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I’ve wondered about “Catholic kitsch” and there’s a certain garishness I’ve also seen at some fancy historical orthodox churches here in the cities where I live (Minnesota, USA). Where does it come from? And why does it work better amongst tree and field and glen (cause I would tend to agree it does)?

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Oct 8, 2023·edited Oct 8, 2023

Your commentary on the Catholic aesthetic is hilarious. I am Eastern Catholic presently, but I expect to jump ship to Orthodox in the event that I don't have access to such a parish, because I am also averse to lace and its adjuncts (including but not limited to the creepy priests—they really screwed up with that celibacy requirement).

I think that you would like the Rosary, though. I pray mine every morning. Probably the single best Catholic invention, I would say.

These stories of the wells are nourishing. I've been spending some time on a blog with a lot of traditionalist patrons, and the other day, folk were getting a little worked up about something that the pope did. And I reflected on how I never think of the pope at all, and feel completely indifferent to his existence. I guess that I'm not a very good Catholic. I would rather think about these wells.

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Re. the effeminate Jesus of Catholicism, some of the Russian icons of Christ would definitely compete. And if you want kitsch, you’ll find plenty of felt and jewels on display at my local Orthodox parish.

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Well that’s very different to last week’s well isn’t it? Nothing wild about that - looks like someone’s front room!

I guess the good thing about that is it will get more visitors.

What I’m amazed by though is all the ‘stuff’!

More to the point, that it all remains there, intact, not vandalised, stolen, or just generally messed around with.

The young people of Ireland must be better behaved than elsewhere in the world!

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Oct 8, 2023Liked by Paul Kingsnorth

Just wanted to give you encouragement to keep doing what you do Paul.

This is a wonderful tour. Your anecdotes / opinions wonderfully written. Thank-you for sharing with the world. The machine always exists, but your two cents worth, added to others with faith in Christ and nature as God created it, is a powerful shield in the troubles yet to come.

Cheers.

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I wonder what Jesus thinks of the cross being the symbol of Christianity. I mean really? Its a powerful symbol for sure to us but to them a torture device. I remember seeing a simple fish design that was used as a marker for where Christian were meeting. I always liked that.

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That BVM behind glass is quite something. Reminded me of both a sort of tropical bird-house as well as a Cornell box (https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/joseph-cornell-2006).

Also, I suspect the development of a healthy immunity to losing faith over kitsch devotional art is a key Christian survival skill:

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/the-obscure-world-of-kitschy-christian-vinyl--659355201666624548/

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The history of these wells is fascinating.

The correlation of the trees is resonating with me.

It just seems very busy right there a lot of bells and whistles so to speak.

The offerings are wonderful but the fact that there's a little somewhat of a cafe...

If I was there and I retrieve some water from the spring of the well, I think I would take it into the woodsmore where there would be a bit of solitude and nature.

This is my own opinion .

I do not condone anybody's vision of what holiness is.

It's all being done for the same reason I believe.

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Thanks Paul, this was very interesting and I've been looking forward to these each Sunday. I have mixed feelings on the lace point: I'm a fairly traditional RC, and so as a general rule I lament the entire absence of lace from nearly every Catholic parish I've ever been in; not because I find lace especially aesthetically pleasing in itself, or vital for a sense of the sacred, but because it usually instantly signifies a traditional liturgy, which goes hand in hand with preaching that is faithful to the magisterium, etc etc. At the same time, in my opinion there is admittedly something lamentably effeminate about some of the more flowery baroque style vestments favoured in many corners of traditional Catholicism, including long and very lacey albs - but that's just my opinion, and it may be influenced by the occasionally effeminate characters who are often attracted to this liturgy in the RC church, and have been called to the priesthood. This I have occasionally found an obstacle to my faith, until I recall that God presumably doesn't call men to the sacred priesthood - or choose the style of sacred vestments they wear - to fulfill my particular understanding of Christian masculinity, which is all too human and thus, admittedly, flawed. God have mercy on all of us, I suppose.

I won't add to the point made already in your piece (and some other comments) regarding the kitsch items being somehow not entirely out of place, other than to say that I agree it must have something to do with the purity of intention of those who put them there. For myself, the main struggle with 'terrible' pictures of our Lord or Our Lady have more to do with how to reverently dispose of them, rather than have them clutter up my home... paper can be burned, but somehow throwing plastic 'Catholic tat' in the bin with the kitchen refuse seems close to sacrilege - although at the same time I don't think Christ would really mind. I justify this paradox to myself with the thought that I wouldn't lightly toss a photo of my wife or my grandmother in the bin either - not because they would mind at all, but simply because I love them.

Anyway, thanks again. Looking forward to the next installment.

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Oct 8, 2023Liked by Paul Kingsnorth

Some of the garish kitsch is a refreshing antidote to the severe aesthetic of the Protestant church. You will find this sort of thing on the graves at Wounded Knee as well.. food,boxes of donuts, personal items of all sorts..offerings to the dead from those that are thinking of them.

Lace and decorative clothing on Jesus is to show a form of adoration...but clearly a folk christianity not from a well heeled modern sensibly ... Very much am enjoying all of your writings . Thank you!

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Symbolically, the stations of the cross actually depict the soul's journey towards transformation. As a 5 yr. old I used to go into the church regularly and make the stations of the cross, as they say. Except I made them up from some deep holy well inside my own soul. Although only 5, a mystical part of me understood them and used words much deeper than a five yr. old knew to speak about such things as falling on the path and needing help to carry my cross!!!!

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In reading these recent pieces about the wells, I keep thinking about something Evelyn Waugh said that I think explains about 98 percent of our current madness: "When the water-holes were dry people sought to drink at the mirage."

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Born into the Catholic faith I was touched by your observations: “ I have to admit that Catholic iconography and statuary often just leaves me cold. There’s something about it that doesn’t speak to me. Jesus, especially, is often a curiously effeminate figure, especially compared to the Orthodox representation. Also, I can’t take all the lace. In my view, the greatest division between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds is not the filioque clause or theosis or the supposed infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, but the lace. What’s happening there? Who decided that lace on a Bishop was ever a good look?”

I didn’t mind the Latin but the lace always seemed out of place. The ornamentations & customs seemed other-worldly but one thing is certain: as a child my eyes never ran out of things to marvel at and study so it was fairly easy to sit still and be quiet!

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The aesthetic of Catholic folk devotion is not to my taste-,I saw the same in Coptic lands.

But what I like is how earthy it somehow is. It arises honestly in hearts of honest folk. Who then honestly use the media they have at hand: kitch. Plastic. Extravagance. Poor paint jobs. Factory statuary. Etc.

Once again I see in this honesty not a failing of the Folk heart but a judgement on the culture creators of consumerism, for giving such awful tools to such blessedly simply pious hands.

There is a tension in orthodox iconography too between the high Byzantine tradition(s) and then the folk iconography of say a village in Romania.

But- except to be honest where the west has crept in- these folk icons do not bear the same kind of tasteless kitch ugly as, well, other folk pieties. (I think fondly of Aturo’s intellectual defence of his native Mexican r Catholic piety in fluorescent kitch).

Folk orthodox iconography is… lower. Simpler. Less precise.

Not a fine suit, but a cozy homespun sweater.

It’s this I think, that redeems that, pictured here.

Thank you Paul for sharing

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Thank you again for writing about these. We don't have sacred places in America to make pilgrimages to, sadly. Founded by puritans who limited their Christianity to the mental space is sadly the cause I think.

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