Art in Service of the Church

In a daring voyage of self-discovery, two women leave their lives in NYC and Seattle to study painting in breath-taking Florence, Italy. Here, they discover their ability to make beautiful Catholic art modeled on the Old Masters. On the way, one of them – fascinated by the life and work of St Francis of Assisi – becomes Catholic.

They decide to work together to produce a master copy of the “The Triumph of St. Augustine,” a Baroque masterpiece (Claudio Coello, 1664).  As Catholic artists, their purpose for this painting is to focus on art in service of the Church.

Art produced in collaboration is not about the individual artists but about the power of art to give glory to God.  Sacred art of this kind has a long and rich historical tradition and the power to transform lives.  While contemporary art has moved away from this historical basis, today there is a resurgence of interest in sacred art based on realist principles.

In this engaging REGINA Interview, Losana Boyd (l) and Llewelyn Matthews explore this unexpected turn in their lives. 

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REGINA: Tell us about yourselves and what drew you to begin studying art in Florence.

LLEWELLYN: I was born of American parents in Venezuela and where I lived until I was eleven. Most recently I am from Washington State where I worked as an attorney for many years.

LOSANA: I am American, born in New Jersey, brought up in Florida.  Previously, I was co-founder of a boutique public relations company specializing in health care.

LLEWELLYN: After studying drawing part-time with Juliette Aristides in Seattle WA for several years, I decided I wanted a change in my life and wanted to seriously study realistic art.  I had visited Italy a number of times to study art and was drawn to Florence in particular.  I also felt it was time to act on a long-held desire to convert to Catholicism. I had been very impressed with the story and message of St Francis after visiting Assisi. A turning point was a trip that included a visit to the tomb of St Francis and being moved that his disciples loved him so much, they wished to be buried with him.

LOSANA: I had begun to study representational painting while living in New Jersey in the mid-1990s.  In 2002 I came back to the Church soon after my son, Dom Ambros, now an ordained priest, converted to the faith. In 2005, I moved to New York City, where I studied poetry in the Hunter College MFA program and worked for a time for First Things. Then, in 2011, I made the decision to return to the full-time study of art by moving to Florence, Italy and beginning a three-year course in realist painting based on classical principles.

 

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Especially in the modern age, we seem to have a deep need for classical beauty, probably because it is largely unmet by the culture we live in, and artists are particularly sensitive to this longing.” – LOSANA BOYD

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My experience as an art student in Florence was both joyful and challenging.  It was the fruit of a long-held dream, but there were many moments of doubt about giving up a secure career and lifestyle in the US for an unknown.” — LLEWELLYN MATTHEWS 

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For spiritual sustenance, I relied heavily on the Mass and Rosary. I learned so much in those three years. The work seemed almost impossibly daunting at first, and yet, through persistence and effort and the watchful eyes of my instructors, I began to develop the skills I was seeking as an artist – LOSANA BOYD

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ON CONVERTING TO CATHOLICISM: “I had gone to the basilica in Assisi for the art and realized the power of art to transform.  At that point religious art and Catholicism were inextricably linked for me. I wanted both.” – LLEWELLYN MATTHEWS 


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REGINA: Why do you think there are so many people seriously studying representational art now, after a century of modernism?

LLEWELLYN: It is clear that interest in art and making art based on realistic principles is growing by leaps and bounds.  The Art Renewal Center (ARC) had only a handful of qualified schools listed a decade ago but now the organization lists almost 50 around the world. 

LOSANA:  For too long the art world has been overly concerned with “self expression.” Serious painters know that significant time must first be spent cultivating solid skills. This means long hours studying models, drawing and correcting, making copies, working out underlying anatomical structures.

LLEWELLYN:  This new interest may be driven by a desire to meet the challenge of understanding the almost lost methods to create realistic art.  At the same time, I think artists engaging in this journey recognize it is not about re-creating the Renaissance; rather, these concepts will be used to produce art that speaks to our times.

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CLAUDIO COELLO’S THE TRIUMPH OF ST. AUGUSTINE

The saint is seen ascending over a beautiful landscape towards an intensely blue sky, accompanied in his ascent by Rubenesque angels carrying his bishops’ crozier. As he points to heaven with his right hand, the saint observes his now defeated enemies..upon which an archangel is bearing down with his sword of fire.” (from the Prado guide)

The original was painted in 1664 for the Augustinian monastery in Acalá de Henares, and has been on display in Madrid’s Museo del Prado since 1836. With its exuberant color, sweeping curves and plentiful sacred geometry, Coello’s masterpiece vividly renders the victory of the great St. Augustine over the evils of both paganism and demonism.” – Losana Boyd

REGINA: What prompted you to work as a team on this painting?

9LOSANA: I had been looking for a St. Augustine image to copy. Our Maestro has encouraged us very much to make copies of great works of art to keep developing our skills, and to continue to do so throughout our careers. I found an image of this painting by Coello and decided this was the one. I chose a 70 by 50 cm canvas (the original is 271 by 203 cm) and had begun to get the drawing in, when my friend Llewellyn stopped by one evening and suggested that I should go bigger. She offered to help me paint the angels’ faces if I would start again on a larger canvas. I thought about it and decided she was right– the painting really ought to be bigger.  Then I thought perhaps we could work on this together as a joint project, not just angel’s faces, but the whole process from selecting the canvas to choosing the frame, and Llewellyn agreed.

REGINA: What has the experience been like for both of you?

LOSANA: The process was great and we really worked well as a team. At first, we divided up the tasks; I worked everything from the figure of St. Augustine to the left and Llewellyn worked the architecture and everything to the right. It was an added benefit that I am left-handed and Llewellyn is right-handed! Toward the end, we both worked everywhere, helping each other where we saw things that needed doing, and striving to create unity.

LLEWELLYN: The experience was amazing.  We were trying to understand Coello’s intent not only for the subject matter but how he intended the painting to look.  Paintings have a lifespan and change appearance over the centuries. Varnish can yellow and darken.  Did the artist take this into account or not?  Did he paint thinking it would always look the same or did he paint more vibrantly anticipating the inevitable aging?  If so are we trying to capture a more vibrant version of the painting when it was first finished or what it looks like now? How do we address that something that might look right in the large original but might not translate well to our smaller format?  Also Coello changed his mind about some elements of the painting and painted over earlier work.  As the paint thinned with age, these underlying corrections became visible.  Do we include the now visible corrections or not?   Perhaps obscure questions, but fascinating for us as artists.

LOSANA: Consulting with each other throughout the process on all the elements of hue, value and chroma, architectural and anatomical integrity was immensely beneficial.  For example, at an early stage in the painting, Llewellyn researched pigments that were available during Coello’s lifetime and we modified our palette to incorporate these.

REGINA: What is the painting’s destination?  

LOSANA: The painting has been presented to the Canonry of St. Leopold, a community of Augustinian Canons Regular of St Augustine, and an apostolate of Stift Klosterneuburg, Austria.

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LLEWELLYN: As it was a copy, there was not really room for personal ego; rather the challenge was to try to get into the mind of this great master.

LOSANA: Years ago, teams of painters produced a great deal of the individual canvases we see in museums. As our Maestro explained, “when Rubens signed his name to a canvas, he was in fact approving all of the work that had been done on that painting in his studio, by a team of painters.”

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REGINA: What do you see as the future for representative art?

LOSANA: The prospects are very good. Increasingly, people seem to be drawn to works of a more classical nature…and our Catholic churches in America are for the most part in need of quality sacred images. As Catholic artists, our work is to give Glory to God. Ideally, the artist should disappear and the work itself should help viewers contemplate the great glory of our faith. Artworks that make too much of the artist distract from this more profound purpose. 

LLEWELLYN: Also for me, this project was an opportunity to try out a fledgling idea of trying to bring religious art based on traditional methods to portray realism to institutions in the US that lack such art.  Great art that has the power to move a person spiritually can be found all over Europe but rarely so in the US.  Ultimately I hope to form an organization to promote such art.

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