Sunday, May 13, 2007

Unity by Inclusion: A Brief Note

"What impressed [Sir Ninian Comper] most in Rome, and influenced his evolution as an artist were the Graeco-Roman remains, Classical sculpture, and the primitive basilica churches. [...] On the final day he visited the National Museum and it was there that he discovered in Classical figure sculpture 'the same forms of folds in the draperies of the statues and the identical lines of decoration as in East Anglia.'

"It was not only the fusion of styles that influenced Comper. There was a change in iconography. [...] He changed the Pantokrator from an overwhealmingly severe representation of Christ as Judge, heavily bearded and long-haired, to a hellenized Risen Saviour, beardless and golden-haired, forever young, taken from fourth-century carvings of the Good Shepherd."

"In later life, he described these effects in dramatic terms. 'It was...a lesson like that of St Peter on the house-top at Joppa: "What God has cleansed, that call not thou common." [Acts 10:15] All beauty is inspired by the Creator Spirit is one, as all goodness is one, and all truth is one. It is this which Dante and the spirit of the Renaissance and the Schoolmen saw when they claimed Greece for Christ."

~Fr. Anthony Symondson, SJ, Sir Ninian Comper, 2006

This is not to say that all images ought to be this way, for there is a place for more somber and even gruesome images of our God--but there should be a place for the heroic near-nudity of the ancients as one way among many as an expression of the struggle of Christ's conquest of Death. It is to be understood not just as an expression of the beauty of God's creation, the body, but as an appropriation of the image of the Herculean victor by Christ's reign from the tree.

But this is part of a much larger issue. Doubtlessly Fra L. will have more to say about Comper in the next few days, he being priveledged to have visited the great man's works in the flesh. I am glad to see the question of style has resurfaced again here, particularly in regard to Pugin, certainly the most influential of the Gothic apologists. My own thoughts on the matter are complex, but I hope to post on the subject in the next few days, not so much to propose the exclusive spiritual superiority of the classical or Baroque (though I personally believe in its artistic excellence as one of the highest points of the Western artistic tradition), but to critique Pugin's arguments in favor of the Gothic and offer some explanation of the logic and underlying aesthetic idea of the Baroque which is often overshadowed by popular and deep-set misconceptions of the style.

Such misunderstandings do no justice to either the Gothic or the Baroque, and the appreciation of one--or even the belief in its superiority--hardly requires the denigration or suppression of the other. I know, of course, that is not what is being said in our discussions of late, but it is important to drive home the catholicity of our Catholic culture, particularly when it comes to our representations of the body and their reflection in the larger forms of our architecture.

In the end, I think you may see, as I do, that the future is best served by an exploration of the best in all styles of East or West, mediated by a careful understanding of liturgical planning. And also, while there's room for all sorts under the Catholic tent, Borromini, Guarini and company still have an enormous, and much-neglected, store of artistic treasure to offer.

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