Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Offsite Post: ‘Rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral and Western Culture’

The mourning for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris began even as the flames were burning.  The reaction of Mr Rod Dreher is representative of what many in the West are thinking and feeling about this event:

There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.”

 . . .

What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon.

Like James Poulos above, I cannot see this as anything other than a sign. The only church in all of Western civilization more important than Notre Dame de Paris is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The consuming fire is likely to have been started from a construction accident. I hope that is the case; if this was terrorism, then France is in for unimaginable spasms of violence. Nevertheless, if this was an accident, it still symbolizes what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony. What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.

It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course now.

 . . .

The flames of Notre Dame de Paris are a call to repentance and conversion. As the monks of Norcia have been doing since their church met catastrophe, so let us all do as we mourn the loss of one of Christendom’s greatest cathedrals. There can be no greater tribute to what this holy and revered temple meant to its builders and to all those faithful who worshiped beneath its vaults all these centuries than to turn, in sackcloth and ashes, back to God, and to raise again the vaults of His sanctuaries in our hearts and families and communities — while there is still time.

For you in the West who are not religious, I hope you will reflect on what this cathedral meant in artistic, architectural, and cultural terms, and that you will think hard about what we are losing as we collectively repudiate our patrimony.

If you were waiting for a sign of the times, this is it.

 . . .

We do not wish to seem callous to those who are mourning the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, and we are not trying to be.  However, we would like to view this event from a different perspective. 

From the view of the Orthodox Church, the West left Christendom in 1054 A. D. at the time of the Great Schism.  The culture that grew up after that time in the West, including her architecture, necessarily reflects the new religious underpinning.  Christos Yannaras explains how this worked itself out in the giant cathedrals of Western Europe in his book The Freedom of Morality:

“Gothic art,” observes Choisy, “operates with antitheses, contrasting with the plains the elevation of its perpendicular lines and enormous spires.” What we have here is not simply an aesthetic or proportional contrast, however, but an anthropocentric tendency, a demand for the earthly to be elevated to the transcendent. The union of created and uncreated is not here regarded as a personal event, as the transformation of man, the world and history in the person of God the Word incarnate. It is an encounter between two natures, with human nature clothed in the dignity and transcendent majesty of the divine nature— which is exactly what happens with papal primacy and infallibility, and with the totalitarian centralization of the Roman Catholic Church. “The vaulted construction of a Gothic church desires, and tends, to give the impression of a monolithic framework” — it is the image that the Roman Catholic West has of the Church. Approaching the divine presupposes in this context a comparison between human smallness and the grandeur of divine authority an authority tangibly expressed by its monolithic, unified and majestic organization and its administrative structure. The Church is not the world in the dimension of the Kingdom, the harmonization of the inner principles of created things with the affirmation of human freedom in Christ’s assumption of worldly flesh; but it is the visible, concrete potentiality for the individual to submit to divine authority. This is why in a Gothic church the material is not “saved,” it is not “made word” and it is not “transfigured”: it is subdued by a superior force. To use specialized terminology once again: “The supports prevail over the weight placed on them… the vaulting with its supple formation clearly shows that it concentrates there all the action in the forces, and compels matter to rise up to the heights.” This compulsion of matter in Gothic architecture represents a technology which leads straight to contemporary technocracy.

 . . .

“It was nevertheless the art of the Gothic cathedrals which, in the whole of Christendom, then became the instrument— perhaps the most effective one— of Catholic repression”: Duby, L’Europe des Cathidrales, p. 72. Direct experience alone can justify and verify these conclusions. In the cathedrals of Cologne, Milan or Ulm, and other European cities, anyone with experience of the theology and art of the Eastern Church can see the justification for the “rebellion” of the Reformation and for the various ways in which man revolts against this transcendent authority which is expressed with such genius in architecture: it is an authority which humiliates and degrades human personhood and even ultimately destroys it. Revolt is inevitable against such a God, who consents to encounter man on a scale of such crushing difference in size.

Blessed Father Seraphim Rose explores this change in art/architecture in the West further:

And finally he [Hans Sedlmayr--W.G.] gives a sort of summation of all these destructive, dark influences as they have been in the history of Western art. And although he himself was a lover of art before the Revolution, that is, up to the eighteenth century, in this little history of his, he shows very well that these destructive influences go right back precisely to the moment where we discussed the beginning of the apostasy, that is, the twelfth century.

The first outburst of this demonic elements, he says, occurs in the late Romanesque. “It is in this phase that the sacred world is suddenly endowed to a quite terrifying degree with a demoniac character. Thus in the doorways” of various cathedrals, “the sacred figures have the appearances of corpses and of ghosts, a thing that can in no wise be explained by a certain remoteness from humanity that marks the art of the high Middle Ages. Christ sometimes resembles an Asiatic idol or an Asiatic despot. The Apocalyptic beasts and the angels are all distorted by this demoniac quality. This curious phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of the dual intention that is discernable in much medieval art, the intention to administer a certain awful shock to the beholder and at the same time, by means of the sheer absurdity of the visible symbols [it created], to spur his mind towards purely spiritual contemplation; for directly beside the sacred figures, and in the very midst of them, and indeed scarcely distinguishable from them at all, are images of demons and of demoniac beasts and chimaeras that even invade the interior of the church.

“At the same time the figures themselves begin to acquire a most remarkable and unprecedented quality of instability. Those on the great arch above the door” of the Cathedral “at Vezelay seem positively to be tottering, and look as though they might crash down at any moment from the great curve on which they have so precarious a footing. This is the period when figures begin to be tangentially affixed to the frames of the great doors, and it is to this period that belongs the great Wheel of Fortune that lifts a man up and [ineluctably] casts him down, and it is this period also that for the very first time stands architectural forms upon their heads.

“All this is the visible expression of [that volubilitas rerum,] that instability of human affairs, that people have suddenly begun to feel with a peculiar and painful intensity. It is in fact the visible symbol for the dominant mood, the dominant feeling about life and the world.

“In religion the dominant emotion is fear, the principal theme is the Day of Judgment, expressed to the uttermost potential of all the terror that it can inspire. In the crypt-like gloom of the church we can with our mind’s eye see the faithful standing ‘in fear and trembling before God.’ Never has the [mysterium tremendum]” tremendous mystery “attained such force over men’s minds.”cccxxii

So, already for some reason art begins to become unstable. Although the main Gothic tradition goes on with its great cathedrals, still he senses here some kind of instability. Why? Because they, at that time they began to realize that they had lost Orthodoxy. And the artist is more sensitive than other people. This begins to come out in him. And when Orthodoxy is lost, the demons begin to come in. And therefore the demons directly inspire the artists.

Then there’s a second period, which is that of Hieronymus Bosch. “In the Romanesque” period “the demoniac world had really not yet achieved a separate life of its own. It is only in the Gothic that light and darkness are divided and the cathedral indirectly brings into being as” its “polar opposite to the Heavenly Kingdom, which is shown forth in itself, a Kingdom of Hell,” even “though this [last] remains [essentially]” still “a subordinate thing. [Then]” Thus “as the representational art of the late Middle Ages develops, we begin to get painted representations of Hell. The culminating point of this development is to be found in Hieronymus Bosch who flourished [between 1480 and 1516.]” around 1500.

“Bosch, a contemporary [and actual co-eval] of Leonardo da Vinci, created the world of Hell as a kind of chaotic counterpart to the new cosmic art of the High Renaissance,” which we already saw, this idealistic, chiliastic painting, “and what is entirely new about Bosch’s infernal world is that it has its own creative principles, its own chaotic ‘structure,’ its own formal laws, and it is really these that make it into a true counterworld to the worlds of Heaven and earth. It is only since Bosch that we have anything like a picture of Hell made visible.

“There is definite novelty in the very shapes of these creatures from Hell. They are not ‘fallen children of men, who by a simple process of metamorphosis have been turned into beasts of the Devil,’ but” they are “wholly independent and as yet unknown forms of life, born of the marriage of every conceivable kind of creature, fish, beast, bird, witch and mandrake, the products of a kind of ungoverned cosmic lewdness and debauchery, in which even lifeless things can mingle with the living. All this was something that lay wholly outside the horizons of antiquity.

“New also is the actual scenery of Hell, and we see aspects of the face of this earth which had never before been put on canvas. We see here dark gulfs, empty stretches of earth and sea that seem to tell us how utterly God has forsaken them, the desolation of empty cities, strange hideous places whose vegetation are gallows-trees and wheels of torture, slime and morass. Here are neither sun nor moon, such light as there is comes from vast conflagrations or from the irridescence of strange phosphorescent shapes. Hell can show us the work of human hands, but it is distorted, arid in decay. Above all we see ruins, we see them continually -- and in Hell there are also arsenals, a fighting equipment of strange machines, pieces of apparatus that are often meaningless, though sometimes they have a meaning, being instruments of torture, while through the air sail airships, demon manned and demon piloted.”cccxxiii

 . . .

--Orthodox Survival Course, http://tinyurl.com/gncvke7, pgs. 114-5

Considering the foregoing, what is it that we really see in Notre Dame Cathedral?  In essence, one of the crowning symbols of the apostasy of the West.  Its post-Schism art as we have seen is an art of the Fall, with all its death, decay, and confusion.  With the arts in the Orthodox Church we see something very different, an art of the Resurrection, of the transfiguration of man and the world in Christ:

 . . .

The editors chose not to include the pictures that were included with the essay, which is why there are some seemingly random words and page addresses scattered about.  To see the pictures, follow the paths below.  You should be able to match them up with their appropriate places in the essay pretty easily:







Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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