Tuesday, September 15, 2009

GKC: on a mystic senseof art- and the Cross

I jump in again out of my normal heptameral cycle to offer a meditative excerpt from a very wonderful book, GKC's Chaucer, which as you may expect, contains many wonderful studies on topics other than Chaucer. This excerpt is very complex and deep and wonderful - please read it carefully, and think about this great insight into art and religion. Especially if you are an artist, please ponder it before you next touch brush to canvas, or set forth to work in whatever medium you use. And if you are not, pay attention to your life, your decoration, your music, your words....
--Dr. Thursday

...the old ascetic was looking for joy and beauty, whether we think his vision of joy and beauty impossible or merely invisible. But the true Puritan was not primarily looking for joy and beauty, but for strength and even violence. This can be stated, and for a hundred years has been stated, in a form favourable to the Puritan. He has been called the stalwart and virile Puritan; he is always very much gratified to be called the grim and rugged Puritan. The other religious ideal can as easily be stated in an unfavourable form; suggesting a sentimental and childish attraction to bright colours or costly trinkets. I am not at all concerned with the favourable or unfavourable comments here. But, favourable or unfavourable, they point to a clean-cut contrast between the two things. There is such a contrast between those things; which is why so many modern writers describe them as the same.

The contrast instantly appears in black and white, when the two creeds express themselves in externals. When once the ascetic was assured that certain things were dedicated to divine things, he wanted them to be exceptionally brilliant and gorgeous things. He wanted the vestments of the priest to run through all the colours of the rainbow or the marbles of the shrine to mimic all the sunsets of the world. The Puritan insisted that the preacher should wear a black Geneval gown, instead of any coloured vestment, and that the chapel should be a shed or barn and not a temple shining with marbles; and he was consistent with his fundamental conception. He was not merely stern towards other people's religion or irreligion. He was stern towards his own religion; and was most stern where he was most religious. In his religious picture even the high light was a hard light; the sort of harsh and hueless light that can be seen in the black engravings in the old Family Bibles. It was not a question of preferring light to darkness; it was a question of preferring a colourless light to coloured light. It was not a question of flowers or beautiful raiment, conceived as a vision of heaven rather than of earth; it was a question of being on the side of the storm against the flower or of the stark bones against the garment. As I say, it can be described as a sublime exultation in strength and severity; appealing to sturdy races or to strict family traditions. It can also be described (so far as I am concerned) as a return to heathenism and a howling to the gods of fear. But it is a fact of history, which still plays a part even in politics; that certain people were proud, not of being stern to this or that indulgence; but simply proud of being stern.

Now this note is never found in medieval asceticism. Nobody can imagine St. Thomas Aquinas saying, 'I am a grand grim old Dominican, who stands no nonsense; we are a rugged stock, scorning the pleasures of the world.' Nobody can conceive St. Bernard boasting, 'We Burgundians are a harsh, hardy race and like the thunder in our hills more than the pretty flowers of a garden paradise.' These men may have dwelt too much on the supernatural as compared to the natural, according to our own views upon such matters; but they thought the supernatural more beautiful than the natural; not merely more naked or elemental or terrible. M. Reinach, a learned Jew who has an artistic admiration for medievalism certainly quite untinged with Catholicism, has very truly pointed out that the purely medieval artists always represented heavenly beings as gay and happy, and attributed sorrow only to the lost. The insistence even on the Man of Sorrows and the Mater Dolorosa, in artistic expression, belongs to a time after the medieval. It was in the seventeenth century that the two more sombre religious moods appeared in the two religions. In the Catholic world it became in some sense a worship of sorrow; in the Puritan world a worship of severity, and in some cases of savagery. The point here, however, is that we cannot understand medieval men, even the most extreme or extravagant ascetics, unless we understand that to them the contrast was quite clear between the cross and the crown; between the harsh and the angular timber of the cross and the coloured jewels of the crown. A man like Fra Angelico might live a very plain life; but he did not imagine paradise as a penny plain, but very decidedly as twopence coloured. A man like John Knox prided himself on being plain even in his religious conceptions; some might say flippantly that he was too much of a Scot to spare the twopence. From him descends a sort of pride in rudeness, growing more self-conscious with later times; but unknown even to the rudest people in older times. We may think that the earlier saints tried to be saved by an excess of humility; but nobody tried to be admired for an excess of hardness. They did not even excuse themselves for being hard-hearted by calling themselves hard-headed. As a rule, they did not call themselves anything, except miserable sinners.

[GKC Chaucer CW18:351-3]

1 comment:

  1. There are times when I find concieving of God as fearful is a good exercise. But I'm glad i don't do it all the time.


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