22 December 2016


I feel that the Baroque gets a raw deal. English culture is deeply antipathetic to it; why? Because it is (for the most part) foreign and we are a nasty insular xenophobic people given to defining ourselves only in terms of not being foreign? Perhaps you can tell me. But there are writers of intelligence - Pickstock and Hemming spring to mind - who don't give the Baroque a fair run. And in liturgical circles, you only have to characterise something as 'Baroque' to have spoken its condemnation.

On a trip to Prague, Pope Benedict XVI said something which strikes me as perhaps the start of a Spirituality of the Baroque; if Prague, he asked, is the heart of Europe, in what does that 'heart' consist?
"Surely a clue is found in the architectural jewels that adorn this city ... Their beauty expresses faith; they are epiphanies of God that rightly leave us pondering the glorious marvels to which we creatures can apire when we give expression to the aesthetic and cognitive aspects of our inmost being ... The creative encounter of the classical tradition and the Gospel gave birth to a vision of man and society attentive to God's presence among us."

It looks to me as though Benedict's theology of the aesthetic may prove one of many significant intellectual gifts of that wonderful and unforgettable pontificate.

We of the Ordinariate Patrimony may have someting to contribute here. Sir Ninian Comper ... of whom Sir Nikolaus 'Bauhaus' Pevsner used the adjective 'limp' ... believed in 'Unity by Inclusion' . He discovered this in between the work he did at my 'title' church of S Mary's, Beaconsfield, and his contribution of such splendour in Pusey House Chapel, here in Oxford. What on earth is wrong with putting a baroque altar into a gothic church? Henry VII did it to splendid effect in the magnificent perpendicular Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey! Just imagine that vault with its polychromatic paint, enshrining the baldachino and Altar.


A Scottish Cat said...

But, ai thought the baroque was considered to be a movement beginning in the mid sixteenth century? Sure Henry VII's altar is Renaissance?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is as Fulton Sheen said: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” so there are many Englishmen who dislike what they perceive to be the true character of Baroque.

Cordelio said...

Since the days when, as a schoolboy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I had nursed a love of architecture, but, though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and medieval.

This was my conversion to the Baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those coffered ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones, was indeed a life-giving spring.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

In Sire's very insightful Phoenix from the Ashes, there is an excellent passage about the failure of modern Catholic culture to generate its own authentically Catholic, yet original, architectural styles. Saving a brief flash of Gaudi, the choice has either been between "insular and medieval" or the banal and non-Catholic modern styles.

neilmac said...

While I admire Baroque architecture for what it expresses about the Faith, I do find much of it merely silly, e.g. wedding-cake-ornamentation and putti.

I much prefer the more "masculine" Gothic style which is more purposeful, majestic and serious, and seems to me to express the Catholic Faith more fully. As buildings, give me Salisbury, Lincoln or Chartres Cathedrals over S Peter's Basilica any day.

But then I am great admirer of Pugin and his campaign to restore the Gothic.

That said, I would certainly opt for the Baroque over the brutalist, secular and minimalist styles that have been forced on us from the 1960s (and earlier). Very few churches built according to these principles have much, if anything, to commend them (and much to condemn); certainly they hardly compare with great churches of the past.

Eric1989 said...

"Francis too has demonstrated a knack for the symbolic gesture: the unexpected request for the people’s blessing upon the announcement of his election as he stood on the central loggia of St. Peter’s, the move out of the papal apartment, the dramatic transformation of the Holy Thursday washing of feet ritual (visiting a juvenile detention facility and washing the feet of women and even Muslims), the gentle embrace of a man covered in horrific tumors, the eschewal of the baroque vestments of his predecessor."

From this piece: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/doctrinal-authority-francis-era.

I wonder if these Baroque haters would wail and gnash their teeth if Vivaldi or Bach were performed at Mass. How much is their hatred of Baroque aesthetics tied up with their disavowal of Counter-Reformation Catholic praxis?

KaeseEs said...

I assure you, Fr, that these attitudes are not confined to Britain. When I was in college, the chaplain at the campus chapel (which was erected as a parish despite being a literal pile of cinderblocks, incidentally - a nightmare to heat in the winter because they didn't even put insulation and wallboard on the inside) was fond of disdainfully referring to the traditional Mass as a "Baroque melodrama". I'm not sure he knew when the Baroque period was.

Martin said...

The baroque has a strong connection with the counterreformation, and there were hints of it in England during the seventeenth century, during Charles I's reign -- as Father Hunwicke has mentioned in some of his blogs on Oxford.

tradgardmastare said...

Don't forget Martin Travers too.

Pastor in Monte said...

I can't remember whether it was Ronald Knox himself, or Waugh on Knox, who commented that Gothic appealed to the young man, Classical/Baroque to the more mature.

JMcCarthy said...

A propos of your piece on language, you might be aware of this, a tool I use to try to make my students aware of business cliches - someone ought to develop a theological version. http://www.bullshitbingo.net/cards/buzzword/ Excuse the bovine and scatological name.

Richard said...

Didn't the Society of SS Peter & Paul try to introduce the Baroque into the English Church? I was never certain whether they were just being naughty boys or were seriously trying to test the limits of what the Church of England would be willing to accommodate.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Baroque, 1630s, Porch of the University Church in Oxford. More grandly, when Wren rebuilt S Paul's.

Banshee said...

Old American Catholic churches tend to be a nice mix of whatever the parishioners happened to like or where they had come from, smashed together but working somehow.

But yeah, a lot of German parishes tend to be baroque. Often with the little bare electric light bulbs outlining the masterpiece, in a sort of electric baroque.

Otherwise the favorite historical styles are Romanesque, Gothic, California Missions, and the occasional Big Budget Fantasy Ireland. (Usually with big green marble pillars, because that is how Americans used to roll.)

In today's visually impoverished churches, it is always fun to point out that, someday, inevitably, somebody will cover up all that bare space with paintings. Heh heh.

Banshee said...

I forgot to mention that Austrian builder priest in Peru, who goes around from parish to parish, building big Austrian Baroque churches with local workmen. And they all get painted bright cheery colors on the outside, like pink or light blue or pastel yellow.

Man, that would sure look cheerful in winter. All these beige churches without stained glass are depressing in winter.

walsingham*way said...

The ultramontane Anglican Papalist Society of SS Peter & Paul did wish to kick-start a movement called Back to Baroque through their printing, architecture, vestments and such minor Basilicas as St Mary Bourne Street. St Magnus the Martyr in the city of London under Father Fynes Clinton is another good example. The apotheosis in its homely way is the life's work of Alfred Hope Patten in the Shrine and Holy House of Our Lady at Walsingham. Sadly some of the frisson of disobedience Fr Hope Patten suffered from the Bishop of Norwich for decades has been sanitised by the so called bishop of Norwich inducting the administrator of the Shrine. The bishop of Norwich may induct to the parish church, but the whole point of the Anglican shrine is that it was built with private funds on private land having no connection with the bishops of Norwich or any other Anglican body who made life for Fr Hope Patten so difficult. Of course the willing complicity of the Shrine authorities has done the work of the bishop for him.