E.I. Watkin: Herald of the New Spring

E.I. Watkin, English convert and writer, died in 1981 at the age of ninety-two. In his obituary notice in the London Times, he was described as “one of the most distinguished Catholic philosophers of his day.” Special attention was paid to his work The Philosophy of Form (1951), a study in the philosophy of art, touted as “a new and independent approach to problems which, in the sphere of Catholic thought, had been treated mostly from the Neo-Thomist point of view.”

There are better-known Catholic writers on art—Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (1920); Thomas Gilby, O.P., Poetic Experience (1936); Etienne Gilson, Painting and Reality (1955); Armand A. Maurer, C.S.B., About Beauty (1987). But the book Watkin published in 1944, An Essay on Catholic Art and Culture, tackles a question that still confounds us at the end of the century: What sort of cultural art form can the Church use to communicate her message in the new millennium?

In considering this question, Watkin focused on the tension between the temporal and eternal, or, to use John Paul II’s terms, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Catholicism. His treatment of these concerns in 1940 forecast both the letter and the spirit of Vatican II twenty-five years later. The fact that Watkin is much neglected today seems but another instance of the prevailing myth that Vatican II emerged full-blown in 1963 without antecedent roots earlier in the century.

Early Christianity and Culture: Spring

Watkin was a polymath, a writer of broad interests who approached with keenness such disparate subjects as mysticism, poetry, history, art, architecture, and the liturgy. He was both a friend and, to some extent, a disciple of Christopher Dawson. His capacity for interdisciplinary research certainly shows a Dawsonian flair for the “big picture.”

Watkin enlists Dawson’s view that the bedrock of all human culture is religion. The history of the West reveals four ages of Catholic religion-culture, giving rise to Watkin’s seasonal schema of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, which he used to assay the four chronological stages of that culture. Although the form of the faith was everywhere and in all places the same, its artistic elaboration could change depending on the matter to be used.

“The Gospel did not propose to create a new culture or regenerate an old,” commences Watkin’s An Essay on Catholic Culture. “Its purpose was to set up a Kingdom of redeemed souls to share the supernatural life of God on earth by grace, hereafter in glory.” Of the twelve apostles, only St. Paul could be counted a cultivated man, and for him, knowing Christ crucified was all that mattered. In other words, early Christianity focused almost exclusively on the eternal. Watkin goes so far as to state that such a “more or less exclusive and always unbalanced vertical direction of thought and interest was inevitable and therefore beneficial, if supernatural religion was to assert itself against pagan naturalism.”

But this springtime of Christian culture, engaged as it was in a confrontation with classical culture, encompasses a horizontal movement that would unite with the supernatural and flower in the religion-culture of a gothic summer. St. Paul might despise everything save Christ Jesus, but he would become all things to all men and instruct the Philippians that “all that is true . . . all that is pure, all that is lovable, all that is winning, whatever is virtuous or praiseworthy—let such things fill your thoughts.” And Pope St. Gregory the Great might have railed against secular learning, but his liturgical achievement as exemplified in the chant named after him owed everything to musical forms inherited by ancient Rome and Greece.

Gothic Summer

The genius of this medieval synthesis, according to Watkin, produced an enlarged sense of the mind’s relation to the created order that enabled it to remain subject to the primacy of heaven. “Catholicism can be content with nothing less than a universal knowledge, knowledge of everything knowable, if it is to acquire the necessary material in which to embody, realize, and display its principles.” It was St. Thomas the Aristotelian who provided the metaphysics that fashioned the synthesis between reason and revelation, thereby correcting the “exclusive verticalism” of the Platonic-Augustianism dominant in the early middle ages.

For Watkin, the Gothic style of religion-culture was marked by four cathedrals: the cathedral of stone, with its ribbed vaults and buttresses; the intellectual cathedral of Scholasticism, with St. Thomas as the keystone; the social cathedral of Christendom, where the religious and the political are but two edges of the same sword; and the literary cathedral of the Commedia, Dante’s great poem.

Unlike the early Christian period, where an other-worldy unease gripped the fathers when brought face to face with classical literature and philosophy, the medievals embraced their classical inheritance, imposing a Christian form on classical matter with a blithe, almost childish confidence. Yet the scope of St. Thomas’s Summa and the perpendicular of the cathedral were ideals still unknown to much of the Church at large. There remained in the Gothic summer a large remnant of what Gregory the Great had called, in an earlier age, the “brute animality” of the masses.

Late Summer: The Renaissance

The medieval synthesis began to break apart in the 14th and 15th centuries. Watkin’s admiration for the Thomistic achievement made him chary of the “frankly irreligious Aristotelianism of Pomponazzi,” and of the Epicureanism of men like Lorenzo Valla. And although he felt that the Platonic dialogues were more religiously inspired than the books of Aristotle, still the new Platonism of the Renaissance was “more Platonic than Christian.”

Nevertheless, unlike Maritain in Art and Scholasticism, Watkin drew back at any wholesale condemnation of the Renaissance. “We must not therefore exaggerate the extent of this incipient revolt of humanism against Christianity, this affirmation of the horizontal to the detriment of the vertical movement.” After all, Pico de la Mirandola was a holy man, and his teacher Ficino was a devout priest. We need look no further than St. Thomas More to see paganism defeated by a Christian humanism.

While some superficial histories seek to create a chasm separating the Renaissance from the Gothic age, Watkin insists that the Christian humanism of the Renaissance was foreshadowed in the classical sources of the Middle Ages. True, the surfeit of new material from antiquity made the Renaissance project of assimilation more difficult; yet Watkin proposes that the surge of interest in mysticism during the last 200 years of the medieval period provided the Church with the resources to resist a purely pagan ideal.

Watkin, to his credit, underlines the ambiguity of the period. Art still reflects the supremacy of Christianity, papal Rome is the artistic capital of Europe, the adornment of churches is still the highest achievement of art, and sacred subjects far outnumber secular ones. Yet Watkin asks, were those subjects “mere cloaks of the secular? . . . Were the Madonnas of Renaissance art no more than representations of human motherhood?” Watkin’s explanation is balanced: Certainly Fra Angelico dwelt in the heavenly places, but Perugino is a repressed landscape painter who struggles to paint the story of the Gospel. Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was an effete undertaking, a portrayal of an effeminate Christ that bore no relation to the Incarnate God of history. “Imagine,” says Watkin, “Leonardo’s Christ speaking as Jesus spoke to the Pharisees. It is unthinkable.”

Baroque Autumn

Michelangelo stands at the threshold of the baroque autumn. The Sistine frescoes represent nothing less than “the achievement and the promise of the comprehensive reconciliation of all things in a center [that is] in every sense Catholic.” What Pope John Paul II recently called “the chapel of the theology of the body” contains for Watkin “the greatest religious picture in the world, the Creation of Adam.” On Michelangelo’s ceiling, the tension between the horizontal and the vertical is resolved. The drama of the fresco, captured in Adam’s outstretched hand, embodies the incarnational theme while preserving the Creator’s majesty. By the time of Michelangelo’s death in 1564, Europe had been divided by the Reformation. Europe’s Catholic center was shattered. The Catholic Counter-Reformation sought more than the reassertion of Catholic doctrine against Protestant denial. The baroque style of the Counter-Reformation was a monumental attempt “to re-establish in every sphere the Catholic culture of the Middle Ages in forms and by methods suitable to the novel conditions.” The attempt, never more than partially successful, finally failed. But for the interim, with the remaining Catholic countries, the Baroque kept alive the living continuity of the old religion-culture.

Watkin departed from established opinion that the Baroque was a decisive turning away from the Gothic, instead insisting that it was an extension of the Gothic. Though baroque architecture lacked the aspiration of the Gothic spire, its place was taken by the dome or vault suggesting a boundless space where painted architectural elements merged with the masonry.

Winter: The Modern World

Still, the rounded contours and effulgence of the Baroque church soon clashed with the revolutionary spirit of the 18th century. In spite of sporadic attempts, no other form of religion-culture would take its place. The Romantic movement that ushered in the 19th century had a Catholic component that challenged the dominant rationalism of the 18th century, but that revival was undone by its own superficial fideism. In Watkin’s analysis, the real influence of romanticism comes from its left-wing intelligentsia, who were increasingly hostile to religion “and finally even theism.” Wordsworth’s best efforts were dedicated to a pantheistic nature mysticism, while “the work of his Anglican orthodoxy was of little value.” In Blake, man was deified not by grace but by a gnostic self-realization. German philosophy as represented by Hegel provided the rationale for the immanentist spirit of the age.

Such a “pantheist indefinity,” according to Watkin, was pseudotheism. “The Dark Night of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, a hymn to the indefinite, bears a delusive resemblance to the Dark Night of St. John of the Cross, a hymn to the Infinite.” Though individual romanticists were Christian, even Catholic, the movement broke with the orthodox religion of the Europe’s past. Taking aim at reason itself, the Romantic movement would evolve into positivism and materialism.

With the onset of the 19th century culture wars, a return to Catholic religion-culture was out of the question. The Church entered what Watkin called her Maccabean period. Just as the Maccabees had fought to keep their Jewish religion uncontaminated by Hellenism, so the Catholic Church fortified herself against the antireligious currents. It was not a time when the advances made in the secular arena could be incorporated easily within the Church’s self-understanding. Scientific evolution and biblical criticism, to take two examples, were areas that would need to await a later, clarifying light from the Magisterium.

With art and literature heirs to romanticism, then post-romanticism, and finally modernism, little would be forthcoming that would succor Catholics, who fought a continual rear guard action against the growing secularism. Catholics taking positions of cultural leadership became increasingly rare—Newman being the preeminent exception.

Late Winter: Signs of Spring

From his English garden in 1941, with the Battle of Britain commencing, Watkin thought he saw signs that might constitute the refounding of a Catholic religion-culture. Not that the shape or outline of a new religion-culture was evident; rather, sprouts were emerging that would be indispensable for the new culture. Watkin believed that we would soon enter an age of the Holy Spirit that would, once again, bring about an harmonious balance between the contemplative and temporal dimensions of existence. “Commisars,” he said, “would be replaced by contemplatives.” Moreover this interest in the interior life would occasion the opportunity for a reunion of Christians. The result would be a renewal at once continuous with the Catholic styles of the past but committed to simplicity and spiritual understatement.

Watkin’s interest in spiritual interiority seems to have had an impact on mid-century Catholicism, specifically in the conversion of the poet Robert Lowell. In his recent book, American Catholic Arts and Fictions, Paul Giles notes that Lowell referred to Watkin by name in a prefatory note to Lord Weary’s Castle. In that collection of poems, Lowell made use of Watkin’s understanding of Our Lady of Walsingham as an emblem for the kind of interiority that would mark the Catholic sensibility of the twentieth century. Although not himself attached to medieval artistic glories, Lowell followed Watkin in believing that the future belonged to those who could practice a kind of “contemplative life within the kingdom of the Holy Spirit.” Lowell, who was a copy editor at Sheed and Ward, which published An Essay on Catholic Art and Culture, probably saw the work in its earliest stage.

For Watkin, the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham lacks outward charm, yet eloquently pleads for a kind of inscrutable transcendence. Watkin does feel that the Walsingham image conforms, almost by its forlorn condition, to a new minimalism that the Catholic faithful would embrace in the extended winter to come.

What Watkin did not envision in 1942 was the decomposition of Catholic belief and practice during the last half of the century. His artistic side questioned the unrelievedly repetitive nature of catechetical instruction. He called for more liturgical sensitivity, melding the truths of the faith with a web of sound and sight that would buttress—without blurring—the truth of the Church’s teachings. As a leader of the Catholic revival in England, Watkin took doctrinal firmness for granted. At present, the faithful suffer from a catechetical dislocation that is often abetted from the pulpit. Consequently, contemporary Catholics have often despaired of the effort to create a modern vesture for traditional beliefs, believing they engender doctrinal fuzziness and liturgical foppishness rather than an appreciation of Catholic tradition. From Watkin’s perspective, it might be said that the matter of most modern Catholic art lacks the form of Catholic belief.

Yet, Watkin’s insistence on the need to integrate the vertical and the horizontal through the nurturing of contemplative interiority perfectly responds to our problem today. We have witnessed, as John Paul II reminded in Familiaris Consortio, the overwhelming of the vertical by the horizontal. The early Church faced her own horizontal problem in the pagan cults and belief in vitalism. In our time, the reemergence of paganism requires of Christians a kind of heroic interiority linked with catechetical clarity to cleave to supernatural truth. The return of the interior life was prophesied by Watkin in the shadow of the Second World War, given renewed affirmation by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and awaits its lived realization as we approach the third millennium in the footsteps of the Holy Father.

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