Saturday, August 5


Son of Did the Renaissance Really Happen?

Before I say anything else, the length of a blog entry prevents anything more than a basic sketch, and my own natural instinct in writing, if not art, is towards slashing broad strokes. Thus, I am in the peculiar position of writing a call to see Christian history with greater nuance in sloppy, bold strokes. Furthermore, given the heat wave, I wrote most of it Wednesday evening in an ill-ventilated room at about eighty degrees, with my back jammed up against the air conditioner. Still, the very perceptive comments of my readership allow me to focus in on the question with greater detail, seeing as how the terms of the debate are better defined. Some comments, in no particular order:

1. The terms of the debate:

I stuck to historical, rather than artistic, concerns in my first foray into this matter because I wanted to get it out of the way. The comparative stability of Catholic society in the Middle Ages may be the cause of a fine history of religious art, but by no means guarantees its monopoly. To some degree, I exaggerate here for effect. Fortunately, I think we have gotten sufficiently past questions of the sanctity of the era and also questions of style and gotten at the root of the matter, which is the philosophy behind such work.

2. Iconography

Dan Mitsui's point is well-taken here, and I agree with it wholeheartedly, actually. To introduce questions of iconographic and liturgical art is to avoid debating questions such as round versus pointed arches, which are essentially meaningless without a deeper understanding of what might be the logic for such forms.

In my own work, I have tried to take the Van Eyck route, which represents an organic development of naturalism within the bounds of the medieval iconographic system. The term "organic development" admittedly can also become dodge to get around certain problems of stylistic difference, but here I think it wholly appropriate. There is a strong liturgical and iconographic mentality in the density of symbolism and the disposition of figures, in many cases only possible with the new techniques of realism that became prevalent in that time.

I think it possible to adapt such lessons to my classical or classicizing architectural projects. The symbolic program for Christ the King Seminary that I devised was essentially a baroque adaptation of the Eucharistic symbolism common in early Netherlandish painting as described in the splendid book Vested Angels, describing how the attendant angels in numerous Nativities and other works create a liturgical atmosphere in which the Christ Child appears as the priest of His Own eternal mass.

This attention to detail is one of medieval painting's greatest strengths, but it only comes forth the strongest in its latest more northerly incarnations. However, I am inclined to think it only able to truly be deployed at full strength when yoked with later concepts. I speak less of the Renaissance than its grandchild, the Baroque--the concetto or istoria, the concept or story which determines that iconographic scheme, is certainly an idea in harmony with the schemes of the Middle Ages at least on certain levels. It takes such an iconographic mentality and has the potential to expand it to the level of an entire building.

It is also possible to create such an iconographic atmosphere with more explicitly classical means. Leonard Porter's great altarpiece in Sioux Falls is Greekly neo-classical, for instance, but shot through with a dense, interconnected web of symbolism pointing back at its central Christological focus. It is also possible in architecture. A good friend of mine produced a splendid church for his thesis project which was so shot through with a coherent sense of symbolism, liturgy and iconography that it would have made Durandus quite proud. Yet, it did so in a vocabulary and concetto mentality which was unabashedly Italian Baroque with a few hints of Spain to it, and without my somewhat peculiar medievalizing tendencies. In some ways, the use of a concetto allowed it to become more coherent than Durandus's work, which sometimes has a tendency to skip about from one thing to the other without much rhyme or reason to the whole. There is a less overtly "liturgical" aspect to much of the Baroque of the past, but I think both our projects showed it was possible to establish that quality within a new Baroque design using the hindsight of the past.

But I have cheated a little by talking about the Baroque, rather than the Renaissance, and have essentially conceded his point. I will say in the Renaissance's defense that Botticelli and the early Renaissance painters, and even Giotto, who I think belongs equally to both worlds, have a good sense of symbolism in their works as well, one more suited to the warmth of the Mediterranean spirit. Italian painters branched off in a very different direction from the severe and often crude rootstock of the local Byzantine and Romanesque, and nothing resembling northern iconographic painting really developed there. The northern painters are empirical and theologizing, the southern ones rely on a profound knowledge of interior relationships which appear in many works--the emotive, charged gaze of so many early Madonnas speaks to this concern. Indeed, the pervasiveness of this gaze, this Italic merriment or solemnity, is what gives these works such wonderful Catholicity. Still, I think the strength of Italian painting is not so much an elaborate symbolic content (though I think what Dan means by iconography is more than that) but the distillation of that symbolism into several strong, bold moves, gazes or poses. The northern approach is meticulous and exacting, the sort of painting that does well to tell like the beads of a rosary, the southern is bolder and more emphatic--the subjective resonance of an objective reality.

I also exaggerate. I will say that think that it is possible to underrate the rich symbolism of the early Renaissance painters such as Botticelli; at least one of his Nativities is close in its incarnational symbolic language to anything by van der Weyden; while the work of the north and south influenced each other in the early Renaissance with surprising fluidity.

I also admit that much of this perfection got lost as time passed. My preference in architecture is towards the more highly-developed classicism and baroque of the post-Tridentine era rather than the shy, faunlike architecture of Alberti's day, but I've never felt as strong a draw to late Renaissance or baroque painting. It offers some lessons, but it strikes me as somewhat tepid. Sculpture, on the other hand, is another matter. Baroque sculpture, to me, contains much of that bold spiritual vigor of the early Italian masters forward into three dimensions and a more sophisticated range of emotion balanced by intellect.

It is admittedly somewhat theatrical, but the theatricality is nothing to be ashamed of. In those days, theater was a profound icon of the way the world ran under God's direction, and these extra 'tricks' added much to the artistic quiver of the painter and sculptor. There is also a liturgical aspect to the work, as well--the remarkable Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila is a profound meditation on divine love, on hiddenness and visibility, with so many Eucharistic resonances that it is a truly fitting thing to place above an altar. It is an oratorio in marble, unabashedly embodied and incarnational on par with Bernard of Clairvaux's eye-popping Sermons on the Song of Songs.

I see the differing periods as reaching out to differing aspects of the Christian mind. One has to be careful in mingling them, but each has its uses. Romanesque creates a calm and prayerful spirit. Gothic leads the soul upward to heaven and enkindles a sense of awe in the face of the ageless. The Renaissance establishes an ordered, light-filled, sober spirit in which we are reminded of God's perfection, while the Baroque, and to a lesser extent the Byzantine, reminds us of God's descent to earth with their spacious domes and luminous, ecstatic moods. Benedict XVI, in his reminders of the joy of Christianity, seems to me a very baroque sort of pontiff.

My own preference is to take that incarnational yet idealized immediacy of the baroque, and mingle it with the more etherial and in some ways more 'naturalistic' aspects of medieval sculpture, in my own work. A lot of it depends on the approach necessary to a piece. Classical sobriety may work better with the personality of a particular saint, or perhaps unalloyed Gothic reverence. I am fascinated by that interplay, which one finds again in some late nineteenth century attempts to synthesize naturalism with a more symbolic and stylized approach, but I also realize my tastes are here in the minority.

Gothic architecture was able to achieve much; perhaps less, in my mind, than Gothic art; however, I believe classical architecture, particularly in its Baroque incarnation, is able to achieve as much and possibly more in terms of scenographic and symbolic effects. Also, I have seen some quite wonderful works by Borromini and Guarini, two great heroes of mine, that manage to introduce Gothic geometries and heights into a Baroque system, and subsume it into something wholly new combining aspects of both. There is a place for Gothic in my heart, but it seems to me to have a more regularized range of possibilities in its forms and shapes, despite being less involved with canon and proportion. This is not to say variety is not possible--there is much fruitfulness and variety inherent in the Gothic tradition, of course, and much that can be still brought out of it; but some of the more spectacular and high-flying effects of the Baroque such as the ceiling of so many Roman churches, or the Transparente of Toledo, or the remarkable effects harnessing hidden light which give such a remarkable chiarosciuro to Rome's churches, are harder to achieve with Gothic.


Emily brings up a fine point here. How is it that Renaissance canons produced aliturgical and uniconographic art (and in many instances, I will admit it did, though I am more sanguine about the possibilities of learning from it) but such a splendid and balanced compromise between earlier chant and later operatic histrionics? I don't have any answers. But I'd like to know.

4. Eclecticism

I am actually heartily in agreement with Daniel here:
If we simply accept an historical ecclecticism in determining the basis of a renewed art, without probing and taking sides in the controversies of the past, the result will be a pious soup with too many cooks.
I have a great admiration for things eclectic, and also to see commonalities across time, though I admit it is possible for such an attitude to plaster over important differences in modes of thought. (Bear in mind, I am at least part Southern, and where I come from, criticism is often preceded by an exculpatory "Bless his heart.") Still, my broad appreciation does not prevent me on zeroing what it is that works best about a particular work, and what does not, and what ultimately helps express the theological ideal at the heart of an artistic composition.

There is eclecticism and there is eclecticism. Good eclecticism produces masterpieces such as Lutyens's Liverpool Cathedral and Goodhue's St. Bart's. It is a way of synthesizing the past and bringing about something new and old at once. The painters of Van Eyck's day often self-consciously strove to mix archaicizing effects with more naturalistic and modern ones, even if it was not necessarily an absolute mixing of styles. There is also a great deal of indifferent, klutzy or outright weird eclecticism out there, especially when it comes to nineteenth-century work; the results vary from the quirkily and charmingly naive to the occasionally downright tacky. Particularly as more non-classical or non-traditional builders attempt to emulate the work of classical or traditional firms in the realm of church building, this may well become a more serious problem.

Eclecticism only works up to a point--the flavors have to harmonize, so to speak (mixing, say, Mock Tudor and Cubism, for instance), and the mixing must be so thorough and complete as to be seamless. I've mixed eras and geographies in my own baroque work to produce a new effect--but I also have attempted, and am still trying, to train my eye to notice when the admixture is not sufficiently mingled. Also, it's important to pick species to crossbreed that are rather genetically similar--different sorts of Baroque, or Gothic, for instance.

There is also the question of uniformity of approach, to quote Tim:
I agree with Daniel, but would also add that what let a unifying thrust to medieval iconography was the relatively unified theology and the manner in which it was taught (and preached). Today, the splintering of theology and theological approaches, even among the orthodox, does not lend itself to common artistic themes that are recognized and respected on anywhere near a universal level.

I'm not saying that absolute theological uniformity is a thing to be desired (there was room for both Aquinas and Hildegard in the High Middle Ages, thankfully) - but certainly a common theological approach is. Only by getting back to a unified understanding of theology and cosmology will artistic themes and their execution be as universally accepted as they were in these previous eras.
In some cases, a Gothic approach in the external ornaments of a church may work if it encapsulates the character of the saint who the church is dedicated to, or how it harmonizes with the place it is set, or a Romanesque one, or some hybrid transitional manner. In the end there is an order, however vague, behind both the styles and the differing theological approaches, which vivifies it. This is not to ignore that there are differences, of course, at the various levels in these varying trajectories that come from a common point of arrival.

4. Chronology

I freely admit that I am inclined to call Dante and Giotto medieval. However, plenty of historians I have come across consider them Renaissance. My selection of them was rather devious, and that historians often pick who's from what period is depending on who's trying to make what point. But my point remains--there is much that is medieval in the Renaissance, and vice versa.

5. Other Comments

Amorphous Chronology--Daniel Mistui's complaint of an amorphous approach to the past among tradition-minded Catholics, highlighting similarities rather than differences is a valid one, and worth considering. I've found, though, the opposite to be true in some circumstances. As someone with a great fondness for the Baroque, I get a lot of comments--"I don't like the Baroque, but I like your work," which is interesting as it suggests that either I am not doing "real" baroque work or the viewer has certain preconceptions of the Baroque, viewing its weirder outliers are the norm. Of course, plenty of my friends can distinguish between the various baroque modes that exist, between the virile Baroque of Rome (always splendid) and its lacier, pinker Bavarian incarnations (which I have to be in the right mood for to enjoy), so I hope they won't take that comment personally!

Didacticism--I admit the question of "what is art?" has wrecked much of the twentieth century's pursuit of the subject. But I think medieval art is more than just didactic--not art for art's sake, a very dangerous maxim indeed, but art for God's sake. I know Dan don't mean didactic in this sense, but it needs a better term to express it. The liturgy is not didactic, or wholly didactic--it expresses and personifies and makes present an idea. A sacred image is self-justifying in addition to teaching--it exists to give thanks and glory to God. I think this is what you're saying when one speaks of iconography, but I am disconcerted by the term "didactic," as it misses the ecstatic anagogy of Medieval art and that of other periods.

Self-consciousness--I can think of no texts of the era, as few exist at all on the subject of art. But there is some evidence in the paintings and thought of the era; the Carolingian "renaissance" could be argued to be a conscious attempt to imitate the grandeur of Rome; most of what I can think of comes in with Van Eyck--and it depends on whether one classifies their work as medieval or Renaissance in spirit, as he is Gothic in outlook but definitely of the Northern Renaissance era. There's certainly much conscious experimentation with the boundaries of artistic expression in the work of the Flemish scool, paintings in grisaille imitating sculpture (which is better, painting or sculpture, went the debate--painting, since we can make things that look like sculpture as well, went their response), mirrors reflecting unseen spectators, tromp-l'oeil flies, and deliberate archaicisms indicating a sense of historic time we sometimes don't ascribe to the medievals--but ones that prove a point. This self-consciousness was deployed for a good reason; perhaps I ought not to call it self-consciousness but consciousness plain and simple.

I just think we ought to not dismiss all art theory out of hand. It would be difficult to go back to the unselfconsciousness of the early Middle Ages after so much has happened, just as it would be difficult to go back to the remarkable liturgical freedom that characterized that period.

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