The Courtier In Chicago: “Cloudy Witnesses”

I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to speak to the Catholic Art Guild in Chicago on Saturday, May 5th, at 11:00 am. I’ll be speaking on a problem that has been plaguing the art world for some time now: cultural illiteracy in sacred art. The talk will take place at St. John Cantius, the grand, historic Baroque Revival church located on the city’s West Side. [N.B. On a side note, I’m looking forward to poking around this rather grand building, and snapping a mountain of pics for my IG account.]

I’ve tentatively titled the presentation “Cloudy Witnesses”. This is in reference to Hebrews 12:1 where, after recounting the lives of those who had gone before him in faith, the author speaks of the patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs as a “great cloud of witnesses” who inspire the Church. Yet in our present age, the shining examples of these people of faith, so often the subjects of great works of art, have in many cases become clouded over.

As Western society becomes more aggressively secularized, understanding of the meaning, purpose, and significance of Christian art is declining. Formerly well-understood iconography and symbolism is becoming obscure; meaning is being falsely re-interpreted and distilled through secular philosophies, which usually have little or nothing whatsoever to do with the beliefs of those involved in the creation of these works. Such factors, combined with the decline of standards in art education and art media over the past several decades due to an almost exclusive focus on secular, Modern, and Contemporary Art, have created a climate of widespread institutional and popular ignorance when it comes to sacred art. As part of my presentation, I will attempt to offer some practical proposals for addressing this situation, which I hope will both serve as a clarion call to my fellow Catholics, but which will also prove of interest to non-Catholics who admire and appreciate beautiful works of art.

I’ll be posting the link to the event once that goes live on the Guild site. For those of you unable to attend in person, please note that the Guild will be filming the event in order to make it available on YouTube at a future date. Past speakers before the Guild have included philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, sculptor Anthony Visco, and many others, whose presentations you can find on the Guild site. I’m deeply honored that they would include me in such illustrious company.

Esglesia

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Notre Dame Is Falling Down: Why The French Need Our Help (Again)

If I asked you to name the most famous church in France, more likely than not you would pick the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Thanks to its prominent location in the French capital, its appearance in films, television, and works of art, and its significant influence on church design around the world, Notre Dame is perhaps the best-known religious building in France, even if it’s not quite the most beautiful or interesting church in that country. So it will no doubt grieve you to learn that, as a result of centuries of neglect, Notre Dame is falling down – and needs about 150 million euros to be saved.

As described by the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris charitable group:

Unfortunately, the architectural state of the cathedral is in very bad condition. This does not appear at first glance as the façade was restored in the nineties. However, below are a few examples of the urgent repairs needed :

  • the nearly 100 meter high spire and the 12 apostles that crown it have a large number of cracks and fissures that need an immediate restoration,
  • the aging stonework of all of the flying buttresses are causing problems for the stability of the whole building,
  • many pinnacles and gargoyles are in disrepair or have fallen down and
  • the lead framework of the stained glass windows is weakened

The Ministry of Culture summarized all these needed repairs in a 2014 audit. The overall cost of the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is estimated to be around €150 million. This estimate includes both the base infrastructure as well as other architectural and cultural treasures. Ideally, these renovations need to be completed within the next 5 years, and at the latest within 15 years.

We can lay the blame for this situation at a number of doorsteps. The passage of time, pollution, declining Mass attendance, poor management, and other factors all have parts to play. However, I suspect that a significant part of the problem lies in the strange relationship which Notre Dame the building has with the congregation which it serves, or rather with the secular government which controls it.

For you see, rather bizarrely, the Archdiocese of Paris does not actually own Notre Dame. It is in fact the property of the French government, which permits the Church to use the Cathedral for religious purposes, but does not provide any funding toward the running of the building. There are comparatively small-scale government grants made to the building for historic preservation purposes, but on the whole, any major restoration costs fall on the Archdiocese’s tab. This head-scratching arrangement was codified at the turn of the previous century, but really began in 1789.

Of the many things which you were probably not taught in school about the French Revolution was the fact that churches like Notre Dame were stolen from the Church by the French government, and desecrated in the name of atheism. In addition to attacks on the fabric of these buildings themselves, where towers, facades, or sometimes even entire structures were torn down, countless works of art contained within them were destroyed or defaced. Graves of the dead buried within these churches were plundered and the bodies thrown onto scrap heaps, while innumerable numbers of books from their libraries were burned, all in the name of worship of the secular French state.

To substitute for Christianity, ceremonies were invented to celebrate the State, or amorphous concepts such as “Liberty”, albeit not a form of that concept which I daresay any reasonable person would care to live under. One of the more egregious examples of this, in the case of Notre Dame, was the celebration within its walls of “The Festival of Reason”, which was described by the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle in his “The French Revolution: A History” (1837). As part of the bacchanal of blood involved in this event, an actress and prostitute – but I repeat myself – by the name of Amélie-Julie Candeille was dressed as a personification of liberty, paraded around Paris, and brought to the now-desecrated Notre Dame, so that she could be worshiped where the high altar once stood by the President of France and his toadies:

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;–Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And so straightway, Reason taking seat on the high- altar of Notre-Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; National Convention chanting ‘the Hymn to Liberty, words by Chenier, music by Gossec.’ It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion of Chaumette.

After the re-legalization of Christianity in the 19th century there was some improvement to the situation, in the form of an over-zealous restoration project headed by the legendary architect and theoretician Viollet-le-Duc. However, apart from the restoration of some windows after World War II, and the cleaning of the façade twenty years ago, there has been virtually no maintenance work on the Cathedral for nearly two centuries. It’s no wonder, then, that the building is quite literally falling to pieces.

Given the fact that Notre Dame is in the state that she is in is, at least in part, due to the abuse and neglect which she has suffered at the hands of the State, it seems to me that the only proper course of action is either for the French government itself to pay for her restoration, or for the State to wash its hands of the entire cause célèbre by returning ownership of the building to the Church. Neither of these things will happen, of course, since France is too busy paying for important necessities such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s $30,000 makeup bill. In addition, anti-Catholicism is so rooted in the workings of the State, that any attempt to return the Church’s rightful property to her would be doomed to legislative failure.

And so once again, it falls to the international community – and particularly Americans, natch – to take on the work which the French are too impotent to handle themselves. That’s not an excuse for us to sit back and do nothing, of course, while the Cathedral falls into ruin. But it’s rather embarrassing that, once again, the rest of the world has to come to France’s rescue.

Garg

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

An Omen For Our Times: The Altenberg Altarpiece

A new exhibition at The Städel Museum in Frankfurt called “Heaven on Display” caught my eye in the art press this morning. Although the gallery is filled with beautiful works of art created over many centuries, as with any exhibition of this sort the visitor is cautioned not to forget the fact that such a show is something of a Frankenstein monster. Torn from the fabric for which they were created, and chopped into bits for the benefit of greedy governments, the objects on display provide a good opportunity for us to call to mind exactly why they were made, why they ended up as they have, and what we can learn from their story.

The centerpiece of the The Städel exhibition is the Altenberg Altarpiece, which was created in the 14th century for the Abbey of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) Sisters in Altenberg an der Lahn. Its central portion consists of a well-loved statue of the Madonna and Child, which was placed in an architectural framework of Gothic tracery. This was flanked by hinged wooden wings, painted with lively, colorful images of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The entire ensemble stood on the High Altar of the Abbey Church for centuries, and was greatly admired by numerous visitors.

In 1803, Altenberg Abbey was secularized by the local princelings, in collusion with the secular French Republic led by then-Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters were forced to leave both their home and their religious vows, Altenberg was stripped of everything of value, and the Abbey’s contents were broken up and sold to the highest bidder. Today, the component parts of the Altenberg Altarpiece are scattered among municipal, regional, and private collections around the world.

The story of how the Altenberg Altarpiece ended up in its present state is a part of Western history which at best is usually glossed over in school. While England’s Henry VIII is certainly the most infamous of despoilers of the patrimony of Western Christianity, a supposedly “enlightened” Europe decided to match his efforts beginning in the late 18th century. Hundreds of abbeys and monasteries were forcibly closed, and buildings, land, and contents were sold off. This was done supposedly for the benefit of “the people”, but in reality for the benefit of people like the (Un)Holy Roman Emperor Josef II, an eternal embarrassment to the Habsburg family, and those who backed the radical destruction of Catholic culture.

This practice picked up pace under Napoleon, and continued well into the 19th century. Spanish Prime Minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal for example, one of the largest pigs ever to achieve the feat of walking on two legs, is responsible for the fact that many works of Christian art and architecture were ripped out of Spain and sold to private collectors. When you see bits of frescoes from Catalan Romanesque monasteries or embroidered altarcloths from Burgundy in places like Boston or Philadelphia, the secularization process begun under the Enlightenment is most probably responsible for how they ended up where they are.

Understanding how these works of art came down to us is important, since they are no longer serving the purposes for which they were created. In seeing the Altenberg Altarpiece patched back together, we can be reminded that while an age of faith created this work of art, and built the Abbey that housed it, an age of secularization needed to destroy these things. The visual impact of Catholicism needed to be diminished or eliminated by secular forces in Western Europe, just as the communists needed to bulldoze cathedrals in Eastern Europe to show that there was no going back.

In earlier times, man’s creative energy was put at the service of God, cataloguing his blessings upon us all. Today, surrounded by contemporary art and architecture that catalogues and celebrates the self, which accepts no criticism of any kind, we may very well ask what such things portend. As we head into an increasingly perilous age for Christianity, perhaps in seeing what became of Altenberg Abbey and its beautiful Altarpiece, we have a preview of what may be in store.

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Wings from the Altenberg Altarpiece