the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Cardinal Joachim’s Been (Mis)Reading St. Bernard of Clairvaux?

Posted by gninja on September 15, 2007


(Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral)

The BBC reports that Cardinal Joachim Meisner doesn’t like Richter’s stained glass window. Doesn’t like it like a Nazi doesn’t like Max Ernst.

That Richter’s use of the word ‘entartete‘ (degenerate) is even being questioned as deliberate is silly. The term was a key rhetorical tool in the Nazi repertoire for describing art that offended their fascist sensibilities, and has become synonymous in Germany (when describing art, at least) with Nazi propaganda. Its mnemonic thrust is tantamount to that of “are you now or have you ever been…” in America. You don’t need to say the rest for your audience immediately to think of McCarthy (and perhaps have their sphincter tighten up in the process).

But, to the medieval art historian, the Cardinal’s words also recall those of Bernard of Clairvaux, prudish monk par excellence. Speaking of this newfangled art springing up all around him:

I shall speak plainly: Isn’t greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren’t we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? “How?” you ask. “In a strange and wonderful way,” I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?

On vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.

What sort of reverence is shown to the saints when we place their pictures on the floor and then walk on them? Often someone spits in an angel’s mouth. Often the face of a saint is trampled by some passerby’s feet. If sacred images mean nothing to us, why don’t we at least economize on the paint? Why embellish what we’re about to befoul? Why decorate what we must walk upon? What good is it to have attractive pictures where they’re usually stained with dirt?

Finally, what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?

On the one hand, there’s really nothing new to see here. The Church has, since its institutionalization, always fought for control over imagery, and as a skeptic I doubt that it has ever been anything but political. While Bernard saw the sculpture in cloisters as distracting his fellow monks from their devotions, Abbot Suger argued that intricate craftsmanship prompted worshippers to contemplate God. Each man had his own reasons, in about the same years no less, for mandating that art have a particular appearance. As, I’m sure, Cardinal Joachim Meisner does.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all, though, (well, the second strangest thing– that whole ‘entartete’ part still gets first place) is how the work that Meisner criticizes appears to me to be the kind of work that no other church-man in history would have lambasted. Its abstraction is mathematic, rather than figural. Funny thing about Cologne Cathedral (and all Gothic Cathedrals, to boot): it’s designed upon a precise application of ratios used for their symbolic associations, a kind of sacred math. For those with access to JSTOR, see Peter Kidson’s “A Metrological Investigation”in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 53. (1990), pp. 71-97. If Meisner knew his own Cathedral a bit better, and the principles behind its construction, he might see Richter’s work as completely consonant with the structure.

That whole ‘entartete’ thing was just plain stupid. Not a slip of the tongue, to be sure. But a deliberate use of language the Cardinal learned expresses the height of moralization in German culture.

One Response to “Cardinal Joachim’s Been (Mis)Reading St. Bernard of Clairvaux?”

  1. […] an excellent post on Art(h)ist’ry covering the controversy. Gninja points out that in fact, the window – made up entirely of […]

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