Monday, May 21


The Softer Side of Mother Church

German Rococo, with its meerschaum froth of ebullient cherubs and pastel strapwork, is an acquired taste, even for me. Compared with the muscular, almost Amazonian femininity of its Roman Baroque cousins, it can occasionally seem to lack a certain focus in its spreading carapace of ornament, yet there is much to be learned from this dizzying physical manifestation of religious ecstasy.

First, even apart from its fantastic rocaille, the basic structure of the building itself is imbued with an extraordinary plasticity and lightness that takes the luminous hallenkirches of Gothic Germany and bends them like a coat-hanger into the compress-and-release of ovular naves and bulging transcepts, while the ornament must be read, rather than mere decadent exuberance, as an overflowing of the traditional richness of the sanctuary over the whole of the church, turning the entire interior, rather than just the chancel, into a manifestation of heaven that catches up the congregation as a whole.

On one hand, this peculiarly German characteristic may subvert the more orthodox distinction between the two parts of the church (and thus is not necessarily a good model for our current ecclesiological situation), but at the same time offers an important teaching-point that requires the normative distinction between the two in order to be appreciated. Still, it is nonetheless going to be very hard for people to miss the reredos; and while one may legitimately claim the focus may be more on the reredos than the altar itself, such concerns would excise not only Baroque altarpieces from our tradition but a good many Gothic masterpieces as well.

It is better to see the presence of the altar as extended in space through the superstructure of the reredos, which functions as a symbolic window into heaven representing the very real nexus of heaven and earth that is the altar. Like the baldachin, it's just another of many approaches to visually render the importance of the altar, which, being low to the ground, makes for a distinctly awkward object of visual veneration. To paraphrase the semiotician Umberto Eco, long low things tend to make awkward religious objects--you never heard of a cult of the sacred bannister, did you?

It is also crucial to recall the exteriors of many of these churches, especially those that stand in the foothills of the German alps, often have exteriors of a surpassing plainness, thus heightening the impression of crossing from the outside world into an independent heavenly realm.

One must recall that such extraordinary masses of plasterwork are not truly a manifestation not of a citified or effeminate love of ornament but a local, popular, even somewhat folkloric response to the more disciplined decoration of Borromini or Fischer von Erlach. While still in the realm of high art--for men like Balthazar Neumann were not unlettered craftsmen--it is a high art intimately connected to the peasant votaries who flocked to such shrines and to the symbolism that swayed their hearts.

Just as we need the hard masculinity of Romanesque or the militant womanliness of the Roman Baroque, there's something to be said for seeing solemn Ecclesia show off her cheerful, maidenly youthful side. While lacy albs are one thing, and often a bit over the top (and are often themselves are more the fruit of 19th century commercial taste than the truly traditional), architecture is wholly another. Occasionally, we can permit Mother Church to be a bit girly, after all.

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