New Graduate Arts School Focuses on Beauty, Catholic Faith
The president of Pontifex University, a new Catholic graduate arts school, says now is a great time to restore appreciation for truth and beauty.
“We have lost any concept of linking art to the sacred,” Gareth Genner, president of Pontifex University, recently told the Cardinal Newman Society. “Too often art is reverenced for its ability to shock rather than its ability to reflect beauty.”
Addressing this problem of the contemporary disconnect between art and the sacred was the impetus for the formation of Pontifex University. Started in 2015, the predominantly online educational institution offers a master’s degree in Sacred Arts.
Genner recognized a need for directly connecting Catholic professors and students utilizing the growing number of online resources.
“The vast majority of faithful Catholic colleges don’t have those resources,” Genner said. He was inspired to create an environment where Catholic professors could feel comfortable and students could know that what was being offered was in alignment with the teachings of the Magisterium. Pontifex University holds itself to compliance with Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican’s constitution on Catholic higher education.
Pontifex University strives to form in students, “both speculatively and practically, a sensitivity to beauty, an appreciation of beauty, and an aptitude for creating beauty of the particularly Catholic kind, whether in artistic pursuits or simply in a well-ordered life.”
“If you become attuned to beauty,” Genner explained, “you can see it in places you’ve never noticed before. Beauty can connect you to theology and the liturgy and everything around you.”
The goals of the master’s program are to have students achieve an understanding of how “a culture of beauty” expresses the Faith through both form and content, of “how the respective roles of artists and patrons have contributed to the common good in the past… and in contemporary society,” and of how artists’ goals can be realized in one’s medium of choice.
Pontifex University offers a formation designed to be holistic; the master’s degree includes courses that encompass theology, liturgy, philosophy, art history and fine arts. The educational program is based on the traditional education that used to be given to artists in all creative disciplines, a Catholic inculturation which taught them to apprehend beauty, develop creativity and be open to inspiration. This kind of education aims to enrich all artistic pursuits by first enriching the artist.
The master’s program was designed “not simply to form artists, but to draw all people to the Faith and to the worship of God in the sacred liturgy, which is central of the Christian life.”
While the program will attract Catholics with an artistic vocation, Genner told the Newman Society that the degree is also for personal enrichment, not necessarily only for those who will be professional artists. In fact, he noted that a large portion of the already-enrolled students are priests, deacons and religious.
“They are looking for something that gives them a fresh perspective,” Genner said. “They see a need for beauty in the Church.”
Genner noted that the Vatican has also voiced concern about the need for beauty in the Church. He cited the Pontifical Council for Culture’s ongoing study of “the training of priests and other cultural workers in the Church in the aesthetics and history of art, especially as it contributes in the creation of religious art fitting for sacred spaces.” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told CRUX that “proper training in art is the ‘function of the school.’”
The program’s courses include theology, philosophy, Christian culture and studio work which is completed under the tutelage of an accomplished artist. Genner explained that the university has built up an increasing number of places where studio work can be completed including Florence, the Holy Land, the Vatican Museum in Rome, or with local artists in the United States. The goal is not necessarily that the student becomes a skilled artist, Genner explained, but rather that one has appreciation for the creation of sacred art.
Pontifex University “strives to provide students with an authentically Catholic education” and, therefore, models its unique program on “The Way of Beauty,” an approach to education that uses beauty as “an accessible entry point to contemplate truth.”
David Clayton, an artist, writer and teacher who was an artist in residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire for seven years, wrote The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College. Clayton’s course on “The Way of Beauty” at Thomas More was the first course made available by Pontifex University, Genner said. Through the course, Clayton strives to reconcile the insufficient links between aesthetics and theology.
In addition to Clayton, a number of instructors in the program have previous associations with Newman Guide-recommended colleges including Rev. Dr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a graduate of Christendom College and The Catholic University of America, and Dr. Carrie Gress, a graduate of The Catholic University of America.
Graduate admissions decisions are made on a rolling basis throughout the year. The normal duration for the coursework degree is two years.
Because the program is so new, the degree is not yet eligible for accreditation. However, Pontifex University plans to “explore appropriate options for accreditation when the program has reached an appropriate level of maturity.”
In the near future, Genner told the Newman Society, Pontifex University will announce a new bachelor’s and master’s program in Thomistic theology. A free introduction to the program will be available during Lent, and the first classes will open in the fall.