The Myth of Noble Simplicity

Christian Egyptian/Coptic textile remnant. Ca. 4th-5th cent. Byzantine Museum, Athens.

Years ago as an undergraduate theology student at Loyola University Chicago I had the eye-opening opportunity to take the course Introduction to the Orthodox Church, of which I had no experience, and very little knowledge. For my final project I wrote a very basic comparison between the visuality (before it was even a thing) of the reformed Roman Catholic Mass and the Orthodox Divine Liturgy – pictures included. On the Roman side of the ring, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, with its mix of ideas from The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and Bob Hovda, and the images of Frank Kacmarcik’s churches. On the Orthodox side, a few patristic commentaries on the liturgy, and the most wild images of crown toting bishops and crossed candles I could muster in the nascent internet era. In truth, I intimated that the Orthodox liturgy was in dire need of reform, given the sound logic of Sacrosanctum Concillium and the document EACW. My Orthodox priest/professor thought the comparison was interesting, but challenged me to think further about tradition, the judgement-making mechanisms of what is appropriate, the role of culture, and yes, the meaning of nobility, and simplicity. My undergraduate brain had little sense of what he was on about. I do now.

Absis de Sant Climent de Taüll. Ca. 1123.

There is nothing more disheartening as a liturgical practitioner of art and architecture than to see well-developed, artistically and liturgically sound, and beautiful projects, handicapped or even completely obliterated, by well-meaning, but ultimately un-formed and uninformed, committees, commissions, pastors, and bishops, in the name of noble simplicity. It’s happened to me and to colleagues countless times, and it spans our denominations. Careful listening often reveals that those with decision-making power many times have little understanding of what is intended by ‘noble simplicity’ and what its boundaries are. Yet, to me, there is a more fundamental issue at stake: Noble simplicity as a liturgical-theological aesthetic (the way things look) is a myth, both as an historical assertion, and as a category of contemporary compulsory praxis.

Artist’s recreation of the interior of Santa Costanza (4th cent), Rome, using the apse mosaic of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (6th cent).

The term, as many others have discussed in more ample ways, is found in Sacrosanctum Concillium 34. Here it deals with the structure and language of rites. Chapter 7, dealing specifically with art and architecture, states in distinction that the aesthetic tenor of sacred art is noble beauty. This is opposed to mere sumptuous display – and here one wonders if ‘mere’ is the problem. The notion that simplicity should be the visual character of the liturgical environment is nowhere to be found – beauty is. In fact, the introduction to Chapter 7 states that the Church has never had a particular style, which from the perspective of art, is where simplicity would be embodied. One can’t logically have it both ways, then – all styles, but only the simple ones. I have always found it a bit ironic, therefore, that subsequent scholars and reform-leaders  promoted art and architectural simplicity as the conciliar leitmotif of contemporary church building somehow as a seemingly necessary corollary to the Roman Rite’s ‘genius’. But was the Roman Rite so noble and simple as Ludovico Muratori (1672-1750) and Edmund Bishop (1846-1917) conceived of it? 

San Clemente, Rome. Detail. Translation of Saint Clement. C. 1080.

Stational liturgies and multiple processional crosses – to name just a few eccentricities – would seem to suggest otherwise. Perhaps the prayer structures and their Latin were, but perhaps only in contrast to their liturgical counterparts. Yet, in terms of visual culture there is no evidence that the Roman Rite was ever ocularly spartan. From the perspective of Christian material culture, liturgy, even in its earliest embodiments in the pre-Constantinian period, was seemingly colorful, painted, patterned, materialed, architectural, and soundfull.  And only became more so.

Coronation Mass. Saint Pope Paul VI. 29 June 1963.

Although notes from Subcommission XIII involved in composing SC do not exist on this point, the conciliar concern over sumptuous display seemed not to have been directly related to some imagined purified ur-rite, but the Baroque context of Italy, the hyper-devotional displays of popular religion, and the pageantry of the papal court.   In the original scheme of SC there was to be a further chapter on the use of liturgical vestments and utensils which was soon folded into a highly abridged Chapter 7. It is perhaps telling that both in the formulation of SC and its surrounding debate, much of the ‘simplification’ camp were formed of a close-knit group of eurocentric scholars. The global outsiders tended to be far more concerned with inculturation and the liturgical insinuation that they needed to look European in their worship.     

Auguste Perret and Gustave Perret. Église Notre-Dame du Raincy. 1922-23.

Nonetheless, in the grand scheme noble simplicity and noble beauty came to be conflated even if they were two separate realities in SC. This was especially the case in the subsequent General Instruction of the Roman Missal.  In this document, there is a clear merger of beauty and simplicity. And in what must be one of the grossest over-reaches in art and architectural theory ever recorded, it insists that simplicity is the “best” companion of “genuine art” (n.325) ! How such an absolute statement was deduced is left in silence. The dynamic was of course reflected in EACW with its fetishization of simplicity before which one was to “stand back and truly see”. But in fact, in art and architectural history the die was cast for such a merger at the turn of the twentieth century. The banlieues of Paris were especially notable in this respect for the Œuvre des Chantiers du Cardinal, a project began in the early 1900’s meant to provide new churches for the burgeoning population. Much of the inspiration came from Auguste Parrets’ church Notre Dame du Raincy, the first church ever constructed in structural concrete. Such spaces necessitated architectural simplicity according to the dictates of their materials.  

Hans van der Laan. St Benedictusberg Abbey, Vaals. 1967. Chapel.

Its very hard to glam cement. An added element came to define the work. An anthropology developed suggesting proper buildings reflected the nature of their users. The building must be simple, uncomplicated, as the Parisian factory workers supposedly were. Whether Pie-Raymond Regamey and Marie-Alain Courtuier were directly influenced by the Chantiers work is not clear, but certainly the liturgical thought of Regamey was based in an anthropology of poverty, as is evidenced in his many writings upon the essential nature of poverty to the experience of Christianity.

Antoni Gaudí. Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. 1882-Present.

Too vast to trace out here, the defining anthropology of poverty and simplicity echoes throughout the liturgical renewal and is reflected in the thought of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The pastoral concern for doctrinal and religious simplicity, based in an anthropological conception of the ‘worker’, undoubtedly influenced liturgical reform writ large. Noble simplicity was not simply about the supposed usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, but a hermeneutic of pastoral adaptation, mission, and relevance. The Church’s agenda of liturgical clarity and the architectural/artistic world’s  interest in purity were easily conflated, and in fact were so, both before and after the Council. This reliance upon an anthropology of poverty and relevance to the ‘worker/everyman’ was strongly expressed in the work of the Dutch liturgical architect Hans van der Laan (1904-1991) OSB, and the American Edward Sövik (1918-2014) that sought to ‘humanize’ liturgical space in scale and material.

Burgundian gothic chasuble. Order of the Golden Fleece. Ca. 1453.

My point here is not to call into question the value of liturgical clarity in ritual enactment as envisioned by the liturgical renewal.  What I do find problematic is the manner the concept of noble simplicity was and is employed as an aesthetic category involving both architecture and art. Certainly in the case of visual history, Christian art and architecture has not been constrained by, nor defined by simplicity.  More problematically, in as much as noble simplicity has come to define the liturgical environment based upon an anthropology of poverty, it must be recognized that such an argument was descriptive and not prescriptive, as cultures most certainly change. As a pastoral approach to modernity it has no inherent theological value.  Indeed, I would suggest the notion that western society is ‘uneducated’ and ‘simple’ is certainly past its prime. In many respects, the anthropology the Council was belatedly working out of was an approach geared to the vestiges of industrial society. Today, a ‘simple’ Church seems rather fanciful in the matrix of social and technological advancements.

Beryl Dean. Jubilee Cope. 1977. Diocese of London.

In his commentary upon the Rite of a Dedication of a Church and Altar, Ignazio Calabuig, OSM, articulated what I believe is the most clear ritual and aesthetic guideline of contemporary liturgy – that of supersigns – which to my mind is far better geared toward the present. Yet, this does not indicate what the plastic appearance of those signs must be. It does not really indicate what the liturgy must look like. In short, liturgical clarity does not necessarily mean artistic simplicity. 

Indeed, why something should be simple at all is fraught with all sorts of cultural baggage. I have been involved in not a few cases in which ecclesial powers have dictated what a project should look like based upon the assertion that the community was too simple to really understand art, or their architectural vision was too this or that, or what the community desired was too sophisticated, too avant-garde, or too traditional.  Essentially, a type of intellectual neo-colonialism: Let us tell you what you are capable of desiring and understanding. In all the cases, no matter what the look was, the demigod noble simplicity was invoked as the supporting justification.  This tells me that indeed, noble simplicity is a myth that continues to wreak havoc on the liturgical environment.

Lello Scorzelli, La Porta della Preghiera (1968-71, Basilica di San Pietro, Città del Vaticano). Detail of the Death of Simeon. Commissioned by St. Pope Paul VI.

In saying all this, my intention isn’t to determine what liturgical art and architecture need to look like therefore, if indeed there is a ‘need’ at all. It is my intention, rather, to insist that neither nobility nor simplicity singularly represent an immutable theological aesthetic or truism, as well as to emphasize that these adjectives are not somehow self-interpreting, and therefore even useful. There is per se, no singular theological paradigm of our visual worlds, least of all for our churches – certainly not historically.  Liturgical clarity is not a style. So I return to the challenge of my Orthodox professor. What is appropriate is found somewhere in the intersection of tradition, culture, and human creativity. I’m reminded of the sage words of Aidan Kavanagh penned some years ago; “noble simplicity”, he wrote, must be approached with a “certain healthy impiety”. Thirty-six years on, I would go further. It’s time to put the myth to rest. So let a hundred artistic flowers bloom. Even the more extravagant ones.

San Clemente, Rome. Detail. Apse mosaic. Ca. 1130.




22 responses to “The Myth of Noble Simplicity”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    To borrow from a prior discussion, but relevant here because it’s been frequently invoked in discussions of “noble simplicity”: the medieval example of the Cistercians, as as typically replicated in art/architectural history books in the mid-to-late 20th century in black-and-white photos and renderings, was reductive to a *mere* visual level that was not necessarily informative, because I don’t think it could be said that the results of such invocations would necessarily have struck the Cistercian forbears as particularly connected to their prayer, thought and experience.

    Even after Reformation iconoclasm, the church of the Cistercian Kloster Maulbronn is not what Americans would typically associate with “noble simplicity” at a purely visually reductive level:

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      Maulbronn is positively extravagant when compared with the genuine unadorned and clean simplicity of the Provence Cistercian abbeys of Le Thoronet, Sénanque and Silvacane…. But then Teutonic Baroque and Rococo tastes were different from the French way of doing things.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        But genuine Cistercian simplicity is not simply French: Cistercians had many different flavors of simplicity, not all of which survive, but Iberia, the Italian peninsula, central Europe, the Isles et cet. all attest to that. More importantly, visual spareness was complemented by chanted conventual liturgy, and a profound regular community life – cherry-picking the visual simplicity of one particular regional school of Cistercian design without considering the whole context would be misleading if it were being cited as support as an exemplar of what “noble simplicity” is intended to mean.

  2. Christopher Lazowski OSB Avatar

    While I broadly agree with this, I would like to point out that “the Belgian liturgical architect Hans van der Laan” is also a mythical character. Father van der Laan was Dutch. However, the Belgian border is very close to Vaals Abbey, of which he was a monk.

    A better picture of the abbey church of Vaals can be found on his English Wikipedia page : It is good quality, and in colour. It’s still pretty grey. The photograph shows the (present) abbot in his seat in choir, which gives a good idea of the scale. He’s very tall.

    There’s something overly all-encompassing about Vaals. Fr. van der Laan designed everything : the liturgical Psalters (including the typeface) you see in the photograph, the sacred vessels, the vestments (Solesmes, Kergonan and Quarr also use his chasubles for concelebrating priests at Mass), the furniture throughout the monastery, even the precise cut of the habit, based on his numerical theories. It all may look simple, but in reality it is anything but. It is in some ways admirable, but I’m fairly sure I’d go bonkers if I lived there.

    The grey on the benches isn’t paint, by the way. It’s a very fine cement render!

    1. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      Thank you for this further information. And correcting my mis-information! I have corrected the nationality. I visited the abbey with a Belgian priest, so perhaps this explains my error. I am not sure what your experience of the chapel is…I found that the photos make the materials and ambiance far more seductive than what it was in person. (?)

      1. Christopher Lazowski OSB Avatar

        I’m sure you’re right about the relatives effects of the two photographs. I think they compliment each other. The one you included in the post, a colour photograph that manages to look as though it’s in black and white, is better at catching the “49 shades of grey” ambiance.

        I’ve never been to Vaals, but I know a number of past and present members of the community, as well as regular visitors to the place. Fr. van der Laan’s project, as well as being too over-encompassing, is, like a lot of the best of the sort of “noble simplicity” architecture you deal with here, excessively cerebral: beauty at the second, if not third, degree of abstraction. It can work for a certain sort of intellectual, but it can hardly be popular in the way Fr. Régamey hoped. I do find it interesting that the 20th century French Church took a road so different from that taken by 19th century Anglo-Catholics like Fr. Mackonochie.

        Not all the early 20th century Paris churches have such a stark aesthetic however. Saint-Esprit is the east of Paris, another concrete structure, has a particularly rich iconographical programme, alas obscured by a think layer of ecclesisatical-urban grime.

  3. Victor Wowczuk Avatar
    Victor Wowczuk

    The author makes some very good points. But there is one which perhaps denies the traditional understanding of the liturgy as an art form. The Mass for instance as a whole can be looked at as a sacred dance, a bodily ceremonial in which the clergy “dance in the sanctuary”. It is an art of the body. So when SC 34 calls for the rite to be of noble simplicity (Ritus nobili simplicitate fulgeant), it is not merely calling for the language to be simple as well as noble. It calls for the entire Rite to be of noble simplicity and specifies that language is to be included in this Noble Simplicity of the Rite. The language is part of the art form of the Mass. So when Mr Hadley says concerning SC 34 “Here it deals with the structure and language of rites.”, the structure and language are as much part of the art form of the Mass, as are other individual parts, such as the music. One has to look at the Mass as a whole as an art form.
    Apparently it was Paul VI who insisted that that the phrase “noble simplicity”, taken from the visual arts at the time, be included in SC. It was meant for the entire reform of the liturgy, and by extension to the art and architecture of the sacred spaces for the liturgy. This is all to say that if “Noble simplicity as a liturgical-theological aesthetic (the way things look) is a myth, both as an historical assertion, and as a category of contemporary compulsory praxis”, then I would suggest there is a problem with the nature of the entire reform itself as founded on “noble simplicity”, that is to say, it makes SC a dated document, and therefore merely a disciplinary one that can be changed according to the necessities of the times.

    1. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      Thank you for your comments. I agree on the whole. Part of my division between the rites and arts was following the written format of SC. I agree that the Ars Celebrandi is a holistic concept. But I would continue to think the document makes a distinction between the manner of enactment and the ‘look’, as I put it. My research has not come across the idea that Paul VI was responsible for the phrase. Can you say more?

      1. Victor Wowczuk Avatar
        Victor Wowczuk

        I admit I cannot find the article that suggested Paul VI’s responsibility for including the word “noble.” I found this credible quite a number of years ago in an article about church art, and I recall that it was anecdotal, so it could well be apocryphal, especially in view of Alcuin Reid’s recent essay on the history of the phrase. I will keep looking.

        An interesting addition to your topic could be Paul VI’s Address to a General Audience on November 26, 1969 in which he said of the reformed rite :
        “15…Indeed, if the rite is carried out as it ought to be, the spiritual aspect will be found to have greater richness. The greater simplicity of the ceremonies, the variety and abundance of scriptural texts, the joint acts of the ministers, the silences which will mark various deeper moments in the rite, will all help to bring this out.”

        Simplification of the rite, with nobility one would wish, was an important requirement of the entire liturgical reform. This is a kind of back to basics approach, a liturgical fundamentalism in today’s words, and was characteristic of the times with its emphasis on ressourcement that La Nouvelle Théologie widely popularised, something a bit alien to us today perhaps who are more inclined to appreciate the value of evolution, as opposed to a return to the beginnings.

    2. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      And to add…your observation that questioning ‘noble simplicity’ in the manner I do can by consequence tug at the permanent character of the reform *is* something that perhaps logically follows. So I remain content to say that there is something good and necessary in the reform, but there is also the reality that much evolved out of historical and cultural perspectives of the moment. Hence my un-developed conversation with the Orthodox tradition hinted at in the beginning of the blog. Are liturgical families somehow immune from the perspective of other family members, even if existing in the same culture? If so, how and why?

  4. Frederick C Bauerschmidt Avatar

    For me, Aidan Kavanagh destroyed forever the other term in SC 34—“useless repetitions”—simply by asking our class, “At what point do repetitions become useless?”

    1. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      I was post-Aidan educated, but rereading his work always brings a smile to my face…intellectually, and linguistically.

  5. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
    Jeff Armbruster

    I wonder if the effort to bring about noble simplicity wasn’t meant to be a counterweight to lavish, sumptuous and costly excesses put forth for mere display in priestly presentation and even architecture.

    Something that’s merely gaudy does in fact fall short of beauty.

    1. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      This: “Something that’s merely gaudy does in fact fall short of beauty.” I couldn’t agree more. I do not find the image of the coronation Mass attractive or inspirational in any manner. I do think this was a large part of the initial idea. But obviously, in each cultural context, what was happening, differed greatly. And how the phrase is subsequently understood also differs greatly.

  6. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    Two points, and I’m hardly the first to make them!

    ‘noble simplicity’ does not mean ‘simplification’ (far less ‘cheapness’)
    don’t ignore the word ‘noble’

    It’s a spirituality as well as an aesthetic.


    1. James Hadley Avatar
      James Hadley

      The spirituality question is very interesting. Another point, but there is obviously a strong 20th century Benedictine influence in the architectural/artistic reform.

      I was thinking of this in relationship to the Cistercian thread above. The debate between Suger and Bernard was not liturgical, but spiritual. The medieval reform giving birth to Cistercian architecture was greatly independent of any concepts ‘internal’ to the Mass.

      1. Michael Marchal Avatar
        Michael Marchal

        The comparison of the liturgy itself to an art form, to a sacred dance enacted in the sanctuary led to the allegorization of the movements of the clergy into a depiction of the Passion which was the staple of so much of popular piety until recently. (E.g., the priest’s washing of his fingers was Pilate washing his hands.) This approach was, of course, built upon ignoring the words that were actually being said.

        The postconciliar liturgical reform did not remove the element of scared dance from the Western liturgy since it is a performance with choreographed movement, instead it called for the entire assembly to join in the dance and for the stage to be somehow rethought in such a way as to involve the whole space. This truly was a ressourcement since, as Robin Jensen has recently shown, the classic position of the altar was significantly forward into the liturgical space, justifying the phrase in the Roman Canon that refers to the assembly, both clergy and laity, as the “circumstantes.” And, As Jungmann pointed out, the original word was “circumadstantes,” those standing around nearby.

        A final comment, beware of “evolution.” allegorization evolved because there were historical reasons why Latin was being not translated into the emerging vernaculars, but what price did we pay for that failure? Are those reasons any longer valid?

  7. Daniel Hager Avatar
    Daniel Hager

    Two churches, both Benedictine, come to mind as I read this editorial. The first is Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, Ca, which has a plain sanctuary eminently suited to monastic liturgy, but is lush with gemstone radiance from the stained glass windows, and a remarkable mosaic of Christ enthroned on the glassy sea. That was a modern style church with richness and splendor.
    The other is St. Francis of Assisi parish in Raleigh, my parish. It is the last church Frank Kacmarcik ever consulted on, and it was built to almost all of his specifications. It is Noble indeed. But beautiful? Striking might be a better word. After looking at a book about Romanesque Abbey churches, I realize that those buildings are his ideal. But it is hard to love. Frank didn’t want anyone to move anything, or change anything, and the parish has honored his request. But sometimes it feels like a monument to him and his ideal, which may need some “updating”.

    1. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      The Abbey is interesting in that the visual focus is the mural and the not the altar that stands in front of it. I wonder if it is an unavoidable distraction during the liturgy.

  8. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    About concrete: The material is not inherently displeasing, the dome of the Pantheon in Rome is concrete. Indeed it was when built the largest span of mass concrete built, and it still has never been surpassed (in unreinforced material). It is of course not a flat slab, the interior has a complex moulding which changes the aesthetics.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Though the interior of that dome was surfaced in bronze … until Urban VIII had it removed and melted down.

  9. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    Noble simplicity: Le Corbusier, and others of his time, claimed to base their aesthetic on Man as the Measure of all things (Modulor Man). The failure, to my mind, is to look only at the top half of the illustration Corb endlessly repeated. We need to see elements that are on the scale of the diameter of fingers, and similarly rounded. Not just cubic lumps a foot across.

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