Ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant..." Nobili simplicitate. Noble simplicity. It is a concept that, like participatio actuosa, is oft quoted, but it is also one that often comes laden with certain assumptions as to its meaning and expression; assumptions which are sometimes expressed by a kind of rigid minimalism, or other times misunderstood in a rupturous sense of a rejection of the past and past expressions, and still again often equated with a kind of sterility, as though being bereft of ceremony, colour, warmth or ornament was of necessity for its pursuit.
A part of the issue may be that the word "simplicity" is that element which is quite often focused upon and in a rather narrow sense at that. Turning our attention toward the liturgical arts, it may be helpful in rounding out our considerations of what might constitute noble simplicity to recall that Sacrosanctum Concilum also speaks of the sacred arts being characterized by a "noble beauty." Within these concepts there are a variety of potential expressions of course, but that this may be forgotten seems to be precisely a part of the problem. Using a gothic context, it strikes me that the noble simplicity and noble beauty that the Church envisions could equally be found in the forms that characterized much mediaeval Cistercian architecture, to the more colourful and luminous work of the gothic revival movement and the likes of Sir Ninian Comper for example. (And I would be remiss to not also mention that the earlier Liturgical Movement may also help to shed some light upon still further expressions of this matter.)
In evaluating the Church's intent with regard to the principles of noble beauty and noble simplicity, we must take into account the fullness of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the greater corpus of the Church's statements on sacred art. We must not allow personal presumptions and private stylistic preferences to absolutely determine what constitutes ostentatiousness or "mere sumptuous display," (SC, para. 124) recalling as well that "[the] Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period" (para. 123); we must seek to distinguish between personal preference and universal principle. We must further take into account the principle of continuity that characterizes the Church's tradition and the Church's own continued valuation of the treasury of sacred art it has brought into being over the centuries and "which must be very carefully preserved." (para. 123)
Beyond this however, it will also be helpful to consider the historical context and origin of these liturgical principles; a kind of ressourcement in its own right. We have already referenced, for example, the oft misunderstood principle of active or actual participation, and there we have seen research which has examined the earlier origins of that liturgical principle, in an attempt to gain a greater insight in its fuller meaning -- which, I might add, might thus also provide some insight into its later use by the Council Fathers. (See: Daniel van Slyke, “‘Active Participation’ from Pius X to Benedict XVI”, Sept. 2007)
As regards the question of noble simplicity, we are thankfully seeing this topic also re-approached and re-considered. In the upcoming Fota Liturgical Conference in Cork, Ireland, for example, Dr. Alcuin Reid will present a paper on ‘Noble Simplicity’ Revisited which promises to be of great value and interest.
In addition, the NLM is pleased to present today a paper by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J., co-author of Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Spire Books, 2007) which, similar to the pursuit of Dr. Daniel van Slyke in relation to participatio actuosa, gives historical consideration to this principle of noble simplicity as understood by one who has become historically associated with it and commonly referenced with regard to it: Edmund Bishop, the Victorian era, English liturgiologist.
As regards noble simplicity, Bishop is often quoted for his essay, "The Genius of the Roman rite" where he speaks of how "[the] genius of the native Roman rite is marked by simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity..." Accordingly, it is of great interest -- and relevance -- to know what Bishop himself understood as expressions of that same principle for which he, himself, is so often referred. It is this particular matter which Fr. Symondson presents to us today.
by Fr. Anthony Symondson, S.J.
On 8 May 1899 Edmund Bishop (1846-1917), the liturgiologist, delivered a paper to the Historical Research Society at Archbishop’s House, Westminster, on ‘The Genius of the Roman Rite’ which maintained that the two chief characteristics of the Roman Rite (when divested of Gallican accretions) were ‘soberness’ and ‘sense’. Bishop was received into the Church in 1867 at the age of twenty-one and hoped to become a monk at Downside Abbey but his intention was frustrated by bad health. He maintained a close connection with Downside where he made the friendship of Dom Aidan Gasquet, who shared his liturgical interests. Bishop’s research in the British Museum underpinned Gasquet’s own research and his best books were deeply indebted to him. But Bishop’s most notable contributions to liturgical scholarship lay in his investigations in the early history of the Roman liturgy, especially the text of the Canon Missae and the history of the Gregorian Sacramentary.
This essay had a profound influence on 20th century liturgical scholarship and gave rise to the ambiguous phrase ‘noble simplicity’ prescribed as a hallmark of authentic liturgical ceremonial and church planning; it has been much misunderstood ever since. In our time ‘noble simplicity’ has been interpreted as whatever we want it to be. And it has given rise to some adverse developments since the Second Vatican Council of which most readers of the New Liturgical Movement’s website will be well aware. Further elaboration is needless and comments are unnecessary, we know. But what does this phrase mean in the setting of Bishop’s definition of ‘soberness’ and ‘sense’ as characteristic of the Roman Rite and how did he and his successors understand the implications of his research and their ceremonial and architectural expression?
Bishop’s own taste was romantic and Puginian and his love of the Gothic style of architecture was permanent. He deplored the choice of the Byzantine style for Westminster Cathedral, designed by J. F. Bentley in 1892. In a letter to Everard Green he wrote, ‘My own summing up of the building is that it spells … the end of that romanticism which carried many of us to “Rome” and a good many to Romanism.’ Westminster marked for him the death of Puginian hope. He described himself as ‘simply “Goth” and “Roman” both, and never got over the “Romanticism” and enthusiasms of days long since departed, and the hopes that go with them.’
His hopes were unexpectedly raised when Thomas Garner, the architectural partner of G. F. Bodley, the leading English church architect of the Gothic Revival, was given the commission to build the choir of Downside Abbey, the crowning work of his life. Garner had been received into the Church in 1896. ‘Much time is spent – or wasted if you will – in the bare rising choir … I shall never have another chance again of seeing a building such as this rising and growing now rapidly to completion … a dreamlike realization of a dream – and yet there is the hard stone, all concrete and material … and in a manner better, nobler than had been first conceived – I do not get over my wonder.’ Garner had worked closely with Bishop on his design and together they discussed plans for the completion. ‘He was two hours with me.’ Bishop recalled, ‘and the half dozen plans for the future.’ But Garner died in 1906 (he is buried in the abbey church) at the point when they were discussing the high altar and none of these plans came to fruition. Bishop did not appreciate what replaced them.
So what does this tell us of ‘noble simplicity’ in the contemporary setting of the litiurgiologist who established the principles behind what became a misunderstood shibboleth? At the heart of Bishop’s aesthetic preferences lay austerity and reserve informed by canons of beauty expressed in the developed Gothic style. He greatly admired the rich but controlled beauty of Gothic vestments designed by the young Ninian Comper, Francis Davenport (himself a convert), the manager of Watts & Co in their heights, and Garner himself. The vestments they designed for Downside (which still exist) illuminate his fastidious taste. It was the refined, aspirational aesthetic of the late Gothic Revival that he admired and saw as an ideal setting for liturgical worship.
(Above Right: A Cope by Sir Ninian Comper)
But Bishop was the principal advocate of the ciborium magnum as an integral member of the Christian altar. It is significant that he published his learned paper, ‘On the History of the Christian Altar’, in the Downside Review in July 1905 at the time when he and Garner were discussing the completion of the Downside monastic choir. And it is entirely due to Bishop that the great ciborium magnum of Westminster Cathedral came into being as a modern interpretation of an Early Christian precedent achieved against Bentley’s instinctive suspicions. ‘I was hammering at that for months together,’ Bishop recalled, ‘for J. F. Bentley’s behoof. He was as obstinate as only that obstinate “he” could be. I pelted him with texts and examples of all ages.’ Westminster Cathedral embodied the taste of Adrian Fortescue who applied Bishop’s liturgical principles to his own church, St Hugh’s, Letchworth, when he commissioned a severe classical ciborium from F. L. Griggs.
(Above Right: The ciborium of St. Hugh's, Letchworth)
If you want to see what ‘noble simplicity’ meant to the minds of these great scholars then one need only look so far as Downside and Westminster Cathedral and the worship conducted within them. At Downside they still wear fine Gothic Revival vestments and the servers apparelled amices and albs; and at Westminster they maintain the severe Roman tradition applied to the modern Roman liturgy, and Latin chasubles continue to be laid out for priests who want to use them. Soberness and sense, indeed, resulting in noble simplicity.
While it would be absurd to expect the Second Vatican Council to have embraced the Gothic Revival, there is no harm in knowing Bishop’s expectations when he coined terms that led to such contradictory results.