Search This Blog


13 September 2014

A More Nuanced View of the Enlightenment

Ottobeuren Abbey church, architect J. M. Fischer, stuccoes by 
J. M. Feichtmayr, frescoes by J. J. Zeiller

Since reading Joseph Rykwert’s The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century (MIT) roughly three decades ago, I have largely accepted his reading of the eighteenth century’s trajectory toward the roots of Modernism, dominated by neo-classicists, the Goût grec, early Romanticism, Encyclopedic rationalism and proto-structuralism. And, naturally, rejecting Modernism, I was inclined to reject much that went along with the Enlightenment that seemed to have produced it. Not the Enlightenment of scientific advance and human rights, but the not-so-enlightened purism that rejected everything about the culture that had preceded it.

Maria Steinbach pilgrimage church, architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
J. G. Übelherr, frescoes by F. G. Hermann 
Of course, that’s a diagram of history, not its fullness. Before my Germanic Late-Baroque tour, I was already reading a number of recent histories that rendered more complex that pivotal century. Nigel Aston’s Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Reaktion) introduces the many ways in which religion didn’t disappear in the eighteenth century; rather, between Protestant and Catholic cultures there was an intricate rebalancing of perceptions and priorities, the former becoming increasingly more accustomed to, and desirous of, Catholic religious painting, and the latter applying increasingly rigorous standards to the purging of the fabulous (unhistorical) from its iconography. And, as Aston shows, there was simply an enormous quantity of religious art produced in the eighteenth century, most of it remarkably beautiful, that has been too easily ignored.

The architectural historian Heather Hyde Minor, in The Culture of Architecture in Enlightenment Rome (Penn State), tracks a number of ways Enlightenment ideas shaped the building of Rome by church patrons in the first half of the eighteenth century. References to church history and scholarly debates about it, connoisseurship of the antique, an interest in lightness as intellectual metaphor, informed the building of churches, museums, and palaces in the papal city.

St. Martin, Marktoberdorf , architect J. G. Fischer, stuccoes by
A. Bader, frescoes by F. G. Hermann
More apropos the buildings that have filled my senses over the last week, Ottobeuren, Maria Steinbach, and St. Martin in Marktoberdorf, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Painterly Enlightenment: The Art of Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724-1796 (North Carolina) describes the career of a painter of spectacular ecclesiastical frescoes who was gainfully employed, with only modest changes to his style, by enlightened patrons almost right up to the end of the century. The church at Ottobeuren received its final interior touches only just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But when one considers the composers working at that same time, like J. J. Quantz, C. H. Graun, or the slightly earlier J. J. Fux, the grace and elegance, formal richness and simultaneous clarity of that gallant music reverberates through these spaces, so clear in formal structure and so rich in ornament.

No comments:

Post a Comment