"The Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste."
This intriguing statement occurs in Edward Gibbon’s memoirs. He is portrayed here by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Famously as the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon outraged his family by converting to Roman Catholicism whilist at Oxford in 1753. But this sudden conversion was short-lived. Under threat of disinheritance Gibbon rapidly re-converted to Protestantism a year later, though his comment in his remembrances seems to suggest that he had discerned something of a link between art appreciation and the condition of being a Roman Catholic. What motivated this conversion? A better question would be what significance did Gibbon’s conversion hold for understanding the link between Catholicism and connoisseurship? We might be prepared to dismiss the implications of Gibbon’s remark until we learn that nearly two centuries later the man with whom connoisseurship is most associated, Berhard Berenson, repeated Gibbon’s comment in his own biographical sketch, The Making of a Connoisseur, this time to another convert to Catholicism, John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate.
Though born into a Jewish family from Lithuania, Berenson was subsequently educated by the Puritans at Harvard; but he chose to abandon that religious allegiance and convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Why? Speculation abounds, but somewhere in his corpus Berenson claims that being a Catholic helped him understand art and enhanced his ability to look at paintings. Of course this could be pure self-dramatization, an attempt by Berenson to create mystery around his life. However, perusing Berenson’s writings, especially his musings on such concepts in connoisseurship and attribution, one notes how his language verges on the ecclesiastical with its use of phrases and figures of speech gleaned from the reading of the Bible and other religious texts. One particular instance that has always struck me is when Berenson characterises a change of mind about an attribution as a conversion. His use of the word “conversion” occurs in a diary entry of 1947:
“When one has well in hand all the factors known to one regarding a given problem, a new factor may repolarize all the others and lead almost instantly to a new solution. This may account for sudden conversions, not only those of a religious nature, but in the fields of scholarship, in my case in the matter of attributions and reconstructions of artistic personalities. This procedure has its dangers, but the undoubted hastiness is more creative than the caution which is often due to a weak grasp of the facts involved.”
Is there a degree of deception, or even self –deception in Berenson’s conversion, could it be the kind of deception practiced by a non-believing priest who dresses up in sacramental robes because he is stimulated by the aesthetic possibilities, the sense of grandeur, the air of mystery, - but who ultimately does not believe? Could it be a “gesture of alignment” rather than a true commitment to the doctrines of the Catholic Church? *
I encountered the Gibbon quotation while researching my on-going course on English seventeenth-century collectors and connoisseurs, particularly the most important, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel shown here in a masterpiece actually purchased by Berenson for Isabel Stewart Gardner. The early modern scholar Edward Chaney remarks on the long line of art experts following on from Gibbon who made connections between the visual arts and the Catholic religion: men such as John Talman, Thomas Hearne, George Vertue, Henry Blundell, Charles Townley, Henry Swinburne, James Byres and the Reverend John Eustace. Amongst these the most significant is Vertue who called the Earl of Arundel “the father of Virtue in England” and who was described (Vertue), somewhat awkwardly by Horace Walpole as “..a strict Roman Catholic; yet even these principles could not warp his attachment to his art, nor prevent it making it subservient to the glory of his country.” And we must not omit to mention another leading convert to Roman Catholicism, the antiquarian and papal librarian J.J. Winckelmann whose predecessor at the Vatican library in the 17th century, Lucas Holstentius, also converted to the Catholic faith. But one of the most famous art collectors, Catholic adherent and indeed religious convert in the seventeenth-century was Arundel himself, and if we are trace the origins of this interesting link between Catholicism and connoisseurship, we must begin in his era. More of that soon….
*Compare the future director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr whose deception to please his Presbyterian father is not self-deception as Barr’s dismissal of the act of communion and its cloying religiosity, music suggests.
“My father and I are not entirely agreed but I envy and admire his position which is tolerant and liberal but at the same time utterly implicit. I feel little necessity either intellectual or emotional, or of an orthodox and conventional nature. I take communion but it is more of a gesture of alignment than any inner urge which is not as it should be but I do not find the atmosphere congenial; particularly the music- ugh!”
Alfred H Barr, Letter, Dec 20th, 1923
This series will continue with a post on connoisseurship and religion at the Jacobean court.