Concrete Sins: Update

In the comments to the previous post, Richard A linked to this, this, thing, playfully nicknamed Our Lady of Minas Morgul, and I had to share:

I’m somehow not surprised that this is a real Catholic church building, St. Francis de Sales (who is doing 1,000 RPMs in his grave at the moment) in
Muskegon, Michigan. I was surprised, although I should not have been, that googling this structure yielded many articles *praising* this building. A fine example of Bauhaus, Modernism, Brutalism – you know, just what the typical Catholic in the pews wants in his church building.

While a comment at the above link mentions the obvious goal is evangelization of the orcs, I had to surf around a little to find some pithy, real world reactions, such as these from reddit:

  • “It looks like the Borg assimilated a group of Lutherans.” (I laughed)
  • “This looks like where you fight a final boss”
  • “This could literally be a building in 1984”
  • “Looks like exactly the type of place you would serve the flesh and blood of someone to others.” (ouch!)

Going back a few posts to those discussing the heresy of Americanism. In 1899, Archbishop Gibbons answered the Pope Leo XIII’s concerns about Americanism with firm assurances that nothing of the sort was going on; by 1964, a parish in Michigan is hiring a famous Modernist architect to design its church. (Aside: where does a parish get the money to hire a famous German Bauhaus architect? And the money to build the monstrosity?)

I’m sure there’s no connection.

Here’s a slightly more flattering picture of the interior:

Image result for st francis de sales in muskegon

And a quotation from William Torrey Harris: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world. ” The purpose of school is, according to Harris, making obedient automata out of the students. So, what is the purpose here, in an environment so suited to Harris’s ideal?

As for praise, no less an oracle than Concrete Construction Magazine assures us that this building “fully demonstrates the architectural potential of cast-in-place concrete construction.”   Who could doubt it?

So, any of youse guys got anything ‘better’ than this?

Concrete (and Wood and Steel) Sins

May God forgive us for modern church architecture.

Have we turned the corner on terrible church buildings yet? I sometimes think we have, but that may be just me putting the blinders on so I don’t have to look at this:

There is nothing to recommend this building. It is preposterous and ugly by any standards. That it claims to stand in the line of the many noble and glorious cathedrals around the world is an insult to our intelligence.

Or this:

Image result for san francisco cathedral
This building, on the other hand, is not so terrible in and of itself – it would make a daring convention center – and has been enholied by the beautiful masses celebrated there, especially by the current archbishop. But in and of itself, as a church? Not so much.

Or this:

Oak Cathdrl 1.jpg
Wouldn’t this make a great Apple Store? The bomb-shelter greenhouse look will come back into vogue some day, eventually, and we’ll be ready for it! Not so ugly in and of itself, but insulting when compared to the thousands of much-beloved churches around the world.

and pretend they are anything other than hideous abominations, insulting to both God and man.

Ya know? Or this:

Image result for newman hall holy spirit parish
Berkeley Newman Center. If it weren’t for the sign out front, you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a church. Looks like a detail from rejected plans for the Maginot Line.

The bomb shelter look was big. I remember reading about the Los Angeles Cathedral, how they took care building it to last 500 years at least. This is achieved by deploying thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Unlike many ugly parish churches, which probably have a 50 or so year life expectancy before the repair/tear down calculations starts to get (mercifully) interesting, these monstrosities are built to last. If the goal was to burn through the Church’s money while saddling her with repulsive buildings for generations or centuries to come, the outcomes would not have been any different.

The L.A. Cathedral is in a class of its own – there’s just no redeeming it, artistically. It is a giant, $200,000,000 middle finger to the Catholics of L.A. To get rid of it is almost impossible. I fantasize that a billionaire might come along, buy land next door, and build a huge beautiful Neo-Gothic or Romanesque Revival church, seamlessly incorporating influences from Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Africa and so on in order to honor the remarkably world wide nature of L.A.’s Catholics, and then offer it to the diocese. The underlying tensions would thus be exposed. And L.A. would get a nice church.

At least in San Francisco and Oakland, one gets the feeling they were trying for something good, even if they went about it under the constraint that whatever was built must rebuke the pre-Vatican II church. The unhealthy compulsion to be different, which has lead to many bad fashion decisions and questionable tattoos on a small scale, leads to stuff like this when writ large:

These are a few of the approximately 800 louvres, I guess you’d call them, that make up the walls of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Louvre mania! And an imposing image peeking past the cables and braces!

These features appear to be slabs of laminated 2 x 12s, bolted to laminated uprights(1) with some seriously industrial looking galvanized hardware and bolts. They would make excellent work benches and picnic tables. Here? Oh, I’m sure there’s an artist’s program somewhere that describes how they are meant to let in the light in some deeply meaningful way that only a uncultured peon would fail to understand.

The effect is just weird. Like I say, not irredeemably ugly, just – weird. With 2,000 years of church architectural experience to draw on, this is what you do? Only if hell-bent on rejecting all that collected experience and wisdom.

I cherish my visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and my many visits to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College, as both buildings are very beautiful and built in the last decade or so. Beautiful and appropriate churches can still get built, if people want to build them.

Obligatory note: over the centuries, many people have pushed and pulled church architecture in many different directions with greater and lesser success. Gothic, after all, was an innovation at one time. I’m not wedded to any particular style or approach, as long as it strives to embody the true, the good and the beautiful. For a century now, many architects have actively rejected those ideals. Such should not be let anywhere near a church design project.

Final funny (at least to me) moment: Youngest son and I were visiting the Oakland Cathedral for a Boy Scout function, when a mom came up to me (I was just sitting there! Minding my own business! I swear!), pointed at the huge image of Christ Enthroned, and asked: “What is He doing with his right hand?”

Somebody thought a 70 foot tall heavily pixelated image of Christ partially obscured by structural members was a good idea, the dominant and central statement of the building. Right.

I answered honestly that he was giving a blessing, and that such images – Christ enthroned giving his blessing – are quite common. She was hesitant to accept this, but eventually gave in. “I thought he was flashing a peace sign. I was afraid they’d gone hippy on us.”

“I have no comment.” I smiled.

  1. I have to think the external frame, or a steel core to the uprights, or most likely both, are actually holding this thing up. Those louvres have got to be heavy.

Russian Cover Band, Hieronymus Bosch, Bach, Western Civ, and all that

There’s no telling what people will find fascinating. A while back, I mentioned Hieronymus Bosch, who is for me a little like a train wreck – can’t justify looking at him, but can’t stop looking, either. Many people these days are fascinated by Bosch’s weird and disturbing pictures, but evidently not as much or any more than his contemporaries. It seems Bosch’s works were copied, and those copies displayed all around Europe. Many of his works were intended as personal devotionals, not big public displays. Public demand to see them evidently led to their being widely copied and publicly displayed.

Bosch died in 1516. That means he was a contemporary of Dürer, Botticelli, and Raphael, among other objectively superior artists. Those artists were copied plenty, too, surely – but people dedicated many hours to copying Boch as well. Bosch, though no slouch, possibly was easier to copy, as Dürer is one of the very greats draftsman of all time, and Botticelli and Raphael are Botticelli and Raphael. Be that as it may – really? You’re an art student or practicing artist, and it’s Bosch you’re going to painstakingly copy? Okey-dokey.

Raphael detail
Botticelli detail
Durer detail
Bosch detail

But it wasn’t just the copyists. Artists went there because it was where the money was. Contemporary reports are that people flocked to look at those copies. Maybe the local cathedral provided all the needed beauty to calm their beauty jonesing, but the gargoyles failed to meet the demand for the disturbingly hideous? 

I mention this to illustrate that popular taste being inexplicable is not a new thing. 

Spending too much time on Youtube. There’s this Russian band that covers songs by the band Chicago. So? Couple of things: Chicago is not an easy band to cover. The musicianship of these Russians is excellent, and their enthusiasm is off the charts. They don’t fake anything – they have the full horn section, a string section, excellent backup vocalists, killer lead guitar player and an awesome drummer. These things alone make them unusual for a cover band. Check this out:


They do Chicago better than  Chicago does Chicago. (1)

Leonid, the mastermind, and the guy who has transcribed all the parts for the players, retired 4 years at the age of 60 in Moscow and decided to do something for fun. So he started getting together with his friends and covering 1970s pop tunes from an American band. As you can see, the ages range from at least their 60s on down to kids in their 20s if not younger – in other videos, the crack string section has some pretty downy-faced kids in it. 

This is not the project of some young, self-identified ‘ironic’ punks. What we have here are people – highly skilled people – spanning three generations, many of whom grew up in Soviet Union, dedicating A LOT of time and energy into mastering the music of of an American band popular when Brezhnev ran the show. 

I admire and have affection for these people. They look a lot like my relative. In fact, you could stick me in a family photo with most of those guys, or them in mine, and we’d fit right in. I suppose the music of Chicago might strike them as embodying everything that’s cool about the West. You could do worse. Their clothing – English language t-shirts, jeans, and the drummer’s ball caps – he  even sports an LA Dodgers’ hat – suggest the music of Chicago isn’t the only Western thing that appeals to them.  

But still, very Russian. I amused myself fantasy casting a Russian revolutionary era film with these guys – you got convincing Bolsheviks and peasants galore, party officials, thugs, an Orthodox priests or two. You’d need to find some stern Russian matrons somewhere. That one chick singer (‘chick singer’ is a term of art) is almost a parody of Slavic beauty, she’s so gorgeous, and so Russian!  Obvious double agent/love interest.

Raining on this love parade – really, just a light drizzle – was the thought that all this care and artistry lavished on some pop tunes is a bit like those souls who carve accurate copies of the Statue of Liberty out of a grain of rice. Or those who copied Bosch. Fascinating, I suppose, but – why? Wouldn’t it be much better if, inspired by Chicago, they spent their efforts creating some kick-ass Russian pop music? Assuming pop music is their thing. Maybe aim a little higher? These folks come from the people who built things like this: 

Related image

While it would amuse me to no end if kids in America became obsessed with Russian pop music – a ‘Russian Invasion’ we could live with – I’d be much happier if we instead imitated them in a mania for building over-the-top cathedrals. 

I’m still mulling over the claim that Western culture has effectively stagnated since the late 1980’s, with nothing truly new and life-altering either in the arts or technology. We just make copies and tweek things around the edges. The whole generation gap idea came about when there really were life altering changes between each generation. One generation was the first to grow up with cars, a revolution in personal travel that marks the line between before and after. Before, people lived at home and rarely traveled more than a few miles in a day, and even then, were limited to destinations along train routes. After, people could travel hundreds of miles in a day to an exponentially greater number of places.  It’s routine. Same sort of thing happened with telegraphs and phones, airplanes and trains, the green revolution and computers. One generation could only communicate slowly if at all, the next is wiring messages near instantly to nearly anyone around the world. 

Now? Despite all the claims of ever increasing progress, this generation has nothing much dramatic to separate its routine experiences from the last generation’s. (Note I’m not convinced here, but this is the argument.) Phones, cars, video games, CGI – all we’ve seen is improvements around the edges. Even the internet is over 20 years old, meaning it already existed when the last generation was coming of age. 

Be that as it may, what is clear is that we live in the Age of Cover Bands. Hollywood is legendarily cannibalistic, or, perhaps more hip: they recycle diligently. Pop music is a formulistic wasteland. New houses are these weird Frankenstein’s Monsters of stitched-together traditional parts  – and they’re better than the new commercial buildings! At least the so-called Renaissance often did a better job copying better examples. After they slandered the true creative genius of the middle ages, they simplified back down to what they fancied to be Roman and Greek examples, while incorporating Medieval advances without footnotes. 

Among the most successful sources being copied today are comic books. I understand that we are not to look down on them, as they contain (or until recently contained) strong stories with dealing with the eternal themes of good and evil, weakness and strength, and beauty and ugliness laid out in a popular, easy to digest format. And comic book writers, for the most part, were inspired by the classic epics and tragedies, so that works derived from comic books could be said to be derived second hand from very great sources. But still – we are not strong enough to demand our very own epics and tragedies written for adults? 

Finally, I am reminded of the curious fate of Bach. By his death in 1750, the classical music style (not ‘classical music’ as a general term, but specifically music written after the fashion popular from the early 1700’s until Beethoven’s death) had taken over, and Bach, with his dense baroque fugues and cantata, was dismissed even by his own sons as being an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  Note that until the later works of Mozart, classical music did not get within the ballpark of how sophisticated and adventurous Bach routinely was. Instead, the new classical style introduced during Bach’s lifetime was a simplification, structurally, harmonically, melodically, and emotionally much less complicated than Bach. Early classical music tends to be more emotionally sunny, sometimes relentlessly so. Compare the works of his sons with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in d-minor. While beautiful, the early classical works do not compare for emotional depth. All that counterpoint and elaborate structure in the Bach are not there to show off. Themes come around again and again, never quite the same, building, like the working out of the soul’s salvation. Awesome is an overworked word. Too bad – that’s what this work is. 

Bach took what he found as the current state of music, and did not set out to refute it, but rather to push it to its ultimate perfection. Bach might roll his eyes hard at that last statement, or maybe punch my lights out (that boy had a temper on him!). He might have put it: I am a musician. By the grace of God, I will do the best I can. It just so happened that he was one of the very few truly great musical geniuses in all history, so that his best was really, really good. 

Bach’s fate was to be disparaged by his own kids and forgotten by his contemporaries, only to be rediscovered by – the great classical musicians! Hayden and Mozart each studied his Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven had it down by the age of 11. (I’ve been working my way through it off and on for the last few decades. At the current rate, I’ll have Book I complete by around 2050! Have I mentioned I have very meager musical talents?). These giants were working off hand-copied manuscripts – the WTC was not published until 1801! 

It’s so common to think of Bach as  – correctly – this giant, this colossus tower over the world of music, that it’s sobering to think he was once dismissed and nearly forgotten. Part of the great legacies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is that they would not let him be forgotten. 

So, there is hope. Hollywood could have a revival by simply rediscovering the pulps, which tend to share the story-telling and moral clarity of comics, but with more room to expand on them. Or, more likely, Hollywood could be put out of business by others who rediscover them. 

The curious pointed often missed about Bach: by sticking to what he loved about music and ignoring the current style, he paradoxically become one of the most creative artists of all time. Musicians are always marveling over the harmonic and melodic twists he routinely comes up with, not to mention his ability to stealth-structure things so that they always sound perfectly complete and satisfying, even though it’s hard to say why, sometimes. Sometimes, to look at it, a piece seems an increasingly complex fugue going round and round and round, not going anywhere. Then you hear it, and it’s perfect. This experience makes complete amateurs like me strongly suspect that when I don’t get Bach – there are some long minor fugues in the WTC that seem a little amorphous, for example – that I’m just not smart enough. 

The lesson I get from all this: stick to your knitting, do what it is you do as well as you can, and, not only will you, by the grace of God, produce good and worthy work, you might even end up being very ‘creative’ and ‘original’ without trying! If you’re a genius, that is.

The late John Taylor Gatto assures us that genius is a common as dirt. 

Wouldn’t it be great if I would follow my own advice? 

  1. The reason they do Chicago better than Chicago does Chicago is that they patently LOVE this stuff – those people are having a blast. I seriously doubt Chicago could muster that level of enthusiasm after a few years of playing these songs in concert over and over and over again. Assuming enough of the band is alive and able to try. Train does Zeppelin better than Zeppelin does Zeppelin for the same reasons.

Halloween, Hieronymus Bosch & Ephesians

This morning, had a discussion about slavery in the Roman Empire triggered by the Epistle to the Ephesians read this morning at Mass:

Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling,
in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
not only when being watched, as currying favor,
but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
willingly serving the Lord and not men,
knowing that each will be requited from the Lord
for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

The usual commentary here goes something like: here is a revolutionary Christian proposal by Paul, that slaves, who have no rights under Roman law, must still be treated as brothers, and that masters will be judged by God on how well they treat them.

And, of course, this is true, and this new understanding in fact set the stage for the elimination of slavery wherever Christianity held sway. (Of course, given human nature, slavery pops right back up whenever we take our eye off the ball, but one or the other – slavery or Christianity – must prevail.)

I was making the point that understanding slavery under the Romans is a little tricky for Americans, as we have this history of racial slavery, where, because Americans were nominally Christians, they could not justify enslaving other men. Therefore, black Africans had to be thought of as less than men at least to some degree in order to keep the guilt and cognitive dissonance at bay.

The Romans, while as arrogant and bigoted as any conquerors, did not necessarily consider slaves as inferior men just from the fact of their slavery alone. A brave and noble man might just get unlucky, might be cursed by the gods, and simply be on the losing side of a war, and end up a slave through no real fault of his own. This is not to say that Romans didn’t look down on slaves, or treat them terribly – they did – but they did not imagine them a different, fundamentally inferior species. In general.

Also, a vast gulf exited between household slave and agricultural slaves. Sometimes, free men would sell themselves into slavery to a patrician, in order to have some hope of upward mobility – perhaps the nobleman had business interests that he might put the slave in charge of, if the slave proved himself dependable and talented. Then, if all went well, the slave could then buy or have given to him freedom for his children. At least, he probably wouldn’t starve in the meantime.

Agricultural slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been largely treated as animals. I have not run across any stories of agricultural slaves, who made up the vast bulk of slaves under the Empire, working their or their children’s way to freedom. But again, my reading in this area is slight.

Anyway, the only point, and it is a small one, is that it might have been lass shocking to the Romans and their Greek subjects to hear that a slave must be treated as a brother than it would have been for a Southern slave owner. In fact, the American slave owner just refused to hear it.

And this discussion lead, in that ineffable way my mind works, to consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, and why there are not more Halloween costumes and parties based on his works. The connection is that slavery isn’t the only thing that the Romans thought very differently than we do. Their sense of honor doesn’t map exactly to ours, for one thing, and the same noble Roman who would die unflinching for his Republic had most likely a deep and abiding affection for scatological humor. It’s a mistake to think of them in our terms. They inhabited a very different emotional and esthetic universe, it seems.

Hieronymus Bosch inhabited another very weird universe, one that – thankfully, I think – is very different from ours. It’s not just that his work is bizarre and often obscene – that might just be a personal quirk – it’s that his work was enormously popular. For a century after his death, people came to admire it. There are hundreds of copies drawn, painted or sculpted from that time. His work was hung in public places for people to see, and people traveled to see it. People really dug this stuff.

So I hit the web. And the answer is that first, there are plenty of Bosch themed costumes out there, if Google images is to be believed, and, second, that even a few parties along those lines have taken place. So, OK, even in these modern times Bosch has some appeal.

Then, for the first time in years, I looked, like really looked, at some Bosch.

Yikes.

 

Image result for hieronymus bosch details
And this is kinda tame. There’s stuff I won’t even put up here. 

Image result for hieronymus bosch details
The ice skate/funnel/red cape/yoyo combo really sets off the cross beak/letter look. 

Image result for hieronymus bosch details
As a costume, you’d need the right attitude to make that fish head with butterfly wings cape, sword and shield look work. 

And these are some of the less disturbing ones.

As Halloween costume inspirations, it seems to me Bosch would not be very appropriate, at least, under what I hope are modern American sensibilities. For Catholics, we dress up as scary or even evil characters in order to mock them, to show them we no longer fear them. Oh Death, where is thy sting? after all. Bosch does seem to be mocking something. The mockery has a hard time cutting through the disturbing, at least for me.

Conclusion: the 15th and 16th century Netherlanders, and the Germans, Spaniards and Italians who admired and copied Bosch, did not look at the world the same way we do. At least most of us. And I’d frankly like to avoid the ones among us who do.

Symbols & Turning One’s Back

First, a digression or prologue: Here are some descriptions of modern art as proposed by their creators, gleaned off the interwebs:

The picture shows how unhappy people which, is dependent on consumption, and as he turns into a cripple.

The painting shows the influence of television on the number of things we purchase.

Pity draws this exercise to a premature close. The artists themselves seem to be charmingly innocent, just trying to do what they’ve been told to do, and I don’t want to just pick on people. Simply, one could never tell, prior to the explanation, what, if anything, the artwork was supposed to ‘show’. It would be cruel, perhaps, to mix and match descriptions to artwork and see if anyone other than the artist could tell the difference.

Key point: great art doesn’t require a program to appreciate it, only, at most, a common cultural background with the artists. You have failed as an artist if you need to tell people what your work ‘shows’.

Let us pick on more deserving targets. Returning to the well one more time, here are snippets from what might be called the program that explains the cathedral in Los Angeles, from its website, with some commentary.

Spanish architect, Professor José Rafael Moneo has designed a dynamic, contemporary Cathedral with virtually no right angles. This geometry contributes to the Cathedral’s feeling of mystery and its aura of majesty.

We are being told here that the proper feeling to have when viewing this:

LA Cathedral

…is “mystery and its aura of majesty.”

Well. For comparison, I choose from among any of the thousands of great Catholic cathedrals that have been loved for generations:

Image result for siena cathedral

Does the degree to which you feel the “mystery and its aura of majesty” looking at the Duomo in Siena just like the feeling you get looking at the L.A. Cathedral? In any way similar? (Spoiler – having stood in about the spots each of these pictures were taken: no, the feelz are not similar. While the pictures in each case greatly tone down the effects, they do accurately engender them.)

Let’s pop inside: LA Cathedral Interior

Siena

In the first picture, the lack of right angles is supposed to contribute to our feelings of mystery and majesty. In the second, I think maybe it’s the awe-inspiring beauty that gets that done.

 

The challenge in designing and building a new Cathedral Church was to make certain that it reflected the diversity of all people.

Really? Who says? A small ‘c’ catholic church building should rather emphasize unity, maybe?

Rather than duplicate traditional designs of the Middle Ages in Europe, the Cathedral is a new and vibrant expression of the 21st century Catholic peoples of Los Angeles.

None of whom were consulted nor approved of this design. Just saying.

“I wanted both a public space,” said Moneo, “and something else, what it is that people seek when they go to church.” To the architect, the logic of these two competing interests suggested, first of all, a series of “buffering, intermediating spaces” — plazas, staircases, colonnades, and an unorthodox entry.

Um, what? Setting aside the weird circumlocution beginning with ‘something else’ that clumsily avoids talking about God and salvation, there’s an ancient tradition of providing transition from the external to internal worlds. Note, for example, the lovely piazza in front of the Siena Duomo leading to steps and awesome huge doors. It’s perfectly clear as you assend the steps from the piazza and approach those doors that you are moving from the public to the sacred. With its steps, levels, plaza, long confusing ambulatory, the L.A. Cathedral merely awkwardly overdoes it.

The Cathedral is built with architectural concrete in a color reminiscent of the sun-baked adobe walls of the California Missions and is designed to last 500 years.

…which adobe was always whitewashed, often painted, and adorned to the fullest extent the people could manage. That ‘designed to last 500 years’ always seemed like a threat, but maybe that’s just me…

The Cathedral’s interior design captures the principle of a spiritual journey.

The painful and unsettling part? Chesterton talks about how Catholic art favors the gentle, suffering Jesus over the ‘Woe and Temple-cleansing’ Jesus because gentle Jesus is easier to approach in prayer. I guess we modern Catholics are tougher than that!

Unlike most Cathedrals, we are not entering through a rear door near the last pews. Rather, we enter the ambulatory which circles the interior of the Cathedral.

This gets to the entire point of this preamble: one would never suspect there was anything wrong or lacking in the approach and entrance to a traditional cathedral unless he were *told* there was something lacking. To recap: one enters a traditional cathedral typically by crossing a plaza to ascend steps, passing through massive doors and under a tympanum which usually depicts the Last Judgement, entering into an awe-inspiring nave, flanked by lines of columns leading to and focusing attention on the high altar. Many, many people over the centuries have commented on exactly how moving that experience can be.

But not in L.A.! Here, we need to be told that we’ve been missing something, and told we should love and prefer a meandering, pointless, artificially long entrance.

Our betters will tell us what to think. If we don’t like it, well, that just demonstrates why they are our betters!

The ambulatory urges us forward, on a slight incline, heightening our sense of an upward journey, past various devotional chapels that open onto the walkway, not onto the Cathedral’s worship space, allowing a more meditative environment for devotional prayer.

The light and diversity of shapes draws people forward along the ambulatory and around the corner to the Baptistery and the enormous public worship space.

Hey! ‘Enormous’ used correctly in its original sense!  Also, note ‘worship space’. Not a church or even a nave, a ‘worship space’. OK, enough of this.

Artist statements we love

When I first began this blog, I wrote a number of items on symbols versus signs. The key distinction: symbols have meaning that does not need to be explained, or, at worst, once explained ‘clicks’ – the church uses red symbolically on the feasts of the Martyrs. Any questions?

Signs, on the other hand, will sometimes employ symbolism, but are more conventional in their meaning. Stop signs are traditionally red, but that they mean ‘stop’ is conventional. Red is a good color for this, but not necessary to get the point across. Blood, and therefore martyrdom, and red are connected in a way that stopping and red are not.

Signs can be made much more powerful by the artful use of symbols. In the old days, banks, which engage in the most abstract and ephemeral of businesses, made their buildings out of stone, as a sign of permanence. Good use of the natural symbolic content of stone – hard, enduring, not going anywhere – to communicate what they wanted to communicate – See? We’re not the fly-by-night operation you might reasonably suspect us of being! Solid as a rock, you might even say.

Gestures can also be symbolic, having meaning independent of social convention. Bowing and kneeling are gestures your dog understands. This doesn’t have to be the case – shaking your head for no and nodding for yes are, I hear, conventional. But I will contend that there is a large range of human gestures the meanings of which are not conventional, or at least have a core meaning conventions hang off of.

The whole preamble of this essay was intended to show how we, in the modern age, often try to gloss over with words of explanation the symbolic content or lack thereof of art, gestures, and actions in general. The L.A. Cathedral is known as the Taj Mahoney, because many people saw right through the pretend taking of input and invocation of diversity as attempting to veil what was essentially a $200M+ exercise in hubris. Both symbols and signs were involved in getting this project through – mitered cardinals in long processions, masses, blessings – but a key was blowing smoke, smoke illustrated in the snippets quoted above. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

All this ramble was occasioned by an observation at mass yesterday. One universal symbol, a gesture that, again, your dog understands, is turning you back. Your dog knows that you are withholding approval or showing disapproval when you turn away from him. By dozens of gestures, we turn our backs on the Eucharist both literally and figuratively. As a symbol, this gesture has its meaning and emotional effect regardless of the words – the artistic program – used to explain why that’s not what it means. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

This turning has been ritualized to the point where failure to comply makes one stand out, so very few people, even among those who understand what’s happening on some level, will buck the behaviors.

Before I go on, let me say that there are more or less reasonable reasons for many of these gestures. Taken separately, each might be OK in the sense that there is at least a sound theological or practical debate possible on the topic. Taken together, however, and it’s clear the goal is to change theology, or to express a theology already changed.

Let me count the ways:

  • Churches renovated so that it is all but impossible for some portion of the congregation not to stand with their backs to the tabernacle. Maybe it’s the choir, or maybe it’s some pews positioned so that the altar is surrounded. Either way, everybody gets the clear message that the tabernacle, and by necessary and inescapable logic, what is in the tabernacle, is not only not important, but is being actively shunned.
  • Versum Populum. This might be the number one case in point for where there are good historical and theological reasons. The Church has done this off and on over the centuries. But how it was implemented – I’ve heard stories about centuries old altars being jack-hammered because they were too close to the wall to allow the priest to face the people – shows inescapable contempt for history and craftsmanship (I’ve yet to see a new ‘table’ half as beautifully done as many old altars). And you’ve turned your back on the tabernacle, if it hasn’t been consigned to the outer darkness.

These are the most literal and obvious cases of turning your back. Other similar issues:

  • Bowing instead of genuflecting when passing in front of the tabernacle. Again, can be non-stupid reasons. Taken with everything else…
  • Communion received standing in the hand, instead of kneeling on the tongue. Sure, reasons, but since we’ve turned our backs on the Real Presence, traipsed back and forth across the sanctuary like a living room and otherwise worked to actively destroy any sense that this moment is sacred – well, is it sacred? What does sacred even mean?
  • General loss of the distinction of vulgar versus sacred space. Inside the church, a building made sacred by the Real Presence, should be fundamentally and patently difference from the space outside. Is it?

Anyway, I find myself more in favor of any gesture that marks the Mass and the physical church it is celebrated in as sacred. We are a people set apart. High time we started acting like it.

 

Mission Church/Checking In

Been busy and a bit under the weather. Checking back in.

Today, the Concord Queen of All Saints Feast and Faith group took a field trip to Mission Dolores in San Francisco for Mass, a tour of the old adobe mission chapel and lunch. There were 13 of us. It was fun and educational, and it’s always a blessing to be able to say a few prayers in a church you are visiting.

Mision San Francisco de Assis was the sixth mission founded by St. Junipero Serra. In October 9, 1776, the official documents arrived establishing the mission, but Mass had already been celebrated at the site on June 29, so, in a sense, the mission is 5 days older than America. From a very early date, the Mission was called Mission Dolores after an adjacent creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. I imagine St. Francis would be amused by this, and wholeheartedly approve.

Originally, the mission comprised a fairly vast area, with 10,000 head of cattle, 10,000 sheep, many horses, etc., as well as workshops, farms and gardens. In a very real sense, it was San Francisco. Several thousand native Americans lived and worked there. Following Mexican independence, in 1834 the missions were ‘secularized’ meaning, in effect, that all their lands except that upon which stood the church buildings and cemeteries were seized by the Mexican government and given to private citizens. This impoverished the mission and lead to a decades long decline. By 1842, only a few Indians lived at the mission, and what remained of the building fell into serious disrepair.

Mission Dolores in the early 1850's in San Francisco.
By the 1850s, it looked like this. 

Then statehood and the Gold Rush brought a flood of people to the Bay, including many Irish and other Catholics. A new parish church in a Gothic Revival style was built adjacent to the old mission chapel to handle the crowds. The old adobe was clad in clapboard, for both aesthetic (it was looking pretty ratty, as the above picture illustrates) and protective reasons.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the large brick church but left the adobe intact and largely undamaged. In the following dozen years, a new Mission revival style church was built to replace the destroyed brick church and the old mission was carefully restored. Today, the majority of parish activities take place in the new (only 100 years old!) Basilica, while the old chapel is used for one mass a week and is otherwise mostly a tourist attraction. But they do a very respectful job.

A cemetery used to occupy acres around the old church, with about 11,000 people buried there from the 1790s up into the late 1800s. As the streets were put through and land became more dear, the cemetery shrank and the remains moved until, today, only a tiny plot on the south side of the old mission chapel remains. A quick look at the tombstones that remain reveals many names that now grace San Francisco streets and landmarks.

Also adding to the holiness of the place: two saints (at least) have prayed there: St. Junipero Serra celebrated mass while it was under construction, and Pope St. John Paul the Great stopped by to pray when he visited San Francisco.

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The reredos and sanctuary. Note the ceiling, painted in a pattern used by the Ohlone in their basket weaving. 

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Top center: St. Michael guards the place. As well he should. 

Finally, we went to lunch at the Kitchen Story just up the street on 16th. Highly recommended.