Christian Art and the Infidel.

December 8, 2009

Christian Art and the Infidel.

I wonder what humanists will think of me when they discover how I spent my last Sunday afternoon. I went to church. Before I start receiving a deluge of censorious emails, or before there are calls for my dismissal, I should like to explain. I was attending an afternoon concert of English Christmas music from the first half of the 16th Century, which included John Sheppard's beautiful Hodie nobis caelorum rex and his Western Wind Mass . Other works performed were the haunting Audivi of John Taverner, Richard Pygott's magnificent motet Quid petis, O fili? and the well-known carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High . Incidentally, the tune of the latter carol first appeared as a French secular dance tune known as "le branle de l'Official" in Orchésographie , a dance book written by Jehan Tabourot [1519-1593]; the English words were composed by George Ratcliffe Woodward [1848-1934], and first published in 1924.

If the music were not enough to provide aesthetic delight of a high order, there was the architecture of the Church and Rectory which also proved to be an unexpected aesthetic experience. Here is what my "bible" of New York architecture, the superb American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City by Norval White and Elliot Willensky records, "Church of the Holy Trinity, St.Christopher House/ Rhinelander Memorial (parish house) and Parsonage [1896-1897]. A remarkable, wonderful enclave. Using the romantic forms of the French Renaissance (Francois I) in golden brick and terra-cotta, the architects here created a touch of the Loire Valley embracing a garden oasis surmounted by one of New York's great bell towers. To come upon this verdant treasure by accident is one of the city's greatest experiences".
Its architect, J. Steward Barney wrote, "I tried to combine the repose of the English church with the picturesque dignity and beautiful detail of the French, using on the church detail distinctly ecclesiastical, but throwing into St. Christopher's House and the vicarage more of the domestic feeling of the period."

Finally there is the majesty of the stained glass windows, translucent walls letting in daylight through multicolored filters, which accentuates the verticals, and renders a sense of soaring height, typical of the French Gothic style of the 13th century which emphasizes verticality and translucency.

The question I wish to pose to all humanists is ‘Can a secularist truly appreciate religious music and architecture?' Or is he or she just "stealing from churches" as Roger Scruton once put it, in other words, taking without paying? Some philosophers have argued that secularists can genuinely appreciate religious music because of their imaginative powers combined with the ‘Platonic' nature of the emotions expressed in such music. Others disagree. They argue that "religious music is ‘Platonic' not because it is subject to levels of imagination but because it has a definite object which makes imaginative readings inferior. Moreover, since religious music does have a clear object taken by the believer as real, a gap exists that cannot be bridged by the imagination of the secularist, even imagination of the  emotional ‘last instance'."

I remain an agnostic, and I do appreciate Handel's Messiah as much as such a masterpiece of architecture as Santa Maria della Salute [1682] in Venice. So the question now is, "Is my appreciation lacking something that a [Christian] believer would have?". Is my appreciation different in kind? Less meaningful? Less exalted? My response, "possibly".