Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bavarian Baroque

I recently read an interesting poem, entitled "Bavarian Baroque," by Gail White:

At first it's like a painted teacup
inverted, this gold-scalloped dome
containing an apotheosis
of saints triumphant heading home

to God—a Beatific Vision
made relevant to mortal eyes
Then we discover in each cornice
angels, grotesque in shape and size,

in imminent danger of descending
onto our heads, their Sunday-best
huge wings precariously suspended,
hoping the tourists are impressed.

Faith is not like this, needs no laser
sculpture, no cheat-the-eye designs.
Baroque device is insufficient
to baffle unbelieving minds.

Faith was a gift that died with Gothic.
Only the rich medieval heart
(dazzled by love and drunk with logic)
could train the wild stone rose of Chartres.
First of all, here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the Baroque churches the poem is criticizing. These pictures comes from the church of St. John Nepomucene in Munich, often known as the Asamkirche, after the Asam brothers, two Baroque architects who built this chapel next to their house for their private use.

Since the church was originally intended as "just" a private chapel, the church is not set off from the surrounding buildings. In fact, the average pedestrian comes upon it like upon a store-front church. But, a Baroque store-front church is a little different from what we normally imagine in modern America.

The interior is even more impressive. The small size adds to the effect. Upon entering the church, a visitor is immediately confronted with this view:

If we look at some of the details, we see some of what the poet means when she speaks of "angels, grotesque in shape and size." This next picture features a saint surrounded by angels, and it certainly gives an idea of late Baroque style:

And now, the big question: Is the poem right when it says that "Faith was a gift that died with Gothic"? And, how does the supposed death of faith manifest itself in the Baroque?

To begin, I don't believe it's entirely fair to say that faith died with the Gothic. For instance, some of the Church's greatest mystics (e.g., St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila) lived during the Baroque period. Or, more a propos of this post, the Asam brothers built this church as their own private chapel out of their own private funds. Was their faith not a living faith? Moreover, the Gothic was not as free of some of the problems of the Baroque as the poet seems to think. Gothic church towers, for example, were often built to impress medieval "tourists." Just take a look here at the tower on St. Martin's church in Landshut, Germany (the tallest brick tower in the world). On the other hand, the early modern period of European history certainly did witness the spread of some anti-religious feeling, especially in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, and even saw the origins of modern atheism (e.g., Spinoza). Do Baroque art and architecture reflect this decline of faith in some way?

The poem does give some clues as to how the Baroque might reflect the death of Europe's faith. The poet's main complaint about the Baroque seems to be that it relies too heavily on cheap tricks to make us believe in God--"cheat-the-eye designs" and "Baroque device." The Baroque tries but cannot even "baffle unbelieving minds." In other words, the Baroque tries unsuccessfully to confuse us and then tries unsuccessfully to persaude us that our state of confusion is really faith. Mere confusion would seem to be a rather weak foundation for our faith.

In response to this danger of conflating confusion and faith, the poet points in the last verse to the Gothic's passion for logic. Though she does not elaborate much on this statement, White seems to be asserting that clear thought and faith are not incompatible, and are indeed indispensable to each other.

Another possible problem with the Baroque--hinted at in the phrase "hoping the tourists are impressed"--is that the Baroque also relies heavily on "shock and awe" tactics. The sheer size of the statues, the many-colored marbles, the extravagant use of gold plating, are all designed to overwhelm us, make us feel small, and thereby induce us to worship the all-powerful God. Shock and awe was certainly my initial reaction the first time I stepped inside, or even into the colonnade at, St. Peter's in Rome. But again, White seems to be asserting that merely feeling small is not a solid foundation for our faith.

This poem, then, leaves us with the question whether the feelings of bafflement and shock and awe which the Baroque sought to produce are inimical to genuine faith. I am still not entirely sure that White's historical analysis--the contrast between Gothic and Baroque--is true in every detail, but I do believe that she has hit upon two important points. First, she at least partially explains why so many people criticize and are left cold by "Baroque excess." People see through the tricks and the impression of power. Second, she gives two valid warnings about certain weak foundations of faith. Faith is more than just confusion or feeling small.

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