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June: The Month of Romanticism! by Charles A. Coulombe

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June: The Month of Romanticism!

"The Feast of Saint John" (ca. 1875), a 34.3 x 61.3 cm oil on canvas by Jules-Adolphe-Aimé-Louis Breton (1827-1906), located in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As June of 2022 makes its exit, many of my readers will be only too aware of June’s usage in recent years as ‘Pride’ Month.” But in reality, if there is a single theme that runs through the month’s festivities, it is Romanticism, expressed in many strands of that flexible name. Now, I do not refer here to the month’s popularity for weddings, although wishing the best to all June Brides in this every year! In truth, however, the amorphous phenomenon of Romanticism, which emerged in reaction to the bloody-minded rationalism of the French and accompanying Revolutions, breathed new life into a number of realities that we celebrate in this month.

Spearheaded by Novalis in Germany, Chateaubriand in France, and Sir Walter Scott in the British Isles, the Conservative wing of Romanticism renewed interest in the Middle Ages, Catholicism, folklore, and much else that both the Enlightenment and the Jacobins had frowned upon. During the 19th century and into the 20th, Romanticism influenced the various political, literary, artistic, and occasionally military defenders of these things, who derived a great deal of inspiration from its elevation of the spiritual over the mechanical, the local over the central, the true over the popular. Let us look at some of the observances of the month and see their significance in this light.

The first thing we might take notice of is that for the Catholic, June is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the feast of which is a moveable one, dependent upon Corpus Christ (of which more anon), but which always occurs sometimes in June. The Sacred Heart is a devotion which has received a bad reputation in some quarters, due especially to a great many feminine, rather kitschy images of Christ, which turned off a legion of Catholic and ex-Catholic writers over the past centuries—not least James Joyce. But the reality is quite different. 

First revealed to a trio of saintly Benedictine nuns (Ss. Gertrude the Great, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, and Mechtilde of Hackeborn) at the German Convent of Helfta in the 13th century, the visionaries were told by Christ that this was a devotion for a later time, when the world “had grown old and cold.” In that “later time,” a fresh series of apparitions from Christ were witnessed by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, from whose revelations the current devotion is derived. Spread by a succession of remarkable figures, the devotion to the Sacred Heart has always had a militant and political dimension—dating back to the Saint’s declaration that God wanted Louis XIV to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart, as his father had done with Our Lady of the Assumption and he himself had with St. Joseph. This did not happen, but Louis XVI did so privately when imprisoned in the Temple and swore he would do so publicly if restored to throne and freedom. While this unhappily did not occur, it was the inspiration for attempts to persuade French Heads of State from Napoleon III to Marshal Petain to do so; above all, this impulse resulted in the Voeu Nationale, culminating in the construction of the Basilica of Sacré Coeur on Montmartre. Inspired by this example, at various times heads of state have joined their bishops in consecrating such countries as Spain, Colombia, Ecuador, the Philippines, and Poland to the Sacred Heart. Beyond this official approbation, the Sacred Heart would be the banner of such foes of Revolution as the Chouans and Vendeens, Andreas Hofer’s Tyrolians (which country remains devoted to the emblem), Spain’s Carlists, the Papal Zouaves (whose alumni would do much to spread the devotion when they returned to the many countries from which they had come), and Mexico’s Cristeros. The Sacred Heart was, moreover, a major element of the devotional life of those two supremely Romantic figures, Blessed Emperor Karl and Servant of God Zita of Austria-Hungary.

June 10 was traditionally “White Rose Day,” the birthday in 1688 of James, Prince of Wales—later referred to by anti-Catholic Whigs as the ‘Old Pretender’—son of James II, whose advent on the scene provoked the so-called “Glorious Revolution.” James III to his Jacobite supporters, the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland was moved to this day by the Pope in explicit support of the exiled Stuarts. Their beleaguered adherents kept it as a day in memory not only of the two Jameses, but of Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I—the martyred “White King”—and latterly of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Cardinal Duke of York. The Neo-Jacobite Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (itself partly inspired by the Oxford Movement, which owed a bit to Sir Walter Scott) saw it become a quasi-holy day for such artistic figures as Frederick Lee, Henry Jenner, Kitty Lee Jenner, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Robert Edward Francillon, Charles Augustus Howell, Stuart Richard Erskine, Andrew Lang, Herbert Vivian, Lionel Johnson, W.B. Yeats, Sebastian Evans, Ruaraidh Erskine, Gilbert Baird Fraser, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Sir Charles Petrie, and those redoubtable Americans, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Ralph Adams Cram. Of course, the White Rose and the colour in general were also used by French Legitimists, Spanish Carlists, Portuguese Legitimists, and a host of other such folk—including, for very different reasons, the Ricardians (who have long contested the Tudor representation of King Richard III).

The presence of the last-named Neo-Jacobite, Ralph Adams Cram, is peculiarly related to another, but unrelated—strand of Romanticism—observance on June 10th. Best known as a paladin of the Neo-Gothic revival alongside Pugin, Ruskin, and Morris, Cram also had ties of affection and occasional employment to the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, which arose from the same Oxford Movement milieu that inspired Neo-Jacobitism. Alongside and intertwined with Neo-Gothicism, the Arts-and-Crafts also became a world-wide phenomenon. It in turn gave birth to another such—Art Nouveau. Imbued with the Romantic spirit, it happens that two of the foremost practitioners of the style in architecture—the Spaniard Antoni Gaudí and the Hungarian Ödön Lechner—died on June 10th. As a result, in recent years, lovers of the style have dubbed the day ‘World Art Nouveau Day.’ Celebrated at the international level by UNESCO and the Council of Europe, its celebration has rapidly filtered down to virtually any community that boasts prominent examples of this lovely style in its midst.

“Corpus Christi Procession,” an oil on canvas by Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905).

But June has yet more to offer to Romantics. There are few Catholic observances as picturesque as the Eucharistic procession. Corpus Christi—a feast originating from the visions of St. Juliana of Cornillon, a 13th century Belgian nun—has seen such a procession as its major external celebration since the feast’s inception. In innumerable forms throughout Christendom, the Blessed Sacrament was accompanied in such events not only by all the pomp the Church could muster, but the State as well. In the Middle Ages, civic guilds would mount Mystery Plays on floats to go in the line. Civic officials from mayors to Monarchs would join, as would soldiers, various local societies, orders of knighthood, and indeed, anyone who was anyone. This remains the case in many Catholic countries today. The Romantic Revival led to a renewal of these rites after their suppression during the convulsions of the French Revolution. But the observance’s origins date back to the explosion of Grail literature in the late 11th to early 13th centuries, and it bears a great resemblance to the Grail Processions in those works.

Another folkloric and religious observance that has undergone similar chapters of triumph, suppression, and resurrection under Romantic auspices are the fires of St. John’s Eve or Midsummer. As Dom Guéranger puts it in his work The Liturgical Year

Joy, which is the characteristic of this Feast, outstripped the limits of the sacred precincts and shed itself abroad, as far even as the infidel Mussulmans.

Though at Christmas, the severity of the season necessarily confined to the domestic hearth all touching expansion of private piety, the lovely summer nights, at Saint John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. In this way, the people seemed to make up for what circumstances prevented in the way of demonstrations to the Infant God, by the glad honors they could render to the cradle of his Precursor. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away, than all the world over, from the far East to the furthest West, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain top; and in an instant, every town and village and smallest hamlet was lighted up. 

‘Saint John’s fires,’ as they called them, were an authentic testimony, repeating over and over again the truth of the words of the Angel and of prophecy, whereby that universal gladness was announced that would hail the birthday of Elizabeth’s son. … 

It may almost be said of the ‘Saint John’s fires,’ that they date, like the festival itself, from the very beginning of Christianity. They made their appearance, at least, from the earliest days of the period of peace, like a sample fruit of popular initiative; but not indeed without sometimes exciting the anxious attention of the Fathers and of Councils, ever on the watch to banish every superstitious notion from manifestations, which otherwise so happily began to replace the pagan festivities proper to the solstices. But the necessity of combating some abuses, which are just as possible in our own days as in those, did not withhold the Church from encouraging a species of demonstration which so well answered to the very character of the feast. ‘Saint John’s fires’ made a happy completion to the liturgical solemnity; testifying how one and the same thought possessed both the mind of Holy Church and of the terrestrial city; for the organisation of these rejoicings originated with the civil corporations and the expenses thereof were defrayed by the municipalities. 

[On] St. John’s Eve, the privilege of lighting the bonfire was usually reserved to some dignitary of the civil order. Kings themselves taking part in the common merry-making would esteem it an honour to give this signal to popular gladness. Louis XIV, as late as 1648, for example, lighted the bonfire on the ‘place de Grève,’ as his predecessors had done. In other places, as is even now done in Catholic Brittany, the clergy were invited to bless the piles of wood, and to cast thereon the first brand. The crowd, bearing flaming torches, would disperse over the neighboring country, amidst the ripening crops, or would march along the ocean side, following the tortuous cliff-paths, shouting many a gladsome cry, to which the adjacent islets would reply by lighting up their festive fires.

In some parts, the custom prevailed of rolling a ‘burning wheel’; this was a self-revolving red-hot disk that, rolling along the streets or down from the hill-tops, represented the movement of the sun, which attains the highest point in his orbit, to begin at once his descent; thus was the word of the Precursor brought to mind, when speaking of the Messias, he says: He must increase, and I must decrease. The symbolism was completed by the custom then in vogue, of burning old bones and rubbish on this day which proclaims the end of the Ancient Law, and the commencement of the New Covenant, according to the holy Scripture, where it is written: … And new store coming on, you shall cast away the old. “Blessed are those populations amongst whom is still preserved something of such customs, whence the old simplicity of our forefathers drew a gladness assuredly more true and more pure than their descendants seek in festivities wherein the soul has no part!” 

Even today, the Roman Rituale has a blessing for these bonfires: “Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify + this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal; through Christ our Lord.” 

As Wikipedia assures us, the old custom is kept up even in our day, in various parts of Austria, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Denmark, Ecuador, England, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jersey, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Shetland Isles, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Wales, to name a few. Among the United States they may be found in Alaska, California, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, and elsewhere. As with the customs of the harvest, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, and Pentecost, these customs preceded and transcend the divisions into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, reflecting a time when the dogmas of Christianity worked their way into the deepest mores of Christendom and her daughter countries across the Sea. 

June, then, is a time of taking stock of the wonderful inheritance that those who stand for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on every level have been given. It is a legacy in which we may all take real pride, and be inspired to be better than we have—and to whose store each generation must strive to add something. Certainly, June of 2022 has cause to be remembered as an authentic pride month, when—on the 24th of that month, which year was both the feast of St. John the Baptist and that of the Sacred Heart, Roe v. Wade was at last overturned. Future generations shall perhaps mark it as a day of victory for that reason alone—complete with its own universal set of customs!

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.