Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Boston Apotheosis

T'has been an interesting summer so far that it will take a good time to digest. First, three weeks in Greece, where church frescoes are less a display of virtuosity as much as they are simply assumed. Then I moved to a week in England, where I saw many a sad example of church frescoes that had been destroyed by overzealous Protestants, and were recently recovered (The chapel at Haddon Hall for instance).

As I flew back to North America, therefore, I couldn't help but think I was returning to the land of the naked church. During an all too brief trip in Boston, I braced myself for Puritanism. Harvard's main chapel was a fitting expression. My insistence that Protestant iconoclasm is a dangerous thing, in addition to being completely missed by Christianity Today (who - how could they? - puffed the same Vineyard church I criticized, lending a whole new level of meaning to Our Lady of Pity), was confirmed at Harvard. There, in the beautiful but bare central campus chapel, our tour guide had us sit down for what could only be described as a sermon. He explained to us, rather passionately, that chapel doesn't really mean anything to Harvard students because Harvard preaches... sorry, make that "values" pluralism.

At any rate, few things could have prepared me for what I can only call my Boston apotheosis. Despite a good many trips to that famed city, I had the embarrassment of having never visited Trinity Church. But I somehow missed it on my way through Back Bay, and ending up on Boston Common (onetime home of an Anglican hermit), where I decided to take the Freedom Trail tour again. An immersion into Puritan Boston proved another confirmation of my "land of the naked church" theory. Towards the end of the day, I bought a map and made my way to Trinity. I approached at the high noon of church photography (just before sunset), and the impression was overwhelming. Copley Square shows the land of the naked church gloriously clothed (well, sort of).

Trinity Church was like an invading Romanesque spaceship that landed in Puritan Boston to wreak medieval havoc. As I enjoyed the interior tour, I couldn't help but think that just as Justinian, after building Hagia Sophia, could exclaim, "O Solomon, I have surpassed thee," so Richardson and LaFarge might have been justified in exclaiming, tongue in cheek of course, "O Justinian, I have surpassed thee." A window within suggests the same. Having secured this beachhead of Boston decoration at Trinity, the assault continued across the street at the marvelously Ruskinian Old South Church. And let's not even get started on the Boston Public Library, the flagrantly luxurious celebration of McKim, Mean and White, capped with the career triumph of one who is certainly a contender for finest American painter status, John Singer Sargent. How telling to the state of American art history that the theological import of this work has been only lately brought to light.

The glory days of American architecture before modernism can perhaps be best understood on that square in Boston: The fabulously financed revenge of the medieval on the Puritanism that tried to escape it. Still, my point that whitewashing walls leads to whitewashed doctrine is not always applicable. One cannot, for example, suggest that Trinity is a bastion of classical Christianity, whereas the perfectly plain Park Street Church is much closer to earning that distinction. When it comes to theological destiny, there are much more determinative factors that art and architecture; but that said, art and architecture sure can help - the ideal should be form and content, not or.

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