Listen to “The Catholic Vision of Carl Schmitt” on SoundCloud

If you missed my talk on Carl Schmitt last month in New York, the audio is now available below and at SoundCloud.  It’s part of “Art of the the Beautiful” lecture series hosted by the Catholic Artists Society.

The talk explores Schmitt’s vision connecting the Catholic tradition to the seven fine arts and to the life of the artist himself.  As a young man, Schmitt saw what he had to do to realize this vision: a struggle for what he called the mystical virtues of purity, poverty, and humility, corresponding to the lyric, epic, and dramatic stages of his artistic development.  The fruit of this journey was a clear vision of things seen in the masterworks of his maturity.

You can follow the close discussion of some of Schmitt finest works by downloading the images here.


“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933)


Deposition, c. 1933, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

A guest post by my late father, John S. Schmitt, written two years before his death in 2012.  The painting now hangs in the chapel he built for Trivium School. 

On the walls of my home I have a collection of fine works by Carl Schmitt, including two religious paintings.  It is one of these that I am proudest to own, to sit before and to think about.  It depicts the deposition of Christ, the taking down of his dead body from the cross.  Let me tell you some of the things I have delightfully discovered about the composition of this painting and how light reveals the values of the objects in the painting.

CSF22005 snapshot from Flip

Study for Deposition, pastel on paper, approx. 9 x 13 in.

At first glance, the arrangement of the composition is circular or, as the artist would put it, lyrical.  The huddled figures at the top with their supporting arms, the legs of the body, and the humble figure at the lower right constitute the principal shape of the painting.  Looking more closely, we see vertical structural elements, the hallmark of the epic: the arms gently but firmly supporting the weight of the dead body.  Finally, the angular forms in the contraposto of the body and the turn of the head, arms, and legs of Christ reveal dynamic or dramatic elements.  Thus both the lyrical and epic elements draw the eye to focus on the dramatic figure in the center.  The abstract and universal forms embedded in nature—the lyric, epic, and dramatic—are here brilliantly interwoven in a simple unity of mature and masterful composition.

Deposition - Gates Moore - Cropped and color corrected

Pieta, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.
A work inspired by the old masters both in its composition and in its use of contemporary dress, the latter unusual for Schmitt in a religious painting.

Along with the composition, the artist’s use of light to reveal form draws us into the contemplation of the reality before us.  It is light and dark which reveal all form.  The artist has delineated the form not only through his simple palette of the three primary colors but also the values of light and dark, most evident in the effulgence of light.  This light is truly mysterious.  Does it emanate from an unseen source outside the painting, or does it flow out from the sacred body itself?

Once again we are confronted with the mystery of the central figure in the painting.  And yet this aesthetically dynamic figure is a dead body!  Although surrounded by darkness, it seems to glow with a light beyond the power of nature.  As inspiring as the presence of light is in the painting, finally it is through the selective lack of light—what the artist called voids—that, paradoxically, reality is revealed for what it truly is.  Like the irony of the drama of the dead body at the center of the painting, the voids —the absence of light—serve an “ironic” or paradoxical function highlighting the significance of what is being depicted.

Thus this masterpiece allows us to glimpse what the physical eye alone is unable to perceive.  We realize something of the Grand Reality bodied forth in delightful contemplation of natural reason, faith, hope, and charity: the reality of the Incarnation in truth is represented.


Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty.

$5,000 matching grant doubles your gift to the CSF

Humbly wishing to remain anonymous, a friend of the CSF has pledged to match all unrestricted donations to the Carl Schmitt Foundation up to $5,000 prior to June 30, 2015.  Give in the next month and you will double the gift of this generous friend!

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NCHS exhibition 2011 - Mike Six looking at paintings

Transfixed at a recent exhibition of Carl Schmitt oils, could this be our “mystery” donor?  
Your gift will help us get such beautiful paintings ready for our next exhibit.

Our goals are lyric, our needs epic, but the fruits of your generosity can truly be dramaticWe have a few action items at the top of the list.

Our website is hopelessly stuck in the ’90s—please help us click and drag it into the current millennium!

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FireShot capture #077 - 'Carl Schmitt' - carlschmitt_org

State-of-the-art when it was debuted back in the early 2000s, the CSF website hasn’t changed much in over 10 years. 

Hidden away in the archives, piles of pastels and sketches lie closed up in portfolios, awaiting framing.  Dulled by dust, vivid oils call for cleaning.  One of our most cherished paintings, Boy with Cello, now shrouded in gauze, awaits release. Your gift will ensure these works get the care they need to be exhibition-ready.

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Austin with Cello - gauze and original -CSF11201

Carl Schmitt considered Boy with Cello (1931) one of his finest works. This beloved painting was recently returned to the Foundation’s gallery in Silvermine for an urgently-needed restoration.

Long-term, research continues on the catalogue raisonné, and the definitive biography of Schmitt’s rich life and career.  And Carl Schmitt, Jr. is hard at work on a full-length treatment of his father’s aesthetic thought.

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Even if you are unable to give at this time, you can still support our mission for free!  “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our e-newsletter, and share our posts with your friends and relations.


Friday Madonna, 1930, oil on canvas, 42 x 35 in.
A wonderful re-imagining of the familiar Madonna and Child from the same period as Boy with Cello. Another major work deserving of a complete restoration.

If you enjoy this blog and have been enriched by the art and life of Carl Schmitt, now is the time to pitch in, as every dollar you give will be worth double to the CSF.

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Thank you for your support!

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P.S. Don’t forget! Click on the

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button, and turn $5,000 into $10,000 now! Thank you!

Mysticism on Mondays—The mystical virtues

“The thesis then is that a living experience of the graces of meekness, poverty of spirit, and temperance is necessary for the quickening of a sense of beauty.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1922

As we have seen, Carl Schmitt saw the mystical life as a direct parallel to the aesthetic life.  As a kind of “natural religion,” artistic creation demands “virtue.”  “Art is natural religion and its ‘mysticism,’ while paralleling true mysticism, is natural and created.”  As with the religious mystic, the “natural mystic” must cultivate in his own way what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of temperance, poverty of spirit, and meekness—also referred to as purity, poverty, and humility—if he is to realize his full creative potential. 

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St. Paul the Hermit (Purity and Poverty), oil on canvas,1922, 25 x 30 in.

Purity, Poverty, and Humility are a triad of virtues with deep roots in the mystical tradition.  They are the basis of the “evangelical counsels” of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, most familiar to us as the vows of monastic life.  They in turn counter the vices of avarice, lust, and pride—the principal temptations of the world, flesh, and the devil as given in Scripture.  Schmitt sometimes called these by more contemporary names: pleasure, money, and power; Comfort, Wealth, and Success.

Just as art is not an ethical exercise, Schmitt is very clear that the aesthetic virtues, while finding a parallel in the moral life, are not moral in themselves: they do not perfect man as man.  They in no way take the place of the moral life, and in fact are subordinated to it.  As Schmitt wrote in 1924, “A life toward humility, poverty, and purity is worth much more than one devoted to form and space and quality.”

Nevertheless, these virtues are not divorced from the aesthetic life; indeed, they are essential to it.  Schmitt saw “humility, poverty, and purity” as directly linked with “form, space and quality,” these last three delineating the dramatic, epic, and lyric stages of the imagination, respectively.

From seeing merely the appearances or the “quality” of things (the lyric stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in “space” (the epic), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their “form” (the dramatic vision).

As in the mystical life, the first virtue to be cultivated is purity of heart, corresponding in the life of the artist to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is the cultivation of that vision which sees things in their full outward “quality”; as Schmitt puts it: “purity of heart is especially necessary to quality.”


Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

The artist, however, cannot avoid grappling with what Schmitt called “status”: his relation to the world and its standards—security, influence, fame— which can be boiled down to one thing: money.  In the present world Schmitt saw the pursuit of money (and all that goes with it) as the greatest threat to the integrity of the artist.

It was not a matter of the artist chasing after celebrity or a life of luxury, nor of living “in poverty” with no means at his disposal.  As Schmitt put it simply: “artists are often heard to say that they will do pot-boilers until they have accumulated sufficient money to enable them to paint ‘as they want to.’  Well, they never do.”  The artist must choose first to paint as he wants to—to “paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”  The vision of the artist, to paint “as he sees,” depends on the purification of all the other powers of his soul.


Café Cetinje, oil on canvas, c. 1931, 30 x 25 in.

The artist then realizes that the struggle does not deal so much with things outside of himself, but is one within.  He must develop his own personality to full maturity.  He comes to the realization that the art he creates is only as great as his struggle to achieve this “personality,” which he called “the potential of form.”

Schmitt sketched the panorama of this journey to “personality” in terms of man’s threefold life as family, society, and person.  “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people.  This is invariably in order to acquire the confidence necessary to perseverance in life.  Very few identify with themselves.  For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil.”


Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1960, 18 x 15 in.

It is in this arena of “subjection”or “servitude” to God or the devil—pride or humility—that the true battle lies.  “The truth is that the issue between wealth and poverty can never be resolved in this world (any more than any moral issue can be resolved here),” Schmitt wrote in 1938.  “They must both be swept aside when they have played themselves out in favor of the new order—they must give way for the new act with a new hero: Humility, and a new villain: Pride.”

Although Schmitt was writing in the context of a decisive moment in the history of the last century, the phenomenon he describes applies first of all to the individual person.  Schmitt wrote eloquently of the battle to subject himself to God, going so far as to say, “I am happy only in this servitude.”

The role of the artist in this struggle, however, is not principally on the moral level, as it is with the saint.  Not that the artist himself is not called to virtue, indeed to sainthood.  It is only that his witness, unlike that of the saint, lies in the realm of the symbol.

In an essay from 1935, “Hope for the Future of Art,” Schmitt outlined the artist’s task in this “symbolic story“: “I make bold to say that the reality (on which the symbolic art feeds) is simply the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices individual or collective of man historical.  The artistic vocation in the painter lies essentially in the faculty of standing aside and, as objectively as possible, setting in symbols the high intensity of this very real war.”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, oil on board, c. 1931, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Where does beauty come into this “war”?  “Peace, like Beauty, cannot be the principal aim—cannot be directly striven for,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “Such neutralities are the result of safeguarding activities, beauty being a by-product of life.”  While beauty, and indeed the creative powers of the artist, remain “neutralities” in this conflict, they are nonetheless caught up in “the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices.”  Schmitt vividly portrays this “pageant” in a poem from 1925:

I dream of a world magnificent
Teeming with realities:
Reality of virtue, Reality of vice,
And Reality of Beauty:
God, the Devil and Beauty.
I remember and hope for such a world. . . .

Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

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Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”


Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).


Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.


Eggs and Copper, detail