Instead of the sorry and unbecoming spectacle of the priest racing with death to the bedside of the sick, the Church prescribes a devout and dignified procession from church to home, with the minister assisted by clergy and acolytes and accompanied by devout layfolk . . . .
—Rubrics of the 1962 Rituale Romanum
Liturgies change for the sake of the living. Protocols adjust to the shifting tenor and tempo of the centuries. But the hour of death is ever the same. It is now, and forever shall be, what it was for the first man. The dying of the light is the one fixed point in man’s revolving kaleidoscope of circumstances. In the face of death, our new-fashioned sacramental minimalism takes on the bearing of a demonic initiative.
Stay a moment with Aimé Perret’s Viaticum in Bourgogne. Popular in its time, this nineteenth century genre scene grows more pointed in the cultural gap that separates us from the homely dignity of its subject.
We watch a small procession heading out of the ville on its way to a home beyond the picture frame. Someone farther down the road is mortally ill. The priest has been called. He carries a chalice through the slush with ritual tenderness. Two altar boys, each with a lighted torch, lead the little group. A workaday pair of parishioners guard the priest and his sacred burden with a protective canopy. Several women trudge behind. All bend into a chill wind.
This is community, possessed of a common language and repertory of gestures deemed fitting and proper to attend the mounting desolation of death. Depicted here is that old phrase Mother Church incarnate in a handful of villagers pressing on in an act of mercy. The artist and his day have disappeared. Only the painting stays, continuing to testify to the labor of the beatitudes.
Mercy, like justice to which it clings, levies strains. One of them is the embarrassment of ceremony in an unceremonious culture. Today, priests are apt to arrive with the Eucharist in their pocket, like loose change. Our final combat now is solely with pain. Viaticum is humbled by lorazapam and the blessings of morphine.
Both priests and faithful in large numbers have lost faith in the power, meaning and purpose of the Sacrament [Extreme Unction]. . . . I think the problem is part of the larger eschatological confusion: if everyone goes to heaven, the sacrament can’t be that important, can it?
Eschatological confusion . Every age selects its symbols, preferring some over others, to give expression to those unspoken inclinations of the collective soul. The signs and rituals that betoken traditional eschatology—Last Rites among them—are losing their resonance. We have given a quietus to the death knell, silenced the treble of the Sanctus bell. Altar rails, sturdy emblems of distinction between the sacred and profane, surrendered dominion to modernity’s self-confidence. The sovereignty of modern man spurns genuflection. Our clergy grow uneasy in clerical dress.
And those direful old frescoes of the damned? Their claim on art increases as their hold on lives diminishes. The damned exist for us now only in horror movies. We have lost sight of them among ourselves. Allegories of the weighing of souls ended with those generations who trembled to speak of God as a consuming fire. Now we speak only of love. Nothing hangs in the balance for us good folk. St. Michael has put down his scales and taken up guitar.
• • • •
Addendum: Before you leave, let me talk a little about the painting as a thing crafted.
The incident depicted in Viaticum is not fictional, however much staging in the warmth of Perret’s studio might have been necessary afterward to complete the painting. The dramatis personae were all actual villagers from Bois le Roi in southern France. The priest, Abbé Dusarger, was no stranger to calls to the bedside of a dying farmer. Perret lived and worked in Bois le Roi as well as in Paris; he knew the local priest.
I cannot resist wondering if Perret worked up the painting from an initial photograph. Note the turn of one altar boy’s head toward the viewer, as if toward a camera. Hardly conclusive in itself but suggestive in light of photography having been well established by the time Perret set to work. The British Journal of Photography had begun reviewing photography exhibitions in 1854. A quarter century later, the camera was as much a tool for working painters as an independent medium. It is particularly useful for capturing motion.
Delacroix (d. 1863) famously insisted that any artist worth his salt should be able to sketch a figure falling from a building in the time it takes to hit the ground. True. But it took artists no time at all to know that a camera is quicker. The year Viaticum was painted, the gelatin dry plate was nearly a decade old. Its invention made possible a wide range of camera designs from relatively small hand-held ones to bulky field cameras.
Admired by Van Gogh for his draftsmanship, Perret was fond of processional scenes. His best known are set theatrically in the eighteenth century. Like any parade, they are lively excuses for costumes. Audiences for the 1876 Salon were as taken with historic fashions as we are. (Think of the popularity of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.) Salon success brought Perret a place in the sun and subsequent honors. The French government purchased Viaticum for the Luxembourg Palace where it hangs in dogged witness to France’s jilted heritage as eldest daughter of the Church.
Note: A reader with a better grasp of French geography than mine, writes to correct me on the whereabouts of Bois le Roi. It is “not in the South of France; it lays to the South East of Paris, between the Île de France (the Paris region) in the north and Rhône-Alpes (the Lyon region) in the South.”