Going Through the Motions

I did not expect to like the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, which is why I had never bothered to go up to Montmartre.  The basilica was commissioned by Catholics who had survived the Paris Commune of 1870-71, when churches were destroyed and the faithful were persecuted.  Even as the revolution was sputtering out, the communists murdered a number of hostages, including Msgr. Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris.  Sacré Coeur, whose construction took nearly 40 years, was designed to tell the world that the Catholic Church had been restored to Her proper place in the world, but its hysterical “Romano-Byzantine” style—which represents a conscious rejection of the baroque—reminds me less of Hagia Sophia or the duomo in Pisa than of the Taj Mahal.

Reactionaries, alas, almost always ruin whatever good remains in a tradition.  The Counter-Reformation had noble intentions, but, in spreading baroque church construction around the world, the Jesuits obscured a thousand years of Christian history.  Rome’s churches became monuments to bad taste until Blessed Pius IX began stripping a few ancient structures of the garish plaster fondant with which they had been encrusted since the days of Pietro da Cortona.  In Mexico, where the taste runs naturally—and brilliantly—to the grotesque, the baroque style found a congenial home.  In Rome, however, it is a disaster that could not...

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