Cleansing Fire

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The “Righteousness of the Plain”

October 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Monastery of Kloster Eberbach, 1145-1160 and 1170-1186, Frankfurt

The phrase –“the righteousness of the plain”– is used by Robin M. Jensen in her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen [1] to describe the view of many that art in worship marks the “beginning of a slide down into vanity, materialism, and –ultimately—idolatry.” God should be worshipped in simplicity and free of distracting “trappings.” Art is viewed by such folks as self-indulgent and, at the very least, an unnecessary expense. Better that the money be spent on meeting the basic needs of people, especially the poor. The Church should concentrate on good works rather than beautiful works.

Jensen points out that a text from Isaiah is often cited by holders of this view.

“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bring offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-13. 16-17)

The “righteousness of the plain” view understands feelings and sensory experiences to be improper to religion. Religion should be a dispassionate activity. Art “awakens appetites” and “arouses passions” and can tempt people to sin.

We recognize this viewpoint as representative of puritanical Protestantism. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we identify the view, in general, with Protestants. Catholics often describe a plain church as looking “protestant.”

But this passion for the plain has a tradition in Catholicism as well. For pretty much the same reasons, “Cistercian monastic architecture –under the influence especially of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)– was characterized by its simplicity and austerity. In contrast to the richly carved capitals and portals at other monasteries, Cistercian art was minimal, with almost no figurative carvings to distract the monks.” [2]

2. The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration

Saint Bernard, in a letter to William of St. Thierry, writes:

“…the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention… The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief.” [3]

3. 12th-century Cistercian

Bernard’s austere aesthetics and numerous rules eventually outlawed the use of paintings and other images in his monastic churches. His rules it must be remembered, were for monks who had withdrawn from the people, “we who left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake.” Bernard, however, notes that bishops and their parishes have an excuse for expensive worship in “being debtors to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.” [4] Clearly, even in the case of non-monastic churches, Bernard disparaged use of liturgical art.

4. "Quietly Beautiful" Novy Dvur contemporary monastery in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic. Photo by Ståle Eriksen

Although St. Bernard sees the use of images and decoration in worship as having the potential for descending into idolatry, he seems to object most to what he understands as the distracting aspect of decoration, and the contradiction between expensive worship and care for the poor.

I suppose someone should have asked Bernard if he found Jesus –the image of the invisible Father- “distracting?” The sacramental nature of liturgical images, based upon the theology of the Incarnation (affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea 787) [5], would seem to place St. Bernard’s thinking on the subject of the use of holy images in churches at odds with the teaching of the wider Church. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers several centuries later echoed Bernard’s thoughts. [6]

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council we witnessed an onslaught of minimalism in the construction and renovation of churches that only recently, after forty years of iconoclastic thinking, seems to be running out of steam. The minimalist tendency had already been evident in the liturgical reform movement leading up to the Council. It gained momentum quickly after the Council mostly as a result of the interaction of the thinking of the Council with regards to active participation in the liturgy and the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s: rejection of authority and tradition, and the intensity of emotions over racial and social justice concerns.

Austere simplicity of church buildings is generally outside the mainstream of Catholic architectural tradition being relegated, for the most part, to monastic environments andl church architecture that became popular with liturgists of the second part of the 20th century. I do not mean to imply, of course, that austere simplicity cannot be beautiful or, even, Catholic. We have a strong tradition of monasticism in the Catholic Church and we formulated, after all, Western thought on social justice and effective care for the poor and marginalized. Rejection or at least abstension from sensual stimulation is within our tradition and as much a pathway to spiritual union with God as reflecting on beautiful art and music. I can’t go into the details of such spirituality here, only to point out that it is a ligitimate pathway that yeilds great fruit not only to monks but to a large segment, if not a majority, of Catholic faithful. I think that it would be difficult to find a page in “My Imitation of Christ” (by Thomas à Kempis) without word about letting go of this world and its sensual allures. Then, there is the example of the covering of statues and paintings during the last two weeks of Lent.  The Cistercian approach is a strong one in our tradition, if not a dominate one.

We each have our preferences, of course, but the vast majority of the Catholic faithful are not monks or nuns under a rule of austere simplicity and chastity. Diocesan churches, it seems to me should adhere to the thinking of the Second Council of Nicaea and employ images and decoration in churches –and not be cheap or stingy about it. The Second Vatican Council did not change the policy of images in churches; indeed, it stressed their importance.

It does not help that often art or “decoration” is viewed as not essential, as actually have a role to play in the liturgy. Since it is thought of as “frivolous”, it is usually one of the last things considered in a budget and only if money is left over.

…………………………………………………….

Notes

[1] The Substance of Things Seen; Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)  pp 79-80

[2]  Sacred Destinations

[3] Early Medieval Art 300-1150, Carcilia Davis-Weyer, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986)  pp 168-69

[4] Early Medieval Art… 169

[5] “…the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.  … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

[6] St. Bernard did hold some doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would later resurrect. His theology contains a mix of Protestant and Catholic doctrines. Calvin, for example, quotes Bernard several times to show the historical validity of “faith alone”, and his concept of justification was important to the Protestants. I don’t mean to imply by this that Bernard is not worthy to be a Doctor of the Church; that would be ridiculous. Only that his thinking could at times, on certain topics, seem to not obviously exemplify traditional Catholic teaching.

Picture Sources

1. http://bigwillystar.blogspot.com/2008_10_01_archive.html

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cistercian_architecture

3. http://www.newclairvaux.org/1/post/2010/9/cistercian-architecture-presentation.html

4. http://therepublicofless.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/john-pawson/

5. and 6. Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)

 

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4 Responses to “The “Righteousness of the Plain””

  1. avatar LC says:

    This is a lovely essay – thank you for all of your tremendous work. A quick note: in footnote six, it is anachronistic to say that Bernard’s theology was a mix of Protestant and Catholic, as the Reformation had not yet happened. I do see what you are saying, though, and you explain your point after that sentence.

    What I think is really special here is that it reveals the breadth of the Catholic tradition, both theologically and artistically.

  2. avatar snowshoes says:

    Bernie,

    Excellent! But you didn’t use any examples of churches in the DoR. With the exception of the new abbey in Bohemia, all of the churches you show are beautiful classical, gothic and romanesque stone churches, which, because of their size, couldn’t really be decorated anyway (much). But my point is that the stone architecture with its vertical thrust, helps itself to lift the mind and heart to God, and is sumptuously beautiful. While these are the size of church St. Bernard would have approved of, they are much more vast than just about anything in the DoR, and I might observe, to build a church like one of those old things would cost tens if not hundreds of millions of smackers. We SHOULD be building churches like this, talk about a stimulus program!!! Thank you, Bernie!! Happy Feast of St. Francis. “Go and rebuild my Church…”

  3. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    If you write a book on sacred art, I will read it!!!LOL

  4. avatar Bernie says:

    Hi Raymond: perhaps you might find my online book “A History of Christian Art” interesting. It’s a work in progress: http://www.historyofchristianart.com/


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