Et Nunc Sacerdos
by David Brett
This is a very strange task for me; to write about priest’s vestments. It seems to me important to say that I don't believe a word of religion. I have no beliefs except a belief that one should not believe. Radical doubt is the thing, pushed to the edge of possibility. This is not the doubt espoused by Joyce which always takes as its counterweight an intense piety which is the product of being deeply indoctrinated in youth by attitudes that in adulthood you have rejected. Radical doubt seems to me the precondition for any kind of thought, and perhaps any kind of feeling too. This is, of course, a form of religious feeling; it’s negative, so to speak, from which many and varied positions can be developed. I am of the view that one cannot escape religious emotion, transcendental yearnings, because they go with trying to think beyond one’s self. I am not sure what I mean by this, because these yearnings are not matters of which it is useful or even possible, to speak. They can only be made manifest in some form.
In this particular case, the manifestation is in textiles, and photographic. We are looking at special, and specially beautiful garments, photographed with admirable precision. The photographer takes us round the vestries to watch the priest (and he is always a Roman Catholic priest) robing himself in the apparatus of his office. It is a grave and stately business. The clothes too have a grave beauty about them and Alberto Maserin presents them to us straight on, without any kind of fuss. The priests themselves, when we can see them under the linen, are grave, silent and maybe rather humorous individuals.
Clothes, being the shadows of human beings, always assume the person within. In sacred garments (and we have to use an adjective of this kind) the act of dressing is a form of incarnation. The person becomes an idea. In the case of Catholic vestments, very precise symbolic meanings are attached to the form and the colours. It's as well to remember we are dealing with artifacts that have come down to us more or less intact from the late classical era. These clothes are to Dior as Chartres is to the Pantheon. Some are simply beautiful, and one can well imagine women going perfectly crazy over the perfect smocking of Fr. Adel. Others have dramatic elan and burst into life like thunderclouds in a gale. In many of the images we cannot see the priest himself because he is engulfed or shrouded by the material.
Of course, what we can’t get in a photograph is the physicality of the garments; and the concrete and physical qualities of cloth and the tectonic character of cutting and stitching are an important aspect of the whole real garment, and part of its meaning, in all respects. An additional quality is added by the glimpses we have of ‘ordinary’ clothes; complicated shifts and nighties are being pulled on over gent's suiting. There is, inevitably, a touch of humour in this; but the humour is part of the meaning. Yes, the priest is really any other gentleman, dressed as an any other; but underneath... When he puts on this gear he is transformed beyond himself.
Most of us, as we go about daily life, don’t see very much beautiful clothing, and it seems to me important to witness just how fine clothes can carry meaning. Men, in particular, ever since the early nineteenth century, have tended to deny themselves the pleasure of splendid attire and the power of specialness. In consequence, there is a feminine feel to these images that is a product of our own deficiencies. But let’s be in no doubt of this – these clothes are high art.
This is partly, of course, because they are being presented as high art, as ritualistic performance. Or, as I suggested, incarnation. And this raises, at once and unavoidably, a series of crucial hermeneutic and historical questions over which a great deal of blood and ink has been spilt. Is the transformation of the mundane into the heavenly substantial or accidental? Does ‘transubstantiation’ actually work? Or, is the communion/eucharist a real presence, or an evocative commemoration?
Arguments such as this serve mainly to thicken the plot. So here’s a line of thought that might be worth exploring. That the principal arttheoretical discourse of the past 200 years, right up to and including the present day, is mainly concerned with this question in a contemporary form. That this has rather little to do with any supposed Catholic/Protestant divide, but inheres in the question – how do things take on meaning? The answer has, of course, immense consequences with respect to imagery and non-verbal communications of all and any kind. In another piece of writing I would argue that verbal communication, to have quality, must face the same problem. How is the ineffable made manifest?
I take it that this photo-essay is addressed to this perennial question, and what gives it considerable authority is that the craft of photography is given the task of showing the process of manifestation in action. The style of the images – grave, symmetrical and selfconscious – is part of the ritual which the photographs narrate, and the narration is itself a ritual. Technique, presentation and topic are united.