Monday, May 08, 2017

An Unusual Viennese Liturgical Use, with a Close-Up View of the Baroque Dome of the Karlskirche

The "liturgical study day" in which I took part on Sunday, April 2 in Vienna, was prefaced with a visit to the dome of the Karlskirche and concluded with a glorious Solemn Mass for Passion Sunday, in the Viennese style: the so-called "Fünfherrenamt" (literally, "five lord worship"), which calls for five vested ministers to serve the altar, rather than the usual three. There was a surprising amount of changing of vestments, which I didn't understand, but hope someday to receive an explanation of!

My hosts told me that this use or custom is uniquely Viennese and that it has unexpectedly survived to the present, in spite of so many pressures, old and new, to abandon it. Before the Council, there were ultramontanists arguing that Vienna should conform to the Roman Rite as celebrated everywhere else; whereas after the Council, the notion of any sort of Tridentine Mass, with one, three, five, or ninety-five ministers, was verboten. Yet the Fünfherrenamt continues to be celebrated several times each year. I cannot comment in detail on the ceremonies but I can at least share some of the splendid pictures taken by Una Voce Austria, as well as a brief video of highlights.

Beneath these photos, I will place and comment on several close-ups that I took of the dome frescos of the same church, dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo.

Now to the dome frescoes. If you look at the Karlskirche, you can see that it features an enormous (indeed, disproportionate) dome:

The author, with P. Edmund Waldstein and Dr. Timothy Kelly of ITI

The inside surface of the dome is covered with rich allegorical and biographical frescoes in the early 18th-century Austrian Baroque style in honor of St. Charles Borromeo, the very model of the Tridentine reformer. Normally, these paintings are so far away from the spectator on the floor of the church that one cannot make out the details all that well:

However, an enterprising Austrian got permission some time ago to install (one hopes temporarily!) an elevator in the Karlskirche and charge people a fee to take it up to the dome, where they can walk around safely on a fenced-in platform and look at a dome that is only a few yards away from eye level. As unsightly as the elevator is, I have to say I was extremely impressed with the frescoes close-up and their wealth of Counter-Reformation symbolism. Consider this report my personal commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Here we have an allegory of the Catholic Church, dressed like a consecrated virgin and leaning against a small copy of the Karlskirche itself. St. Michael carries the papal tiara to her right, while other putti carry the double keys to her left. An angel with a flaming sword represents the authentic doctrine of St. Paul, which the Reformers have distorted. Symbols of the episcopacy -- the mitre, the crook, liturgical books -- are strewn about artfully:

My eye was caught by the pile of books. To my delight, the open book shows us liturgical chant, sending the message that the sacred liturgy is a repository of apostolic tradition, a guarantor of catholicity, and a primary theological source. In other words, the chanted texts handed down by tradition are themselves as much a part of what it is to be Catholic as the episcopacy, the papacy, and magisterial teaching.

Now we turn to the scary monsters and marauders who represent heresy and schism. Above stands the female allegorical figure of faith, wearing a cope and holding aloft a paten, chalice, and host. A greenish demon, sticking out his tongue and holding a snake, falls back at the light streaming from the Sacrament. Another figure with a mask and a bag of money, reminiscent of Judas's coins, suggests fraud, deceit, simony. An archetypal heretic clutches various error-saturated manuscripts as an angel of God thrusts down a torch to burn them up. This was, of course, a time when the Church was still strongly encouraging the burning of evil books.

If we look very closely at the open book in flames, we can see that its content is written as unintelligible gibberish -- all except the name Luterum or Luther. (We see here an anticipation by several centuries of the pseudo-Latin, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet" etc., that publishers started to use in the 1960s when mocking up page layouts!) (As an aside, I would like to recommend warmly to NLM readers a new book from Angelico Press: Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society. Among books published after the Council, this is certainly the most intelligent anti-Lutheran polemic I have seen.)

This next photo shows the connection between the triumph of the Church (already discussed) and the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, with death and damnation to its enemies:

Looking further to the right, one sees a giant bloodstained Cross, symbol of Redemption but more particularly of the realism of the Sacraments which derive their efficacy ex opere operato from the Passion of Christ the Eternal High Priest, as well as of the legitimacy of relics and the veneration of physical objects:

Turning still further right, we see the heavenly court, where the glorified Christ, no longer suffering on His cross, stands with the Father and the Holy Spirit in a blaze of light (the frescoes are much brighter than my poor photos show), and beneath them, gazing up, Cardinal Borromeo himself, surrounded by signs of his dignity (the red gallero, the processional staff):

The uncompromising Catholic message of the dome art is echoed throughout the church building in a hundred different ways. Most charming, I thought, was an oil painting in a side chapel dedicated to the Infant of Prague. The painting shows St. Luke making an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who sits enthroned in heaven above his head, while tucked away in the lower right corner -- it's rather difficult to see in the photo -- is a group of people preparing the dead body of Christ for burial:

The message here is multilayered. God Himself took on flesh from the Virgin Mary, and even when the soul of Christ was in Hades, His flesh, which never ceased to be hypostatically united to the Word, still deserved the latria of worship. If that is how the dead body of the Lord is to be treated, how much more the living Body of the glorified Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist, which is confected right here at this altar! Moreover, since the Church has always venerated images, as seen in the tradition that St. Luke was an iconographer, we, too, should make and honor them, thereby gaining the patronage of the saints in heaven, who seek for us only a more intimate union with our Lord. The honor given to the image passes to the archetype. What a marvelous visual representation of the teaching of St. John Damascene and St. Theodore the Studite!

The time spent in the Karlskirche was all too short, but, as always happens when I get to visit such a place, I felt humbled and proud to be a Roman Catholic in communion with the Church spread across the nations and ages of the world.

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