Traditional Latin Mass's Fascination for Artists and Intellectuals

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The traditional Latin Mass has fascinated countless men of genius throughout the centuries.

To an astounding degree the arts during medieval Christendom all fell under the spell of the “Mass of the Ages” as musicians, architects, artists, writers, sculptors, fresco and mosaic designers, iron-workers, goldsmiths, jewellers, glass founders, designers of stained-glass windows, and wood-carvers all strove to express their, or at least society’s, veneration for the sacred action. Indeed, in the history of the human spirit there is no other word-form that has been such a wellspring of culture, gripping the imagination of a society so intensely that it became a driving force behind artistic exertions.

This ability of the ancient Mass to sway artistic creativity stands out even more when set against the secularized background of the last two hundred years. As an art historian recently acknowledged, a remarkable number of nineteenth and twentieth-century artists from the United States, Germany, Britain, France and Spain, as long as they were born in any decade prior to 1960, had an aesthetically enriching experience from childhood because of the Ancient Rite.

“These artists grew up in a world alive with divine grace, albeit one in which the dangers of sin were warned against repeatedly. Moreover, the spiritual culture in which these impressionable, aesthetically inclined children were raised was centered on a heady Gesamtkunstwerk [an all-embracing artform] that was the traditional Catholic Mass, which incorporated visual, poetic, musical, ritual, and aromatic arts. The Mass itself was part of a larger gestalt, the entire immersive experience of living in, and being an expression of, a vast Gesamtkunstwerk  of spiritual depth and beauty. In effect, this aesthetically rich spiritual formation in childhood provided a feeder system for the arts.” (Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 176.)

For centuries participants related to the Mass not as a type of religious lecture-service, but as a sacrificial action. Already by the 8th century, in the Gelasian Sacramentary (which contains elements from earlier centuries) the word “actio” is applied to the essential core of the Mass, the Canon. An English convert to Catholicism narrated this awareness of the Ancient Rite as action:

“It is not a mere form of words, it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth.  It is not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal.  He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble.  This is that awful event which is the scope, and the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity.  Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what is higher, of consecration, of sacrifice….  Each in his own place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intentions, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation; not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but like a concert of musical instruments, each different but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest supporting him yet guided by him….  And the great Action is the measure and the scope of it.”[1].

As the Jewish poet and painter, Max Jacob, who eventually converted to Catholicism, wrote: “Thus I would go every morning to participate in your Mass and I would not tire each time of the death of God on the altar. The Death of God on Golgotha is renewed”[2] Consequently, the impact of the Ancient Rite was not due chiefly to the splendor of music and ceremonial that clothed it when enacted in magnificent cathedrals but to its clear identity as the Sacrifice. Another convert, the novelist Julien Green, remarked: “But anyway, what I want to say, and what I will always say, is that though I admire all the pomp of tradition, the high Mass is not merely theatre and I do not place it above a low Mass in a church in the countryside, one of those little Romanesque churches that one still sees throughout France…”[3]

A French-Swiss writer gives a glimpse into the soul of a fallen-away Catholic in a description of his novel’s hero during a visit to a church where the Ancient Rite is occurring:

“I don’t know what chance suggestion made me enter Saint-Sulpice today during the solemn Mass. For how long had I not crossed the threshold of a church except for marriages or funerals where a thousand foreign concerns follow you?…This cult is truly a beautiful sight, one which is imposing not only due to the splendor of the décor and the pomp of the ceremony, but for the world of ideas whereby you are stormed, by the piece of Infinity that suddenly is revealed to you. The candles, the incense, the great voice of the organ, the chants of the choir and the psalmody of the priest spread in your soul an uneasiness that the contagious faith of the kneeling crowd further increases…I had entered as someone indifferent, curious only to renew a forgotten impression….and, in a double effort to make the lost formulas come forth from my memory and to shake off from my thought the yoke of the spirit that is in denial, I set myself to murmuring ‒ the lips, alas! only the lips ‒, Our Father, who art in Heaven!….[4]

A non-Catholic who intuited this esprit de corps of the Ancient Rite was the Welsh writer, Walter David Michael Jones (1895-1921) who wrote under the pseudonym  Dai Greatcoat and authored In Parenthesis, described by W. H. Auden as “the greatest book about the First World War” that he had read[5]. Raised as a Welsh Protestant, one of the milestones in his conversion to Catholicism was an unexpected encounter with the ancient Mass. It was being enacted in a barn damaged by shell fire, near the front lines on the Western Front, during World War I.

“I don’t know whether I ever told you of my first sight of a Mass… I noticed what had been a farm building… a byre or outhouse of some sort still stood there… What I saw through the small gap in the wall was not the dim emptiness I had expected but the back of a sacerdos [priest]  in a gilt-hued  planeta [chasuble],  two points of flickering candlelight no doubt lent an extra sense of goldness to the vestment, and a golden warmth seemed, by the same agency, to lend the white altar cloths and the white linen of the celebrant’s alb and amice and maniple…..You can imagine what a great marvel it was for me to see through that chink in the wall and kneeling in the hay beneath the improvised mensa [table] were a few huddled figures in khaki. I didn’t think I ought to stay long as it seemed rather like an uninitiated bloke prying on the Mysteries of a Cult. But it made a big impression on me. For one thing I was astonished how close to the Front Line the priest had decided to make the Oblation and I was impressed to see Old Sweat Mulligan, a somewhat fearsome figure, a real pugilistic, hard-drinking Goidelic Celt, kneeling there in the smoky candlelight…. I felt immediately that oneness between the Offerant and those toughs that clustered round him in the dim-lit byre ‒ a thing I had never felt remotely as a Protestant at the office of Holy Communion in spite of the insistence of Protestant theology on the ‘priesthood of the laity’.”[6]

 No wonder that Catholics through the ages have had the same attitude expressed by the dramatist, Hugo Ball: “For the Catholic….the play which dominates his life and enthralls his every morning is holy Mass.”[7]  Or that of J. R. R. Tolkien:

I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon the earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.[8]

[1] John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), Loss and Gain (1848)

[2] Meditation 47, in Max Jacob, Les Meditations, quoted in Emmanuel Godo, (ed.), La Conversion Religieuse (Paris: Editions Imago, 2000), Kindle edition, location 3786. My translation.

[3] Julien Green, “Ce qu’il faut d’amour a l’homme” in Pamphlet contre les Catholiques de France (Paris: Gallimard,1982), p. 180. My translation.

[4] Edouard Rod, Le Sens de la vie (Paris: Perrin, 1889) pp. 305, 313. My translation, and italics added.

[5] Cited in Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 116.

[6]DAVID JONES, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 248-249.

[7] Quoted in Joseph Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 1, p. 3.

[8] J. R. R. Tolkien,  Letter 43, in Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 54.