The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

The Art of Amoris Laetitia

Many of the great controversies of the Faith’s history have been played out in its visual culture. From the iconoclast mosaics of Hagia Irene to the Tridentine monuments of Bernini to the Jansenist portraits of Philippe de Champaigne and beyond, we find clear expressions of theological tensions throughout the centuries. So it should be no surprise to find the present troubles in the Church reflected in art.

I was recently in Ireland and came across a curious sight. In both of the Catholic Churches I entered during my stay, I found copies of the National Icon of the Holy Family, also known as the Amoris Laetitia Icon.

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The Amoris Laetitia Icon. (Source)

On a purely aesthetic level, the icon is visually striking. It was clearly written by an iconographer who knew his craft. Specially commissioned for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, the icon presents the Holy Family seated at table (in imitation of the the Rublev Trinity), flanked on either side by scenes from the Gospel.

I won’t trouble my readers with the wider ecclesiastical context, as I assume most will already be familiar with the present unpleasantness in the Church. I would, however, point out two significant irregularities in the icon, both in its construction and in its reception.

To the best of my knowledge, it is highly unusual for documents to be the subjects of icons. Only the Creeds of the Church are ordinarily enshrined in the iconographic canon.

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An icon of the Nicene Creed. (Source)

To treat Amoris Laetitia as a worthy subject for inclusion in iconography is deeply problematic. An Apostolic Exhortation is nowhere near as magisterial as a Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church speaking in her undivided voice. Icons are meant to manifest the transfigured reality of the Eschaton and lead us to contemplate the presence of divinized persons. Insofar as Creeds are foundational manifestations of the theanthropic Tradition, they are of one piece with the iconographic canon. Thus, we can write icons about them. But to write an icon about a document of quasi-magisterial status and, at best, uncertain orthodoxy is to do violence to the canon itself. I suppose there are those who would defend the icon by saying it primarily represents the Holy Family, and not the Apostolic Exhortation at all. The rather ostentatious title at the foot of the icon vitiates this interpretation.

The other issue with the Amoris Laetitia icon is the way it is being received. Or rather, imposed. The icon itself is currently making the rounds of the Irish dioceses, almost as if it were the Kursk Root Icon or some other wonder-working image. I found laminated copies on a side-altar in one church, and before the ambo in another (not to mention the pocket-sized editions at the back of the church; even these have the words Amoris Laetitia at the bottom). I’m not sure whether either case was really appropriate. I do know that both looked very tacky. And aside from the theological issues I have already described, there is another reason why I find it all so unnerving. It is a political icon, manifestly written and deployed to suppress dissent from the official line when it comes to the interpretation of AL. The image belongs to the Church’s present crisis of confidence, and cannot be read apart from it.

But the Kasperite triptych is not the only recent translation of the Church’s internal divisions into visual media. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And who should come to the defense of Tradition, but our old friend Giovanni Gasparro? I am still puzzled as to how Mr. Gasparro could have been accused of Modernism, as he continues to produce a body of Caravaggiste work that speaks very clearly to the priorities of Traditional Catholics. Case in point, his new painting.

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Amoris Laetitia. St. John the Baptist admonishing the adultery of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Giovanni Gasparro, 2018. (Source)

Like the AL icon, this painting must be read in light of the ongoing disputes within the Church. It would be simplistic, however, to see it as a merely ironic jab at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. St. John the Baptist’s expression is not one of anger or rebuke. We can read in its calm confidence the firm authority that comes from knowledge of the Truth, as well as the gentleness of love. The Forerunner is not a Pharisee.

I would add that the stark stylistic difference with the Amoris Laetitia icon speaks to an important distinction in sensibilities. In the first case, it occurs to me that the selection of iconography is a very deliberate choice. It borrows the authority of the East – and all its Ecumenical associations – to implicitly justify its theology. I suppose we oughtn’t be too surprised. The dispute over Amoris is in large part a question of whether the Latin Church can accept a theology and praxis of marriage that more closely resembles the Eastern custom. And the man who started it all, Cardinal Kasper, was, of course, at one time in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. Yet Mr. Gasparro’s painting is clearly situated within the Baroque, and thus Tridentine, aesthetic. His use of chiaroscuro, his slightly orientalist costuming, and the exaggerated theatricality of his gestures are all emblematic of the conventions of Early Modern sacred art.

In these two representative paintings and their disparate stylistic choices, we see two ways of thinking about Doctrinal Development: horizontal and vertical. The AL icon dramatizes the horizontal view of development. Doctrine can change through ecumenical encounter. Catholicism can move forward by learning from the experience of sister churches (or, in its most extreme iteration, other religions entirely). The Gasparro painting, on the other hand, stands for the vertical notion of development: the faith remains essentially the same through time, and is only clarified or deepened as the ages pass. There are, of course, elements of both views that are true. But the vertical view is the established theory of Tradition that, with some important developments (e.g. Newman), was put forth consistently from Trent to the Second Vatican Council. The question of which model will prevail is the center of the argument about Amoris.

Of course, someone will chime in and object to me reading any meaning into either image from the church political context in which they were produced. Fair enough. But while we should always start with the object in itself, it is not always possible in interpretation to keep art hermetically sealed off from the circumstances of its own creation. To do so in the case of either the AL icon or the Gasparro painting would be to ignore what is, I wager, a crucial context. And if we admit that important factor, we can start to see how the arts are speaking to the wider life of the Church in our own moment.

The Garter Martyr

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Van Dyck’s famous Triple Portrait of the King, now part of the Royal Collection at Windsor. (Source)

The thirtieth day of January calls to mind that noblest of monarchs, Charles I of the House of Stuart, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. His reign was a study in chiaroscuro; a bright first half erupting into the bleakest darkness, only to end with a moment of shattering light. I speak, of course, of that death which has earned him the admiration of pious Anglicans for generations. Described as a martyr almost immediately after his execution, Charles I was formally raised to the altars of the Church of England in 1662, and his Mass and Office persisted until the Victorian era. Latterly, he has been the object of devotion by the most sound Anglo-Catholics. His feast is kept every year at Her Majesty’s Banqueting House in Whitehall, where the king met his untimely and illicit end.

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A posthumous memorial painting of Charles from the 1660’s. (Source)

That’s all very well and good for Anglicans. But where does this leave Roman Catholics? It is perhaps one of the great sadnesses of our age that the Ordinariate Missal did not retain the recognition of Charles as a beatus, if not a saint. A few years ago, Fr. Hunwicke produced a very good argument as to why, canonically and liturgically, a soul who died in schism could be recognized as a saint (taking the precedent of various Eastern saints like Palamas and Gregory of Narek). He has argued for a favorable reading of Charles’s Catholicizing tendencies before.

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A portrait of Charles I in armor. The work of Van Dyck, I believe. (Source)

I would add my voice to Fr. Hunwicke’s. Charles was, on the whole, a boon to the Catholic Church. Charles’s marriage to a formidable Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France, saw the arrival at court of Roman Catholic priests, a first since the days of Mary Tudor. He allowed the ambassadors of foreign courts to hold their own chaplains, notably at St. James’s, Spanish Place. Charles even opened up diplomatic talks with the Pope for the first time in decades, receiving more than one papal legate during his personal reign. High-level talks about reunion between the two churches were carried on in secret. He wrote to the Pope, in a letter of 1623 preserved and collected for publication by Sir Charles Petrie (1935),

Be your holiness persuaded that I am, and ever shall be, of such moderation as to keep aloof, as far as possible, from every undertaking which may testify any hatred towards the Roman Catholic religion. Nay, rather I will seize all opportunities, by a gentle and generous mode of conduct, to remove all sinister suspicions entirely; so that, as we all confess one undivided Trinity and one Christ crucified, we may be banded together unanimously into one faith. (See Petrie, The Letters…of King Charles I, pg. 16).

Of course, Charles was inconstant in these measures of good will. He was harsher on Recusants when it came to fines, but significantly lowered priest-hunting efforts. I believe I will not err in saying that, among the many martyrs of the English Reformation, none came during the King’s personal reign in the 1630’s. I only count four overall, of which we can probably acquit Charles from the burden of guilt. The two Catholics executed in 1628 – St. Edmund Arrowsmith, a Jesuit, and Blessed Richard Herst, a layman – seem to have fallen victim to the prejudices of lower officials rather than to any especially anti-Catholic venom emanating from the Crown. And once trouble with the Scots and Parliament began, Charles attempted to hold the situation together by, among other things, clamping down on priests. But even those martyrs which followed in the wake of these efforts owe their deaths more to the actions of local and middling anti-Papist forces than to the intentions of a harried crown. Only two seem to have died in 1641, the last year the King had any discernible control over what was going on in London. Realistically, it would be more appropriate to blame parliament for those deaths. In his church appointments, Charles always preferred those clerics who showed a marked sympathy to the doctrine of Rome. William Laud is only one among several examples that could be cited.

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The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, Charles Landseer, 1845. (Source)

If this rather unpleasant parsing fails to convince us of Charles’s disposition towards the Church, then the works of his Catholic subjects might instead. The Catholic historian Lingard reports that, “Of five hundred officers in the royal army, who lost their lives during the civil war, one hundred and ninety four are known to have been catholics” (see Lingard, “Documents to ascertain Sentiments…” pg. 18). That’s a full 38.8%. The Civil War wrecked the old world of the Recusant nobility, most of whom proved themselves loyal to the King to the point of death. We might add that all the forces of Catholic Ireland rallied around the King’s cause. Every major faction of Irish Catholic society knew that they would suffer far more under the stridently Protestant regime of the Long Parliament than they ever had with Charles. Cromwell’s bloody Irish campaign was to prove their fears well-founded.

In the grand movements of history, it is easy to lose sight of the basic humanity and unique personality of those at play. Yet monarchy is always personal. So is the communion of saints. And when it comes to a “royal Saint,” as John Keble would have it, we ought to pay even closer attention to the personal characteristics of the man in question. Who was Charles Stuart?

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Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their Two Eldest Children, Anthony Van Dyck, 1631-32. (Source)

A man of profound faith; a man who took his duty seriously, and executed it with all the fastidious attention of convicted principle; and, for the most part, a devoted husband. Though not entirely clean of adultery, Charles had but one mistress, and that only at the very end, while a prisoner. Alas. On the whole, his marriage was extremely sound by the standards of the Stuart dynasty, let alone the norms that prevailed among the continental rulers of the 17th century. One must rather admire the gallantry of a husband who cropped the ears of a man who dared to call his wife a whore in print.

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A German memorial portrait of Charles after Wenceslaus Hollar (Source)

Charles also exhibited impeccable taste in art. His aesthetic sensibilities led him to amass one of the finest compilations of paintings in Europe. Today, they form the core of the Royal Collection. He employed great artists like Van Dyck and Rubens to beautify the court, architects like Inigo Jones to ennoble the capital, and poets like Sir William Davenant and Ben Jonson to write lavish masques. The Queen and even Charles himself participated in these masques. Henrietta Maria thereby became the first woman to act on the English stage, clearing the way for later pioneers like Aphra Behn and Nell Gwynn to make their mark during the Restoration. All of these developments irritated the Puritans, as did Charles’s reissue of the Jacobean Book of Sports, encouraging the people of England to enjoy various games and festivities on Sundays and feast days.

The 1630’s were something of a golden age for English culture. The vast Laudian effort to restore “the beauty of holiness” in Church liturgy and fabrics must be set in this context. Charles was the king who loved beauty in all things.

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An Episode in the Happier Days of Charles I, Frederick Goodall, 1853. (Source)

Yet it is not for his mostly admirable character, nor for his exquisite aesthetics, nor for the glory of his personal reign that we remember him today. It is for that stirring death he embraced with the true fortitude and charity of a martyr.

On the scaffold, he declared to his murderers,

[As for the people], truly I desire their Liberty and Freedom as much as any Body whomsoever. But I must tell you, That their Liberty and Freedom, consists in having of Government; those Laws, by which their Life and their Gods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government (Sir) that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a soveraign are clean different things, and therefore until they do that, I mean, that you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.

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Portrait of Charles before his execution, Goddard Dunning, 1649. (Source)

Sirs, It was for this that now I Am come here. If I would have given way to an Arbitrary way, for to have all Laws changed according to the power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here; and therefore, I tell you, (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) That I Am the Martyr of the People…I have delivered my Conscience. I pray God, that you do take those courses that are best for the good of the Kingdom and your own Salvations.

After which he announced, “I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.” To Dr. Juxon, Bishop of London, he whispered the single word, “Remember.” He laid his head on the block, lifted his arms up in imitation of Christ, and the axe fell true. From that moment, the stunned crowd knew they had witnessed something auspicious. An account of the execution relates that

His blood was taken up by divers persons for different ends: by some as trophies of their villainy; by others as relics of a martyr; and in some hath had the same effect, by the blessing of God, which was often found in his sacred touch when living.

One could thus argue that a cult of the Royal Martyr existed from the very moment of his death.

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The Execution of Charles I of England, formerly attr. to John Weesop. (Source)

Even so, the Church has not enrolled him among those hallowed names in the martyrology. It is unlikely she ever will, for political reasons if nothing else. For my own part, I am convinced that Charles I is worthy of a Catholic’s admiration. Yet truly does the verse of the Psalmist come to me, that “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Ps. 21:1 KJV). In the end, only He can know what silent prayers and longings came to Charles in the last instant of his life.

Perhaps the true fate of Charles Stuart will remain a mystery until the Day of Judgment. But there is no reason that we mightn’t pray for him in the time until that fell revelation. After all, Charles died for what was best in the Church of England: episcopacy, sacraments, Marian devotion, beauty. Indeed, the very things it had inherited from its Apostolic past, and that Charles and his Archbishops had tried so ardently to restore. If history had taken a better turn, perhaps he might even have succeeded in the long hoped-for reunion of Rome and Canterbury. 

If nothing else, let us be grateful to Charles for all the good he accomplished and inspired under the Providence of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Frontispiece of the Eikon Basilike (Source).

Mormon Artists You Should Know

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Wulf Barch’s prize-winning piece, The Labrynth, or the Book of Walking Forth by Day. 2011. (Source)

One of my recent discoveries has been the Mormon art world, formerly a dark continent for me. With the passing of the late Mormon president, I thought I might offer a window into an aesthetic realm that, I suspect, is still largely unknown to many. Most non-LDS people will have heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some may be aware of the imaginative Book of Mormon illustrations by Arnold Friberg. And anyone who’s been on the internet long enough will recognize the utterly bonkers right-wing propaganda produced by Jon McNaughton. However, few know the very impressive offerings by contemporary Mormon artists.

 

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Abinadi before King Noah (Abinadi Appearing before King Noah). Arnold Friberg. Note the curious mixture of Biblical motifs and Central American aesthetics. We have here a typically Mormon image. (Source)

Apparently, BYU has an excellent Fine Arts department. The jewel in their crown is Wulf Barsch, a Bavarian émigré who studied under the Bauhaus Masters, themselves trained by Klee and Kandinsky. After some flirtations with the Viennese school of Fantastic Realism, best represented by Ernst Fuchs, Barsch, we read, “studied Egyptian and Islamic culture and history.” These influences would come to the fore in his later work. He was baptized a Mormon in 1966, went to BYU to study Fine Art, and stayed there for some forty years.

Barsch’s work is marked by a few cardinal motifs. He always uses vivid colors, often structured by two juxtaposed elements: a blurred realism and a lightly sketched geometric design. This combination gives his work the slightly dizzy air of a dream – or, better yet, of a mystic vision, of some terrible sacral truth unveiling itself. The viewer becomes the prophet.

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The Real Voyage of Discovery, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch’s study of Islamic art and its long tradition of sacred geometry has borne much fruit throughout his career.

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The Measure of All Things, Wulf Barsch. 2009. (Source)

Barsch’s prophetic accents are heightened and canalized by a keen ritual sensibility. On those occasions when he does depict architectural details, they usually reflect the norms of temples: Classical, Masonic, and Mormon.

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Jupiter Square, Wulf Barsch. Note the use of a Magic Square. (Source)

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Et in Arcadia Ego, Wulf Barsch. 2010. The tiled floor, the pair of broken columns, and the orientalist flavor of the pyramids and palms all suggest a Masonic aesthetic. (Source)

He will sometimes write on the painting, adding a secondary symbolic layer to the image.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. No doubt this will be of particular interest to fans of a e s t h e t i c s (Source)

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source).

Observe, if you will, the piece above. Looking at this painting, we are struck by the contrast between the garlanded, barely visible columns and the stark yellow and red scene beyond. The most immediate impression comes from the color, which forms, as it were, the raw material of the art-world we see. Yet we can also glimpse geometric drawings in the yellow field and the outline of the columns. That which is artificial melts away before the manifestation of the absolute. Lesser being fades, even as it is heightened beyond its limitations under the demands of human artifice. Yet even in contemplating the absolute, we recognize something like our own reason. There is an intelligence there, an ideal that is only dimly mirrored in this dark world below. In short, Barsch has presented a model of mystical experience.

Or take another painting. Below, we see is, at first glance, little more than a tropical landscape. We can feel the heat through the stereoscopically blurred palm fronds. Yet upon further consideration, we find a celestial scene in the blue window – an impossibly delicate set of constellations in a field of bright bleu celeste. There is at once a sense of familiarity and otherness. Are we inside or out? We experience a de-familiarization of the scene. This sensation comes, appropriately enough, through the viewer’s discovery of heaven in the painting. Likewise, the soul feels a similar sudden reversal upon the discovery that there is a God. The subtle intrusion of the transcendent changes the way we look around us.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch is intensely interested in the way the numinous appears through creation. His vision is almost sacramental, with one important caveat. The presence of the transcendent that he describes is not resting in the material realm but in its ideal configuration. He represents this ideal world, as well as our access to it, by use of the Labyrinth, a frequent symbol.

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The Labyrinth, Wulf Barsch. 2006. Note that it lies within the cliff, under the trees. (Source)

The same idea animates his Magic Square (2006). The titular magic square appears in the silhouetted palm tree, as if exposing its underlying mathematical nature. It’s as if Barsch is showing us God’s blueprints.

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Magic Square, Wulf Barsch. 2006. (Source)

Barsch has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Rome Award, over his long and prolific career. He has also carried his talents across media. For example, here is one of his lithographs.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch continues to exert a major influence on the oeuvre of younger Mormon artists. Whitney Johnson, David Habben, and Nick Stephens all exhibit signs of Barsch’s lingering artistic vision.

A very different representative of contemporary Mormon artistic trends is Brian Kershisnik. An American who originally trained in ceramics at BYU, Kershisnik later moved to painting. He now produces spiritually sensitive figurative images that somehow capture the freshness and simplicity of the American West.

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Descent from the Cross, Brian Kershisnik. Currently on display at BYU Museum of Art as part of their exhibit, “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture.” (Source)

His religious art is very often in conversation with the canons of the Western tradition. Nevertheless, he infuses a certain ordinariness into scenes from the Bible. If Barsch presents a spiritual vision drawn from Mormonism’s Masonic and Orientalist past, then Kershisnik returns to its Low-Church Protestant roots. Even his crowds of angels look just like us.

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Nativity, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Those angels, by the way, are profoundly interested in human life. Even fairly quotidien scenes betray an unseen presence.

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Divine Inspiration, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Many of his characters are, quite literally, rough around the edges. In them, we can detect the faintest hint of Chagall. Particularly as so many of Kershisnik’s non-Biblical subjects seem to inhabit a stylized world hovering on the edge of allegory.

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Dancing on a Very Small Island, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Kershisnik is fundamentally an artist of human dignity, and the quiet joy that springs from that dignity.

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Holy Woman, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

He also brings an understated sense of humor to much of his material, as in Jesus and the Angry Babies.

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Jesus and the Angry Babies, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Note in A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters how Kershisnik draws together line (the mirroring of the two profiles) and color (gold) and texture (the mosaic effect in the upper half of the image) to suggest a spiritual union that goes beyond the merely physical elements of the titular dance.

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A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

There are a few other Mormon artists worth knowing. Take, for instance, painter and illustrator Michal Luch Onyon, whose colorful and somewhat naive works are sure to delight. Or landscape artist Jeffrey R. Pugh, whose bold and strong brushstrokes evince the confidence of the West. He also created one of the more numinously beautiful depictions of Joseph Smith’s alleged vision, Early Spring, 1820. Finally, take a look at Nnadmi Okonkwo’s sculptures. The Nigerian’s graceful depictions of the human form are a testament to the respect afforded to women, and strike a beguiling balance between traditional African forms and American methods. His work is a testament not only to his considerable talent but to the great lengths which the Mormon church has traveled in its delayed acceptance of black members.

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Mountain Aspen, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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A Day in the Life, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Cumulus Creepers, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Early Spring, 1820, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Friends, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Guardian, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

The remarkable proliferation of Mormon fine artnot merely the kitschy stuff which characterizes so much religiously inflected work todayis certainly a sign of the faith’s expansion and self-confidence. Catholics should watch the continuing development of a specifically Mormon aesthetic as the LDS presence in society continues to grow.

The Triumph of Color: Notes on the Anglo-Catholic Aesthetic

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The Altar Mosaics of Keble College Chapel, Oxford, designed by William Butterfield (Source)

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-Catholicsor at least, those corners of the Anglo-Catholic world that held onto their patrimonydo 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)

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Tiles designed by A.W.N. Pugin. (Source)

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.

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One page of Pugin’s Contrasts. He’s making a threefold argument: aesthetic, religious, and socio-political. One can start to see here the origins of the Victorian Socialism associated at once with Anglo-Catholics and the likes of William Morris’s arts-and-crafts movement. There is no doubt some irony in this, as John Ruskin hated him. Yet it is hard to imagine the Pre-Raphaelites coming about without both Pugin and Ruskin (Source).

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.

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Frontispiece of Pugin’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843). Baroque, Palladian, Renaissance, and Byzantine architects need not apply. (Source)

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

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The interior of Keble College Chapel, Oxford. Designed by the highly original Neo-Gothic architect, William Butterfield. (Source)

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.

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Keble College, Oxford. Established as a tribute to the founder of the Oxford Movement, John Keble. (Source)

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.”

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Exterior of Keble College. Photo taken by author.

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.

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Two angels in a Keble mosaic. (Source)

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.

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The Noah mosaic, Keble College Chapel. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

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)

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Cope designed by Sir Ninian Comper, depicting Our Lady of the Cenacle at Pentecost. (Source)

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.

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Reredos of St. Sebastian, Downside Abbey. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP (Source).

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.

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The Blessed Sacrament Altar, Pusey House, Oxford. (Source)

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.

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The golden art of Sir Ninian Comper. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

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.

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Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)

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.

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St. Stephen’s House Chapel, Oxford. Photo taken by author.

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.

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Sir Ninian Comper’s altar at Walsingham. A classic example of his work, drawing together numerous Comperian motifs: gilding, cherubim, Corinthian capitals, a certain illustrative naïveté, elaborated decorated canopy, and the use of sunbursts. The last motif will also mark the work of another major Anglo-Catholic stylist. (Source)

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)

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An Advent illustration by Martin Travers. Notice his unique font, as well as the English version of the Introibo with the Virgin and Child. (Source)

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.

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The emblem of the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

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.”

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Travers’s extremely Latinate liturgical tastes dovetailed well with the spirituality promulgated by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul. (Source)

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.

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A requiem illustration by Martin Travers. (Source)

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.

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A depiction of Mary and the Christ Child over London. (Source)

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 churchesAnglicans who made it their business to blend the Roman and English patrimonies in one sacral event.

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Travers’s High Altar at St. Mary’s, Bourne Street, London. (Source)

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.

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High Altar at St. Magnus the Martyr, London. (Source)

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)

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A marvelous and very Anglican polyptych by Enid Chadwick. The photo was taken by a friend of mine, Bishop Chandler Jones of the Anglican Province of America, who blogs over at Philorthodox. From left to right, the figures are: St. Uriel, Blessed Charles the Martyr, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Michael, Our Lady of Walsingham with Our Lord, St. Gabriel, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Edward the Confessor, and St. Raphael. (Source)

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.

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A typical Chadwick illustration from My Book of the Church’s Year. (Source)

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.

Enid Chadwick March 1Enid Chadwick March 2

 

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.

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A collage of Enid Chadwick’s Christmas cards, all taken from here.

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.

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One of Chadwick’s illustrations for the Anglican Shrine of O.L. of Walsingham. (Source)

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.

7 Protestant Songs with Surprisingly Good Theology

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No altar in sight, but boy can they sing. (Source)

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”

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George Jones was known for his religious songs, particularly in his early career. (Source)

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”

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The cover art for Ben Babbitt’s album, Kentucky Route Zero – Act III. (Source).

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”

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Texas-based country group, The Whites. They’re famous for performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry, often alongside their frequent collaborator (and family member), bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs (Source).

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”

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There’s a lot going on here. (Source)

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

From the perspective of Catholic demonology, the Louvin Brothers are not wrong. St. Anthony the Great would certainly agree with their diagnosis.

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”

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It is perhaps spiritually significant that in nearly all her famous photos, Sister Rosetta can be seen looking up – as if she can see the very angels above her. (Source)

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”

HarmonizingFour

This whole album is very good. (Source)

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”

louvin-bomb

Once again, there’s just a lot going on here. (Source)

Alright, I’m mainly throwing in this one for fun. It has a specious, somewhat rapture-based eschatology. But given current events, its central message may be worth pondering.

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!