The Broken Baroque

Donald Richmond:

Duomo-detail-SicilyAccording to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI), in his masterful The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Baroque represents a crucial period in the history of the Church, liturgy, and the arts. It is, according to Benedict, one of the three acceptable artistic frameworks for effective catechesis and liturgical renewal. This said, and not underestimating Benedict’s heart or mind, the Baroque poses significant problems for Protestants. Contrary to Benedict’s Roman Catholic assertion, the Baroque represents a broken system that militates against the fundamental premises of the Protestant agenda. (In fact it might also be argued that it militates against a broadminded understanding and application of Vatican II).

The Baroque emerged as an extension of Catholic renewal in response to the Protestant Reformation(s) throughout Europe. Any appreciation of Baroque liturgy and arts, most especially when considered within a catechetical setting, must be attained through understanding this historic context. As such, when it is evaluated within this framework, it is decidedly counter-Reformation in its priorities, principles and practices. And, importantly, these are precisely why Protestants– even High-Church Protestants– must reject the Baroque narrative while certainly appreciating, in some way, Baroque aesthetics.

There are at least three reasons for rejecting the Baroque as a theological enterprise:

"Sacrifice of Isaac." Caravaggio

“Sacrifice of Isaac.” Caravaggio

The Baroque presents a questionable ecclesiastical perspective. A case in point are the paintings of Caravaggio. There is no doubt about Caravaggio’s tremendous talent. His mastery of light and shadow is almost unparalleled. Nevertheless, his paintings reveal a dangerous orientation. In order to effectively view his works, we must step back twenty to thirty feet. If we were to get too close, all we would see is great masses of color– often unclear and untidy. Proper viewing, proper perspective, requires that that the viewer step back and step away from the visual narrative. And this is precisely the point. Protestant Theology, on all fronts, is based upon a “come unto me” perspective. The Church, and Jesus Christ himself, are meant to be intimately approached without the militating and mediating necessity of distance. The Roman Catholic Church at the time was trying to reinforce the doctrine of a holy (that is untouchable and unassailable) perspective about the Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholic theology, as gloriously but dangerously expressed through Baroque arts, was saying that we must keep our distance, and that it is only this distance (as moderated, mediated and occulated by Holy Roman Catholic Church) that provides proper perspective. That is, albeit briefly, Baroque Art seeks to present an Old Testament (the giving of the Law that required not touching the Mountain) orientation, whereas the Protestant perspective was more in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount (Christ’s disciples came to him). The Law, the Roman Catholic perspective artistically applied, implied “do not touch.” The Gospel, the Protestant perspective, implied “come unto me.” In other words, the Baroque militates against biblical, ecclesiastical, and relational accessibility.

Pope-benedict-XVI-Celebrates-MassFurther to this, the Baroque presents a questionable perspective on biblical simplicity. When we view Baroque art, or hear Baroque music, it is complicated, cluttered and excessively ornate. It is, in my opinion, highly distorting and distracting. It is affected in its Theo-speech, both liturgically and artistically. Does this not reflect, most especially under Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure, an excessive form of Roman Catholicism that sought to return the Church to a pre-Vatican II, which was Tridentine, mentality? The liturgical changes approved by His Holiness shortly before his retirement illustrate this. Is the vessel used at the Eucharist a “chalice” or a “cup”? Although this illustration may appear to be a “splitting hairs” argument, it is not. There are distinct theologies undergirding both the “chalice” and the “cup.” Chalice, reflecting a distorted perspective, presents a Baroque orientation that again asserts affected dignity and piety. Similarly, and supporting my thesis, is this retired Pope’s retrograde interest in the pallium and Prada. These, along with the re-assertion of the so-called “Extraordinary Rite,” that is a more Baroque Rite, illustrates Pope Benedict XVI’s affection for the affectations of the Baroque. His pontificate, personality, and theology were known by a marked distance and inaccessibly very much in keeping with his Baroque proclivities.

These are in stark contrast with a biblical, and far more Protestant, perspective. Protestant reform sought to return the Church to biblical and liturgical simplicity. Complications and additions, both biblically and liturgically, and on all counts, were minimized. One example of this is Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the far more complicated Roman Catholic rites and rituals. Cranmer sought Protestant simplicity and accessibility, whereas the Roman Catholicism of the time militated against such an orientation and perspective. The so called “stripping of the altars” (E. Duffy), although lamentable and at times politically charged, can also be understood as a means of removing every distortion and distraction that might hinder a genuine and unmediated (broadly speaking) encounter with God. A far more contemporary example of this is when I was asked to help a Roman Catholic parish of 2,500 families for about three or four months. What I found was that the established rituals of Roman Catholicism complicated, and frequently prevented, the establishing of God-centered relationships. Ritual trumped relationship although, ideally, good ritual always enhances healthy relationships. This, in essence, and although removed by time, reflects how Baroque art rejects theological and liturgical simplicity.

Ceiling (detail). Chiesa del Gesu (Rome)

Ceiling (detail). Chiesa del Gesu (Rome)

Finally, the Baroque presents a questionable perspective on anthropology. Baroque content, color, clutter, and clouds also obscure the biblical perspective regarding “man.” To look at a Catholic Baroque painting, or Baroque architecture, is to look at man in the act of aspiring. (I think Baroque music also reflects the same theology of ascension/sanctification/glorification). Often in these images, saints are centrally depicted– and often ascending through blue clouds accompanied by chubby cherubs. Although intended as inspiration to evoke emulation, as “the greatest sorrow is not to be a saint” (J. Maritain), the images often communicate a theology of works over grace. There are, of course, exceptions to this assertion.

"Ascension of Christ." Rembrandt

“Ascension of Christ.” Rembrandt

Why is there a preponderance of mystics, martyrs and saints? Why this emphasis upon ascension? While a diversity of reasons may be cited, they share a common theme contrary to the Protestant doctrine of grace. Although rather simplistic in its analysis, mystics displace the doctrine of revelation, martyrs displace the doctrine of Christology, and saints displace the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” As well, and central to all of this, the idea of ascension suggests a doctrine of achieving instead of a doctrine of receiving. To be sure, this is an exaggeration (*see note below). There is a proper place to be given to mystics, martyrs, saints, and ascension. Mystics alert us to the need of genuine encounter over rote religion. Martyrs assert that Christ and his Church are things for which to live and die. Saints do help us appreciate the need to lead exemplary lives of holiness. Ascension, in keeping with the writings of Thomas á Kempis, asserts that “as is our purpose, so will our progress be.” That is, it is important to be spiritually attentive. There must be method to our passionate madness. These are all important. Nevertheless, within a Tridentine-Baroque perspective, they displace the Gospel narrative of underserved grace. As such, “man” is again left to strive without satisfaction and the Roman Church, and its extreme view of the Sacraments, is elevated as the exclusive means of meaningful meditation. While anachronistic, the Baroque asserts (again as articulated by Emeritus Pope Benedict) that art and the saints are the Church’s most powerful apologetic. Within a Tridentine-Baroque framework this cannot be denied. But what beliefs and behaviors are they defending? How are they offering a defense? Why are they offering such a defense?

As might be guessed, I am not an expert on Baroque art and liturgy. Nevertheless, a significant part of my theological education has been focused upon the intersection of the arts, liturgy and catechesis– and this, partially, through a pontifically-approved institution. I began ruminating on these ideas shortly after I studied with this institute and, later, with one of its instructors. But when a friend asked me my thoughts on the Baroque, I decided to put them to paper.

I am not opposed to Roman Catholicism. I was raised and educated within the warm and welcoming embrace of this robust Christian tradition. I have a deep and abiding respect for Emeritus Pope Benedict. I have enjoyed reading his liturgical and catechetical works, and derived many benefits from them. I enjoy Baroque art as Baroque art– but not liturgically or religiously. As such, if I have any “axe to grind,” it is an “axe” of caution. In this age of renewed liturgical interest, among both Romans and Genevans alike, we must be careful about blithely or ignorantly accepting or rejecting either fixedness or flexibility. The weight of Emeritus Pope Benedict’s (or any other saintly scholar’s) intellect and piety does not automatically provide tacit approval to every form of artistic expression used in a liturgical setting.  In this case, the case of the Baroque, he is wrong. Benedict’s Baroque predilections only serve to remind us that even “good” religious art may not always be utilized in a liturgical or catechetical setting.


*One exception is Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Here, erotically depicted, is a mystical experience that was entirely generated by God. However, in Bernini’s sculptural interpretation of this event, the sexual emphasis far outweighs the spiritual message. To be sure, as has been said by Charles Williams, “flesh speaks as spirit speaks, but spirit knows of what it speaks.” This said, however, Bernini’s sculpture illustrates an eroticism which is the dangerous underbelly of the Baroque ascension narrative.

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