A drawing by Eduard Gurk
Jesus Christ came as man, so that we may see Him and adore His humanity. Abstract art smacks of the heresy of Docetism, which denied the bodily reality of Christ... Making art a process of solving enigmas is reducing art to a cabal. Sacred art has above all the duty of nourishing the devotion and piety of the faithful. The imposing church facades of the Middle Ages, portraying the majesty of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Last Judgment, were great catechisms in sculpture. The interiors of the cathedrals were vast and rather dark. The rich stained glass windows gave life to the architectural complex, and offered to the piety of the faithful the radiant pictures of the life of Christ, of Our Lady, of the Saints. Why should we reject and destroy this great artistic, liturgical and catechetical life in our churches, and replace it with the hieroglyphics of abstract art?... The teacher of Christian doctrine must speak with clearness, accuracy and dignity. Deformed art lacks all these basic qualities. It leads to confusion of ideas, makes religious teaching distasteful, and Christianity itself ridiculous and repulsive.[Msgr. Rudolph G. Bandas, Modernistic Art and Divine Worship. The American Ecclesiastical Review, 1960]
But some one will say, perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ's Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself; alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.
The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same... This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled.
In like manner, it behoves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits....
Therefore, whatever has been sown by the fidelity of the Fathers in this husbandry of God's Church, the same ought to be cultivated and taken care of by the industry of their children, the same ought to flourish and ripen, the same ought to advance and go forward to perfection.
For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain withal their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties.
Soggetto cavato is a technique of musical composition invented by Josquin DesPrez, used to determine the cantus firmus of a Mass setting or motet.
Its full name is soggetto cavato dalle parole - carved out of vowels.
The technique is based on the solmization of Guido d’Arezzo:
UT (now DO) - RE - MI - FA - SOL - LA - (now TI)
He derived these names for the notes from Ut Queant Laxis, the hymn at Second Vespers for the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. In this hymn, each of the first six hemistiches begins on a successively higher note. The names of the notes are the syllables corresponding to them in the hymn:
UT queant laxis
LAbii reatum, Sancte Johannes
Of the six notes, FA and LA contain the vowel A. RE, MI, SOL, and UT contain the other four vowels E, I, O, and U, respectively.
A composer could thus take any phrase, extract the vowels, match them to the corresponding notes, and - provided that the resulting melody were not musically offensive - use it as the basis for a composition.
The first soggeto cavato composition was Josquin’s Mass dedicated to Hercules, the Duke of Ferraria. The phrase HERCULES DUX FERRARIAE yields the melody:
RE UT RE UT RE FA MI RE ("ae" was commonly written in mediaeval Latin as just "e")
This is the cantus firmus of the Mass.
Jachet of Mantua composed a Missa FERDINANDUS DUX CALABRIAE, and Lupus composed a Missa CAROLUS IMPERATOR ROMANORUM QUINTUS.
And in fact such an image has quite recently been portrayed; it is the image of contemporary painting and sculpture, that which has arisen, for the most part, since the end of the Second World War, as if to give form to the reality produced by the most concentrated era of Nihilism in human history.
The human form, it would seem, has been rediscovered in this art; out of the chaos of total abstraction, identifiable shapes emerge. The result, supposedly, is a new humanism, a return to man that is all the more significant in that - unlike so many of the artistic schools of the 20th century - it is not an artificial contrivance whose substance is hidden behind a cloud of irrationalist jargon, but a spontaneous growth that would seem to have deep roots in the soul of contemporary man. In the work, for example, of Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Jose Luis Cuevas - to take an international sampling - there seems to be a genuinely contemporary art that, without abandoning the disorder and freedom of abstraction, turns its attention away from mere escape toward a serious human commitment.
But what kind of man is it to which this art has returned? It is certainly not Christian man, man in the image of God, for no modern man can believe in him; nor is it the somewhat diluted man of the old humanism, whom all advanced thinkers regard as discredited and outmoded. It is not even the man disfigured and denatured in the earlier Cubist and Expressionist art of this century; rather, it begins where that art leaves off, and attempts to enter a new realm, to depict a new man.
To the Orthodox Christian observer, concerned not with what the avant-garde finds fashionable or sophisticated, but with truth, little reflection should be required to penetrate to the secret of this art: there is no question of man in it at all; it is an art at once subhuman and demonic. It is not man who is the subject of this art, but some lower creature who has emerged (arrived is Giacometti's word for it) from unknown depths.
The bodies this creature assumes (and in all its metamorphoses it is always the same creature) are not necessarily distorted violently; twisted and dismembered as they are, they are often more realistic than the figures of man in earlier modern art. This creature, it is clear, is not the victim of some violent attack; rather, he was born deformed, he is a genuine mutation. One cannot but notice the likeness between some of these figures and photographs of the deformed children born recently to thousands of women who had taken the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy; and we have doubtless not seen the last of such monstrous coincidences.
Even more revealing than the bodies of these creatures are the faces. It would be too much to say that these faces express hopelessness; that would be to ascribe to them some trace of humanity which they most emphatically lack. They are the faces, rather, of creatures more or less adjusted to the world they know, a world not hostile but entirely alien, not inhuman but a-human. The anguish and rage and despair of earlier Expressionists is here frozen, as it were, and cut off from a world to which they had at least the relation of denial, so as to make a world of their own.
Man, in this art, is no longer even a caricature of himself; he is no longer portrayed in the throes of spiritual death, ravaged by the hideous Nihilism of our century that attacks, not just the body and soul, but the very idea and nature of man. No, all this has passed; the crisis is over; man is dead. The new art celebrates the birth of a new species, the creature of the lower depths, subhumanity.
Future investigations may possibly show that Roman architecture was not as dull as it now appears. I fear, however, that this is exceedingly unlikely... An abundance of Roman architectural detail has come down to us in good condition; and this, with very rare exceptions, is not such as to lead us to suppose that the Romans possessed sensitive aesthetic perceptions in architectural art. Poor detail is not necessarily incompatible with good architecture (although the modern idea that good architecture must necessarily have bad detail is obviously false); nevertheless, the detail is apt to be eloquent of the spirit of the whole. When we find detail that is made commercially, mechanically, thoughtlessly, perfunctorily, we have the work, not of an artist but of a materialist, and the larger features of the design are nearly certain to be permeated by the same qualities. The true artist may delight in the broad effect; he may take pleasure in producing that effect in simple materials, but he can never be satisfied with commercial detail. It is this lack of sensitiveness in Roman architecture, the absense of an artistic conscience, the readiness to subordinate all means to the end of an immediate effect, the obviousness, the lack of depth, with which I quarrel. There are two kinds of architecture, as there are two kinds of painting, of sculpture, and of literature. One is artistic, created for the joy of bringing into the world a beautiful thing - material compensation may or may not be given, but is secondary; the other is commercial, made primarily for expediency, for money, for fame. Roman art is of the commercial variety. Of that poetry which breathes so potently from the existing ruins, the same monuments, when new, must have been singularly deprived. They were opportunist structures, lacking in intellectual and emotional content.[Beyond Architecture by A. Kingsley Porter. Marshall Jones Company. Boston, 1918]
There is a curious parallelism between the art, the literature and the life of Imperial Rome. I experience the same sensation of inexpressible weariness in studying Roman architecture and in reading of Roman banquets, as, to cite one example among many, in the Satyricon of Petronius. What a bore these feasts, this endless over-eating and over-drinking must have been! How useless the magnificence, the throngs of slaves, the expert cooks able to prepare pork so that the entire company mistook it for duck!
All this effort, this expense of energy, failed of its purpose because there was lacking the spirit of joy. I suspect that the modern contadino takes far greater delight in his pasta and wine in the osteria that nestles among the ruins of the Palatine, perhaps on the very site of the golden house where Trimalchio gloried and drank deep. It is evident that the Romans themselves grew tired of the unending series of gluttonous revels. Petronius doubtless exaggerates the grossness and stupidity of Roman society; he, nevertheless, was an eyewitness to its excesses, and his testimony carries weight.
It would obviously be untrue to maintain that all Roman architecture lacks artistic vitality. Probably no generality is ever strictly true. The stucco reliefs of certain tombs on the Via Latina were modelled by a man or men who felt beauty, and who were singularly successful in transmitting that impression by a few powerful strokes on the wet plaster. Occasionally, in the carved ornament, as in the arch of St. Remi, a real artist showed what life could be given to a traditional motive. Such flashes, however, only deepen the general impression of perfunctoriness in Roman work. Notwithstanding the variety of type, the skill in planning and engineering, the varied materials, the colossal scale (perhaps even because of the latter), the art as a whole is joyless, like a painful task performed more or less conscientiously, without enthusiasm. One feels intuitively that the builders cared little for the selfish Caesars in whose honour they erected triumphal arches and palaces; that they cared little for the populace to shelter whom they built unending colonnades on the streets and forums, and least of all for the temples to strange, cold gods. The yoke of the taskmaster lies heavy upon their arm, as it lies upon the arm of a worker in the modern factory.
It is by this token, perhaps, that the failure of Roman architecture is most clearly proved. For the essence of all great art is joy: the joy of grandeur, the joy of poetry, the joy of gloom, the joy of tears perhaps, but always joy.
The main elements of the Renaissance myth are familiar enough: the sudden dawning of a new outlook on the world after a thousand years of darkness, the rediscovery of ancient learning, the spread of new ideas of intellectual inquiry and freedom, investigation of the real world replacing the sterile disputes of the scholastics, the widening of the world through the discovery of America and the advance of science, the reform of religion. Apart from a few quibbles about the supposed suddenness of the change, and that more on the grounds of a general belief in the gradualness of historical change than because of any evidence, this paradigm seems to be as firmly in place now as it ever was.
In fact there is no truth in any of this. On the contrary, as we will see, the "Renaissance" was a period when thought declined significantly, bringing to an end a period of advance in the late Middle Ages.
Any attempt to pin down what happened in the Renaissance is soon going to run into definitional problems, concerning what is to count as in the period. Platitudes on the impossibility of defining a period of history exactly, and the public's inability to remember any date before 1492, have permitted the Renaissance to undergo some alarming changes of scale, like King Kong in the film. A reasonably popular consensus would start it roughly with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, allowing the Middle Ages to finish on a suitably final note, and end about 1564. In that year, by a convenient coincidence, Michelangelo and Calvin died and Shakespeare, Marlowe and Galileo were born. This gives a Renaissance of a hundred years or so, which seems quite long enough for a burst of creative energy. It puts the dispersal of Byzantine scholars and the voyages to America and India early in the period, to act as causal factors in the spread of new ideas. It fits in all the people we would definitely want to see as Renaissance figures - Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de Medici, Botticelli, Rabelais, Erasmus, More, the Borgias, Machiavelli and Luther. But the problem for an admirer of the period is that it can produce only one intellectual achievement of any significance at all - Copernicus' theory of the planets, published near the end of the period in 1543. This embarrassment has been solved by letting the edges of the Renaissance, on the pretext that these cannot be precisely defined, tacitly drift out to include Dante and Giotto at one end and Galileo at the other. That gives a bloated Renaissance of three hundred years, and includes the Black Death, the entire Hundred Years War and other things calculated to tarnish a golden age. But there is a compelling motive for wanting to make this move, namely that in Italy, the centre of the Renaissance, there were no thinkers worthy of the name between the two extremes.
In order to compare the Renaissance with something (unfavourably, as it will turn out), let us recall something about the state of the world around 1300, the time of Dante and Giotto. There could hardly be a more medieval figure than Dante, nor a more perfect expression of the medieval world view than the Divine Comedy. Dante's lifetime was, from most points of view (though not necessarily his own), the high point of the Middle Ages. It was an age of technological marvels, with the first spectacles, the first glass mirrors, the first mechanical clocks and the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping and blast furnaces...
Inventions in other fields had made the world very wide - Europe had more or less regular contact with Greenland in one direction and China in the other. There was a Christian archbishop in Peking and missionary activity in a number of other Asian countries. Marco Polo's account of his travels enjoyed a great vogue. In 1291 the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa set out from Morocco in an attempt to find a sea route around Africa to India. Unfortunately they vanished without trace, but their relatives did establish trading agencies in India, reached by the Red Sea route. An uncritical admiration for the time may, however, be restrained by mention of another of its innovations, cannon. Though a great age in many respects, it was as afflicted by war, plagues, pogroms and misogyny as many another time before and since.
The main intellectual effort of the Middle Ages was of course expended not on technological subjects but on philosophy and theology... Although the achievements of medieval philosophy are not easy to appreciate, we can understand something of what was done in science, then considered a branch of philosophy. The history of medieval science has only been treated seriously in comparatively recent times, since it suited the theses of most historians that the medieval scholars should have been poring over ancient books instead of examining the real world. Less culpably, an interest in science and skill in medieval Latin are, in the nature of things, rarely conjoined. But with the excellently chosen texts now available in translation in Edward Grant's Sourcebook in Medieval Science, we can see how good the science of the time really was. One thing that becomes clear is that all the best bits come from the period 1250-1350, that is, Dante's lifetime plus a few years either way. By then the best of Greek and Arab science had been translated and absorbed and new discoveries were being made. Until 1300 the most actively cultivated science was geometrical optics, the leading researchers in which were associated with the Papal court of John XXI in the 1270s. The Pope was himself the author of a book on the subject (besides writing best-sellers on logic and medicine), and in fact died in the pursuit of science when the roof of his laboratory collapsed.
In the next century, it was mechanics that caught the attention of the learned. The importance of this was that the next phase of science and mathematics, represented by Galileo, Descartes and Newton, made its most important discoveries in connection with the motion of bodies. But this was a subject notably absent from the science of antiquity. Motion, and continuous variation in general, seems to have been thought too confusing to be treated rigorously, and there is no suggestion that any kind of measurement might apply to motion. There is no phrase in ancient Greek or Latin equivalent to kilometres per hour. Even the motion of the planets was treated in terms of the geometry of the heavenly spheres, to which the planets were supposed to be attached. To remedy this situation, what was needed was an identification of continuous variation as a subject and the drawing of some important distinctions between the basic concepts. If there was one thing that medieval philosophy was good at, it was drawing distinctions. The scientists of the Merton School, at Oxford in the 1330s and 1340s, wrote at length on the intension and remission of forms, that is, the changes of any quantities which could vary continuously. The topic covered the motion of bodies, the gradual change from hot to cold, the variation in brightness over a surface and, according to one of the school, the intension and remission of certainty with respect to doubt. Their crucial achievement was to distinguish between speed and acceleration, and then between uniform and non-uniform acceleration. They were able to devise what we would express by an equation of uniformly accelerated motion. All this requires mathematical talent of a high order.
The next (and, as it proved, final), steps taken in this direction were the accomplishments of the last and greatest of the medieval scientists, Nicole Oresme. A remarkably versatile thinker, he wrote on such varied subjects as theology and money, but devoted much of his effort to science and mathematics. He invented graphs, one of the few mathematical discoveries since antiquity which are familiar to every reader of the newspapers. He was the first to perform calculations involving probability. He had a good grasp of the relativity of motion, and argued correctly that there was no way to distinguish by observation between the theory then held that the heavens revolve around the earth once a day, and the theory that the heavens are at rest and the earth spins once a day. He was apparently the first to compare the workings of the universe to a clock, an image much repeated in later ages. Many of his more technical achievements have also been admired by the experts.
Then everything came to a stop. Given the scientific and mathematical works of Descartes and Galileo, but no chronological information, one might suppose the authors were students of Oresme. Galileo's work on moving bodies is the next step after Oresme's physics; Cartesian geometry follows immediately on Oresme's work on graphs. But we know that the actual chronological gap was 250 years, during which nothing whatever happened in these fields. Nor did any thing of importance occur in any other branches of science in the two centuries between Oresme and Copernicus. Other intellectual fields have no more to offer. Histories of philosophy are naturally able to name philosophers between 1350 and 1600, but their inclusion seems to be on the same principle as world maps which include Wyndham, WA, but leave out Wollongong - big blank spaces must be filled. While it is almost impossible to find an English translation of any philosopher in the three hundred years between Scotus and Descartes, it is not a lack one feels acutely. The intellectual stagnation of those centuries is evident too in the lack of change in the universities: the curriculum which bored Locke at Oxford in 1650 was almost identical to the one which Wyclif found wanting in 1350.
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