Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pugin and Absolute Gothic

At the Imaginative Conservative site, James Baresel discusses the connections artists and architects made between the neo-Gothic style and social issues, including economics in the Victorian era. He asks the question, "Should Christians Romanticize the Middle Ages?" and comments on A.W.N. Pugin's absolute commitment to "medievalism":

The leading light of the romantic neo-Gothic architectural movement was Catholic convert Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Perhaps no man has even taken medievalism to a greater extreme. His goal was nothing less than a restoration of England not just to Catholicism, but to a medieval English Catholicism as part of a restoration to what he considered to be an overall medieval way of life. Late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth-century Gothic was to him both an apogee of architectural development and a permanent set of canons for particular categories of buildings. Such structures as railway stations that lacked a medieval precedent were to be designed upon the basis of “Gothic principles.” Priests were to be clad in Gothic vestments while celebrating Mass. When Blessed John Henry Newman planned an introduction of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri into England, Pugin objected on the grounds that the Oratorians had always been Italian with no historical connection to England and were grounded in the spirituality of the Counter-Reformation rather than in any way medieval. Upon visiting Rome, Pugin found himself detesting perhaps the greatest achievements of Catholic art and architecture in history—the Renaissance and the Baroque of the great basilicas—due to their ornate beauty and because he, in all seriousness, considered them to be pagan.

To articulate his vision for English society, Pugin published Contrasts, contrasting scenes from early industrial England with what he believed to be his country’s medieval past. He went far beyond pointing out that life for many in the Middle Ages was in fact more tolerable than life in the early factories. Medieval life was depicted as all but idyllic, his own age as an absolute disaster. Some of the contrasts in the book propagandistically showed a medieval town with rising (Gothic) church spires next to a nineteenth-century town with rising factory chimneys. In other cases, images of Gothic and neo-classical churches were placed next to each other on what must have been the assumption that the reader would inevitably consider the former to be the more beautiful. And, of course, Gothic architecture and its influence on peoples’ minds was alleged to be an essential element of creating a desirable state of society.

Read the rest there.

I am always troubled by how Pugin almost seems to exalt the Gothic above Catholicism itself by insisting that Gothic art and architecture was absolutely essential to worship and prayer. I always appreciate the beauty of a church and I do favor the Gothic style, but I also know that true sacramental worship doesn't depend on the style of architecture. For Pugin to have protested against the Oratory of St. Philip Neri being established in England because it "had always been Italian with no historical connection to England" certainly ignored how international medievalism was. After all, the Gothic style originated in France! Catholicism is indeed universal and should not be identified with only one period or culture.

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