30 April 2009

Baroque: Style in the Age of Magnificence (continued from the previous post)

Llewellyn the ludicrous is the author of most of the articles which relate to Liturgy. He gets under way by assuring us that "The Last Supper was described as a simple meal during which Christ invested ... bread and wine with symbolic significance". And he carries on talking about the 'symbolism'. But the Last Supper was described in the Synoptic Gospels as a Passover Meal, and the Passover was nothing like a Pizza on your knee during the Simpsons. 'Simple' and 'Symbolic' be damned. But I suppose you could say that there have been Protestants who have seen the Supper in purely symbolic terms. So NL is simply opting for one among a variety of differing opinions. Though why the unwary should be bamboozled by his unqualified assertions into thinking that his theological views are objective and uncontroverted fact, I don't see. (Curiously, he goes on to tell us that origin of the word Mass is much disputed. I thought everybody knew ... yes, all that.) But what is unforgivable is his repeated claim that Catholics belief in the Mass is "magic". This is not only mistaken but offensive. Why should a civil servant (well, I presume NL is paid out of public funds) be allowed to insult the largest segment of the world's largest religion? I bet Art Historians would be more careful if it were a matter of giving an account of Islam in an exhibition about Islamic artefacts: and so they should be.

NL appears to know nothing of the history of the eucharistic vestments; he thinks that priests wear chasubles rather than dalmatics simply for practical reasons. But rather than catalogue factual errors, let's have a look at his style. I would describe it as the English of a not-very-bright member of the Lower VIth who is trying to sound clever and important. Even when not just plain wrong, he is off-centre; for example, the word 'host' does not mean sacrifice but sacrificial victim. The Host is not "bread or bread-like" but just plainly bread. An example of his weakness for the verbally grandiose comes in his very unsurefooted account of the Immaculate Conception, where he writes about our Lady's "immaculacy"; but we just don't talk like that, do we? And he is conceptually grandiose too, as when he sees the ablutions at the end of Mass as "a necessary precaution in the in the world of the Baroque, where the forces of good and evil were understood to be playing out an endless competition for power and where holy materials had to be kept from falling into the hands of evil-doers and the forces of darkness". Well, I just thought we treated the crumbs of the Host with such care for the simple workaday reason that when something is so terribly holy, that's the natural thing to do. He surmises that the monstrance contains a lunette as an allusion to the crescent moon beneath the feet of our Lady, so that "The Host partaken of at the eucharist is seen as the body of the redeemer, incarnated and born, miraculously, in the immaculate person of his earthly mother". Stone the crows, guv, I just thought that a narrow crescent was the simplest practical way of propping up a Host in a monstrance. Subconsciously, NL repeatedly slips into treating the Catholic Religion as some obsolete cultural phenomenon that has imaginatively and hypothetically to be reconstructed by clevers like himself. He could have strolled down the road to the Oratory and spoken to Fr Rupert Machardy, who appears in a short video playing in the gallery, so as to check up on what real practicioners of the Catholic Faith who still live this religion in the present day actually really do believe. Curating an exhibition on the Aztecs has to be a matter of inferences from artefacts. But - good heavens - the Oratory House actually adjoins the V & A.

But, Oh No. That's not the way of things with 'experts' in Art History.

8 comments:

Fr.Ogs said...

Dear Father,
Long ago my trust in 'experts' was shaken: I sat in the Television room at New College, as BBC news was recounting what for many years after was remembered in Penzance as 'The Ash Wednesday Storm' (now, of course, it would be offensive to other faiths...). The reporter authoritatively told us he was speaking to the Mayor of Newlyn: Newlyn had no Mayor; it was the Harbourmaster. He stood on the edge of the great cavity the storm had made in the Promenade and its sea-wall, and said, 'Behind me, you can see Newlyn...': he was 180 degrees out, it was Marazion in the background. Ever since then, I have wondered, as pundits have propounded, experts shown off their expertise, how many of the little details being given us might actually be quite wrong...

Ben said...

Jaroslav Pelikan would recognise this. In 'Faust the Theologian' he laments ‘the ever-deepening unawareness of the Christian tradition among Goethe’s present-day readers, including sometimes even the scholarly ones. Their puzzled references … to [Margarete’s] prayer before the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa … and her attendance at a Requiem Mass with the singing of the Dies irae … often seem to treat these like the exotic rituals of some distant tribe, interesting and intelligible only to cultural anthropologists.'

Sue Sims said...

It starts very early on. I managed to get myself in trouble (I teach in a girls' grammar school) when a History colleague prepared a handout for her year 8s (12-13 in age - I taught them English) on the Reformation which included such gems as 'Roman Catholics paid to have their sins forgiven (indulgences)' and 'The Pope forbade people to read the Bible'. I explained to the class that neither of statements was accurate, and incurred the wrath of my colleague, who thought that I was undermining her authority, though I tried to be tactful with the class.

The problem is indeed that most non-Catholics - and many soi-disant Thinking Catholics - do see Catholicism rather like ancient Egyptian religion: part quaint, part malevolent, and entirely dead. Mind you, the ones that do realise we're still around get very vicious. Check out the comments on Simon Heffer's article:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/simonheffer/5196115/Thank-Henry-VIII-for-laying-those-foundations-of-freedom.html

The article itself is pretty ignorant, but some of the comments are almost unbelievable.

Fr John Hunwicke SSC, said...

Sue: what I used to do was to say "Dr/Mr/Mrs XYZ can't really have said ABC because the truth is in fact that DEF. You must listen more carefully to what he/she says, because he/she is a very fine teacher. Now tell me again what he/she must really have said ..." They soon caught on to the amusing side of this game and it helped them to remember the facts.

rev'd up said...

I do hope you drop the other shoe and let us in on Llewellyn's bio. I have many guesses, but charity demands silence.

BillyD said...

"...charity demands silence."

What a relief to learn that while it demands silence, it evidently allows innuendo.

Adam said...

If I am not mistaken, NL is none other than Professor Nigel Llewellyn, Head of Research at Tale (gallery). He was recently appointed member of the Advisory Board of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Father TE Jones said...

It is, I think, always a mistake to expect any level of objectivity when those outside the faith speak (or write) of the faith. They will always have an agenda, that agenda might take many forms but it will never include a desire to speak of what the faith/Church teaches but to demonstrate, in this case, an academic perspective which in itself has a hermenutic of dismissal.