St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that God’s love for us is shown in, and causes,
the good of nature,
the good of grace, won by His ultimate proof of love—the gift of His Son,
and the good of glory.1
That glorious, graceful love showed itself to many local artists of St. Marys, Kansas, who were given the opportunity to put their nature at the service of making artworks for their new Immaculata. Many people asked at the outset of the rebuilding—“We have so much talent in the parish of St. Marys: why can we not build and beautify our Church with the work of our own people, as in the days of the medieval guilds?”
The answer to that lies in time and economics, of course. We needed a church soon; we could not take a hundred years to build her, though perhaps we will continue to beautify her for a hundred years. In addition, our economy does not provide the stability necessary to support craftsmen, though perhaps we can move in that direction, and we certainly have priests who support them.
The building of a new church provided the opportunity to supply some of the new church’s needs by the skill and labor and love of her local children, and so a call was made for artisan troops to come together to form the St. Luke’s Guild.
Like the guilds of old, this guild gathered under a patron and celebrated a certain feast. In the Middle Ages, the patrons of the guilds had some connection with the work of the members: the pin-makers guild, for instance, celebrated the feast of the Nativity, because Mary wrapped her Babe in swaddling clothes, and most likely needed some pins to do it properly; the guild of innkeepers invoked the patronage of St. Julian, who gave hospitality to lepers, even allowing one to have his own bed for a night!2 The Guild united many crafts under the blazon of St. Luke: woodworkers, carpenters, painters, gilders, silver leaf-layers, sculptors, mold-makers, seamstresses, embroiderers, metal and leather workers, jewelers, glass etchers, candle-painters, calligraphers, even CNC cutters and computer designers. Together they produced prayer cards, altar cards, carvings in stone and clay, candles and candleholders, holy water fonts, altar cloths and linens, embroidered altar covers, missal stands and missal covers, crucifixes, ciborium veils and vestments, tabernacle keys, sanctuary furnishings, and even homegrown hyssop plants for the consecration ceremony. Though St. Joseph or St. Elias would have been more fitting patrons perhaps for specific artisans of this modern guild, they chose to ask St. Luke’s protection and inspiration for all the crafts together, as St. Luke is credited with painting the first portrait of the Immaculata—an icon of the Blessed Virgin.
This Artisans’ Guild is not to be confused with the St. Luke’s Benefactors’ Guild, whose contributions, however, were relied upon to support the expense of the crafts. Nor was this Guild exactly like unto the guilds of old, for the St. Luke’s Artisan’s Guild is not “a society composed of people of the same profession.”3 Instead it combined students, teachers, alumni and alumnae of St. Mary’s Academy, as well as accountants and nurses, IT specialists and local business owners, who even within the Guild worked at a variety of crafts. However, the desire was for the members to be “animated by feelings of fraternal charity as members of Christ, banded… together to practice their craft honestly, and to give loyal service to the public.”4 A prayer to be prayed by each member before setting themselves to their various works:
St. Luke’s Guild Work Prayer
Ego volo perficere hoc opus in unione operis omnis sacerdotis quaque Sancta in Missa in qua id utile fuerit. Desidero laborare in unione sacrificii Corporis et Sanguinis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, iuxta ritum sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, ad laudem omnipotentis Dei totiusque Curiae triumphantis, et ad sanctificationem meam omnisque membri Gildae Sancti Lucae.
Sancte Luca, ora pro nobis.
“I wish to unite this work with every priest and in each holy Mass in which my craft will be used. I desire to labor in union with the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in accordance with the rite of the Roman Catholic Church, all for the praise of almighty God, the Church Triumphant, and for the sanctification of my soul and the other members of the Guild of St. Luke.”
Though this Guild does not have a Guild House nor workshop, and many of the works were done by artists in quiet solitude, the prayer inspired each artist with the realization that as they painted the foliated border on their altar cards, or pressed into the clay that would be digitally scanned and then cut from stone or bronze to become candle holders, altar centerpieces, or tabernacle doors, they were working for their sanctification, and that of every member of St. Luke’s Guild.
Many of the works were even able to be done in community or by multiple artists. More than one man turned and crafted the missal stands, many ladies sized and gilded and cleaned the boards of text over the confessionals, some students even painted together on the same prayer card or candle.
There are many ways in which this contemporary Guild worked in a way similar to the old guilds (for example, the “primary goods”/supplies were purchased by the Guild and shared amongst the individual workers as needed), though there are plenty of ways in which it was not able to follow the excellent habits of medieval civilization. Night work could not be forbidden, for example, or much of what our modern artists were able to make would not have been done. Nor could it be required that “[e]very craft [be] held to be an art to which one was obliged in conscience to devote all one’s attention.”5 For all these craftsmen and women of St. Luke’s Guild did their artwork “for the praise of almighty God, and for the Church Triumphant,” in addition to their primary duty of state—going to school, work; in some cases, feeding their families.
The organization of medieval craftsmen, though, was somewhat recreated, albeit in a contemporary and less stringent form. The vast majority of the Guild’s workers underwent some apprenticeship in the Academy’s Art Program. Even the young people chosen for the tasks were the Academy’s journeymen: people who had learned well the tools and demands of their craft, from their teachers, and who had practiced their skills much. All the Guild’s journeymen received direction and guidance from the several Masters involved in the Guild’s work.
As in the days of the cathedrals, there was little distance between the journeymen of St. Luke’s Guild and its Masters: many times Fr. Kopec, the sacristy prefect, would drop in on a work session to give advice or encouragement, or students would bring their work to class for tips on how best to paint using only black, gray and white, or to seek help with supplies or the artful filling of blank space.
Even the division of labor was, as in older times, made respecting the sex and age of the workmen. The paintings and more delicate works were typically allotted to the women; the wood-working, heavy mold-making, wood carving, and leather-working to the men.
St. Luke’s Guild members aimed to make what they created to an objectively high standard of craft, not only just “the best they could do.” Works had to pass multiple inspections and be of high quality to be considered for use in the Immaculata. This was an element that likened the new Guild to the old ones, whose members were not allowed to sell works until they had been inspected for quality by the Guild Masters and judged worthy.
Those blessed to participate in the membership of St. Luke’s Guild are grateful to have been able to offer a donation of their time and talents for the Immaculata. Their rewards are many, but include the fulfillment of having been a part of beautifying their parish church, as in the days of the cathedrals. Their Guild prayer has also united them to the work of “every priest and in each holy Mass in which [their] craft will be used,” no small thing.
Perhaps it is time to renew the medieval guilds? We have seen a great use for skilled workmen, and joy in the faces and hearts of the young who have made use of their time working in this way. Perhaps the laity may find the means to work towards the economic stability of the Middle Ages, that assured the support of the craftsmen’s guilds. We would have to stop the ordering of Amazon cheap stuffs, most likely. But we certainly have people with the skill and the will, right here in St. Marys, Kansas. Were we to redeem our times in that direction, perhaps we might yet find, even amidst this vale of tears, the beauty of nature, grace and glory.
1 Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Joannis Lectura, trans. author (Italy: Marietta Editori, Ltd., 1952).
2 Emile Male, The Gothic Image, trans. Doris Nussey (London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1913), 292-293.
3 Godefroid Kurth, The Workingmen’s Guilds of the Middle Ages, trans. Denis Fahey and Stephen Rigby (California: Omni Publications, 1987).