[This article was originally published on NLM, June 15, 2009. We offer this reprint as part of our consideration of noble simplicity.]
A number of worthwhile considerations came out of that discussion, including Matt Alderman's comment that "...one very important thing to remember is during the Liturgical Movement, the call for simplicity was also tied to... the classical Roman rite in general. I believe Fortescue underscores that the historic Roman rite (i.e. today's extraordinary form) ... is characterized by an elegant terseness. If one contrasts this with the ebullient character of the Greek rite (which is beautiful as well) one gets his point. The historic Roman rite, properly followed, is noble simplicity!"
It is an important point I believe, particularly as there are those who are tempted to consider (let alone employ) the principle of noble simplicity far too simplistically -- and likewise there are those who are prepared to reject it out of hand for similar reasons and assumptions. But we need to take a more broad and nuanced consideration of the matter.
As Matt referenced, Fr. Adrian Fortescue so commented on the Roman rite in a paper read at Westminster Cathedral in the presence of Cardinal Bourne in 1912 (later published by the Catholic Truth Society and Paulist Press as "The Vestments of the Roman Rite"):
Whether you like symbolic ritual or not, the Roman rite is essentially not ritualistic... If you want symbolic ritual you must go to the Eastern rites. They have plenty of it. Symbolism and deliberate ornament are suited to the expansive Eastern mind. They loved stately processions and gorgeous rites. The old Gallican rite, too, was grand and full of mystic ceremonies... The Roman rite has always been exceedingly plain, almost bald. Nothing was ever done for effect... We have no gorgeous procession at the grand entrance, as in the Byzantine rite; no such dramatic anticipations as their Cherubikon...
The character of ancient Rome -- stern, plain, sensible, rather than poetic -- shows in the Roman rite, just as Eastern effusiveness shows in the Eastern rites.
Fortescue justifies his own argument by explaining that some of the ceremonies of the Roman rite may now seem more symbolic, but merely because of their antiquity; an antiquity that is retained by way of the principle of continuity within our liturgical rites.
Whatever one might think of Fortescue's suggestion about the absence of rituality in the Roman rite, the comparative point as regards the Eastern liturgical rites most certainly stands and his reference to the antiquity of liturgical expressions raises a relevant point. While our tendency today is, arguably, to think of noble simplicity relative to the (artistically) modernist principles of minimalism and functionalism, or by the modern categories of the usus antiquior versus usus recentior (in terms of ceremonial actions, texts and so on), the core principle and expression of Roman noble simplicity surely ought to be considered in a much different, more historical context and light; namely, as has been said already, in the light of the historic Roman liturgical tradition, its comparison to other ritual traditions, and also relative to a more culturally and ecclesiastically ancient and Roman expression -- which, it should be noted, will be quite distinct from a modern expression in many regards.
Of course, this does not close the debate about how that might be specifically expressed in our own day, nor how the call of Sacrosanctum Concilium might be heeded (though the principle of continuity does weigh in here as an important factor), but it does show, I believe, that we must be careful in our modern day assumptions of what "nobili simplicitate" specifically entails and how it might be expressed, and, further, what might have been intended and envisioned when the Council Fathers spoke of it -- and most certainly with regard to those who spoke of this principle before them.
Some have proposed that our Northern European understanding of "simplicitate" is generally too tied to the idea of plainness and lack of (by modern standards let us recall) ornamental qualities and that what was rather intended is more a dignity and harmony of parts. That seems to be a case that yet remains to be formally made and explored, but it is worth mentioning in passing.
As well, if in addition to looking at this through the historical lens of the classical Roman liturgical tradition, we also look to a consideration of the origins of the actual concept of "noble simplicity" we perhaps gain further possible insights.
The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann who wrote on this idea as early as 1755 (in Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst) spoke of it in relation to "noble simplicity and calm greatness of Greek statues." In this regard, his point of reference was classical. In the 20th century, the English liturgiologist Edmund Bishop helped further popularize this concept in a directly Catholic and liturgical context, and as Fr. Symondson suggests, his view of the matter was tied to "rich but controlled beauty" and "austerity and reserve informed by canons of beauty expressed in the developed Gothic style" with reference to the likes of Sir Ninian Comper specifically.
There is nothing to say the ideas of Winckelmann or Bishop must be taken as absolutes of course, but they are perhaps relevant as considerations in the understanding of this concept, at least in its origins, and when one considers that it likewise seems to be rooted within a comparative liturgical consideration tied to the classical Roman liturgical tradition, it does raise some interesting prospects which challenge the particular assumptions of our own day, calling for a greater contextualization and creativity with regard to Council's mention of noble simplicity.