Editorial: Pulchritudo Tam Antiqua et Tam Nova

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 16

Part of the history of art and architecture is the revivification of elements found in the past. Sometimes this is a matter of continuity, while at other times the elements are referenced in order to associate the new work with a building or a historical period. The twentieth-century Liturgical Movement sought a return to the liturgy of antiquity and viewed developments dating from the medieval period or Counter-Reformation as unnecessary accretions or decadences. By the 1920s, the desire to strip the liturgy of these accretions found its architectural corollary in the stripping of saints and altarpieces from high altars. The theorists of the Liturgical Movement, for instance, wanted to focus on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, but to the exclusion of other iconography. Their model, which was adopted in both new and existing churches, comprised an unencumbered stone altar with a bronze tabernacle on top, surmounted by a crucifix with a canopy or baldachin above. It had a classic simplicity inspired by antiquity that continues to resonate with Catholics today. Did this paring down of Gothic and classical churches in the name of an earlier golden age lead to the later adoption of modernist architecture for our churches? The removal of tabernacles, side altars, altar rails, and pews which followed in the 1950s and 1960s, resulted in the reinvention of church architecture as community hall.

In his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII expressed concern about what he called archeologism: “The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world ... it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device.”

While the advocacy of a return to antiquity and the house church is today less strong, the archeologism to which Pope Pius referred is nonetheless emerging in new forms. Christians look to the “good old days,” whether they were the 1950s or the 1250s. The further away the era, the easier it is to mask its imperfections and to reclaim it as some golden age when things were better, purer. However, as Sacrosanctum Concilium states, “in the course of the centuries, she [the Church] has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved.” Art from the past is a window onto the faith and practice of a specific time, but it can also speak to all ages. To reject periods, other than our favorites, as either primitive or decadent is to miss out on the rich tapestry of art and architecture that the Church has fostered.

One of the most fascinating architectural precursors to the Liturgical Movement was the nineteenth-century Gothic revival. The leading Catholic figure of the revival, A. W. N. Pugin, believed that the Gothic was the only true Christian architecture. He was supported in this belief by the Ecclesiological Society in the Anglican church. Though a talented architect, Pugin rejected the first nine hundred years of architecture as prologue and the last four hundred years as decline. His was an attractive, though simplistic, theory which equated Gothic art and architecture with the presumed purity, chivalry, and piety of the Middle Ages. This romantic conception, along with the dismissal of other periods of architecture as less Christian, has curiously resurfaced in recent decades.

Should we aspire to recover a golden age of liturgy or architecture, or should we seek to create beautiful and timeless works of sacred art and architecture? Both the early Christian house church and the Gothic cathedral should be seen as part of the great tradition, along with the Romanesque, the Byzantine, the Renaissance and Baroque. The history of sacred architecture is the history of revival but also of development.

This is not to argue that it is somehow unnatural for us to have our favorite music, paintings, or churches. It is also perfectly valid, even beneficial, to debate the relative merits of various periods of architecture. However, a catholic understanding of art and architecture can appreciate the high Gothic cathedral as well as the humble mission church, the early Christian basilica and the Baroque chapel of the Rosary attached to it. While it may seem natural to equate different architectural styles with the strengths or weaknesses of an age, it is in fact based on a historicist or modernist approach to history. Seeking to build new architecture because it hearkens back to a golden age, whether antiquity, the Middle Ages, or any other time is archeologism. Sacred architecture must be based on principles and examples of the past, but it cannot recreate that supposed golden age. As Pope Benedict XVI said on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the Vatican Museums in June 2006:

In every age Christians have sought to give expression to faith’s vision of the beauty and order of God’s creation, the nobility of our vocation as men and women made in His image and likeness, and the promise of a cosmos redeemed and transfigured by the grace of Christ. The artistic treasures which surround us are not simply impressive monuments of a distant past. Rather, … they stand as a perennial witness to the Church’s unchanging faith in the Triune God who, in the memorable phrase of St. Augustine, is Himself “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.”