Magazine article The Spectator

Vatican II and Architecture's Wild Men

Magazine article The Spectator

Vatican II and Architecture's Wild Men

Article excerpt

In the 1960s, the Catholic Church gave carte blanche to architecture's wild men, says Jonathan Meades, with overwhelming results

The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council provides a salutary example of a tiny 'elite' foisting 'anti-elitist' practices on the 'non-elite' -- and coming a cropper. Vatican II's dates are important. The Council was convened in 1962 and concluded in December 1965. These were the high years of the most uncompromising architectural modernism and, just as pertinently, of the craze for theatre-in-the-round, whose champions considered the proscenium arch to be an authoritarian (very possibly 'fascist') instrument inimical to 'participation'.

Rome's neophilia left much of the clerisy bewildered. It was admitting temporal fashions to a spiritual domain. Maynooth's head was spinning. The Council's bias was towards the Liturgical Movement's long-hatched plans for modernisation. Hence ecumenicism, the vernacular and often prosey mass, herding the flock close to the host in an act of naif literalism and turning the matey, guitar-strumming priest to face that congregation.

Then there was the matter of iconoclasm, which proved to be a further form of self-harm. Extant churches were 'cleansed', stripped of altars, stained glass, paintings and dubious bondieuserie. The result was occasionally akin to the marvellously frigid post-Reformation ecclesiastical interiors of Pieter Saenredam. More often, it was doctrinally sanctioned vandalism, with added carpets.

Vatican II, in its eagerness to embrace the spiritual analogues of Harold Wilson's white heat, dispensed with what Clement Attlee had dismissed as religion's 'mumbo jumbo': but this was the very stuff that appealed to the gullible, which constituted the Church's USP: dodgy theatricality, pious ritual, high formality, po-faced earnestness, tonic joylessness, subjugation by the invocation of a mighty force. The essence of the sacred, the unknown and the unseen, was, apparently, to be found in these properties that defined the entire apparatus of mystery.

St Bernardette of Lourdes in squeaky rubber or plastic; 3-D Christs with multiple halos; Virgin Mary alarm clocks; toilet-roll holders that play 'Ave Maria'; fun-fur Last Suppers; the Stations of the Cross in artisan-tooled low-relief caramel Naugahyde....The purveyors of holy tat possess a surer grasp of the faithful's taste than the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Pierre-Marie Théas, a former résistant, who commissioned the town's immense subterranean basilica, and the architect Pierre Vago, who designed it for the centenary of Bernadette's apparitions in 1958.

It was one of several churches, going as far back as Dominikus Böhm's work in Cologne and Rudolph Schwarz's near Würzburg in the late-1920s, that anticipated and shaped Vatican II's decrees on architecture.

The most celebrated of these is Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut (1955), in the southernmost Vosges at Ronchamp. That great, ethically dicey, megalomaniacal, atheistic architect's ability to design a 'holy' place was not conditional on faith, unfounded belief, but on the suggestive management of space, the control of light, the invention of forms and the plastic rendering of his paintings' repetitive shapes. The numinous was achieved by stage management. It was not so different from a morally delinquent vegan designing a marvellous abattoir.

Catholics take the road to Santiago de Compostela, a road that had fallen into desuetude until Franco had the wheeze of exploiting piety for tourism's sake. …

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