Tuesday, August 8


Nephew of the Son of the Return of Did the Renaissance Really Happen?

Dan Mitsui has been kind enough to respond to my latest entry in our pleasant debate. I hope to come up with a response by later this week, possibly Thursday when I'll probably convene the Baroque Cabal in the Kircherianum (my apartment) for a little bit of a chat. I'm only about halfway through Dan's comments, but have to thank him for responding to this undernourished question in Catholic art today.

Several brief remarks I'd like to make, not quite germane to the debate, but nonetheless linked to it:

1. Regarding the religiosity of the artists of the post-Medieval era, in contrast to their forbears: I can't speak of Michelangelo, but Bernini was quite devout, and went on long Ignatian retreats, and Guarini, often described as having Gothic sympathies within a Baroque understanding of art and architecture, was a priest. This hardly proves the superiority of their work, but it does show that to take Michelangelo as the archetype of the post-Renaissance Catholic artist does not include quite everyone. Also, while the "rock-star" artist is principally an Italian invention, they were not unknown in the early Renaissance/late Gothic north in some measure--or at the very least, while less egotistical, they held a fair amount of prestige above the usual image of the anonymous medieval master craftsmen which they supplanted.

2. Iconography: I understand the importance of the iconographic element in Catholic art, and am largely in agreement with it. But I'd really appreciate a more clear definition on what Dan means by iconography for the purposes of the debate, as I think he narrows it somewhat unduly in his distinctions between rhetorical and iconographic. Is this ideal Western tradition a set canon of types that may be added onto as new feasts are decreed? Who determines it? What if different conventions disagree with one another? Is it a set of rules, or a guiding ethos? An ethos which informs and balances and restricts outright invention, encourages innovation, and avoids too much stiffness? I am inclined to say only the latter will prevent an eventual slide back into decadence, or take account of the various orthodox theological approaches which have sprouted up since Trent.

3. Trent: For that matter, I am in agreement with Daniel about the relatively enervating effect Trent had on the art of the time, the result being more didactic and less truly incarnational and sacramental; I do also think that things got better fairly quickly and bounced back by at least 1610 when it comes to architecture and sculpture, if not in the matter of Baroque painting, which never quite got back that vitality. I also agree we lost a lot of wonderful liturgical practices then--but we also got a standardized universal liturgy (excepting a few special cases) which prevented a lot of very odd flotsam and jetsam getting caught up in the nets of the Church. It's a tradeoff, and how to perhaps take the inventiveness of the Middle Ages with the security of Trent is a good question indeed.

4. The Body: The Renaissance really got the human body down well, if you're looking simply in terms of draftmanship. I get tired when people make fun of the Middle Ages because of the apparent naivete of their anatomical skills and am inclined to think it was partially a deliberate stylistic choice, but I do think that the best Christian art should express spiritual realities but not shy away from the incarnational aspect. Some early medieval art is a little too disembodied in its diagrammatic renderings of the human form, to the point the vital immediacy of the Incarnation is muffled. (Even my beloved van Eyck has a disinterest in some instances in really trying to get the structure of the body right under the clothes of his subjects, with results which are occasionally distracting. This is not the result of a lack of skill, but mostly an aesthetic choice, I think.) I think that to avoid excessive animalism and an excessive interest in the body, the lessons of Orthodox iconography are worth preserving and fostering and continuing, and their differing approach is a salutary corrective to more naturalistic approaches. But I do think a naturalistic element, or a balancing of naturalistic and iconographic forces, has a place in the mainstream of Christian art.

5. The East. We must be careful when advocating a system of iconography similar in framework if not style similar to the East. We often assume that Orthodoxy's practices are automatically older than that of Rome's. In liturgy, the Roman--that is to say Gregorian-Tridentine--is often older. (Indeed, the iconostasis only reached its present form in the 15th century). In terms of the basic shape of church art, it is true that the Greeks have retained the tradition in outline; but there have been periods of experiment (the 16th century on Crete comes to mind), of comparative decadence (18th century Russia), of synthesis (19th century Russia, often with intruiguing results), and many other moments backwards and forwards. There has indeed been a certain stability in style, but one must recall there is also a good deal less interest in doctrinal development in the East, at least in the way Rome understands it.

6. Notre Dame. I'm not so worried about the layman confusing classical and Gothic, or confusing classical and traditional; I can say this as someone who has a fair amount of familiarity with the way non-architects respond to Notre Dame work. I'm more concerned about laymen (other than Daniel, who knows his stuff, and, of course, my learned readers and friends) confusing the choices of the 19th century Church for our entire precious heritage of art, whether it be Gothic, Romanesque, or Baroque. We still have much work to do.

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