Sunday, June 07, 2009

Continuity, Beauty and Dignity within the Liturgical Arts and their Development

While the question of liturgical development is a constant point of discussion today, another issue that often arises outside of the question of the development of the texts and ceremonies of the missals, is that which further surrounds and clothes the liturgical rites, namely, the liturgical arts.

Before proceeding further, a comment seems necessary. Some take a rather reductionist approach to such questions, making them matters of mere aesthetics, and hence, misplaced priorities when it comes to proposing their consideration. However, far from being superfluous, these elements work hand in hand with those same texts and ceremonies, bringing a particular character and spirit to the liturgical rites and ceremonies, which in turn catechize us and engage the fullness of our divinely-created being -- which as the Pope recently reminded us, is not merely that of the intellect, but much more. (cf. Wednesday General Audience, June 3, 2009) These things then are a gateway if you will; a "mover" which moves us to the greater depths and meaning of the liturgy, helping to incarnate the Faith and assist us in the worship of the Holy Trinity.

That apologetic aside, certainly one critique we hear in the contemporary post-conciliar age is in relation to those same arts. Be it sacred architecture, sacred music, vestment design, metalwork, muralwork, sculpture or otherwise. Often the critique goes that they are quite uninspiring and lacking in the character of beauty -- and in my estimation that critique is quite often merited. The reasons given for this, if they are given, may be in relation to their particular forms and stylistic qualities, or it may be due to their relative absence, being influenced by a kind of functionalism and minimalism. Some may simply attribute it to their "modernity" categorically, though this seems to me to be overly simplistic on a variety of levels, since modernity might have various manifestations and like any style and period, there can be exaggerations as well as good and bad manifestations.

Of course, often going alongside this is the popular attribution of the source of these things -- by those both for and against -- to "the Council" or to "the 60's", and the desire for a vocabulary of modernity. But while that period may well have seen the further spread these particular expressions, they were not its advent and still earlier influences can be seen.

A Consideration of the Origins of a Certain Kind of Liturgical Modernity

The popular tendency is to think of the pre-conciliar period, most especially prior to the 1950's, as being entirely traditional in its stylistic expressions. This is problematic on two different levels.

In the first instance, it is problematic insofar as this consideration would seem to presume that there were no problems and struggles in relation to our liturgical arts previous to this question of artistic modernism. In point of fact, these stylistically "traditional" expressions of the early 20th century (e.g. L'Art Saint-Sulpice) are themselves often the subject of significant critique; as having become cheaply produced, of low quality and overly-sentimentalist in character -- and in that regard, not the model for liturgical art. In that sense, one can rightly ask how representative of the tradition these might truly be, but on the most cursory level.

In the second instance it is problematic because what is often thought of as "post-conciliar" in manifestation was extant and growing in influence well before that period. (See right for an example of a piece from the late 1930s-40s.)

To seek out the origins of this manifestation of liturgical art, we need to look deeper than the cliché explanations of the Council and the 1960's, and I would propose we need to give consideration to the secular artistic currents that had been developing toward the end of the 19th century and which accelerated greatly within the 20th century.

One of the strong currents found within the avant-garde art movement was that of a certain fascination with "primitivism", which looked to non-European sources for inspiration and which was significantly rooted in a rejection of more traditional Western forms of art. The 20th century Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, was particularly influential in this regard. His contemporary, Henri Matisse, was similarly fascinated by these same influences and may well have introduced Picasso himself to them. On it goes through various examples within the 20th century and even the late 19th century.

It seems quite unlikely that this notable current in the art world did not influence certain schools associated with the Liturgical Movement, particularly as the desire to speak to "modern man" grew as a concept -- with all the presumptions of the time as to what that might entail, including the presumption that what is classical and traditional somehow could no longer speak adequately to modern man. There are various references which do in fact speak to this influence, however, a simple stylistic comparison may well suffice. Let us begin with a comparison of the primitivism of Picasso's early work to the example already shown above.

("Head of a Woman," 1907, Picasso / Station of the Cross, 1930's or 40's)

In both examples, we see strong lines and very two dimensional approach; the figures are rough-hewn with a mask-like quality to them. The station of the Cross to the right could as easily be a Picasso sculpture as it was a product of liturgical art, and yet this station of the cross was not created in the 1970's, but rather in the earlier half of the 20th century.

While these two examples are particularly rigid, even severe, these same sort of influences often found a softer expression in the art of Matisse or, even earlier, Paul Gauguin. Gauguin's The Yellow Christ, painted in 1889, not only bears the characteristic marks of an interest in primitive art, it also shows itself similar in these same features to certain types of liturgical art that were being manifest not only in the present day but certainly into the earlier half of the 20th century.

A comparison of Gauguin's portrait of Christ, stylistically, and that of a typical modern set of the stations of the Cross brings forward some points of comparison. If one looks at the stylistic qualities of the figures in each and how they are depicted, one will note the heavy and sculpted forms of the figure, the facial features and so on. This type of figure is very common to this period and was certainly quite common within this period of modern art.

Of course, the examples so far shown relate to sculpture or painting most specifically, but in terms of vestments and sacred architecture, other examples of what would be considered very modern today were also to be found prior to the Council.

In terms of sacred architecture, one could already find very minimalist structures with very rigid, linear qualities. In many regards, this shows the marks of the influence of movements like that of the Bauhaus or the architect and artist Le Corbusier.

(A comparison of a Le Corbusier interior and a church built in the early 1950's)

As regards vestments we can likewise see variations in cut and style that many would today associate as "post-conciliar" but which well pre-date the conciliar and post-conciliar periods:

(These vestments are from the latter half of the 1940's)

A consideration of the liturgical arts of the 20th century are replete with examples such as these as early as at least the 1930's. In that regard, there is nothing specifically "conciliar" nor post-conciliar about them. Rather, they represent a deeper trend that was represented in late 19th and 20th century art and, in the case of the examples above, represent one particular current associated with the liturgical movement.

In this regard, if we are to genuinely stop and take stock of the matter, we need to move away from convenient clichés and consider the deeper roots, not only from whence it originated, but also why and what other approaches might instead be taken.

Tradition and Development: Quo Vadis?

As noted earlier, "modernity" might have various manifestations and there have been exaggerations and bad manifestations, but also those which were good. One of the challenges that exists today is how we approach the question of "modernity" in the context of our tradition. Some might suggest we simply do not approach it, and while that would admittedly be easier, it seems less than satisfactory, being probably simply a reaction to some of the less than satisfactory attempts that have been tried heretofore -- including, indeed, the ecclesiastical examples shown above. The problem is that this itself is out of sync with our venerable tradition which, while traditional, is neither reclusive nor immobilist.

From time to time over the years, we have touched upon the question of what might constitute appropriate forms of development in relation to the liturgy and the sacred arts; development that was in continuity with our tradition. (See for example: A Consideration of Two Very Different Directions in "Contemporary" Church Architecture) This becomes all the more relevant as a point of consideration today in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s own attempts to highlight the importance of the liturgy and its forms, while also teaching the principle of continuity, and development or reform in continuity.

It seems fairly evident that the intention of Benedict XVI is to move us away from two polar opposites that have developed from this situation. One which would seek to rupture the Church from her tradition, seeing only through the lens of modernity while rejecting our tradition as obsolete, undesirable and incapable of speaking to modern man; the other which, in reaction to this extreme, itself retreats into another: that of an immobilistic philosophy which perceives modernity and development generally as being undesireable and incapable of being put into a proper application that will be of benefit and value. (To this I would also add the assumption that all manifestations of "traditional" are equal, with cross-reference to the debate surrounding L'Art Saint-Sulpice.)

By contrast, the Pope presents us a model whereby the tradition is valued and continues to have lived expression. It is something which has a defining voice and expression within the life of the Church, fostering and shaping the character of new developments; creating a continuity and harmony within the tapestry of those expressions. This model is nothing new, but in point of fact is the model that has always been. In that sense, the Pope is trying to foster regularity and normalcy.

The Pope's approach seems adequately summarized by his Master of Ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, in an interview he gave last year: must be said that the liturgical vestments chosen, as well as some details of the rite, intend to emphasize the continuity of the liturgical celebration of today with that which has characterized the life of the Church in the past. The hermeneutic of continuity is always the precise criterion by which to interpret the Church's journey in the time. This also applies to the liturgy. As a Pope cites in his documents Popes who preceded him in order to indicate continuity in the magisterium of the Church, so in the liturgical sphere a Pope also uses liturgical vestments and sacred objects of the Popes who preceded him to indicate the same continuity also in the Lex orandi. But I would like to point out that the Pope does not always use old liturgical vestments. He often wears modern ones. The important thing is not so much antiquity or modernity, as the beauty and dignity, important components of every liturgical celebration.

Continuity, beauty and dignity then are the criterion, be it ancient or modern, for that is what dictates their propriety for the liturgy.

We have all seen our share of less than efficacious attempts, but what then might be some better examples of development in continuity in relation to the liturgical arts?

While recently searching through the 20th century liturgical arts journal, L’Art de l’Eglise, I came across a few examples which struck me as meriting consideration.


In addition to these, I would present again a couple of examples from the Benedictine Abbey of Le Barroux:
[missing image]

(A detail)

From Downside Abbey is another example which shows a conical chasuble from this period, which was a popular revival of the earlier Liturgical Movement in particular, especially within its monastic context:

Whatever one's personal stylistic preference (and one is certainly free to hold another preference), each of these examples strikes me as having fulfilled that three-fold principle of development that is marked by continuity, beauty and dignity. They are certainly clearly within the vocabulary of the tradition, and yet also incorporate certain aspects of modernity, in some cases by way of the textiles used, in others the style of the ornamentation, the pattern in the orphreys, or their design.


Turning to architecture, we shall review again some examples we have already shown in the not so recent past.

In addition to these, four other examples from L'Art d'Eglise:


Here is an example, also from L'Art d'Eglise, which shows an altar from this period which also bears the "three marks" of continuity, beauty and dignity:

(I would note that the tendency toward short candlesticks, tabernacles and the like is, I think, more often that not unsuccessful, but our focus here is the altar itself.)

I should also like to point out the high altar of the Abbey of Le Barroux:


Once again, from L'Art d'Eglise, we see some examples of metalwork in the context of both a chalice, as well as two monstrances.

Concluding Thoughts and a Caveat

The intent here was primarily two fold.

One was to introduce a further layer of nuance into the critical consideration of certain modern forms of the liturgical arts, which are too often simply thought of as product of the post-conciliar era. As with many things (and this was recently pointed out with regard to sacred music as well, by way of a 1957 editorial in the journal Caecilia), the roots go much deeper, often relating to a certain "vanguard" of the Liturgical Movement, and so if we are to approach these matters adequately, then we must look well before the post-conciliar period. (Paired with this is also the importance of noting that one likewise shouldn't draw the simple conclusion that anything that came before, even if "traditional" in style is therefore necessarily good. As we have our share of poor pre-conciliar hymns, we also have our share of poor pre-conciliar art in traditional styles.)

The second was similar insofar as there was also a desire to introduce a layer of nuance into the consideration of the possibility of development within the liturgical arts itself. Too often, people on other side of the divide approach these matters in a very black and white way. Either development is rejected out of hand as necessarily inferior, or the traditional expressions are rejected out of hand as inferior or obsolete. (Hence we end up with situations where some attached to the usus antiquior cannot fathom Mass in those books without the accompaniment of Roman style vestments, and some attached to the usus recentior, the modern Roman liturgy, cannot fathom Mass in the modern books with such things -- and of course, the Roman example is simply one example.)

Some of our most traditional monasteries today, monasteries which act either in a reform of the reform capacity (e.g. Heilgenkreuz), or within the capacity of the usus antiquior (e.g. Le Barroux), do a fine job in witnessing against such dichotomies -- and it puts me to mind that, to date, much of what seems best in relation to the early Liturgical Movement (either in practical execution or in theory) is that which specifically came out of that movement within its monastic context.

This brings me to a final caveat. While the intent here has been to focus on development within the liturgical arts, there is an assumption that must be avoided, and which needs to be explicitly addressed lest the point be misunderstood -- particularly since modernity has been given so much priority in recent decades, and traditional expressions having been viewed with such skepticism.

While it is important that we do try to re-approach development within the liturgical arts as per the new liturgical movement of Benedict XVI, and indeed, as per the tradition of the Church herself, and while we must drop principles and associations to the contrary, at the same time, this does not mean it is spurious for people today to have churches built in fully traditional styles (e.g the Shrine in La Crosse, or the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College), nor to have vestments made explicitly in historical styles (be they Roman, gothic revival, conical, Borromean revival or otherwise). In short, while the approach to development in continuity is important, both practically and in principle, it is not as though this supercedes these long-utilized historical expressions, nor is it an absolute requirement it be approached in each and every instance.

In point of fact, I would suggest our traditional, historical expressions have a kind of pride of place (similar to what we would think of with regard to chant), and given that they are the basis for that very re-approach we have been considering, it is quite important that they have continued, visible expression, particularly with so much of the approach to modernity having not been terribly successful to date.

These expressions continue to speak to modern man and are deeply seeded within our ecclesiastical, liturgical and even cultural vocabulary and so they are most certainly quite relevant and applicable within our times.

As Msgr. Guido Marini noted, "...the important thing is not so much antiquity or modernity, as the beauty and dignity." When it comes down to it, that is the ultimate criteria. Continuity, beauty and dignity.

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