Revisiting the Baroque

by Fr. Giles Dimock, O.P.


Few liturgists have had anything positive to say about the Baroque era and its impact on the development of Catholic worship. Liturgical authors generally consider the Mass of that period to have been excessively dramatic in its music and ceremonial, propagandistic in architectural and artistic setting, and far too tightly structured in ritual form. Rev. Giles Dimock used to share this opinion, but has since come to an alternate view, which he explains in this article.

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Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal

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Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal, Volume 5, Number 3

Few liturgists have had anything positive to say about the Baroque era and its impact on the development of Catholic worship. Liturgical authors generally consider the Mass of that period to have been excessively dramatic in its music and ceremonial, propagandistic in architectural and artistic setting, and far too tightly structured in ritual form. Louis Bouyer, the man at whose feet I studied liturgy at Notre Dame and Brown universities, used to express this opinion rather strongly, even vehemently. I agreed with the great master then, but have since come to an alternate view (difficult to express, so great is my respect and admiration for this distinguished liturgical scholar and theologian). On the topic of Baroque liturgy, Bouyer stated in Liturgical Piety:

It is from the sixteenth and seventeenth century idea of court life that Catholics . . . derived their false notions of public worship. An earthly king must be honored daily by the pageant of court ceremonial, and so also the heavenly King. The courtly atmosphere around Him was to be provided by the liturgy. The liturgy, as many handbooks of the period actually say, was considered to be "the etiquette of the great King" ([Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 19541, 4).

Bouyer argues that the most obvious features of the Baroque liturgy were those that embodied the external pomp, decorum and grandeur befitting so majestic a Prince. The lack of intelligible meaning in so many rites and even in the sacred words themselves was, therefore, praised as enhancing the impression of awe to be given to the dazzled multitude. So also, it would have seemed almost indecent to offer to the common people any opportunity to participate directly in so sublime a performance. They were, rather, only to admire it, dimly from afar, as a scene of unapproachable magnificence (Ibid.).

Bouyer sees this "distorted interpretation" of the nature of the liturgy as arising from three main factors. The first was the neopagan aesthetic world of the Renaissance which substituted Greco-Roman mythology for biblical imagery to the detriment of the latter. Second, there occurred a violent hunger for the "super-human instead of the supernatural," as witnessed in the paintings of Michelangelo, and for the "enormous rather than the great," as witnessed in the statues in Saint John Lateran with their hysterical gesticulations. Third, a Baroque Catholicism emerged that was ecclesiastically loyal though not genuinely Christian" and which gradually withdrew into "a soulless kind of conservatism" (Ibid., 5-6).

This last point Bouyer is ambivalent about since, on one hand, he charges that the Baroque era offered no positive inspiration and simply fossilized the Mass, embellishing it with almost completely extraneous elements; but, on the other hand, he states that its "rigid and unintelligent traditionalism, . . . was the providential means whereby the Church managed to keep her liturgical treasures safe throughout a long period when scarcely anyone was capable of understanding their true worth" (Ibid., 8). Bouyer compares the Baroque preservation of the liturgy to Saint Peter's Chair (actually a throne from a much later period) enshrined in Bernini's magnificent slipcover in Saint Peter's Basilica and the columns of the Lateran Basilica absorbed by Borromini's pilasters.

Bouyer describes what many regard as the highest achievement of the Baroque era: the artistic — especially opera, the musical art form of the time. He decries, however, the operatic influence of Baroque music on the liturgy:

The faithful of the same period sought to find a religious equivalent of the Opera in the liturgy. Churches came to resemble theatres in plan and decoration. The liturgical pomps displayed in such churches tended to smother the traditional text of the liturgy under an increasingly profane kind of polyphony, the text itself having little more importance either for the performers or the onlookers . . . [The liturgy] became the pretext for an "occasion" similar to a soiree at Court complete with a divertissement by Lully. The chief focus of liturgical life, therefore, was no more the Mass, which included too many elements out of harmony with the mentality of the times. Instead, Solemn Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, a ceremony created and developed just in time to satisfy the new tastes of the age, managed to assimilate perfectly the courtly ceremony then fashionable. In the Presence of the Divine King, a kind of heavenly grand opera could be performed, with all the display of lights, jewels (mostly false), exquisite polyphonic singing and pageantry which commonly accompany a royal reception. And all this was pervaded with that type of sentimental piety, those pantings after divine love, capable of competing successfully with the ecstatic expressions of human love fashionable in the poetry of the time (Ibid., 7).

We have quoted Bouyer extensively here because of his influence and because he states the case against the Baroque liturgy so forcibly. Some liturgists have, of course, been considerably less dismissive of the Baroque liturgy. While Joseph Jungmann agrees with Bouyer in general outline, he points out how the reforming commissions appointed by Pius IV and expanded by Pius V intended to return to the ancient Roman rites, to the pristine norm of the church fathers. The commissions investigated ancient sources and made use of them; though they lacked critical historical-liturgical knowledge, and thought the Gregorian Missal a pure Roman source, not knowing how many Franco-German additions were made (The Mass of the Roman Rite [New York: Benziger Brothers, 1950], vol. I, 137).

The 1564 commission to implement Trent used the Greek fathers as well as the Latin, under the impetus of the humanists, to return to the early Christian sources. This can hardly be described as pure anti-intellectual clinging to the past, but as a genuine investigation of the tradition, making prudent reforms in the light of the early legacy. Jungmann further catalogues the post-Tridentine reforms which removed all sequences except four as being not in accord with the Roman tradition; purified the Marian tropes (or trimmings) from the Gloria; recommended that the faithful receive holy communion each time they attended Mass — which was not the practice of the time, but of the early church; encouraged the printing of prayer books to follow the Mass, as long as the Canon was not printed.

Similarly, Theodore Klauser in his research discovered that the post-Trent liturgical commissions were not afraid to prune back the number of feasts that had sprung up in the medieval epoch. He points out that in the years from 800 A.D. to 1558 A.D., 290 new feasts were added to the calendar. But the calendar promulgated by the Tridentine Missal not only did not introduce new feasts; in fact it cut the number back to 133. The commission tried to keep March and April free of feasts so as not to interfere with the venerable season of Lent. So anxious were they to return to the ancient Roman calendar that 85% of the feasts they kept were from the first four centuries (A Short History of the Western Liturgy [London: Oxford University Press, 1969], 125ff.). The emphasis was on the most ancient feasts, especially of the apostles, popes and martyrs. Holding up the "golden liturgical age" of the fathers, as indeed many modern liturgists have done, the commissions sought to root out various excesses.

Perhaps the Counter-Reformation liturgical reform was not, then, quite so stilted and unthinking as Louis Bouyer makes out. Certainly the conciliar fathers at Trent thought they had intelligently revived the liturgy. These words from a sermon preached by Bishop Jerome Raconzonus of Venice at the ninth and last session of Trent on December 4, 1563 are instructive:

You have thereby removed from the celebration of the Mass all superstition, all greed for lucre and all irreverence . . . removed its celebration from private homes and profane places to holy and consecrated sanctuaries. You have banished from the temple of the Lord the more effeminate singing and musical compositions (Text in Colman J. Barry, O.S.B., Readings in Church History [Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1967], vol. II, 104).

The primary concern of the fathers at Trent was less liturgical than doctrinal and was especially attentive to the need to defend the faith against Protestant views. The doctrines of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, transubstantiation, and the reality of the sacrifice of the Mass claimed high attention. Yet the pastoral concerns of the Tridentine fathers are clearly evident. In chapter 8, we read:

The holy Synod commands pastors and everyone who has the care of souls to explain frequently during the celebration of the Masses, either themselves or through others, some of the things which are read in the Mass, and among other things to expound some mystery of this most holy Sacrifice, especially on Sundays and feast days (Roy J. Deferrari, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, a translation of Denziger's Enchiridion Symbolorum, 30th ed. [St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1957], 291).

Let us mention also the work of liturgical scholars at work during this period dedicating themselves to unearthing ancient liturgical texts. We can note Cardinal Bona, Cardinal Tommasi (declared a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1986), the seventeenth-century Maurists Mabillon and Martene, and the Oratorian Lebrun in the same era who translated the Missale Romanum into French in 1660 for purposes of study.

If the attitude of modern liturgical scholars to the Baroque era and its liturgical expression has been weighed on the negative side, art history has generally taken a very different tack, acclaiming the Baroque contribution as profound and impressive. Yet again, the popular Catholic appreciation of the Baroque differed greatly from that of the liturgy scholar. John Cartwright remarks in his popular Catholic Shrines of Europe:

There was a time when it was universally fashionable to make little of this Baroque style with its bold and startling departure from architectural repose. But today most writers on art seem to have come around to quite a different point of view. Meanwhile Bernini's colonnade and canopy have stood through the years, admirable when they were not admired and admirable now that they are admired ([New York: McGraw Hill, 1954], 22).

The new Baroque style burst the classical norms of Renaissance art and architecture as employed by the church, and often (something liturgical historians pass over) actually sought inspiration from the early church. Inspired in part by the early Roman basilica, Baroque churches allowed people to be much closer to the altar so as to participate in the liturgy more closely, albeit silently. On this point, Klauser's assessment is relatively positive:

The throne-room character of the Baroque church interior excluded all side aisles . . . From every seat in the church people had to be able to see the . . . monstrance, as (vice versa) the heavenly Lord had to be able to see every one of his visitors. Hence the Baroque period gave rise to a church interior which once more had the effect of gathering people together (A Short History of the Western Liturgy, 139).

Are there lessons we can learn today from the liturgy of the Baroque era? It seems to me that there are. The delight of that era in beauty in all its forms — painting, sculpture, architecture, and music — and the enthusiastic interplay between the arts and the liturgy — are all things we ought to emulate. The musical flowering of the Baroque is magnificent, if too enormous to detail. Palestrina's desire to follow the norms of Trent, the great orchestral Masses of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the many riches of the Baroque Catholic heritage — all deserve much more attention than they have received in recent years. But surely the beauty of holiness has never been more exuberantly portrayed.

Cardinal Ratzinger has described the problem, prevalent in recent decades, of a disconnection between the arts and the liturgy: "More and more clearly we can discern the frightening impoverishment which takes place when people show beauty the door and devote themselves exclusively to utility" (The Ratzinger Report [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985], 128). The Cardinal argues that "simple" liturgy does not mean poor or cheap liturgy; there is the simplicity of the banal and the simplicity that comes from spiritual, cultural and historical wealth.

The Cardinal also expresses himself strongly on a false archaism which would exalt the patristic period and diminish every development thereafter:

In reality the medieval Church (or the Church of the Baroque era, in many respects) developed a liturgical depth which must be carefully examined before it is abandoned. Here too we must be aware of the Catholic law of an ever better and deeper insight into the inheritance entrusted to us. Pure archaism is fruitless, as is pure modernization (Ibid., 132).

There is much that we can learn from the Baroque liturgical era. Although there might have been little external participation by the laity in that era, nonetheless there was great reverence and such sublimity of artistic and musical form that worshippers were led to bow before the transcendent Lord. This value is seriously lacking in most contemporary Catholic liturgy. The Baroque liturgy did in its day (critics notwithstanding), what it remains for us to do today: allow the arts and their ministry of beauty to draw us up into the transcendent, reverent, and exuberant worship of God.

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