Sunday, November 19, 2017

Underrated beauty: Renaissance and Baroque in England.

When one thinks of Renaissance or Baroque art we think of Italy, the Flanders, the Netherlands a few will also think of France and Germany, but why is England always left out? I have been thinking about this for years, now I made up my mind and decided to describe why briefly in this post.
Religion played a huge part in this. We have to remember that England underwent a Reformation after 1534 when the Anglican Church was formed and in the following years, but more especially during the English Civil War, much English Medieval and Renaissance art went missing because of iconoclasm; because of Calvinistic theology some Anglicans and Puritans literally smashed and destroyed over 2/3 of English art, most of it being religious. However, there is also another reason, the same reason why generic texts tend to focus on Italian, Flemish, Netherlandish and to an extent German Renaissance, whereas in fact France and Spain or England for that matter are really not. However, England did develop its own Renaissance art. As in the continent there were two main kinds of commissions in Renaissance England: the Church and private individuals, works commissioned by the latter tend to survive. England, especially the south-east, maintained strong relationships with the Flanders and Florence through its important wool-trade, the prime exporter in Europe, while England exported wool, it often took back art from Italy and the Flanders, often it also exchanged some back. This is one way in which English art was inspired by continental one during the Renaissance.

Probably, the most known example of 15th century art is the Wilton Diptych at the National Gallery in London; an early 1400s portable diptych, commissioned by King Richard II to an unknown English master, it incredibly survived the Reformation and Civil War and it is painted on both sides, with Saints John the Baptist, Edmund and Edward the Confessor presenting the Monarch to the the Virgin and Child on the other side, surrounded by a company of angels. On the other side, the King’s coat of arms and the white hart. It is a superb work which shows how they knew exactly what was going on in the continent in terms of art; the gilded background inspired by International Gothic art, yet the plasticity of the figures, even the angels wings’ colors show that England was developing its own art at the time and it could indeed be refined.

We can trace the beginning of English Renaissance Art to the mid-13th century, most parish churches at the time were divided by a sort of partition between the sanctuary and the nave, it was known as the rood screen, it was literally a screen that divided the people from the sacredness of the altar. It was usually surmounted by a “rood” a Crucifix, with statues of the Virgin and of Saint John.

The panels on such screen were decorated with Saints, Angels, Martyrs or doctors of the Church. During the mid to late 15th century this particular kind of art flourished. The style can be defined as a fascinating metamorphosis between earlier English art and Flemish art; a plasticity in the figures, a particular “Renaissance” iconography were already evolving, a trademark of English Renaissance art of the 15th century were unusually long feet. Most surviving rood-screens are now found in the beautiful East Anglian countryside. A notable example being St. Helen’s Church, Ranworth.

Also during the 15th century, another characteristic of early English Renaissance Art in parish churches is the series wall paintings that survived the Reformation, in the most fascinating cases, representing the Final Judgement; the Revelation, Christ sitting on clouds judging the whole of humanity to eternal salvation or damnation with angels and demons fighting each other over souls in scenes set in imaginary lands with the heavenly Jerusalem in the background, oddly enough looking like any Medieval English town. The dynamics, the plasticity and the frenzy of these scenes show us how this particular paintings were well into their own kind of Renaissance. Here is the splendid example of a Doom Painting at St. Thomas’ Church in Salisbury.

As in Italy or the Flanders, the quality of art and masters also depended on the commissioners, it is not a surprise that while being fascinating these works don’t quite count exactly as masterpieces. Towards the end of the 15th century, art in England was mutating, it was strongly being influenced by continental works, probably also under the patronage of the Tudors, especially King Henry VII, a great appreciator of French and Italian art. English sculpture, especially on ivory and alabaster was also one of the specialties of the English, with some great examples being at the Bargello Museums in Florence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Two notable examples of wall paintings that come to mind are the refined works in Chichester Cathedral and Eton College Chapel, both by great English masters of the time. The chapel at Eton was decorated during the 1490s by William Baker and other English masters, the wall paintings are highly inspired by the Flemish style of the same time, on one side are stories of the Virgin Mary, patron of the chapel, on the other, in the true Renaissance rediscovery of Europe’s classical past, scenes from the life of a mythical empress.

The wall paintings at Chichester were executed by Lambert Barnard in the 1530s and show how English art had developed up to that point, they were commissioned by Bishop Robert Sherborne, which is also interesting because it shows there were patrons of the arts among the clergy just like in the continent and just like the continent these are a precious example of power and political propaganda; the Bishop is in a conversation with Henry VIII asking the monarch to preserve the cathedral after the Reformation, on the other side a scene of the foundation of the cathedral. Just like in the continent, the dynamic scenes were enclosed in classical frames known as grotesques and here and there you get exotic animals such as monkeys, you can’t get any more Renaissance than that!

Of course, the English’s true specialty was architecture, we must not forget that England had developed by then probably the most fascinating form of Gothic: Perpendicular Gothic, with examples such as Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, a spectacular spacious building with a remarkable and intricate fan vault and a Renaissance quire carved in the Italianate style.

England was also the excellency in the entire European continent for Opus Anglicanum, a particular style of needlework and embroideries that were highly popular throughout Europe, they were usually made for liturgical vestments, altar frontals but also personal clothes. In the Renaissance this form of art truly flourished and also reflected the style of painting and sculpture, it was often used as a diplomatic gift but also important churches throughout the continent requested vestments from England, notably Bologna and Rome (st. Peter’s Basilica) requested hundreds of these glorious works during the 15th century. Recently, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and I was stunned by these amazing embroideries.

Another form of art is indeed music; English Renaissance music, which developed its own style, is considered to be among the most refined of its kind in Europe; thankfully it survived the Reformation and was also commissioned afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I was a great appreciator, I am sure you have heard the likes of: William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons… Their Te Deums and Magnificats and Motets and Services are still sung in every English cathedral and college chapel and are one of the greatest treasure of that green and pleasant land.

How not to mention the superb English Renaissance stained glass, from the early works found in most cathedrals to the superb elaborate works in York Minster; the grand east window designed by John Thornton in the early 15th century, the greatest stained glass window in the entire world, it shows the Christian journey from the Scriptures, from the Genesis to the Revelation, each detailed window shows a style unique of England at the time. English stained glass evolved dramatically during the Renaissance, reaching its apotheosis during the 1500s with the magnificent windows at Kings College.

Secular art under the Tudors included land and naval battles scenes, hunting scenes, etc. in the continental style. However, perhaps the most famous English form of Renaissance art is the incredible number of portraits commissioned to great continental masters such as Hans Holbein, the official “Portrait Maker” of the Tudor court. Portaits of Thomas More, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I are world renowned masterpieces.

In the following century, England fully turned Classical; English Baroque can sometimes be remindful of a neo-Classical style, but it definitely was England’s own kind of Baroque. Already by the end of the 16th century English architects were exploring continental architecture. The Gate of Honor at Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge is a perfect example, Inigo Jones’ porch at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could also be in any church here in Rome.

During the first half of the 17th century under Archbishop William Laud and other high church bishops of the time, churches, cathedrals and chapels saw a new rebirth of the arts; from painted panels to new stained glasses; there is an excellent book on this subject: the Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation by Graham Parry. The Stuarts really boosted the “Baroquization” of England; they commissioned great art and architecture, they brought Orazio Gentileschi from Italy, his art was strongly inspired by that of Caravaggio, he worked for the Quirinal Palace in Rome and great basilicas such as Saint Mary Major or Santa Maria della Pace, he also worked extensively throughout England and truly opened the doors to continental-style, he worked for both the Stuarts and the Dukes of Marlborough, where his Allegory of Peace and of the Arts is truly a breathtaking case of delicate Baroque taste, perfect for the English. Another grand example of Baroque art in the British isles is the Banqueting House in London, commissioned by Charles I is a great example of Mannerist extravaganza.

However, its ceiling is the real masterpiece; Charles I commissioned its decoration to no less than Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of Baroque Europe, who executed one of the greatest Baroque follies ever produced: the Apotheosis of James I. England had nothing to envy from the continent at the time and those who commissioned this art knew it well.

England’s Baroque age was a time of great glory, of great art and of rebirth, with musicians of the caliber of Henry Purcell, equally known for church and secular music, his Funeral of Queen Mary is probably one of the greatest musical works ever produced; Georg Frederich Handel later followed… his Messiah is probably one of those works even the least acknowledged person would recognise as classical and Christian and it doesn’t end here! Architecture, architecture, architecture! After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Cristopher Wren designed many churches and the great Royal Hospital Chelsea with its great paintings; the ascension of Christ by Sebastiano Ricci in the chapel and the great murals by James Thornill. However, his masterpiece is one of the greatest church of Christendom in the English Baroque Style, it is one of the most photographed and discussed buildings in the world which inspired so many to come, it’s this one.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The role of the Church of Rome during WW2.

Many legends have been spread about the role of the Roman Catholic Church during World War 2, many about the Pope secretly standing with the Nazis. Whereas, it is impossible to mention all the heroic bishops and pastors of the Church of Rome who fought against the horrors of Nazi-Fascism, here I wrote a brief account to shed some light on a theme that has been polluted with several untrue legends and myths. This is a fairer account:

When the Papal States were reduced to the tiny Vatican hill in 1870, the Vatican officially refused any relationship with the new Italian, unified, state. Until 1929, Roman Catholics were forbidden to take part in the political life of Italy by a document issued by Pope Pius IX, the Non Expedit. However, in 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome, he became the Prime Minster of the Kingdom of Italy, his regime will turn out to be a violent and ruthless military dictatorship. This introduction is important because in 1929, after almost sixty years, Mussolini finally signed the Lateran Treaty, recognising the sovereignty of Vatican City, a neutral monarchy led by the Pope.

Before the war, in early 1939, when tensions were strong between European powers, Pope Pius XII tried to reconcile Mussolini with the French, Polish, German, and British governments, through his nuncios (ambassadors). The attempt was not successful, as it seemed to be pro-(future)Axis (it was proposed that the Free City of Danzig could be ceded to Germany), and the Pope broadcast via radio his message: Nothing is lost with peace, all can be lost with war. In order to mediate, the Vatican also proposed to prevent any Russian expansion; Russia at the time was still ambiguously in contact with Nazi Germany. After over seventy years, the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

However, as we know in 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, in a pragmatic way the Vatican thought a quick invasion Poland and its former German territories would be a quick way to end the war. However, in his Summi Pontificatus, the Pope criticised the Nazi/Soviet invasion of Poland. Italy was not yet in the Axis by then and the Pope as the spiritual leader of the Italian people called on the Italians to see Hitler and Stalin as the great evildoers. In Poland, the Germans murdered over 2,500 among the clergy, and more were imprisoned. The Pope shocked by this bloodshed of civilians and religious, wrote: The blood of countless human beings, even noncombatants, raises a piteous dirge over a nation such as Our dear Poland, which, for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defence of Christian civilization, written in indelible characters in the annals of history, has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole world, while it awaits, relying on the powerful intercession of Mary, Help of Christians, the hour of a resurrection in harmony with the principles of justice and true peace. The Pope wrote fiercely against various anti-Christian movements in various documents but also warned Christians not to be fearful or cowardly in the face of persecution, but to be Soldiers of Christ.

Before the war, in 1938, when racial laws against Jews were promulgated by the Nazi and Fascist governments, racism and anti-semitism were strongly condemned by the Holy See. Regarding Nazi laws the Pope claimed: Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually we are all Semites. Earlier, in 1937 the Pope with the help of Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII published the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge. The college of cardinals harshly criticised the laws as well and especially the idea of a “biological” racism. On 3 May 1938, during Hitler’s visit to Rome, the Pope published his anti-racist Syllabus document, criticising anti-semitism in Italy and Germany.

After the Kristallnacht in 1938, Lord Rotschild, a prominent British leader, organised a protest in London, and Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, on behalf of the Pope, sent a message of solidarity with the persecuted Jews that was read aloud. When Pius XI died in 1939, he was praised for his stand against the Nazi-Fascist regimes and his opposition to anti-semitism.

In 1940, Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop led a delegation to an audience with Pius XII, because the Pope had sided with the Allies. The Pope replied with a list of Nazi atrocities and religious persecutions carried out against the Church and the Jews. In fear of provoking Hitler to commit even more bloodshed, the Pope’s addresses may always seem weaker, but there was indeed a reason behind it. In 1942, Pius XII delivered a radio Christmas message about his concern for the Nazi industrialised genocide of Jews that had just began, the Final Solution, he said: Mankind owes that vow to the numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: 'Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.' Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or slow extermination.

Throughout the war, the Vatican was in contact with the Resistance in Germany and also behind Hitler’s murder attempts, hoping to restore a democratic republic there. Several generals were persuaded to act against Hitler. As early as late 1942, the Fascist regime already realised it had no chance of winning the war and sent a secret emissary, Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law (later sentenced to death by the dictator himself) to surrender to Britain, through the Vatican. Britain refused to deal with Ciano. The Swiss Guards at the Vatican, its small defensive troop, were given submachine guns and gas masks in the event of an attack. As the Allies started the invasion of Southern Italy, the Fascist regime weakened. In 1943 Mussolini escaped to northern Italy, where he founded the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state. The Kingdom of Italy switched to the Allies’ side, but the Nazis invaded and occupied it, including Rome, perpetrating unnamable horrors. During the German occupation the extraterritorial status of the Vatican was respected although there were rumours of a plot to kidnap the Pope. The Holy See was concerned about the occupation and sent the Vatican Police Force and the Swiss Guards to maintain some order. One of Pius XII’s main priorities was to avoid the bombing of Rome, for it was an already devastated and occupied, as well as a holy city. Rome was bombed twice, by the Allies, who dropped leaflets before bombing but saw no great need for the bombing except in strategic areas. On August 14, 1943, Rome was declared an “open city”. After the Italian surrender, many Ally prisoners of war were released and were hosted in the Vatican City. Fr. Hugh O’Flaherty was one of many priests who helped Jews and allied POW’s to escape or hide during the Nazi occupation; he is credited with saving more than 6,500 people during the war. After the bombings, the Pope went into the crowds in the quarter of San Lorenzo to show the people that despite the horrors they had been through, the Pope and the Church were still there.

One of the most shocking tragedies of the war was certainly the Shoah. The Pope always protested against the deportations of Jews and often ordered his ambassadors to do the same, such as in Bratislava in 1942 during Nazi occupation. Following the Nazi occupation of Italy, the Pope ordered Catholic institutions to open themselves to the Jews, sheltering 4,715 of the 5,715 listed for deportation, in over 150 Catholic institutions; 477 Jews were sheltered in the Vatican itself. A moving testimony, in my city of Rome, is the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where the organ case was emptied for Jews to hide in, the organ was never repaired, but lives were spared. As Germans began the round-ups in northern Italy, the Pope opened his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to Jews, and he instructed Catholic institutions in the north to do the same. During the invasion of Bulgaria, the Vatican arranged the transfer of thousands of Jewish children to Israel. Similar events occurred in Hungary and Rumania. At Pius XII’s death, the Pope was praised by the Israeli president and other world leaders.

Finally, the Allies liberated Rome on June 4-5 1944, afterwards many troops visited the Vatican for Mass and were invited to hear the Pope speak; he became the greatest celebrity during this period in the continent and a symbol of the resistance against Nazi-Fascist hatred.

The Church was a beacon of hope in times of desolation.