Apse mural detail of the original St. John's Abbey Church
(St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
The Beuronese school appears as a blip on the timeline of art history. It is a style of art that doesn’t make the A-list in art history survey courses and relatively few books have been written on the subject. Still, it is worthy of consideration for those at all interested in sacred art.
I was first introduced to the Beuronese school of art while visiting St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. While the school may tout its new Abbey Church, the original abbey far outshines its successor. What is more, the older facade is packed with fine examples of Beuronese art.
Beuronese art is curious in that it came into existence as a deliberate return to antiquity, complete with its own canon that encompassed ideology, approach, and appearance. Benedictine monks founded the school in Beuron, Germany, in the late 1800s. Oddly enough, the German monks looked backward to Ancient Egypt for inspiration and visual cues.
Beuronese images are filled with geometric patterns, palm trees, and “mysterious” color schemes. That’s code for “Where did they come up with THAT?” The colors are sometimes muted, but can also appear in jarring combinations. At other times colors are more rich – bordering on garish.
There is also a rigidity forced on figures, with profiles and full frontal views being the rule. The richness of figures moving effortlessly through space, as was so evident in Italian Renaissance art, is nowhere to be seen. In this regard, Beuronese figures are indeed much closer to ancient Egyptian ideals.
Upon closer inspection, however, the style of art produced by these Germanic monks seems somehow familiar. The notion of monks working in seclusion does not hold. Paralleling the Beuronese school was the development of secular art movements, and flavors of some of them – the Art Nouveau style in particular – are shared with the cloistered counterpart. It may be arguable who inspired whom, but even with his bent view of reality, Gustav Klimt’s work bears marks of Beuronese influence – so much so that art scholars have long taken note.