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Architecture and Idolatry in Paradise Lost

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2000   by Joseph Lyle

It will come as no surprise that John Milton's conception of architecture is fundamentally iconoclastic. The precise way in which iconoclasm affects the presentation of architecture in Paradise Lost, however, has never been thoroughly examined. [1] When Milton objects to architecture, it is not a quality inherent in buildings themselves he finds offensive, but rather their tendency to act as convenient loci to which idolatry, over time, will inevitably adhere. The most explicitly didactic evidence of this conviction occurs in book 11, in which Adam expresses his resolution to raise "grateful Altars" (line 323) in Paradise if he is permitted to remain. Michael does not chastise Adam's impulse to build, but instead explains that God is present everywhere, implying that Adam need not attach peculiar value to a specific place. Still, in a postlapsarian world, affections will accrue to mere objects, and an inordinately treasured thing or place will eventually provide a site for sin. For Milton, idolatry lurks in any artifact to which value can attach. Indeed, even the most piously conceived artifact has as its end endurance in order that it may exhibit or exhort piety. But this very endurance subjects the artifact to unpredictable circumstances, circumstances under which its intent may be forgotten, misconstrued, or employed for ends unimagined by the fabricator.

We can see this effect in Milton's depiction of one of the holiest artifacts in his cosmos, Solomon's Temple, as described in an historical prolepsis embedded in the catalog of devils in book 1 of Paradise Lost. The narrative exposition in that instance will make the effect of time on architecture quite clear, and, once we have been taught the dynamics of idolatry in this isolated parable, we will be able better to appreciate the historical consequences of idolatry more generally. These consequences Milton effectively demonstrates in an artifact for which we have no immediately obvious historical context, and which appears in a much more static, ekphrastic mode: Pandaemonium. Previous examinations of this building have uncovered several architectural allusions, which the relative stasis of the description encourages. However, the allusions have their own history and, if we compare Pandaemonium to a key building in that history, Donato Bramante's Tempietto, the architectural history will re-enact the history of idolatry in a manner both more topical to Milton's political context and more striking in its composition of historical tenor in an ekphrastic vehicle.

Solomon's temple provides an explicit demonstration of how an artifact moves from its genesis in devotional practice to an idolatrous end. In book 12 of Paradise Lost, Michael recounts the story of the Temple immediately after he tells of the birth of David's son, Solomon:

And his next Son for Wealth and Wisdom fam'd,

The clouded Ark of God till then in Tents

Wand'ring, shall in a glorious Temple enshrine.

(lines 332-4)

There is nothing objectionable in this passage, but Michael damns the Temple with faint praise: the single word "glorious" pales before the extensive history of the people's sins that follows--"Part good, part bad, of bad the longer scroll" (line 336). The pathos of the ark's nomadic existence also seems curiously weak: although tents may seem inadequate to the ark, the freedom to wander like a cloud connotes majesty. The ark is a phenomenon all out of proportion to other kinds of artifacts, and wandering across the face of the earth might suit it, as it would suit a cloud, better than enshrinement. The contrast still retains its primary meaning--the temple glorifies God better than the tents had--but the temporary success of the temple carries little rhetorical weight before the fate of the souls which its luxury later imperils.

Enshrinement, in fact, may be little better than imprisonment, for it immobilizes the ark, exposing it to pollution. As long as the ark wanders, it can strike dead those who offend it, leaving the body of the offender behind (e.g., 2 Sm 6:7). Once the ark is fixed in place, however, offenses can accumulate around it, growing into an urban fabric from which the immobile holy site cannot escape. God's only recourse in such an event is to sell the whole nation of Israel into slavery, a fate which eventually entails the fall of the temple itself. The glory of enshrinement comes at the cost of liberty, and nothing can endure without the liberty to respond to historical change.

Milton gives a fuller account of this cost in book 1, in which the history of the Temple appears as fragments embedded in a catalog of demons. Milton rehearses the names of the principal devils as they awaken in hell and approach Satan (lines 392-505); among other distinguishing marks, the devils are identified by what they do to or in Solomon's temple. Moloch, not satisfied with the "Audacious neighbourhood" of his earlier temples,

the wisest heart

Of Solomon he led by fraud to build

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