Baroque is back

The term baroque is akin to the use of the word gothic; one we use carelessly and with only a vague notion of what it means. Scholars, always people to reduce sublime things to text-book dimensions, are divided over the precise meaning of the word and it thus denotes differing concepts depending on whether you are talking to an art historian, musician, historian, cultural historian, literary scholar, or theorist. Of that bunch, incidentally, you should try to mingle with the art historians. They tend to be the most passionate and can also invariably take their drink.

Humans seem to have an obsession with placing labels on past periods as if that somehow elucidates everything to us. So we have the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, early modern, the Ancien Régime, the Romantic era, and so on. What almost all of these terms have in common is that they were coined much later than the periods that they describe. No one was aware of living during the early modern period and the Ancien Régime was created during the French Revolution to describe the system that had been so ruthlessly and speedily dismantled. Baroque is perhaps the most fascinating coat-hanger because, after being out of fashion, it has had a come-back of late (there are even books dedicated to its return). What interests me is that it can be positive or negative. It can mean exuberant decoration or Counter-Reformation hyperbolic excess. I prefer the former and the high altar of Gurk Cathedral in Austria is a splendid example of Germanic baroque.

This gorgeous altar depicting Our Lady and the saints -an apposite image for today’s feast of All Saints- moves and inspires. It emits a sense of awe. Following the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”), held from 1962 to 1965, many in the Catholic Church hierarchy became apologetic about such beauty and made it their mission to democratize churches, architecture, and liturgy. The results are painful to behold: markedly fewer clergy, nuns (and this means the good works they do such as medical and educational mission), Mass attendees, etc. Most Catholics, even practising ones, have only vague ideas about the essentials of the faith. What the 1960s experiment has proved is that people do not go to church to experience the pedestrian and the banal but rather to glimpse the divine. Some of the changes have been not only absurd but also positively criminal. The medieval cathedrals of Paris and Strasbourg are defiled by squat, modern altars clumsily placed so as to destroy the symmetry of the building and sanctuary, an architectural rape of these beautiful buildings.  We must respect the past to learn from it.

Penrose of London, founded in 2008, has an ethos of inspiration from the past and using traditional methods of craftsmanship. They produce some outrageously beautiful accessories, including neckties, pocket squares, and cufflinks. The cufflinks above are their Balmoral A blue links, made with gilt metal and enamel. I acquired them this summer and wear these exuberantly baroque cufflinks with suitably baroque pride.

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