Part 5 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
By St. Peter’s Basilica, I do not mean the fourth-century church erected under the orders of Constantine; that building was knocked to rubble in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to make way for a new building, the one designed by Bramante and Michelangelo and Bernini.
The distinction between the two Basilicas of St. Peter is important here, for artistic and cultural ultramontanism does not present as its ideal the Roman monuments of Constantine. Nor does it present the paintings in the Roman catacombs, nor the medieval works of Roman art that show the continuity of sacred art and link it to the continuity of the Petrine succession. In the demolition of the old basilica, more than half of the papal tombs were destroyed, as were twelve centuries worth of frescoes and mosaics, including major works designed by Giotto.
Oil Painting by Francesco Berretta
Copy of a Destroyed Mosaic by Giotto
What artistic and cultural ultramontanism rather presents as its ideal is the Humanist and Baroque art of the new basilica and the Sistine Chapel. These are famous places where Popes are elected and crowned. But to call their art the art of the papacy, and therefore the proper art of the Catholic Church, is illogical. Only perhaps a dozen of the bishops of Rome had any role in its creation, and those included some of the most corrupt and impious men ever to sit of the throne of St. Peter. Certainly Adrian VI, the most honest and decent Pope of his era, considered the entire Humanist project a blasphemy and a waste.
Obviously, one Pope does not always agree with another. If an art is proper to the Catholic Church, it is so for being beautiful, true and good; for being holy and universal and apostolic; for being scriptural and traditional. Northumbro-Irish art and International Gothic are abundantly all of these things. What can be said about Humanist and Baroque art?
I am deliberately avoiding the term Renaissance here, as that term is understood too broadly. Its definition is extended backwards to include Cimabue and Duccio, northwards to include Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van Der Weyden, all of whose work can be explained as the development of Gothic tradition, without any reference to the philosophy that animated the art of Michelangelo. Neither did all Italian artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries profess Humanism; Fra Angelico, for example, was a disciple of Giovanni Dominici, one of the prominent critics of the movement.
Humanism attributed to the individual a limitless autonomy and dignity and capacity for improvement. Whereas medieval Christianity stressed dependence on divine grace for eternal salvation, Humanism advocated the making of a grand new order upon earth in which mankind might reach its fullest potential. This was to be done by studying and imitating the ancient Greeks and Romans. To the Humanists, Classical antiquity was the standard against which to weigh and find wanting the culture of medieval Christendom. In grammar, handwriting, architecture, painting and sculpture, they replaced medieval traditions with reconstructions based on ancient models.
Humanist art excludes any stylistic evidence that the medieval centuries ever happened. There is no place within it for the Lindisfarne Gospels, or for Chartres Cathedral. Those the Humanists considered barbaric. It was they who invented the slanderous name Gothic to associate medieval art with the ruiners of Classical Rome.
Medieval thinkers believed that the revelation of Jesus Christ provided the answer to every question and every problem; under the New Testament, there are no longer any important secrets. The larger part of their intellectual energy was spent ordering existing wisdom into encyclopedic works, in art as much as in writing. The Humanists, in contrast, were fascinated by esoterica. They not only saw in Greek and Roman remnants the plans for building a better world; they even aspired to recover the lost language of Eden through the study of hieroglyphics, Hermetic doctrines and Cabbala. They really seemed to believe that the confusion at Babel could be undone by scholarship and archaeology, rather than by the miracle at Pentecost! The Humanists made protestations of faith, but they could never altogether conceal the implicit tenet of Christian insufficiency, even when building colossal churches dedicated to the prince of the Apostles.
Baroque art was not as directly affected by these ideas; its artists rather took the art of the Humanists as their basis. They exaggerated certain tendencies of it and defied others, but never returned to the medieval traditions. I do not deny that some aspects of Humanist and Baroque art are beautiful and worthy of imitation. But neither do I ignore that some aspects are aberrant and deleterious. The imposition of this art upon the divers nations of medieval Christendom in place of their proper heritage was simply wrong.
It is easy to forget how grating this imposition must have been at the time. The construction of the new Basilica of St. Peter was funded by the peddling of indulgences in Northern Europe; thus it was the immediate provoking cause of the Reformation. Faced with the challenge of Protestantism, the institutional authorities of the Catholic Church did not present to the German and Scandinavian faithful the argument that their heritage, their culture, their art was substantially Catholic, and that keeping it linked them to the Apostles and to the faithful of all nations. Rather, they told them to disregard it and replace it with something new and alien, just to associate themselves with the Pope in Rome.
Had I lived through this, I probably would have reacted like the character of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ranting against sinister foreign influences and urging my people to keep their art holy, German and pure. When ultramontanism provides the motive to destroy tradition, and nationalism the motive to preserve it, I can barely fault anyone for favoring the latter. Parts of the international art of medieval Christianity, such as Gothic architecture and blackletter script, lingered within Lutheran Germany longer than under the papacy. This is why, upon seeing these today, many people simply say: Oh, how German.
I see no reason why the basilica designed by Bramante and Michelangelo and Bernini should be the icon of the Catholic Church any more than the Cathedrals of Magdeburg or Halberstadt, or the stave churches of Norway, that were separated from the Catholic Church as a result of its construction. The new basilica is astonishingly big in its physical dimensions, but it reveals an equally astonishing shortsightedness and narrowmindedness; in spirit, it is a very small building.