Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ewer and Cup

Noticed today at the Met, from the XVIIth century.

It is not possible for things made by craft on this Earth to be more magnificent. Rock crystal and gold, enamel and gems, are combined to transform simple devices for transporting a fluid into objects of awe. Is the thing transported more important because of the magnificence of the vessel that surrounds it?

Once I saw in a book a photograph of the silver chalice elevated by Zwingli as a priest when he celebrated the sacrament of the Communion by performing the Miracle of the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist. Next to it was another photograph of the absolutely plain wooden cup that Zwingli later used to perform the reenactment of the Lord's Supper. Here they are from the Yale database.

He chose to shift from the first to the second and found a meaning, a value that is, in doing so. So did thousands of his Protestant supporters who stripped the churches bare and found the fervor with which to defeat the armies of the Catholic Emperor. In fact the Swiss proved to devoted to their own vision of pure clear thought and freedom that had earlier achieved independence from the Austrian crown that neither the Catholic monarchies nor the Lutheran princes and clergy were able to subdue them.

The response of the Catholics in the Counter-Reformation lead to the Age of the Baroque. An increased emphasis on display, not for its own sake, but as an affirmation that what was being honored was worthy of the effort and sacrifice the presentation represented. This can serve as an emotional battery for when the concentration needed to maintain the fervor of the ascetic experience, which the spare aesthetic of the Protestants relied on, inevitably flags. Fortunately or not depending on your view the inverse is also true. Effort expended on the superstructure of a ceremony can ultimately come at the expense of the content. The result of to far a digression down either path can be first spiritually and then physically empty centers of ritual.

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