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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
Medieval Art and the Church
- Art and Religion
- Christ and Apollo
- The Age of Faith and Ugliness
- The Cathedral Builders
- The Painters of the Renaissance
Art and Religion
WHEN the good American sits down to arrange his grand tour of Europe he makes an interesting discovery. He must not fail, he is told, to visit at least a few of the cathedral towns of England, where he will see glorious buildings which all wealth and skill of modern America cannot create. France? Yes, there is Notre Dame at Paris, and there are all the treasures of the Louvre, and then there are the cathedrals at Amiens, Chartres, Rouen, etc. In Spain he must not miss the cathedrals of Seville and Burgos, the Murillos in the Prado and at Seville, etc. In Italy, of course, it will take weeks to see the unique wonders of Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Milan. And, if he is rich, he may try to smuggle into America a small painting, an ivory crucifix, a piece of old lace — one of a thousand things that the colossal wealth of America cannot produce.
Evidently, he reflects, there was a time when this sleepy old dame Europe could do things. When was it? And some pupil of the Jesuits or the Paulists will tell him, with the smile of the virtuous person whose snowy innocence has been vindicated at last: “In the Middle Ages, my friend. In just those centuries which those damnable books of yours describe as a dyspeptic mess of stupidity, coarseness, burning flesh, and strong ale. And it was the religion of the Middle Ages, the religion represented to you as the height of European civilization, which inspired these immortal, inimitable, world-venerated embodiments of beauty. We produce these things no longer because that religion no longer fires the heart and exalts the imagination of the race.”
From the first I promised that we would examine the virtues as well as the vices of the Middle Ages. I am too old an artist to paint a picture in monotone; nor should I expect to meet the wishes of my readers if I presented the balance sheet of the Christian religion with every petty item meticulously recorded on the unfavorable side and most valuable credits omitted from the other side.
Thousands now pass annually from the Churches to the vast army of the churchless: hardly any pass in the opposite direction. And the chief reason is that when a believer opens a Rationalist work he learns something that had been concealed from him, whereas, when a Rationalist opens a Christian work, he learns nothing. It is the modern apologetic, with its distortions, suppressions and antiquities, which is ruining the Churches.
But let us come back to medieval art. For ages to come, until the hand of man can no longer maintain their venerable frames, the great cathedrals will chasten the pride or vanity of a more scientific race. For all time the beautiful paintings of the Middle Ages will be the masters of the living masters of the art. New schools of painting and architecture and sculpture may rise and fall, but those princely achievements of form and color will never lose their power to enthrall and uplift. Do not, pray, imagine that this chapter is going to attempt the quixotic task of suggesting that the art of the Middle Ages has been, like the virtue or the wisdom or the happiness of the time, exaggerated.
What we are going to consider is whether the Christian religion inspired this art; and let me give you at once a number of reasons for approaching that issue with an open mind.
A few years ago I sat in the solemn gloom of Seville cathedral and bowed before its stupendous majesty and grace. Then, as is my custom, I reflected. Another temple, a Mohammedan mosque, had previously existed on the site, and it was torn down that this church of Christ might rise disdainfully upon its ruins. But all agree that the mosque was, in its own fashion, as superb as the Christian cathedral. The surviving mosque at Cordova, the palace at Seville, the Alhambra at Granada, compel us to believe that.
Now what was the common inspiration in the Mohammedan Moor and the Christian Spaniard? Not any element of Christianity. Moreover, the Moors created immortally beautiful things within four centuries of the founding of their religion; but the Christian cathedrals which we cross sea and land to visit did not appear until more than a thousand years after the founding of Christianity, and the Christian pictures not until several centuries later.
Reflect again, on the strange succession in the efflorescence of the arts. First comes the triumph of architecture and sculpture. Painting, which can as admirably express religious emotion, still waited a century or two. Poetry which would seem from the start to have been the fittest art to be inspired by religion, waited still longer. Except Chaucer and Dante, whom not one in ten thousand read today, can you name off-hand one Christian poet before the age of Humanism? Music, as amenable to religious inspiration as any art, was the last of all to reach the stature of genius; and half the great masters of even religious music were not Christians. Strange how unevenly this inspiration of religion was felt by five arts, each of which was as capable as the other of giving a sublime expression to religious emotion.
Further, and this brings us near to the heart of the matter, when we speak of the art of the Middle Ages, let us conceive exactly in our own minds what we mean. By the Middle Ages we understand, roughly, the time from about 500 to 1500 (or 1600) A.D. In many respects, the Middle Ages lasted until the nineteenth century, but we may draw a line with a bold stroke at about the year 1500, when science was reborn, printing was invented, the earth was discovered, and the Reformation began. That leaves a thousand years for the Middle Ages.
Well, unless you have a technical interest, there is not a building, a picture, or a statue in Europe that you will cross the street to see that belongs to the first half of that millennium. The beautiful buildings belong mainly to the thirteenth and later centuries, the beautiful pictures mainly to the fifteenth and sixteenth. In other words, the great artistic inspiration of Europe began at the same time as the mighty rebellion against the prevailing religion. The earlier half, or more than half, of the Middle Ages, when religion was most profoundly and generally believed, was artistically barren. It is just when the modern spirit begins to invade the Middle Ages that great art appears. During the three centuries of magnificent artistic creativeness the church had to slay hundreds of thousands of rebels and to lay its iron-tipped lash on the backs of millions. There is ground for inquiry.
Finally, there is greater art in Europe than the medieval art. No one disputes the supremacy of Greek architecture, sculpture, and literature. In the museum at Athens there are gold cups which, a leading expert says, are as fine as anything produced in the Middle Ages; and they belong to the old Cretan civilization. Egyptian art needs no praise, and such fragments of imperial Rome as remain will match in beauty most of the artistic creations of later Christian Rome — are, in fact, far superior to anything produced in the Rome of the Popes for more than a thousand years after Rome became Papal. And beyond Europe is the art of India, of China, of Japan.
So the argument assumes a broader form, and we are told that it is religion, not this or that religion in particular, which inspires art. Is it not the temples of Athens and Egypt you admire? Are not the marble statues which the world treasures effigies of gods and goddesses? Here is the very latest American writer on the subject, Von Ogden Vogt (“Art and Religion,” 1926), assuring us that “religion has been historically the great fountain source of art.” He quotes another recent writer saying: “Art will never arise and develop among men unless it has a foundation in religion.” This, says Mr. Von Ogden Vogt, is an exaggeration, but “something like it is true.”
And I would, with becoming modesty, point out to these dogmatic gentlemen, who issue their works from American universities, that this is a historical statement, and that scarcely a single historian of art ever makes it. They ought to know. Here is one of the latest and most original, Elie Faure’s “History of Art,” a sumptuous four-volume translation of which appeared in America in 1921. Faure surveys artistic creations from the beginning of civilization, and somehow he quite fails to see that religion is the great inspirer of art — least of all, we shall see, of medieval art. Religion has been a great employer of art, but otherwise Faure traces the evolution of art as if religion did not exist.
Here is another comprehensive study in two fine volumes, Mr. Luebke’s “Outlines of the History of Art” (the American edition rewritten by Russell Sturgiss in 1922). Luebke is more generous to religion than Faure, but you fail to learn from him that religion is the great inspirer. You do not read it either (if you read German) in Springer’s “Kunstgeschichte” (eleventh edition 1921) or Rosenberg’s “Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte” (third edition 1921) or even the Catholic Franz von Reber’s older but excellent “History of Medieval Art” (New York edition 1887), of which I am going to make considerable use. It is in religious writers, not in historians of art, that you read the dogmatic statement that religion inspires art, and that the Christian religion inspired medieval art.
I have just pointed out one root of the fallacy. Organized and wealthy religions employ the artist, so his creations have very largely a religious character. Beethoven and Mozart are sung in the Catholic churches of America today; and both artists were apostates from the Catholic faith when they wrote the music. Pinturicchio, a very wicked little skeptic, painted the pretty mistress of Pope Alexander VI (for the Pope, in the Vatican) as a very modest and demure Virgin Mary. Fra Filippo Lippi, as amorous a monk as ever lived (which is saying a good deal), painted most beautiful and most correct religious pictures, In Faure’s “History of Art” I notice half a dozen photographs of statues of the goddess Aphrodite, as finely executed as any statues of Mary in the world; and they are all portrait statues of prostitutes, with whom the sculptors were probably familiar.
I would rather here point out a second root of the fallacy, as I know no writer on art who has drawn attention to it; except that Faure attributes the decline of Athenian art in great measure to “the reign of intellectualism.” It is a pregnant thought. Great art so commonly accompanies religion because it occurs in an early phase of the evolution of civilization, when religion still dominates the majority. Art decays when religion decays because intellectualism has taken the life of both, not because it has weakened art by destroying religion.
Once, being invited to open a debate in some artistic corner in New York, I maliciously gave the thesis: “America never had an art and never will.” Artists came in large numbers to see me slain, but, if I remember rightly, I won the vote.
The civilization of the United States was formed from fragments of three nations — to speak only of the original French, Dutch, and English — which had had their great artistic efflorescence centuries before.
Athens artistically decayed when its philosophical period opened. Egypt had a high art six thousand years ago, and it had other artistic periods of distinction only after prolonged confusion and rejuvenation. It is a general historical truth that a nation’s time of high artistic creativeness comes at a relatively early stage of its development, though the love of beauty and technical excellence may be conservatively maintained, as in China, Japan, and India. The law holds good of Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs — quite generally, in fact.
I ascribed it, long before Faure’s book was written, to a “reign of intellectualism.” Take the English Bible as a sample of the English mind at the time; for it was not written by literary geniuses. No group of men in the English-speaking world could write like that today. It is psychologically impossible. We are too intellectualized. We have lost the art of instinctive concrete thinking. The imagination has been enfeebled as the intellect developed. The language has changed, and is a thousand times more abstract, because we all — not merely philosophers and scientists — do far more abstract thinking. Words which to Shakespeare’s hearers must have seemed “words of learned length and thundering sound” are on our lips every day. His simple, spontaneous, concrete imagery even our poets cannot experience.
In this light the art of the Middle Ages begins to be intelligible. There was plenty of religion, but no great art, during more than half of the Middle Ages. For the remainder there was very much less sincere religion, yet very great art. There is no connection with religion except that religious organizations or communities had most of the money to employ art and had sufficiently lost their original puritanism to appreciate it. But the real cause was that the tribes which had destroyed the Roman Empire had slowly settled and grown into the Italian, French, German, and English nations, and they were due to experience their artistic springtime. They learned what civilization was, and they infused all their young vigor and richness of imagination into its customary first manifestation, art: as the first Greeks to reach the Mediterranean, the Arabs when they reached the Persians, the Toltecs and Aztecs when they reached the Mayas, had done.
Thus there is a general law of these “golden ages” of the nations. I am not writing a manual of the history of art, so I must be content with short indications which the reader who is specially interested may verify. It is a very general rule that a nation has one golden age of artistic creativeness, and it comes at the beginning of the full development of civilization. You will find that in the case of Egypt (which, however, had, like Persia, reconstructions and rebirths), Assyria, Persia, Athens, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Moors, and the new European nations. I do not admit any law of decline and death of civilizations, yet there is something like a spring and early summer, with a riot of color and energy, once the winter of barbarism is over. This occurs at a time when the religion is still generally believed and enforced (though not necessarily, as we shall see, believed by the artists themselves), and, as man gives most of his resources to the gods, the art serves religion. It is a coincidence. The next and higher phase of civilization destroys religion and enfeebles the artistic inspiration. Where there is not a progressive intellectual development (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, China, India), the artistic level remains comparatively high, and the mass of the people remain religious.
We have to see whether the great art produced in Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century is not explained on these lines. Dr. Franz von Reber, a Catholic art-director, writing in the heart of Catholic Bavaria, prefixes to his “History of Medieval Art,” a twelve-page summary of his survey. There is not a single reference to religion in it, except that here and there he notices that pure Christianity is antagonistic to art. He does not grasp the law that I have formulated, but the whole story which he tells is consistent with it. In a sheltered area of Europe in the eleventh century architecture first reaches distinction. By the thirteenth century most parts of Europe are settled and prospering, and then the great age of architecture and sculpture occurs, and the age of the great painters opens. The only reference to religion which he and other writers make here is that one aspect of this creative period is that the laity of Europe have at last wrested art from the monks and made it human, even when it is religious.
Christ and Apollo
It is the boast of the Roman Catholic, and a commonplace observation of the artist, that the Protestant chapel is cold and uninspiring, the Catholic church warm, artistic, pleasant and stimulating to the emotions. The Reformers themselves would have met such a boast with a snort of contempt. This was precisely what they aimed to create. The Catholic church represented a thoroughly pagan version of Christianity. Their own stern and bare meeting places expressed a return to Christ. They were worshipers of God, not of Apollo. If a man or woman could not throb and thrill with devotion in a direct communication with God, be or she was not yet a Christian.
So the early Church had believed for centuries, and it is the only correct interpretation of the message of Jesus. Ritual is fossilized religion. Vestments and incense and candles are evidence of low religious vitality. Jesus scorned the beautiful temple, the picturesque garb of the priests, the set festivals, the music, the book of words. A man must address himself directly to God, in short prayers. One of the most delicious absurdities of Catholic worship is that the Lord’s prayer is introduced (and in Latin!) in the middle of a service that lasts an hour and a half. We can, of course, easily see that Christ did not compose the prayer, which is a compilation of earlier prayer-phrases, but it was written for the express purpose of showing that long services were unnecessary and undesirable.
There was a second reason why pure and primitive Christianity scorned art. Jesus quite certainly said — if we accept any part of the gospels as authentic — that the end of the world was near. The gospels, as we have them, were written so late that we cannot accept on their authority any particular word or deed attributed to Jesus, yet this idea of the speedy approach of the end of the world is so characteristic, and it so strongly tinges the whole ethic ascribed to Jesus, that it seems reasonable to believe that there was an historical Jesus, an Essenian, warning men to meet the coming judgment in purity and poverty. Could anything be more widely removed from the Dionysiac urge, the Apollo spirit, of the Greeks? What had such communities to do with art?
And when these followers of Jesus found themselves, as they soon did, living amongst the pagan crowds of the Greek and Roman cities, there was a third reason why they distrusted and disliked art. The religious use of it was essentially pagan. The Greek and Roman religions were, at that late date, not matters of sentiment. You were not transfigured with awe and devotion when you turned your thoughts to our Father Zeus or Father Diu (Jupiter). You thought of their love-affairs and family jars and you smiled. They were gods and so you gave them your grain of incense, and attended the festivals when priests — not a consecrated caste, but lay officials like yourself — in becoming costumes paid the communal respect to them. Without art all this would have been insipid, so the temple was a museum of art. Every sense was gratified. Even the nostrils were tickled. The room was full of beautiful statues, pictures, altars and odors. In the article on the Middle Ages in the “Encyclopedia Britannica” my friend Professor Shotwell, of Columbia University, says.
In the realm of art the “Middle Ages” had already set in before Constantine robbed the arch of Titus to decorate his own, and before those museums of antiquity, the temples, were plundered by Christian mobs. The victory of Christianity — iconoclastic in its primitive spirit — Was but a single chapter in the story of decline.
This was the fourth century, and Professor Shotwell’s direct aim is to extenuate the artistic sterility of Christianity in the early Middle Ages by reminding us that the Church, when it did at last relax its puritanism, inherited a decadent art. Dr. von Reber says much the same (p. 73): “The general debasement of art and the conceptions of Christianity worked together to destroy that perfection of outward appearance which is the vital principle of all art.” We quite admit that the golden age of Roman art was over, the golden age of Greek art long past, when Christianity spread. But what concerns us for the moment is that the pagan religions employed all the art that there was to evoke a sensuous response in worshipers, and it was of the very essence of Christianity to resist this. From its Hebrew parent, the Jewish religion, it had inherited a great distrust of statues and pictures. Christ went further and condemned temples, ritual, sacrifices, vestments, festivals and so on. Christianity stood for a stark spiritual nudity. The slightest titillation of sense was a contamination. Not even the slenderest sketch of Christ or any of his chief early followers was bequeathed to the Church. Art served the devil.
It is related in history that the Emperor Severus, who died in 235 A.D., had a bust of Christ in his private chapel. Whether this means that the emperor had an imaginary portrait executed by one of his pagan sculptors or that the Christians were in some places beginning to patronize art, we do not know. But most probably it was a pagan sculpture, for the Fathers are almost uniformly severe against art. The most liberal scholar of the early Church, Origen, wanted to have painters and sculptors excluded from the Christian body. There had to be meeting places, since Christ’s predicted end of the world had not happened. There had to be, the gospels said, commemorations of the last supper; and this easily became a ritual with ceremoniously garbed priests.
Moreover, the bodies of the martyrs could not very well be just thrust into their niches in the catacombs with a mere mention of the name. Members of the Christian community who could paint or carve were invited or permitted — we do not know when — to decorate the graves and walls. Art could not be entirely excluded from any human enterprise, but the religion itself was anti- artistic, anti-sensual, as long as it was pure. And there was as yet no veneration of Mary, and the legends of fair girl-martyrs — in fact most of the more picturesque legends of the martyrs were not forged until centuries later.
It is therefore immaterial that during the first three centuries the Christian body had very little opportunity to encourage or inspire art. It was against its principles to patronize art. St. Jerome, one of the few literary artists — I mean one of the few writers with a really good Latin style — shuddered with fear of hell because he dreamed one night that Christ had sternly accused him of being a Ciceronian. No expert writer on art who notices the subject fails to point out that the pure teaching of Christ, the sternest asceticism, was hostile to art. The senses were to be starved. They were the devil’s avenues to the soul. And the whole story of later Christian art is a story of departures from Christ and approaches to Apollo on the part of the degenerating Christian body.
The first concession was when the persecutions ceased and the emperor was converted to Christianity. The new religion now had liberty of worship, large crowds of worshipers to house, and great wealth with which to build. It at once ignored as quite impracticable the injunction of Jesus that his followers should worship God in spirit only, without temples. All Christians have ignored it ever since. The real reason is that no religion would survive so severe a test as that. The flock needs shepherds, and the shepherds need dogs. The idea of the consecrated caste of priests and of the “mass” had already been developed in the Church. There was now a priesthood with an instinct of self-preservation.
So the Church decided at once to have large places of worship — basilicas, they called them — built with the gold of Constantine and his successors. Architects dispute whether these primitive churches were built on the model of the Roman public basilica (or public hall) or of the private hall in a large Roman house in which the Christians had hitherto been accustomed to meet, or some other type. That does not concern us. The main idea was to avoid the model of the Greek or Roman temple.
But from the first, concessions were made to human nature and to the ambitions of the priests themselves. The basilicas were handsome structures, often richly decorated. Luebke, who is more disposed to say a word now and again in favor of religion, speaks of these fourth-century basilicas as “superb” and “impressive.” Reber, who is more detached and conscientious, speaks of “meager and monotonous architecture” with “magnificent colored decoration.”
It is enough that the Church began at once to employ art. It gave art no inspiration. Rome was at the time a glorious city, with miles of beautiful marble temples, public buildings, triumphal arches and colonnades, and this early Christian art certainly did not rise above its models. But the cult of Apollo had begun. The Church was not yet in a position to compel the pagans to join it. They had to be attracted. And, since the story of Jesus did not seem very effective in that respect, and the Romans shrank from its bleak asceticism, the artist had to be introduced.
Toward the end of the century the Church got the political power to crush all its rivals and enforce its creed by imperial decree on the whole Roman world. Here was a crucial moment in the relation of the Church to art. Since there was no longer (in theory) a need to attract, the Church could afford to be Christian and abandon the allurements of art. In point of fact, the Church had already at the end of the fourth century, got so far away from Christ that real Christians, like Helvidius and Jovinianus (early Protestants), were condemned and persecuted. Art was now permanently enlisted. Human nature will not long tolerate any religion unless there is a little human nature in the religion. Man makes gods in his own image and likeness.
Historians at this point generally bemoan the vandalism of the Church in destroying the pagan temples with all their artistic treasures, and there is now a tendency to restrict the Church’s responsibility for this. The Catholic archeologist, De Rossi, held that fewer temples were destroyed, and more adapted to Christian worship, than had been supposed. Reber says:
In reference to such adaptations, it has become the fashion to maintain that the Christian emperors were wisely desirous of preventing the destruction of the temples of the ancients; but this preservation was, in reality, rather owing to an interference with selfish abuse of the buildings and their materials by individuals than to any real respect for them as monuments of art.
In the year 399 the Emperor Honorius ordered that all rural temples should be destroyed and that those in the cities should be preserved as “civic ornaments.” Twenty-seven years later the Emperor Theodosius decreed: “All pagan temples still remaining in perfect preservation are to be destroyed or consecrated by the sign of the cross.” In point of fact, few were preserved. Of the more famous pagan temples only the Parthenon at Athens survived. The most resolute vandalism dare not lay its hands on that. It was converted into a church. But the Scrapeum of Alexandria, all the beautiful Greek temples of Diana and Aphrodite, all the greater temples of Rome, were either destroyed or left to decay. Priests and monks, especially in the east, led mobs to the wreck of the fairest buildings; and of the immense mass of art-treasures they had contained only a few fragments have come down to us.
A writer on art naturally deplores this vandalism, as he must call it, but I do not stress it from our present point of view. The Christian leaders had taught that the gods and goddesses of the pagan world were devils, and so this iconoclasm was quite inevitable. The chief point is that Christianity, in destroying the old art, could not create a new, because it refused and disdained the service of art as long as it was faithful to the principles of Jesus. “In short,” says Reber, after reviewing the first few centuries, “primitive Christianity gave no impulse to the arts.” I do not see how any person could expect it. In the fourth century, when it became less Christian and more wealthy, when emperors and courtiers and scholars began to attend church, the architect, painter, and sculptor were employed for Christian work. But, says Reber, examining what remains of their achievements, “all such protection and encouragement were of little more avail than is medical aid to a hopelessly decrepit body.”
Christian art was young, you may say. One must allow it time to develop. But all the authorities are agreed that it degenerated, rather than advanced, during the fourth and fifth centuries. The Roman world was in decay, and there was no part of its life which the new religion was fitted to inspire and invigorate. The greatest Christian work of the time was St. Augustine’s “City of God.” The key-note of it is that Christianity does not care two cents what happens in “the city of men,” or mere secular civilizations and culture: its sole concern is to make and keep men citizens of the “city of God,” to teach them to subdue their sensuous feelings and preserve their virtue. That was true Christianity. It is quite absurd to affect to find artistic inspiration in it.
The Age of Faith and Ugliness
Then, in the fifth century, there occurred the mighty catastrophe, the fall of the Roman Empire, which distorted the whole course of human development. The older Christian apologists almost completely forgot this dislocation of civilization. They asked us to believe that the world became more virtuous, refined, and cultivated after the triumph of Christianity. Now that the historical facts are widely known, the new apologists use the catastrophe to lighten the responsibility of their religion. How, they ask us, could you expect the new religion in such circumstances to make the world more virtuous, more refined or more cultivated?
I take this triumph of barbarism fully into account and try to ascertain what Christianity might reasonably be expected to do and did not do. We will now make every allowance for it in connection with Christian art. Even the mediocre Christian art of the fourth century degenerated. For five further centuries Europe remained, with the exception of one area, a drab, sordid, ugly mass of semi- barbarism.
The one exception was the district of Ravenna in north Italy, and it is interesting. When Rome fell, Ravenna was chosen as a residence by the emperor, and later it came into the possession of the Greek emperors. Its position on the coast of the Adriatic — it was the predecessor of Venice as a seaport — made it very suitable for communication with Constantinople. And the art of Ravenna, which is the only art to be taken into account before the tenth century, is Greek or Byzantine art. In fact, the early art of Venice itself, the magnificent church of St. Mark, is Byzantine.
The impartial historian of art will therefore turn to the eastern half of Christendom in order to follow the undisturbed relations of art and Christianity. The rulers of the eastern empire were all Christians from Constantine, its founder, onward. Rival religions were early and thoroughly extinguished. Streams of gold flowed into the veins of the Church, and the Greek Empire was practically untouched by the barbaric invasions. Here we should find an almost pure illustration of the artistic inspiration of the Christian religion.
But the Catholic historian of art, F. von Reber, at once warns us not to expect much:
From the union of Roman enervation with Oriental languor nothing could be born but the long decrepitude of Byzantine Christianity — the trunk was too rotten and the graft too degenerate to bring forth a fair fruit. The evil qualities of Oriental society are evident throughout: luxury, despotism, a superstitious religion, and a slavish obedience to temporal powers.
Reber frankly acknowledges that early Christianity was anti- artistic, and he therefore does not for a moment expect the Church to vivify and invigorate this enervated world. The feat would by no means have been impossible if Christianity had been really a civilizing force, which Augustine never claimed it to be. Ancient Egypt twice fell into a similar state of decrepitude, and was twice rejuvenated and suffused with energy and artistic creativeness. Ancient Persia was restored, and had a splendid art and culture, at the very time of this failure of the Greek Empire which Reber describes. There was, it is true, a short period of Byzantine energy under the Emperor Justinian, when the church of St. Sophia (now a mosque) at Constantinople was built, but it soon passed, and the prosperous and almost untroubled empire remained artistically feeble, or actually degenerated.
Byzantine art at its best, as seen in its finest products, St. Sophia and St. Mark, is an illustration of the way in which the leaders of the Church were constantly persuaded to betray the principles of Christ and enlist the service of art. As Faure sincerely says (ii, 262)
Had Christianity remained as St. Paul desired it, and as the Fathers of the Church defined it, it must needs have turned its back upon the plastic interpretations of the ideas which it introduced. But as it wished to live, it obeyed the law which compels us to give to our emotions the form of the things that we see.
The Christian ideas, in other words, would of themselves fail to hold the mass of the people in any age. The Church replies that it may and must, therefore, consult the spiritual feebleness of human nature by expressing these ideas in architecture, sculpture, painting, embroidery and music. Very well; but it is an historical truth that neither Christ nor St. Paul nor any weighty Father of the early Church admitted this, and it is a psychological truth that it is the pleasure of the art, not its idea-content, which attracts. So clear was this even in the Greek Empire that there soon arose the sect of the Iconoclasts (image-breakers) who, in sincere fidelity to the principles of Christ, checked the new service of art for several centuries.
Thus the first notable Christian art, the Byzantine, arose from worldly considerations, and it had so little vital inspiration from religion that it soon degenerated into a mechanical, if technically excellent, imitation of early models, a lifeless and conventional and often grotesque presentment of divine-human subjects which was neither divine nor human. It is the real source of those elongated, stiff, unanatomical, bloodless saints and Christs, often beautifully painted or carved, which you see in the illuminated missals, the altar panels, the crucifixes of the early Middle Ages. Reber’s verdict is (P. 99):
The last traces of antique art were lost in soulless imitation of imitations: artistic work became from age to age more mechanical and more unreal, losing all appreciation and even pretense of beauty, which quality, in as far as the human body was concerned, was held by the ascetic tenets of the Christian Church not only in disesteem, but in positive condemnation.
Let us note in particular the service of the monks. It is nauseous to read in one history after another the conventional reference to the “magnificent service” of the monks to art and culture. A religion that makes a desert of a civilized world and then boasts of creating a few oases in it is not entitled to such flattery; and the overwhelming majority of the monks — of whom there were millions from the fifth to the twelfth century — did nothing for either art or culture or virtue. A few monasteries spent part of their time in sacred art, and, where the monks were really austere and sincere, the forms they painted or carved or wrought in mosaic, often with exquisite technique, were as far removed from reality and truth as were their religious ideas. It was the wicked monks and bishops who encouraged and treasured real art, when their taste rose above the coarsest sensual level.
Glance, on the other hand, at Persia. The ancient kingdom which had inherited all the art and culture of Babylon and Assyria, had soon declined and suffered several centuries of the kind of demoralization which occurred in Europe. But the Sassanid kings had raised it to as great a height of vigor and elegance as it had previously attained, and, while the Greek Empire was degenerating under the Christian religion, the Persian civilization was rising.
In the year 636 A.D. it fell to the Arabs. Here we have an even closer and more instructive parallel. The Arabs were at the time as barbaric as the Goths and Vandals who overthrew the Roman Empire, and their Mohammedan religion so sternly forbade the representation of animal or human forms that their rude inappreciation of art was converted, in large part, into a positive hatred. Yet within a hundred years Persia was raised again, for the second time, to its old level, and the new Arabian-Persian culture became the most famous in the world. It is, at least in a general way, known to everybody by the high civilization of the Saracens, who taught the European Christian knights more than one lesson in refinement, and by its Spanish outgrowth, the culture of the Moors, which was to play an important part in the re-civilizing of Europe.
Many writers on history and art seem to lose the historic sense whenever they have occasion to mention the successes or the failures of Christianity. It is convenient for them to forget the historical parallels which are usually employed to elucidate any phase of human development. The parallels I have just noticed show that neither the decadence of Greco-Roman art nor the languor of the “enervated” east (which was for millennia the most vigorous and progressive part of the earth) nor the rudeness of the northern barbarians suffices to explain the failure of Byzantine art or the infinitely worse failure of Christian art in Europe. It is not enough to remind us, as every historian of art does, of the continued demoralization and the incessant invasions from the north of Europe. Arab-Persian art represents just such a combination of enfeebled civilization, barbaric strength, and anti-artistic religion. But a great art was developed, and it was developed, not under the inspiration of the Mohammedan or any other religion, but precisely in defiance of the strict precepts of the religion. When art does at last develop in Europe, we shall find that it similarly derives from quite other sources than religion.
The Moorish art of Spain may in the meantime yield us another lesson of importance. The man who visits the wonderful mosque at Cordova, built mainly during the very darkest of the Dark Ages of — Europe the ninth and tenth centuries — may be tempted to reflect how here again religion has inspired art. But let him read the story of Cordova in those days, and he will realize that this surviving structure was only one of a vast number of beautiful and generally secular buildings. Let him visit the Alcazar at Seville (built by Moorish artists) and the Alhambra at Granada, and, if he be logical, he will now say that royalism was just as inspiring as religion. Neither was inspiring. Both employed the artist. His art was a native human impulse which he expended in the beautification of every instrument and aspect of Moorish life. The mosque and the city-gate, the copy of the Koran and the copy of some lascivious Arab poem, were equally beautiful.
The Cathedral Builders
Our art-authorities are generally agreed on what I have said up to the present. One had a little more appreciation of fourth- century art than another: one is less disdainful than another of Byzantine art. But they agree that Europe was so generally squalid from the fifth to the tenth century that a description of the period as an age of faith and ugliness is a broadly correct description. I qualify the statement only lest it may be thought that I have forgotten the patiently and often delicately worked miniatures and carvings, on debased models, which came from many of the monasteries. These are not great art but patient and skilful craftsmanship.
The first half of my thesis, therefore, can hardly be disputed; and there is the same general agreement about the second half. Here, however, we need to find our way more cautiously. The name and personalities of the artists begin to be known to us, and since they are often religious men (Raphael, Michelangelo, etc.), it may seem a nice task to attempt to dissociate their artistic inspiration from their religious convictions and sentiments. We shall find guiding principles in this matter, but it is well to take first a general view. And the general view of the art of the later Middle Ages which we find in all the historians is that, taken as a whole, it was due, not to religion, but to secular or economic conditions.
I have spoken of the Romanesque architecture which opens this period of great art. Luebke, the least anti-clerical of the authorities, remarks (i, 515) that “it attained a higher development just in proportion as it withdrew from the narrowing influence of monasteries.” He adds:
This new spirit, this free movement, is distinctly evident in the various branches of culture. Its dimly discerned but eagerly sought goal was the freeing of the individual from the rule of the priesthood, though only in the limited degree consistent with the religious ideas of the Middle Ages.
The qualifying words at the close of this paragraph are incongruous, because in the Middle Ages all revolt against “the rule of the priesthood,” in any department of life, was heresy. Reber agrees when he gives us the characteristic of the age as “the removal of higher culture from the cell of the monk to the forum of everyday life.” More fully be describes what happened in these words (p. 481)
New political and social relations so entirely altered the character of occidental civilization that its products were essentially different. The results of the Crusades certainly did not correspond to the sacrifices which they had required, but they, nevertheless, like a thunderstorm, cleared the heavy and sultry air which had hung over Europe during the later Romanic period. Art was taken by the laity from the hands of the clergy and the monkish communities, and was freed from dogmatic traditions. In poetry, sculpture, and painting, the study of nature was cultivated, and in architecture a greater independence and originality soon made itself felt.
But the more recent and more vivid work of Faure, which studies the human spirit in artistic development as much as, or more than, the technical variations, gives us the vital truth (ii, 284)
The church of the clergy was too narrow and too dark, the crowd that was rising with the sound of a sea begged for a church of its own; it felt in itself the courage and the knowledge necessary to build that church to its own stature. Its desire was to have the whole great work of building pass, with the material and moral life, from the hands of the cloistered monk into those of the living people.
The effect of this was, he says in a line: “Christianity, which until then had dominated life, was dominated by it and carried along in the movement.”
Under the auspices of these three manuals, the most weighty that the English-speaking reader can consult, I approach the remainder of my task with confidence. The great art of the Middle Ages began with its removal from clerical and monastic to lay hands. It pleases Catholics, who, if they know anything about history, refrain from mentioning the earlier Middle Ages, to call the thirteenth century “the great Catholic century.” It ought really, in comparison with the preceding centuries, to be called “the age of heresy.” It opened with the awful massacre of the Albigensians, and it set the Inquisition to discover and intimidate heresy everywhere; yet even at its close; as Dante tells us about Florence, heresy was very bold and rampant. Even on the wings of Christendom, in England and Bohemia, this spirit so affected the minds of men that presently the heresy of Wyclif and Hus would sweep the countries.
All these things — the Scholastic movement (a restricted revival of intellectual life in Christendom), the rise of secular schools and teachers and new secular literature, the foundation of republics or democracies, the wide rebellion against clerical control in art and thought — are vitally interconnected. They betoken a new spirit in Europe, and it is, in the strict sense of the word, anti-Christian. It is an assertion of the rights of human nature: of the flesh and of the intellect. Modern apologists actually describe the teaching of the Albigensians and the Cathari as “anti-social” because they urged celibacy and voluntary poverty, as Christ had done! It means that Christendom was deserting Christ, and the hounds of the Inquisition had to be let loose, largely upon those who clung to Christ.
The “economic interpretation of history,” which is the most solid and satisfying of interpretations, has never yet been fully and frankly applied to this wonderful age, and it cannot be expected in a short chapter like this, but I must give a few indications. The invasions of robust and semi-barbaric peoples from the north were over. Danes and Vikings had retired to their homes. Normans or Norsemen had settled in new lands. The nations of modern Europe had taken shape. Industry, commerce, and wealth emerge of themselves in such conditions, and of themselves they lead to artistic and intellectual activity.
In my “Peter Abelard” I have minutely studied and described the intellectual stirring of the first half of the twelfth century: the network of busy provincial schools, the old monastic and episcopal schools at Paris becoming a university, the crowd of independent teachers and their pupils from all parts forming the new Latin Quarter on the banks of the Seine. It is all, plainly, an outgrowth of the new economic conditions. The Church on the whole keeps control of it, but obviously did not inspire it. It is the dawn of the kingdom of man: the real beginning of modern times long before the Renaissance proper.
While this largely meant an internal economic and political development in Europe, it is a profound and very common error to overlook the impulse given from without, especially by the Spanish Moors. Abelard, when be was bayed at on every side by the narrow- minded monks, thought of going to live in learned and tolerant Spain. What brilliant lessons the Moors could give Europe! Here let us note, gratefully, that the great intermediaries, the broadcasters of their culture, were the Jews. Christendom has never yet realized how much it owes to the Jews whom it so vilely treated. In a less degree the Mohammedans influenced Europe by contact with the Crusaders in Palestine; though knights were then, as a rule, too boorish to take lessons in culture. And there was repeatedly an importation of art, even if cramped and degenerate, from the Greek world.
It was a repetition of the story of the Greeks. They had come down from the north, semi-barbarians, with their family of gods and goddesses. They at last displayed a unique and superb art in making temples for Zeus and Athene and the other deities, and carving statues of them. But no one imagines that the religion was the essential inspiration of the art. It merely provided themes. The Greeks had come into contact with the older civilizations, and they made a civilization of their own; just as America has created a civilization of its own and would create an art of its own.
This must suffice to indicate, very sketchily, how and why Europe begot a new spirit in the eleventh and twelfth centuries; not a new religion, not even a new appreciation of its old religion — rather the contrary — but a new, soaring, ambitious human spirit. There is an interesting theory amongst architects (developed in Leader Scott’s “Cathedral Builders”), though it is warmly disputed, that the old Roman architects took shelter in the region of Como during the barbaric invasions, and kept up their traditions there until Europe was comparatively settled and there was a call for their work. It is said to have been the descendants of these “free masons” who wrought the new architecture of Europe; evolved the Romanesque out of the Roman, and the Gothic out of the Romanesque. I have proved elsewhere that the Roman trade unions, or Colleges of the workers, certainly survived into the Middle Ages and were the forerunners of the Guilds.
At all events it is universally admitted that the great age of cathedral building opened with the transfer of the art from the monks to laymen, to real artists unfettered by ascetic traditions. Large and rich towns were now growing all over Europe, and the burghers wanted fine churches. Dreamy religious writers love to imagine that the art became great because of the theme. They were to build a “house of God.” It was a religious inspiration. But they were just as “inspired” when they planned the civic buildings of the new burghers. It is the same inspiration in the Clothiers’ Hall at Ypres, the Town Hall at Louvain, the Rathaus at Cologne, as in the cathedrals of Rheims and Amiens. Give the artist a theme and he works it out appropriately; but the theme does not create his art.
You see this very plainly in the range or, so to say, output of the new architects. We are not concerned here with technical questions, and need note only that, according to all the modern authorities, the Gothic was developed quite naturally and laboriously out of the Roman through the Romanesque. All sorts of fanciful theories of the origin of the Gothic have been published, and the ordinary person, who knows it only in its finest specimens, the greater cathedrals, is apt to imagine it as a sort of revelation or miracle of religious inspiration. It was evolved as prosaically as the automobile. A northern climate demanded a different type of architecture from the south; just as you want a different type of house in Minnesota and in southern Florida. They wanted more light or larger windows, sloping roofs to ease the masses of winter snow, and so on. In sheer mutual rivalry they raised their churches higher and higher, until the strain on the walls became serious, and the flying buttress was invented.
In short, modern architects trace the whole gradual development from the eleventh to the fourteenth century; though, while the earlier or Romanesque style was developed in Saxony, the Gothic was elaborated first in the region of Paris. The Rheims cathedral is generally admitted to have been its most perfect example, and has been called “the Parthenon of the Middle Ages.” Reber, who also regards it as the finest cathedral, says, nevertheless, that it does not compare with the work of the Greeks. “It is,” he says, “not of that absolute perfection which characterizes the work of Iktinos and Phidias,” the builders of the Parthenon. Its sculptures, which are so much admired, are, he says, “by no means entirely free from inequalities in composition, from errors of proportion, and from exaggerations of facial expressions.” By the end of the thirteenth century the Gothic architecture became too elaborate and degenerated. The whole story is one of art, not religion.
The entire story of this great medieval architecture is a normal artistic episode. As the towns grow richer and the civic life more important, the architects are ordered to build Guild Halls, Town Halls and so on. These, where the money is available, are just as beautiful as the cathedrals. And the inspiration droops and fades just like the inspiration in any other golden age of art. The religion remained just the same. Indeed, after the appalling slaughter of heretics in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, I should be inclined to say that Europe was more Christian at the end of the great Gothic period than at its height.
But the movement followed the ordinary laws of art. The genius drooped. The new generation was content to imitate and was apt to be too elaborate. And when the Reformation came, when men really went back to the spirit and letter of Christ’s message, art was frozen as far as this really religious influence reached. If a Catholic asks you why we cannot build these glorious cathedrals today, or can only feebly imitate them, ask him why the great Gothic period exhausted itself long before the Reformation.
The Painters of the Renaissance
The men of the earlier Middle Ages had certainly had blood in their veins individually, but there had been no social veins, if I may use the term, with a vigorous collective circulation. It was when this social circulation and social wealth began that the bourgeoisie demanded art, and an art nearer to their own mood. Sculpture followed architecture into the hands of the laity. The saints and saintesses, even the devils and angels and Christ and Mary, became human. A little of the human joy of the more prosperous age was reflected on their features. Human models were used for them, and busts and limbs were rounded. Humanity was breathed into the older sculpture, and it began to rise toward the ancient Greek level. Perhaps some would say that in the sculpture of Michelangelo it reached that level. I do not know. But most experts say not; and it is significant that while joy in the real human form made medieval sculpture great, the Greek statuary was even greater, because it found its inspiration in the nude human form, in beautiful courtesans and athletic youths.
And this, according to all the authorities — and it will occur to any thoughtful person — is the clue to medieval painting. It is not really medieval at all. Luebke, one of the chief authorities, includes the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in his section in “Modern Art.” The result is that of medieval painters he can mention only Cimabue, Giotto and two or three others, who either clung to the old conventional models or began the revolt against them. They are, he says, “the heralds who announce the dawn of a new day.” But the new day, with all the great painters whose names are familiar to everybody, belongs to modern times. I have called them the painters of the Renaissance, and this again reminds us that they flourished in the least religious part of the Middle Ages.
The very date will be convincing to every reader who knows a little about history, but let me again quote the leading authorities to show that in slighting earlier painting and claiming that humanization made it great I am saying nothing new or disputable. Luebke, who makes all the great painters moderns, says: “During the Middle Ages the creations of art had been very largely controlled by traditional — chiefly ecclesiastical — habits of thought.”
Woltmann and Woermann, perhaps the leading authorities on the history of painting in particular, say curtly in their “History of Painting” that up to the middle of the thirteenth century painting and sculpture in Europe were “the painting and sculpture of children,” that after the thirteenth century painting “emancipated itself from priestly dictation,” and that it was in the least Christian and most immoral period of Italy that “the highest beauty, which the gods themselves had, two thousand years before, revealed to the Greeks, now revisited earth among the Italians.” Could there be a more scathing comment on the Roman Catholic claim than this plain statement of fact of two of the highest authorities on the subject?
Dr. von Reber entirely agrees, and the highest authority on the period, J. Addington Symonds, is just as emphatic in his monumental work, “The Renaissance in Italy.” “Painting in the earlier period,” he says, “suffered from a barren scholasticism.” It consisted of “frigid reproductions of lifeless forms, copied technically, and without inspiration, from debased patterns.” The next step was that the artist “humanized the altar-pieces and cloister frescoes,” and “piety, at the lure of art, folded her soaring wings, and rested on the genial earth.” So say all the authorities, while petty controversialists and pious writers would have you believe that it was art which soared at the lure of piety. In fine, confronting the great art of Raphael and Michelangelo, both Christians giving superb or exquisite form to Christian ideas, Symonds still ascribes their inspiration to their humanity, not their religion: “For the painters of the full Renaissance Roman martyrs and Olympian deities were alike burghers of one spiritual city, the city of the beautiful and the human.”
The general development is clear and familiar. Painting remained stiff and unnatural long after architecture and sculpture, because, says Reber, “its dependence upon the libraries and schools of the convents was much longer continued than was that of architecture and sculpture.” The revolt — the approach to nature and life — began with Cimabue, who, being a pioneer, did not lead it far. It was his pupil, Giotto, the founder of the Florentine School, who first, about the end of the thirteenth century, boldly “substituted his own observation of nature for outworn forms.” If he had to paint a St. Joseph or a St. Peter, in other words, he did not look up the conventional figures in illuminated missats or altar-panels, but brought to his studio a burly Florentine carpenter or fisherman.
So the new note was struck, and it slowly reverberated through Italy. Florence now afforded the material conditions of art: wealth, sensuality, and a wholesome skepticism. Other Italian cities overtook it, and had their schools of painters. In the fifteenth century Constantinople fell to the Turks, and hosts of Greek artists fled to Italy. The Renaissance — the Rebirth of classic art as well as literature — set in, and enforced the humanizing movement. Most of Europe was successively lit up, and a great literature or a great art appeared in many countries.
Pictures for the new beautiful churches, for popes and bishops and abbeys, were the most in demand and the most profitable, so that the painters of the earlier period have chiefly occupied themselves with sacred subjects. The artists did not paint a Virgin-and-Child, a Nativity, a St. Lawrence, because they felt a religious urge or inspiration in them, but because they were commissioned to paint them. The life of each of the great artists of the time is a series of journeys to execute commissions. If a secular ruler, a cardinal, or a pope wanted his portrait painted, the inspiration was just the same.
The only point that any informed person can seriously raise about the relation of these artistic geniuses to religion, apart from the obvious fact that religion employed them, is to what extent in certain individual artists the Christian faith increased or enhanced the inspiration. Small as a restricted claim like this would be — relatively to the foolish common boast that “Christianity inspired medieval art” — no authority on art would admit that Raphael or Michelangelo would have done less princely work if the fashion of painting or carving sacred subjects had passed and they were confined to mythology and life and history. The painters of the Renaissance who did actually paint mythological scenes and contemporary life painted to the height of their faculty just as the religious painters did. Even Fra Argelico, being an artist of genius, would have put as much inspiration into the painting of the improper frescoes on the walls of certain houses in Pompeii, had that been his task, as he actually infused into the pious frescoes in the walls of his monastery.
The period, the whole complexus of circumstances which I have described, evoked a succession of great artists, and they painted what their clients wanted. The same artists painted what are called obscene and what are called sincerely religious pictures. Fra Filippo Lippi, the renegade monk, did a very large number of beautiful paintings on the walls of churches. Why not? He merely, says Luebke, “placed sacred images and events on the footing of everyday life.” He could, as well as any, give his saint the ecstatic expression or give his Christ the proper air of majesty. Botticelli, whose religious pictures are famous, painted pagan myths and allegories no less beautifully. Pinturicchio, notoriously immoral and skeptical, has left a superb fresco in the Vatican of Pope Alexander VI (as immoral as himself) worshiping the risen Savior with an expression of piety that could hardly be surpassed. And on another wall of the Vatican there used to be a most tender and devout representation of the Virgin Mary which was a portrait of the damsel who at the time was the Pope’s mistress, wantoning with him in the Vatican every night.
The Roman School of painting — of painters who were not Romans — was one of the latest. The center of Christendom, as I said, had no great art until it became semi-pagan. It was a series of Popes, who, when they were not themselves immoral, surrounded themselves with utterly corrupt courts, who “inspired” the great art of Rome; and the funds for the work were derived from the most unscrupulous exploitation of the superstitions of Europe. It was under these immoral Popes, in an atmosphere of unbounded license and semi-pagan ideas, that Botticelli, Ghirlandajo, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Raphael, and Michelangelo worked. Without that atmosphere Rome would never have become the museum of art that it is. Aphrodite, Apollo, and Dionysos had more share than Christian ideas in the production.