Saturday, April 14, 2018

The glorious return of the boy choir

(Photo credit: Mitchell Mark)
 In 2014, I visited Mater Dei Parish in the Diocese of Dallas (the FSSP's largest apostolate in the US) for a Sunday Mass on my way to attend a concert by the world-famous Choir of Westminster Abbey, over at Incarnation Episcopal Church. I even took the occasion to write about the importance of men & boys' choirs on my blog afterward. Well, as Providence would have it, my focus returns to Dallas once again. I'm pleased to share with you--nay, shout "alleluia" across the rooftops--that the very same Mater Dei Church recently debuted its own choir of men and boys! This is, as far as I know, the only boys' choir dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass in the entire United States. The FSSP's efforts in Dallas here are an unqualified triumph for traditional liturgy and a beacon of inspiration for the rest of us around the world. 

To celebrate this advancement and share the news with my readers, I casually spoke on the phone with Mater Dei's associate music director and founder of the Men & Boys Choir program, Mr. Chase Fowler. Mr. Fowler (incidentally a longtime reader of this blog) began at Mater Dei in 2016. He has a highly liturgical spirit and knew very well that the perennial tradition of the Church, when it comes to sacred music, as constantly expounded upon by Saint Pius X and other popes and leaders of the liturgical movement, valued the schola cantorum of men and boys singing together as the ideal. While Mater Dei is blessed to have many parishioners--five fully packed Masses back to back on Sunday, as many old-timers remember before Vatican II--they still have all the other obstacles against establishing a boys' choir that most of us do. The parish has no school at all, much less one that could focus specially on a music curriculum. Most parishioners live outside the usual territorial parish boundaries (some as far away as the state of Oklahoma, I hear), so commuting on another day of the week for even just one rehearsal after school hours is a pain. 

And yet, undaunted by any of these challenges, Mr. Fowler pressed on. The fruits of their labor blossomed this Passion Sunday, March 18, when the Men & Boys' Choir, clad in the traditional cassock and surplice of an ecclesiastical choir, sang in liturgy for the first time at the 9am missa cantata. The men naturally handled the minor Propers in their full melodies from the Liber Usualis, while the boys assisted with the Ordinary of the Mass. Not to be treated with kid gloves, the boys still capably handle serious choral works of the Catholic tradition by composers like Palestrina and Victoria: a feat most professional directors might scoff at as impossible for boys not enrolled in a full-time choir school and, therefore, not even worth trying. So far, the boys' choir is still going strong. They'll continue to sing at Mater Dei, in rotation with the other choirs of the parish, until the end of this term (the Fifth Sunday after Easter).

Why all the fuss, though? Why not just rely on capable female singers, like virtually every other church does? Mr. Fowler and I chatted about this, and he outlined a few reasons: 


The spirit of the liturgy: the choir of Levites

Illustration of the old cursus honorum. The first four degrees after tonsure are the minor orders.
First, the all-male choir is most in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy. Basically all Catholic communities dedicated to traditional liturgy in some form or another (whether the traditional Latin Mass, the "Anglican" Ordinariate, or the Eastern rites) accept that altar servers should all be male. Lay altar servers fill roles which were, in times long past, exercised only by men or boys who were tonsured and "ordained" to the minor orders. These minor orders eventually came to be restricted to men in formation for the priesthood, despite the canons of the Council of Trent ordering them to be restored to normal parish use. The canons were ignored, but it was universally understood that lay substitutes should at least potentially be able to be ordained acolytes... therefore, male.

What even most traditional Catholics today have lost is the understanding that singing in an ecclesiastical choir is, in itself, a form of altar service; perhaps better described as the foundation of all other altar service. This is obvious if you observe the daily worship at a traditional seminary or monastery chapel. A few seminarians assist the ministers at the altar as acolytes, but the rest sit in the choir stalls in cassock and surplice (fittingly called "choir dress") and assist primarily by singing the Mass or Divine Hours. The sheer amount of singing done at a traditional seminary is probably mind-numbing to diocesan students, but this is simply how the clergy lived for the first seventeen or so centuries of Christian history. In medieval times, an inability to sing on-key was considered an impediment to priestly ordination. This is why medieval literature usually describes priests not as "saying", but as "singing Mass".


The ideal of the seminary choir is shown beautifully in the FSSP's promotional video above for their Requiem album.

One of the biggest favors any parent can do for a son who might have a vocation to Holy Orders, therefore, is to develop his singing talent at a young age. This is where a boys' choir comes in. By learning liturgical music, especially how to read and sing Gregorian chant, and by becoming intimately familiar with many settings of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), a boy is formed in liturgy just as he would by serving the altar. Indeed, a boy's time is better spent in learning music because the ceremonies of altar service are easier learned as a teenager or adult, while the skills for singing are better formed from youth. But whether the boys sing well or poorly, they nonetheless fulfill a clerical role in liturgy which can't be said for mixed or women's choirs. Pius X felt strongly enough about this that, in his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, he banned women from church choirs entirely (with varying levels of success):
"With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung in Gregorian Chant, and without accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir. Hence the music rendered by them must, at least for the greater part, retain the character of choral music."
And:
"On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church."

Feminization of sacred music and decline into performance art

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, established by King Henry VI in 1441, is considered by many to be the greatest men/boys choir in the world.
Second, an all-male choir helps counteract the feminization of sacred music. Here, I don't mean to denigrate the countless women who devote so much time and talent towards the betterment of worship (nor do I have any foolhardy plan to abolish women from church choirs overnight). Indeed, it's because of women's tendency to more freely devote their time that church choirs everywhere have more women than men unless they enforce an all-male schola. Traddy parents often, subconsciously, send their boys to serve, and their girls to sing in choir. The end result is that singing becomes perceived to be a feminine activity, or perhaps a consolation for not being able to serve the altar. The greater consequence is that the choir becomes divorced from its traditional understanding as a liturgical office, and then becomes focused more as performance art--pretty background music while the real work is done around the altar.

Some of the strongest evidence for this mentality is from a screed I found in the April 1917 issue of The Musical Quarterly, titled "The Boy Choir Fad", which you can read in full here. N. Lindsay Norden wrote this diatribe as a response to the revival in the later 1800's of boys' choirs, starting in the Anglican churches with the Oxford Movement, then expanding to Rome by the efforts of the Cecilians and others we might call "plainchant fundamentalists". Here are some of the more pungent excerpts:
"The boy choir fad has grown so alarmingly that the choral ideals of the American church will degenerate unless a decisive check is firmly put upon this disastrous evil in church music."

"Who would dare compare any boy choir with some of the splendid mixed choirs in New York City? Only an individual with no musical conceptions upon which to base judgment, or perhaps one imbued with the idea that a 'real' church choir should look in real life as some painters have elected to picture it."

"The principal elements which have made for the development of the boy choir are: sentimentality, a certain amount of ignorance about the 'angelic' qualities of a boy's voice, hollow imitation of the English church, and the unusual belief that it is not proper to have women in the chancel."

"If church music standards in this country are to equal those in the secular field, the boy choir must go. Rational, refined, musical considerations must overcome sentimentality, and uncultured, unworthy motives, which make for lower standards and insufficient results."
And perhaps worst of all:
"Church music in this country is mainly a mechanical echo of the ideals of the English church, which some of us consider the stupidest and dullest the world has ever known."

For the Modern Medievalist, at least, all these protests simply betray a mind more geared to sacred music as performance art rather than an act of liturgical worship. In any case, I would say Mater Dei's success over one hundred years after the publication of Norden's screed, long after the "fad" of boys' choirs collapsed everywhere outside of the most famous English cathedral and collegiate institutions, shows that with faith, the impossible can be made possible.


The chancel: uniting altar and choir

The chancel of Bristol Cathedral, with choir stalls
Mater Dei doesn't have a chancel and so this isn't an option for them, but this aspect of the choral tradition deserves some commenting on as well. A much more edifying article was posted in response to the above piece, in The Musical Quarterly's July issue of the same year, titled "Why We Have Male Choirs in Churches". This piece, which explains how all-male choirs were inherited even from the ancient Temple of Solomon under the Old Covenant, can be read here. It goes on through medieval history up to the Anglican movement to restore proper chancels with choir stalls, now seen in so many Anglican churches built from the mid-1800's and after. Ironic that so many Catholics perceive the choir loft in the back of the church as the more traditional style when it was really a later innovation to accommodate the introduction of women singers. The article has a fascinating quotation from the Bishop of Covington (presumably Ferdinand Brossart):
"We have succeeded in the past in removing the choir as far as possible from the altar, and have been spending money in the wrong way. Therefore we need not be surprised that we have succeeded in banishing also the music of the altar, the music of the Holy Service, from the church, and have substituted in its stead something more in keeping with exterior worldliness and profanity, and, with all, we have driven in a measure from the hearts of our men and boys that love for things most sacred, which the closer communication between altar and choir fostered so extensively in the Ages of Faith. Let us learn to spend more and more wisely, and restore the chancel choirs to the churches, and bring our men, old and young, back into the Sanctuary of God, that they may take a more active part in our magnificent Liturgical Service. Let us return to the old Catholic way of building our churches with a long chancel, and, if possible, an organ chamber, and vestries not only for the priests but also for the choristers. Let us bring altar and choir nearer each other."

A powerful call to action, to be sure! When I bring my chant schola out to some church for Mass, there are many times when we have to sing in the choir loft as a practical necessity because of the architecture of the place. However, whenever possible, I try to situate us within or near the sanctuary to emphasize our role as a true liturgical choir. 

It's also worth revisiting one of my favorite quotations from Augustus Welby Pugin, in his Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plainsong, which I transcribed for my blog long ago (see here). In addition to his many skills as architect and designer, the father of the Gothic Revival also sensed the importance of recovering the Church's traditional Gregorian chant. He had this to say about the state of choir lofts in his day:

"Formerly such persons as now constitute the choir were unknown. The service was sung in Parochial Churches, between the clerks and devout laymen (ministri), who assisted them in the chancel, and the people in the body of the church, who responded in unison. This grand and overpowering effect of the people answering the priest is yet to be heard in parts of Germany. At Minden the Habemus ad Dominum rose from more than two thousand voices of faithful worshippers. What a difference from the vicarious reply of three or four professionals, thrusting their heads from out of their curtained gallery in the intervals of their private conversation, and whose hearts, instead of being raised up, were probably groveling in the contemplation of a pull at a wine bottle between the acts of the performance, for it must be distinctly understood that all persons who sing in galleries are performers by position. Nutshells, orange peel, and biscuit bags, abound in organ lofts and singing galleries, and those who are acquainted with the practical working of these places must be aware, that they are a constant source of scandal and irreverence.  

Now, when we contrast the Catholic arrangement in a chancel to their miserable expedient of a gallery, we shall at once perceive the infinite wisdom and beauty of the former. All are habited in vestments, whose colour reminds them of the purity of heart and intention, with which they should celebrate the praises of Almighty God. They stand within the sacred enclosure set apart for sacrifice; the very place tends to preserve a recollection of the Divine presence, and to keep the singers in a devout posture. The distinct and graduated Chaunt offers no impediment to the perfect union of the heart and mind with the words as they are sung; and in lieu of a more empty and vain display of vocal eccentricities, we have a solemn, heartfelt, and, we may trust, an acceptable service to the honour of Almighty God."

The next step: the parochial school

The Atonement Academy, San Antonio
Mater Dei has shown us that it's possible to establish a boys' choir even without the benefit of a school. Still, for the perfection of the art, a school is the logical next step. In my chat with Mr. Fowler, he said one of his inspirations was the parochial school attached to my hometown parish, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, where I was received into the Church. The Atonement Academy is a full K-12 school (for both boys and girls) in the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter which, in addition to its overall mission in providing an orthodox Catholic education in the classical liberal arts tradition, requires every student, in every grade, to be in a choir. For this, Atonement has the outstanding honor to have one of the only Catholic parish churches in the whole world to have a daily choral Mass during the school year. 

The Atonement Academy represents a rare example of the fulfillment of an ideal espoused long before, during the original Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century. I recently picked up a book from 1963: really, a collection of essays titled Liturgy for the People. Most of the authors are Jesuit priests of a heavily progressive stripe, typical for the era. But one essay stands far above the rest: it's titled "The Schola Cantorum and the Parish School", by Theodore N. Marier. Marier was one of the leading advocates of Gregorian chant in the American Church, and was the second president of the Church Music Association of America. Shortly after writing this essay, he went on to found the St. Paul's Choir School in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the only Catholic boys' choir school in the United States. It still exists today (see website here) and is working hard to reclaim its identity as a liturgical choir, even singing Vespers every Thursday.

But what about the essay? In it, Marier says that the difficulties in fully participating in the liturgy are not Latin or Gregorian chant, but a lack of education. It's important to observe that Marier wrote this essay at the height of the Catholic parochial school's glory days in the US. Indeed, Marier himself seems to know it at the time of his writing: "our vast and complex network of parochial schools serving the cause of Catholic education from the kindergarten through graduate schools is vigorously operative in these times."

And yet, he laments that almost nowhere is any of this energy being directed toward the cause of sacred music. Where they are thought of at all, the choirs are "lunchtime choirs", with rehearsals made only during recess while other kids are at play. Drawing on the many statements from the popes of that era on the need for a schola cantorum to be established in every parish, Marier outlines a plan in his essay for every parish school:

First, of course, is the hiring of a full-time music director. The director would be responsible for developing a special curriculum for choir boys within the larger school, with the assistance of two other teachers, from fifth to eighth grade.

Second, one of the parish priests would be assigned to the schola's spiritual direction. He would teach the boys Latin, the liturgy, and how to serve Mass (all choirboys would also be expected to serve the altar).

Third, as the schola develops, it would take on more and more liturgical duties, enhancing the overall life of the parish. The schola would become the principal choir for Sunday high Mass and major feasts, and hopefully take up one or more of the Divine Hours (such as Vespers or Compline). Teams of boys in rotation would handle the cycle of Requiems, weddings, and other votive Masses as they come.

Marier ends this essay with an imperative, which is as relevant for 2018 as it was for 1963. I'll use it to end this column as well. Marier writes:
"The training of leaders must begin early in their formative years and continue over a long period of time. The Palestrina, Josquin Des Pres, Guido D'Arezzo or even St. Gregory of tomorrow is perhaps today in a parochial school third grade, waiting to be led, encouraged, and motivated by the Church to a life of fruitful creativity in her service. If the opportunity of training him is not seized now, the Church will sit by and watch him spill out his musical talents in the service of the theater or a television network, instead of in the fully dedicated service of her liturgical music."

My personal favorite men/boys choir is that of Westminster Cathedral (the chief church of the Catholic Church in England, often confused with the also-excellent Westminster Abbey Choir)

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Hail, holy chrism": on the Chrism Mass and the stuff that makes kings

Bishop Olmstead at the Diocese of Phoenix's Chrism Mass, 2015
"Therefore, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, do we beseech Thee through the same Jesus Christ thy Son, our Lord, to be pleased by thy blessing to sanctify this substance, and to mingle thereto the power of the Holy Ghost with the co-operation of the presence of Thy Son, the Christ, from whose Holy Name it taketh its name of Chrism--a Chrism wherewith Thou hast anointed Priests, and Kings, Prophets and Martyrs..."
--from the traditional prayer by a bishop to consecrate holy chrism

It's hard for me to put it in any better terms than that prayer above: chrism is perhaps the holiest sacramental in the entire Catholic tradition. With it, the Church confirms new members of the faithful, anoints the hands of newly ordained priests, consecrates chalices for holding the Precious Blood of Christ, and makes kings worthy to wear a crown. It even gives the Christian faith its name, for Jesus is called the Christ: the Anointed One. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture is chock full of instances where holy oil was used to mark a person or thing apart, so it's no surprise that apostolic Christians continue to use oils for sacred purposes today. From its origins in the Biblical ages to now, the Church gradually came to bless three different types of oils:

  • The Oil of the Sick: pure olive oil used for the sacrament of Extreme Unction (or Anointing of the Sick). The act of having a priest anoint the sick was described in the Epistle of Saint James: "Is one of you sick? Let him send for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Lord’s name."
  • The Oil of the Catechumens: also pure olive oil, used to anoint those who are about to be received into the Church by baptism. Like an athlete of ancient Greece anointing himself with oil before competing, the Oil of the Catechumens prepares the recipient before undergoing the path to conversion. 
  • The Holy Chrism: olive oil mixed with balsam, this is the holiest of the three types. It's used in the rite of Baptism, and is the essential matter for the rite of Confirmation. A newly ordained priest is anointed on the palms of his hands with Chrism as well. So, too, was the oil held by the Ampoule (the vial used for the anointings of the kings of France) sacred Chrism. Pope Innocent III apparently tried to assert his authority over the kings of France by revoking the right to use Chrism in their coronations, but to no effect.  
The ampulla and spoon used for the anointing of the British monarch, first made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661. The older ampulla was destroyed by Parliamentarians following the English Civil War. The spoon, though, is medieval.
From the 5th century on, the Latin Church has reserved the consecration of chrism to the bishop alone--an ordinary priest could in theory, but he's forbidden from doing so by liturgical law. In a normal Catholic diocese, the bishop solemnly consecrates the chrism (and blesses the two other kinds) for the upcoming year at a special "Chrism Mass" together with all of his priests at his cathedral on the morning of Maundy Thursday, or some other day nearby. The priests then collect the oils and take them back to their parishes to replenish their stock for the year. In the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, though, our communities are spread across the US and Canada, so in order for all the priests to fly out to the Chrism Mass, collect the holy oils, and get back to their parishes to celebrate Holy Week, we normally have this liturgy on the first Thursday of Passiontide. On odd-numbered years, it takes place at the Ordinariate's cathedral in Houston (where I was instituted as an acolyte in 2016)--on even years, at some parish elsewhere to allow more members of the faithful in that region to attend. Last Thursday, I would've had the honor of assisting the 2018 Chrism Mass at our sister parish in Scranton, Pennsylvania as a second master of ceremonies... that is, if it hadn't been cancelled on account of yet another snowstorm! (It will now be held tomorrow at the cathedral in Houston, whether or not our priests can make it.)

Our cathedral doesn't need me to fly halfway across the country just to boss around some junior servers, so instead, I'll share with my dear readers a few things I learned about chrism and the history of the Chrism Mass in preparation for that day.

First, that before the Holy Week reforms of 1955 under Pius XII, there was no separate ritual Chrism Mass to speak of! Some of you liturgy enthusiasts out there already know that, in the rules of the Tridentine liturgy before 1955, all the Holy Week liturgies (and all other Masses through the year except for the midnight Mass of Christmas) were celebrated in the morning. The blessing of oils were performed by the bishop at the usual Mass of the Lord's Supper at the cathedral. Since parish priests would be celebrating the same Missa in Cena Domini at their parishes, there was no notion of gathering the whole presbytery together for one Mass, either.

This is not to say that the Chrism Mass was invented completely out of thin air--or even that, if it was, it's necessarily a bad idea. The liturgical movement had a solid notion to rediscover the liturgical importance of the holy chrism and bring more awareness of it to the faithful, the vast majority of whom had probably never seen the majestic rites of the blessing of oils in action. But in order to make all this happen, the architects of the 1955 Holy Week reforms had to reach back over a thousand years into the past.


The early medieval Missa Chrismalis in Rome

Frontispiece of MS Reginensis 316 (the Vatican's copy of the Gelasian Sacramentary)
The last time we had a separate ritual Mass for blessing the holy oils was around the 8th century. We can find concrete evidence for this in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the second-oldest surviving liturgical book for the Roman Rite. In book I, section 40, we find the Missa Chrismalis. This Mass was to be celebrated around 1pm on Maundy Thursday by the bishop--and since this book was made for the church in Rome, that means the Pope. There is no fore-Mass ("Liturgy of the Word"), but rather, begins at the offertory. The preface, interestingly, refers to the chrism but not the bread and wine on the altar, nor the Eucharist at all.

17th century chrismatory for holding the three different oils
The bishop interrupts the Canon towards the end, before "per quem haec omnia...", to bless the Oil of the Sick. It's a strange custom to us today, but for many centuries, the end of the Canon was a customary place to bless sacramentals. (My own Ordinariate parish, for instance, uses the end of the Canon to bless simnel cakes on Laetare Sunday--an English tradition for Mothering Sunday.)

The bishop then goes on through the Lord's Prayer to the fraction, then retreats back to the throne where a deacon presents him with the chrism to consecrate. The prayer is a long, consecretory formula with a preface and preface dialogue: Sursum corda, Habemus ad Dominum, etc., like the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil. The prayer gives thanks to God for His creation, including the olive trees which produce the chrism about to be consecrated. It then walks us through Biblical history, from the olive branch borne by the dove after the destruction of the earth by flood, to Moses anointing his brother Aaron as a priest with oil, to chrism used at the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. At last, it calls upon the Father to infuse the chrism with the Holy Ghost in the presence of the Son, the Christ: "from whose Holy Name it taketh its name of Chrism--a Chrism wherewith Thou hast anointed Priests, and Kings, Prophets and Martyrs". Yes, the same prayer quoted to begin this piece!

The bishop then says a prayer of exorcism over the oils and continues Mass with the Communion rite. The priests who have attended the Missa Chrismalis take the holy oils with them back their titular churches (the predecessor to "parishes") to celebrate the Mass of the Lord's Supper ad vesperam (in the evening).


The Tridentine "Chrism Mass"

An extremely rare instance of the pre-Vatican II rite being used. This was a Chrism Mass celebrated by Archbishop Haas of the Archdiocese of Vaduz (Liechtenstein) in 2014, according to the 1955 rite (more on that below).
The separate ritual Chrism Mass actually disappeared shortly after the time of the Gelasian Sacramentary. In the next century, the Sacramentary of Hadrian shows that the Pope simply blessed the oils at the Mass of the Lord's Supper. As well, now there is a complete fore-Mass. There aren't many changes for the blessing of oils from here up to the publication of the Pontificale Romanum following the Council of Trent. The rite for blessing the oils is substantially the same in the Tridentine Pontifical under Pope Clement VIII as it is in the Pontifical of 1485 under Pope Innocent VIII and his famous master of ceremonies, John Burchard... which, in turn, is substantially the same as the ceremony in book III of the Pontifical of William Durandus (late 13th century). This means that the blessing of the oils had not changed at all in the Roman Rite from the High Middle Ages up to the 20th century.

Having looked over these books above, plus the various ceremonial books such as the 1890 edition of the "Ceremonial for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States" and the 1914 "Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies" which lay out all the details, the rites for blessing the oils must have been utterly spectacular. In addition to all the usual ministers for a Pontifical Mass at the Throne, there are 12 priests in chasubles (for the Apostles, of course), 7 deacons in dalmatics (for the first deacons of the Church), and 7 subdeacons in tunics. This is the only instance in the pre-conciliar rite I can think of where a non-celebrating priest is wearing both the alb and chasuble (during the EF Corpus Christi procession, priests wear chasubles as a sign of their order, but not albs). This may have suggested to the Vatican II reformers that it was a relic of concelebration. More on this later.

The coped ministers are normal for a pontifical Mass at the Throne in the old rite, but note the 12 priests in chasubles along the sides, and the 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons.
The bishop vests during None (the ninth hour of the Divine Office), and Mass goes as usual for Maundy Thursday, though the subdeacon doesn't carry the paten with the humeral veil, but instead carries the thurible and incenses the Host and chalice at the elevations. The wooden clapper is used instead of Sanctus bells. As in the 8th century's Gelasian Sacramentary, the bishop stops toward the end of the Canon, before "Per aquem haec", to wash his fingers and go down the altar steps to a table readied in the middle of the sanctuary. The assistant priest (or "archdeacon") bids the Oil of the Sick to be brought forth by singing in the Prophecy tone, Olea infirmorum. One of the seven subdeacons, together with the MC and two acolytes, retreats to the sacristy and returns with the ampulla, labeled O.I. and veiled in violet. The subdeacon presents it to the archdeacon, saying Olea infirmorum, and the archdeacon does the same to the bishop. The bishop proceeds with an exorcism and then the blessing.

The bishop returns to the altar and Mass proceeds as usual until the Postcommunion. (The kiss of peace is omitted because Judas betrayed the Lord with a kiss on this day. The deacon saves one Host, which is to be used on Good Friday.) When the bishop returns to his seat, he blesses incense so the thurifer can lead the servers and all the extra vested ministers to the sacristy. The archdeacon bids them to to fetch the remaining two oils by singing Olea ad sanctum chrisma and Oleum catechumenorum. When they return, they form a procession back the "long way" (down the center aisle):
  • thurifer with burning incense,
  • subdeacon with the processional cross and two candlebearers,
  • the surpliced schola cantorum chanting the hymn O Redemptor,
  • six subdeacons,
  • five deacons,
  • the seventh subdeacon carrying the balsam (to be mixed by the bishop into the chrism),
  • the sixth and seventh deacons with white humeral veils--one with the Oil of the Catechumens veiled in green, the other with the Sacred Chrism veiled in white,
  • and then the twelve priests.
The bishop says two prayers, then mixes the balsam into a small portion of the chrism on a paten. He then sits and, like God breathing life into Adam, breathes over the chrism three times in the form of a cross. Then the twelve priests, almost as though it were like an act of concelebration, go up to the oils one at a time to do the same. The bishop then rises, prays an exorcism, and then sings the preface dialogue and formula for consecrating the chrism. This prayer is almost word-for-word the very same one used in the Gelasian Sacramentary (and quoted, in part, at the top of this piece), so this formula has been in use for well over a thousand years!

Now the bishop mixes the balsam into the rest of the chrism in the ampulla. Here follows the part of the rite that struck me the most, and which gives the title for this entry. The bishop bows toward the newly consecrated chrism and sings Ave, sanctum chrisma three times, each time at a higher voice than before (like the ecce lignum of Good Friday and the Alleluia of the Easter Vigil). After the third intonation, he kisses the ampulla and takes a seat. The twelve priests now perform a most intricate series of steps, almost like a dance:
  • first genuflecting to the altar;
  • then bowing to the bishop;
  • then kneeling on both knees at a distance from the chrism, singing Ave, sanctum chrisma;
  • rising, approaching closer, kneeling again and singing Ave, sanctum chrisma in a higher tone;
  • then rising again and kneeling immediately before the chrism to sing Ave, sanctum chrisma in a yet higher tone;
  • and at last, rising, kissing the ampulla, and then returning to their places.
The priests individually reverencing the ampulla with the Chrism
At last, the bishop moves to bless the Oil of the Catechumens. The deacon assigned to fetch the OC has been holding it this entire time, and now finally gets to hand it off to the archdeacon. The bishop and then the twelve priests breathe over this oil three times in the form of a cross, like before. And, like before, after the exorcism and blessing, the bishop thrice sings Ave, sanctum oleum and kisses the ampulla. The twelve priests do the same, kneeling at the three intervals like before.

At last, with the blessing of the oils complete, the bishop recharges the thurible, and the "ministers of the oils" retrieve the ampullae and form a recession back to the sacristy to deposit them, while the schola resumes singing the hymn O Redemptor. Since this is still the Mass of the Lord's Supper, though, there's still a lot left to do. The schola must now sing the Communion antiphon and the bishop must process to the altar of repose. Thankfully for anyone in the congregation getting restless, the mandatum (foot-washing) isn't done in the middle of Mass in this rite. It's performed in a ceremony outside of Mass and not even necessarily in the cathedral (the place could be, for instance, the chapter room).


The 1955 Holy Week reforms

From the Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus, 1955
Much has already been said about the massive reforms made for Holy Week in 1955, here on this blog and elsewhere. For this piece, I'll only mention what's relevant to the blessing of the oils. The Mass of the Lord's Supper, which had gradually come to be anticipated into the morning hours, was now decreed to be celebrated in the evening, as in the vesperal Mass of the Gelasian Sacramentary. Now, the morning of Maundy Thursday was free to propose a restoration of the old Missa Chrismalis. The Holy Week reform now created a Mass for the morning of Maundy Thursday, after Terce: the first "Chrism Mass" of modern times. A few new creations had to be made--the old Chrism Mass in the Gelasian Sacramentary began at the Offertory, so new Scripture lessons had to be chosen, and a new Introit chant, Facies unctionis, was composed.

Other items for this new ritual Chrism Mass were lifted directly from the Gelasian Sacramentary's texts, such as the collect (adapted from an opening prayer) and the Preface. The rites for blessing the oils remained the same as they were before 1955. The rubrics have the bishop still consult the old Pontifical for those prayers and ceremonies, so everything about the blessing of oils I described in the section above still applies here, between the years 1956 to 1965 at least.


Vatican II and the 1965 "interim" liturgy

From "The Roman Missal in Latin and English for Holy Week and Easter Week", 1965
The Chrism Mass drew the special attention of the Vatican II fathers for one major reason: concelebration--that is, two or more priests celebrating the same Mass together. The Council's 1963 constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, introduced the modern practice of concelebration, and named the Chrism Mass as the very first instance where it might be done:
 57. 1. Concelebration, whereby the unity of the priesthood is appropriately manifested, has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the east and in the west. For this reason it has seemed good to the Council to extend permission for concelebration to the following cases:

1.a) on the Thursday of the Lord's Supper, not only at the Mass of the Chrism, but also at the evening Mass.
As I wrote before, the old rite of the blessing of oils was the only instance in the Latin Church where multiple priests would be fully vested in alb and chasuble, except at their own priestly ordinations. Since the twelve fully vested priests "co-consecrated" the chrism by blowing over it with the bishop, and since the separate Chrism Mass was upheld as a successful example of reaching back into antiquity, the reformers likely saw the Chrism Mass as ground zero for rolling out concelebration on a wider scale.

The 1965 Missal directs the bishop to still use the ceremony for blessing the oils as given in the Tridentine Pontificale, but with the following changes:

1.) The rubrics assume that there are concelebrating priests present (who effectively take the place of the 12 vested priests from before). There isn't yet the assumption that every priest in the diocese is present, but the suggestion instead that among the concelebrants, "there should be the archpriests or deans of the regions of the diocese or at least some priests from the various regions of the diocese".

2.) The Epistle is changed. The old one (James 5:13-16) was felt to refer only to the least important of the oils, that of the Sick. The new reading, from Isaiah 61, was more relevant to the use of Chrism in anointing priests. The Gospel is also revised; the old one (Mark 6:7-13) likewise had the problem of referring only to the Oil of the Sick, while the new (Luke 4:16-22) directly refers back to Isaiah.

3.) The procession with the holy oils is simplified. It now happens after the (also-new) prayer of the faithful instead of after Communion, and all 3 oils are brought at once. The procession also includes the bread and wine. The Offertory antiphon is abolished, and the singing now begins with the hymn O Redemptor.

4.) The oils are presented to the bishop in "reverse order" of importance: Chrism, Oil of the Catechumens, and Oil of the Sick. The archdeacon now no longer calls for them to be fetched, but instead the deacon or subdeacon presenting them merely says what they are. No musical notation or suggestion of singing these words. These are all to be placed on a table in the sanctuary that can be easily viewed by the people. (It suggests that the 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons no longer stand between the oils and the congregation, obscuring the ceremonies from view.)

5.) The prayers for blessing the Oil of the Sick remain at the end of the Canon, and are the same text, but now may be done in the vernacular. All the other blessing prayers are given in the vernacular as well.

6.) For the Chrism, the bishop only breathes over it in the form of the cross once. The concelebrating priests do the same, but while remaining in their places.

7.) The rite for saluting the Chrism with Ave, sanctum chrisma is vastly simplified. The bishop bows and says "hail, holy Chrism" once. The concelebrating priests do the same afterward, remaining in their place. Then everyone else (presumably the whole congregation) does it, again remaining in their places. The practice of slowly approaching the Chrism, kneeling at 3 intervals, singing the salutation each time higher than the last, is all gone.

7.) The Oil of the Catechumens is blessed, but the rite for saluting it with Ave, sanctum oleum is totally omitted.

(There are a few other changes here and there, like a new Prayer over the Gifts and a different Communion antiphon.)

From an altar missal during the transitional Mass period

1970: The Ordinary Form

Ordinary Form Chrism Mass from the Diocese of Birmingham, 2014

The Chrism Mass as it appears in the books of 1970 is how it's currently celebrated in just about every cathedral in the Latin Rite today. The following changes should be familiar to anyone who's attended a Chrism Mass since 1970:

1.) First, that the Chrism Mass need not necessarily take place on the morning of Maundy Thursday anymore. If it's more convenient for the faithful, it can take place on another day, such as a weekday evening earlier in Holy Week.

2.) As part of the overall structural changes of the new rite, a second reading before the Gospel is added (from Revelation). The new Introit draws from this second reading, and is focused more on priesthood than oils.

3.) With the assumption now that all the priests of the diocese are present, a whole new aspect has been added: after the homily, all the priests make a "Renewal of Commitment to Priestly Service". I suspect this addition followed in the spirit of the Renewal of Baptismal Promises that was added to the Easter Vigil back in 1955.

4.) The procession of oils is further simplified--or, perhaps, it might be better said that it's not described in as much detail as before. The 7 deacons and 7 subdeacons are no longer mentioned.

5.) The mixing of the balsam into the Chrism is now optional. The alternative is for the Chrism to already be mixed before Mass.

6.) The traditional placement of the blessings (Oil of the Sick at the end of the Canon, the other two after Communion) is now optional. The alternative is to bless them all together after the homily, like most everything else. I don't have data, but I would guess most dioceses do this now because it "seems" more logical.

7.) The Preface is newly composed, and focuses entirely on priesthood without reference to the oils whatsoever.

8.) All the prayers of exorcism are gone.

9.) The order of the latter two oils are flipped so that the Chrism comes last. The prayer for the Oil of the Catechumens is new.

10.) The breathing over the Chrism is optional.

11.) There are now two options for the consecratory prayer of the Chrism. Option A is mostly the same as the traditional prayer (and still uses the portion I've quoted at the top of the piece), though no longer with its own preface dialogue.

Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln. The pre-conciliar colored veils are still in use here.


Conclusion

The Chrism Mass has probably exploded in popularity well beyond what any of the architects of Vatican II ever imagined. It's now a highly publicized event, more usually scheduled on an evening earlier in Holy Week to allow for a fully packed congregation. However, the original intention to restore a separate Chrism Mass back in 1955 was to bring a greater focus to the faithful on just how special the holy oils are. There has been a lot of criticism since then--with merit, in my opinion--on how the focus of the Chrism Mass was co-opted in 1970 to something else entirely. And, oddly, it's one of very few things that liturgical traditionalists and liberals can agree on. Those who carefully read my description of the most recent changes probably know what I'm about to say.

The focus of the Chrism Mass after 1970 is now not so much about the Chrism, but about priests. Yes, there was always a latent connection since Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. But the shift to making the Chrism Mass centered on the priesthood is deliberate, and likely goes back to Pope Paul VI himself. One priestly blogger comments approvingly in his account of the Chrism Mass as "a surprisingly successful innovation":
"What changed everything was Pope Paul VI's decision to turn the Chrism Mass into something completely new - a celebration of the priesthood. Of course, the oils are still blessed (although no longer at their traditional times during the Mass or with the full centuries-old ceremonies), but the focus of the occasion is evidently elsewhere."
And:
"As Archbishop of Milan in the 1950s, the future Pope Paul VI had especially stressed the priestly aspect of Holy Thursday with his Ambrosian Rite clergy." 

Not everyone is so sold, though. I've heard it remarked that only Paul VI could have been so clericalist as to transform the Chrism Mass into a celebration of priestly unity. Some feel that the Chrism Mass now, as with other massive concelebrations with walls of priests huddled around the altar, actually end up doing more to segregate the priesthood from the laity as a class, than the old system with a single celebrant being marked apart only by virtue of exercising his ministry in the moment.

While it's hard to argue against the idea of all the priests getting together for one Mass during Holy Week, or renewing their promises, it's impossible to deny that the addition of these promises, the simplification of the procession with oils, the total abolition of the kneeling and saluting the Chrism, and the entirely new Preface on the priesthood which replaced the Preface of the oils from the Gelasian Sacramentary, all served to minimize the original purpose of this Mass in favor of the new one.

But whatever my reservations, the Chrism Mass as we know it remains quite popular and won't be going anywhere anytime soon. Should any diocesan liturgists out there be reading this piece, I can at least heartily recommend following the practices chosen by the Ordinariate for the Chrism Mass as we would have had it last week: retaining the act of the bishop mixing the balsam in view of the faithful, keeping the blessings at their traditional places in the liturgy rather than just after the homily, and above all, making sure to use the traditional form for consecrating the Chrism. To add to that, I see no reason why we couldn't restore some of the grandeur of the old procession, with 7 deacons and subdeacons (or "tunicled acolytes"), with the ampullae in veils brought forth by deacons in humeral veils. There's a simple video here of the Ordinariate's Chrism Mass from 2017.

At last, I do believe there was a solid impulse behind the desire to get more of the faithful to witness the blessing of the oils. So, of course, I encourage those of you who can to attend these rites, wherever they're offered!


A final aside: for those who have Netflix, I highly recommend watching the series The Crown, especially the dramatization of Queen Elizabeth II being anointed at Westminster Abbey. This was the only part of the coronation ceremony that was deemed too holy to broadcast on television in 1953. Once the Knights of the Garter brought the canopy up to conceal the Queen from view, the cameras cut off.

The final act of anointing goes, "Be thy Head anointed with holy Oil: as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed:  And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Black Panther's Wakanda: a modern medievalist state


I see almost every Marvel movie in theaters within a week of its release out of habit, so it's no surprise that I caught Black Panther as well. But even all the hype about this particular release (which I was frankly a bit skeptical of, anyway) couldn't prepare me for the utter spectacle of the imagination that I had witnessed across the IMAX screen. There is, of course, so much to say about this movie as a story, as an expression of black culture, as and so on... but here, I'd prefer to write about an angle few others would be comfortable talking about. Today, in this relatively spoiler-free piece, I'll tell you what Black Panther teaches us about kingship.


The King is Dead--Long Live the King


Black Panther picks up where Captain America: Civil War left off. King T'Chaka is dead following a terrorist attack, and his son T'Challa automatically succeeds him as King of Wakanda, a fictional nation-state in sub-Saharan Africa which hides itself from the rest of the world for one reason. Wakanda is blessed by a mountain of vibranium, a near-indestructible metal with a host of other fantastical properties which make it the most prized resource in the Marvel universe. (Most notably, it's the stuff Captain America's shield is made of.) 

The armor of the King's Champion at Windsor Castle
Well... almost automatically! T'Challa is indeed his father's heir, but the Wakandans don't respect blood as the sole criterion for kingship. By tradition, on the day of the new king's coronation, the leaders of the other four tribes are asked if they wish to challenge the new king's right to rule. Most decline out of respect, but should a challenger appear, the new king is obliged to drink a serum that strips away his superhuman strength to allow him to fight in ritual combat as an ordinary man.
Those of you familiar with medieval English history might find this somewhat reminiscent of the tradition of the King's Champion. For centuries from the Norman Conquest onward, the festivities of each coronation ended with the King's Champion riding into Westminster Hall in full armor, throwing down his gauntlet and challenging anyone who would question the new king's right to a duel. Such a ritual was only natural in an age when a king's right to rule was de facto established by conquest or strength of arms, but as the Middle Ages gave way to the modern world, monarchies increasingly gave up on the idea of an interregnum (period of transition between the old king's death and the new king's coronation) in favor of automatic succession after the old king's death. The phrase "the king is dead, long live the king" is the summation of a doctrine which upholds the stability of birthright above all. The tradition of the King's Champion throwing down his gauntlet was last seen at the coronation banquet of King George IV in 1821. His successor, William IV, eliminated the coronation banquet in order to cut costs, and by the time of Victoria's coronation in 1838, the tradition was permanently discontinued.


Every king a warrior



By no means does ascending the throne mean T'Challa is now too important to continue fighting on the front lines. On the contrary, kingship consummates his identity as a warrior. By taking on the mantle of the Black Panther, T'Challa assumes the burden of a lifetime of personal combat. Wakandans are still very much medievalists in this regard: they will only respect and follow a king who shows martial strength and the bravery to lead his armies in battle. They're not scandalized by the idea of their monarch sneaking out at night in costume to play as superhero: they expect it!

The exercise of kingship throughout the Middle Ages was intensely personal. Without the bureaucracies and communications networks of later periods, the best way for a king to keep his kingdom was by constantly reminding his subjects of his existence. As such, medieval kings spent more time on the road than in their capital cities, making circuits around the country, holding court in different castles. This had the advantage of ensuring that ordinary people, who might never travel more than a few miles away from home their entire lives, might have had a chance to see the king in person. It also meant the king had a real knowledge of the lands in his domain.

But above all, the medieval king had to be a warrior. A crown prince still trained in arms and was dubbed a knight like his vassals. He didn't necessarily fight on the front lines, but he at least rode with the army on major campaigns to show his willingness to fight and die alongside his men. Richard III, sometimes reckoned the last medieval King of England, was fittingly also the last English king to die in battle, at Bosworth Field in 1485. King Henri II of France famously died from a wound suffered in a jousting accident in 1559. This was simply the cost of doing business. But a king who proved his prowess on the field could more than make up for his absence at home. King Edward I ("Longshanks" of Braveheart fame) was so renowned as a crusader that, when his father died, he was able to continue fighting in the Holy Land for a whole two years before coming back home to be crowned, with full assurance that England would wait patiently for him without any insurrections or rival princes making a bid for the throne.

Prince Harry, in keeping with a millennium of family military tradition, served two tours in Afghanistan.
Times have changed, but a certain remnant of this legacy lives today. Almost to a man, male members of the British Royal Family still make a point to serve as military officers for at least a few years. And many Americans, myself included, find it harder to take a presidential candidate seriously if he never served in the armed forces in any way.




Technology and tradition


One of the greatest follies of modern man is the notion that advancements in science and observation somehow discredit matters of the spirit--like atheists in 1957 who proudly proclaimed that Sputnik couldn't see God out in space. I always found it fascinating, though, that sci-fi authors so often create worlds where a mostly irreligious humanity, governed by the most utterly boring governments imaginable, travels through space alongside other sentient species who unabashedly worship gods and conquer in the name of empires.

The modern medievalist views technology as a tool of neutral moral value. They might give the ignorant more opportunity for idleness or destruction, it's true, but a modern medievalist doesn't eschew the printing press because it allowed more people to read and misinterpret the Bible, or refuse to use the Internet merely because his neighbor does nothing with it beyond sending his friends funny pictures of cats. 

An ideal "modern medievalist" state would see no contradiction between great material prosperity or scientific achievement enjoyed by a people who also adhere strongly to religious and cultural traditions. This is essentially what Wakanda represents: an Afro-futurist nation with medicine that can cure almost any physical condition and weaponry that can conquer the rest of the world... none of which blinds its people to the importance of maintaining its monarchy and calling on their ancestors for guidance.




Isolationism or imperialism?

This final heading isn't so much an assertion as an open question: is it more in keeping with a "medievalist" state to shun all foreign entanglements, embrace a hunger for expansion and colonization, or play at world's policeman?

The Wakanda which T'Challa inherits from his father has entered the 21st century posing as an obscure, third world country deep in the heart of Africa with nothing to offer the rest of the world. Indeed, without spoiling too much, much of the conflict in the film revolves around a growing sense of shame by Wakandans over having ignored the plight of their neighbors as they were carted off to slavery or divided by imperialist powers over the centuries... leaving them ripe for a change of regime.

My own observations of history suggest that a country which cuts itself off from all contact with the otuside world is certainly more likely to maintain its cultural and religious traditions--the textbook case being Japan, whose "middle ages" under the rule of the samurai lasted effectively until the Meiji era (the later 19th century). The price for cultural integrity was steep: the shogun deemed it necessary to crush Christian minorities with overwhelming brutality (as detailed in the movie Silence), and military technology stagnated until Commodore Perry's gunboats forced the country to open itself to trade.

Commodore Perry's ships arrive in Japan.
A somewhat more positive example might be Liechtenstein. A surviving relic of the Holy Roman Empire, Liechtenstein rests safely in the Alps with no need for a military, but it's not exactly an isolationist state. It entices foreign businesses to invest and set up shop there with low taxes to the point that it has more registered companies than citizens. Liechtenstein has a remarkably high rate of religious participation for a modern European state, and the Prince invites the entire population to his castle once a year to celebrate their national day with free beer.



I hope you enjoyed this excursion to the Marvel universe. Next time, I might write about a new video game set in medieval Bohmedia, circa 1403 which I've been playing, called Kingdom Come: Deliverance... which might also fittingly be called "Medieval Peasant Simulator". Until then!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why do members of Parliament sit facing each other like a choir?


This past weekend, I sauntered over to the cinema to watch "Darkest Hour", a biopic starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill during his first month as prime minister. The film was marvelously moving, a perfect companion piece to last year's "Dunkirk". But I mention this not to invite anyone's iconoclastic opinions about Churchill's legacy in a comment (because, truly, I don't care), but rather to highlight the movie's frequent scenes in the House of Commons chamber. Much of the drama is, of course, in the tension between the two halves of the House: one side occupied by the "Government" (the dominant party), the other by the "Opposition" (the minority party). The liturgical viewer might feel that their seating arrangement is vaguely reminiscent of choir stalls in a Gothic cathedral or monastery... but rather than one side responding to other in harmony, Parliament is more like a choir of cacophony, an inversion of the heavenly choir. The choir of hell, perhaps!?

As many of my dear readers already know, the Commons chamber, as with nearly the rest of Westminster Palace, is the child of two eminent architects of the Victorian age: Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. Following the fire of 1834 which destroyed the old palace, the House of Commons held a design contest, ultimately won by Barry. Parliament's mandate was for a design that would be either neo-Gothic or neo-Elizabethan, to emphasize a continuity with the nation's medieval and Tudor past. As Barry was no true Goth, he enlisted the help of the young, pugnacious Pugin: a zealous convert to Catholicism with a fanatical vision to steer England architecturally back to the purity of its Gothic (and, therefore, Catholic) patrimony. It's no surprise, then, that Pugin would have refashioned the hall where the most powerful group of men on earth in the mid-19th century gathered in the form of a chapel, even if this weren't already the established tradition.

As it turns out, the House of Commons had been accustomed to sitting in choir stalls for centuries prior to the 1834 fire because they regularly gathered in Saint Stephen's Chapel: the remains of what was once the king's royal chapel. From medieval times until Henry VIII, Westminster was primarily the home of the kings of England, not of Parliament. However, a fire (notice this recurring theme?) early in Henry VIII's reign destroyed the residential part of the palace, prompting him to simply leave Westminster entirely in Parliament's hands. During Westminster's prime as the king's principal palace, though, the crown jewel at the heart of the complex was Saint Stephen's Chapel. It began when King Henry III attended the consecration of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and desired to build a chapel of his own to outshine the Sainte-Chapelle's brilliance. We can never know exactly what the chapel looked like, but the University of York has lately posted a splendid, interactive panorama of how it may have appeared in the 14th century. I highly encourage everyone to click on this link and check it out! The richness of color, heavy use of two-dimensional iconography, and the great rood screen all suggest to me a certain continuity with the styles of the Eastern rite churches.

Click here to visit the interactive panorama of the Chapel c.1360. You have to click the arrow to pass through the screen door into the choir.
Saint Stephen's was staffed by a canonry of priests who all lived in houses near the palace, along a street which to this day is still called Canon Row. Supported by vicars and a choir of some of the most talented boy singers in the realm, the Chapel was a true medieval chantry with three Masses sung daily, especially for the remembrance of the deaths of every past king. Even after Henry VIII abolished these remembrances for the kings of the past, he was always one to hedge his bets and still left a sum of money for the canons to remember his own soul after his death!

Under Henry's son, the boy king Edward VI, Parliament passed an Abolition of Chantries Act which seized and secularized chantries throughout the kingdom, including Saint Stephen's Chapel. The very room where Thomas Cranmer had been consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury just over a decade before was given over to the House of Commons for a meeting space. (Prior to 1547, the Commons had no fixed place of assembly, but seem to have most frequently met in the refectory or chapter room of Westminster Abbey nearby.) The stalls were elongated to seat more members of Parliament, and with each renovation over the centuries, the chapel lost more and more of its sacral appearance. There's another panorama of the Commons chamber as it would have appeared in 1707 here. Much duller there! I believe the benches were covered in green toward the end of the 1600's: a visual association continued by Pugin with the upholstery of the rebuilt chamber.

The Commons chamber today is not strictly Pugin's because in 1941, it was totally destroyed by the Blitz. The room was rebuilt after the war in a somewhat simpler style, so for "Darkest Hour", a set had to be built to faithfully reproduce the look of Pugin's chamber. Here's a still below without any actors to muck it up. Immediately after the palace was rebuilt, the Commons complained to Barry simultaneously of how cramped the space was, and also how ornate: "that it looked more like some monastery of the tenth or twelfth century, that a representative chamber of the nineteenth".

I enjoyed how the film relied mostly on lighting from the windows here, rather than all the garish artificial lighting seen in the chamber today.

A photo of the old Commons chamber, before it was blown up by the Blitz.
Barry and Pugin built Saint Stephen's Hall, above, over the site of the old chapel and Commons chamber.
A register used by the canons of Saint Stephen's Chapel with enrollments of the dead. The canons enrolled not only kings, but merchants and other commoners who donated to have themselves or their loved ones remembered in death by the priests of the chapel.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Salvator mundi: what's a painting worth?


Yesterday, a painting which has only recently been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci just sold at auction to a currently-unknown bidder for $450 million--the highest price ever fetched for an artwork in history. This inquiring mind wants to know: who on earth has $450 million to blow on a painting that we may never know for sure is actually Leonardo's? Even if it's authentic, what is it about Leonardo's legacy that can possibly make any piece so valuable?

Since Leonardo da Vinci represents a key figure in the departure from the medieval world to the Renaissance, I haven't written much about him on my blog thus far. It's worth mentioning that despite Leonardo's fame resting mostly upon his skills as a painter, there are only somewhere around 20 surviving paintings that are universally acknowledged to be his. The greater appeal, when it comes to the cult of Leonardo, is the fact that he was an undisputed master of many trades all at once in both arts and sciences. Few in all of human history can claim to have had used left and right sides of the brain as fully as he. Like most of us in the 21st century, even Leonardo had to put his artistry aside and seek gainful employment in more "practical" fields. As I wrote back in 2015 in my post Who made the first resume?, when I was seeking a new job myself, Leonardo's resume of 1482 barely mentions his skill as a painter at all. Rather, the letter concerns itself almost entirely with his skill as a military engineer and designer of machines that kill as many people as possible! Then, as now, there was more money to be found in making war than in love...

As to the painting recently sold at auction, it's called Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). The subject is our Lord Jesus Christ, bestowing a blessing with the right hand and holding a crystal orb with the left. My favorite aspect is the attire: a rich blue tunic with crossed orphreys that have a strongly geometric detailing, almost like that which would be used by dwarves of a medieval fantasy setting. Other viewers might find treasures in either hand. The hand of blessing is upheld as evidence of Leonardo's work because of its uncanny faithfulness to the musculature of a real human hand. (Even today, with the advantage of anatomical textbooks, hands and fingers remain the bane of many a traditional artist. Leonardo had to study this the hard way, by dissecting the corpses of executed criminals.) On the other, the crystal orb has been waved about as proof that the work couldn't possibly be a Leonardo because the real artist would have been smart enough to show a realistic display of light passing through the orb--with a real crystal ball, the image in the orb would be distorted and inverted. The apologists, naturally, claim that light passes normally through the orb in this painting because it shows the miraculous nature of Christ... just as, perhaps, certain mystical writers have said that the infant Jesus passed through the womb of the Virgin like light through a prism.

For my own part, the face looks convincingly like a Leonardo, particularly with his signature take on noses. What gives me the greatest pause is the totally upright, face-front posture which, frankly, seems far too conventional for a man of Leonardo's taste. In every other Leonardo portrait, the subject is turned at a profile or 45-degree angle, or is posed somewhat crooked, as though to show off his mastery of human anatomy (e.g. his "St. John the Baptist"). Every other portrait is a demonstration of how clever Leonardo is, but Salvator Mundi falls back to the tried-and-true conventions of medieval iconography. What you see is what you get: Christ as savior of the world, in the same posture as has been done by Durer, Hans Memling, or thousands of unnamed artists through the Middle Ages, both east and west. Perhaps the apologist would say that this conformity to convention is a sign of Leonardo's piety, or that he was commissioned to paint a Salvator Mundi and there's simply no other way to pose the figure of Christ other than as seen here.

Another Salvator Mundi. This one, by Hans Memling, may be found at the Met in New York.

Whatever the painting's true value, my favorite article on the auction is an op-ed in the Guardian by Anglican priest Giles Fraser: Salvator Mundi went for $450m. But you can have the real thing for free. He observes that Leonardo da Vinci and Martin Luther weren't far apart in history at all. 

"Later Luther admitted that during this dark period he actually hated God, and hated the idea of a just God especially. His breakthrough, the so-called “Tower experience”, was through the extraordinary idea that God does not treat us fairly at all, but bestows his grace upon human beings gratuitously, far above and beyond what we deserve. In other words, human life before God is not all about us stacking up moral merit points, thus to guarantee our passage to heaven. Protestants disparage this as “works righteousness” and see it as a foolish and impossible task. The only way out of the trap of the human condition is to admit our moral incapacity and call on God for help. There is no way to bully or lobby the divine into doing this. Salvation is top down. And we are as dependent upon Salvator Mundi as we are dependent upon the rain."