Monday, October 10, 2016

Missals from Silverstream Priory (1): Maria Laach Altar Missal of 1931

In my family’s week-long visit to Silverstream Priory this past July — a visit that I can only describe as a time of profound grace for me, my wife, and our children[1] — my son Julian and I (not too surprisingly) spent a fair amount of time in the library of the good monks. Like the best libraries in the world, this one is not large in number of volumes but prizes quality over quantity. In addition to books of theology and spirituality, the shelves house a treasure-trove of monastic and liturgical literature. Of this genre, we were particularly impressed with the altar missals we found, and photographed many pages from them:

My plan is to share, over time, pictures of the very best of these missals, to show the kind of care and artistry that used to be invested in books for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,[2] to rejoice in their wonderful aesthetic qualities (which ought to be imitated and revived), and to document this piece of liturgical history, which is quickly being forgotten as the decades inexorably pass by. My commentary will be minimal; the pictures can speak for themselves.

Today's featured missal is a magnificent altar missal published in 1931 under the auspices of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which, as many will recognize, played an important role in the early phase of the Liturgical Movement. When we look at this missal, we see a number of noteworthy features. First, its artwork, though based on traditional models, is distinctively modern; it can be taken as an example of "the Other Modern."[3] Second, the craftsmanship is impeccable, sturdy, meant to last for centuries. Third, the content of the missal, its age-old prayers, is treated with what might be called artistic reverence: initials are beautifully decorated, texts are laid out thoughtfully and proportionately, and the images, where they appear, are bold and refreshing. It shows the original Liturgical Movement's deep love for the Church's traditional liturgy -- that is, the actual inheritance of our rite, instead of the thought experiments of innovators -- and the desire to rediscover it, re-present it to a new generation as the treasure it is and will always be.

The preface by Abbot Ildefons Herwegen

Silverstream's library also has a copy of the companion Requiem missal, of which I took a single photo. One can see how it has dropped the use of colors for the illustration.


[1] My wife has written about her experience here, as a guest article at NLM; my son about his, here, at OnePeterFive. I have yet to write anything comparable to their reflections, but it is certainly not for lack of desire or material; rather the opposite.

[2] We have fortunately seen a modest elevation in the artistic quality of most of the versions of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal in English (see here, here, and here for Shawn Tribe's incomparably thorough reviews), but in general, they still fall far short of the best of the old missals. The biggest problem remains the stubborn preference for a single column of text rather than two columns (see here for Shawn's discussion). If this Cartesian “clear and distinct” prejudice is ever given up, we might once again see true works of book art emerge.

[3] If one searches NLM archives with the keyword "other modern," one can find many interesting articles about architecture, vestments, vessels, furnishings, and books.

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For more articles, see the NLM archives: