Wednesday 23 October 2013

Lecture 4: The one in which Catholic churches justify their decor

Il Gesu
The title of this fourth lecture held a lot of promise: 'Space, Function and Decoration in a Catholic Church'. In it we examined the church's decoration and design and looked at what these implied in terms of how the space was used. We compared the use of church space pre- and post- catholic reformation and the changes this entailed in the light of new ways of worship. The case study revolved around the most Catholic of post-Trent organisation's churches, the Jesuit 'Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at the "Argentina"', or Il Gesù for short.

However this lecture was vaguely unsatisfactory and I was pleased that I had supplemented it with a lot of reading - there is too much to cover in depth in an hours lecture. I'd read Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque which clearly sets out the subtle differences between rhetoric, persuasion and propaganda. It also discusses and dismisses the notion of 'the Jesuit style', a label which should definitely be avoided. I've also been reading the truly excellent The Sensuous in the counter-reformation church which covers in depth a number of issues that we merely touched upon in class. Art historians like to use the Jesuits as examples for various things so lecture and reading all tied in well.

As we saw last week in the lecture on St Peter's, the church is designed to lead you to the most important space, that is to say, where the Eucharist is held. As you progress up the nave and head towards the transept, you encounter symbols which enrich your experience both spiritually and intellectually. It does this in a number of ways but most conspicuously is the use of images. We touched on various issues of contention between the Protestants and Catholics in the reformation lecture but here we concentrated on their different approaches to imagery.

The Protestants removed anything that encouraged idolatry. They pointed out that the gold, marble, bronze spoke volumes about how the church portrayed itself. How can you preach Christian values of poverty in a place which dripped with conspicuous consumption and expense? And had been paid for by raising money in dubious ways. Furthermore if the pope was Christ's representative through St Peter, how could he then live in such a princely lavish way? By continuing to decorate their churches in such a way was an open declaration that Catholics were standing by their dogma/principles - they looked to scripture, history and archaeology to prove their point.

The Oratory of the Gonfalone (1575) - pictorial proof of post-Tridentine ideas. Catholics decreed that the protestants were wrong and that the Old Testament God had requested that His house be decorated richly - scriptural justification for the adornment of churches. This Oratory, or meeting place for a confraternity, is incredibly elaborately decorative. The brotherhood who met there had an allegiance to the Virgin Mary and they primarily carried out charitable good works, as well as being important patrons of the arts. With the assistance of Alessandro Farnese, cardinal protector of the oratory, they created a relatively intimate space which left no part untouched. There was wooden carving around the edge and on the ceiling. As this is still an early example (1560s) of such a room, the wood isn't gilded, so is actually quite an austere space by baroque standards. Fresco cycles tell the story of Christ and each cycle is divided by the twisted columns of Solomon, symbolic of the earliest house of God.

In Rome they didn't have to dig too deep to find evidence of early Christian examples of religious decoration. St Philipo Neri who meditated on the sacrifice of the early Christian martyrs claimed that the church was founded on their blood and bones. The Catacomb of Via Latina from the c4thAD was beautifully painted. The importance of the history of the early church is central to counter reformation restoration as it emphasises continuity, both spiritually and physically. The mosaics of Santa Constanza, c4AD combined Christian and pagan imagery but essentially was taken as authority to incorporate images into the fabric of religious spaces.

The physical structure of early Christian churches was also studied. Before Constantine, there were no large scale buildings because members of these strange eastern cults were persecuted. Their places of worship were underground, in wealthy individuals' houses or generally hidden away so it is difficult to recreate their rituals exactly. However once Christianity became the official religion, they took the existing secular roman buildings as a blueprint. These early basilicas didn't always have a transept, for instance Santa Sabina is one of the clearest examples of a plain, open barnlike interior with a mosaic apse and no transept. San Clemente is extremely important, holy building after holy building have existed on this spot and none of them have fully disappeared. The second basilica echoes the first with a simple rectangular form, with arches towards the apse and a high altar. On the floor, Roman paving with a pattern of "porphyry rota" forms a path through the church to the altar.

The laity was separated from the priests performing the rituals of mass by the choir or rood screens, which underlines the sacredness and mystical nature of the altar. This is still in evidence when you look down the nave of Frari, Venice. The screen in the large Franciscan church frames the altar and yet separates the congregation from what is happening. It was suggested in class that this was perhaps a remnant of paganism, when people were forbidden to enter temples as some stuff is just too holy to see. Or maybe it's just a reinforcement of the hierarchy, power and control of the priesthood.

In the c16th the rood screens were taken away from both Catholic and Protestant churches. Though the rituals and symbolism in both differed, they both agreed that the laity needed to participate and see what was happening. Also it turns out that churches are like classrooms, when the teachers aren't looking, there is bad behaviour. People were coming into church but not necessary being behind the columns?! Outrageous. The removal of the rood screens was just the beginning. Shrines, offerings, ceiling hangings, religious clutter, multiple altars were cleared - all of these were an accumulation  and religious detritus from centuries and cults gone by. A form of conceptual clutter which could be seen as idolatrous; people should be focussing on the one main altar. Santa Maria Novella in Florence was one place which was opened up. St Croce was an example of where the altar was moved forward to the transept, enabling a visual and physical connection of the masses to the altar.

First Student Presentation

Il Gesù was the first baroque church in Rome, home to the Society of Jesus founded by st Ignatius. He had been a soldier and ascribed his survival to the Virgin Mary. On his return he set up a preaching order which was to be orderly, centralised and structured, like an army. He wanted this order to spread the word of God as it should be heard and absolutely loyal to the pope.

Despite the richness of their church, they weren't always in funds. They moved around Rome, often using places which were old and in bad states of repair. It took them a while to find a home, finally settling in Santa Maria delle Astelli, authorised by Paul Farnese. It tool a long time to get to a final design, with many architects involved, including Michelangelo. Jacopo Vignola and Della Porta got to work on their design in 1568. Building on the above comments, comparison can be made between churches pre- and post Trent:

1. Preaching is more important - the pulpit is near the crossing and generally given in the vernacular.
2. A single nave open to the public, visibility of the altar and improved accoustics
3. Semi private/public side altars which were dedicated to particular saints usually under one programme. Sometimes there was conflict between the Order and patron as to how they were decorated. Not always accessible to the public
4. The Church façade was in a classical 3 parts and 2 storeys with temple front, orders, pediment etc - but with added 3D effects. Columns, light and shade, dramatic shapes, a sense of form, repetition, emphasis of centrality were the key aspects of this new design.
5. Importance of the door and entrance - as you went in you had an uninterrupted view of the altar, the doorway framed it. Behind that door was mass, heaven, God and salvation, an actual doorway to heaven.

What struck me was the sheer theatricality of the interior design. The second presentation covered many of the effects they used and they seemed to be lifted straight from the playhouse; Giovanni Battista Gaulli's (Baciccia) Triumph of the Name of Jesus gives the impression that the clouds have just parted so that we can look straight into the Kingdom of Heaven, the stage is set for Jesus and the players to perform their miracles. The natural light pours though strategically placed windows, illuminating the frescoes at different times of the day, adding drama and wonder. The richness of the altars and chapels leaves the senses reeling.

They have come a long way since the secretive early Christians worshipped in quiet, simply painted catacombs.

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