Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Missal and breviary art, old and new

My 1962 Missal has lots of intricate black and white illustrations in it. Here's an example.

This happens to be my favorite picture, the one heading the section on Confession. Here's a closer look:

All right, I can't post this picture without at least a fast explanation of its symbolism, so skip this paragraph if it bores you. :) At the top: "Pœnitentia", which I imagine is the Latin for "penance" or "confession". The border is a broken chain because by confession the sinner is set free from sin. On the left is a background of spiky thistles, most uncomfortable, and a little lost lamb looking even more uncomfortable, wrapped up in thorns under a stormy sky. He's trapped in sin, poor guy. Beneath him are the words "Salva nos Domine" ("Dne" is an abbreviation), which means "Save us, Lord"-- he turns trustingly to God for help. In the middle the background is pansies, which normally are purple, the color of penance. The crossed keys are the symbol of the popes and the power given to Peter, "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; what you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven; what you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven," and later to all the apostles and their successors, "If you forgive men's sins they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." The drops are probably the Blood of Christ washing away sins. The anchor I'm not certain about, but I'm guessing it stands for the ship that is itself a metaphor for the Church. St. Paul took Noah's Ark to be a prefigurement of the Church: those on board were saved. Confession brings those in mortal sin back on board, while those with less serious sin repair their communion with the rest of the Church. Then on the right is a background of white lilies for restored innocence and purity, and a lamb set free in green pastures besides quiet waters. Beneath him are the words "Vade in pace"-- go in peace, the words the priest usually ends with.

All that long paragraph of symbolism is suggested wordlessly by the picture. I like art that's packed with meaning, especially if it also works on a simple level, like "Yaaay, the lamb is happy now!" If you weren't in the mood to pray all the long prayers in this section while preparing for confession, you could just meditate on that picture.

So anyway, that was 1962. Right after that came the Second Vatican Council, and after that there were lots of liturgical reforms and artistic changes in the Church. These had been pretty well implemented by 1975 when our current breviary came out. So what sort of illustration is to be found in the new breviary? Here's an example:

Quick, guess! What is that pale red spiky shape on the left?

Any clue?

Take a closer look:

Yes, it's a bunch of triangles with circles balanced on top! The deep symbolic mysticism overwhelms me, as does my own sarcasm!

All right, it's the Last Supper... but really... You know, some of the artistic reforms that happened back then, I think were good. I can't say I'm sorry the flying nun headdresses got simplified, for example. But some other things that happened were really, really dumb, and abstract art in the breviaries is one of them. What the heck was the thought process behind the triangle people, anyway? Were they trying to return to the aesthetics of the simple early Church? Because even the persecuted Christians hiding out in the catacombs managed better art than that. Were they going for the caveman look? Please do not insult the caveman artistes of France. Has there ever been a culture, no matter how primitive, that didn't respect its religion enough to come up with more suitable artistic expression for it than this risible bit of 1970's pretension that's been foisted on us Catholics who deserve better?

I'd type more but the doc says I've got to take my meds now. :)


Warren said...

I have this dream where all the cool Catholics with their 1962 missals end up at this one cool parish. But there are none of the fusty type of traddies. You know, the ones who think B16 is a bad-guy, and is way-liberal.

... Anyways....

And the retro-future-hip-coolness of our combined Catholicity is kind of causing this kind of quantum chain-reaction, sort of like when you bring a lot of plutonium fragments close together and you get .... wait for it...

Critical Mass.



Rachel Gray said...

You made me laugh out loud, Warren. :) But maybe the most critical Mass is when a bunch of the fusty trads go to an NO Mass and loudly give vent to their feelings.

Heather said...

Anyone else a bit disturbed that in the "revised" drawing, the meal appears to consist of, well, people's heads?

Or is that just me?

("And now: revealed for the first time in a shocking History Channel original documentary, the horrifying true story of what happened to those other six disciples you never hear about!")

Vincenzo said...

Hey I have that missal *me flips to that page..
This is my favorite bible (1950s era) and it's loaded with beautiful illustrations: Click

Rachel Gray said...

Vincenzo, what an awesome Bible! Was it published pre-1962? The Mass looks like the older form.

Heather, I hadn't noticed that myself, but now that you point it out I am suitably creepified. Actually I think Dan Brown's written a book about it.

Vincenzo said...

The copyright date is 1953. I liked it so much I got a second one. Seem to be quite a few that are in like new condition floating around on e-bay and other used book store sites.

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Vincenzo!