Here are the Top 10 most viewed posts in 2017.
I hope next year will be full of even more writing!
Here are the Top 10 most viewed posts in 2017.
I hope next year will be full of even more writing!
Over at Liturgical Arts Journal, Shawn Tribe has written a wonderful piece on St. Mary, Help of Christians, in Aiken, SC. He was kind enough to use some of my own photography of the parish. The new church is an excellent example of Neo-Baroque architecture in the American South. I am glad that Mr. Tribe has also devoted some attention to the gorgeous Neo-Classical stations by Leonard Porter. Do check it out!
Two facts have become steadily clearer to me over the course of my life as a Roman Catholic. First, that we don’t do beauty like we used to. Our churches are rife with liturgical art as dated and outré as the plastic on your great aunt’s furniture. Many of our houses of worship are stuck in the 1970’s, riddled with patently ugly, non-figurative depictions of Christ and the saints. Abstract windows cast unseemly splashes of light over softwood pews. And there are far too many carpets. My own old parish at UVA, St. Thomas Aquinas, is just now overcoming its long “awkward phase” (symbolized by an enormous chrome statue of the Angelic Doctor that looked like a cross between Buddha and the Tin Man – unhappily placed right across the street from the Chabad House).
In short, we have a problem with beauty.
The second thing I realized is that the Anglo-Catholics—or at least, those corners of the Anglo-Catholic world that held onto their patrimony—do not. And it seems to me that much of the renewal in sacred art that we’re witnessing today is indebted to the Anglo-Catholics, as any browsing on New Liturgical Movement will show. There is a distinctive style associated with the AC tradition. My hope is that by examining a few of its exponents, we might come to get a better glimpse of the art that is renewing our own Church today.
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852)
A.W.N. Pugin, it must be said, was not an Anglo-Catholic. He was a Roman convert. But the story of the Anglo-Catholic style must begin with the Gothic Revival that Pugin led. He radically and even polemically departed from the old norms of Anglican liturgical design. Pugin hated the High-and-Dry preaching tabs and whitewashed walls and triple-decker pulpits of the 18th century Church of England. For Pugin, all of that represented the moral and spiritual degradation of the British people from a purer, Medieval ideal.
So he turned instead to the architecture and design of the Middle Ages. He reintroduced conical vestments to England. He set up altars with gilded angels and smiling saints and all manner of gloriously decorated tiles. He designed chalices and monstrances. He almost single-handedly re-established the rood screen as a typical feature of English churches.
Above all, he built. Pugin is perhaps best known as an architect. His first publication after he converted to Roman Catholicism was a highly polemical text entitled Contrasts (1836). He attempted to show, by way of (rather unfair) architectural differences, that the religious and social makeup of the Middle Ages was decidedly better than the squalid life of post-Reformation modernity.
It’s ahistorical nonsense, but very pretty ahistorical nonsense at that.
Consider how radical Pugin’s claim in Contrasts really is. He’s not saying that Catholic architecture is better than Protestant forms. He’s saying that the only Christian architecture is Gothic. It doesn’t matter if the Catholic Church had promulgated and supported all kinds of other schools over the years. The only truly Christian style was that which reigned at the high noon of Christendom. The rest were compromises with paganism. Is it all that surprising that Pugin and Newman never really cooperated? Oratorianism is a Counter-Reformation phenomenon, and both of the first English Oratories were built in a grand Neo-Baroque style. There was an amusing spat between Faber and Pugin when the latter visited St. Wilfrid’s, where he would later build a church. What started off as a friendly chat turned into a vigorous fight. Faber inveighed against rood screens and Pugin accused Faber of favoring the “pagan architecture” of, inter alia, Italy. Alas.
Pugin, however, was probably more influential than Newman or Faber when it came to setting 19th century tastes in liturgical art. As the father of the Gothic Revival, he inspired generations of imitators and rivals (including some on this list). Many of those architects were widely respected in their own day. None of them could boast of designing the interior of the House of Lords and the architecture of Big Ben. Pugin achieved a wide success that nevertheless remained rooted in his liturgical work. Everything came from his fundamentally ecclesial imagination.
But it was, alas, a sick imagination. Pugin was always an odd personality. He suffered a mental breakdown at the age of 40, and ended up in Bedlam. He died shortly thereafter.
His legacy is clear. Pugin represents the triumph of color over the barren church design of the previous century. God comes to us in sacraments, and sacraments are material. Pugin’s work can be read as a celebration of matter in all the various hues and tints of the rainbow. He intended to use his art as a way of reviving the Catholic religion in England. He found a ready audience in the new wave of ritualists then entering the Anglican clergy. It would probably not be too great a stretch to say that, as founder of the Gothic Revival, Pugin gave the Oxford Movement its own aesthetic, distinct from Roman Baroque and Evangelical austerity.
William Butterfield (1814-1900) and Alexander Gibbs
Another architect who worked alongside and after Pugin was William Butterfield. Like, Pugin, his churches dot the English landscape. But Butterfield’s work is distinguished by a salient feature not found in that of his colleague. He extended Pugin’s use of elaborate interior color to external polychromy. One can glimpse this in his most famous commission, Keble College, built in the 1870’s.
His design was extremely controversial at the time, derided as “the ‘holy zebra’ style” by detractors. I have heard, though I cannot trace the source, that others described the chapel as “an elephant wearing a sweater.”
Butterfield synthesized Pugin’s Gothic Revival with the insights of John Ruskin, who wrote positively of Renaissance polychromy in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Ruskin was another enormous influence on the Anglo-Catholic style, whose influence I will not attempt to trace in full here. Regardless, it is worth noting that Butterfield took Ruskin’s lessons to heart. Keble College is just one of many examples one could point to that exhibit the same style. Another is the fabulous All Saints Margaret Street, a dizzying Neo-Gothic mirage tucked away in Fitzrovia.
Coming into Keble College, you are assailed by the sheer riot of colors. It’s almost like walking into a giant candy store, only the wonderful smells of chocolate and mint have been replaced by incense and tapers. That delightful sensory onslaught stems in part from the other great feature of the chapel, the radiant mosaics by Alexander Gibbs. There is something naive in the way Gibbs’s mosaics portray the human subject. One is reminded of the illustrations in a children’s book, or perhaps even a cartoon.
Take, for example, the mosaic of Noah offering sacrifices. There is hardly any hue or tint left unused. Note the range of colors seen just in the fire on the left – there’s even a green flame! Meanwhile, the dove which hovers over the scene is not pure white, but flecked with yellow and orange, as if already anticipating Pentecost. And no two halos are alike.
This tendency towards the illustrative and cartoonish will become a major hallmark of Anglo-Catholic style throughout the rest of the period.
Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960)
Another architect and liturgical designer who left his mark on the style of Anglican Catholicism was Sir Ninian Comper. His works are immediately recognizable by their lavish use of gilding, a charming mixture of Gothic and Neoclassical elements, elaborate recessing, and odd penchant to depict Christ as a blond youth.
Comper worked for both Anglican and Roman Catholics. A fine example of this latter sphere of influence can be seen in his magnificent altars at Downside Abbey. However, as I am attempting to consider what art produced a distinctively Anglo-Catholic style, I will limit my inquiry to those commissions he completed for the Church of England. To that end, two sites in Oxford deserve attention.
Pusey House is a “house of sacred learning” affiliated with the C of E in Oxford. Built as a monument to Edward Bouverie Pusey, Tractarian and one-time colleague of John Henry Newman, Pusey House remains a stalwart bastion of Anglo-Catholicism and High Churchmanship more broadly (not to mention some excellent gin). Its Blessed Sacrament Altar is a remarkable representative of Comper’s work.
Both the windows and the baldachin at Pusey’s Blessed Sacrament Chapel were designed by Comper. Above, you can see two examples of one of his favorite motifs, which I call “Jesus as a Blond Youth.”
Sir Ninian was a fine craftsman of baldachins. Although examples remain which show Christ or the Virgin, his signature seems to have been the Holy Ghost descending as a radiant dove. The Pusey House baldachin is one such example.
Here we can see in the putti just a touch of the cartoonish, like we observed in Butterfield and Gibbs. Yet Comper was quite capable of producing work of a very different nature. His baldachin at the monastery of the Cowley Fathers, now St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, is notable for its stark beauty.
Yet even here we can see Corinthian capitals adorning the columns. It wouldn’t be recognizable as a Comper piece without them.
Like many on this list, Comper contributed to the revival of devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. The Anglican shrine possesses “three stained glass windows, the Holy House altar and two sets of vestments” by Comper.
What did Comper contribute to the Anglo-Catholic style? He took the tendency towards extravagance, already seen in Pugin and Butterfield, to a new height. Yet he was able to blend eras seamlessly, mixing elaborate Gothic and Classical features into a new and distinctive style. His work represents Anglo-Catholicism at its most confident height, the Congress Movement of the 1920’s and 30’s. Our next two artists also produced their most important works in conjunction with that great age of Anglo-Catholic action.
Martin Travers and the Society of SS. Peter and Paul (1886-1948)
During the 1920’s and 30’s, an increasingly resurgent Anglo-Catholicism reasserted itself. Several major conferences, known as the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, brought together thousands of movement leaders and adherents as well as leading to the proliferation of numerous theological tracts. One year, the Congress organizers even exchanged messages of ecumenical good will with the bishops of various Eastern Orthodox churches. Here was the age of a sophisticated and confident Anglo-Catholicism that could win converts like T.S. Eliot, who entered the church in 1927.
Yet in spite of the show of unity suggested by the Congresses, the truth was that the Anglo-Catholics were deeply divided. One nasty fissure was the liturgy. Should Anglo-Catholics use the Book of Common Prayer? Some said yes. Others, however, thought it was a deeply compromised document arising out of schism and heresy. They turned instead to the Mass of St. Pius V. As they couldn’t just celebrate a Latin Mass, they translated it, with a few Cranmerian collects here and there, into sacral English. The result was the famous Anglican Missal or Knott Missal.
The missal was produced by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul, the leading body that represented Anglo-Papalism within the C of E. Generally, Anglicans associated with the Society considered the Pope the legitimate head of the Western Church, took part in Marian devotions, carried on Eucharistic processions, and celebrated a rite nearly indistinguishable from the Tridentine Mass. They worked against other Anglo-Catholics who sought a distinctively English liturgical ethos rooted in the Sarum Rite.
The Society chose an artist named Martin Travers to illustrate many of their publications, including the Anglican Missal. The work Travers produced would continue to shape the Anglo-Catholic aesthetic in profound ways.
For one thing, he illustrated the Mass. His vision of the liturgy was strictly Roman. You can see that he had a marked preference for Baroque vestments and altars in his rendition of “The Elevation of the Host.”
In keeping with the trends we have already observed in Gibbs and Comper, Travers’s illustrations often have a naive quality about them. The works are at once highly complex and centered on a frank simplicity.
Yet they retain a certain elegance and poise, as with this Marian image. We can see here one of his favorite motifs, figures set in sunbursts. It recurs again and again throughout his body of work.
Yet Travers was by no means simply a draughtsman and illustrator. He also produced altarpieces. His style was heavily Baroque, though he was known to occasionally draw upon Art Deco elements. Looking at anything by Travers, we get the sense of a consummate master pulling together a number of traditions with ease. The aesthetic coup he achieved was the natural parallel to the spiritual ascent of the Anglicans most devoted to a reunion with the Apostolic churches—Anglicans who made it their business to blend the Roman and English patrimonies in one sacral event.
Like Comper, Travers was also known to remodel the work of older generations. Here we can see the fine reredos he worked upon in the Wren church of St. Magnus the Martyr, London. The Church was (and, I believe, remains) a bastion of Congress Anglo-Catholicism.
Travers represents an Anglo-Catholic Baroque turn at a time when the larger movement was more confident than ever in the “Corporate Reunion” so long hoped for. Although that momentous reconciliation never took place, it inspired a delightful appropriation of Tridentine aesthetics. Through his drawings and ecclesiastical design, Travers was the chief conduit by which the continental tradition of liturgical art infused the Church of England.
Enid Chadwick (1902-1987)
The last artist I will profile here is probably well known to those of you who keep tabs on the Catholic blogosphere. Although largely forgotten for decades, the art of Enid Chadwick has made a comeback since the advent of the Internet. Her wonderful 1957 children’s book, My Book of the Church’s Year, has been put online, and images from it keep popping up on various feasts.
In her work, we see once again the quintessentially Anglo-Catholic simplicity amidst ornamentation. The resemblance to the mosaics of Gibbs or the drawings of Travers is striking. Her illustrations for My Book of the Church’s Year, like all her illustrations, have a tender humanity about them. Yet they also breathe of a patriotic sentiment. Note that in the pages for March, St. David and St. Patrick are both shown with the simplified arms of their respective nations. It is. after all, an Anglican book. But on the other hand, we see St. Thomas Aquinas commended specifically for his Eucharistic writings, St. Benedict as the founder of “one of the great Religious Orders,” and an intricately decorated Annunciation. It is thus also a Catholic book. Mrs. Chadwick, like Travers before her, manages to gracefully blend the two traditions in a way that would not have been possible one hundred years earlier. Her gentle work represents a single sensibility: confident, late-stage Anglo-Catholicism.
As with Comper and Travers, Mrs. Chadwick roots her work in a loving contemplation of the human face of God. Thus, all of her art is figurative. Unlike Comper and Travers, she never crossed the border from draughtsmanship to the world of three-dimensional liturgical design. One does wonder what the world may have gained if she had designed an altar or two. Alas. She was happy, instead, to deploy her considerable talent to an articulate, delightful, and evangelically potent form of illustration. What’s more, her art is not just an achievement in itself. It served a purpose: to instruct and edify. The popularity that these images enjoy today suggest that they still retain the power they once had. Her many books, now all out of print, will some day be returned to press or left to the public domain. That will be a very great day for the Church indeed.
In the meantime, I hope we can bring back some of her tasteful and theologically sound Christmas cards.
One notable figure in all of these cards is Our Lady. The Madonna is the central figure of Mrs. Chadwick’s art. She lived in Walsingham most of her life, and dedicated much of her talent to propagating devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. She even illustrated the second edition of Fr. Hope Patten’s book about the shrine.
Enid Chadwick’s work represents the final chapter of Anglo-Catholicism as an aesthetically creative movement. The latter half of her career coincided with the Second Vatican Council. One unintended consequence of the Council was that, in addition to the degradation of taste that spread through the Roman Church, the same infection spilled over to the Anglican Communion. The ghastly ecclesiastical embroidery of Beryl Dean is proof enough of the collapse in liturgical arts. So, too, are the tacky materials worn by the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury on multiple occasions. His iconic miter-and-cope set would look better in an episode of Doctor Who than at the stately cloisters of Westminster.
Yet I am not qualified to assess how far the rot has set into the C of E. At the very least, the National Trust has done tremendous work in preserving and restoring many of the churches that made up the fabric of the Anglican heritage. I know from personal experience that there are pockets of tremendous taste and devotion still left in the Anglo-Catholic world. However, I can also say that the Roman Church is still reeling in many places from the obnoxious stylistic choices of the postconciliar generation. My hope is that this essay might contribute, in some small way, to a greater appreciation of the Anglican Patrimony and what it might teach us.
A few clear lessons emerge. First, we have to get over our toxic allergy to all things Gothic (or Baroque, or Romanesque, or Byzantine, etc.). We needn’t go as far as Pugin in declaring one style to be definitively “Christian” to the exclusion of the rest, but we ought to embrace our own history. We shouldn’t fear extravagance in liturgical design as long as it’s well-executed, glorifies God, and directs the soul to worship the Eucharistic Lord. Yet we can also balance that tendency with a complementary emphasis on holy simplicity. Let us always recall that a Catholic imagination is only properly formed across several types of artistic encounter. We should foster and seek sound Catholic illustration as much as sound Catholic architecture or sound Catholic liturgical design. Finally, we shouldn’t fear radiance and color and the human face. Only then might we one day repeat the triumph of color that nearly converted a nation.
Recently, Fr. James Martin SJ posted these three images on his Facebook page with the following caption: “Mira! Look at these beautiful images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reimagined as contemporary women. Remember that Our Lady lived a real life in Nazareth.” He then included a link to a website about the artist, Yolanda Lopez.
When some of his followers responded negatively, Fr. Martin wrote the following comment, quoted in full:
Some of the comments on this post are truly ridiculous. Yes, there is one beautiful and holy image, given by Our Lady, to Juan Diego at Tepeyac (which I posted earlier today). But reimagining Our Lady has been done since the earliest days of the church. Most of the images we are used to are images in which she was imagined as a woman of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which the Blessed Mother is dressed in contemporary dress (not as a woman in first-century Galilee would have been dressed). The artist, as I see it, was trying to remind us that Mary (Our Lady) was a real woman. And that the artist sees her in those around her, especially in Mexican women. People need really need to calm down, stop picking apart her art, and stop using words like heresy and blasphemy. Of course you don’t have to like it (art is very subjective of course) but you also don’t have to hurl accusations. I’m as devoted to Our Lady as you are, and if I didn’t like something I’d just nod and move on. Not everything has to end up as a crusade.
There are all kinds of problems with the Jesuit’s post, from his Mariology to his aesthetic philosophy. And while he may have been annoyed that his followers dared to turn his humble offering into the occasion of “a crusade,” I’m afraid that he really leaves us no choice. His post is a scandal for a number of reasons.
It bears mentioning that Fr. Martin is right to suggest that our images of Mary are always shaped in part by culture. But there is a difference between the unconscious ethnocentrism of the Medieval imagination and deliberate efforts to portray Mary or Jesus as something other than what they were. If an artist is (a) going to go down that path, and (b) do so as a well-formed Catholic, then there are a few principles that he should probably stick to along the way.
First, all changes to the subject’s probable historic appearance or culture should serve to illustrate the subject’s deeper identity as well as to magnify his or her glory.
A good example of this kind of art is African Madonna, by Studio Muti. This Marian image works well both because it is constructed in dialogue with the tradition of Christian art – specifically, processional statues of the Virgin – and it powerfully captures the dignity of the sacred subject. We could probably guess who this is, even without some of the ordinary symbols of the Mother of God to aid us.
Second, kitsch should be avoided. If the work is devotional or liturgical in any sense (that is, destined for a worship space or context of veneration), then gimmicks become flatly inappropriate. Need we turn to the infamous “Korean Jesus” of 21 Jump Street?
Finally, these kinds of renditions should ordinarily come from the people themselves. Unfortunately, much of it has been produced by well-meaning white liberals like Br. Robert Lentz OFM or Fr. John Giuliani.
When consciously non-white or non-Western depictions of Christ and the Virgin are created by white and Western artists, the danger of cultural appropriation is at its highest. See Lentz’s canned reduction of Navajo culture in his artist’s statement for the above “icon.” See also Fr. Giuliani’s statement that he “intends that his work celebrate the soul of the Native American as the original spiritual presence on this continent, thus rendering his images with another dimension of the Christian Faith.” One detects in these images a dollop of self-important White Savior mentality beneath the breathless exoticism. It’s all very patronizing.
A much better example comes from Daniel Mitsui, who draws upon the artistic traditions of his own Japanese heritage to lovingly craft intricate renditions of Jesus, Mary, and Biblical scenes in a distinctively Asian setting.
But all of this theorizing applies only to art which depicts sacred subjects. The art that Fr. Martin posted doesn’t do that. His interpretation is simply wrong. As some of the commenters noted, the very link he posted with the three images shows how off his view is. I will quote the source in full:
Yolanda Lopez has received the majority of her fame through the creation of her Guadalupe series. This groundbreaking series has transformed the way in which the iconic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is viewed into a much more personal and political ideal. Lopez claims that in creating the Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe she questioned this common icon of the ideal woman in the Chicano culture. The goal of Lopez was to demonstrate and consider the new types of role models Chicanas need and not simply adopt anything just because it is Mexican. Yolanda stated that by doing these portraits of her mother, grandmother, and herself she wanted to draw attention and pay homage to working class women, old women, middle-aged over weight women, young, and self assertive women. By naming each drawing individually Lopez emphasizes the uniqueness of each woman and accentuates the society that allows women of color to go unnoticed.
In the Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Yolanda illustrates the strength and the power by the muscular legs and the long strides as well as the leap she has taking from the crescent moon. Through this long leap Lopez demonstrates that Chicanas are free from the oppressive social stigmas that limit women’s form of expression. In Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lopez depicts her mother at work but proposes a new type of beauty. This new beauty is not the typical beauty that is depicted by others as the slender body type, white, young, and glamorous but as the older an fuller woman hard at work. Lastly in Guadalupe: Victoria F. Franco, Lopez illustrates her grandmother as a sad but strong old woman. In each portrait Lopez incorporates a serpent but the serpent in her grandmother’s portrait has been skinned and the grandmother holds the serpent skin in her left hand and the knife that was used in on her right hand. Lopez states “ She is holding the knife herself, because she’s no longer struggling with life and sexuality. She has her own power.” According to Dr. Davalos (author of Yolanda Lopez) the first two portraits represent lived realities of Chicana women and the last portrait address death.
(emphases in bold mine)
The Guadalupe paintings are not, as Fr. Martin insists, “beautiful images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reimagined as contemporary women.” They are just portraits of the artist, her mother, and her grandmother incorporating the symbolism of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Lopez takes great pains to emphasize that, in her paintings, she is interrogating the received iconography of Guadalupe. The focus is on the poor Chicana as an icon in her own right, an icon that can surpass the role of Our Lady as a role model for contemporary women. This treatment of Guadalupe as an image of primarily moral and social significance is at odds with its presentation and reception by the Faithful. it is basically heretical. However, it’s hardly an uncommon practice today (though it must have been truly radical, if not exactly novel, in 1978). Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a symbolic nexus of all manner of discourses: Catholic, feminist, leftist, Immigrants’ Rights, Latinx, etc. But it doesn’t follow that every image of Guadalupe that engages those questions is properly understood as a “reimagining” of Our Lady.
Simply reading the source statement would have made all of this meaning clear. Fr. Martin must have either (a) not read the link he posted, (b) egregiously misunderstood it, or (c) willfully ignored it. In other words, his post was either lazy, imbecilic, or intellectually dishonest. Regardless, it was irresponsible. If he had bothered to look up some of Lopez’s other work, he might have avoided his grotesque mistake.
But even assuming that we take him at his word and accept that he genuinely thought these were perfectly sound “reimaginings” of the Blessed Virgin, what kind of sensibility does that judgment betray? How does Fr. James Martin think Our Lady can and should be “imagined?” It seems that the overt eroticism of Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe didn’t faze him. Nor did “Mary” trampling on the angel. Nor did her highly unusual connection with the serpent. It is incredible that a priest, particularly one as culturally sophisticated as Fr. Martin, would miss these blasphemous irregularities in an image of the Mother of God. At the very least, his post fails to inspire much confidence in his sense of the sacred.
Fr. Martin’s talk of “imagination” is revealing. Imagination is one of the central components of Ignatian spirituality, as Fr. Martin himself tells us in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (2012). He writes of Ignatian contemplation:
Using my imagination wasn’t so much making things up, as it was trusting that my imagination could help to lead me to the one who created it: God. That didn’t mean that everything I imagined during prayer was coming from God. But it did mean that from time to time God could use my imagination as one way of communicating with me. (The Jesuit Guide 146)
He then goes on to describe the practical method of Ignatian prayer.
There is much to recommend this spirituality, not least of which is the glorious roll call of Jesuit saints echoing down the centuries. But a danger lies hidden in Ignatian prayer. Grounded as it is upon the working of the individual psyche, it lacks the objectivity of, say, a liturgically-grounded spirituality. Without proper adherence to the mind of the Church, those engaged in Ignatian prayer can recede into a fuzzy personal relativism. In Fr. Martin’s case, it seems to have predisposed him to an overemphasis on the rights of imagination in the production of religious art. Note his use of vision discourse: “The artist, as I see it, was trying to remind us that Mary (Our Lady) was a real woman. And that the artist sees her in those around her, especially in Mexican women” (emphasis mine). Note that he never bothers to investigate the objective meaning encoded in the art itself – its formal characteristics, its use of symbols, its colors and patterns, etc.
Worse, his words imply a quietly Gnostic dissolution of both the meaningful category of physicality as well as the concrete propositions of dogma. Where does that leave us? It doesn’t matter if the Virgin Mary was a Jewish woman of the first century, nor if she was the Immaculately Conceived Mother of God. The imagination and spiritual vision of the artist is primary. Fr. Martin’s point, implicit at first and only later drawn out in reaction to his critics, is that Catholics should be affirming of those “reimaginings.”
But this is an untenable position in the face of actual art. The imagination is inevitably bound up in any artistic process, and it has often produced strange and wonderful innovations on older traditions (see, inter alia, the work of Giovanni Gasparro). But that fact does not isolate the pieces from serious criticism. We must judge; artistic discrimination is the very soul of good taste. And we must be even more critical for art that treats of the spiritual life, even at the cursory level of motifs. It aspires higher. As such, more is at stake. Fr. Martin’s banal pablum is a betrayal of the art he presents. It demands to be taken more seriously.
Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.
While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.
There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”
There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.
To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,
But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?
This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.
An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.
For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.
Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.
But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:
Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.
She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”
I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.
Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.
The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?
One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”
In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.
What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.
A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:
…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.
Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.
Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.
There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).
There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.
We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.
Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.
Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,
He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.
This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.
Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).
The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.
Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:
Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the same—they are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.
The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.
The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacred—something ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?
Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.
Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.
Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.
Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.
Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.
Where do I begin?
First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.
What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.
It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?
Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.
Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.
Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.
We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.
Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.
The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”
The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.
Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:
Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.
Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”
Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.
I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.
Flannery O’Connor once famously remarked that conservative Catholics had more in common with fundamentalist Protestants than they did with liberal Catholics…hence the many strange prophets and preachers she raises up in her Southern Gothic fiction. While we could probably contest her claim in some ways, she is indisputably right in other respects. Protestants, particularly those of the deep South, have preserved a sense of sin and grace lost in many churches. And their powerful hymnodic tradition has helped foster American music for generations.
As an ecumenical gesture à la O’Connor, I thought I’d review a few Protestant songs that contain important and salutary theological insights. In doing so, I want to get beyond the well-known classics like “Amazing Grace,” “Come Thou Fount,” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” and look instead at songs that may not be as familiar among Catholics. I am also excluding Anglican and Wesleyan hymns, since most Catholics (at least, English-speaking ones) will be well aware of them from their parish Masses.
One thing that I hope will be clear in this list is how different all of these songs are from the kind of music current in Evangelical (and some Catholic) circles today. Unlike so much Praise and Worship music, it’s impossible to reduce these songs to a subjective, emotivist, “Jesus is my boyfriend” spirituality. I don’t mean to suggest that they keep clear of deeply personal, even existential, questions of faith and morals. They live and breathe in a world where those issues are deeply present. But even among the loopier ones (see numbers 4 and 7 below), we are dealing with a faith that lies in objective, concrete beliefs. Consequently, the lyrical form those beliefs take is highly articulate. Protestant music has suffered immeasurably by the loss of the King James Bible as the translation of choice throughout American Christendom. Many of these songs, all of which come from a period of attachment to King James, more or less reflect that hieratic idiom.
I. George Jones, “The Cup of Loneliness”
One of the masters of Country Music, George Jones will no doubt be familiar to many of my readers. But his early song, “The Cup of Loneliness,” may not be. Catholics in particular should take note of this offering. Here are the lyrics in toto:
I say Christian pilgrim so redeemed from sin
Hauled out of darkness, a new life to begin
Were you ever in the valley where the way is dark and dim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?
Did you ever have them laugh at you and say it was a fake?
The stand that you so boldly for the Lord did take
Did they ever mock at you and laugh in ways quite grim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?
Did you ever try to preach, then hold fast and pray?
And even when you did it, there did not seem a way
And you lost all courage, then lost all you vim
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?
Oh my friends ’tis bitter sweet while here on earthly sod
To follow in the footsteps that our dear Savior trod
To suffer with the savior and when the way is dark and dim
The drink of the bitter cup of loneliness with him…
This is simply good ascetic theology, delivered in the spiritual context of mid-century American Evangelicalism. In the last stanza, when we are exhorted “To suffer with the savior,” we must remember the theology of suffering passed on to us by so many saints through the ages, from the Martyrs and Confessors forward. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 618, we read:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”.452 But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men.453 He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,454 for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”455 In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries.456 This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.457 Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.458
And how do we unite our sufferings with Christ? Through prayer, through fasting, and above all, through the Eucharist. The literal “cup of loneliness.”
II. Traditional, “This World is Not My Home”/”Can’t Feel at Home”
A Bluegrass favorite. I first encountered it in a magnificent video-game, Kentucky Route Zero. As a side-note, let me strongly recommend that game to anyone who likes David Lynch, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, film noir, science fiction, or bourbon. The artfully written story about several strange characters moves through hauntingly beautiful minimalist landscapes. It is, in short, a work of art. If you have the time, play it.
More to the point, the music is excellent. The deep and delicate cover of “This World is Not My Home” by Ben Babbitt in Act IV of KR0 is my personal favorite rendition of the song, though I also appreciate the old version the creators used in their original Kickstarter trailer. And the Carter Family produced a classic cover.
Consider the lyrics:
This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through.
My treasures and my hopes are placed beyond the blue.
Many friends and kin have gone on before
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh Lord, you know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home then lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Here in miniature is the homo viator, a spirituality that calls us to renunciation and subsequent embrace of “the one thing necessary.” The 47th Instrument of Good Works according to St. Benedict is “To keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The song’s narrator is a man who does precisely that. As in “The Cup of Loneliness,” we encounter a basically sound ascetic theology, only this time coming from the very depths of Appalachia.
And that’s not all. In a later verse, we hear:
I have a loving mother up in gloryland
And I don’t expect to stop until I shake her hand.
She’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
There are two ways to read this verse. Given its Protestant origin, it almost certainly refers to a literal, biological mother. Anyone who has lost their mother can relate to the feelings the verse expresses. But Catholics know that we all “have a loving mother up in gloryland.” One of the reasons I love this song is that, by drawing upon universal experiences, it can bear a number of equally legitimate spiritual meanings.
III. The Whites, “Keep on the Sunny Side”
I know that this cheery song is considerably older than its famous rendition by The Whites, as heard in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). But I enjoy that version more than any other, and I recommend it to you.
We could easily dismiss this song as an expression of Joel Osteen-style naive optimism. But that would do a great disservice to the spiritual vision presented therein. The very first line takes a more realistic view of things than Osteen ever has:
Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life
There’s a bright and a sunny side too
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.
At no point does the song ever swerve from considering the felt reality of evil. Bad things do happen, and to good people. But the song refuses to linger on the sorrow of “this valley of tears.” Instead, it calls us to rejoice:
Let us greet with a song of hope each day
Though the moments be cloudy or fair.
Let us trust in our Savior always,
To keep us, every one, in His care.
A hope that does not take the possibility of despair seriously will falter. But a supernatural hope that stares despair in the eye and does not blink – that’s what the Holy Spirit seeks to create in us over the course of a lifetime. “Keep on the Sunny Side” is preeminently about that stronger sort of hope, a trust in God’s Providence founded on the singular sacrifice of Calvary.
IV. The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”
I unironically like this one by the Louvin Brothers, even with (or because of?) its dated, somewhat campy ethos. I mean, just look at that cover art. And while the long monologue that makes up the bulk of the song is *just a little much,* it’s a good snapshot of what a certain kind of American Christianity looked and sounded like in 1960.
The refrain is where the song’s theological merit can be seen – or, rather heard.
Satan is real, working in spirit
You can see him and hear him in this world every day
Satan is real, working with power
He can tempt you and lead you astray
Admittedly, they may have had a little bit of an unhealthy obsession with the question of demonic influence (the album includes another Satanic-themed song, and on another album they dramatize a dialogue between “Satan and the Saint“). Fair enough. Nevertheless, given that so much of our own hymnody is so obsessed with a false, flimsy, feel-good image of Christ and the demands of the spiritual life, something as overtly anti-demonic as “Satan is Real” strikes me as a good, if somewhat ridiculous, corrective.
V. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Up Above My Head”
I mentioned at the start of this essay that Protestant music has had an enormous influence on the development of American music as such. Two particular communities, broadly construed, have made especially important contributions to that tradition: Appalachian churches, and the Black church. I have already drawn out some of the fruits of that former school. I would be remiss if I did not mention the latter.
I mention all this here because my fifth artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is unusually important in the history of music. A pioneer of at least four different genres – Country, Rock and Roll, R&B, and Gospel – she has tragically been forgotten by most people today. Virtually all of her joyful songs could fit in this selection, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to offer her signature piece, “Up Above My Head.” The message is simple enough:
Up above my head
(Up above my head)
I hear music in the air
(I hear music in the air)
And I really do believe
(Yeah) I really do believe
There’s a Heaven somewhere
(There’s a Heaven somewhere)
There’s not much else in the lyrics. Simply reading the text won’t give you the full depth of the spiritual message Sister Rosetta is trying to communicate. But once you listen, you’ll understand why I chose it. “Up Above My Head” is one of the best, most affectively sound expressions of hope in Heaven that I know of.
VI. The Harmonizing Four, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”
This old Negro Spiritual, as recorded by The Harmonizing Four and many other artists over the years, features unadorned by theologically powerful lyrics. Take a look:
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
Why should I feel discouraged?
And why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
And long for Heaven and home?
When Jesus is my captain
My constant friend is He
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
He watches me
Here, the simple lyrics concisely present one of the key doctrines of Christianity – the omniscience of God. The fact that God is all-knowing, however, should not fill us with dread, but with peace and joy. There is a tremendous existential point here. We are never alone. We never face life and the myriad questions of our being as atomized individuals. Rather, we are seen, we are recognized, and we are loved absolutely. We need not surrender to “the shadows” of discouragement and loneliness, as the second verse relates.
The hymn tells us quite a lot about the relation between God, His creation, and ourselves. It is a little spiritual masterpiece.
VII. The Louvin Brothers, “The Great Atomic Power”
Are you, are you ready
For that great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your savior in the air?
Will you shout or will you cry
When the fire rains from on high?
Are you ready for that great atomic power?
Strange to think that only a year ago, these lyrics would have been a simple and somewhat overwrought remnant of Cold War anxieties. Wonder of wonders, everything old is new again!
Here are some more of my August projects.
I haven’t written much this week, as I’ve been traveling. However, on this beautiful St. Bernard’s Day, I thought I’d share this brief and wonderful gem of a piece by Fr. John Hunwicke of the Ordinariate.
I’m sure there are zillions of you out there who have the following sort of information right at your snuff-stained finger tips: did prelates eo fere tempore wear their wigs all through Mass? Even after their zucchetto had been removed as they approached the Consecration? When did Catholic bishops stop wearing wigs? (I think it went out of fashion in Anglican cicles in the 1830s.)
He also gets into the question of blue episcopal choir dress, mainly used in France and Ireland. Read the whole thing.
Clerical dress is one of my longstanding interests, as is the history of 18th century Catholicism. I’m glad Fr. Hunwicke is using his formidable celebrity to draw attention to these matters. While some may dismiss clerical fashion (particularly that of the Ancien Régime) as a trivial matter, I beg to differ. Clerical dress both during and outside of the liturgy is one more aesthetic component by which we can present “the beauty of holiness.” The nondescript threads worn by so many clergy and religious today are, alas, one more surrender to the cult of stark utility, false equality, failed individuality, and, in the end, boring homogeneity.
At the moment, I don’t have the time or capacity to research the questions Fr. Hunwicke raises. But The Amish Catholic will follow this story with all due attention and gravity. You can count on that. In the meantime, I’ll feast my eyes on this doozy of a cappa magna.
As I mentioned in my last post, during the month of August, I am dedicating myself to daily acts of creativity in honor of Mary’s Immaculate and Sophianic Heart. As Providence would have it, the Holy Father’s intentions for August include prayers for artists. Thus, I’m going to make my blog especially aesthetic for the rest of the month.
And what better way to start than examining work by one of the modern era’s great philosophers of art, Oscar Wilde? It is not often remembered today that Oscar Wilde was a Catholic. True, he was only formally received on his death bed. But Wilde maintained a lifelong flirtation with the faith. Catholicism infused his imagination from very early on in his productive career. When he was a student at Oxford, he visited Rome and wrote quasi-Catholic poetry that even Cardinal Newman admired. In some of the work, the influence of Dante is manifest. The aesthetics and romance of Catholicism appealed to Wilde, and he was nearly converted by Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. Only much later did he definitively turn to the Lord, in his last hour. However, many members of his circle also converted…a topic I shall, perhaps, explore some other day.
Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danae:
Or a dread vision as when Semele
Sickening for love and unappeased desire
Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her white limbs and slew her utterly:
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
A kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both with outstretched wings the Dove.
I reached the Alps: the soul within me burned
Italia, my Italia, at thy name:
And when from out the mountain’s heart I came
And saw the land for which my life had yearned,
I laughed as one who some great prize had earned:
And musing on the story of thy fame
I watched the day, till marked with wounds of flame
The turquoise sky to burnished gold was turned,
The pine-trees waved as waves a woman’s hair,
And in the orchards every twining spray
Was breaking into flakes of blossoming foam:
But when I knew that far away at Rome
In evil bonds a second Peter lay,
I wept to see the land so very fair.
Rome! what a scroll of History thine has been
In the first days thy sword republican
Ruled the whole world for many an age’s span:
Then of thy peoples thou wert crownèd Queen,
Till in thy streets the bearded Goth was seen;
And now upon thy walls the breezes fan
(Ah, city crowned by God, discrowned by man!)
The hated flag of red and white and green.
When was thy glory! when in search for power
Thine eagles flew to greet the double sun,
And all the nations trembled at thy rod?
Nay, but thy glory tarried for this hour,
When pilgrims kneel before the Holy One,
The prisoned shepherd of the Church of God.
Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.
I wandered through Scoglietto’s far retreat,
The oranges on each o’erhanging spray
Burned as bright lamps of gold to shame the day;
Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet
Made snow of all the blossoms; at my feet
Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay:
And the curved waves that streaked the great green bay
Laughed i’ the sun, and life seemed very sweet.
Outside the young boy-priest passed singing clear,
‘Jesus the son of Mary has been slain,
O come and fill His sepulchre with flowers.’
Ah, God! Ah, God! those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers and the Spear.
See, I have climbed the mountain side
Up to this holy house of God,
Where once that Angel-Painter trod
Who saw the heavens opened wide,
And throned upon the crescent moon
The Virginal white Queen of Grace,–
Mary! could I but see thy face
Death could not come at all too soon.
O crowned by God with thorns and pain!
Mother of Christ! O mystic wife!
My heart is weary of this life
And over-sad to sing again.
O crowned by God with love and flame!
O crowned by Christ the Holy One!
O listen ere the searching sun
Show to the world my sin and shame.
A lily-girl, not made for this world’s pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain:
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe.
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast, and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.
Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land,
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.
How steep the stairs within Kings’ houses are
For exile-wearied feet as mine to tread,
And O how salt and bitter is the bread
Which falls from this Hound’s table,–better far
That I had died in the red ways of war,
Or that the gate of Florence bare my head,
Than to live thus, by all things comraded
Which seek the essence of my soul to mar.
‘Curse God and die: what better hope than this?
He hath forgotten thee in all the bliss
Of his gold city, and eternal day’–
Nay peace: behind my prison’s blinded bars
I do possess what none can take away,
My love, and all the glory of the stars.
Christ, dost Thou live indeed? or are Thy bones
Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
And was Thy Rising only dreamed by her
Whose love of Thee for all her sin atones?
For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,
The priests who call upon Thy name are slain,
Dost Thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?
Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
Curtains the land, and through the starless night
Over Thy Cross a Crescent moon I see!
If Thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
Come down, O Son of Man! and show Thy might
Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!
In the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain:
The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky,
War’s ruin, and the wreck of chivalry,
To her proud soul no common fear can bring:
Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King,
Her soul a-flame with passionate ecstasy.
O Hair of Gold! O Crimson Lips! O Face
Made for the luring and the love of man!
With thee I do forget the toil and stress,
The loveless road that knows no resting place,
Time’s straitened pulse, the soul’s dread weariness,
My freedom and my life republican!
The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendor and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise My feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”
Wilde did just that until he lost his duel with the wallpaper on November 30th, 1900. But having received the last rites of the Church, perhaps he is already in heaven as a saint. One can only imagine what he would think of his portrait bedecked with a golden halo.
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‘Catholicity, Apostolicity, and the consent of the Fathers, is the proper evidence of the fidelity or apostolicity of a professed Tradition’ J.H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church 1837, p. 62
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