First Things: Holy Routine - The Mystery of Repetition

This year marks the three hundredth birthday of one of the most influential art scholars ever to have lived. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, born in 1717 in the town of Stendal, was one of those intellects whose work created a new age, a new taste, a new way of seeing. After the death of such men, the world no longer looks the way they found it; they equipped their contemporaries with new eyes. Winckelmann’s influence cannot be over-estimated; it endures to the present day. Without Winckelmann, who sang the praises of ancient Greek art and extolled the white marble of its statues—unaware that, of old, they were painted in rich colors—not only should we have had no Classicism; we should have had no Bauhaus either. Certain principles of Winckelmann’s taste, which rejected not only the Baroque and Mannerism, but also medieval art, are still current, particularly among people who have never heard of him. Powerful influences are absorbed by a kind of osmosis. Though it is highly improbable that those who drew up the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum concilium had read Winckelmann, they were nonetheless educated people and were acquainted with many things beyond the fields of theology and liturgy. When we read the beginning of paragraph 34 of this Constitution, “The rites should bear the mark of noble simplicity,” it is impossible not to think of one of the key sentences of Winckelmann’s “Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture,” written in 1755: “The pre-eminent, universal note of the Greek masterpieces is a noble simplicity and a silent greatness.” Although Winckelmann had become a Catholic and assisted a Roman cardinal in acquiring works of art, he would no doubt have been taken aback had he known that his principles would be adopted into an official document on the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, we may well ask whether this influence was altogether felicitous. Though it may be true that, in the field of aesthetics, any error as to historical fact can be justified before a higher court insofar as it produces artistic fruit—and Winckelmann’s errors certainly bore fruit in abundance—in the field of liturgy, closely related to art though it is, the situation may be otherwise.

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