At the beginning of a Baroque odyssey, of a compact smattering of sites treated in Henry Russell Hitchcock’s Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany (OK, I call it Baroque, he calls it Rococo, but then the pearl is born in the shell; not to mention that so far I’m in Switzerland, and will eventually wind up in Austria), I thought I would post some images from two spectacular, and related, monasteries: Einsiedeln and St. Gallen. For those who lament the loss of medieval St. Gall, read no further. I am besotted by these two places, so filled are they with joy, exuberance, and sheer love of beauty (if those are qualities one doesn’t associate these days with Switzerland, well, that’s a study for a sociologist; come to think of it, The Sociology of Modernism would be a worthwhile study for someone to do). I’m researching topics for my forthcoming book on Invention, but let me just point out one particular from St. Gallen that speaks to the wonderfully rich, and fundamentally human, culture that informed these two monastic complexes. The strength, to me at least, of the St. Gallen church’s decorative program is the figurative reliefs (the decorative rococo ornament work is spectacular as well, if hard to separate from its coloristic role). And here I just want to zoom in to one detail, which for me sums up the supreme humanity in the otherwise overwhelmingly artistic milieu.
Two monks offer bread to a poor woman with her child, and a grizzled old beggar man. He would be only a type if it weren’t for the fact of his peg leg, thrust out into space over the rococo ornament below (becoming the kind of diagonal accent that Alpers and Baxandall describe in Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence), so poignantly pulls us into the message of the relief. This genre detail, even if compositionally useful, is fundamentally human, even sadly so. What can get lost in the place’s wealth of detail—not to mention incredible artistic accomplishment, which so harshly illumines our contemporary mediocrity—is the sense of the corporal, the capacity of these rarified Benedictines to fulfill their mission of hospitality, and indeed compassion, as the inscription proclaims: VISCERA MISERICORDIAE.
Mercy from the gut. The flowering of brilliance in European culture in the first half of the eighteenth century—the like of which we haven’t seen since—was not divorced from the human, the real, the necessary. At Einsiedeln the beautifully ordered monastic complex abuts a hillside where their horses still graze, serenaded in the morning by alpine horns; the earthy, natural side of life fits seamlessly with the refined and spiritual sides. Would that we could recover that balance, although where it hasn’t been destroyed it lives still.