18 November 2009

Baroque again

I have been interested by the response to my question about the Baroque.

One intelligent email suggests that the English have a particular problem with the Baroque, and links this with the emotional side of it and the Incarnational. I think this is dead right. The Reformation taught the English to be wary of the Flesh; "Spirituality" has to be etherial and other-worldly. A "spiritual" girl is one with an unhealthy washed-out complexion and vague watery eyes. Mind you, English medieval art was intensely emotional and Incarnational. You can find faded murals in medieval churches, revealed after the removals of layers of whitewash, showing in lurid (Oh dear! Would I have used that philologically inapposite adjective if I were not English?) detail the lacerations of Christ's flesh. It's all a bit like Guinness: we tend to think of stout porter as an Irish beverage, while until the first world war it was made all over the Atlantic archipelago: it's just that it is in Ireland, because of historical accidents, that it has mainly survived. Or bagpipes: they were common to most of Europe until the twentieth century, but in most places they have disappeared, leaving a popular impression that they are mainly Scotch. There's nothing inherently unEnglish about Emotion and Incarnation in ones spirituality; it's just that since the cultural schisms of the sixteenth century, they have been phased out of English religion: leaving them to appear foreign and alien. Yes? And since the Baroque is so superbly capable of expressing the emotional and the Incarnational - and is foreign and papist - the Baroque magnetically attracts to it all the suspicions generated by 450 years of religious and cultural heresy.

Remember Dr Dawkins' illuminating diatribe in the Washington Post: for heavens sake read it if you haven't already. I mean it; you'll learn more from that one interview than from volumes of history, sociology, or psychology. It is so revealing because it shows that it's not religion as such or belief in God as such that gets under his skin, but that horrible thing Catholicism. Dawkins is your typical ignorant English bigot. Honest: scratch nine English out of ten and you'll find Dawkins just under the surface.

Those of you who are within reach of London and have not yet done the excellent NG exhibition of Spanish religious art: can I ask you, after you go, to report back on the reactions of the viewers to the realism with which emotion and suffering are portrayed? I recall one arty historically gent peering down at an alarmingly realistic dead Christ and addressing his companion on the views of Vasari. A defence mechanism - contrived dispassion - against the danger of actual response? A friend of mine picked up a rumour that the attendants had been warned to be on the lookout for nutters who might try to damage the exhibits ... or to pray before them! If I'd known before I went, I would have tried it (the prayer, I mean, not the vandalism) to see what happened.

Hint hint.


Fr Neil said...

The disappearance of bagpipes is almost, but not quite, sufficient consolation for the exclusion of the Baroque

Michael McDonough said...

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, OFR, himself iconic as one of the religious leaders in the States of a return to authentic religious life, habit, prayer et al., related an anecdote on TV recently that relates to your inspiration at the Museum.

Fr. Benedict was in the Soviet Union, on a layover of his flight to Calcutta, and went to one of the Moscow museums where there was a display, in a room filled with icons, of one of the more revered icons of Our Lady in all Russia. There were "museum wardens" patrolling the rooms, and he noticed that the Moskovites would wait to see their backs, then turn quickly to this icon and make the sign of the Cross. Inspired by their faith, he went and knelt before the icon, and himself made the sign of the Cross and prayed a while. Suddenly there loomed the dark-suited figure of the chief of the museum wardens, a woman. He turned to her from his knees and uttered the sure words to keep him out of the Lubyanka during Cold War times: "Americanski!".

Anonymous said...

True, Fr Neil.

As I've heard:

Q: You know what bagpipes at the bottom of the ocean are?

A: A good start.

Father, if I was a cartoonist I would picture your sterile "spiritual girl" (neo-Catholicism, ie liturgical Calvinism) "with an unhealthy washed-out complexion and vague watery eyes," opposite a buxom, bright eyed, lively matron (traditional Catholicism) who due to her fecundity is “young and lusty as an eagle.”

Michael McDonough said...

Inspired by Dr. Dawkins recent diatribes, I have been re-reading his "The Blind Watchmaker". While I find his exposition of the various points about Darwinism helpful (i.e., he must be a very fine teacher), I am reduced to scratching my head at all the unrelated and gratuitous asides, such as "no need for a supernatural agent here", "miraculous to us perhaps, but easily explainable in terms of ...", etc. What causes wonder is to think: "Whom is he addressing with these asides?" I think his interlocutor is his own baptized, teenage self.

I'm not sure that is related to the Baroque (Rococo?), so I apologize if it's off-topic. I do find Dr. Dawkins a bit like your wan English maiden. He appears never to have had a go at carnal knowledge of either solid down-to-earth metaphysics or supernatural faith.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father,

Thank you for the post and the mention of "Making the Sacred Real." Truly a remarkable exhibition and one which like "Byzantium" surely, Father, could not have moved you to prayer. I did pray before the lifesize crucifix and was not approached by any attendant and asked to desist. But then perhaps they do not understand that prayer can be interior.

Though when I later went into St Paul's bookshop I was followed around by one of the shop assistants, who clearly by his furtive manner thought that I was up to no good. Quite disturbing really - mind you it would have been more disturbing had I been wearing my clerical collar.