One of the reasons I sometimes wax nostalgic for the Middles Ages is for the religious spectacle. This was an age of the dramatic gesture: St. Francis standing barefoot in the snow or the penitent Henry IV crossing the Alps barefoot while wearing a hair shirt. It is the age of the passion and mystery plays—rumbustious and beautiful actors with painted faces tramping the boards on portable stages with painted backdrops—gurning demons, nagging Noah’s wives, dreadful Judases, and foolish apostles. It is the age of liturgical spectacle with jewel-encrusted chasubles, impossibly ornamented reliquaries, processions, pilgrimages, popes and priests, cardinals and curates all arrayed in their vestments or beggar’s robes as was their station.
It is the age of monumental architecture—soaring fan vaulting, flying buttresses, pillars and cloisters and pilasters and columns. The church interiors were painted bright colors and adorned with statuary and wall paintings; cloth of gold, embroidery, gilt and silver, jeweled chalices, ciboria, paten and plate. It is the age of the rose windows and Sainte Chapelle and the poignant carvings at Chartres or Gislebertus’ humble work at Autun. In an age where books were as precious as diamonds and most of the people could not read, the faith was visceral and visual and vitally alive.
This is not to say that the Christianity was stupid and dumbed-down or irrational, for this is also the age of the greatest Christian theologians and philosophers. This age belongs to the dumb ox Aquinas and Albert the Great. It is the age of Duns Scotus and Bonaventure and Roger Bacon and Anselm of Canterbury. Nevertheless the religion of the people was one of pageantry and pomp and penitence and prayer. It was a vital religion with drama and romance—where the splendor of liturgy and the squalor of life were juxtaposed in an everyday clash of the beautiful and the beastly, the mundane and the marvelous, the glory and the gory, a gasp at the glimpse of heaven in the gaps of time between each mundane moment in the short dance until death.
It may not be easy to see the movies in the Middle Ages, but I believe there are more similarities between that world and our own than we might first admit. For a start, I notice that for too many, reading and writing are becoming an arcane past time. Hoi polloi are not illiterate, they are un-literate. That is to say, they can read, but they do not. Instead we spend hours of our time with our eyes locked to a screen. We watch wide-screen TVs, enormous IMAX screens, tiny smart phones, and onboard in-car videos. Through television and movies and screens of all kinds the drama of life is played out before our eyes in a visual and visceral way as it was for our ancestors in the Middle Ages.
It is easy to regard the modern media with distaste and the art of the Middle Ages as being superior, but we must remember that the art of the Middle Ages that we have with us now is the art that has survived, and most of it is the stuff that deserved to survive. No doubt there was much produced at the time that was as ephemeral, banal, populist and vulgar as the huge amount of material churned out from our modern media outlets today. Time will reveal what, from our own age will stand the test of time, and if we think that either our own technology is superior or that the media masters of the Middle Ages were superior technicians, we should put it in perspective and remember that the artists of every age simply do the best they can with the tools and materials they have to hand. Modern man makes movies with the use of the most amazingly advanced technologies, then we recall that flying buttresses and rose windows and mosaics and fan vaulting were all the high technology of their day.
So how, are the movies and the Middle Ages connected? I think the popular art forms of each age connected with the ordinary people in a way that was visual, visceral, and vital. First of all, both our movie age and the Middle Ages communicate visually. Visual communication, in contrast to verbal communication, uses symbol and sign, action and gesture. A master film maker, like Steven Spielberg, tells the whole story not with words, but with pictures. It all comes in through the eye gate and, while not contradicting verbal thought, goes straight to the mind through the emotions. This is what the great art, drama, and liturgy of the Middle Ages did. It connected with ordinary people through the visual expression of architecture, stained glass, the dramatic action or the liturgical gesture. People saw the truth, and what they saw went straight to the heart.
This leads to the second observation: that the life and faith of the Middle Ages, like the movies, were visceral. In other words, they appealed not primarily to the intellect, but to the emotions. Lest this be regarded as mere sentimentality, the appeal to the emotions was undergirded by a sound theological and philosophical foundation. A modern script writer has said, “I want to move the audience so much that they leave the cinema thinking.” A good film is visceral, but only in order to engage the whole person from the heart up rather than from the head down. The visceral response to religion in the Middle Ages was similar to the straightforward emotional appeal of the movies. As Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy has shown in his studies of the religion of the late medieval period, this was a religion of the heart. Personal devotions were the meat and potatoes of medieval religion, and the religion of the ordinary person was therefore not only visual, but visceral, and if it was visual and visceral then it was also vital.
That is to say, it was alive. It was real. For the Catholic of the Middle Ages the spiritual realm was more real, not less real, than the physical realm. Furthermore, the fact that the faith was visual and visceral was connected with its vitality. A faith that was visual and visceral was a faith in which the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It was an incarnational faith—a faith in which everyday carpenters and fishmongers and prostitutes and priests remembered that Jesus Christ was a carpenter who called fishermen and prostitutes and priests to be his followers. The fact that they could see and feel their religion meant that it was alive and vital and real. It was something concrete and solid—something you could experience, and the undergirding theological and philosophical truths were incarnated and experienced. What they believed was how they behaved.
And here is where too much of our modern movie age is in sad contrast with the Middle Ages, for the visual and the visceral experiences we have as we watch the screen are too often unreal and untrue. They are not simply unreal and untrue because they are fictional, but because they do not communicate Reality and Truth. The movie age we live in may be visual and visceral, but it is not vital. Consequently, we find sad souls who try to make it vital by living out the plots they see on the screen, or attempt to follow in their own lives the tortured fabrications they see in the lives of celebrities from the screen.
In the Middle Ages there was a harmony and continuity between the visual, the visceral, and the vital. That harmony and that continuity has now been lost. We have instead a fragmented vision. We experience a vast array of visual images and visceral experiences, none of which are necessarily connected with one another, and all of them are divorced from any underlying and unifying schema of truth, beauty, and reality.
Consequently, while we live in a visual and visceral age, instead of the vital we have the vapid. Like the cave-dwelling prisoners in Plato’s myth, we watch flickering images before us, but are disconnected from the reality they represent. We are hollow men, gazing at a screen and feeling the manufactured emotions, but without the meaning. Too often the movies are spectacular, but specious. There is flesh and form but the Word has gone, and the only remedy is a return to meaning. Unless our culture re-builds a structure of integrated meaning and mystery our visual and visceral entertainment will become increasingly empty.
A return to meaning can be accomplished through a renewal of classical learning, but it can also be accomplished through the arts. Movies, and the rest of popular culture, need not be merely visual and visceral. They can have depth and vitality too, but that great task can only be accomplished through submission to tradition, learning with a sense of wonder and—oh, so unfashionable!—a discipline of prayer.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.