Most helpful positive review
78 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2011
This is the kind of book that seems to come along only once in a generation, and if you miss it, you wish you could have been lucky enough to have purchased it when it was still available.
First, as to logistics. The publisher's information about the book on this page currently says the book weighs 4 pounds. This is a serious error - my scale says it weighs 21 pounds. Perhaps they meant kilos?
In order to enjoy this book, I think it's essential to have a bookstand. I found a nice inexpensive one on ebay - if you search "big bible stand" you will probably find the seller I used, who makes a very simple but very effective book stand. I would be afraid to let this lie flat on a table while browsing through it, for fear that the spine would break.
Now to the content of the book. As you might expect, the majority of this book presents art and architecture of Christian churches of the Western world through the ages. There are also some illuminated manuscripts, paintings and sculpture that might not be displayed in Churches, but the great majority of the photos encompass the architecture and art works in Western churches and monasteries. The work is grouped chronologically and while most of the works are from Western Europe, there are some works from other areas, such as Byzantine churches, and a few from Ethiopia, Russia and in the later chapters, North and South America.
The reproductions are exceptional, large, clear, lush and deep colors. Many of the photos present close-up views and details of intricate cathedral carvings that one doesn't often see. The paper is heavy and the book appears to be quite sturdy, with a beautiful cover. You can randomly open this book to almost any page and have your breath taken away by the glorious art on display.
My only disappointment is with the text accompanying the photos. It is quite obvious that this was written in one of sevral foreign languages (German, Italian and Spanish?) and translated into English. The syntax is clunky and difficult to read, and it seems to me that the translator and/or editor do not have English as a first language. While the text is mainly technically correct and therefore it is possible to understand what is meant, the sentence structure and frequent mis-use of definite articles slows down the reader.
Also, there are some odd mistakes that make me believe the English translator is not familiar with Catholicism, and since the majority of these art works are associated with Catholic culture, that is strange. For instance, I would think most English speaking Catholics are aware of the fact that the great pilgrimage church of Santiago De Compestela is dedicated to St. James. However, the text repeatedly refers to "St. Jacob" when discussing St. James. Some northern european languages use the name Jacob and James interchangeably but English does not, and I would think that an editor familiar with the matter would have caught this error. . [See, eg pages 190, 206, etc.)
"St. Francis of Assisi was the burial place of the preacher St. Francis". [p. 392] By which they mean the Basilica bearing his name is the resting place of St. Francis. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ during the sermon? [p. 344] No. Transubstantiation means that the altar is a "magical" place, where parishoners stare "as if spellbound." [p.344] Anti-Catholic, much?. The crucified Christ is standing right behind the altar "flanked by angels with the weapons of Christ, to demonstrate the connection between Passion and Salvation." [p.373] Of course, they mean "the weapons of Christ's passion" which were used to kill Him, not His own store of armaments. "Romanesque sculptors had the task to keep the demons from entering the churches and destroying people's souls. The Holy Scripture itself contained the means, as the Evangelist Matthew repeatedly reported Christ replacing one evil with another.(Matthew 9:34; 12:24-27)" [p.232] How can anyone read that sentence and not see that it is completely wrong? The cited scripture passages relate to the false charges that Christ cast out devils by the power of the devil, which he refutes, not confirms, as the author here suggests. I could go on, but you get the point. To be fair, it's not necessarily the case that the translator made all these errors, and some might be in the original text. But I would think a competent editor would correct them.
Finally, I would have hoped that a lush and overwhelmingly respectful presentation of Sacred Art would perhaps have found someone sensitive to the spiritual dimension of the works. Instead the text almost exclusively focuses on technical and historical matters without any seeming concern to address the underlying spirituality being expressed by the artists. Indeed in the few places where a theological explanation is offered, the perspective is simplistic, usually contentious and not overly sympathetic to Christianity. For instance, did you know that the Church in the Middle Ages had "a negative evaluation of sexuality" because of the story of Adam and Eve? [p.210] And, counter-intuitively, this demonization of sex led church leaders to place fertility symbols on their churches. Of course, the story of Adam and Eve is about disobeying God's command not to eat a particular fruit, not about having sex, and God directed the couple to be fruitful and multiply which requires having sex, but apparently Christians in the Middle Ages didn't know that (or that marriage was a sacrament). It's amazing that anyone was born to carry on such a civilization, much less create these unbelievably complex and wonderful works of art.
But let's be real. No one buys a book like this to read the text. It is designed to offer a feast to the eyes of some of the most beautiful and profound art ever created. And at this it succeeds to a remarkable degree. My real problem in appreciating this work is in pacing myself to only view a chapter or so at a time to avoid being overwhelmed by the magnitude and majesty of this book.
Ok, having read a bit more of the text, I am sorry to say that much of the text is laughably bad, and some of it is really incomprehensible. For instance, using words that aren't even words in the English language: "complementarability"? Or they use one word (presence) when they mean another (present). [p. 362] Or - "Christ thrones in the center of the Mandorla" - [p. 199]. Many sentences make absolutely no sense in English, but you can kind of catch their meaning if you stop and think about it. [See, e.g. pages 426, 479] Most of the content seems to be about the artists, who paid for the work, technical aspects of a work, lots of dates, and criticisms of Christians and Christian cultures (which aren't all that great apparently, other than making some really nice art in service to their weird ideas).
Also, either the authors are not familiar with the most basic principles of Christianity, or they assume that the readers are not, and so they explain the most obvious things in very ponderous and overly-scholarly ways. And sometimes the explanations are simply incorrect. After World War II, the crucifixion expressed the suffering of humanity. Not before then? Hunh. Several passages seem to suggest that there's something novel about having an awareness that people suffer and die, or that this only happened in the past, when both "the rich and poor, the powerful and the weak" all were subject to mortality. Unlike today? Also, according to this book, Christians apparently think that something significant might happen after death. What??? Crazy. Helpfully, the author explains that this belief was needed in order to get people to join the early Church. [p.362] Some of it actually starts to sound like a satire of a graduate student's overblown effort to sound wise and well-read by using complicated words and obscure sentence structure, which only serve to reveal that he is very uncomfortable with the material.
Such a shame - it would have been better to simply provide clear labels indicating basic identifying information and just delete the text altogether. And what a sad commentary on our culture's abandonment of its heritage that scholars are so inept at explaining the spiritual significance of the sacred treasures we have inherited. Buy it for the pictures, try not to be distracted by the text.
UPDATE 2: I have added page citations for most of the quotes above, still looking for a couple of others. For those who are interested, I have added some additional points in the comments attached to this review - but I don't want to make this review longer.