Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bohemian Baroque

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a big exhibition on Baroque opening on Saturday, which gives me an excuse to blog about the Bohemian Baroque.

In my post about the Ales Gallery I wrote of my love of Bohemian Gothic religious art; I am afraid this does not extend to Bohemian Baroque. I think it must be my English background that makes me so ill at ease with the baroque style of religious decoration. Czech churches are sometimes full of it and give me the creeps - those tortured or ecstatic saints looking upwards with elaborate hand gestures, those doves of the Holy Spirit like gilded guided missiles. In fact all together too much gold, marble, wealth and power. It's the in-your-face Counter-Reformation intolerance that the Catholic Baroque symbolises, that gets to me. For that matter I am not very keen on English church baroque either.

Now, I love a good carved medieval pieta or Last Judgement wallpainting, but then they are part of my English upbringing, something that would surprise many Czechs. On my first visit to the Czech Republic I was taken to a church service in Prague. “You probably won't like it, being a protestant,” I was told. Actually there was nothing in the service that I had not seen in Anglican church services – in fact there were if anything less “bells and smells” than in the High Anglican church in which I then had an office and where you had to open all the windows to get rid of the clouds of incense after the service. I was struck by how similar the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was to the Czech Catholic service I was listening to. Indeed my host would have been shocked to hear that on Sundays all over England “protestants” were giving witness in the Credo to a belief “in the one catholic church”.

But that is the point I think – the Anglican Church is catholic (with a small c), it is designed to be open and tolerant to all sorts of beliefs. When I tried to explain that the English Church was designed as a compromise to allow Catholics and Protestants to worship together, my Czech hosts laughed. It was another example in their eyes, I fear, of a lack of principle on the part of the English. I beg to differ. Looking at the religious fundamentalism of those Baroque churches and the Counter Reformation, it seems to me that pragmatic tolerance is actually a principle worth standing up for, now as much as ever.

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