Wither Our Catholic Churches?

Post-Conciliar Art and Architecture and the Collapse of the Faith

Latin Mass Magazine – Winter/Spring 2019

Interior of a Catholic Church. Bartholomeus van Bassen, 1626.

If grace is the Church’s heart, and truth the Church’s soul, then art would have to be her face. And faces reveal the soul, whether a man’s soul would be intact even though some calamity deprived him of his face, the soul would become mute. It would possess nothing through which to speak. Yes, there might be the voice through which words come. But without a face, a vitally evocative aspect of communication would be gone. Think of Hamlet on the written page, then Hamlet on the lips of Olivier. Same Hamlet, but such a different Hamlet.

If the art of the Church were suddenly to be sabotaged, the unchanging truths she teaches might undergo a slight, then ultimately a grave, distortion. Not that her teachings would change, but her art, their most potent human communication, would have damaged their understanding. That would spell a crisis. Precisely that kind of crisis occurred in the eight and ninth centuries, all of it over art. Or, in this case, the absence of it. The crisis developed into a heresy, Iconoclasm. It maintained that the veneration of any images of Our Lord, His Mother, the saints or angels, was a blasphemous act: the worship of idols. For almost 100 years this heresy sundered the Church.

Roving bands of Iconoclasts destroyed art, and the churches that held them, with fanatical fervor. Eventually, the Church resolved the crisis, not only to save her churches, but to save the Faith itself. But why did the Church so closely ally art and Faith? Art is part of the Incarnation. As the Word shone splendidly through the flesh of Christ’s manhood, so the Church’s truths are given splendor through art. In 870 the Church closed the chapter on the Iconoclastic frenzy by convening the Second Council of Nicea. There she solemnly taught: “For, as through the language of words contained in this book all can reach salvation, so due to the action which these images exercise by their colors, all, wise and simple alike, can derive profit from them. For what speech conveys in words, pictures announce and bring out in colors.” This same Council applauded the work of Saint John Damascene’s Treatises in Defense of Holy Icons. He argued that rejecting art is tantamount to a rejection of the Incarnation:

But when you see Him Who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of his human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him Who has appeared… When he Who, having been the Consubstantial image of the Father; emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7), thus becoming bound in quantity and quality; having taken on the carnal image, then pain and make visible to everyone Him Who desired to become visible.

Ringing confirmation of this marriage of art and the Incarnation comes in the words of Leonid Ouspensky (The Theology of the Icon): “The Church declares that the Christian image is an extension of the divine Incarnation, that it is based on the Incarnation and that, therefore, it is of the very essence of Christianity, from which it is inseparable.”

To those who might think either the Church’s concern for art obsessive or trivial, there is also Chesterton in Orthodoxy, where he gives his customary penetrating insight into the relationship between the Church’s dogmas and her art:

Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity.  I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a heard of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideas and devouring doctrines, each of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember, the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas: she was the lion tamer…

Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe, a slip in the definitions might stall the dances; might whither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within the strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful it only that she world might be careless.

But what of that careless and vapid “new church art”, to say nothing of plundered churches themselves? Would that the Church’s art of the last third of the last century be called merely careless, implying something done without due thought. The New Churches came packed with a full agenda. Those who produced it traveled closely with the Dissenting (and governing) Class who were slightly uncomfortable with the too tightly fitting Ancient Faith. Nothing irked them more than those old churches, old paintings, old vestments, old everything. That dazzling, millennial old artistic culture worked too well in stamping upon souls the grandeur of the true Faith. If the Dissenting Class were to “reimagine” the Faith, the old churches and the art which adorned them had to go. Replacing it had to be New Churches and their New Art. The new ecclesial art and architecture willingly drowns itself beneath the secularist tsunami. They do not tell the truth. Not about man. Not about God. Not about the Catholic Church. They are lies set in stone. In fact, they do not present the Faith; they distort it. They do not help Catholics to see; they make it impossible to see. They dramatically embrace every Modernist assumption about art, which is the mutilation of art. Any Catholic not deeply disturbed by this should be deeply disturbed.

Every Catholic Church is a book. In fact, so is every building made by man. They tell a story. Since only art tells stories with the greatest and most felicitous force, after art is created, it creates. Winston Churchill appositely commented, “After a man shapes a building, the building starts to shape us.” Buildings are not like lectures; they are more like songs, or should be. Their beauty pierces man’s soul and teaches as no teacher can. They are like poems, not position papers. Each communicates meaning, but a song does it ineffably and indelibly; a position paper does it efficiently but only fleetingly. The old saying goes, “You can write a nation’s books, but let me write its songs.” Similarly, art stirs, moves, and animates. It tosses man’s soul to and fro and makes sure that despite his enervating complacency, he sees things. Men do not march to careful scientific conclusions; they march to songs.

Churches make sure we see things, the supernatural. In that glance, a man is never the same. In 886 Prince Vladimir of Rus decided he needed a religion for all the subjects of his empire. He dispatched emissaries to the Western city of Constantinople where they attended Holy Mass at the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom). Upon returning the Prince asked what it was they discovered. The emissaries replied that they entered the Churches and di not know whether they were on earth or in heaven. With that, what is now present-day Russia embraced Christianity. Every Church must be like stepping into heaven, always stretching to mirror the mystical verses of the book of the Apocalypse.

Large or very small, rich or poor, Catholic Churches must possess grandeur, clarity, nobility, and most importantly, the drama of the Faith. Since the Faith is changeless, there are certain architectural details and designs which bespeak that timelessness. Speaking idiomatically, one may call that congenial form “traditional,” which would be unquestionably correct. Put more precisely, traditional architecture (Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Rococo) possess the architectural features necessary to bear the heavy metaphysical weight of the Faith in their height, breadth, light, shadow, shape, ornamentation, and solidity.

All of this permits the Catholic Church to teach both directly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly. This double motion only occurs because Holy Church enlists the help of art. For instance, the Tabernacle is observed and understood to house the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. All true, but cerebral at best. However, when the Tabernacle is seen at the front and center of a splendid sanctuary, radiant in finely sculpted gold, flanked by candlesticks, and standing behind seven hanging lamps, fire blazing, night and day, one not only understand the Mystery, he feels it. He not only nods his assent to the Doctrine, he trembles before its beauty. For beauty is not elitist, it is democratic. If it needs to be explained, we are not in its presence. Beauty strikes with the swiftness of an arrow. Beauty is the swiftness; the arrow is the truth. Plato teaches in the Symposium that beauty is “absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting.” More telling is the Greek word for beauty, kalon, derived from the Greek verb, kaleo, meaning to call, summon, or beckon. Isn’t that what beauty does? Pope Benedict XVI illuminated the purpose of beauty on November 21, 2009, in his address to artists in the Sistine Chapel organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture:

“An essential function of genuine beauty… is that it gives man a health “shock”; it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.” Pope Benedict called this the ‘via pulchritudinis’. Similarly, he cited the marks of the Church’s divinity as “he saints, her architecture, and her art.”

This same synergy accompanies all the architectural and artistic depictions of the Faith: the Crucifixion, Our Lady, the Holy Angels, the Saints, the Confessional Boxes, and on and on. Each Church teaches the faith symphonically. Just as a symphony combines diverse instruments and sundry notes to produce the effect of music, so every detail of architecture and Faith joins forces to produce the one single effect of closeness to God. With that proximity comes examination. When dwarfed by the dizzying heights of Chartres’ vaulted ceilings and massive columns, a man cannot help but measure all of one’s life against the demanding will of God. Moreover, Churches generate contrition. They are unrelentingly existential not merely self-referential. Entering Rheims or Saint Peter’s in Rome leaves even non-Catholics deeply moved, not only because of their beauty but because it houses our beautiful God against whom we are so often blind. Saint Augustine once preached, “If Christ were to come into this room and stand before you, what would you think? Not of Christ, but of yourself.” Churches compel that question, too.

There would not have been such a rush to this modernist architecture unless there was first a rush to Modernism. How else to explain the global collapse of authentic Catholic architecture? Notice of this does not require sophisticated theological degrees, only a common humanity. Doesn’t Chesterton capture this perfectly: “Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked – it may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic.”

Even an untrained eye sees that the architectural details of New Churches and their art are designed to disorient: vastness as emptiness, bareness as blindness, simplicity as vapidity. Almost every element is a tribute to transgressive non-conformity. Even the scarce Catholic images which manage an appearance are so attenuated as to create wondrous confusion, not wondrous awe. Devotion has always been an embarrassment to the Modernist, and the New Churches will always be a shameful testimony to that. They will always stand as relics of a gutted Catholicism. Unquestionable evidence of an experiment gone terribly wrong, a doctrinal meltdown.

Three characteristics mark Modernist architecture’s Long March into the Gnostic demimonde. First, it must be nondidactic: the “new art” must always appear obscure, ambiguous, and undefined, eschewing any expression of classic Catholic truths or piety; secondly, it had to be nontraditional: it could never be redolent of any former periods of the Church’s history, on the unspoken assumption that 1965 was to be considered the New Year One of a refashioned Church; finally, and most crucially, it must be non-Roman: all art (statues, chalices, vestments) must never convey the formality or splendor of the Church’s self-understanding as the true Church but rather appear indigenous and ardently preliterate. An occasional Byzantine icon would be tolerated only because at least it was non-Roman.

An old saying warns never to judge a book by its cover. But when it comes to Catholics and their art, that yarn has no relevance. Rather, the rule is to always judge a Catholic by his art. It might not tell everything, but it will tell you most things. Like the smile on someone’s face.

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