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More Than “Just a Chair”: Rejecting Our Aesthetic Patrimony

chartres-1
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Source)

“He hath made every thing beautiful in His time: also He hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” –Ecclesiastes 3:11

In the hyper-connected age of social media, many have taken to using the Internet as a pseudo-confessional booth, inflicting their every thought and opinion on the world. With this in mind, I ask your indulgence for a brief admission of my own: I am a Christian and an aesthete. These two cardinal sins of the 21st Century are not only twin offenses against the modern world, but, two years into the reign of Pope Francis, seemingly a contradiction in terms. That I’m one of only a handful of my peers to cling to that withered old Christian creed in my adulthood is bad enough, but to openly admit my delight in the finer things in life tends to suggest, even to fellow believers, that I try to serve two masters.

It’s true: I hate ugliness. Despite my lackluster income, I prefer hardcover books to paperbacks, wood furniture to plastic, craft beers to the cheap stuff, and even Blu-rays to mere DVD’s. I lament the fact that wearing a necktie in most places is now seen as trying too hard, and I don’t understand why any grown men 30 or more degrees north of the equator would wear shorts in public. I’ve even taken the unusual step (for a Catholic) of opening this essay with a quote from the King James Version of the Bible – hardly a bastion of doctrinal orthodoxy, but undoubtedly the bedrock of modern English and the most mellifluous rendition of Holy Writ in our tongue. I could go on, but you’ve probably already concluded that I must be an insufferable snob, all style over substance, and that I am a poor representative of the Christian ideal. On that last count, I wouldn’t entirely disagree.

But on the things that truly matter, I have recently come discover that I’m no longer entirely alone.

A few weeks ago, I spent about five minutes whipping up a shareable meme to go with my pithy observations on the aesthetics of the chair that was unveiled as that which will be used by Pope Francis during his upcoming Mass at Madison Square Garden:

chair

“On the left is a “simple oak chair built by immigrant laborers and devoid of the ornate trappings of power” made for Pope Francis to sit on when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden, New York during the upcoming papal visit to the United States. Sounds like a wonderful gesture of solidarity for a “people’s pope”, no?

On the right is a splendid Gothic revival chair crafted for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1999 by an American master woodcarver.

My friend Jacob, a woodcarver who makes furniture for Catholic churches, was taught his craft by the gentleman who made the chair on the right. His former teacher had to give up his trade in St. Louis, Missouri and move to California because there wasn’t enough demand in the Church for his work. He now carves ornate cabinets and furniture for the wealthy, mainly for private homes, never to be seen or enjoyed by the general public.

The fact that we deride beauty as vain or wasteful is one of many cancers in our church and society. By insisting upon plain, “humble” furnishings for our churches in the prosperous first world, on the contrary, we make a show of false humility, prideful in our shabbiness like a well-to-do family man who calls himself “middle class” for wearing board shorts to work and then frowns on a poorer man for wearing a suit.

As Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey said when his heir was thinking of firing his valet in the name of living a simpler life: “We all have our parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them.”

By the night’s end, my post on Facebook went unexpectedly viral, racking up several thousand shares. It was hardly my best writing, but the message clearly struck a chord; even some of my non-religious friends were passing it along! For a brief moment in time, citizens of the world — though separated by different religions, nations, and languages — heaved a collective sigh against the relentless barrage of ugliness and false humility foisted upon us time and again by even (or perhaps especially) society’s wealthiest and most influential members. Though in the grand scheme this victory was a small one, it is enough to give us hope that we might some day collectively wake up from this cultural nightmare and ask ourselves:

What is wrong with the world?

G.K. Chesterton, so the story goes, famously answered this question when it was posed by The Times to authors across the globe in a letter with just two words: “I am.” Although that little anecdote might be apocryphal, I stand by the sentiment and will go a little further: We, the Church, the whole family and society of the faithful on earth, both lay and clerical, are the problem.

For well over a thousand years, we bred, molded, trained, and commissioned the greatest minds of Western Civilization, harnessing their creative energies ad majorem Dei gloriam. In the name of Jesus, we raised up the cathedral of Chartres, illuminated the Book of Kells, developed the university, built a vast network of hospitals for the relief of the poor, and paved the foundations of international law. Then, somewhere along the way, the message grew stale, or so it was perceived. We were taught to be embarrassed of our spiritual and cultural heritage; that it was “triumphalist” to revel in the Church’s past role as a builder and mover of civilizations.

No single gesture could more sharply express this surrender of the Church’s patronage than the one made on November 13, 1964: the day Pope Paul VI laid the papal crown upon the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica, ostensibly to auction it off for the poor in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and its “new springtime.” Pope Paul was cheered on with cries of “long live the pope of poverty!”, but since the crown was, at the time, valued at only $12,000, the act undoubtedly did more to dispense warm, fuzzy feelings than to actually deal a mortal blow to human suffering. The poor we still have with us, but the Papacy forever threw away one of its most visible signs of universal authority.

tiara

We have, in short, grown bored of our civilization. No one has said it better than art historian Kenneth Clark, who, in 1969, set the popular imagination alight with his monumentally successful BBC documentary series, Civilisation: A Personal View. In the first episode, Lord Clark ponders on why the Roman Empire collapsed:

“[B]oredom, a feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity. There’s a poem by a modern Greek called Cavafy, a poem in which he imagines the people of some late Antique city, waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack it. And then, finally, the barbarians move on somewhere else, and the city is saved, but the people are disappointed. It would have been better than nothing. Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity, enough to provide a little leisure, but far more, it requires confidence. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one’s own mental powers.

“The way the stones of that bridge are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill, but it shows a vigorous belief in discipline and law, energy, vitality. All the great civilizations or civilized epochs have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities or good conversation, and all that. Well, these can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what makes a civilization. And a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So, if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.”

Now, I don’t blame the average, non-Catholic denizen of the 21st Century for scoffing at the Pope being called “father of princes and kings, governor of the world” in that embarrassing old coronation rite, just as the triple tiara was placed on his head. The days when popes were sovereign over a third of Italy and brokered peace between the ruling powers of Europe were done long before Vatican II was a twinkle in Pope John XXIII’s eye; indeed, as an aspiring historian, I see some merit to the argument that the loss of the Papal States ultimately freed the popes to concentrate on the more important business of shepherding souls. But now, we live among a generation of Catholics who still, in this ever more secular world, inexplicably muster the willpower to roll out of bed early every Sunday morning and yet have never even heard of anything like the “social reign of Christ the King.”

For us, living up to the Christian ideal of poverty means attending a Mass offered in a garish polyester chasuble decorated with childish designs and seeing the Eucharist confected in crude earthenware, rather than beholding the lovingly-stitched embroidery of a vestment worn by a pastor’s predecessors for five generations and seeing Our Lord’s Body and Blood given due accommodation in vessels crafted from precious metals. The elegant golden chalice paid for by the hard-won savings of an immigrant people in a hostile land is now deemed more suitable for display behind a glass case in the bishop’s museum, if not in a listing on eBay. We spit on the inheritance of our forefathers in faith and call it humility. We roll our eyes at the pomp of old cathedrals with the same lack of faith and awe as the Romans of the late Empire surely did before the statues of Jupiter and the old gods as barbarians gathered before the gates. We gleefully deface our own churches like the peasants of Reformation Germany, lashing out at things we never bothered to understand. The confidence we once had in the institutional Church has, through our own and our leaders’ follies, been utterly spent.

 

Pope Francis is as keen and attentive to the power of symbolism and public gestures as any man who has ever sat upon the chair of Peter. Despite my unfamiliarity with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio when he was elevated to the pontificate, I could see the careful cultivation of his public persona from the moment of his election. Before you rush to the comment box to say your “why, I never’s”, know that Pope Francis is, at least here, following the tradition of many great leaders. For every minute Winston Churchill spent giving a speech in Parliament or on the radio, an hour was devoted to the practicing, refining, and perfecting of every syllable according to his trademark image of the defiant bulldog with the stiff upper lip. Gandhi was a lawyer trained at London’s Inner Temple and formed with a robust western liberal arts education, yet he knew he would have to trade in his three-piece suit for a holy man’s loincloth in order to gain any real traction with his followers (though the price of Gandhi’s success is that India remains more in the thrall of gurus than the hands of capable statesmen).

gandhi

I do a fair bit of posturing myself to express my aristocratic soul and bon vivant personality in this oppressively plebeian and unimaginative world, so when I watched the broadcast of Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass and saw His Holiness kneeling at the tomb of Saint Peter in a deliberately non-descript white chasuble, flanked and contrasted on either side by the eastern-rite patriarchs in the full, splendid regalia of their offices, I knew I was looking at a kindred spirit of sorts. This was not a man who would stick three Roman numerals after his name and be content with being subsumed by the symbols and traditions of his office, but rather someone who needs to stand out from the crowd and make an impression: to brand this pontificate as his own. In just two years, Pope Francis has already distinguished himself as the greatest master of public imagery in the West since Napoleon. Just as the Corsican conqueror had Jacques-Louis David paint him heroically embracing the sick soldiers of his Egyptian campaign as though he were medieval king healing a peasant’s scrofula with his anointed hands, our media machine today would have us believe Pope Francis invented the act of embracing the disfigured. With His Holiness’s impending arrival in nearby Philadelphia, I can’t go to the supermarket without being assaulted by the Pope’s grin across three different magazine covers at the checkout aisle, even if I’m the only Catholic in the store. (My only consolation is that at least it means we don’t have to talk about Bruce Jenner anymore.)

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This Friday, the Pope will undoubtedly showcase more of his personal take on what it means to be a Vicar of Christ at Madison Square Garden, for which we already have a foretaste with that infamous “chair seen ‘round the world.” When I inevitably look over the photographs of the event the day after they’re shared by my friends, I won’t be so exasperated by Francis himself (for he is, ultimately, still just a man and a product of his times) as I will by the reactions of the masses he panders to with these calculated gestures evocative of simplicity and humility: the fawning of the secular media, of course, but most nauseatingly of all, the thunderous applause of my fellow Catholics as we congratulate ourselves for shunning our forefathers’ patrimony of sacred art, architecture, and music, preferring to enthrone ugliness and utilitarianism in their place.

I would conclude by calling forth the wisdom of a hero from beyond the grave, a man who did, in fact, die from working himself to death: Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-1852). Pugin was the father of the Gothic revival, the English architect who designed the interior of the Houses of Parliament and raised the iconic, supremely Gothic “Big Ben” clock tower long after the Age of Reason had its day. More importantly, he was a convert to the Catholic faith who spent his life building churches, designing vestments, chalices, candlesticks, and every other conceivable item needed for the newly emancipated Catholic Church in England. Pugin taught a “morality of architecture” whereby every stone and every arch expressed the faith, or lack thereof, of its architect. Here was a man whose faith was so absolute that he would think of God walking around your church, checking to see if you had been dishonest by using fake marble columns, cheap brickwork for the building’s rear, or sloppy workmanship up in the rafters which only angels and mice could see.

If I had to post an image contrasting my personal holiness to Pugin’s, it would be as a mustard seed to a mountain, but one thing we hold with equal conviction is that symbols matter. Everything in the physical world, especially in a church, conveys a deeper spiritual meaning. So to those who are confounded that so much can be said about so trivial a thing, I simply say: no, it’s not “just” a chair.

“[The church] is, indeed, a sacred place; the modulated light, the gleaming tapers, the tombs of the faithful, the various altars, the venerable images of the just,–all conspire to fill the mind with veneration, and to impress it with the sublimity of Christian worship. And when the deep intonations of the bells from the lofty campaniles, which summon the people to the house of prayer, have ceased, and the solemn chant of the choir swells through the vast edifice,–cold, indeed, must be the heart of that man who does not cry out with the Psalmist, Domine dilexi decorem domus tuae, et locum habitationis gloriae tuae. [How well, Lord, I love the house where Thou dwellest, the shrine of Thy glory].” –Augustus Welby Pugin, Contrasts

25 thoughts on “More Than “Just a Chair”: Rejecting Our Aesthetic Patrimony”

  1. Jesus let His enemies crown Him as King and He endured being mocked by His enemies but our modern Popes refuse to let their friends crown them with the Triregnum for what it represents would cause the world to mock them and, as Pope Paul VI explained to the Roman clergy – I could exercise discipline but I prefer to be loved.

    Our modern Popes are humbler than Jesus.

    Yea!!!

    O, and this rant can not end before it being observed that the Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of a TRIUMPHANT JESUS WHO IS KING OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. Jesus is KING, He is not just one among other the equals of the leaders of false religions.

    O, and just one more sub-rant. Vatican 1 infallibly teaches that one reason Jesus established His Papacy was so that He could exercise HIS JUDGMENT through the judgment of the Pope but when a Pope refuses to judge he is depriving the Catholic Church of the judgment of Jesus and he is opposing the will and plans of Jesus..

    Good luck with that, Franciscus…

    • “and there is nothing – not one blessed thing – wrong or embarrassing about the old Coronation Rite.”

      You are, of course, right. I was just conveying the spirit of the era. Unfortunately, the papal coronation is one of those many things in this world that, once given up, is unlikely to return. It reminds me of a moment in a PBS documentary on Highclere Castle (the house used for the set of “Downton Abbey”). The butler explained why it was so important for him to maintain all the little traditions of the house. If he were to give one up, it would probably never come back.

      Our job as Catholics is infinitely more important than that of a butler, but the idea remains the same.

      • Congrats, James. You’ve come a long way from the FE forums. lol

        You have managed to say what I’ve wanted to for some time about casting aside our patrimony. Very eloquent and concise. I shall keep this one for my files and look forward to reading more of your musings here as well as on your personal blog.

      • What a dreary thought…

        The Novus Ordo will continue on until the Eschaton.

        Joking aside, I think the re-emergence of the TLM, especially among the young, will put the butler’s theory to the test over time.

        Modernity doesn’t build things to last. The consumer mindset in the playground of disposable things — including people — means that Bugnini’s Mass will not survive, if only because of secularization. The Novus Ordo doesn’t hold the hearts and minds of men.

        • I’m more of a glass-half-empty guy where the future of the liturgy is concerned, but I hope your prediction is right.

  2. It’s more than just aesthetics. And beauty points to truth, to God, it raises our hearts and minds to Him. Francis is a materialist, and God serves him and his political ideology.

  3. I must say that this is one of the most interesting, beautiful, enlightening, thought-provoking, examples of excellence of thought and writing that I have read in many, many years.

    Mr. Griffin, you have a most wonderful gift from God and I pray that your writing and articles are widely disbursed so that others may be benefactors of it.

    Beautifully written. Truths long forgotten or rejected to the detriment of souls.

  4. Nice article, I enjoyed it immensely. I would make one caveat though. Poverty and simplicity are also part of the great Christian tradition. We are here to display the Glory of the Lord, and we do this both by the grandeur of medieval cathedrals, and by the simple poverty of thousands of monks and nuns. Our God is both the Great King of Heaven and the humble carpenter who washes his disciples’ feet. Surely we can interpret Pope Francis as instantiating this latter aspect of God’s glory by living out his Jesuit vows.

    I agree that the new chair is a monstrosity, and that we would fail as a Church if we give up the grandeur of our tradition. But the grandeur of Chartres and simple poverty of Francis need not be viewed as antithetical to one another, but as complementary aspects of the catholic whole.

    • Many of Pope Francis’s gestures actually cost more money than they appear to save. For instance, taking up residence in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the official papal apartments.

      In any case, to the end of simplicity, a cue can be taken from Cistercian architecture. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux hated the new Gothic architecture and ridiculed the use of gargoyles, but nonetheless, “The Cistercians had a reputation for administering the building sites
      for abbeys and cathedrals, and made it a point of honour to recruit the
      best stonecutters.” (The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages, by Alain Erlande-Brandenburg)

    • Rob S., I agree that we need both “the grandeur of Chartres and simple poverty of Francis.” The seeming paradox of the two is what gives them such symbolic power when combined together. G.K. Chesterton used to revel in such paradoxes, which are emblematic of our Faith. The grandeur is evocative of the royal and divine, yet by our own poverty and renunciation of this world, we clearly direct all honor and glory away from ourselves and toward the Almighty.

      • “Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much
        to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair
        shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and
        gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire,
        who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next
        his heart.” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

        • Fine for us to be, and to appear, humble and poor, but God? Not so much. Ask the Cure of Ars how much money he insisted be spent on the altar, vestments, flowers, tabernacle etc. in His Church. We must remember for Whom we make anything beautiful connected with the Church.

  5. “The Problem of Humility” on the captioned photo is to me, more a problem of democracy. Fine things, well made goods that are designed to be functional as well as beautiful are alien to the mind of the Common Man. More so, the Common Man feels threatened by beauty because he lives and moves and has his being in the banal, the mediocre, the shoddy and his shaped to see that this is essential to the dignity of equality. Existentially, Common Man feels best when everything is a sea of gray soup. No one is better, no one is worse than him. Nothing in the environment can jolt him from his waking death.

    Compare and contrast with Chartres. Clark notes in his episode on the medieval period, that the aristocracy, both noble women and men, gladly helped drag the rocks from the quarry to the building site, their dignity be damned. No hydraulics, no powerful engines, no tractors, cranes, etc. The aristocratic man senses something beautiful, something momentous and gladly forgets his station to be a part of it.

    The same can be said of the usus antiquior. The rare soul who has escaped proper democratic formation will find in the Old Rite and the Eastern liturgies the fullness of beauty, at least here on earth.

  6. I too was struck by what I call Francis’ ostentatious humility from the first moments of his pontificate. The example of Thomas Becket came to my mind — someone else here mentions Chesterton’s insightful quote concerning him — and the mental comparison left me uneasy (perhaps it was this impression that jarred Steve Skojek the day of Jorge Bergoglio’s first appearance on that balcony in St. Peter’s Square). Nothing I’ve seen or heard about the pope since has dispelled my initial anxiety, tout le contraire.

    Mr. Griffin’s essay here is top notch, enjoyable and thought-provoking. His mention of Pugin brings to mind another Catholic 19th century aesthete, the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. He first abandoned Naturalism and associates like Zola, and later turned his back on the decadent movement in literature to embrace Catholicism. Anyone familiar with his work, especially his later novels, En route, La cathédrale, and L’oblat, knows how thoroughly current Catholic aesthetics would disgust him. I can’t even begin to imagine the sarcasm he would lavish on the 266th occupant of the See of Peter.

  7. Pictures say a thousand words. The chair on the left symbolizes the Novus Ordo Mass. The chair on the right the Traditional Latin Mass. Given a choice at no costs to the recipient the choice is obvious…..unless you are a modernist Pope or Prelate. In that case the “ugly” and “profane” always comes before beauty and truth

  8. Pope Francis’ symbolic gestures of eschewing palaces and limousine rides are really no different from the previous gestures of wearing the papal tiara, the papal ring and the red shoes. They are all intended to send a message: what does it mean to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. Does he wear a crown of gold or a crown of thorns? Some prefer Trappist simplicity but there is absolutely nothing wrong with loving the finer things in life. I have to let Pope Francis be his own man too.
    Long time no see, James (formerly SCG here). I always read your article and enjoy them.

  9. I’m reminded of the ending of ‘The Shoes of The Fisherman’ while reading this and my utter distaste for almost the entirety of the movie, especially the ending.

    If you were one of my parishioners, I would have to buy you a scotch for this article. GOOD scotch. 😉

  10. I realize this is old but I just had to comment that this article was spot on and so true. My absolute favorite part is… “like a well-to-do family man who calls himself “middle class” for wearing board shorts to work and then frowns on a poorer man for wearing a suit.” Wow, like a knife through the heart of the proponents of arrogant humility!

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