Categories
Think Piece

MoMA from Modernity into the Post Modern

By guest contributor Edward Maza

In a 1953 letter, Alfred H. Barr Jr.—the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—wrote: “in our civilization with what seems to be a general decline in religious, ethical, and moral convictions, art may well have increasing importance quite outside of aesthetic enjoyment” (204). Per Barr’s logic, MoMA’s founding marked more than an effort to build a new home for western art in Manhattan; it was an explicit attempt to reframe art as the moral and ethical source of knowledge in a secularizing world. It was, in other words, a stand-in for biblical religion.

In fact, nearly half a century before the founding of the museum, God had died in the minds of many thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, proclaimed: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (trans. Walter Kaufmann, 181). Nietzsche lamented the loss of God as the loss of societal and individual values. Life, the philosopher observed, had no significance, no “comfort,” in a world without a priori meaning. Furthermore, the Bible had long informed a shared human experience with “roots in a continuum of tradition”—and yet, in a godless world, there ceased to be a unifying cosmic entity (Nochlin 41).

The void that God’s death created had unique resonance in the United States. As Linda Nochlin notes, there was “a sense of alienation from history as a shared past—an alienation central to the Americans’ experiencing their own condition as a purely contemporary one, without roots in a continuum of tradition” (136). In 1929, when MoMA was founded, the United States had only a century and half of shared history. In the interwar years, the US was not yet the global superpower it would become after the Second World War. The modern era was marked by a need to create a shared narrative of history and values to inform the future of the nation (Nochlin 136). The Museum of Modern Art, I contend, was an institution born of modern necessity—designed to provide a structure of shared value and meaning to undo the newfound alienation in the godless future.

The question posed by Nietzsche’s observed deicide remained contested throughout the early twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre centered the human subject as the source of meaning. In the modern era, Sartre argues, the individual subject is thrown into a godless world and is forced to forge a meaningful relationship with the world for himself. Sartre explains that “before the projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be” (quoted in Kaufmann349). There is no divine mandate that inherently imbues life with meaning and structure. Man exists innately without purpose and must actively create meaning in the world for himself through relation with the world around him. At MoMA the individual is forced to forge a meaningful existence for themselves in relation to the works of art on display. Objects are spaced apart from one another highlighting their individual importance while allowing the viewer sufficient space to view a single work of art. The works are then hung on unadorned white walls so nothing distracts the viewer from the object on display. The artworks provide a guide for the individual to develop themselves as a locus of moral thought. In an attempt to fill the void left by God’s absence in the world MoMA centered the artist as the subject of worship, assembling a pantheon of artists arranged by the curator-priests of the museum in the hallowed halls of the building on 53rdStreet.

moma
Figure 2. Photograph by Beaumont Newhall, Installation view of the exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,”(including an African sculpture and works by Picasso, Rousseau, and Seurat), March 2, 1936–April 19, 1936. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN46.21.
One of the museum’s early exhibitions Cubism and Abstract Art serves as a clear example of the curatorial style established at MoMA. Paintings are hung on clean white walls, spaced apart from one another, and in a linear fashion drawing a clear teleology from Rousseau, and Seurat to Picasso. This image also demonstrates how Barr cast African art a “primitive” artform whose relevance is tied to its influence on Western painters.

When Barr asserted that MoMA would be the definitive arbiter of artistic quality in the modern age, he constructed an art historical future in which he hoped the museum would remain focal. As the museum’s director, Barr strove to be the omnipotent force determining that history.  In Barr’s 1933 “Report on the Permanent Collection,” he reveals his teleological understanding of art history in a description of the guiding principles of the museum’s acquisitions. “The permanent collection may be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of fifty to a hundred years ago” (MoMA archives, Barr Papers II.C.17). Barr even included an image of his torpedo metaphor, anchoring the collection in the works of Ingres, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner, with supplemental influence from the general categories of “non-European prototypes and sources” and “European prototypes and sources” (Fig 1).

This diagram refers to one of the early instantiations of the theological ramifications of MoMA’s organization and collecting practices. In 1889, Henri Bergson penned his paradigm-shifting essay, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness,” which serves as an intellectual antecedent to the torpedo model developed by Barr. In his essay, Bergson outlined the implications of teleological readings of history for the present and for free will. In Barr’s sketch of the arc of art history, the “ever advancing present” is a direct result of the “ever receding past.” The present art scene is an inevitable fruition of the formalist innovations of the past vanguard. In his diagrammed comparison, Barr converts the passage of time into a material, spatial form: the torpedo. Bergson warned that “time, conceived under the form of a homogenous medium [space], is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness” (98).

torpedo
Barr’s Torpedo

The transformation of time into measurable space, as Barr suggests doing to organize modern art, limits the individual’s ability to make free choices, as it makes the past the basis for the future. In Barr’s organization, artistic innovation must flow linearly from the past into the present. Once an idea has been around long enough to be absorbed into the present, it is done away with as it passes through the tail of the torpedo. Bergson insists that “we could not introduce order among terms without first distinguishing them and then comparing the places they occupy; hence we must perceive them as multiple, simultaneous, and distinct; in a word, we must set order in what is successive, the reason is that order is converted into simultaneity and is projected onto space” (102). By claiming that converting time into space allows one to “project time onto space,” Bergson is arguing that this space-time can be projected onto the future, nullifying the possibility for free choice. Time, when measured in space, is predetermined.

By converting the temporal history of modern art into a spatial organization, Barr limits the possibilities of future production through the canonization of present artists. The only artists acceptable in the torpedo model are those that can find their roots in the tails of the torpedo. As time (and art history) progress, the artists who are presently the nose of the torpedo will eventually become the tail, and new artists must root their practice in the works of those sanctioned by Barr and MoMA more broadly. All future relevant “modern art” must find its roots in the works that Barr and MoMA have validated as foundational to future production. The Museum of Modern Art, led by Barr, then controls the future of modern art, predetermining what forms of art will be accepted into the canon and which will be rejected because they cannot find grounding in MoMA’s torpedo. This model is designed to outlive Barr. By rooting the development in a canon, the torpedo model insures that all future “quality” art must forever be rooted in the canon as conceived by MoMA institutionally.

In the post-modern world, the seemingly solid framework of the Museum of Modern Art begins to melt into air. Alfred Barr attempted to use the torpedo as a closed system to describe the entirety of modern artistic production. The torpedo held modern art together as a unified system to overcome the modern preoccupation with alienation in the face of the death of God. But as Derrida notes:

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ”out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down (trans. Alan Bass, 258).

Barr positions himself as the engineer of modern art; claiming to establish the truths of the discourse. Barr uses the teleology from the torpedo to construct a narrative of modern art that claims to be a closed, all encompassing, system. As the museum leaves the modern era of systemic discourse into the open systems of post-modernity, its authority imbued by Barr begins to waver. No longer can the museum claim to be the authority on the closed system of modern art, as said system begins to fall apart. As the world of contemporary art expands beyond the articulated confines of the western tradition and breaks free from (and expands beyond) its western roots, it can no longer be contained by Barr’s modernist model of artistic development: “Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible” (Derrida 289).

In the global age, art is the ultimate form of play. It takes signs of the past and alters them to have new and expanded meaning in the present with disregard for their historical meanings. Signs and their signified meanings are loosely related to one another, constantly and unpredictably changing with the progression of dissociated time.

Edward Maza is a master’s student at Oxford in the department of Theology and Religion. His academic work focuses on the intersection of religion and art history with a particular focus on the Hebrew Bible in modern art.

Categories
Intellectual history

Variations on a Theme by Puccini: Theologizing La fanciulla del West

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

2e16661ebcc43a872a48516ae81e8fc9
Giacomo Puccini, La fanciulla del West

“Whiskey per tutti!” “Benvenuto fra noi, Johnson di Sacramento!” “Una buona giornata per Wells Fargo!” (Puccini 11, 23, 50). La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the West”), Giacomo Puccini’s opera set in the Wild West, is notorious for the jarring presence of American names in an Italian libretto, with English words like “poker” and “polka” jutting out stonily from the flow of song. If one can get beyond the lexical oddities—and, it must be acknowledged, some awfully problematic depictions of Native Americans—Fanciulla is musically spellbinding, its distinctive soundscape defined by the near-total absence of female voices (reflecting the skewed gender distribution of mining camps in the Old West). That said, Puccini’s score does not feature the barnstorming arias that dominate his other operas, as “Vissi d’arte” does Tosca, “Un bel dì vedremo” does Madame Butterfly, and, of course, “Nessun dorma” does Turandot.

One of the few set-pieces Puccini does create for his singers comes in Act I, when Minnie, the titular girl, gives a Bible lesson to some of the miners, culminating in the soprano’s brief, beautiful rendition of Psalm 51:7, 10.

Aspergimi d’issòpo e sarò mondo […] Lavami e sarò bianco come neve. Poni dentro al mio petto un puro cuore, e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto. (18)

Or, as the King James Version has it: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. […] Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

10_19_Eva-Maria-Westbroek-La-Fanciulla-del-West-550x330.jpg
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie at the Metropolitan Opera, photo credit Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

Pausing here, Minnie explains,

Ciò vuol dire, ragazzi, che non v’è, al mondo, peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione. Sappia ognuno di voi chiudere in se questa suprema verità d’amore. (18)

Which is to say, boys, that there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open. May each of you learn how to hold this supreme truth of love within you.

This hopeful sentiment will stand her in good stead two acts later, when the opera climaxes with Minnie convincing the miners to pardon her (repentant) bandit lover, Dick Johnson. This she does by reminding them of her lessons and her compassionate gloss on Psalm 51:

Torno quella che fui per voi, l’amica, la sorella che un giorno v’insegnò una suprema verità d’amore: fratelli, non v’è al mondo peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione! (60)

I am what once I was to you, the friend and the sister, who once taught you the supreme truth of love: brothers, there is no sinner in the world to whom a path to redemption is not open!

GiacomoPuccini.jpg
Giacomo Puccini

Puccini, of course, was a composer, not a theologian. That Minnie’s Psalm puzzled and startled me is due entirely to my own idées fixes. But puzzled and startled I was, for the Bible study at the Polka saloon sets up a curious theological problem within Fanciulla.

The scene is partly drawn from the opera’s source text, David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West (1905), but it has been utterly transformed by Puccini’s librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini. Belasco has Minnie teach not from the Bible, but from Old Joe Miller’s Jokes; not only do Civinini and Zangarini provide a more edifying textbook, they move the schoolroom scene to the first, rather than the third act, thus “carefully set[ting] up the redemption theme” that Puccini wanted to “hover over the whole work” (Rosen 290 and 289n62, respectively).

ANA09015.jpg
Carlo Zangarini

Now, the opera does not tell us anything outright about Minnie’s denominational background, but we do get a clue or two from Civinini and Zangarini’s libretto. If nothing else, that Minnie refers to the psalm beginning “Have mercy upon me, O God” as Psalm 51 points to Protestantism, or at least a Protestant Bible: in a Roman Catholic Bible, using the numbering of the Vulgate, the text would be Psalm 52.

More suggestive still is Civinini and Zangarini’s Italian text of verse 51:10: “e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto”—“and renew in me an elect spirit” (italics mine). The standard Protestant Italian text of Scripture, the Diodati Bible, gives the second verset of Psalm 51:10 as “e rinnovella dentro di me uno spirito diritto”—matching, virtually word for word, the KJV’s “and renew a right spirit within me.” For those playing along at home, in the Hebrew the adjective in question is nachon (נָכוֹן), which means right, correct, or just. The major English translations of the Bible opt variously for “steadfast,” “loyal,” or “right,” and—more rarely—“resolute” or “faithful.” Eletto, as the cognate suggests, is Italian for “elect” or “elected,” in this case the denoting the Elect, those chosen by God’s secret providence as the recipients of his grace (and thus his salvation). It is impossible to say why Civinini and Zangarini chose eletto rather than diritto, but the choice of a term so crucial to (reformed) Protestant theology seems significant.

All well and good, my patient reader may be (reasonably) wondering, but why should it matter what adjective the librettists chose for a single line in three hours plus of opera? In the grand scheme of things, it surely does not, not even for the vast majority of dedicated operagoers. But for that tiny contingent whose passion for opera is matched by a love of theology, Minnie’s interpretation of Psalm 51 strikes a false note. If we are in the key of reformed Protestantism suggested by the word eletto, it is emphatically not the case that “there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.” To the contrary, since at least the seventeenth century one of the five points of orthodox Calvinism has been the doctrine of “limited atonement” (the “L” in the mnemonic “TULIP”). Limited atonement holds that the salvific power of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross extends onlyto the elect—that is, to those God has determined from eternity to save. To quote the Synod of Dort (1618–19), at which the five points were adumbrated:

it was the will of God that Christ by the blood  of  the cross, whereby He confirmed the new  covenant, should  effectually  redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and  language,  all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father (Second Head, Paragraph 8, italics mine).

PORTRAIT_OF_CHARLES_HODGE,_Rembrandt_Peale.jpg
Charles Hodge

Of course, there are many sorts of Protestantism and many sorts of Protestants. Minnie may come from a non-Calvinist branch of the Christian tradition (despite her use of the word eletto), or from one of the Calvinist denominations that have moderated their doctrinal asperity over the years. Nor should we mistake Minnie herself for a theologian: as she herself protests to Johnson, “Don’t expect too much! I’ve got only thirty dollars’ worth of education…” (“Non vi aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli di educazione…” 29). Though a voracious reader, she is largely self-taught; most of faithful, even those far better educated than she, are prone to stumble over doctrine, especially such knotty questions as predestination of soteriology. Indeed, Minnie’s distinguished contemporary, the Reverend Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary—whose education cost considerably more than thirty dollars—broke with Calvinist orthodoxy to affirm “that God intended to save the majority of humanity” (Gutjahr 40).

So Minnie’s gloss may be something or it may be nothing; hardly much of a reason to care. Such speculations about what happens offstage and before the overture are hardly necessary for appreciating La fanciulla del West—nor do they even approach the importance (or scholarly prominence) of the number of Lady Macbeth’s children or the age of Prince Hamlet. But they spring from the same impulse: to accord fictional characters the status of persons, who do not pop in and out of existence each time they leave the stage.

220px-G._Civinini.jpg
Guelfo Civinini

Anecdotes are a form of currency in the world of opera. Here is one. A student of Maria Callas’s, so the story goes, missed the high note in an aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore. When corrected, the student claimed the passage was “a cry of despair.” The legendary soprano replied, “It’s not a cry of despair, it’s a B-flat.” It is not for me to challenge the greatest opera singer of the twentieth (or indeed any other) century; certainly, the storyline cannot be an excuse for poor performance. But, properly rendered as a B-flat, the note can and should be a cry of despair—as Callas, unique among opera singers for her dramatic talents, knew full well. Minnie is not just a collection of Italian phrases set to a sequence of notes; she is a character, and perhaps we learn something from exploring beyond what Puccini, Civinini, and Zangarini put on the stage. Julian Budden points out that by placing the Bible lesson before any of the dramatic action, Fanciulla takes away any ulterior motive for Minnie’s teachings: “she enjoins the Christian virtues out of sheer goodness of heart” (312). In her heretically optimistic take on Psalm 51, Minnie’s creators inadvertently fashioned another, hidden token of that warmth of heart, a warmth that suffuses the entire opera.

Categories
Think Piece

How did Catholics Embrace Religious Liberty?

By guest contributor Udi Greenberg

This post is a companion piece to Prof. Greenberg’s article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Tortured Path to Religious Liberty.”

A series of recent controversies in Europe and the United States have sparked intense interest in the scope and limits of religious liberty. Can governments make sure everyone has the right to freely practice their faith? Should they protect this right even if it clashes with other priorities and principles, such as national security imperatives or anti-discrimination statutes? While almost all the participants in these debates—politicians, jurists, commentators, and social thinkers—claim to be defenders of religious freedom, they assign profoundly different meanings, goals, and consequences to this term. Progressives have invoked it to decry anti-Muslim measures such as anti-veil laws in Europe or the “Muslim ban” in the United States, while conservatives have used religious liberty to defend the right to discriminate against single-sex couples, deny access to birth control, and ban displays of certain religious faiths. Perhaps because it is so heavily contested, the language of religious liberty has acquired a significant aura in contemporary public, political, and legal discourse. Like “democracy,” “justice,” and “freedom,” it is a term that radically different camps seek to claim as their own.

Gregory_XVI.jpg
Pope Gregory XVI

It can therefore be surprising to remember how recent religious liberty’s popularity is. Few institutions reflect this better than the Catholic Church, which as recently as the early 1960s openly condemned religious freedom as heresy. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Catholic bishops and theologians claimed that the state was God’s “secular arm.” The governments of Catholic-majority countries therefore had the duty to privilege Catholic preaching, education, and rituals, even if they blatantly discriminated against minorities (where Catholic were minority, they could tolerate religious freedom as a temporary arrangement). As Pope Gregory XVI put it in his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, state law had to restrict preaching by non-Catholics, for “is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available?” It was only in 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Church formally abandoned this conviction. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, it formally proclaimed religious liberty as a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” This was one of the greatest intellectual transformations of modern religious thought.

Why did this change come about? Scholars have provided illuminating explanations over the last few years. Some have attributed it to the mid-century influence of the American constitutional tradition of state neutrality in religious affairs. Others claimed it was part of the Church’s confrontation with totalitarianism, especially Communism, which led Catholics to view the state as a menacing threat rather than ally and protector. My article in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas uncovers another crucial context that pushed Catholics in this new direction. Religious liberty, it shows, was also fueled by a dramatic change in Catholic thinking about Protestants, namely a shift from centuries of hostility to cooperation and even a warm embrace. Well into the modern era, many Catholic writers continued to condemn Luther and is heirs, blaming them for the erosion of tradition, nihilism, and anarchy. But during the mid-twentieth century, Catholics swiftly abandoned this animosity, and came to see Protestants as brothers in a mutual fight against “anti-Christian” forces, such as Communism, Islam, and liberalism. French Theologian Yves Congar argued in 1937 that the Church transcends its “visible borders” and includes all those who have been baptized, while German historian Joseph Lortz published in 1938 sympathetic historical tomes that depicted Martin Luther and the Reformation as well-meaning Christians. This process of forging inter-Christian peace—which became known as ecumenism—reached its pinnacle in the postwar era. In 1964, it received formal doctrinal approval when Vatican II promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism (1964), which declared Protestants as “brethren.”

PiusXvatgarden
Pope Pius X

It was in this context that Catholic leaders also shed their opposition to religious liberty. Catholic thinkers had long demonized religious liberty as a Protestant conspiracy that allowed Luther’s heresy to thrive. This was the spirit in which Pope Pius X, in his famous 1910 encyclical Editae saepe, decried Protestants for “pav[ing] the way for modern rebellions and apostasy.” But after the Church embarked on its quest for cooperation with Protestants, it also reconsidered its approach to state institutions. They no longer required Catholic countries to impose Catholic education and practices. Indeed, for many Catholic writers, interdenominational peace required a new approach to the state, where no church held formal legal hegemony; they believed that the two intellectual projects—making peace with Protestants and revising Catholic teachings on the use of state power—were ultimately inseparable. It was no coincidence that the thinkers who drafted Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom also penned the Decree on Ecumenism. Both texts also emerged from the same organ, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

This story may seem like a scholastic dive into arcane theological debates, but it has broader implications for our own debates about religion and politics. It raises questions about the origins of contemporary laws that regulate religion in Europe and the United States. Reflecting on recent controversies, some scholars have often attributed religious liberty laws to the ideology of “secularism” (or laïcité in French). If countries like France, they have asserted, routinely discriminate against Muslims through actions like banning the veil, it is in part (though not exclusively) because of an obsession with secular public affairs cannot digest certain religious behaviors or open displays of faith. Yet as this story of Catholic thinking reveals, religious liberty is not simply the product of secularist ideas. In some cases, it was the product of inter-confessional peace between Catholics and Protestants, whose architects had no aspirations of promoting universal religious equality. On the ideological level, ecumenical religious freedom in fact sought to maintain religious dominance in the public sphere by joining forces against “anti-Christian” enemies. It thus may be that religious liberty is best understood not only as the product of secular ideas and conditions. Rather, it was also the work of religious actors and ideas—a legacy that continues to profoundly shape contemporary political and public life.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879–1970. Together with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, he edited a special forum on Christianity and human rights in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas; the introduction to that forum can be found here.

Categories
Think Piece

Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

1024px-Antonio_Rodríguez_-_Saint_Augustine_-_Google_Art_Project
Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine

In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote, “from one perspective, a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” MacCulloch riffs on B. B. Warfield’s pronouncement that “[t]he Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (111). There can be no denying the centrality to the Reformation of Thagaste’s most famous son. But Warfield’s “triumph” is only half the story—forgivably so, from the last of the great Princeton theologians. Catholics, too, laid claim to Augustine’s mantle. Not least among them was a Toledan Jesuit by the name of Pedro de Ribadeneyra, whose particular brand of personal Augustinianism offers a useful tonic to the theological and polemical Augustine.

ribadeneyra_retrato_index
Pedro de Ribadeneyra

To quote Eusebio Rey, “I do not believe there were many religious writers of the Siglo de Oro who internalized certain ascetical aspects of Saint Augustine to a greater degree than Ribadeneyra” (xciii). Ribadeneyra translated the Confessions, the Soliloquies, and the Enchiridion, as well as the pseudo-Augustinian Meditations. His own works of history, biography, theology, and political theory are filled with citations, quotations, and allusions to the saint’s oeuvre, including such recondite texts as the Contra Cresconium and the Answer to an Enemy of the Laws and the Prophets. In short, like so many of his contemporaries, Ribadeneyra invoked Augustine as a commanding authority on doctrinal and philosophical issues. But there is another component to Ribadeneyra’s Augustinianism: his spiritual memoir, the Confesiones.

Composed just before his death in September 1611, Ribadeneyra’s Confesiones may be the first memoir to borrow Augustine’s title directly (Pabel 456). Yet, a title does not a book make. How Augustinian are the Confesiones?

Pierre Courcelle, the great scholar of the afterlives of Augustine’s Confessions, declared that “the Confesiones of the Jesuit Ribadeneyra seem to have taken nothing from Augustine save the form of a prayer of praise” (379). Of this commonality there can be no doubt: Ribadeneyra effuses with gratitude to a degree that rivals Augustine. “These mercies I especially acknowledge from your blessed hand, and I praise and glorify you, and implore all the courtiers of heaven that they praise and forever thank you for them” (21). Like the Confessions, the Confesiones are written as “an on-going conversation with God to which […] readers were deliberately made a party” (Pabel 462). That said, reading the two side-by-side reveals deeper connections, as the Jesuit borrows from Augustine’s life story in narrating his own.

Though Ribadeneyra could not recount flirtations with Manicheanism or astrology, he could follow Augustine in subjecting his childhood to unsparing critique. His early years furnished—whose do not?—sufficient petty rebellions to merit Augustinian laments for “the passions and awfulness of my wayward nature” (5–6). In one such incident, Pedro stubbornly demands milk as a snack; enraged by his mother’s refusal, he runs from the house and begins roughhousing with his friends, resulting in a broken leg. Sin inspired by a desire for dairy sets up an echo of Augustine’s rebuke of

the jealousy of a small child: he could not even speak, yet he glared with livid fury at his fellow-nursling. […] Is this to be regarded as innocence, this refusal to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk, at a time when the other child stands in greatest need of it and depends for its very life on this food alone? (I.7,11)

Luis_Tristán_de_Escamilla_-_St_Monica_-_WGA23069
Luis Tristán, Santa Monica

Ribadeneyra’s mother, Catalina de Villalobos, unsurprisingly plays the role of Monica, the guarantor of his Catholic future (while pregnant, Catalina vows that her son will become a cleric). She was not the only premodern woman to be thus canonized by her son: Jean Gerson tells us that his mother, Élisabeth de la Charenière, was “another Monica” (400n10).

Leaving Toledo, Pedro comes to Rome, which was cast as one of Augustine’s perilous earthly cities. Hilmar Pabel points out that the Jesuit’s description of the city as “Babylonia” imitates Augustine’s jeremiad against Thagaste as “Babylon” (474). Like its North African predecessor, this Italian Babylon threatens the soul of its young visitor. Foremost among these perils are teachers: in terms practically borrowed from the Confessions, Ribadeneyra decries “those who ought to be masters, [who] are seated in the throne of pestilence and teach a pestilent doctrine, and not only do not punish the evil they see in their vassals and followers, but instead favor and encourage them by their authority” (7–8).

After Ribadeneyra left for Italy, Catalina’s duties as Monica passed to Ignatius of Loyola, who combined them with those of Ambrose of Milan—the father-figure and guide encountered far from home . Like Ambrose, Ignatius acts como padre, one whose piety is the standard that can never be met, who combines affection with correction.

1024px-Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)
A young Ignatius of Loyola

The narrative climax of the Confessions is Augustine’s tortured struggle culminating in his embrace of Christianity. No such conversion could be forthcoming for Ribadeneyra, its place taken by tentacion, an umbrella term encapsulating emotional upheavals, doubts over his vocation, the fantasy of returning to Spain, and resentment of Ignatius. Famously, Augustine agonizes until he hears a voice that seems to instruct him, tolle lege (VIII.29). Ribadeneyra structures the resolution of his own crises in analogous fashion, his anxieties dissolved by a single utterance of Ignatius’s: “I beg of you, Pedro, do not be ungrateful to one who has shown you so many kindnesses, as God our Lord.” “These words,” Ribadeneyra tells us, “were as powerful as if an angel come from heaven had spoken them,” his tentacion forever banished (37).

I am not suggesting Ribadeneyra fabricated these incidents in order to claim an Augustinian mantle. But the choices of what to include and how to narrate his Confesiones were shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by Augustine’s example.

Ribadeneyra’s story also diverges from its Late Antique model, and at times the contrast is such as to favor the Jesuit, however implicitly. Ribadeneyra professes an unmistakably early modern Marian piety that has no equivalent in Augustine. Where Monica is reassured by a vision of “a young man of radiant aspect” (III.11,19), Catalina de Villalobos makes her vow to vuestra sanctíssima Madre y Señora nuestra (3). Augustine addresses his gratitude to “my God, my God and my Lord” (I.2, 2), while Ribadeneyra, who mentions his travels to Marian shrines like Loreto, is more likely to add the Virgin to his exclamations: “and in particular I implored your most glorious virgin-mother, my exquisite lady, the Virgin Mary” (11). The Confessions mention Mary only twice, solely as the conduit for the Incarnation (IV.12, 19; V.10, 20). Furthermore, Ribadeneyra’s early conquest of his tentaciones produces a much smoother path than Augustine’s erratic embrace of Christianity; thus the Jesuit declares, “I never had any inclination for a way of life other than that I have” (6). His rhapsodic praise of chastity—“when could I praise you enough for having bound me with a vow to flee the filthiness of the flesh and to consecrate my body and soul to you in a clean and sweet sacrifice” (46)—is far cry from the infamous “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet” (VIII.17)

When Ribadeneyra translated Augustine’s Confessions into Spanish in 1596, his paratexts lauded Augustine as the luz de la Iglesia and God’s signal gift to the Church. There is no hint—anything else would have been highly inappropriate—of equating himself with Augustine, whose ingenio was “either the greatest or one of the greatest and most excellent there has ever been in the world.” As a last word, however, Ribadeneyra mentions the previous Spanish version, published in 1554 by Sebastián Toscano. Toscano was not a native speaker, “and art can never equal nature, and so his style could not match the dignity and elegance of our language.” It falls to Ribadeneyra, in other words, to provide the Hispanophone world with the proper text of the Confessions; without ever saying so, he positions himself as a privileged interpreter of Augustine.

The Confessions is a profoundly personal text, perhaps the seminal expression of Christian subjectivity—told in a searingly intense first-person. Ribadeneyra himself writes that in the Confessions “is depicted, as in a masterful portrait painted from life, the heavenly spirit of Saint Augustine, in all its colors and shades.” Without wandering into the trackless wastes of psychohistory, it must have been a heady experience for so devoted a reader of Augustine to compose—all translation being composition—the life and thought of the great bishop.

Ribadeneyra was of course one of many Augustinians in early modern Europe, part of an ongoing Catholic effort to reclaim the Doctor from the Protestants, but we will misunderstand his dedication if we regard the saint as no more than a prime piece of symbolic real estate. For scholars of early modern Augustinianism have rooted the Church Father in philosophical schools and the cut-and-thrust of confessional conflict. To MacCulloch and Warfield we might add Meredith J. Gill, Alister McGrath, Arnoud Visser, and William J. Bouwsma, for whom early modern thought was fundamentally shaped by the tidal pulls of two edifices, Augustinianism and Stoicism.

There can be no doubt that Ribadeneyra was convinced of Augustine’s unimpeachable Catholicism and opposition to heresy—categories he had no hesitation in mapping onto Reformation-era confessions. Equally, Augustine profoundly influenced his own theology. But beyond and beneath these affinities lay a personal bond. Augustine, who bared his soul to a degree unmatched among the Fathers, was an inspiration, in the most immediate sense, to early modern believers. Like Ignatius, the bishop of Hippo offered Ribadeneyra a model for living.

That early modern individuals took inspiration from classical, biblical, and late antique forebears is nothing new. Bruce Gordon writes that, influenced by humanist notions of emulation, “through intensive study, prayer and conduct [John] Calvin sought to become Paul” (110). Mutatis mutandis, the sentiment applies to Ribadeneyra and Augustine. Curiously, Stephen Greenblatt’s seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning does not much engage with emulation, concerning itself with self-fashioning as creation ad nihilum—that is to say, a new self, not geared toward an existing model (Greenblatt notes in passing, and in contrast, the tradition of imitatio Christi). Ribadeneyra, in reading, translating, interpreting, citing, and imitating Augustine, was fashioning a self after another’s image. As his Catholicized Confesiones indicate, this was not a slavish and literal-minded adherence to each detail. He recognized the great gap of time that separated him from his hero, changes that demanded creativity and alteration in the fashioning of a self. This need not be a thought-out or even conscious plan, but simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of admiration and inspiration. Without denying Ribadeneyra’s formidable mind or his fervent Catholicism, there is something to be gained from taking emotional significance as our starting point, from which to understand all the intellectual and personal work the Jesuit, and others of his time, could accomplish through a hero.

Categories
Think Piece

The Historian Rudolf Hospinian

by guest contributor William Theiss

The 1517 book On Gems by Erasmus Stella, a doctor and mythologist from Leipzig, never enjoyed a wide readership—though two hundred years later it was enough in demand to merit a reprint. It takes its reader on a brisk journey through the world of precious stones, their distinguishing features, and their most famous uses. It was first printed together with the passage on stones from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, on which Stella’s book is largely based.

The passage on smaragdus, or emerald, contains commonplace allusions to famous emerald structures: an emerald spear in a temple to Hercules in Tyre, an emerald Seraphim in a mythological Egyptian labyrinth (p. 17). Stella lingers on one object the longest: an emerald cup in a church in Genoa said to be the one used by Jesus at the Last Supper. We then hear a genealogy of this cup, cobbled together from accounts by medieval romancers: it had first belonged to a set of dinnerware owned by Herod, who had sent it from Galilee to Jerusalem in time for Passover; it was diverted by “divine providence” into the hands of Jesus. Stella, who might well have seen the cup during one of his many travels to Italy, waxes poetic: “Nobody ever saw a more precious cup, a more dignified stone, or more marvelous craftsmanship!” This is not an idle argument: if Jesus at the Last Supper drank from one of the most valuable gems known to the entire West, a gem now residing in an Italian church, controversial things are implied about what kind of man Jesus was, and about which countries could claim the correct worship of him.

Of a different view about the cup’s provenance was Jean Brodeau, a French courtier known, if at all, for his interpretations of Greek poetry. In a chapter of his 1555 Miscellanea (c. 5.19, pp. 193-194) he tried to set straight what he knew about the kinds of vessels used in ancient sacrifices. From Ovid he gathered that the oldest Romans were too poor to use anything other than earthenware or beech. And Porphyrius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus convinced him that even when the wealth of the empire grew, the pious Romans never graduated to fancier equipment. All of this, plus some passages from Apuleius and Cicero, was enough evidence for Brodeau to reject Erasmus Stella’s genealogy of the Genoan cup. Since Jesus lived in the ancient world, his Passover sacrifice must have proceeded by ancient rules, and those called for fictilia, or humble earthenware.

Rudolf Hospinian related this minor scuffle over an Italian cup in his two-part Historia Sacramentaria (1598 and 1602, p. 7). Hospinian adds his own erudition to the mix: according to him, the word for the cup in the Luther translation, Kelch, misleads, since a Kelch is a particular kind of cup. But a poterion, as the Greek New Testament has it, means any old cup, and indeed the Latin word calix should be interpreted the same way. After all, Plautus once wrote the line, “Aulas calicesque confregit”—“He shattered all the pots and cups [of any kind]”—and Erasmus recorded the saying, “Multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra”—“Lots of things fall out between the cup and the lips.” Plautus and Erasmus knew the exact weight of each word they used. Ipso facto, Jesus drank from an ordinary cup.

Lucas Cranach the Elder's Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther's Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Wittenberg Altarpiece with a Last Supper. A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach here represented the administration of the sacrament directly into the mouth of the participant. Whereas some of Luther’s Protestant opponents suggested that the minister might simply hand over the body of Christ to the congregation for them to break and eat, Luther always maintained the propriety of the old practice.

This Rudolf Hospinian was born as Rudolf Wirt in Fehraltorf, near Zurich, on November 7, 1547. His biographer points out that this made Hospinian only nineteen days younger than the far more famous Justus Lipsius. But “if not in genius, then certainly in piety, theological erudition, and even constancy—for that man wrote and professed many things, rather prettily, de Constantia, but never matched his words with deeds—our Hospinian was leagues ahead of Lipsius.”

If the subjects that historians choose are predetermined by their upbringing, then it is telling that as a child Hospinian watched his father imprisoned and tortured, and his uncle executed, for heresy. He was educated in nearby Zurich, and quickly ascended academic and ecclesiastical ladders. For a time, he taught in Heidelberg. Already as a young man, says his biographer, Hospinian conceived of a way of doing history that would put ecclesiastical truths in an “immovable citadel,” far from the reach of the crowd of everyday pamphleteers: “Our Hospinian believed that the false dye of antiquity could be shaken off [of the arguments of others] if the first origins of their errors, the incunabula themselves, as if tiny fibers placed beneath the sun and so shining through more clearly, could be distinguished from all the rest.”

Each of Hospinian’s works told the story of the Church from its prehistory in paganism and Judaism, through its foundation, up until its perversion in Rome and its pristine restoration in Germany. These themes tie together his book On Temples, his book On the sacred days of the Jews and Gentiles (encompassing also the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Indians), his Historia Sacramentaria, the magnum opus, and even his works on the history of monasteries and on the strange, new Society of Jesus.

Hospinian makes no secret about which side he is on. The only segment of his work to appear in English describes how the Jesuits train their students to assassinate Protestant kings. The Historia Sacramentaria helped Hospinian come to be regarded as the most qualified Protestant writing ecclesiastical history—which meant, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the most qualified to refute the history written by Cesare Baronio. Thomas Holland, the Oxford scholar who helped make the King James Bible, tried to recruit Hospinian for just that task. But he was already over sixty, and, as he wrote in a letter to England, “I am alone in this study, having nobody to converse with about such dark and difficult matters, nor am I so outfitted with libraries here as you are there in Oxford, not to mention other things I would need for such a work.” This was for the better: trying to refute Baronio made quick work of Isaac Casaubon, Hospinian’s junior by twelve years, if one accepts the popular account that Casaubon’s body (that is, his bladder) failed under the strain of his work.

Hospinian wrote the Historia Sacramentaria after he had been given a post in Zurich that was, his biographer admits, largely ceremonial, and so admitting of a lot of free time. His reputation hangs on this work more than any other. The first volume narrates the history of the Eucharist from the night of the Last Supper up through the Middle Ages. In the second, published four years after the first, two characters loom the largest: Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. We read, year by year, as they retreat into separate camps and send missiles back and forth.

The history of Eucharist doctrine in the early sixteenth century—the structural center of Hospinian’s diptych—can be a rebarbative subject. It is the story of theologians closing their minds, of talented thinkers expending huge energy on behalf of unbelievably subtle dogmas that seem unworthy of them. But Hospinian’s history is capacious, and it has room for other portraits than this one. Because the chronology of the history places Luther and Zwingli into the unbroken tradition of the early Church, these characters assume the aura and drama of antiquity. The arguments they propose, change, and propose again take on a humanity that other histories of the period do not offer. Jean Brodeau and Erasmus Stella are not the only ones in Hospinian’s history to think with creativity and imagination.

Hospinian humanizes the history of dogma, above all, by including humanists: the personalities whose friendships, rivalries, and passions enliven the march of escalating pamphlets and futile colloquies. He writes piercingly on the symbiosis between Luther and Philip Melanchthon—how the irascible Luther needed the melancholy, slow-thinking Melanchthon to endear him to the authorities. Or, to answer the charge that these theologians lacked self-awareness to a laughable degree, one could supply the passage Hospinian drew from a dinner conversation in Nuremberg in 1526:

That year Philip Melanchthon was in Nuremberg. In those days he was still of the same mind as Martin Luther, on whose behalf nobody fought more strongly than Pirckheimer, a senator in Nuremberg, whose sharpness of mind, force of character, and wide-ranging erudition Melanchthon noticed at every turn of the conversation. And at the same drinking table sat Albrecht Dürer, the artist and learned man… again and again, disputes about the recent Eucharist controversy broke out between Pirckheimer and Dürer. The painter, since he excelled in his mind too, faced off fiercely against Pirckheimer; what the latter proposed, the former rebutted, fully up to the task; Pirckheimer grew heated; indeed he was quick to anger, not to mention his severe case of gout. At last Pirckheimer exploded: “What you’re saying, that couldn’t be painted!” “Ah,” responded Dürer, “but your views can’t be clearly said, or even imagined.” And Dürer went on to recall the stupidity of a certain Doctor Lempius, at Tübingen, who used to attempt, in the course of his lectures, to draw the transsubstantiation on a white canvas.

So goes the Reformation, as it unfolds in Hospinian: heated, yes, but softened somewhat by the ironic humor of those in the very center of it. That is the lesson to draw from the Historia Sacramentaria. To approach the Sacrament, one needs fine distinctions and a nose for metaphysics; to approach the history, one needs people and their stories.

William Theiss is an M.Phil. student in history at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Gates Cambridge Scholar. His dissertation examines aspects of the Eucharist controversy in the Reformation.