Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mediaevalism and Classicism: Fostering a Discussion of the First Principles of Christian Art and Architecture

The tension that can exist between those who strongly prefer a more "classicized" approach to ecclesiastical art and those who favour a more mediaevalist approach is a debate that has been around for some time. No doubt it existed during the transition to the renaissance period and, more recently, it certainly can be witnessed in the 19th century when the gothic revival was in full swing. This is a debate that has manifested itself here on the NLM amongst some of our readership. It's a discussion that can arouse some particularly strong feelings.

i. Architecture

In terms of architecture, A.W.N. Pugin framed the debate in the context of the gothic being a style that arose from within Christendom, thus being a properly Christian architecture or an architecture formed by "true [Christian] principles". This as opposed to an architectural form that has been inherited and adopted to it in some fashion. For Pugin it would seem, classical architecture was essentially pagan.

Pugin's approach to the question put him in conflict with the likes of the Oratorians of England -- who adopted the "Roman" or classical style -- and in particular, the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman was not anti-gothic so far as I can tell, but he also did not believe Pugin's position as regards the classical architectural idiom was either sound or Catholic.

On the other hand, some would argue that the baroque/classical style is that which is most fundamentally Catholic -- no doubt in part because it is particularly Roman and also because it had seen its greatest explosion as part of the counter-reformation -- while gothic revival seems to be thought of in some circles as somehow protestant or at least less distinctly Catholic -- possibly by the association of that movement with Anglicanism and also related to how many mediaeval cathedrals and parish churches fell into non-Catholic hands within countries like England. Others of this school may simply argue that there is no inherently Christian style and therefore this form is as good as any other.

ii. Vestments

In terms of vestment design, similar sorts of debates occur of course.

Some would understand the so-called "Roman" style -- i.e. the more baroque form, or "fiddleback" as they are often referred -- as a result of baroque decadence; of a development that lost its way both as regards the origins of vestments as well as in relation to the long-standing tradition. In that sense, there was a need for a "ressourcement" to recover the forms that were a more traditional expression.

On the other side, some argue that the baroque forms are a legitimate development upon the tradition and a form that was used for a few centuries should not be so easily discarded. Some would also suggest that the restoration of the fuller forms may even constitute a kind of archeologism.

A Discussion of Principles and Legitimate Development is Needed

Pushing beyond the emotions, preferences, accidental associations or lack of qualifications that can so often enter into these sort of debates, there is, I think, at root an interesting discussion that can cause us to ask some fundamental questions. What is, or is not, essential in Christian art? What is and isn't legitimate variety? Is one style more fully Christian -- in the sense of being most fully compatible with Christian principles? Does one form constitute a form of archeologism, or does another represent an illegitimate development? Or, on the other hand, is this not necessarily a question of "either-or"?


I wish to invite more thorough and formal discussion on the matter. By that I mean the following: a discussion of the first principles of Christian art and architecture that purposefully puts aside preference and polemic and seeks instead to examine and argue for the principles by which we can seek to make an assessment of what constitutes an acceptable Christian art and architecture; a reasonable and unreasonable development; a respect for antiquity without a romanticizing of any particular period or expression.

In pursuing that, I think we should recall that there are many lack-lustre examples that can be found within these stylistic schools, particularly as we move into the modern period, but this is not a point to emphasize for the purposes of this discussion -- unless the argument can be made that it is an implicit flaw of a particular style. Lack-lustre productions are not unique to any one style. If we are going to have a discussion about principles of Christian art in relation to styles, we should consider them in their most skilled and qualitative forms, because it is the forms that we are generally discussing and not individual applications of it.

There are a few ways we can pursue this.

1. People may begin the disussion within the comments of course.

2. I would like to encourage those with a particular knowledge in this area to consider writing up a longer, more formal consideration to be submitted to the NLM for posting consideration. If some people decide to go this way, I would like there to be representatives from the few different schools of thought in this matter.

These will be reviewed and discussed with the authors by myself prior to any committment to posting of course.

With that in mind, let me leave you with some images of vestments and architecture that seem particularly qualitative for a particular style, that it might perhaps foster discussion. Feel free, however, to raise your own examples.


(Courtesy: Orbis Catholicus)

(Courtesy: What Does the Prayer Really Say?)


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