Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why Modern Art Makes Bad Church Art: Final Installment

So, like a collection agent, I'm back with a last thought or two regarding Modern Art and its malign influence on the Sacred Liturgy, in particular the Mass. If you're coming to this little series of articles for the first time, I've mentioned something about Modern Art as commonly understood, especially its main currents (Abstraction, Expressionism, and the always amusing Fantasy-Psychology). I've also provided a compact definition of doctrinal Catholic Modernism, a loose movement that provided artistic Modernism a port-of-entry into the Church's worship.


The call for a return to a "noble simplicity" in the rites of the Church (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 34) involved no such thing in actual practice, as we're all very much aware. And yet, the mind of the Council was that this Enlightenment ideal--famously espoused by J. Winckelmann (d. 1768)--should be "restored to" (read: "foisted upon") the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. There was, in fact, a time when church art, at least, was marked by the Winckelmannian ideal, brief though it was, in the period surrounding the French Revolution. Why, then, you might ask, was there no resurgence of his beloved Neo-Classicism in the wake of the Vatican Council?

Johann Winckelmann, gazing wistfully at Noble Simplicity

La Madeleine (Paris, begun in 1764)

Why, instead of the impressive Greek simplicity of La Madeleine, did we end up with the hulking abstract blocks that congealed into Our Lady of the Angels cathedral?

His Eminence, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, realizes his understanding of the Faith in Our Lady of the Angels cathedral, Los Angeles, California
Perhaps a better question to begin with would be: how did a principle, enunciated by an art critic, somehow mutate into something of a controlling idea over the Church's sacred rites? It's decidedly odd and out of place. What if there had been some directive in the past stating that "maximum window space and lofty vaulting" (the Gothic) should mark all the Church's rites? Or, say, that "blurring of the transition between vertical and horizontal" (the Rococo) was to be the hallmark of Catholic worship? It might be more to our taste, but it would certainly seem too particular, too limiting, and (perhaps most important of all) too dismissive of the past, of tradition itself.

Hardly an example of "noble simplicity," the 14th-century Augustiner Kirche by rights should have been completely transformed into the Neo-Classical style of its most tourist-attracting monument (below):
Canova's celebrated Neo-Classical cenotaph of Archduchess Maria Christina, empty in more ways than one
We are left, then, with the imperative to "return" to the Noble Simplicity of the Classical Revival, which as an authentic artistic movement lasted no more than forty years, fifty at the most--not even the span of the construction of Notre-Dame in Paris. No one, however, at the time of its imposition (the mid-1960's) or since has ever remotely implied that this principle meant a return to Neo-Classical art. Consequently, we are forced to conclude that it was a kind of stand-in, a disguise if you will, for a very different kind of art, one more in tune with everything else in vogue at the time. I mean, of course, Modern Art.


At this point in my little series, it would be the equivalent of flogging a rapidly expiring horse to detail how Modern Art took over church art, infusing almost everything art-related in the Church with Abstraction, Expression, and Fantasy. But as we are now discussing the Church's worship specifically, it's worth pointing out--if only "for the record"--that the very items used in the Church's Liturgy fell beneath the onslaught of the Modern Art juggernaut.

For instance, there is the widespread use of Abstraction (probably the primary abuse of "Noble Simplicity"):
Abstraction so undiluted, it's practically Cubist (by the way, the Sanctissimum is seen in the lower center part of the photo, in the corner, peering, as it were, through a lattice)

There is also a wide-spread use of Expressionism, or at least a heavy borrowing from the Expressionist movement:
Who hasn't seen something of this kind on a vestment or (as here) a hanging?
Finally, and most regrettably, there is the occasional sighting of an eruption from the Modern Art current known as Fantasy:
The notorious (and sacrilegious) Palm Sunday Mass from a certain notorious (and sacrilegious) parish in the U.S.
Puppet Masses would make Dada so proud! (H. Hoch, Fashion Show, ca. 1930)
Hard though it may be to consider these examples (among countless others) as the embodiment of "Noble Simplicity," they nevertheless are, provided of course that by "Noble Simplicity" we really intend Modern Art, with all its haphazard abstraction, self-centered expressionism, and disturbing flights into the realm of the Subconscious.

This turn to the "modern," though, involved much more than the merely visual elements adapted from Modern Art--ill-suited, albeit, as so many were. If my thesis is correct, the rites themselves were to some extent reinvented according to the most important trends in Modern Art, especially Abstraction and Expressionism.
Rites underwent a kind of abstraction along with church art: simple altar, two candles (the crucifix absent, of course), and a wicker "offering" basket form the backdrop for a new bare-bones Communion Rite (Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, 1970)
In terms of the ceremonial gestures and other actions at Mass (to keep our focus, as promised, on the Church's greatest "artwork"), our readers are only too well aware that much has been eliminated (custody of the "canonical digits," covering the paten, reverences to the Cross, etc., etc.) or reduced (kissing the altar, signs of the Cross, Trinitarian conclusions to the orations, and so on). Sometimes an actual rationale for certain changes was put forward by the reformers ("it's Patristic," "it's Pastoral"), but there remains something haphazard, disordered about the reductions and eliminations.

For instance: vestments. Famously, the maniple was airily dismissed by saying it "need never be used." Why then should any vestments be used? They're not necessarily Patristic, not really Pastoral (in the reformers' understanding of those terms). Some are eliminated (the amice virtually, the maniple, too, in effect), others retained. One can't escape the feeling that the reformers thought the idea of "celebrant" requires vestments, but there's no real rationale for keeping one while discarding another. There's something Abstractionist about it all.

Something similar is observed with the gestures at Mass: the altar (the Gospel book, as well) is reverenced with a kiss, but only twice, with a kind of hail-farewell symmetry. But why--if we look through the reformers' lens--keep ceremonial kisses at all? They hardly speak to "modern man." They are more typically medieval than Patristic, I should think. Again, there is a certain randomness that has picked through the reality (the Mass as it was handed down) and abstracted a few signs of "reverence."

Worthy of a kiss or two?
If we venture further out, into the amorphous "spirit" of the Novus Ordo, we are all of us only too aware of how easily various bits and pieces, shards from this or that, are assembled together (Cubistically, one might say): a Gregorian Agnus Dei, a Gloria in excelsis that sounds like a Broadway show tune, a feminist commercial here or there, with perhaps an "inculturated" vestment or hanging.


And this facet-style liturgical Cubism lends itself, as does the rite itself, to a kind of Expressionism. Very often--less so since 2003--the rubrics of the Mass allow the use of "similar words." This is but the positive version of the lack of governing directions for almost anything. Certainly there are rubrics that remain, but they no longer have the force of moral precepts, let alone of law (even if Canon Law mentions the rubrics). Consequently, there is given or implied a good deal of leeway for the celebrant's own individual expression.

Father Skywalker uses the rite to express his sense of fun and whimsy.

Meanwhile, His Excellency uses the same rite to express something quite different.

Of course, many apologists for the Novus Ordo have stated that using the Mass rite for the individual celebrant's own "expressive" ends is more or less an abuse. Nevertheless, the variety of options, as well as the inclusion of Mass rites for children and for penitential services, does seem to lend credibility to the idea that the new rite was always meant to be malleable and suitable for various individual groups or "communities" (in reality, the pastor or his liturgical politburo). Even with the 2003 revision, the Prayers of the Faithful in the Latin editio typica are not really meant to be used "as is" but rather to serve more or less as a guideline for the celebrant (or liturgical committee, presumably).

Perhaps our readers can--if they're interested--supply other examples from the rites themselves that open the door to Expressionism, properly understood as the use of external "art" to convey one's inner feelings or emotion.


I concede that the Mass rites do not seem to indulge the third and final strain of Modern Art, namely Fantasy (sometimes referred to as "Psychology"). It would indeed be odd if the reformers overtly sought a place for the depiction of the Freudian subconscious dreamscape into the rites of the Roman Catholic Mass. Externally, of course, it makes a regrettably frequent appearance: in "liturgical dance," the Puppet Masses, celebrants in face-paint or other bizarre costumes, etc.

Perhaps by removens prohibens ("removing obstacles"), the new rite has laid itself open to the invasion of the Fantastical and "Psychological." (This is a very indirect line of argument, I realize.) The prohibens in the case of Mass--to my mind--is the very frequent (in the traditional rite) expression of contempt for the things of this world (especially in the collects for the founders of religious orders, for saintly monarchs, and many others) and the contrary desire for the things of heaven: the sheer elevation of mind, and hopefully the heart, to what is good, true, and everlasting--as fitting a point as any to end this little series. I pray it hasn't been entirely useless to our readers. 
"I shall go up to the altar of God, Who giveth joy to my youth: why art thou sad, O my soul, and why dost thou trouble me? Hope in God: for even unto now I shall praise Him"


  1. This was a very edifying series. Thank you, Father!

  2. Why do you think that noble simplicity points to a certain art style?

  3. Dear "Damascus": you're very kind; I'm glad it was of some usefulness to you.

    Dear Marko: the origin of the phrase "noble simplicity" lies with Winckelmann, who intended it as indicative of a classical revival (Neo-Classicism) that would be an antidote to the supposed excesses of Baroque and Rococo. Of course, one can use it to mean whatever one wants it to mean (Arts and Crafts movement, Art Deco, Futurism, etc.), but the original concept was Greco-Roman classicism. My point was that it is a very specific idea in art history being applied to something completely distinct, viz. Catholic ceremonies.

  4. I think it can be very successfully applied to Catholic ceremonies.

    1. Another view, by Dr. Adam DeVille, of "noble simplicity" as it was actually (as opposed to hypothetically) applied to Catholic ceremonies:

      My larger point is not whether this or that starting-point in art history can be applied successfully to Catholic ceremonies but whether it is right to "apply" anything whatsoever. To do so seems antithetical to the very idea of sacred tradition.

      Best regards, Fr. Capreolus

  5. As I have written elsewhere here, there seems to have been a major shift in the 19th and 20th century from the artist as someone commissioned to do something to the artist as a person who primarily expresses himself. I do not find much self-expression in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, but I find plenty worthwhile in it. By contrast, Picasso and modern religious architecture look at the individual's soul—without attention to God—only to find it absurd and wanting.