On the Power of the Stars

15 12 2008


And some random reflections

[Image by Robert Place found on this site]

But what is remarkable about the Florentine cupolas is that they represent no merely random arrangement of the stars: the artist has preserved the aspect of the sky exactly as it appeared at a given day and hour. Why was this done? Without the slightest doubt, because some event of decisive importance for the Church had taken place at that very moment – an event over which the celestial powers then above the horizon had presided. Aby Warburg was able, in fact, to prove that the arrangement of the stars shown in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo corresponds exactly to their position in the sky above Florence on July 9, 1422, the date of the consecration of the main altar.

-taken from The Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec

According to this book, and from my reading of other scholars, placing the zodiac within churches became common during the Middle Ages. What would people say if such things began to appear in churches now? Were the Florentine ecclesiastics and Renaissance Popes who believed in the importance and influence of the stars on to something, or were they merely giving credence to superstitions that we no longer believe in? Is the silent, dead night sky more conducive to real Christianity than the crypto-paganism of the Renaissance magus? As always, the answer is not that simple.

Most ideas of modern religiosity are substantially the same. For the Protestant believer, the less enchanted the universe is, the more Christian it is. He has long ago taken to heart the idea that the devil is the lord of this world, and considers everything he sees accordingly. Matter is corrupt and cannot contain anything divine, so the word “idolatry” is always on his lips.

For the “orthodox” modern Catholic, the enchanted is contained in a tightly bound system of seven sacraments and a very well-defined Magisterium. Everything else is to be considered suspect. Ask him why there are seven sacraments, and his reply will be something like, “that’s what Christ instituted” or “that is what the Church says”. Never mind that a real reason comes from the fact that seven is the number of the planets in ancient thought, corresponding to the number of days. Or that three is the number of perfection, or that four is the number of the physical world, corresponding to the Gospels as the new Creation. No, his religion is legalistic, obsessed with epistemological problems, constantly trying to fend off the demon of relativism with the auto-erotic head games of a mind raised on Kant, Husserl, and Derrida. And most of all, it is not like the unofficial, unapproved faith of those bad Catholics over there who pray to Santa Muerte and Sarita Colonia.

Such also is the religiosity of New Agers and those who seek solace in Far Eastern religions, and those who seek the enchanted in Eastern Orthodoxy. Their idea of religion is still hemmed in by rules, constantly obsessed with where the divine is not. Even Islamic fundamentalism is really a very modern phenomenon; from the folk Islam that has ruled the Muslim believer for centuries, one of martyrs’ tombs, miraculous prayer beads, and mischievous jinn, there comes the reformation of the “pure Koran” that drives people to fly planes into buildings. Make no mistake about it, it is all one phenomenon, one global faith that makes the world a well-oiled machine where we tell God where He can and cannot go.

That is why theological abstraction never holds my attention. Show me how the religion looks like, how it moves, smells, and sounds on the ground level, and there I will show you a theophany. So much of modern belief is man-made. I say this because it feels safe, sterile, sanitized, and “wholesome”. The modern temple can thus feel like a museum of platitudes, or worse, a zoo where the bourgeois ordo virtutum is played out. Perhaps there are dangerous and unacceptable things in the cults of folk saints or ancient paganism, but to think that we are somehow better Christians because we have cleaned things up is deceptive. We may not be holier, just more sedated.



3 responses

6 05 2019

Reblogged this on Reditus.

26 02 2009
The modern war against folk religion « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] have made this point at times on this blog, and from what I am told by Muslim acquaintances, it is the Salafi/Wahhabi trend in Islam (the one […]

16 12 2008

Some time ago, I was in an Internet discussion about the dearth of “traditional” Catholic artists, writers, and musicians. One poster said that yes, there are “traditionalist” Catholic artists and proceeded to list people like Palestrina, Dante, and the like to prove his point. I said, no those examples doesn’t count because they aren’t traditionalists in the post-Vatican II sense. The bulk of what the Catholic traditionalist movement seems to have produced in the last 40 years are 100 variations on how wrong Vatican II was. While some of these critiques may be valid, they don’t provide any basis on which to establish a viable subculture. The old argument that traditionalists are just the way Catholics always were is false, because as you have stated, the old folk element is missing and the fact that the traditionalist movement arose because of very recent events. What is missing are the fruits of a true Catholic culture that doesn’t look like a comedy sketch’s idea of the 1950’s or the Middle Ages. And I have no idea how or if that could be done in a post-Christian, commercial society.

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