Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grand, Gothic cathedrals: a waste of money?

Coming soon: the new cathedral of Orange County!
            Someone who read my previous article on painted churches brought to my attention the fact that the Catholic Diocese of Orange had been on the market for a new cathedral. But with a rough economy and a few million bucks in the red after the latest onslaught of pedophile priest lawsuits, who has the money or inclination to give God His due and build a worthy new temple from scratch? Tod Brown, Bishop of Orange, got lucky: it turned out that the Crystal Cathedral, a monstrous heap of glass and steel in Garden Grove, California, home of the Reformed Protestant “Hour of Power” televangelism ministry, had mismanaged themselves into bankruptcy. It was a win-win situation in the making: the Diocese could buy the Crystal Cathedral (ironically neither made of crystal nor actually a cathedral) for its own on the cheap, and the Hour of Power guys could crawl out of debt. At a “mere” $58 million, it was a steal. The deal was done, and by June 2013, the building will be re-christened Christ Cathedral and consecrated to Catholic worship.

            Now, casually glance at the comments box of any news article reporting this transaction; this one from the Huffington Post will do; and the universal response will be from some reader with absolutely zero vested interest in the matter cry out with righteous indignation, “how dare those pedophile-enablers throw away millions of dollars on a building while kids are starving in Africa! If Jesus were here, he’d sell the building and give all the money away to the Peace Corps!” Never mind that Jesus is a fairy tale to them, anyway. Granted, they’re certainly right about us Catholics being pedophile enablers. If we really cared about protecting our children, not to mention the honor of the eternal Church, we’d have demanded more accountability and justice enacted upon offending priests a long time ago. But that’s a topic for greater minds to write on. I’m only a poor aesthete. My goal today is to explain how the self-righteous commenters are wrong on all the other counts, how the Diocese of Orange is a den of thieves and cheapskates, and how once again, our medieval forebears knew the score and had their priorities straight.

            “A new cathedral is a waste of money. If you need a worship space, there are plenty of pre-existing buildings to buy or rent out.”

            It seems like a reasonable objection at first, but if you scratch the surface, you see the cult of utilitarianism rearing its monstrous head. Millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed as we speak. Is it a waste of money to hire them and give them work? And not just a job, but work dedicated to something higher than themselves, which will remain standing long after they’re dead and buried. Is art a waste of money? Consider that the works of the great medieval and Renaissance masters were commissioned largely by the Church, once the biggest patron of the arts in the western world. But because art is not “practical” in our current age or it doesn’t sell a product, it’s therefore a waste of money according to the utilitarian. Then they wonder why fine art is now solely for the purpose of separating rich people from their pocketbooks and shocking anyone they deem a poor country bumpkin in need of enlightenment (disregarding the fact that they’ve so desensitized us to their pitiful screams for attention that the only thing truly shocking left to paint would be an old-fashioned, representational masterpiece). Yes, friends, miserly utilitarianism is the death of art, for art can only be born from a culture where people value leisure and creativity. 

A waste of money.
            “It’d be a crime to spend all that money on bricks and mortar when kids are starving in Africa.” 
             And there are kids starving in America too, for that matter. In any case, those African kids aren’t any hungrier now than they were in the 1300’s when Gothic architecture was at the height of its glory. Notre-Dame, Chartres, and Westminster Abbey were all raised by a people in a sustenance economy for whom war and famine were everyday realities. How were they able to endure such intense hardships and still raise wonders of the world? It’s simple: cathedrals actually do feed people. They feed the soul. The cathedral-haters love to perceive Christ as a modern iconoclastic social worker who had no use for temples and would melt all the gold in Rome and sell it to feed the world for a few days. They conveniently forget that He also said, “not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” A cathedral is the word writ large. It’s the word of God towering atop a hill like a refuge, even a fortress against the banality of the modern world with its insipid fads, manifestos, concrete jungles, and false idols. Standing in the nave, the word envelops you, unfolding the story of salvation in art, song, scent, speech, symbols, and sacrifice upon the altar. Frankly, we need cathedrals more than ever before to lift our minds and hearts to the divine.

People wasting their time.

            “At least Bishop Brown saved his diocese a lot of money and gave an already-existing church a new purpose.”

            That abomination known as the Crystal Cathedral would serve its architectural purpose better as a greenhouse for exotic plants. As a church, it’s completely useless, unless we’re so dull as to reduce the idea of “church” to a building with four walls and a roof. Diocesan officials said that in order to build a cathedral from scratch, they would have to spend up to $200 million. Okay. Consider the following, then. Last year saw the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, an online computer game that cost nearly $200 million to develop. We live in an age that’s so prosperous, we can afford to blow $200 million; enough to build another Notre-Dame on the west coast of America; on something that doesn’t even exist outside of a computer screen! (And a game that’s not even all that much fun to play, though that’s another story.) Even in the game developers’ highest hopes, they couldn’t expect a large customer base to still be paying per month for this game ten years from now. It’s a fleeting enterprise by nature. A cathedral, on the other hand, is expected to stand for five centuries or longer. With eternity in mind, Bishop Brown’s “economic” gesture begins to look like a groom presenting his bride with a ring of plastic instead of gold.

Bishop Brown, master economist.

            “Well, we just don’t have the money or talent to build another Chartres these days. What do you propose, you insufferable medievalist?”

            It’s a fair question. In the Middle Ages, the cathedral builders could at least count on the patronage of the wealthy and the town populace to converge and provide the manual labor. Towns would compete against one another to see who could build the most splendid church and thereby gain God’s favor. This blog will be long subsumed and archived into the great digital beyond before the guilds rise again. Still, we do have two distinct advantages over our ancestors: the Internet, and vast sums of disposable income. We live in an age when artists and designers can post their projects online and fundraise thousands, even millions of dollars through websites like Kickstarter. Why not build a church too? There’s an ambitious architectural artist somewhere out there, waiting for you to email her and ask her to draw the cathedral lodged in the depths of her imagination. Post the drawings and detailed plans online and watch the cash roll in. There’s a whole legion of people prowling the web out there right now, charitable but weary of the steel heaps of trash that pass for houses of worship now. We’re only shooting ourselves in the foot by refusing to take full advantage of the tools of the digital age.

            And at last, for all the misers, cheapskates, and penny-pinchers still unconverted by my arguments thus far, I appeal to the Gospels.

“Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray Him, said: ‘Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?’ Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein. Jesus therefore said: ‘Let her alone, that she may keep it against the day of My burial. For the poor you have always with you; but Me you have not always.’”

More money-wasting ventures:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Splendor of the Painted Church

            As I was browsing the wide web of (dis-)information today, I happened across some photos of a recent church restoration on a Connecticut Latin Mass society's blog. The Basilica of Saint John in Stamford, Connecticut, a late Victorian parish church in the Gothic revival style, had suffered from that all-too-common bout of whitewashing that church vandals in pointy hats imposed upon their flocks around the time of Vatican II. In this case, the wall murals in the sanctuary had actually been painted over in white a few years before the Council. After their pastor decided to peel away the 21 coats of whitewash and restore the murals a few years ago, the church went beyond that and coated the whole interior in an array of rich color; a project which finally finished this past April. In an article from the Stamford Advocate, the pastor, Monsignor Stephen DiGiovanni, was quoted saying, “It was looking like a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Now it looks magnificent.” For my own part, I couldn’t agree more.

Saint John's in 2009.

            In fact, I actually loathe the look of whitewashed church interiors. Here I should explain before some scandalized soul out there accuses me of hating the purity that brilliant white represents. You see, nothing screams the iconoclastic vitriol of the Protestant reformers who scoured the frescoes which adorned the churches of their medieval forbears, or the frighteningly bad taste of the Rococo designers with their temples modeled after wedding-cake palaces, quite like an all-white church. It’s one thing for a Gothic church to embrace the simplicity of bare, grey stonework, as many of the ancient cathedrals now stand today. But the “purity” of our modern stuccoed abominations, as Pugin would say, is more likely a flimsy excuse for a darker reality: that the designers lacked the talent or imagination to do anything else.

            Nearly every church in medieval England, from the cathedral to the humble parish, was adorned with beautiful wall paintings. These images, like the statues and stained-glass windows that accompanied them, served to tell the stories of the Holy Gospels and the saints to a people who couldn’t read. The colors brought vibrancy to a harsh world that was regularly beset by disease, famine, and war. Master painters were aided in their work by the entire community of the faithful. Some painters were even women. Painted church interiors had been a part of the medieval English parish tradition for five hundred years; in other words, as long as there were stone churches in England at all. There are surviving fragments of wall paintings on the Continent that are even older.

15th century painting of the Harrowing of Hell at the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Pickering, Yorkshire. See here for more.
A Doom (Last Judgment) painting at the church of Saint Thomas Becket, Salisbury. It was repainted during the Victorian Gothic revival.

            All this changed with the arrival of the Reformation. Henry VIII’s reforms were relatively modest. He “only” ordered the destruction of saints’ reliquaries, such as the famous shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. With the accession of his heir, the boy king Edward VI, his radical Protestant advisors could begin the war on imagery and color itself in earnest. By the end of his short reign, nearly every church in the country had their walls whitewashed or even sometimes torn out. English glassmakers actually forgot how to make stained-glass until the Gothic revival in the 19th century.

The Catholic world regrettably followed suit. On the Continent, even Catholic rulers viewed their Gothic churches not as treasures from a venerable era, but garish vestiges of medieval barbarism. For instance, in the later 1600’s, Louis XIV oversaw the whitewashing of Notre-Dame de Paris. A few centuries of paintings, tombs, and statues were a small price to pay for bringing one of the great Gothic cathedrals of medieval France “up with the times”, so they thought. Even the vast majority of the stained-glass windows were removed. Thankfully, the Gothicist Viollet-le-Duc amended the windows during his twenty years of restoration work in the 19th century, but the walls remain a uniform shade of drab grey to this day. The very fact that so many Gothic cathedrals remain colorless, whether by the ravages of time or vandalism, has probably been part of the reason why modern churches built in the Gothic style usually have plain white walls.

The Solution

            It’s easy to despair and assume that there are simply no contemporary artists with the talent and training to create larger-than-life wall frescoes and mosaics for our undecorated churches. The assumption is both false and deadly, and has probably has led to many a classical artist surrender and take up a “real job” due to lack of demand for their skills. I’d like to assemble a directory of artists trained in medieval-style iconography, but even then, many churches won’t be able to afford their expertise. In the meantime, a simple application of color, and perhaps some geometric decorations, can still bring the drama of the medieval imagination to your neighborhood parish. 

            The first example that comes to mind is the very church where I was baptized, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, Texas. To see it today, it’s hard to believe the walls and ceiling were originally white. That was long before I ever visited it, so I’ve only seen the original white scheme in pictures. But since then, the interior has been painted in a spectacular arrangement of red, blue, and gold, recalling such fantastic schemes as the Sainte-Chappelle in Paris (also thanks to the restorative work of Viollet-le-Duc). It’s very fitting that such a church’s painting scheme, combined with its rood screen, recalls the majesty of the pre-Reformation world, since Atonement was one of the first “Anglican Use” churches in America; that is to say, one of the first communities specially created for former Anglicans and Episcopalians to reconcile with Rome.

Note how the ceiling and sanctuary wall are enhanced with simple latticework.

            Objection 1.) “I’d like to introduce a new painting scheme to my church, but the rich old trustees won’t go for it. It’s simply too radical.” If a wholesale repainting of the church is too daunting or too shocking for an old congregation stubbornly set in their ways, one alternative is to experiment with only a small section. There’s a fine instance in the apse of Saint Mary Cathedral in Austin, Texas. This Gothic revival church has white walls in the nave, but the space around the high altar is set apart with a distinctive wallpaper pattern along the walls and is topped with a stunning blue ceiling studded with stars, making it clear that the high altar is the axle where heaven and earth are conjoined.

            Objection 2.) “Your examples so far, while splendid, are quite dark and brooding. They would turn off newcomers to our church by appearing too foreign and cultish.” I’m still unconvinced of this argument’s validity, but it gives me the opportunity to mention another Texas treasure. If you go out to the small towns settled by 19th-century German, Czech, and other European immigrants, you’ll be able to see quite a few Victorian churches painted in bright colors reminiscent of Easter eggs. It’s a unique synthesis of the Gothic revival and ingrained Rococo sensibilities. As with Saint John’s in Stamford, the 1950’s struck and some of these painted churches received a whitewashing in the name of modernization, then were subsequently restored.

The church of Saint Mary in High Hill, Texas.

The church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Dubina, Texas.

I'll close with a few links and more photos of painted churches. Next up: painted exteriors!

Detail of a column at Saint John's, Stamford.

Saint John's, Stamford again.

The latticework of the ceiling at Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, representing the net of the Gospel.
The resplendent Lady Chapel, also at Our Lady of the Atonement.

Fantastic HDR rendering of Saint Mary's in Austin, contrasting the decorated apse with the white nave.
Saint Mary in High Hill again.
From the Cathedral of Saint Cecilia in Albi, France. I think the frescoes are actually Renaissance additions.
It would finally be remiss not to post a photo of the Sainte-Chappelle, but this is worth an article in itself!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Merry Ole England Reborn, Part III: The Eglinton Tournament - The First Renaissance Fair

(Previous entries in the series:

The Eglinton Tournament: The First Renaissance Fair

Don't let the picture fool you. That illustration above took place in 1839!

            In our last issue, we explored the triumphant return of the Middle Ages in literature, and particularly in how Britons were reminded of their mythic heritage in the tales of King Arthur. But Arthur was only the first falling snowball in a veritable avalanche of medieval literature that was just becoming available after centuries of neglect. John Mitchell Kemble, a scholar of old Anglo-Saxon and a student of Jacob Grimm (of “the brothers Grimm”), published a modern English translation of Beowulf in 1836, to the great excitement of both the English and the German world. (The Germans were actually decades ahead of the English in the medieval revival, but that’s a subject for another post.) Enthusiasm for Britain’s medieval past reached an all-time high. It inevitably became time for the Victorians to apply all the pomp and chivalry of the Middle Ages as they understood it into action. Thus was born the ill-fated Eglinton Tournament of 1839.

            The year prior, Alexandrina Victoria was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She inherited a country in the midst of a recession, and memories of George IV’s absurdly decadent coronation banquet were still fresh in Britons’ minds. Could the government justify such lavish spending while so many people were unemployed, or even starving? Victoria did the “appropriate” thing and cut the banquet entirely, as well as many other “obsolete” rituals of state associated with the coronation. One such ritual involved the King’s Champion. Ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the King had a duly appointed champion to fight duels in his name (as, by protocol, the King could not fight a duel against anyone but another king). At every coronation banquet, the Champion would ride into the hall in full plate armor, throw down his gauntlet, and issue a challenge to all those present: 

"If any person, of whatever degree soever, high or low, shall deny or gainsay our Sovereign Lord [Name], King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, son and next heir unto our Sovereign Lord the last King deceased, to be the right heir to the imperial Crown of this realm of Great Britain and Ireland, or that he ought not to enjoy the same; here is his Champion, who saith that he lieth, and is a false traitor, being ready in person to combat with him, and in this quarrel will adventure his life against him on what day soever he shall be appointed."—from the words used at the last coronation banquet in 1821

George IV's coronation banquet. It's said that his festivities were so sumptuous that people started eating right in the middle of the sermon at Westminster Abbey.

            But those rites were from more tumultuous times. Britain was a parliamentary government now, was it not? And so, the rituals of old were cast out, and the nobles who were expected to fill these roles were snubbed. One such nobleman was Sir Charles Lamb, who as Knight Marshal of the Royal Household would have led the Champion’s steed into the banquet hall. His stepson, Archibald Montgomorie, Earl of Eglinton (a staunch medievalist), was infuriated that the Crown was skimping on the widely loved ceremonies of state for a “penny crowning”, as Victoria’s coronation came to be known. The disgruntled nobles got together and decided they would fill the void in Britain’s sense of pageantry and chivalry by hosting a spectacle of their own.

            It was decided that these disenfranchised gentlemen would stage a spectacular show of medieval chivalry and honor at Lord Eglinton’s country manor. That fall, 150 prospective knights answered the call of duty and assembled at a medieval arms-dealer’s showroom to discuss the particulars of the tournament. Most soon dropped out when told of the frighteningly high cost of the armor, horses, squires, livery, and so on. But a few dozen remained steadfast in their commitment to making this fantasy of the Middle Ages a reality. Make no mistake: this was no mere staged performance. The knights who were to fight in the tournament spent the whole following year in training for the joust. Although the rehearsals held in London were by invitation only, nobles and commoners alike buzzed with interest, whether it was eager anticipation or scorn.

            Nothing could have prepared Lord Eglinton for the crowds that arrived on the first day of the tournament. The tournament itself was free and open to the public, and they arrived in hordes. A hundred thousand spectators poured in to the tournament grounds, amounting to the longest traffic jam (over thirty miles from Ayr to Glasgow) in all Scottish history up to that point. The nearby town had only one hotel. Local residents charged exorbitant prices for tourists to spend the night in. Others were left sleeping under the grandstands or even inside tree trunks. Most tragically of all, the forces of nature decreed Eglinton’s spectacle would end in disaster. In true Scot style, the first day of the tournament opened with a torrential downpour from the heavens. Women’s fancy dresses were soaked, the roof on the grandstands proved useless, and the field itself turned to mud. The first two knights of the joust, the Hon. Edward Jerningham (the Knight of the Swan) and Captain James Fairlie (the Knight of the Golden Lion), proved all that training was for naught. They charged at one another again and again, but neither could actually land a hit. Fairlie even accidentally dropped his lance, wrapped with his wife’s handkerchief, into the mud. Worse still, they took their time in between tilts to adjust their ill-fitting armor, driving the crowds to boredom and ridicule. The day was only redeemed by the joust of Lord Waterford (the Knight of the Dragon) and Lord Eglinton (the Lord of the Tournament) himself. Both were sportsmen who took their training seriously, and at the third tilt, Eglinton broke his lance squarely against Waterford’s shield.

            Nonetheless, the rain had taken its toll, and despite the presence of many notable nobles such as Prince Louis Napoleon (the future Emperor Napoleon III), the crowds failed to return for the subsequent days of the tourney. Meanwhile, the Whig press heaped column after column of scorn, scandal, and mockery over the excesses of the knights and their farcical attempt to recreate the past. The media’s handling of the Eglinton Tournament was, in many ways, a blow to the medieval revival because it caricatured the movement as nothing more than the play-acting of some out-of-touch Tory aristocrats. If Eglinton failed revive the culture of sport jousting in his own country, though, he inadvertently inspired the birth of a new jousting tradition in America. A Marylander by the name of William Gilmor was in attendance at the Tournament. The next year, he hosted a spectacle of his own in Virginia, kickstarting an entire jousting movement in the antebellum South. These sporting events undoubtedly served as the forerunner of the modern jousts at the Renaissance fairs that so many Americans enjoy today.

The knights process by the Queen's Gallery.
Procession across the Tournament Bridge.

Lady Seymour, a distant descendant of Henry VIII's third wife, was crowned Queen of Love and Beauty.
The melee.
The lists.
The banquet, served with period-accurate food which reportedly disgusted a lot of the guests.
The ball. The men look a bit silly with their non-period, Elvis-like sideburns.
The grand prize trophy, made of real silver. Makes the Lombardi Super Bowl trophy look like a cheap souvenir by comparison!
An earthenware jug at the Victoria & Albert Museum that commemorates the Tournament.