Orthodox Survival Course, Class 12 – The Latin High Middle Ages: Sacred Art

You can listen to a podcast of this class at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/class-12

Class 12 – The Latin High Middle Ages: Sacred Art

I. Introduction: During our last class, we began our exploration of this key period of the Latin High Middle Ages, roughly the 12th and 13th centuries, the all-important epoch of profound changes in the Western Church that marked a definitive break with Orthodox spiritual life, theology, and culture. Following Fr. Seraphim Rose’s outline in Lecture 2 of his “Orthodox Survival Course,” we proposed to cover five or perhaps six topics: Scholasticism, Romance, The New Concept of Sanctity, the chiliast teachings of Joachim of Flora, Art, and Politics. Though during class I mentioned that we would leave aside Joachim of Flora, I’ve changed my mind, because today I was studying him, and I see now why Fr. Seraphim included him, because his chiliast, utopian reinterpretation of Scripture became very influential in all subsequent Western Christian thought about the relationship of the Church to the world and a Christian philosophy of history, and his ideas, by the way, are remarkably relevant to the 20th century and our time as well. So we will spend some time on Joachim.

Also, I’ve realized that we really need to take our time and take longer to cover this period than I originally envisioned: It is the most important period, for our purposes, to study, because the errors, the wrong turns, of this period, set the direction for everything that came to pass afterwards in the second millennium, leading up to our own time. So tonight we will just concentrate on Sacred Art, and next week we’ll talk about Joachim’s utopianism and the subject of Church and Politics, which two subjects dovetail very well together.

Before we look at the sacred art and – very importantly – the architecture of the West in this period, I’d like to cover two topics as relating to this: the thought of Pitirim Sorokin, and a review of what we said about genuine Orthodox sacred art in our earlier class.

II. Sorokin’s Model of Cultural History – As I said early on in our course, now and then I’d like to introduce you to secular scholars whose work can help us acquire the intellectual tools to understand our subject matter. One important writer in this regard is a Russian named Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), who used the methods of sociology to identify three cultural types or periods – the Ideational, the Idealistic, and the Sensate – a model that will be very helpful for us in understanding the transition from the first to the second millennium in the Christian West. Though baptized and buried as an Orthodox Christian, we should not think of Sorokin as an Orthodox thinker: He was a liberal democrat active in the Kerensky government, and his religious thought was universalist – for him Orthodoxy, which he respected but did not think was the exclusive truth, was but one stream among the various ancient streams of the Great Tradition. His historical thought, also, was cyclical, not linear, and he believed that the succession of Ideational, Idealistic, and Sensate cultures extended indefinitely into the past and into the future, that they constituted an inevitable, pre-determined cycle that could not be stopped. When you read his writings, however, you see that he really was not a cultural or moral relativist: He obviously prefers the religiously based cultures – the Ideational and, being a liberal Orthodox very inclined to admire Catholicism, especially the Idealistic, which he identifies with his favorite culture, the one we are studying tonight, of the 13th century West – and he sees only the seeds of degeneration in the Sensate, though he will praise the obvious achievements of this kind of culture as well.

So what is this “model,” what do these terms mean? He offers short explanations in most of his books. Probably the best introduction to his thought is The Crisis of Our Age, written in the 1930’s, an incredibly accurate diagnosis and prognosis of the direction of modern culture. Here tonight I have the one-volume condensation of his magnum opus, the four volume Social and Cultural Dynamics. He explains his “model” in chapter two, “Systems of Culture.” Rather than quote from him at length, I’ll summarize the three main terms: Ideational, Sensate, and Idealistic.

Ideational – In the Ideational culture, the invisible and spiritual realm is what is important, and every aspect of the culture is subordinated to this priority. All cultural manifestations are intended to lead men beyond this world to the eternal and the timeless. A society of this kind experiences very little and very slow change; it is static, highly integrated and ascetic. There can be and often is a high level of creativity, of cultural achievement, but it is accomplished not for its own sake but to lead man to his eternal purpose, and its technique and expressions are within strict canonical boundaries. It values quality and interior beauty over quantity and external mass.

Sensate – A Sensate culture is the opposite. The priority is the visible and material world, and all cultural manifestations are subordinated to this priority. The goal is not to lead men beyond this world but to “celebrate the world.” We see in these cultures the glorification of the body, man as the center of all things, and constant, ever greater experimentation in material cultural manifestations. Such a culture is constantly changing, tending always to greater variety and fragmentation, and non-ascetical, glorifying the passions and tending always to increasingly fleshly, carnal cultural expressions. It tends increasingly to value quantity and sheer size over quality and interior beauty.

Idealistic – Idealistic periods of history are short, transitional periods, in which the spiritual reality upheld in the Ideational period is still uppermost, but is “brought to earth,” so to speak, made present in this world, in new material forms of expression that partake more of the earthly yet strictly glorify the spiritual. The 12th and 13th centuries are just such a period. While, on the one hand, their culture is intensely religious, even ascetical, on the other hand, their entire project is to “bring heaven to earth,” or, rather, to make earth into heaven. This kind of Christian utopianism, creating the ideal society based on a transcendent model, here on earth, appealed to the aristocratic democrat Sorokin, and he probably admired this society more than any other in Christian history.

But Sorokin would say that the Idealistic period is always short and inevitably leads to the beginnings of a dominant Sensate culture.

III. Orthodox Sacred Art – Here we need only to reproduce some of our notes from Class 5, to see right away how Orthodox Sacred Art, and, naturally, Orthodox culture in general, is “ideational”:

The Characteristics of Genuine Christian Sacred Art (from Class 5 – The Church of the Romans: Topic 3, Sacred Art – A.Theory)

Recall our first class, on the Early Church, whose character we described as eschatological, otherworldly, martyric, and ascetical. The insights we discussed in our later two classes, regarding the Church’s true spiritual school and true theological method lead us in the same direction, which is to conclude that a genuine sacred art must lead the believer into purification of the senses, cleansing from the passions, and pure prayer in this life, and thus to the Heavenly Kingdom in the next life, which Kingdom he will already have experienced through mysteriological and prayerful communion with God. It is anagogical – Its purpose is not to “celebrate the world,” but to lead the soul upwards to union with God.

This anagogical function necessitates that true sacred art must be hierarchical and hieratic. The forms and images here below are part of a great hierarchy of forms which extend downward from the heavenly archetypes to their earthly representations, as explained by St. Dionysios. This art is hieratic, that is, priestly, in that it has a specific priestly function, which is to offer to the believer the sacred mystery and then transform the believer so that he may offer his heart – himself – as a spiritual sacrifice to the Father Who reigns at the height of this cosmic and super-cosmic hierarchy, He Who sacrificed the Lamb of God before the ages for us.

The techniques of this art, in all of its media, must therefore produce a certain transparency, for its function is not to call attention to itself but to lead up, beyond itself, to

that which is truly real. It is also an art that is anonymous, both because the artist is working as a member of a community, not on his own, and because he is performing his work as an act of worship to God, not for personal aggrandizement.

IV. High Medieval Sacred Art and Architecture: So what will happen when an intensely religious people gets tired of the really real being beyond the veil of the senses, being there, not here? They don’t want to plunge from the Ideational world of their fathers straight into Sensate worldliness. Rather, they will take their beloved Ideal and somehow make it present, here on earth, in a way that is very intense and attractive, but overstepping the canonical bounds laid down in the Ideational period. They take their Ideal and enclose it in a beautiful box so that it is right there with them, instead of in the eternal world. But it still inspires them with eternal ideals – it’s not purely carnal or sensual. This is what the Scholastics did with theology, when they made the transition from the apophatic method being primary to the cataphatic; this is what the high medieval religious orders did with sanctity, when Francis transformed the image of the saint from being an icon of Christ to being another Christ; and this is what the great artists and architects of the high middle ages did when they made the transition to idealistic rather than ideational/iconographic painting, and when they created the Gothic architecture.

Fr. Seraphim, in his Lecture 2, spends some time on the paintings of Duccio of Siena (+1319) and Giotto of Florence (+1337), the two best known high medieval Italian painters. Already we see here, though they are still staying somewhat within the old canonical boundaries, a shift from the transparent, strictly spiritual and timeless character of real iconography to a more opaque, this-worldly, and temporal approach, especially with Giotto. The change in Duccio is very subtle; you would have to study it pretty closely, and, really, pray in front of it, to discern the difference. In Giotto, it’s obvious – he is using a lot of the old forms and even some of the old technique, but he has shifted clearly to a dynamic and emotional style, bringing the spiritual reality into more of an earthly box, so to speak.

You can easily explore samples of their paintings nowadays on the Internet, but of course the best way is to see them in person. I remember spending hours, as a young man, in front of some wonderful Duccios in the West Wing of the National Gallery in Washington. It was one of those key experiences that led me to Orthodoxy, when I realized that, as great and moving as they were, they weren’t quite right. They convinced me that something had happened, that a corner had been turned, and that the religion they represented was very beautiful and dynamic, something admirable, but already of this world – not entirely, but definitely.

An earlier but equally important development took place in northern Europe, at first in France, with the creation of what came to be called “Gothic” architecture. The first clear example of this school is the famous reconstruction of the abbey church of St. Denis on the outskirts of Paris under Abbot Suger (+1151), and the most complete and sublime examples are the exquisite little “Sainte-Chapelle” in the center of Paris, built at the behest of Louis IX (“Saint” Louis, +1270), and the most (justly) famous of them all, Chartres Cathedral (built 1194-1220) .

So here are these famous buildings, done at great cost, with great devotion, and, really, they take your breath away when you visit them. So what is wrong with them, from the Orthodox point of view? The modernist Roman Catholic theologian Romano Guardini accurately and evocatively describes the spire of the Gothic cathedral as man’s finger reaching to heaven to pierce the heart of God (in The End of the Modern World). They are striving so hard to reach up to God and bring Him down to earth. In other words, these people really loved God, or at least they meant too. They are not like the later, worldly Renaissance artists who are just using religious themes in their art to glorify their egos or wallow in some fleshly subject matter or butter up some rich patron. But with their incredible zeal and talent they overstepped their bounds, in creating something so close to, such a good imitation, of the heavenly but actually being itself something worldly. Like the scholastic theology, that locks God into this Aristotelian box, Gothic architecture locks God into a wonderful but finite architectural form. The only way, however, to experience this and really know what I’m saying is to visit a very good example of a Gothic church. Here in North America, a pre-eminent example is the National Cathedral (Episcopalian) in Washington, D.C. (Here in the Detroit area we have good examples in some local Episcopalian churches, especially Christ Church in Grosse Pointe and Christ Church in Bloomfield Hills, across from the Cranbrook gardens.)

The Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, whom I’ve mentioned before, offers another insight. In one of his essays, (I’m sorry, I forget which) he says that with the innovative Gothic engineering miracle – holding together these vast yet delicate frameworks of stone with the pointed arch and the flying buttress – the church building goes from being simply a building, properly speaking – something at rest, solid, comforting, static and firmly grounded on the earth, something fundamentally humble in its essence no matter how grand in its outer form – to being a machine: something in continuous dynamic tension and activity, a constant striving, never at rest. This is an admirably apt observation, and, again, it shows how we’ve gone from the method of tradition to the method of dialectic, a transition whose importance it is impossible to overemphasize. Of course, Dawson did not mean this as a criticism but a compliment. As Orthodox, on the other hand, we see that we’ve really got a problem here, because, again, as with the dialectical theology, we’ve left the sure ground of tradition for the exciting but unpredictable flight of innovation.

Another area of art that really changes is literature, and the incomparable, greatest literary monument of this period is, of course, Dante’s Divine Comedy, written around 1300. Typically, of course, this is regarded by the “mainstream” as an old-fashioned, pre-eminently Christian and “medieval” work, but actually many scholars are starting to recognize it as the beginning of modern literature. This is a huge subject in itself, of course, and all I can do, briefly, is to recommend that you read a bit of the Divine Comedy to get the flavor of it. Again, we are talking about a work of genuine belief and devotion, executed with consummate skill – really, with genius – but definitely this worldly in its medium.

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