20 May 2021


This is an excerpt from a lecture I gave earlier this year, via Zoom, to The Society for the Renewal of the Catholic Mind.

I am a traditionally-minded Catholic, and I keep the company of other traditionally-minded Catholics. I have observed that many traditionally-minded Catholics agree more over what religious art they dislike and oppose than of what they like and support.

What do they dislike? That is obvious: art influenced by 20th century modernism. They dislike abstract or semi-abstract painting, sculpture, and graphic art; they dislike churches with low ceilings, round layout, and minimal decoration. They dislike liturgical music patterned on folk-pop.

Well, I do too. Certainly I dislike all of that. However, I have seen that fixating on this dislike does little to contribute to a revival of anything good. Grievance is uninspiring. Certainly, it has proven to be an extraordinarily powerful force in all kinds of politics. But art does not measure its success in political currency, and does not thrive when treated as a political tool. Religious art is one of those rare things that has the ability to fascinate, to inspire, to encourage, to convince all sorts of people, even the faithless. That ability is lost when it is presented as belonging only to a particular sort of right-believing, right-behaving person. It ought to welcome everyone.

Aside from a shared dislike of Modernism, traditionally-minded Catholics agree on very little where religious art is concerned. They agree vaguely about the importance of beauty and the necessity of tradition, but without defining either term meaningfully. The history of religious art is wide, varied, complicated, and contentious. What kind of art, really, are we trying to make or revive, and why? I believe that discussion can be had with both candor and respect.

I cannot define beauty as a theologian or a philosopher, because I am neither. I am an artist, and an artist concerns himself less with rules in the abstract than with the question of what works and what does not.

I also want to be very clear that I make no claim whatsoever to speak for the entire Catholic tradition. I have come to realize that the theology of beauty that I embrace is specific; it is indebted to Dionysius, the author of The Celestial Hierarchy and The Divine Names, and to the exegetical works of Augustine and other church fathers. These Dionysian and Augustinian influences were brought together in the 12th century, by Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis, Hildegard of Bingen, and some others.

This theology of beauty is not the only one proposed in the history of Catholic religious art; there are celebrated thinkers and canonized saints who disagree with it. In its time, it was resisted by Bernard of Clairvaux. It is far, far apart from the mind of someone like Pius X. I nonetheless am convinced that Hugh and Suger and Hildegard were right, because their understanding of religious art and music led to so extraordinary a flourishing of both. All Gothic art and architecture, and most of western art music, follow in some way from their insight.

Hildegard perhaps said it best in her epistle to the prelates of Mainz:
Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in Paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams.... God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth so that they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of that knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.

And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words that accompany them, those who hear might be taught about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.
Hildegard speaks here of music, but the lesson here can be applied, I think, to all forms of art. The recognition of beauty is, essentially, a nostalgia for Eden, a vague memory of blessedness that was not entirely destroyed in the fall. Beautiful music and art are means to elevate the heart and mind toward that blessedness; in this way, beauty is like virtue.

What follows from this is that religious art can never be considered a completed task. It has no center, no pinnacle, no ideal within the fallen world. Its ideal is something so beautiful that the weakness of mortal man would be unable to endure it; this is how Hildegard described Adam’s original voice.

I rankle when, for example, I hear Orthodox Christians echo the Russian synod of 1551 to assert that Andrey Rublev’s icons are the perfect standard of sacred painting. I rankle when I read Pius X’s motu proprio from 1903, which declared that Gregorian Chant is and has always been the supreme model for sacred music.

Now both the Russian bishops in the 16th century, and the pope at the start of the 20th, were concerned with what they saw as an abundance of new, bad religious art. They wanted to get rid of the new, bad art - so they found an example of old, good art free from the same corrupting influences, and instructed everyone to imitate that instead. It’s understandable, tempting today - when facing the aesthetic banality of contemporary Catholicism - to want someone to command: just do things the way they were done, back there, back then.

But this approach diminishes immeasurably the meaning and purpose of sacred art. The heart and mind cannot be elevated back to the blessedness of Eden if they must stop at some point in history and go no further. The icons of Andrey Rublev, and the monophonic chants of medieval monks, fall far from their holy task; their makers were, always, trying to make them into things better than what they were already. Gregorian chant might better be defined, not as the everlasting supreme model for sacred music, but as unrealized polyphony; polyphony as the unrealized form of something better yet to come.

Not being a musician or musicologist, I do not wish to dwell too long on Pius X’s motu proprio. I bring it up only because Tra le Sollecitudini, despite its instructions long having been superseded by other documents, and its assertions largely having been discredited by better scholarship, is quoted all the time. So many traditionally-minded Catholics hold it up as an example of what religious authorities ought to do, as far as sacred art is concerned; they wish that a comparable document existed treating the subject of visual art and architecture.

I thank God that it does not. The forceful wielding of power by bishops has rarely been good for religious art; the last time it was applied to painting and sculpture on a wide scale, Gothic art was ruined for centuries. I speak here of the campaign of art reform undertaken by the Flemish bishop Jean Molanus in the late 16th century. In a highly influential book, an instruction manual of sorts for diocesan art censors, he subjected the whole tradition of religious art up to his time to scrutiny, condemning anything that he found obscure or misleading. The art historian Emile Mâle elaborates:
Symbolism, the very soul of 13th century art, that beautiful idea that rhythm, number, and hierarchy are the fundamental laws of the universe - all the world of ideas in which the old theologians and artists had dwelled was closed to Molanus. The little he says about hierarchy indicates that the spirit of the works of the past was completely foreign to him. He though it of no importance whether St. Paul was placed before St. Peter, whether the Virgin was shown at the left or the right side of Christ, or whether one order of saints was placed before another in heaven. As for symbolism itself, he scarcely deigns to allude to it.... To read Molanus is to sense that the old symbols were withering and dying. There is not one line in all his book that has to do with the famous concordance between the Old and New Testaments.
That these traditions endured for so long, and that they were able to be revived later, is largely in spite of, rather than because of, interference from bishops.

Religious art ought be be traditional; but what does that entail? Among Catholics, the word traditional has acquired a misleading connotation in recent years. Usually it is applied to those who attend the old Latin Mass. And I am indeed one of them, and have been for a long time.

However, I have come to recognize that the people who gravitate to traditional liturgy do so for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are not really about tradition per se. Some of them come for the sake of paranoia; they are afraid of evil forces that have corrupted everything else. Some come for the sake of propriety; they are attached to a certain kind of bygone manners, dress, family discipline, and pious expression. Many come for the sake of politics; they see traditional liturgy as the place where the right wing worships.

Now I do not think that there is anything especially wrong with the fact that traditional liturgy attracts such people; very paranoid people, very proper people, and very right-wing people need to go to church like everyone else, and traditional liturgy ought to welcome everyone.

The problem is that many of the people who call themselves traditional Catholics will confuse tradition itself with their own motivations for seeking it out. And many of them get insecure, competitive, or judgmental about who is really traditional, or who is more traditional than whom. When really, they are asking who is more paranoid, or more proper, or more politically extreme.

What this means is that traditional Catholic art has to be considered a different thing from art that traditional Catholics like.

The very proper people just want art and music that feels familiar and churchy, and that excludes so much of the best of it, and almost anything newly created. The political people see religious art as an expression of loyalty, judged usually on superficial characteristics like the choice of materials or musical instruments. Felt is left-wing; lace is right-wing, or something like that. The merits of the art, the imagination and craftsmanship and erudition and effort that went into its making, barely matter. To the extremely paranoid, any art that is unfamiliar or difficult to understand is suspected of being occult.

In my understanding, tradition is not a matter of politics or manners or sides; it is a matter of epistemology. It concerns the question: aside from what is obvious in the Sacred Scriptures, how does a Catholic know what he knows? You might answer: from the Magisterium, or cite some official document. But this doesn’t answer the question, really. The Magisterium is composed of bishops. Bishops write the documents. How do the bishops know what they know?

I think there are basically three ways to answer that. One is: from ecclesiastical tradition. There are liturgical and exegetical practices, beliefs and behaviors that endure among the faithful over time and in many places; these tell the bishops what they need to know to make their judgments and to write their documents. This is an important point - because the ecclesiastical traditions need to be there before the documents are signed, they matter most when they are yet unofficial.

The second way to answer the question is: the bishops know what they know by testing the limits of their own infallibility. If the right authority signs the right sort of document, it must be correct because God did not prevent him from doing so. The third way is to say that the Spirit is always leading them, and not to be bothered much if they say or do something that has never been said or done before. I consider myself a traditionalist because I think the first answer is the right and normal way of things. What does that mean where art is concerned?

Well, it means that learning how to make traditional art is more than a matter of reading the official documents. There are very few related to this subject, and as I said, I am glad of that. The artist’s best guide is ecclesiastical tradition itself; the sacred liturgy, the writings of the church fathers, the art of the past. Traditional art corroborates these.

So how does an artist who wants to make religious art, who wants to make it both beautiful and traditional, to glorify God and edify men through it, answer the challenge of doing that in a changing world?

He should choose his influences - both visual and intellectual - out of love. He should love them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.

No matter how devoted he is to a certain kind of art or school of thought, he should remember that it is incomplete and imperfect. He can and should try to make it better. This is an altogether traditional thing to do.

He should be open to whatever medium, whatever materials, whatever methods work best to express his artistry. A willingness to be bold, technically, is another altogether traditional thing to do.

He should not consider religious art to be a political tool, or encourage its use as such.

He should look to every kind of art - whether it comes from within the Church or without it - asking the questions: what works? and what can this teach me to make my art better? God is the author of all beauty; as Augustine says, the mines of his providence are everywhere scattered abroad.

He should ask the same question even of art that he considers generally bad: What works? What can this teach me? The answer may be: very little. But if it is anything at all, he should accept the lesson.

He should not expect official church documents to provide him all of his answers. The tradition upon which any document depends already exists and provides answers abundantly; anyone who is willing to do some research can learn from it.

That is my advice, to myself and to anyone who makes or wants to make religious art. To anyone who wants to appreciate or understand or patronize it, I encourage him to seek out the work of contemporary artists who do this. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment