The Influence of the Catholic Church upon Modern Art
This editorial appeared in The Catholic Standard and Times, October 2, 1869. The author is unknown; however, the editor noted “The writer of this article is not a Catholic.”
As in many a sacred painting the divine persons are seen descending upon earth, attended by angels who, with trumpets, unheard by men, announce the visitation; so religion, revealed to prepare men for the next world, sits enthroned in this with all the arts, its ministers and servants. It is a glory of the Catholic Church that it has recognized to the utmost the spirituality of art. It has denied the dogma, of all dogmas the most absurd, that with the use of the highest powers of the imagination, and with delight in the beauty with which God has clothed the world, his worship is incompatible. It has not made piety a thing ugly, repulsive, barren; a mere assent of the will to an abstraction. The child of the Church, standing in a world where the rainbow bends above him, and sunset opens the burning gates of heaven, is not taught to believe the seven colors the seven sins, or, at least, but secular beauty, to be banished from the house of worship; with the voices of birds, and winds, and waters, and the gothic grandeur of forests around him, he is not taught that music and architecture interfere with piety, or, if used at all in worship, must be limited to their lowest and simplest forms. Of creeds I do not need to speak; but this much it is necessary to say in the strict limits of my subject, that the world owes to Catholicism so much of its music, and painting, and architecture, that, had the world been without the Church, these arts, though of human origin, and though highly developed before the Christian era, would in their modern forms probably be still in their infancy.
In sculpture, undoubtedly, the Greeks surpassed even Michael Angelo; the statues of Phidias, though in ruins, are the wonder and despair of artists. The Roman Empire built temples, roads, aqueducts, the Colosseum, and, when it fell, the arts, even in these less imaginative forms, seem to have fallen with it. For a long time there was no art worthy of the name of Europe. Apollo, blind and dumb, wandered without a home or a temple; for, though in those centuries there must have been men born to be composers, or painters, or sculptors, they were born too soon or too late. Athens had fallen; Christian Rome had not arisen to her destined greatness. So the world slumbered in darkness till the Catholic Church wrought the miracle by which the arts were raised from their tombs and made her interpreters and ministers. This cannot be denied, that she gave the impulse to the revival of art, encouraged its development, inspired it with energy and purpose, and faith, and so sent it forth to bless and transfigure the world. In every city in Europe she built a Cathedral. In Rome, St. Peter’s; in Paris, Notre Dame; in Vienna, the Dom Kirche; in Milan, La Duomo. No town was without its church, few of them without beauty, many monuments of the genius of their builders. Because the Saviour was born in a stable, it was not held an article of faith that He should be worshipped in a barn. The Church believed that the temple should show that it was built not for the service of man, but of God. To adorn these majestic buildings she summoned the sister arts. Through the stained windows, “The panes of ancient churches, passionate with martyred saints, whom angels wait, with Virgin and with Crucified,” the light shone holier for that transfiguration. There the painter told in language all could read the solemn story of the religion they believed. How in a manger the Christ was born, and worshipped by the wise men whom the mysterious star had led from the Chaldean plains; how the holy mother journeyed with Joseph into Egypt, bearing in her arms the babe who came into the world Himself to bear the burdens of its grief; how He taught the poor and healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the grave, and bade the Magdalene sin no more; how he spake with God upon the mount, and was tempted by the fiend, betrayed by Judas, tried by Pilate, and crucified upon Calvary; how at the foot of the cross the Marys wept all night; and how, when he was buried, angels rolled away the stone from the sepulcher, and apostles beheld Him ascend into the depths of heaven. Upon the sacred walls, which were to these pious worshippers as windows opening into the Holy Land, they saw miracles, transfigurations, ascensions, the agonies of the martyrs, the adorations of saints, and – vision of all visions fairest – the tender face of the Virgin bending in prophetic sadness above the infant Christ. But with other than silent teachers the Church appealed to the soul. Music, whose miraculous voice utters all passions, pains, delights, and truths, breathed her beautiful religion on the air. She sang of what Raphael and Titian painted; of the birth, and the death, and the resurrection; of the prayers of penitence, the anguish of strife, the rapture of heaven, the torments of hell; and in her voice were heard sobs, and cries, and supplications, thunders of divine wrath, trumpets of doom and of redemption, and choruses upon choruses of angels proclaiming the glory of God. In all the arts the Church embodied Christianity; as she converted souls, so she converted music and painting. By the twelfth century, nay, before that, all the art of Europe was Catholic. In Italy, Spain, Germany, wherever a school of art existed, however humble, its highest aspirations were through the Catholic Church. The ideality of art, as we may see in its remaining works, was then almost exclusively religious; to be imaginative was to be pious. Centuries before the dawn of modern painting, in the silence and seclusion of cloisters, laborious monks, slowly perfecting their wonderful illuminated missals, were unawares preparing the advent of Cimabue and Giotto. The tradition that St. Luke was a painter was carefully cherished by his disciples, who may have found inspiration in the legend that he painted the portrait of the Saviour. Thus it is probable, and other reasons might be cited, that modern art was not adopted by the Church, but, born within its monasteries, was cherished till it grew too great for them alone, and then, as the child of the Church, turned in natural faith and gratitude to the service of its parent.
The Church was the chief patron of the early painters; it furnished not only their inspiration, but their occupation. There is little trace of the earliest Christian art; but Eusebius, whose history was written in the reign of Constantine, mentions that images of Christ were then common. In the third century, pictures had been generally introduced in the churches of Palestine. But it was scarcely before the twelfth century that Catholic art gave promise of that splendor which in later days exalted it above all rivalry. We find Cimabue famous about the year 1250, and after him Giotto, almost the father of Italian art, whose portrait of Dante, recently discovered, is acknowledged as the best likeness we possess of the author of the greatest Christian poem. He painted the Last Supper of Christ, at Florence, and an idea of his influence may be formed from the fact that he had one hundred pupils, some of whom were afterwards renowned. To catalogue the painters of this period would be unnecessary, but their close sympathy with the Church, and the encouragement they received from it, are unquestionable. In 1308, Duccio, an artist of Sienna, was called upon to paint an altar-piece, and in his contract pledged himself thus: “I will execute it according to my best ability, and as the Lord shall grant me skill.” The picture when completed was carried in solemn procession to the church. When, in 1438, it was proposed to build the Sienna Cathedral, it was ordained that “no one even suspected of immorality shall be eligible” to the position of its architect. A more earnest expression of the faith of the early artists in the dignity of their work, and their religious duty, is found in the rules adopted by the painters of Sienna in 1335. They held that, “since we are teaching to ignorant men, and since in God every perfection is united, we will in our work earnestly ask the aid of the Divine grace.” This spirit of devotion gave a higher direction to genius that might without it have wasted itself in empty and unmeaning tasks; and, whatever the artist was born to do, he found in the Church his opportunity. To paint, in those days, for the best of those men, was to serve God; to build, was to build his temples. The purpose ennobled the work. Not merely with intellect Lorenzo Ghiberti labored when he wrought the doors of the baptistery in the rear of the Cathedral at Florence – doors of which Michael Angelo exclaimed in his enthusiasm, “Worthy to be the gates of Paradise!” Casts of these wonderful carvings of scriptural subjects, are exhibited in the Academy of the Fine Arts at Philadelphia. These artists were the worthy forerunners of greater men – of Domenichino, of Guido, of Titian, of Murillo, of Correggio, and of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michael Angelo. The greatest works of the three latter were upon Christian themes. The Last Supper, painted by DaVinci in 1497, for the Dominican convent at Milan, is accepted as the crowning proof of his genius. The statue of Moses in St. Peter’s, the Last Judgment, and the Dome of St. Peter’s are the master works of the mighty Angelo. Raphael, who began his beautiful career by painting altar-pieces, in the Transfiguration reached its highest point, and questionings of the model who sat for his divine madonnas is idle, for not the loveliness of the faces, but the holiness of the spirit gives them immortality. But I need cite no other instances. The highest subjects of the Italian painters were found in their religion, and the Church was their most generous patron. And not only was this dedication of art to spirituality of direct value to its intellectual progress, but indirectly it ennobled art that aimed merely to paint the things of earth and not the dreams of heaven. The less gained dignity from the sacred office of the greater, and art became more strongly rooted in that which was of the world, because of its aspiration to that which was celestial.
The vast influence of religion upon art, is signally exhibited in the history of English art. Neither painting nor architecture, it is true, had made much progress in England up to the seventeenth century, as compared with their success on the continent; for when Italy was civilized, Great Britain was still rude, and in certain respects barbarian. Yet the Cathedrals which still exist in ruins, monuments of Gothic grandeur, were the expressions of a national art in close relation with religion. In England as in all other countries the Catholic Church gathered around Her the arts. But with a religion which professed to see in images nothing but idols, in paintings of Christ and the apostles and the prophets nothing but profanity and blasphemy, came desolation and destruction. The Roundhead was not satisfied with the downfall of a throne, with the death of one Stuart and the banishment of that royal line, nor with the proscription of the Catholic religion. The men who followed Cromwell were iconoclasts, who destroyed Christian images to set up in their stead an idol of barbarian bigotry. They fired the churches, they shattered the statues, they made war upon the pictures of Madonnas and martyrs without remorse or fear. They had driven out the Cavaliers, they were resolved to drive out the saints; and, as they had banished the Church, they were bent upon sending art to keep it company. They succeeded but too well. Puritan enmity to the employment of painting in church decoration – the sweeping principle that art and religion could not be united and had different aims – struck a blow at English art which almost ended it for three reigns. It did not, indeed, fully recover from the effect until near the close of the eighteenth century, when, as little more than portraiture, it was re-established by Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. To this day it is only in portraiture and in landscape that a great English school exists. There are many fine Vandykes, and Lelys, and Reynolds in the galleries of England, and many landscapes and marines by Gainsborough, Wilson, and Turner; but where is the historical painter who can be compared with Turner? Haydon, who bitterly complained that historical painting was not appreciated in England, and that those who by their wealth and position should have encouraged it cared only for their own faces on canvas, might have found the cause of its decline in the absence of any religious inspiration in English art. He admitted this truth, unconsciously perhaps, when he chose for his own subjects of “high art” Christ in the Temple and Lazarus coming from the Tomb. In the landscapes and marines of Turner there is imagination grander than Claude, or Poussin, or Salvador Rosa possessed; in Wilkie unsurpassed character is given to humble themes. But the English historical school is infinitely below English landscape and portraiture. The Boydell gallery, in which the best artists of the time were employed to illustrate Shakespeare, is an utter failure. Fuseli was fanciful and coarse; and, though I know little of Blake’s pictures, it is safe to presume they were not equal to his strange and beautiful poetry. Did he ever realize with the brush such verses as “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night?”
Reynolds failed when he sought to be imaginative, as the Death of Dido and the Deathbed of Carinal Beaufort are proof. The defeat of the repeated efforts to establish an historical school of art in England must not be ascribed solely to a deficiency of genius in the men or in the character of the nation. Art and religion were divorced. Men worshipped God in one way and painted in another. It is a significant fact that the pre-Raphaelite school, however objectionable in some respects, owes its highest success to the religious element which inspires it. Millais and Hunt proclaim that the rudest art must be spiritual, and thus seek to atone for centuries of infidelity to that truth.
Upon music the influence of the Church has probably been even greater than upon painting, certainly as great. With no exaggeration, it may be said that to write the history of the composers who have written for the Church is to write the history of modern music. What this fact implies will be understood by those who know that in none other of the arts has the term modern such significance; for, while ancient painting, sculpture, and architecture were based upon the same general laws which are now recognized as absolute, the principles of music, like her own sweet sounds, have changed and passed away from age to age. There is a known difference between what may be called the musical ear of this century and that of the sixteenth. What was then felt to be harmony, and embodied in the works of the great masters, is now discord. There was a time when consecutive fifths were common, a fact almost incredible to the musician of today. If such changes have occurred within four or five hundred years, the gulf which divides ancient and modern music must be deep and wide; and the latter, having little visible connection or known sympathy with the former, and originating in Christian Europe, must inevitably owe much of its character to Catholic civilization.
The oldest form of music known to us belongs to the Church; it is the Ecclesiastical Chant of St. Ambrose and St. Gregory. The former, near the close of the fourth century, endeavored to give a fixed form to church music, and we may judge of his success from this Te Deum. The words and the music of this noble canticle are still sung. Of the Ambrosian chant, St. Augustine wrote: “As the voices flowed into mine ears, truth was instilled into my heart, and the affections of piety overflowed in tears of joy.” It is said that St. Ambrose composed the Te Deum upon the conversion of St. Augustine. Two centuries later Pope Gregory vastly improved the system of sacred music; from him we have the celebrated Gregorian chant, solemn, severe, and pure, and still heard in Lent and in the Holy Week. Such value did St. Gregory place upon music that he established a school for singers at Rome, which flourished till the tenth century. After the Gregorian chant little reformation in music was accomplished for centuries; but the next step was also taken within the Church when Guido, a Benedictine monk, early in the eleventh century, discovered the musical scale now used. Modern rhythm was invented by a French priest about the same time, and for many years music owed all its progress to religious enthusiasm. Thus, Odington, an English Benedictine monk, in 1240, wrote DeSpeculation Musicae, and John de Muris in the fourteenth century much to establish fixed rules of harmony. Counterpoint was slowly developed; the canon and the fugue were introduced; and the laws of music were gradually established as the basis of the grander and more ideal genius of the strictly modern system. We need not follow the history of the art from that great master Palestrina through the long succession of famous names destined to be remembered when those of kings are half forgotten.
From the first it has been seen the Church recognized the sacred offices of music, and did not merely permit, but authorized and developed its use. It is true that at one time use led to abuse. In the sixteenth century composers for the Church frequently forgot religion in science. “In this kind of composition,” says Alexander Cheron, “the meaning of the words was entirely overlooked, and its tendencies were only to the display of the genius of the composers or the powers of the singers.” The evil became so great that the Council of Trent even deliberated upon the suppression of music in religious service. Pope Marcellus II had, indeed, resolved to banish all music but the Gregorian chant, when Palestrina composed a Mass which made that step unnecessary. It was a revolution. Solemnity, grandeur, and purity were the elements of the new style from which mere bravutas and all levities were excluded. Thus the power which authorized the employment of music had the influence to redeem it from degradation, till now the sacred music we possess embodies the genius of three centuries, and will, perhaps, endure longer than the finest lyric dramas. That the religious purposes of great masters have had vast influence upon the merely lyric compositions is not to be doubted. We cannot raise one form of art without raising all. The author of Don Giovanni might not have achieved the full grandeur of that work had he not also composed his marvelous Masses. Of the influence of Catholic music upon such minds, an incident in Mozart’s life is a proof. In his youth he heard the famous Miserere sung in the Sistine chapel at Rome – that strange and solemn harmony, composed two hundred years ago by Gregorio Allegri, for the sublime ceremonial of the Passion Week. Pontiff and Cardinals, when the Miserere begins, kneel around the altar, the church is darkened, the voices swell in tenor, and die into silence. Mozart twice heard this wonderful work, and then reproduced it note for note, and sang it with the exact method and feeling of the Sistine choir. And it is said that the effect of this Miserere upon him may be traced in all his other works. Haydn’s piety is found in all of his music, chiefly in those Masses which are known to all lovers of music. “In Nomine Domini,” “Soli Deo Gloria,” he invariably wrote at the beginning of his scores, and “Laus Deo” at their end. When composing, if his imagination failed, he repeated his rosary, and, before beginning his greater work, he prayed to God for inspiration to praise Him worthily. Of the composers inspired by religion, the list is long; longer, perhaps, that of those who unconsciously were influenced by it. When Haydn was asked which of his works he considered the greatest, he replied, The Seven Words. It was written for the service called the “Funeral of the Redeemer” at Madrid, in which the seven words uttered by the bishop, who explained each, and between each exposition, Haydn’s music in sympathy with the Word was given. Upon his Masses he lavished his pains, and generally required twice the time for a Mass he needed for a symphony.
Palestrina, Porpora, Clementi, Hadyn, Mozart, Rossini, Bethooven, are but a few of the illustrious masters whose sacred music was dedicated to the Catholic Church. Handel’s religious music was chiefly written for the English, and is embodied, as well as that of Mendelssohn, in oratorio. But, for my part, I do not think the form of the oratorio as well fitted for sacred music as that of the mass. An oratorio is generally sung in a concert-room; the words are frequently poor adaptations of the language of the scriptures; its auditors expect to be entertained. Therefore, though the music many be perfect in itself, as in the “Total Eclipse” or “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” of Handel, it does not seem that the form is suited to express the deepest emotions of worship. It is in the Catholic Church alone that music and religion are wedded. Who can translate into words the profound devotion inspired by the solemn mass in the cathedral service? Over the kneeling worshippers, the illuminated alter, the pictures of the crucifixion and the ascension the intonation of the priest, “the dim religious light” shining through the stained windows, Music breathes her voice. As the great organ swells, and the deep-toned choir utters the despair of the Miserere, the heavenly beauty of the Agnus Dei, the exultation of the Gloria, the devotion of the Credo, etc., what soul is now bowed in sympathy with grief, raised with gratitude, or bathed in heavenly peace? I know no music that has a more profound effect. It is a part of worship. It expresses something to which words the most eloquent are inadequate. It is the glory of the Catholic Church, I repeat, that she has so freely recognized the spirituality of this act, and these who reject her creed are compelled to admit the propriety and supremacy of her service. How cold are the musical exercises of other churches, how little they express of this intense and passionate devotion. I do not think that God is served by the exclusion of his greatest gift from the ceremonial of worship, and that point is conceded by all sects which sing his praise. But, if any music is used, why not the best? If a hymn, why not a mass? If an organ, why not an orchestra? The objection that the Catholic Church would have its choirs composed of the best voices, its music written by the greatest composers, is too absurd to be answered; for if the highest art is unfit for the purposes of worship, then by inevitable logic it must be shown that all art is unfit; those who hold such objections should consistently agree with the Quakers, and banish the simplest hymn. More than this, if music many be worthily used, why not painting? The value of architecture is universally admitted, ever since it was shown by the Catholic Church, and music is more or less accepted as a mode of adoration by nearly all sects. Pictures, however, are admitted into Catholic Churches alone. Is, then, the genius of Titian and Raphael less holy than that of Beethoven or Mozart? Is it right to sing the praises of God in his temple, wrong to paint the story of the Son of God upon the consecrated walls? We need not answer such questions, which are only introduced to show how it is by the Catholic Church alone that the religious influences of the arts have been first and fully understood, and by it alone that they have been made agencies of worship.
Further examination of this important subject cannot now be made, for in these limits it can be little more than suggested. If we generalize, we discover that all the great artists, in architecture, painting, and music have found their highest employment in the Church, and that its history includes their biographies. Of its present influence it is unnecessary to speak, but it is felt most in architecture, at least in this country; the noblest church edifice in Philadelphia, perhaps in any American city, is incomparable the new cathedral. From what has been said, the depth, and extent, and value of the influence of the Church upon art may be inferred; but no one can imagine the condition of our art had it been without the inspiration of religion. Majestic and venerable stands that Church of Rome; upon her walls the arts have registered their victories; for her the muses have forsaken the summits of Parnassus; to her the poet, painter, and musician have dedicated their genius; and giving all they brought to her humblest and poorest worshippers, she has repaid the masters with perpetual recognition and universal fame. Far as her realm extends are known the glories of Raphael, and Angelo, and Mozart.