Years ago as an undergraduate theology student at Loyola University Chicago I had the eye-opening opportunity to take the course Introduction to the Orthodox Church, of which I had no experience, and very little knowledge. For my final project I wrote a very basic comparison between the visuality (before it was even a thing) of the reformed Roman Catholic Mass and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy – pictures included. On the Roman side of the ring, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, with its mix of ideas from The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and Bob Hovda, and the images of Frank Kacmarcik’s churches. On the Orthodox side, a few patristic commentaries on the liturgy, and the most wild images of crown toting bishops and crossed candles I could muster in the nascent internet era. In truth, I intimated that the Orthodox liturgy was in dire need of reform, given the sound logic of Sacrosanctum Concillium and the document EACW. My Orthodox priest/professor thought the comparison was interesting, but challenged me to think further about tradition, the judgement-making mechanisms of what is appropriate, the role of culture, and yes, the meaning of nobility, and simplicity. My undergraduate brain had little sense of what he was on about. I do now.
There is nothing more disheartening as a liturgical practitioner of art and architecture than to see well-developed, artistically and liturgically sound, and beautiful projects, handicapped or even completely obliterated, by well-meaning, but ultimately un-formed and uninformed, committees, commissions, pastors, and bishops, in the name of noble simplicity. It’s happened to me and to colleagues countless times, and it spans our denominations. Careful listening often reveals that those with decision-making power many times have little understanding of what is intended by ‘noble simplicity’ and what its boundaries are. Yet, to me, there is a more fundamental issue at stake: Noble simplicity as a liturgical-theological aesthetic (the way things look) is a myth, both as an historical assertion, and as a category of contemporary compulsory praxis.
The term, as many others have discussed in more ample ways, is found in Sacrosanctum Concillium 34. Here it deals with the structure and language of rites. Chapter 7, dealing specifically with art and architecture, states in distinction that the aesthetic tenor of sacred art is noble beauty. This is opposed to mere sumptuous display – and here one wonders if ‘mere’ is the problem. The notion that simplicity should be the visual character of the liturgical environment is nowhere to be found – beauty is. In fact, the introduction to Chapter 7 states that the Church has never had a particular style, which from the perspective of art, is where simplicity would be embodied. One can’t logically have it both ways, then – all styles, but only the simple ones. I have always found it a bit ironic, therefore, that subsequent scholars and reform-leaders promoted art and architectural simplicity as the conciliar leitmotif of contemporary church building somehow as a seemingly necessary corollary to the Roman Rite’s ‘genius’. But was the Roman Rite so noble and simple as Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750) and Edmund Bishop (1846-1917) conceived of it?
Stational liturgies and multiple processional crosses – to name just a few eccentricities – would seem to suggest otherwise. Perhaps the prayer structures and their Latin were, but perhaps only in contrast to their liturgical counterparts. Yet, in terms of visual culture there is no evidence that the Roman Rite was ever ocularly spartan. From the perspective of Christian material culture, liturgy, even in its earliest embodiments in the pre-Constantinian period, was seemingly colorful, painted, patterned, materialed, architectural, and soundfull. And only became more so.
Although notes from Subcommission XIII involved in composing SC do not exist on this point, the conciliar concern over sumptuous display seemed not to have been directly related to some imagined purified ur-rite, but the Baroque context of Italy, the hyper-devotional displays of popular religion, and the pageantry of the papal court. In the original scheme of SC there was to be a further chapter on the use of liturgical vestments and utensils which was soon folded into a highly abridged Chapter 7. It is perhaps telling that both in the formulation of SC and its surrounding debate, much of the ‘simplification’ camp were formed of a close-knit group of eurocentric scholars. The global outsiders tended to be far more concerned with inculturation and the liturgical insinuation that they needed to look European in their worship.
Nonetheless, in the grand scheme noble simplicity and noble beauty came to be conflated even if they were two separate realities in SC. This was especially the case in the subsequent General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In this document, there is a clear merger of beauty and simplicity. And in what must be one of the grossest over-reaches in art and architectural theory ever recorded, it insists that simplicity is the “best” companion of “genuine art” (n.325) ! How such an absolute statement was deduced is left in silence. The dynamic was of course reflected in EACW with its fetishization of simplicity before which one was to “stand back and truly see”. But in fact, in art and architectural history the die was cast for such a merger at the turn of the twentieth century. The banlieues of Paris were especially notable in this respect for the Œuvre des Chantiers du Cardinal, a project began in the early 1900’s meant to provide new churches for the burgeoning population. Much of the inspiration came from Auguste Parrets’ church Notre Dame du Raincy, the first church ever constructed in structural concrete. Such spaces necessitated architectural simplicity according to the dictates of their materials.
Its very hard to glam cement. An added element came to define the work. An anthropology developed suggesting proper buildings reflected the nature of their users. The building must be simple, uncomplicated, as the Parisian factory workers supposedly were. Whether Pie-Raymond Regamey and Marie-Alain Courtuier were directly influenced by the Chantiers work is not clear, but certainly the liturgical thought of Regamey was based in an anthropology of poverty, as is evidenced in his many writings upon the essential nature of poverty to the experience of Christianity.
Too vast to trace out here, the defining anthropology of poverty and simplicity echoes throughout the liturgical renewal and is reflected in the thought of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The pastoral concern for doctrinal and religious simplicity, based in an anthropological conception of the ‘worker’, undoubtedly influenced liturgical reform writ large. Noble simplicity was not simply about the supposed usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, but a hermeneutic of pastoral adaptation, mission, and relevance. The Church’s agenda of liturgical clarity and the architectural/artistic world’s interest in purity were easily conflated, and in fact were so, both before and after the Council. This reliance upon an anthropology of poverty and relevance to the ‘worker/everyman’ was strongly expressed in the work of the Dutch liturgical architect Hans van der Laan (1904-1991) OSB, and the American Edward Sövik (1918-2014) that sought to ‘humanize’ liturgical space in scale and material.
My point here is not to call into question the value of liturgical clarity in ritual enactment as envisioned by the liturgical renewal. What I do find problematic is the manner the concept of noble simplicity was and is employed as an aesthetic category involving both architecture and art. Certainly in the case of visual history, Christian art and architecture has not been constrained by, nor defined by simplicity. More problematically, in as much as noble simplicity has come to define the liturgical environment based upon an anthropology of poverty, it must be recognized that such an argument was descriptive and not prescriptive, as cultures most certainly change. As a pastoral approach to modernity it has no inherent theological value. Indeed, I would suggest the notion that western society is ‘uneducated’ and ‘simple’ is certainly past its prime. In many respects, the anthropology the Council was belatedly working out of was an approach geared to the vestiges of industrial society. Today, a ‘simple’ Church seems rather fanciful in the matrix of social and technological advancements.
In his commentary upon the Rite of a Dedication of a Church and Altar, Ignazio Calabuig, OSM, articulated what I believe is the most clear ritual and aesthetic guideline of contemporary liturgy – that of supersigns – which to my mind is far better geared toward the present. Yet, this does not indicate what the plastic appearance of those signs must be. It does not really indicate what the liturgy must look like. In short, liturgical clarity does not necessarily mean artistic simplicity.
Indeed, why something should be simple at all is fraught with all sorts of cultural baggage. I have been involved in not a few cases in which ecclesial powers have dictated what a project should look like based upon the assertion that the community was too simple to really understand art, or their architectural vision was too this or that, or what the community desired was too sophisticated, too avant-garde, or too traditional. Essentially, a type of intellectual neo-colonialism: Let us tell you what you are capable of desiring and understanding. In all the cases, no matter what the look was, the demigod noble simplicity was invoked as the supporting justification. This tells me that indeed, noble simplicity is a myth that continues to wreak havoc on the liturgical environment.
In saying all this, my intention isn’t to determine what liturgical art and architecture need to look like therefore, if indeed there is a ‘need’ at all. It is my intention, rather, to insist that neither nobility nor simplicity singularly represent an immutable theological aesthetic or truism, as well as to emphasize that these adjectives are not somehow self-interpreting, and therefore even useful. There is per se, no singular theological paradigm of our visual worlds, least of all for our churches – certainly not historically. Liturgical clarity is not a style. So I return to the challenge of my Orthodox professor. What is appropriate is found somewhere in the intersection of tradition, culture, and human creativity. I’m reminded of the sage words of Aidan Kavanagh penned some years ago; “noble simplicity”, he wrote, must be approached with a “certain healthy impiety”. Thirty-six years on, I would go further. It’s time to put the myth to rest. So let a hundred artistic flowers bloom. Even the more extravagant ones.