"Mere Sumptuous Display": Toward a Proper Understanding of Sacrosanctum Concilium's Directives on Liturgical Art


Since the Second Vatican Council -- earlier in fact, but in a less official capacity -- there has been a continual refrain surrounding "noble simplicity" -- almost to the point of itself qualifying as a form of "needless repetition."  The phrase, as I have mentioned here before, has become so bandied about these past few decades that it has almost taken on a mythological aspect, divorced as it often is from its original context; its meaning so often assumed rather than investigated.

As the phrase is popularly understood today, it is often presented as a kind of pro-minimalist, anti-baroque manifesto. To support this idea, it is pointed out that SC spoke of noble simplicity in contradistinction to "mere sumptuous display."  This idea has been used to promote vestments with little or no ornamentation, made in a very primitivistic and rustic style. It has been used to create (or strip) churches of anything but the most basic ornament -- and sometimes not even that. It has been used to jettison, or at least closet, the treasuries of many a sacristy, being no longer deemed fit for use according with the liturgical zeitgeist. Of course, things are never as simple as this and we have also seen other approaches that are not quite so drastic in this regard. However, in general, and as with so much else within this context and age, these conciliar ideas have often been reinterpreted through a rupturist lens, proclaiming some bright new beginning against a supposedly corrupt or problematic past.

However, let us now turn to the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) itself.

It is worth mentioning that the word "noble" -- or some form of it -- comes up in the document no less than six times. Clearly nobility was a key focal point. As a point of interest, the actual phrase, 'noble simplicity' comes in reference, not to the liturgical arts, but rather the liturgical rites themselves. Here is the section in question from SC that gives specific guidance for the liturgical arts:

124. Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.

You will note that what is called for is noble beauty. "But!" -- the objection might go -- "It also states that we should avoid sumptuous display!"

Does it in fact?

If you read the text, what it says is that a truly sacred art should be characterized by noble beauty. This is the key point of focus; that is the core guiding principle. Does it anywhere say that noble beauty cannot be accomplished in some more sumptuous expression? Not at all. In fact, the paragraph before this one, paragraph 123, makes clear that the Church has no one style and has admitted styles of sacred art from every period (and clearly, some periods, like the baroque or Rococo, are going to be more sumptuous than others):

123. The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved.

What the text of SC actually says is not that sumptuous display is to be avoided, nor is it stating that it is contrary to noble beauty; rather, it is simply cautioning that the essential goal is noble beauty, not sumptuosity. What's more, it is also cautioning that we shouldn't make the leap of logic that something being a sumptuous display is therefore necessarily a manifestation of noble beauty. It's a statement of a principle and a qualification -- not an exclusion. That this would be specifically mentioned and singled out is hardly a surprise given that, at the time this was written, more sumptuous, baroque forms were yet the predominant artistic expressions in much of the Catholic world. Context is key.

The point of the directive then is that whether something be more simple or more sumptuous, it should be characterized by noble beauty. Either a minimalistic approach or a highly ornamental approach has the danger of crossing the line and being neither noble, nor beautiful. The former by being too spartan, unfinished or mundane; the latter by becoming too cluttered or gaudy. By the same token, both also have the potential to be expressions of noble beauty when properly approached. This is precisely what SC is promoting.

This is also consistent with paragraph 123. If the Church admits styles from every period, and if she favours no particular period as her own, it would hardly make sense, in the very next breath, to adopt a condemnatory tone about some of those very periods and styles she has adopted. Not only would this setup a contradiction within the document itself, it would also see the Church put in opposition to herself.

This, of course, is why baroque styles and the like continue to have a valid place in the life of the Church today -- a point that Msgr. Guido Marini and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized quite frequently. This is why more sumptuous expressions, be they historical or new, continue to be valid expressions in the liturgical arts today and are perfectly in line with the directives of SC.

The key point is that, whatever stylistic expression is taken, whether something more austere or sumptuous, they should be characterized by noble beauty if they are to properly serve the sacred liturgy.

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