a whole new system of nerves

From Brideshead Revisited:

Since the days when, as a school-boy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

I know these thoughts too. But they came late to me. The irony is that I was an Art History major for one of my BA’s and I studied the great art and architecture from down through the ages. Great Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque arches went right by me, early medieval statuary and late renaissance painting flashed before my eyes, and I knew nothing. Yes, I understood them as designs, as formal structure of line and color, but I had no knowledge of the world from which they inevitably emerged. And yet, these wonders nonetheless took root in my brain, percolated there, lay almost dormant, and then more recently emerged as I stumbled upon the historical and apostolic church.

I had read Ruskin and Fry, and others, and imbibed of their puritanism, a puritanism that ironically was even more romantic than my Baptist training would allow, and thus I chaffed at the small mindedness of my boyhood religion. But still, the soul longs for something transcendent, like the poet describes the deer panting for water. Puritanism is a spiritual desert. Thus I know something of that “whole new system of nerves” that woke up Charles Ryder.

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Filed under Art, Books, Church History

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