To be deep in Rome is to cease to be Protestant. That is because to be deep in Rome is to be deep in history, and to be deep in history, as John Henry Newman wrote, is to cease to be Protestant. Visiting Rome this month I was plunged once more “deep into history.” Everywhere you turn you find the faded fragments of the great empire.
Littered across the city are the relics and rumors of Jesus and the apostles. At Santa Croce a fragment of the title board from the cross is on display, and is that really St Thomas’ finger bone? Could that really be the nail, the thorn and the beam of the good thief’s cross? At St Maria Maggiore do they really have Jesus’ manger bed, and how did they get Longinus’ spear and Veronica’s veil at St Peter’s? Are the crumbling bits of skull enthroned at St John Lateran truly those of Peter and Paul? As I kneeling climb the holy stairs, could these marble stairs be where Pontius Pilate stood, and are those faded stains the blood of my Lord?
Piled on top of the apostolic traditions are the bits and pieces of early Christianity—the martyrs, the catacombs, and the coliseum. The buildings tell the story with the splendid simplicity of the early Roman basilicas, the ancient tombs, the noble beauty of Santa Sabina, the Byzantine charm of the tenth century mosaics and the austere arches of the Romanesque. All of this is enchanting, awesome and exciting, but in the midst of the breathtaking beauty one bumps into the baroque.
Except for Santa Maria sopra Minerva the Gothic is gone—swept away by the renaissance passion to re-build ancient Rome for Christ and his church. One can understand and admire the neo-classical style imposed by those enthusiastic to restore the glory of Rome, but did they really have to continue into the baroque? Why all the grinning cherubs, the angels tumbling over themselves, those pillars and pediments, capitals, clouds and curtains? Why such lack of restraint when painting those ceilings and fake marble effects? Were the crystal chandeliers, the gargantuan organ cases, the marble statues and the grandiose memorials really necessary?
For one like me, who loves the simple dignity of the early Christian churches and gets romantic about the Romanesque, the baroque style seems like a vulgar imposition. When an entire church is built in the renaissance or baroque style one can at least admire the unity of design and intent, but when they clumsily pasted baroque on top of the ancient gothic and romanesque churches the effect is unforgivable. Too often in my latest visit to Rome I left yet another beautiful ancient church agreeing with my friend Sid, “I wish they hadn’t baroqued it all up like that!”
Am I the only one to be so unenthusiastic about the baroque period? Do others share my distaste for the plaster pilasters, the too clever painted ceilings and the faux architectural tricks or do they love the exuberance and intentional theatricality of the style? Isn’t it too grandiose, flamboyant and well…. prissy? This was done, after all in an age when men wore satin britches, buckled shoes, shoulder length curly wigs and carried canes and lace hankies.
Then I check and challenge myself. Perhaps, like grand opera, cricket and Indian food, it is an acquired taste. Maybe the fault is with me and as usual it is not that baroque is bad, but that I am a boor.
So I set out to be more open minded. I thought if I could not love baroque, I could at least try to understand it. After all, to know all is to forgive all. If I knew more about it perhaps I could forgive what seemed to me such crimes against antiquity, dignity, beauty and simplicity.
So I sat still in a church dedicated to the Coronation of the Virgin and tried to see past the plaster. Suddenly it came clear. Larger than life sized angels were holding back a sumptuous gilded curtain to allow a scene to be glimpsed. Tumbling out of the scene were pink and white clouds.
Radiating from the clouds were shafts of gold, and the scene itself was Christ the Lord crowning his humble mother as queen of heaven. That was it. They were not decorating the church for its own sake, like some interior designer with an unlimited budget and a taste in wallpaper. There was a purpose. They wanted to make visible the invisible world. They wanted to give us a little hint of heaven and furthermore, they thought the whole church building should give us weary and earthbound mortals a glimpse of glory.
In a barbaric age of banal worship songs, feel good homilies and felt banners with pictures of grapes and wheat or happy signs that say “All Are Welcome”I suddenly went for baroque. I am not yet a fan, but if I have to choose between the chubby cherubs and the chubby suburban cantors waving arms, I know what I choose. If I have to choose between painted plaster pilasters and platitudes from political priests I go for baroque. If I have to choose between a glimpse of glory or guys with guitars, I go for baroque. If I have to choose between carpeted churches that look like a dentist’s office or gilded curtains, cumulus clouds and magnificent seraphim, I go for baroque.
For although the baroque artists were often mediocre and overly ambitious, they understood that the faith was something supernatural and not just a set of table manners. They knew that religion was an interaction between earth and heaven, not simply a pep rally for making the world a better place. They understood that a church is not a preaching hall or a community center, but a temple, a shrine, a place of sacrifice and the very threshold of heaven…and that it should look that way.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.