The Basilica’s murals are the most striking feature of its interior decoration. They are fine examples of a style of art called Beuronese. More important, however, is the fact that the murals - as well as the entire interior decoration - were executed by the monks of Conception Abbey. As much as the building itself, the murals testify to the aspirations of the monastery’s forefathers. In 1892, three candidates arrived at Conception from the monastery of Beuron in southwest Germany, two of whom had studied art there. This opened the way for the Basilica’s redecoration after the damage of the 1893 tornado was repaired. Abbot Frowin wrote: “On the advice of Fr. Lukas, I am ready to paint our church with the help of our fraters and brothers ... To my regret I found out that the archabbot of Beuron could not accommodate us by lending a painter from his school.” (Diary, August 17, 1893)
Beuron was founded in 1863 by the brothers Maurus and Placidus Wolter through the beneficence of Princess Catherine of Hohenzollern. It was an active proponent and the German counterpart of the revival of monastic life, liturgy, and music initiated by Dom Prosper Guerenger of the Abbey of Solesmes in France. Much of nineteenth century Catholic Europe was experiencing a reawakening after the Napoleonic period. For many, a revival of monastic life in the pattern of the great medieval abbeys was seen as pivotal in “rechristianizing” European society and culture. Although there is no evidence that he was directly involved in the movement, Frowin Conrad was very much taken up with its ideas and ideals. Most likely he met Maurus Wolter at Engelberg well before his departure for the United States. He visited Beuron on his way to Conception in 1873 and maintained extensive correspondence with the Wolter brothers for many years thereafter. At Conception, Abbot Frowin attempted to adapt monastic life to new circumstances, often looking to the spirit and forms developed at Beuron, particularly with regard to liturgy and discipline. A small sign of the degree of Beuron’s influence on Conception is the fact that Abbot Frowin adopted the style of Beuron’s monastic habit instead of Engelberg’s.
The three main characters in the development of Beuronese art were Maurus Wolter (d. 1890), Desiderius Lenz (d. 1928), and Gabriel Wuger (d. 1892). Wolter, the first abbot of Beuron, had a keen interest in a revitalization of Christian art. One of his earliest written works is an essay on the symbolism of the Christian art which he found on his visits to the Roman catacombs. Lenz, an artist also associated with such contemporary art movements in Munich and Vienna, and Wüger, an artist also associated with such movements, befriended each other in Munich in the 1860s. Along with a disciple of Wüger, Lukas Steiner (d. 1906), Lenz and Wüger joined a group of artists in Rome called the Nazarenes. The Nazarenes, noted for the unconventional manner of dress and lifestyle, were striving to revitalize Christian art. They studied the old masters, trying to relearn the technical skills needed to undertake large frescoes. At the same time, Lenz became fascinated with Egyptian art which was now available to be studied after Napoleon brought back many pieces from his exploits in that far-off place. He believed that the highly stylized form of art which the Egyptians had devised lent itself better than any subsequent form to expressing a religious ideal. Wüger, on the other hand, favored the less stylized and gentler forms being developed by the Nazarenes.
Lenz and Wüger dreamed of forming a monastic community of artists and even drew up plans for a monastery building. They believed that in order to make sacred art one should lead a Christian life in community. For them, Christian art flowed from the experience of Christian community. In 1868 in Rome they met Maurus Wolter, who had similar artistic aspirations for his young community at Beuron. He hoped that art could be brought back to the service of the Church and wanted his community to play a role in the revival of church art just as it was beginning to do in the revival of church music. Lenz was attracted to Beuron partly because of his interest in the abbey’s use of Gregorian chant, which he saw as parallel to his own efforts in art and architecture. Upon the invitation of Princess Catherine, Lenz and Wüger designed and constructed a chapel, the Mauruskapelle, near Beuron. This chapel epitomizes their theories in a harmonious blend of both art and architecture. Wüger entered Beuron in 1870, soon followed by his disciple Lukas Steiner and finally by Lenz himself in 1872.
Lenz and Wüger, with Wolter often acting as arbitrator, developed a distinctive style and philosophy of religious art and architecture and soon attracted many followers. Maurus Wolter’s brother and successor as abbot in 1890, Placidus, formally established a Kunstschule at Beuron in 1894. The Dutch artist Jan Verkade, who was very familiar with the French artists active in the late nineteenth century, entered Beuron after his conversion to Catholicism and joined the art school. The artist-monks of Bueron worked together on a number of churches in Europe. The high point of their reputation came in 1905, when they were the centerpiece of an exhibition of avant garde art in Vienna. The artists Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh were very familiar with Beuronese work, which had some influence over the French school of artists known as Nabis, whose founder Maurice Denis visited Beuron several times. Several monasteries noted for their work in the arts (e.g., Maria Laach, Müensterschwarzach, Collegeville) had monks trained at Beuron. In recent years, art historians have begun to reevaluate the style. Some see it as anticipating the 20th century with the insight that art and community are connected; some consider it as one of the first expressions of the abstract movement which has dominated 20th century art; and some maintain that it was a forerunner of the German Bauhaus movement. In his apostolic letter Archicoenobium Casinense, Pope Pius X likened the artistic efforts of the Benedictines of Beuron to the revival of Gregorian chant by the Benedictines of Solesmes. He wrote: “...together with sacred music, it proves itself to be a powerful aid to the liturgy.” (AAS 5, 1913, 113-117)
It is difficult to speak of Beuronese art as a coherent style when, in fact, there were at least two or three styles which competed for “canonization” as various elements came in and out of favor. Lenz was the principal theorist, seeking a “pure” art independent of the excess of baroque and the naturalism of romantic. The Beuronese artists were in search of a natural simplicity and clarity with an emphasis on essentials and conscious neglect of accidentals and details. They chose as their guiding principles the use of plain backgrounds and basic colors, a limited use of perspective, and a repetition of decoration.
The most significant principle or canon of the Beuronese school is the role which geometry played in determining proportions. Lenz thought that sacred art should reflect the natural laws of aesthetics through formulae he believed were forgotten after the Greeks and Egyptians. Geometrical proportions determine ideal forms, and the result is an innate harmony comparable to the mathematical relationships in musical composition. This is why the relationship between Beuronese art and the revival of the “pure” forms of Gregorian chant was so compelling in the mind of Lenz and others. Other canons of the school include:
- The orientation of the art is hieratic, speaking to the spirit of the viewer. The art itself worships and invites the viewer to join in the worship of God. As such, it should not stand out boldly of itself but be part of a worshipping environment.
- Works are anonymous, done by a group effort, and not for the glory of the artist, but of God.
- Imitation is favored over originality, with freehand copying revealing an artist’s genius.
- There is full integration of art and architecture. Painting and sculpture are not “additions” to an architectural given but an integral part of it. Thus Beuronese art encompasses painting, architecture, and furnishings.
Beuronese art was revolutionary for its time, and also characteristic of its time. It offered a stylized, simplified, and hieratic approach to art which went against the grain of contemporary romantic forms. Yet its search for the pure and ideal is not unlike the movements in the revival of the liturgy and music - and even non-Catholic and “secular” counterparts such as the utopian movements or, as in literature, the transcendentalist movement. Abbot Frowin, also a child of his time, was searching for the simplicity of a “pure” romanesque. It is not surprising that he saw the “pure” simplicity of Beuronese art as fitting decoration for his church.
Between 1893 and 1897, several monks of Conception, most notable Lukas Etlin (d. 1927), Hildebrand Roseler (d. 1923), and Ildephonse Kuhn (d. 1921), the latter two of whom had studied art at Beuron, redecorated the walls and ceiling of the Abbey church primarily in the Beuronese manner, retaining elements of the original Victorian stenciling. This is a curious anomaly since one of the Beuronese canons was that all decoration should be done without a stencil. Conception’s was the first church in the United States so decorated. The apse painting of the Immaculate Conception is an original work by Lukas Etlin. The eighteen murals in the central axis are copies from twenty-two scenes of the Life of Mary cycle painted in the church of Emaus Abbey in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under the direction of Lenz, Wüger, and Steiner between the years 1880-1887. Wüger, who favored less stylized figures and softer tones, was the principal artist behind this project. The church at Emaus was bombed and gutted by fire in 1945, leaving Conception’s murals as perhaps the most complete replica of the Emaus originals. The four transept murals are scenes from the Life of Benedict cycle originally painted at the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy. Executed under the direction of Lenz and Wüger in the years 1876-1880, they were destroyed in the bombardment of that monastery during World War II.