Friday, September 23, 2016

The Façade of Assisi Cathedral: Guest Article by Julian Kwasniewski

The Cathedral of St Rufino in Assisi, the third church to be built on the same site, was begun in 1140 A.D., about 40 years before St Francis was born. It is perhaps less visited than the major Franciscan sites in the city, but it was certainly very important in the early history of the Order. It was while hearing Francis preach in the church (where they both had been baptized as children, along with many of their early followers) that Clare decided to follow him in his life of poverty. We are very glad to share with our readers these marvelous photographs of the church’s façade, along with the accompanying commentary, both by Julian Kwasniewski, Peter’s son; I think that the use of black and white really conveys very well how intricate these carved decorations really are. You can see some more of his excellent work recently publish on the website OnePeterFive (here and here).

The Façade of the Cathedral of Assisi: A Personal Discovery
Introduction: Where and How
“Terrible is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God.” (Genesis 28, 17, the Introit for the Dedication of a Church.) 
This past July, I was blessed to be able to visit Assisi, the magnificent city of St. Francis, and of medieval Christendom. Although we saw many famous places of beauty and majesty, here I wish to share my thoughts about an obscure place of wonder, that of San Ruffino, the Cathedral of Assisi. At this church I found a beauty which, after reflecting on it later, filled me with delight and fear at the truth shown therein.

Having glanced briefly at the interior and exterior and said the usual sort of thing that you say about another great edifice, my group of family and friends prepared to move on, hoping for some lunch and gelato! However, I was about to have the scales lifted from my oblivious eyes. Some of our group ended up taking a look at the crypt–treasury, and my father and I were left to wait in the square in front of the church. Then I discovered the real beauty and complexity of this court of God.

This is what I wrote in my journal: “July 16th 2016 …The Façade of the Cathedral of Assisi is exquisite: not awe-inspiring like the façade of Chartres, but in the way that one must ‘get to know it.’ It took me a good half hour to appreciate its workmanship. Going over the façade again and again, each time bringing to my eyes new details: heads, faces, people, and animals, all secretly hidden only for the attentive. The idea of a church that is so extensive in its decoration that no one man can appreciate it is a lost principle—and only God can really understand and value the offerings that these churches make. Also, in Christendom there is no sense of ‘we have built some great churches, now we can do something else.’ No, rather: ‘nothing we do can satisfy God—but a little bit more makes a little bit more…’ ”

These things really took me by surprise, since the overall effect of the church was not one that would make you expect such intricacy or whimsy. When do you just have a dog standing near a rose window?

I looked closer and found even smaller details on the tympanum. These details are only a few inches in size! Look at the carving used to indicate the patterns on the clothing or, so delightful, the censer which a smiling figure is vigorously swinging. This exuberant decoration is fitting for God’s house, is it not? For, in a way, it is our version of God’s creation of “useless” things, so many plants and animals of the earth that do not serve our immediate needs. We are thanking God for His beautiful and complex creation that He did not have to create by creating something beautiful and complex for Him.

Discovery: Why and Who
“…I heard a great voice from the throne saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them…And He that sat on the throne said: Behold, I make all things new.” (Apoc. 21)
This is a beautiful and awe–inspiring work of art and it could be left at that, but I want to ask about the meaning and consequence of such carvings. Rather than breaking my head on the theology of churches, I have a theme presented to me by the church itself in the decoration of its main entrance.

On either side of the Great Doors are stone lions devouring people, reminding all those who enter of the words of Saint Peter, “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5,8)  It should also remind us of what the psalmist says: “For tribulation is very near: for there is none to help me. They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.” Earlier in the same psalm occurs the following verses: “But I am a worm, and no man…From my mother’s womb Thou art my God…my hope from the breasts of my mother…Depart not from me.” (Ps. 21) Directly above the devouring lion is a Romanesque tympanum depicting the Blessed Virgin nursing the child Jesus, and the Great Judge surrounded by the sun and moon and Saint Ruffino, to whom the church is dedicated.

So this is the theme we are shown: life, death and judgment. If I go to a church and, on the way in, I am confronted with these things, will this not change my prayer? When I enter the church and see statues and paintings of the saints in heaven with their King Jesus, and participate in the truly mysterious liturgical dance of man and God which comes to a head when God Himself comes to us at the consecration, my prayer and, therefore, my relationship with God, will be immeasurably richer for having been faced with hard truth.

These days the phrase “hard truth” seems to have a very negative connotation, signifying work we don’t want to do, prayers we don’t want to say, sufferings we don’t want to deal with. However, I don’t think this is the way “hard truth” should be used. In my life, hard truths were “difficult,” but in the end I was always a much happier person for having this hard and sharp truth “cut” away my spiritual “tumors.” I think we are dealing with a case of hard truth.

If you pass depictions of death on either side of you when you enter a church, if you see your final Judge, and a mother nursing a child, and a saint, someone like you who got it right, will you not have some serious things to think about in the context of Mass and before our Lord in the tabernacle? Won’t you be more likely to consider the things that really matter in life? If your soul is dead in sin, you will see yourself as you really are, being devoured against your good, and below heaven. If you are a mother or father, you will see yourself closer to the throne in proportion to how much you were like the Virgin Mary or Saint Joseph—and especially how much you children are like Christ. And what if you are unmarried or in the religious life—will you see yourself here? Maybe in the unidentified saint, or maybe you will not see yourself because you are united with Christ in a special way and where He is, you also are.

I don’t have the insight combined with the zinger lines of my father (yet), so I can’t properly critique modern liturgy and architecture. However, I do want to ask one question.

Which better fulfills the quotation from the Apocalypse at the beginning of this section: the “reformed” liturgy, the buildings built for it, and the sort of prayer it fosters, or the traditional Latin Mass, the psalms of the Bible, and the art of the Middle Ages?

Conclusion: Nourishment
This is how I finished the entry in my journal about this church: “In conclusion, let’s build some beautiful churches and become holy by building them and by helping others to worship through these arts . . . which are so needed, so that people do not faint for lack of food for thought and prayer.”

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: