but at the same time work on prestigious works, commissioned from outside the school by public, private and religious institutions. For example, in Rome since 1965 there has been a training center, the “Elis Center” of Opus Dei, founded thanks to Pope Pius XII who donated the gifts of his eightieth birthday for its construction. The Center was created to be a place where young people from run-down suburbs of Rome could be trained and assisted in finding work. A few months ago, Tanti says, “the center’s new chapel was completely rebuilt, bearing our signature: the tabernacle, a crucifix modeled in clay and reproduced in resin and fiberglass…”.
It was 2012 when a group of artists decided to found the Florence school. The circumstance inspiring them was that today, in the entire Christian West, although it seems strange, there is no longer a place to train aspiring artists specialized in sacred art, even if the director highlights that “our teaching artists and students are indeed specialists in sacred art, but they are trained to be artists without limits.” In other words, “we have chosen to devote ourselves to sacred art as a distinctive feature of our training course,” but it “does not exclude any other category of art.”
In the meantime, the school is close to reaching its 10-year milestone. “The key word of the first decade is ‘challenge’, namely a formative, educational and cultural ‘challenge.’,” says Tanti. “We have certainly launched a unique, but even deeply authentic proposal: to place sacred art at the center of study and training courses to give life to a new generation of artists and artisans, ones who are capable of interpreting the spirit of contemporary times and making their way as artists. They are enabled to do so by making the most of a talent that is no longer just spontaneous, but fully self-aware”.
The chairman of the promoting committee is Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori. The school’s students have three workshops at their disposal. In the painting workshop, the most commonly used technique is oil painting on canvas or board. In the sculpture workshop they learn to work with marble, bronze and terracotta. The jewelry workshop is mainly dedicated to the creation of sacred ornaments, but also carries out restoration work on paintings, sculptures and jewelry. The educational offer includes three-year courses, postgraduate masters and more. In fact, a student can also enroll in accelerated, summer and Saturday courses.
But for a sacred art-artist, artistic technique alone is certainly not enough. According to Tanti, “in order to not only ‘create’ sacred art, but also interpret it, know it and divulge it, you need a theological and liturgical knowledge. I believe there is a real need for this and this type of specialization”.
It is well known that in the past, sacred art also had the function of teaching the faithful the content of the faith. There were works known as ‘Biblia paupurum‘, that is ‘Bibles for the poor’, since they were conceived precisely to introduce to the many illiterate people of the time, biblical characters and stories, through the language of images. And even though illiteracy is not as common today as some centuries ago, if sacred art should recall the contents of faith, then the artist must have adequate knowledge of them. This is why in Florence, “theology, liturgy and the study of sacred scripture are an indispensable cultural background.”
But what about faith? Is it possible to be a qualified sacred art-artist without personal openness to the dimension of religious faith? This question arises spontaneously by itself.
“Qualified maybe yes, credible, I’m not sure,” Tanti replies.
“I believe that faith is a continuous, personal, laborious dialogue between yourself and the infinite. A school does not have the right to measure faith, but it does have the duty to educate and stimulate that innate desire for the infinite that belongs to every man and that not infrequently encounters faith. We certainly ‘handle’ a privileged subject, because when art is successful in showing the footprint of God in the artistic work, or in recounting the presence of God’s footprint in history, then also it becomes a means of transmitting faith.”
Nevertheless, Tanti goes on to explain, ‘this is not my job. My job is to give talent an opportunity to grow in the extraordinary world of the art, sacred art in particular, a kind of art that goes beyond aesthetics and is halfway between earth and heaven. And this art is a heritage without borders.”
One of the greatest saints of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, after a life of debauchery and a long existential torment, discovered the truth of the Gospel praising God as “pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova“, “beauty ever ancient and ever new.” In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, someone as sensitive as few others to art’s beauty, told a group of priests that “to me, art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith,” because “the arguments contributed by reason are unquestionably important and indispensable, but then there is always dissent somewhere.”
Unfortunately, the problem, according to many, is that contemporary sacred art is no longer capable, as in the past, of creating Beauty with a capital ‘B’. “I’ll give you my personal opinion: yes, it’s true,” Lucia Tinti also admits with sincerity; “I believe that the dialogue between the Church and art has lost the thread today.” But is it possible to rekindle it?
“The distance between the Church and the world of art,” replies the director, “in my opinion, can be bridged by re-appropriating knowledge that is today somewhat too marginalized. We study very little Latin, very little Greek, very little history of art, very little philosophy, which I would insert on the middle school curriculum! We don’t study theology except in specific cases… I don’t think that removing this knowledge from basic education was a brilliant idea.”
It is not by chance that the philosophy of the Florence School is summed up in the motto “forward in tradition,” because “tradition itself,” they say, “is the engine of an identity that knows how to renew itself: hence, it is our ‘motto.’ In fact, in history, the greatest innovators were extraordinary conservatives.”
You may or may not agree, but the proof of the project’s success is in the numbers. To date, the school has trained more than 300 students from over 50 countries: “today they are established artists, teachers and often both”. Beyond institutional communications using social networks “to make the school known outside Florence,” the most effective communications outside, she argues, are the success stories, that is to say “the stories of how our teachers (artists), former students and above all, the works they have created, have satisfied their commissioners.”
The novelty of the tenth year of activity is the forthcoming transformation of the school into a “Foundation for Contemporary Sacred Art.” “I have a goal in mind,” Lucia Tanti states boldly, “to welcome at least 100 students every year.” In the meantime, according to school statistics, 78% of those who complete the three-year training cycle, find work in the field of sacred art. And the school also teaches practical aspects of the trade: from how to obtain commissions, to create works of art, to learning how to set the price of the work.
In this way, sacred art can also become a profession, not just a passion. “There is enough space in the labor market,” Lucia Tanti reports from experience, “but we too must make a small Copernican revolution in our training offer,” she promises: “to launch refresher courses for tourist guides and museum operators, to establish more stable relationships with artisan workshops and with the large target group of teachers of religion and art history. To summarize, training not only new artists and artisans, but also cultural tourism professionals who are experts in sacred art. This is the way of the future, to unite in perfect harmony what we were and what we will be.”
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