Friday, May 14, 2010

Craftsmanship and Continuity in the Liturgical Arts

As lately noted, I recently came into possession of the journal, Liturgical Arts Quarterly. Looking through the volumes over the years of its publication, it is very interesting to note the progression of stylistic trends that can be seen to be taking place. A view into the earlier 1930's issues, for example, shows forth altars with rather stately antependia, canopies and the like; whereas in later issues we begin to see much more of what we've become accustomed to associate with modern ecclesiastical art and architecture: rougher, blockier, more primitivist and minimialist like designs. (Though as I have noted before, one cannot make too simple an equation of this. As early as the 1930's, and possibly earlier, one can see liturgical art which many would today associate with the 1960's or 70's. When one considers the art movements which were taking place in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, this should come as little surprise. Also, as Matthew Alderman and I have noted in The Other Modern series, not all modern liturgical arts take this form; there are many good examples that can be found of a modern that bears the marks of continuity.)

Of course, we shouldn't think that those aforementioned altars with those wonderful canopies and antependia were representative of the usual quality or standard of sacred art in parishes at that time; in point of fact, they were likely a great deal better than what was often found within the typical parish -- which brings me to the subject which I wished to discuss today.

Often times what is popularly viewed as "traditional art" or even a "traditional church" -- and I think now specifically of church interiors and of churches outside of continental Europe's historic churches -- is defined in great part by the liturgical and devotional art of latter 19th and early 20th centuries; mass produced art which is often mediocre at best. Of course, I do not wish to generalize about the entire period; there are particular pieces or artisans from this period who stand above this of course -- one can think of Gothic revivalists like Pugin, Bodley or Comper for instance. But to give you a sense of that to which I specifically refer, it is art which is often characterized by a predominance of pastel colours and generally sentimentalist qualities, both in colour and expression; they are often simply plaster or wooden shells and feature elements such as wood which is painted white to look like stone, or altars which use concealed electric lighting to illuminate some relief or niche. Popular and widespread it is, but in my estimation it is certainly not something to be held up as a standard, nor as representative of the tradition, nor an ideal to be emulated or fostered -- even if they come off better than a sterile form of minimalism or a harsh primitivism.

Turning back to the aforementioned transition, it seems that one of the underlying motivators which influenced some of the developments in 20th century liturgical art was a desire to rise above this sort of mass-produced, rather sentimentalist, not terribly qualitative sacred art. Here I am specifically thinking of the materials used and the approach to them. Altars, whatever one might think of some of the designs used during this period, often employed real and substantive stone. Statues, while often rather primitivist in form, were carved and made out of real wood or real stone at that. Instead of plaster reliefs with electric lighting on altars, we saw mosaic work or carving. In short, there was an apparent emphasis on a certain authenticity and quality of material, as well as on craftsmanship -- and I should note that I am primarily focusing here on the earlier incarnations of this movement; as we move into the post-conciliar period, I believe we would find the results more mixed.

Whatever the other faults to be found in many of the extant examples modern liturgical art, I believe we have to look at this particular aspect with admiration. The unfortunate influence of an avant-garde primitivism indeed marred the form of much of what was actually produced during the period, but the aforementioned aspirations and principles are something worthy of emulation. Accordingly, we shouldn't let the stylistic accidents of many expressions of the modern period distract us from what were otherwise worthy underlying ideals for sacred art, nor allow it to influence us to retreat to or setup what came immediately prior as some sort of standard and exemplar.

In point of fact, such ideals of craftsmanship and qualitative materials are very much rooted within and representative of the tradition of Catholic sacred art. If we can put those ideals into practice today -- overcoming the strong modern tendency of an economically driven and generally commercialized, mass-produced view of art -- and further combine that with a stylistic approach (whatever that might be) which is characterized by continuity with our tradition, we would serve the Church and the liturgy well indeed.

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