Thoughts of a Liturgical Art Collector

You may have noticed that there is a fashionable trend for all things ‘retro’ at the moment. "Vintage" and "retro" shops keep popping up all over the place; vintage sartorial classics have returned to the shelves and owning retro crockery and dressing retro-chic is in! In many ways, of course, this is a commendable practice for a return to the past is an attempt at stability, but a swift perusal of many of these shops leaves you feeling pretty empty and you quickly develop an impression of having seen it all before. In point of fact, this retro-trend seems only to look back sixty years and rarely beyond, trying to inspire a new generation through the cultural milieu of the 1960s and 70s.  By comparison, just beyond this world of the 'retro' lay the world of the antiques dealer. How does it stand by comparison? The world of antiques has never been at such a low; we find ourselves in a time where true antiques and art have been treated with indifference.

Interestingly however, this trend seems to be reversed within the Catholic Church. There, the young are looking for inspiration, not from sixty years ago, but from the antique traditions of the Church (just as their elders are throwing it out); there, the trend for the ancient and the traditional is back and flourishing.

But what has any of this got to do with collecting? In practical terms, quite a lot.

Only last year I heard of a sale of the contents of a monastery near where I lived in France. Sure enough, an aging generation of monks had clung so long to their own, now obsolete, past that their monastery no longer inspired the young to join their ranks, thus forcing them to close down and disband their holdings. (Something of a common occurrence in France.) As I wandered through the cloisters of the deserted monastery -- where everything was for sale -- I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of anger and regret mixed also a purposeful sense of salvaging history. As I went to pay for my new acquisitions, boxes of books and vestments, I was pulled to one side by a woman who was genuinely surprised to see someone so young buying so much. “But it’s all old fashioned stuff,” she said. “Nobody wants it!”  Well, in fact they do.

On another occasion, while walking through a town centre in Western France I came across an antiques market. As I walked among the various stalls there was one seller with a heap of old clothes and textiles. For some unknown reason, I started rummaging among the pile only to turn up a number of cottas and albs. With inset purple sleeves for a prelate I wondered who they might have belonged to, only to find -- tucked down one sleeve -- a black and white photograph of a bishop with Pope John XXIII. “Yeah," said the seller, "I emptied that guy’s house recently.”

In point of fact, religious antiques pop up all the time at auctions, antique stores, flea markets and, of course, the closures of religious institutions. These objects are all a part of our heritage and one that we can (and should) easily salvage and preserve. Let's invest into our future by looking to and salvaging our past.

Written by Charles Bradshaw

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