The Artists Sacred History
( Originally Published 1896 )
An artist may embody the purport of sacred history in painted or sculptured forms and give it intelligible expression. Angelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and the great masters of the Renaissance, were the servants of Christian art. The author of "Renaissance and Modern Art" says, " We must not forget that both with the Greeks and Italians art existed to represent and teach belief - in other words, it means that art was religions.' He further says that Italian art " was Christian art in the best and highest sense, and in such a sense that all beliefs and all acts of our own time unite in proclaiming its greatness. The Italian art of the early sixteenth century may be viewed as a translation of the Bible into the language of forms, fully worthy of the great originals. The story of Genesis was told on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in a way which revived the old Hebrew simplicity and grandeur of Genesis itself. The lives of the Apostles live again in the cartoons and tapestries of Raphael, and the treachery of Judas has gone down to history in the great fresco of Da Vinci, as well as in the translation of King James the First, of the Revised Version."
The religious beliefs and teachings of the later Middle Ages were illustrated by means of art. To represent Christian ideals and illustrate Bible history and literature seemed to be almost the sole mission of art during the period of the early Renaissance. In the Vatican may be seen one series of over fifty designs taken from the Old Testament and known as Raphael's Bible." The story of Joseph has never been told so vividly and forcibly as by Ghiberti in his monumental bas relief. For about five hundred years those unparalleled bronze doors, belonging to the Baptistry in Florence, have been telling in a voice of silver and gold panel reliefs to every astonished beholder the story of Creation, of Cain and Abel, of Noah, of Abraham, of Jacob and Esau, of Hagar and Ishmael, and other important Bible events. We had read these Bible scenes over and over again in the printed book, but never were they so fixed in our mind as when we saw them boldly standing out on those immortal doors. In the ceiling frescos of the Sistine chapel, Angelo has told the story of the Creation in pictures never to be forgotten. We can see them yet, as we saw them one day standing with bared head and awed into silence. The vault of the sky at night traced by the hand of God himself is alone grander and more sublime.
Da Vinci was the great master in lights and shadows. Raphael enchanted the world with his "dignified balance of beautifully varied figures" and decorative composition. Angelo astonished the world with his figure design, his "prodigious illustrations of the Old Hebrew literature." Corregio attracted by his "grace and beauty rather than by power of thought." Titian ,excelled by his harmony and warmth of color. Who can look upon Corregio's Holy Night - an oil painting in the Dresden gallery, or upon the same artist's rich mellow scene of Christ's meeting Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, without experiencing the most devout and serious thoughtfulness !
There may be a reverent study of art. Michael Angelo's wonderful frescos in the Sistine chapel, at Rome, would illustrate how salvation came to the world and how it is proclaimed. The creation is depicted, and the history of Adam and Eve-how sin came into the world, but with sin the promise of redemption - the various deliverances of the Israelites. If we cannot infer the spirit of Christianity from Angelo's Last Judgment or Raphael's Transfiguration, we may learn much of its teachings from these and other like impressive paintings. Raphael's portraits excel in character portrayal. His immortal paintings in the Vatican Room of the Signature reveal his "perception for pure and spiritual beauty in women and children, and for noble dignity in man."
Francois Millet became a painter of deep religious feeling. His earlier paintings were in the modern French style, and observing the bad effects on two young men of one of his pictures which they were viewing in a window, he said to his wife, "If you consent, I will do no more of these pictures. Life will be harder than ever, and you will suffer; but I shall be free to work as I have long wished." His faithful wife replied, " I am ready. Do as you will." His poor peasant mother also advised him to follow the example of that master artist who said "I paint for eternity." Arcbdeacon Farrar says of Millet: "Michael Angelo had taught him that art could cause intensity of feeling. Seeing Michael Angela's drawing of a man in a swoon, he said: I touched the heart and heard the speech of him who has haunted me all my life. I saw that he who had done this could with a single figure personify the good and evil of all humanity.' Hence, he taught the world, as in his noble pictures, The Angelus and The Sower, that. the French peasant, even while engaged in the hum-blest occupation, was still and preeminently a fit subject for art. He saw the dignity of labor, and knew by bitter experience the secrets of the poor."
We believe that a sound art may be made a potent instrument of moral, political and religious training. Angelo's statue of Moses had a significant lesson for the age in which the artist lived. While it was de-signed principally to represent the Law-giver of Israel. about to rise in wrathful indignation at the worship of the golden calf, it was also meant to rebuke the wrongs of a certain grasping political party of Angelo's time and land. So in his wonderful sculptured Tombs of the Medici, at Florence, Angelo. designed not so much to commemorate a rich family, ( whom he really hated) as to express by the peculiar figures of the work the patriot's sorrow and "regret, over a lost cause." It is acknowledged by all that the caricatures of Hogarth in England, as well as of Nast and Beard in America, have been a potent factor in reform-work.
A pure work of art may be so full of sound rebuke, advice, or instruction, as to make a worthless man worthy, a useless man useful, a good man better. A single painting or statue may be a whole sermon in itself. Ah, there is power in artistic utterance ! Some pictures are pathetically tender, others wildly majestic. Art may teach the strength of love and the bitterness of hate, the difference between good and evil. It can increase or destroy feeling. One work of art may awaken the serious, another the ecstatic, another the sentimental, another the pathetic, still another the sublime. Art may aid in making people more refined and spiritual. Who will deny the power of musical art to make one feel joyful or wrathful, happy or wretched, frivolous or devotional! Art may gladden the world's heart. There is a silent power of the arts. No one enters a picture or sculpture gallery and comes out the same person. Shall we look upon a marble statue to which the fire of genius has imparted almost the breath of life as in no wise different from the shapeless, unmeaning block of marble on which we step? A picture may have a tender devotional spirit. Who will say that there is nothing more in music than sound - an ascending or descending scale of notes? And who will declare that in paintings there is nothing more than colors, lights and shades, or that in sculpture there are only cold marble forms!
Art can invest matter with animation, meaning and beauty. A picture is fiction - only surface form or figure transferred to canvas without depth, without reality- a figure like a circle or geometrical lines, or one's image in a mirror. There is nothing of it in itself. It is only a shadow; but it means something, and something substantial, too. It stands for substance and reality. A work of art is to be valued by what it signifies. Shapeless matter in itself is dead, ugly, and meaningless. What is it that gives it grace and life and power? Our definition of art would be matter reduced to graceful form or color or both.
The real power of art is spiritual. Its mission is to awaken and create ideas. Its form or design must have a spiritual meaning. Indeed, the perfection of art is reached only when the meaning fills and transcends the form" and any slight technical effect is lost sight of and the artist sinks his own conscious personality in his subject-matter for its own sake. The fault with many pictures is that the leading thought or subject is obscured by one's admiration of the technical science of the artist. The spiritual character of the age or individual should overpower the artist and find expression in his work. A work of art devoid of expression is wearisome. We need not expect to win the heart when we weary the head. Emerson says of Raphael's Transfiguration, that "a calm benignant beauty shines over all this picture and goes directly to the heart." Murillo's Assumption of the Virgin is a picture divine in its sublimity of expression and magnificent coloring.
Art should inscribe the character rather than the features. Away with all marble and chisel and oil and easel, except as they open our eyes to see real character and life! True art seeks to make real the inner thought. Art may be more than formal, it may be vital,- teaching a living truth. The artist fails who simply paints the proper breadth of the face and length of the nose, but throws no life-like likeness into that face. It is one thing to look at a work of art, and an other to look into it. The fault is often with the beholder. In the appreciation of art much depends on taste or the culture of taste on the part of those who would pass judgment. Some persons walk through galleries of genius, giggling, chattering, and wholly unimpressed.
Emerson observes,-" The best of beauty is a finer charm than skill in surfaces, in outlines, or rules of art can ever teach, namely, a radiation from the work of art, of human character,-a wonderful expression through stone, or canvas, or musical sound, of the deepest and simplest attributes of our nature, and there-fore most intelligible at least to those souls which have these attributes." The same author says of the highest works of art of the great masters of Greece and Rome, that a "confession of moral nature, of purity, love, and hope, breathes from them all. That which we carry to them, the same we bring back more fairly illustrated in the memory. Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not." Ruskin, says " Christian art as distinguished from all pagan work, has a peculiar spirituality in its conception of the human form, preferring holiness of expression and strength of character, to beauty of features or of body."
The Greek masters made true beauty the first object of their studies, and their immortal sculptured forms have become the models of the ages. In certain masterpieces of their art are embodied the loftiest conceptions of the beautiful. The frieze of the Athenian Parthenon, parts of which may be seen in the British Museum, exhibits the chief glory of the art of Phidias.
The sculptured works of this frieze are doubtless the finest specimens of the art that exist, and may be considered the culmination of sculpture. Praxitiles hardly comes short of Phidias in his power to execute with the chisel. His style is "more rich and flowing" and his choice of subjects "softer and more delicate." His goddess, the Venus of Cnido, "stands foremost as one of the celebrated art creations of antiquity." It seems to be universally acknowledged that Greece out-shines all other nations in the glory of her fine arts, as of sculpture, painting, poetry, architecture, and oratory. Ancient Rome gave lessons to the world in law and government, but not in art. Rome's early attempt to imitate the fine arts of the Golden Age of Greece resulted in little more than to corrupt them.
It is not our purpose to glorify art above its true position in religion, in morals, in, education, and material service. Our desire is to show that art has its proper place and mission in all of these relations. Art is not the reality. Even red paint is cold and dull, and a painted fire is of little account when one is freezing. Can paint and canvas give the real hues of the rainbow or of the sun's beaming, burning rays? The best art can do would only paint the sun as when we see it through a fog-bank-a dull, red, copper ball, shorn of all that real splendor that dazzles the eye and warms the body. All works of art are of course inanimate, having form but not being or life. The highest beauty of nature is that of organic life. A statue has only the mock appearance of life. We can never make the dead live by painting the face. No sculptured art can equal the human face divine. The spirit cannot translate its fullest, deepest meanings into sculpture and painting.
Virtue is better than images and shadows of virtue. If human
"Tongue can never express
much less can a tongueless work of art. A statue has no heart to love. We admire a statue, we do not love it. We cannot even shake hands with it, for it says "Hands off. It is cold stone - never changes, never moves. It is statuary. There is no form like the living man, though some people seem to be hardly more than pieces of clay statuary kneaded up with blood. 'They have no heart to feel God's love, no tongue to voice his praise, no hand to help the needy, no feet to run on errands of mercy.
The sight of statues makes us appreciate real men and life. Visit the choicest sculpture galleries in the world,- the Vatican, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Dresden, then step out on the street and compare the best marble forms you have seen in the gallery with the living, moving, breathing, thinking, speaking, loving, hoping, aspiring, worshiping men and women you meet! Some people go into rapture over lifeless statues, and seem to see no beauty or loveliness in real humanity. A man-the noblest work of God-is no such inanimate form, no illusion of the fancy, no creation of the imagination, but a living being endowed with moral sense and intelligent volition, with powers susceptible of unlimited growth, immortal, made in the image of God, and to love, adore, glorify, and enjoy Him forever.
Michael Angelo viewed by request a marble statue of St. George carved by a young sculptor. The great artist was amazed to find every feature so perfect - the brow massive, and the eyes beaming with intelligence. One foot seemed as if just ready to step forward. " Now, march ! " said Angelo, as he gazed on the marble,- thus pronouncing upon it the highest encomium. But the cold statue did not obey, Though it was thrillingly suggestive and the perfection of beauty, yet there was no life in it to move forward. So neither the church as a body nor any individual member, though posing in the marching attitude, can obey the Great Master's marching order till they are filled with the Divine, life-giving Spirit.