Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Noble Simplicity as Expressed Through Cistercianesque Sobriety: One Variant (Updated)

Recently Matthew Alderman and I have been speaking about the concepts of noble simplicity and noble beauty. As we have noted by way of preliminary caveat, in considering these principles we cannot make the assumption that these necessarily produce a plain result, nor that they exclude colour and ornament -- let alone (heaven forbid) advocate a sterile form of minimalism or liturgical and ecclesiastical impoverishment. (Rather than discussing the point anew at this particular moment, I would simply point interested readers to an earlier article, Contextualizing Noble Simplicity, for more on this discussion. I would also point readers again to Fr. U.M. Lang's recent Zenit article, The Noble Simplicity of Liturgical Vestments.)

Now all this said, there is a place within our tradition for what we might call a more sober approach -- historically we might see this expressed within the Cistercian architectural tradition for example. While this is not the only approach to noble simplicity and noble beauty -- let me be clear -- it is certainly one approach, and one which some today wish to explore -- or one which they at least feel compelled to explore for one or another practical reasons.

As such, it seems worthwhile to explore how this particular approach might be manifest well and in continuity with our tradition, particularly since so many modern attempts at it have tended toward a cold, sterile, and impoverished minimalism rather than a more sober form of beauty.

In considering what might serve as a reasonably modern example of how this particular approach might be expressed, my mind immediately turned to a particular chapel which could be understood as a modern heir to that certain kind of historical Cistercian simplicity we have mentioned. It is the chapel of St. Stephen's House built for the Anglican Cowley Fathers (that is, the Society of St. John the Evangelist) which includes a ciborium magnum which was designed by Sir Ninian Comper:

(Photo by Br. Lawrence Lew)

Now in showing this particular example (which gives a good sense of the chapel in daylight), I would note that the altar shown above (which is admirable and noble in its own right, but out of proportion with the ciborium) is not the original which was wider and solid in form and thus more substantial; nor is this the altar that presently sits within this chapel, which is now closer again to the original. The original altar, as in the case of the present arrangement seen below, was also vested with antependia, which provided a striking bit of liturgical colour; it further had a carpet which led up to the altar. All of this lent and lends primacy and centrality to the altar, providing added colour and warmth to the whole arrangement, while still retaining its sobriety and simplicity.

Consider the present arrangement which is more proximate to the original and intended view of the chapel when it was constructed.

(Image by James Bradley)

When one adds to this the sacred vestments which would be worn by the clergy and the warm glow of the candlelight upon the altar, one has a more complete picture of the sober beauty of the entire arrangement. Indeed, considering the chapel as a whole, I believe one can take from it a vision of a more appropriate, dignified and truly beautiful approach to noble simplicity where it is being defined by a certain sort of Cistercian sobriety and restraint.

In commenting on why it works, one would likely come up with the same reasons as to why medieval Cistercian architecture works: classic proportions and the use of traditional decorative moldings which add a flourish of warmth and interest to the design. Matthew perhaps put it best when he noted that these elements help the eye transition between the basic geometric elements of the structure, thus preventing it from feeling like a diagram.

Detail from the ciborium. Photo by Bro. Lawrence Lew)

Of course, the use of the ciborium is also a significant factor and the success which these architectural aspects bring of their own accord is amplified by what the liturgical ornaments further bring -- which must be understood as a fundamental, and not a merely peripheral aspect.

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