On Liturgical Beauty and False Stylistic Absolutes

If you want to see a bit of what at least some of the earlier part of the twentieth century Liturgical Movement considered "ideal" then this photo from a 1942 issue of Liturgical Arts Quarterly (LAQ) is instructive.  

Of course in saying this it must be noted that LAQ was heavily Anglophone and especially American in its focus and, as such, its views tended to reflect the particular trends and idiosyncrasies of those locales more than they did the rest of the Universal Church. That being noted, it still provides an interesting look into some of the ideas of the time. 

The photo in question is presented as -- in their own words -- "an ideal presentation of all essential elements at the altar..." and was photographed at Corpus Christi church in New York City.  Overall, the photograph does indeed present us with a noble and edifying picture of the sacred liturgy. 

The issue that can arise -- and it is one that plagues us still today -- are the false absolutes that can come with this otherwise fitting portrayal. To understand what I mean by this, I would point readers to the full descriptive text that accompanies the photo :

"An ideal presentation of all essential elements at the altar. Linen alb and surplice, well-designed ample chasuble, tabernacle with visible domical ornamental top and veil, adequate candlesticks and a crucifix resting on the mensa."

Let's unpack this a bit. 

The notion of an "ideal" is that it is that which is "most perfect" and other things are, by implication, less perfect. Noted then as "perfect" are the linen alb and surplice (I would note that the question of lace is not specifically mentioned however, given the history, I would suspect this is part of the intended meaning here), the "ample chasuble" (i.e. the neo-gothic chasuble),  the visible top of the tabernacle (an inclusion likely based upon the opposition that could be found within the movement to tabernacles that were instead embedded into a reredos or gradine in a more rectangular form), the tabernacle veil and (oddly since it would appear to not be the case here, though the photo isn't entirely clear) the crucifix placed directly on the mensa of the altar. 

Interestingly, the candlesticks shown here (which are quite fine and well proportioned) are merely referred to as "adequate" (perhaps because they were more baroque in their design?) and the antependium is not mentioned at all -- and, here again, perhaps the style of this particular antependium was considered too baroque or too continental for the author to give it praise, even in principle, for it is quite odd that it would be excluded from this consideration given that the antependium was one of the elements rightfully promoted and revived by the Liturgical Movement in its symbolic relation to the altar. 

By way of inference, what is considered less than ideal are gradines (hence the comment about the altar cross being directly on the mensa) -- a known 'pet peeve' of some strains of the Liturgical Movement in their sometimes fundamentalistic conception of the purity of the ancient altar -- as well as less ample forms of the chasuble (i.e post medieval designs such as the classic Roman chasuble). 

The benefit of historical hindsight permits us to see embedded within this commentary the strains of medievalism and archeologism that would have informed this particular viewpoint -- as well as some of the nineteenth century anti-continental and anti-baroque sentiment of the English speaking world. 

For my own part, I want to give credit where it is due and note photo shown here does indeed present us with a very noble and beautiful liturgical template that is worth mimicking -- the one exception being the chasuble shown which, far from being "well designed," strikes me as entirely lacklustre and mediocre in its particular design. But that aside, the curiously unmentioned antependium is quite noble, as are the tabernacle, candlesticks, and the candles give us a rare view into the tapered form envisioned within the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. I would further add that the tester behind the altar is also quite fine and the server is indeed nobly attired. Also of note is the use of a matching textile for the missal stand and tabernacle veil. There is much here that is praiseworthy -- in fact most of it is. 

The issue that we find then is not with what is shown but rather in the mentality that informed the commentary that accompanies it; one which would arbitrarily select certain periods and styles and present them as perfect and ideal and others as less perfect and less than ideal by comparison. It is such prejudices that have resulted in a so much needless waste and destruction over the course of the twentieth century and which has engulfed us, to this day, in the needless and tiresome "style wars." 

The reality, where the liturgical arts are concerned, is that no one age or style has the monopoly on what is liturgically good, true and beautiful; rather, various periods and styles have brought their own particular voices to the beautiful polyphonic chorus that is Catholic liturgical art. 

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