Thursday, October 26


Thomism, Trent and the Baroque

"It's great, Matt, but why not go for Gothic next time?" is a favorite question among my friends, and one I'm certainly not bothered by. I'm no stranger to a whole raft of styles, Gothic included (and have done a reasonable number of hypothetical designs in that style, in fact), but certainly my most grandiose student projects are undeniably Baroque, so it's a valid question, with plenty of answers of my own. However, the question itself, rather than its answer, is also worth meditating on.

I stand by the Council in affirming that the Church has room for all manner of architectures, classical, Gothic, and things still yet dreamed of. The question, in its particular specificity--why Gothic? rather than why not a different style? however, presupposes a Gothic preeminence in things ecclesiastical. That being said, I find this notion of stylistic hierarchy, at least in terms of relative perfection between styles such as Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque, difficult to support. While there may be styles more or less suitable to Christian art, these great styles differ less by degree of perfection than by a difference of approach or outlook that highlights equal and important facets of the holy Catholic religion.

It's not my intention here to take this whole debate to pieces right here and now, but rather focus on one particular argument. A good number of my Gothicist friends are also Thomists of some stripe, or have great sympathy for the great Dominican; Gothicism and Thomism would thus seem to go sensibly hand-in-hand, both products of medieval Christendom. Indeed, Erwin Panofsky, the great scholar, wrote a famous essay linking the scholastic method of articles and sub-articles to the structural and symbolic logic of the Gothic cathedral. However, for me, anyway, Panofsky's thesis strikes me as deeply problematic. If any theology can be said to be the mother of Europe's Gothic garment of churches, it appears to have been the light-mysticism of pseudo-Dionysius that so enthralled the Abbot Suger of St. Denis, who also appears to have been greatly indebted to St. Augustine's biblical commentaries.

Even then, to describe one style as the visual translation of pure theology would be a misstep, and certainly misses out on the surprisingly low-key transition between early Gothic and late Romanesque that the pre-Thomistic St. Denis marks. There is also, once scholasticism actually came on the scene, the problem of how it got from the school-rooms to the stone-yards; and assuming that it did get there, we must face that this interpretation of Gothic deals more with its structural organization, its division of greater members into smaller ones--thus reducing both Gothic and scholasticism to a filing system for knowledge and wholly neglecting the true ideas of God and His creation that would have galvanized both philosopher and mason alike. To see in Panofsky's thesis a link between Thomism and Gothic is, at best, awkward, as Panofsky is more interested in the medium than the message in both instances.

This logico-structural interpretation of Gothic, unthinkable until the nineteenth century and the theories of both the irreligious Viollet-le-Duc and the devout Catholic Pugin, would be wholly foreign to a medieval craftsman. The much-vaunted structural honesty and purity of Gothic is neither so straightforward nor as self-conscious as one might assume. The builders of the Gothic worked hard to produce buildings that defied gravity, that, to paraphase John Summerson's argument in Heavenly Mansions was a suspended architecture of fantasy flying in the face of earthbound supposition. Indeed, Vasari's most harsh criticism of the Gothic was that to him it looked, not structurally logical, but far too flimsy to his eyes!

We see, thus, in this interpretation of Gothic, an architecture hung from the floor of heaven so to speak, much of the same interest in boundary-stretching and illusionism that is so obvious in the Baroque, and which is often perceived in that style as a sort of theatrical decadence. Perhaps they are far more similar in spirit than one might think.

Now, getting back to Thomism. A good friend of mine once remarked he'd asked a historian friend of his if Thomism was as universal a theological system in the Middle Ages as is often portrayed. His friend's answer was that it was not, and back then things were still pretty wide open, with Scotists, Thomists, scholastics, followers of Bonaventure and all other manner of thinker running around. The debates between the Franciscans and the Dominicans over the likes of the Immaculate Conception, not to mention the amazingly messy world of the University of Paris, suggest that there's at least some truth to this depiction of the medieval philosophical world. I am, however, only an amateur historian, and am quite happy to be proven wrong on this point; however, it remains an indisputable fact that the real 'canonization' of Thomism within the Catholic Church came only at Trent, where the Summa rested on the altar next to the Bible.

Now, of course, the Church accepts no one philosophy as she accepts no one architecture, and there is room for von Balthasar, Augustine, the whole troupe of phenomenologists, ressourcement and Thomism's various sub-dialects, but certainly that was a great courtesy paid to the Angelic Doctor at Trent. And perhaps it is not a bad idea to consider that the style which took the best out of Trent, and also smoothed out its more severe bits, was the Baroque. Is Baroque, then, at least partially indebted to Thomism, or at the very least, compatible with it? I offer no answer, but history suggests that there may be a fair amount of truth to this notion.

Of course, Baroque is neither just Thomist nor Tridentine--and indeed, after my complaints of the (unintentional) loss of a good deal of pre-Reformation Catholic culture in the wake of Trent, in spite of much of the good that it did in terms of combatting Luther and jump-starting reform, it may be curious for me to be defending Baroque, which would appear to be the artistic mechanism that led to the loss of rood screens, winged altarpieces and so many other gorgeous medieval splendors. The truth is, the Baroque represents an attempt to re-assimilate these lost elements of liturgical mystery once some of the more misunderstood aspects of Trent had run their course.

After Trent, there was a reaction against elaborate ornamentation and a general move towards a simpler, almost palaeo-Christian aesthetic in church design, though one motivated by more sensible and even archaeological motives than that which caused so much sadness in our own time. We see the first moves to open up the sanctuary and make the ritual of the Mass visible to the people by the removal of rood screens, or their Italian equivalent, and the design of churches intended for preaching, like the Gesu with its massive open nave and minimized side-aisles. Christian art became more straightforward and didactic--and in fact, more than a little dull, if the gruesomely diagrammatic martyrdom cycle of San Stephano Rotondo is anything to go on. Much of the sparser art of this period remains unknown to us, as, in the case of the Gesu, its plain, whitewashed vaults eventually were covered over with the gilded coffers of the Baroque, or once it had come time to decorate churches like Sant' Andrea della Valle, tastes had shifted once again.

The Baroque does not represent a literal or even conscious effort to re-capture the mystery of the Middle Ages, but it certainly is an equal desire to re-enchant the Mass and seek out that mystery in some new, and equally organic form. While perhaps the means used to approach that heavenly illusion varied radically between both eras, they both speak, through art, to the same human needs, the same desire to balance awe and love, to praise the immense joyousness of God that moves the sun and other stars. Fifty years after Trent, and amid much soul-searching over how to best implement that council, the baroque arose and took the best of the Counter-Reformation and dialed it up a notch with joy and glory. Dare we hope the same may come of Vatican II? It is in your hands to do so.

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