We have heard, endlessly repeated over the decades, that the Traditional mass constitutes a barrier to those “outside”: the young, those not practicing their faith and non-Catholics. It is supposed to lock these devoted to it in an inaccessible “ghetto.” Is this true? A now obscure episode of German literary history enables us to test these claims – almost under laboratory conditions.
In the summer of 1793, while the French revolution and its wars were ravaging Europe, the young law students Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and his friend Ludwig Tieck set out on a series of journeys from the South German university town of Erlangen. They would have an epochal effect on German culture. They traveled through the wild, hilly uplands of Franconia – deep valleys, mysterious caverns, ruined castles and bizarre mountain formations – helping to ignite the Romantic enthusiasm for nature. They explored the winding streets and many medieval monuments of the ancient, almost fossilized but still intact city of Nuremberg, rediscovering the Middle Ages. In palaces, churches, monasteries and cities they studied paintings and sculptures, launching a cult both of the Italian Renaissance and of the age of Albrecht Dürer. But what concerns us is another trip, this time by Wackenroder alone, to investigate not nature or the artifacts of the past, but the Catholic world of his own time. He undertook a journey to the nearby city of Bamberg.
Although a little over 26 miles removed from Erlangen, a trip to the Catholic world of Bamberg was to Wackenroder much the same as a journey to Afghanistan or Burma might be to us. Such was the consciousness of the religious divide in the Germany of that era. Moreover, Wackenroder and Tieck both hailed from Berlin, a stronghold of Protestantism and of the Enlightenment and the most extreme antipode to the Catholic principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Wackenroder himself seems to have started his journey with no great knowledge of Catholics or liking for them. Indeed, he was of the opinion that Catholics were biologically distinguishable from Protestants:
The character of the Bambergers, in general, is supposed to be ingenuous, dull, and superstitious – and involve frequent beer drinking. As in all Catholic countries, the numerous holy days invite laziness. The general Catholic national physiognomy is very striking and characteristic especially of the women. They are mostly small, anything but beautiful and have a snub nose.
However, the Catholic Church that Wackenroder encountered in 1793 was not that of the desiccated services of the post-Pius X reforms, let alone the cold minimalist rituals we see Bamberg today, attended by only a handful of worshippers. No – it was the Catholic Church bathed in the last golden glow of the setting baroque sun. It was a world of processions, relics and devotions, of overflowing public and popular piety, of splendid masses accompanied by orchestras, gunfire salutes and trumpet blasts! Bamberg was at that time a separate principality of the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by a prince-bishop (an institution so characteristic of the old German Empire!). In Wackenroder’s day, “enlightened” bishops had recently taken steps to reduce the number of processions, to cut down on holydays and to restrain the popular enthusiasm. But much still remained!
He was struck by the superabundance of art in the Cathedral:
Inside, the cathedral contains an indescribable richness of old paintings, tombs and reliefs. One finds similar things in all Catholic churches but not always in such abundance….One can study these all the easier because all Catholic churches are usually open the entire day except in the afternoon; and one doesn’t disturb the few people who are praying at different times in the churches.
(Above) The Cathedral still houses a multitude of priceless medieval artworks. But the lavish abundance of Wackenroder’s day is gone – largely because of the “purification” (the stripping of baroque art) in the 19th century.
(Above and Below)Among the artworks in the cathedral mentioned by Wackenroder is the tomb of Sts Henry and Kunigunde by Tilman Riemenschneider
In this cathedral so curious and ancient for me, I attended with the greatest interest on the feast of Saint Henry (the patron saint of Bamberg- SC) High Mass that was held on Sunday from 9 to 10 after the preaching, and on every major feast…. In the streets, flowers were on sale everywhere, which everyone brought into the cathedral. Before the church a woman sat, selling rosaries and scapulars. I bought for myself a rosary for three Kreuzer and a scapular.
As I entered the venerable church I found it already almost full. I pushed forward up to the main altar and waited now for the solemn scene. Oh! – truly I had not expected very much. Everything was new for me. The ceremonies, which every minute always changed, made an ever stronger and wonderful impression on me the more they were mysterious and unintelligible. I was standing among nothing but Catholics: men, women and children. Some were constantly reading prayer books; others prayed the rosary while standing, yet others reverently knelt right next to me.
Here I found proved so clearly what Nicolai relates: that fixed raising of the gaze in prayer, which suddenly blazes up to heaven without resting on earthly objects; the making of the sign of the cross in holy zeal; the heartfelt firm striking of the breast which, with expressive glances towards heaven and with deeply felt sighs, shows such special depth of feeling. …One is totally initiated into the Catholic faith here and almost driven to participate in all the ceremonies.
Now on the high altar, adorned in red, a mass of candles was lit. Everyone who passed this altar genuflected. Now four or five clerics in splendid vestments, embroidered with great flowers in green and gold, with red and white, appeared on the steps of the altar and began the High Mass. It was entirely in Latin, but is available to the people in German translation. The High Mass itself consists of a great number of ceremonies, precisely organized but unintelligible to me. Now this or that cleric sang, with a hoarse, monotonous and unpleasant voice, prayers or selections from the bible – now before the altar, now from a pulpit across from the altar. There, lower clerics in simple choir robes with black collars stood at his side, carrying candles. Now a cleric did this or that on the altar; now they changed places, knelt here or there, on this or that step, now the organ interrupted them at every second or third word and accompanied their chant, of which I could understand only isolated words that were often repeated: a “dominus vobiscum” and an “in saeculo saeculorum.”
Now, accompanied by violins, etc, arias and choruses were sung in other parts of the church; now the Host on the altar was incensed with a silver thurible hanging from chains; now a cleric took the Host to the other end of the church and returned, always preceded by a soldier with his musket. For, right next to me on the high altar stood four soldiers. On the sides sat the canons in white choir robes and red collars; the cleric with the thurible also approached them, swung it upwards before them and incensed them – which impressed me greatly.
The most solemn moment, however, was when another cleric showed to the people the monstrance (a gleaming crystal case in which the Host resides). At this moment a bell was rung, the soldiers presented their arms, took off their hats and fell to their knees. The whole congregation fell down and crossed itself, blaring trumpets rang out, which were lost amid the long drawn out sounds of horns. I also fell to my knees, for otherwise I certainly would have exposed myself to the indignation of the people; moreover it would indeed have taken an effort to remain standing in isolation, for a whole world knelt down around me, and everything prompted me to the highest devotion – to do otherwise would have been as if I didn’t belong to the human race.
We will pass over the other artistic experiences and investigations of Wackenroder in Bamberg. But we must mention his participation on subsequent days in public processions, which impressed him greatly. On one such occasion, one of the natives raged at him for not taking off his hat – something like that can befall young ladies today who walk into certain Traditional masses wearing trousers…
Wackenroder’s impressions of individual Catholics and their clergy, however, were mixed. One day (in a subsequent visit to Bamberg with Tieck):
A procession of Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans and Capuchins left the church. I saw some venerable and really ideal old men among them.
Several Catholic clerics and other friends, moreover, were very kind and helpful hosts to Wackenroder during his stay in Bamberg. Yet:
The Catholics that I knew were not orthodox and themselves smiled over the peculiarities of their religion.
Wackenroder himself had to endure the company of one insufferable enlightened character who yearned to break out from Catholicism.
On a second journey to Bamberg, Wackenroder and companions wanted to experience the Benedictine life in the nearby monastery of Banz. To their distress, they quickly found that, in that stronghold of the Catholic enlightenment, the traditions of medieval hospitality had vanished….
Among our author’s most positive experiences of an individual Catholic was a visit to a school for girls, where Wackenroder admired a sister of the order of the “English Ladies” conducting a class. 1)
(above) Wackenroder found this painted false cupola, “tasteless.” (in the church of St. Martin – at that time, the Jesuit church). But might this not have been the inspiration for Wackenroder’s later description of the dome and columns of the Pantheon in Rome? (see below)
Four years later, in 1797, appeared Wackenroder’s Outpourings from the Heart of an Art-Loving Monk – the title alone reads like a fantastic Romantic manifesto. In this book Wackenroder alludes several times to his experiences in Bamberg, above all in one crucial chapter describing a young German painter encountering the Catholic mass. Wackenroder shifts the time from that of his era to the early 16th century, the place from Bamberg, the “German Rome,” to the real one, and the church from an early Gothic cathedral to the Pantheon. Instead of the sober, almost scientific prose of the accounts of his travels, the style is florid, exalted, and enthusiastic – in a word, Romantic. (Indeed, my edition claims the following passages were actually written by Tieck; the two friends often contributed to each other’s works.)
I went recently into the rotunda (the Pantheon – SC) for it was a great festival and a splendid Latin music was going to be performed – but really above all to see my beloved again among the praying crowd and to hover in the presence of her celestial devotion. The splendid temple, the huge mass of the people that again and again pressed in and surrounded me ever closer, and the dazzling preparations – all this induced in my soul a wonderful attentiveness. I was most solemnly disposed. Even if I wasn’t thinking clearly and lucidly, as usually happens in such a tumult, my very soul was stirred as if something very special was about to happen within me. At once everything grew quieter. Above us began the all-powerful music – slowly, fully, expansively – as if there blew an invisible wind above our heads. Like the sea it surged forth in ever-greater waves, and its sounds drew my soul completely outside of my body. My heart pounded, and I felt a mighty yearning for something great and sublime that I could embrace. The full Latin chant that, rising and falling, forced its way through the tones of the music like ships sailing through the waves of the sea, raised my soul ever higher. And, while the music pervaded my entire being and ran through all my veins, I, who had been sunk in thought, raised my eyes and looked about me. The entire temple appeared alive before my eyes – the music had intoxicated me so! At that moment the music stopped, a priest advanced before the high altar, raised the host with an enthusiastic gesture and showed it to all. Everybody fell on his knees, trumpets blared out indescribable, all-powerful sounds and solemn prayers resounded everywhere. All those pressed tightly around me fell to their knees. A secret miraculous power drew me too to the floor, and I couldn’t have resisted with all my might.
And now, as I knelt with bowed head, and my heart soared within my breast, an unknown power lifted again my gaze. I looked around me, and it seemed clearly as if all the Catholics, men and women, who, kneeling, now meditated, now gazed up to heaven, crossed themselves reverently, struck their breast and moved their praying lips – as if all were praying to the Father in heaven for the salvation of my soul, as if all the hundreds around me prayed for a lost one in their midst and drew me over to their faith in silent worship but with irresistible force. Then I glanced to the side at Maria, and I saw a great holy tears spring from her blue eyes. I didn’t know what was happening within me, I couldn’t stand her gaze any more, I turned my head sideways, my eyes fell upon an altar, and a painting of Christ on the cross looked at me with indescribable melancholy. The mighty columns of the temple rose, worthy of reverence, before my eyes like saints and apostles, and looked down on me with their capitals full of dignity. The endless vault of the dome bowed down like the all-embracing heaven over me, and blessed my pious resolutions.
I could not leave the temple after the end of the celebration, I fell down in a corner and wept, and then passed with a contrite heart all the saints, all the paintings – it seemed that only now could I really contemplate and revere them. I could not resist the force within me – dear Sebastian, I have now crossed over to your faith, and my heart feels happy and light. It was art that had all-powerfully drawn me over, and I can say that only now can I understand and grasp art.
It’s clear that here Wackenroder has built upon the details of what he himself saw in Bamberg but has transfigured them in a new literary form. The emphasis, moreover, has shifted not so subtly from religious ritual to the aesthetic power wielded by art: the architecture, the paintings and above all the music – even leading to a conversion! There is romantic subjectivity too, as the artist’s tearful beloved becomes a Madonna figure leading to Christ. But let’s not be critical: didn’t Vladimir Soloviev point out that St Vladimir chose the Orthodox faith for Russia because the beauty of the ceremonies of St. Sophia impressed him so? And, aside from any aesthetic experiences, the unforgettable impression made on the writer by the open and unashamed devotion of the simple Catholic faithful is the same both in this story and the original account.
Other than what we can surmise from these writings, we know of no conversion in the case of Wackenroder himself. He died in 1798, aged only 24. But he has left for us a marvelous description of a Catholic liturgy, which on one special day made such an indelible impression upon him. For this Mass, so foreign to him, and that he could not “understand,” had clearly communicated to him the most profound sense of worship and of the Divine. Such is the transformative power, both in 1793 and today, of this Mass – the Mass of Tradition!
(Above and below) The Bamberg town hall, located on an island in the midst of a river and built in a medley of styles, impressed Wackenroder.
(Above and below) Wackenroder and his companions had disagreeable encounters with modern Benedictine hospitality in the monasteries of Banz and Langenheim. Strangely, though, he never mentions what is today the most famous work of ecclesiastical architecture in that vicinity: the grand and prominently situated pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen. ( the “fourteen holy helpers”)
All the quotations are from Wackenroder, Wilhelm Heinrich, Werke und Briefe (1967 Verlag Lambert Schneider, Heidelberg) (reprint of the 1938 edition with the inclusion of one additional letter)
1) “English Ladies” (Englische Fräulein) a order of teaching sisters founded by Mary Ward in the 17th century but by far more widespread in Germany than in England.