Monday, February 01, 2016

Books That Cry Out the Unique Richness and Holiness of God’s Word

A Romanesque Gospel book
Why are we afraid to buy, commission, make, or build beautiful things for our churches?

Why are we content with plainness and mediocrity?

Why do we have no aspirations to do the greatest possible honor to our God, to His Word, to His Sacraments, to His house, and therefore to His people who will worship there?

Why do we produce so few masterpieces of fine art today?

Here are some absolutely stunning Epistolarium and Evangelarium covers from various periods, Romanesque, medieval, Baroque, and modern (19th century), that embody the Catholic spirit of proclaiming unmistakably the utter uniqueness of Sacred Scripture.
A Gothic Gospel book

The Word of God is given a rich casing of gold and semi-precious stones or glass to indicate the priceless treasure of wisdom contained within. It is decorated with figures of the saints, often stories from the life of Christ or the Virgin, to proclaim outwardly, even prior to the use of any words, the burden of its inner message of holiness. In the very excess of these book covers there is a potent symbol of the ineffable, of what cannot be depicted, that mysterium of which no human art can ever be worthy.

When we make something appreciably less magnificent than such works of art, and yet we might have done something better (in other words, we are not suffering for lack of money or workshops of skilled laborers), what then are we actually saying about the content of the book and our beliefs in regard to that content? About its superabundant excess of wisdom, its supreme worthiness of our affection and awe? About its value in our community and within our hierarchy of economics and politics?

A Baroque Gospel book
The way in which the fine arts embody and communicate the communal value of any given object, practice, or content is far too little noticed among Catholics. Magnificent Gospel books preach the truth of the Gospel by their very splendor, their exaltation above any other book, the time, money, and care that went into them. They radiate the preciousness of the Law of God, more valuable than fire-tried gold, more costly than any jewels. Conversely, plain or ugly Gospel books say something about a community's lack of faith in a deconstructed, demoted Gospel. Ugly altars or ambos or chairs or vessels all transmit the same subliminal, prerational, and unarguable message: this is a playground for second-rate stuff, the left-overs, the unwanted, a half-serious pretense that no person of moderate taste would allow in their own living rooms.

This set of three books were produced at the end of the 19th century in France.
The fact that the set of three books show above, in metal and enamel, was produced late in the 19th century demonstrates (as does so much other fine ecclesiastical art from our own era) that moderns are not incapable of producing beautiful objects for divine worship. The question, as always, is whether we want to do so, and that goes straight back to the question of our beliefs, our ideals, our priorities, our Weltanschauung. As James Griffin well argues, it is not really about money; at the end of the day, the progressives with bad taste spend just as much or more on their hideous furnishings than traditional or conservative Catholics would spend on appointments far better suited to the Lord's holy temple. It is about our faith: Do we believe both that God is infinitely beautiful and worthy of all artistic homage, and that this beauty has been reflected in the multiple waves of beauty handed down in our own tradition, which therefore deserve our grateful acceptance, perpetuation, and development?

The following contemporary Gospel books or lectionaries do NOT reflect such faith. They reflect a different theology, perhaps a different religion; they display a contempt of past forms, an arrogance that turns it back on artistic tradition, an utter incomprehension of principles of beauty, and a laughable unseriousness.

If one looks, however, one can find Gospel books that are striving to be worthy of the sacred Word they carry and honor. The Eastern Orthodox seem to be particularly adept at making them, and Catholics might do well to emulate their example. I found both of these products for sale with a simple Google search:

Such covers as these may still be found on Catholic/generic websites:

The books we use at worship matter, because (to use a hackneyed expression) matter matters. In creating, God endowed matter with the capacity to point to the invisible and the spiritual, a capacity that reaches its pinnacle in man, the only material being with a spiritual nature and finality. In the Incarnation, God divinized the body of Christ and made it the principle of healing and elevation for the entire universe. Every material thing we employ in worship must therefore correspond, as well as we can make it do so, with the transcendent orientation of matter and its ministerial privileges in the economy of salvation. While no work of art will ever be worthy of God as He is in Himself, a work of art can be worthy of man and worthy of its liturgical-sacramental function. To aim for less than this correspondence is to do violence to nature and thwart the path of grace.

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