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10 April 2009


Summa Theologica 51.3:
It was not fitting for Christ's body to putrefy, or in any way be reduced to dust, since the putrefaction of any body comes of that body's infirmity of nature, which can no longer hold the body together. But as was said above, Christ's death ought not to come from weakness of nature, lest it might not be believed to be voluntary: and therefore He willed to die, not from sickness, but from suffering inflicted on Him, to which He gave Himself up willingly. And therefore, lest His death might be ascribed to infirmity of nature, Christ did not wish His body to putrefy in any way or dissolve no matter how; but for the manifestation of His divine power He willed that His body should continue incorrupt. Hence Chrysostom says that with other men, especially with such as have wrought strenuously, their deeds shine forth in their lifetime; but as soon as they die, their deeds go with them. But it is quite the contrary with Christ: because previous to the cross all is sadness and weakness, but as soon as He is crucified, everything comes to light, in order that you may learn it was not an ordinary man that was crucified.

Since Christ was not subject to sin, neither was He prone to die or to return to dust. Yet of His own will He endured death for our salvation, for the reasons alleged above. But had His body putrefied or dissolved, this fact would have been detrimental to man's salvation, for it would not have seemed credible that the divine power was in Him. Hence it is on His behalf that it is written: What profit is there in my blood, whilst I go down to corruption? as if He were to say: If My body corrupt, the profit of the blood shed will be lost.

Christ's body was a subject of corruption according to the condition of its passible nature, but not as to the deserving cause of putrefaction, which is sin: but the divine power preserved Christ's body from putrefying, just as it raised it up from death.
Matthias Grünewald's biography is unknown; even his surname (Gothardt) has been misremembered. He was of the first generation of German artists to be influenced by Protestantism, but unlike Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach, he left no record of his religious opinions. A chest of his belongings was posthumously found to contain Lutheran literature, but this in itself proves little. None of his surviving paintings was commissioned by Protestants; none contains any discernable Protestant message.

What message they do contain is more elusive, and more disturbing.

Grünewald's most famous work, the Isenheim Altarpiece, has a very confused iconography; John the Baptist is the most prominent figure at the foot of the Cross and the Resurrection is bizarrely conflated with the Transfiguration. No art historian has ever identified beyond dispute the kneeling, glowing figure before a chorus of angels in one of the panels; she appears Marian, but worships a larger, older, homelier Mary in the facing panel. A widely accepted theory is that this is the idea of Mary in the mind of God adoring Mary as fact; one gets the sense that the art historians were desperate. Behind the mysterious woman, among the angels, a strange figure plays a viola de gamba; he is multiwinged and entirely covered in green feathers and curly hair. At least one scholar has argued that he is Lucifer.

That seraphic cellist on the inner panel of the Isenhem Altarpiece might represent the entire oeuvre of the painter; something is bowing discord; something disguised, perhaps something satanic. It is all the more frightening because it is impossible to prove anything about it.

Most troubling are the human figures. There is an indefinable wrongness to the bodies given by Grünewald to Christ and His saints; they are awkwardly posed, with lopsided heads, puffy skin, sausagelike fingers, almost cretinous expressions; they are seemingly moulded from glutinous bread dough. This is entirely unlike the precise grotesquery of Hieronymus Bosch (drawn from the tradition of comic manuscript marginalia) because it marks every face, not merely those of villains.

And then there are the Crucifixions. The corpus of the Isenheim Altarpiece, and the similar corpora in paintings at Karlsruhe, Basel and Washington are so well-known that detailed description is unnecessary.

Justifications for Grünewald's dead Christs invariably invoke the writings of St. Bridget, St. Gertrude and other late mediaeval mystics, who described the Passion in gruesome detail. And it is true that, beginning in the 14th century, intense meditation on the physical suffering of Christ dominated spiritual writing as well as sacred art. The pious literature of the age even numbers the lashes that Our Lord received (5,475 according to Oliver Maillard). Late mediaeval art is morbid, somber and tragic; its crucified Christ is crowned with thorns, contorting under His own weight, streaming blood. His muscles and bones are visible beneath His stripped-away skin. This is the suffering Christ bearing the immeasurable sins of humanity.

But this is most emphatically NOT the Christ whom we encounter at Isenheim and at Karlsruhe. The difference is obvious; 5,475 scourges turn a body red, not green - and Grünewald's Christ is green. It is the corruption of the tomb that turns a body green. Grünewald's Christ does not bleed; he rots.

This is not, as Joris-Karl Huysmans fatuously claimed, the Christ of Justin, Basil, Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the apostolic Church... the Christ of the afflicted, of the beggar, of all those on whose indigence and helplessness the greed of their brother battens; this is not their Christ at all. This is a Christ unknown to the mystics, unknown to the fathers, unknown to the poor and suffering; a Christ unknown to any Christian.

It is a Christ who has never risen from the dead.

17 February 2009


A drawing by Eduard Gurk

14 February 2009


On 13-14 February of 1945, the city centre of Dresden was firebombed. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of civilians were killed. Antebellum Dresden was one of the great architectural cities of the world. A dozen or so of the more famous buildings surrounding the old palace complex have been reconstructed, but the vast majority of the city was rebuilt with drab modernism.

The greatest churches in the city were the Lutheran Kreuzkirche and Frauenkirche, and the Catholic Hofkirche. The Frauenkirche and the Hofkirche are visible in the above postcard. These three have now been rebuilt; the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche was completed in 2006.

Lady Church

Brühl's Terrace

Old Market

Zwinger Palace and Semper Opera House

Royal Palace

10 February 2009


Also known as the Psalter of Winchester, also known as the Psalter of Henry of Blois. Mid 12th century England. 

6 February 2009


Msgr. Rudolph G. Bandas:
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]

3 February 2009


St. Vincent of Lerins:
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.

28 January 2009


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
REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum
FAmuli tuorum
SOLve polluti
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.

23 January 2009


Rev. Seraphim Rose:
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.

17 January 2009


15 January 2009


A. Kingsley Porter:
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.

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.
[Beyond Architecture by A. Kingsley Porter. Marshall Jones Company. Boston, 1918]

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