Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Art Of The Middle Age

( Originally Published 1912 )



THE touchstone of art is intellectuality. If we consider the evolution of man from the savage beast, we shall see that the art which he produces possesses permanent artistic value in measure as, in the progress from brutality, man achieves intellectuality and reflects this in his handicraft. Animals have no art. As man has evolved, he has gradually attained the mentality necessary for artistic production. It is true that the quality of intellect required for attaining success in art is very different from that required for attaining success in other lines of human activity. Thus it has come about that primitive peoples have at times produced greater art than races commonly accounted more civilized Ś a fact which in no wise disproves the general truth that art can only be created by brains, brains of a special type, but still brains. The collective mentality of a tribe may enter into the creation of folk art and may prove itself the equal or superior of any single intellect of a later stage of development. It is none the less intellect. If the progress of the artistic sense has not been steady, if it has advanced rapidly to recede subsequently, it is only displaying a phenomenon constant in all evolution. Many forms of art require in addition to mentality technical dexterity, but the latter is in reality merely a means of expression for the former, bearing to it the same relationship that printing does to a book. Unless there be the conception, the emotion of beauty, dexterity of 'hand is of no avail. If we seek today the primary difference between a symphony by Beethoven and a "coon song," between a drama by Shakespeare and a play by Cohen, between a painting by Botticelli and an illustration in one of our comic weeklies, we shall find that, in each case, what is great and what is enduring differs from what is perishable and of no account by the element of intellectuality. It is, therefore, in the scale of intellectuality that the value of any work of art must be weighed.

By modern ,architects one not infrequently hears the sentiment expressed that intellectuality in a building is a comparatively minor consideration, and that the really important matter is beauty (by which they mean what I mean by joy) as expressed in line, rhythm, proportion, mass, colour and so forth. That is to say, beauty and intellectuality are considered divisible and even antagonistic. A strange misconception! The sense for beauty is obviously an attribute of the human mind, merely one phase of intellectuality, nothing less, nothing more. It requires an intellectual effort and intellectual training to achieve, as to appreciate, proportion or mass or line or rhythm or colour, and it is precisely according to whether a modern building achieves or fails to achieve these elements of intellectuality that is is judged good or bad. Of such formal beauty I shall say little, because being common to the best architectural achievements of all ages, it is generally recognized. No one will, I think, claim that formal beauty is lacking in mediŠval architecture. In classic art we shall hardly find a fašade as happily proportioned as that of Paris; we shall hardly find more effective massing than in the spires of Normandy; we shall hardly find line used to greater advantage than in the portals of Reims ; we shall hardly find finer rhythm than in the interior of Amiens; and we shall certainly not find colour as impressive as that of the glass of Chartres. It is not at the expense of, but in addition to, these formal elements of beauty or intellectuality that Gothic architecture achieves also others of an even higher order.

There are many kinds of intellectuality. Although most modern and Renaissance structures -- in fact, it is not too much to say all Ś lack the great intellectual qualities of the buildings of the Middle Ages, they obviously may, nevertheless, be of high merit. A design which, from many points of view, is utterly illogical and absurd, violating many canons, not only of intellectuality but of common sense, like the Palazzo del Consiglio at Verona, may still possess other intellectual qualities Ś such as delicacy, rhythm and colourŚ that justly entitle it to admiration. Similarly (although I should not wish to be understood as ranking the two buildings together) the Old Library in New Haven, notwithstanding very evident offenses against reason, still manages to achieve by means of its proportions and rhythm, the softening of age and vines, a beauty which entitles it to rank among the best buildings of the Gothic revival in America. Such edifices amply demonstrate that it is possible for architecture to rise considerably with the aid of a limited intellectuality Ś flying on one wing, as it were. It is only, however, when all her feathers of intellectuality are fully grown that architecture can reach the greatest heights. A little intellectuality is better than none, but the greater the intellectuality the greater the architecture. Gothic is incomparably the most intellectual of all architectures.

Works of art are great in measure as they possess the quality of inexhaustibility. The obvious may captivate at first glance, but is incapable of bestowing an abiding satisfaction. Close and continued familiarity will, except with shallow natures, inevitably breed con-tempt for the meretricious. In art, as in all else, we take out as we put in. That which forces itself upon us, the pleasure which we acquire without expense of effort, will not endure. Here perhaps lies the final proof of the worth of mediŠval art. For no other style requires as great preparation on the part of him who would enjoy; nor is there any which extends such rich rewards to the happy initiate.

Together with the fundamental fact of criticism that architecture is good or bad according as it is intellectual, we must take into consideration two facts of actuality, which, at first glance, seem so opposed to the usual twentieth-century way of looking at things that they appear paradoxical, but which, nevertheless, if we stop to consider a moment, are both evidently true. The first of these facts is, that the thirteenth century was a time of extraordinary intellectual development, and the second fact is, that the modern age, from certain points of view, is a time of intellectual degeneration. We are so in the habit of dwelling complacently upon the railroads, electric apparatus, machines, plumbing and other similar physical luxuries which we possess, and which obviously the Middle Ages did not possess, that we have blinded ourselves to the equally evident fact that this material progress has been accompanied by, and in a sense bought at the price of, the deterioration of several mental faculties. In the last few years, modern thought has made a great advance in returning to the Middle Ages. By certain scholars the thirteenth has been pronounced the greatest of centuries. Superlatives are dangerous; but it is an undoubted fact that the result of recent research has been to increase more and more our admiration for the achievements of the Gothic period, not only in the realm of art but also in the realm of pure thought. The very intellectual superiority of the Middle Ages was, in a way, the reason which led the Renaissance centuries to despise not only mediŠval art but mediŠval philosophy. We moderns are eminently lazy, and our speculation always has primarily a practical or utilitarian scope. We seldom think anything out simply for the joy of the thinking. If we wrestle with an intellectual problem, it is in order that we may attain thereby some material end. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, loved thought for its own sake. They wrestled with intellectual problems for the mere delight of overcoming them. It hence came about that the medieval thinkers arrived at results often of great aesthetic beauty, but which seldom were of practical value. Mod-ern speculators, who cared entirely for the material, set aside medieval thought because they found that it was not useful in enabling them to improve the mechanical arts, or to make new discoveries along practical lines. Being entirely absorbed in the solution of pragmatic problems, they chose to devote no energy to comprehending the purely speculative turns of medieval thought. In the last few years, however, we have begun to realize that this scorn of the modern for medieval philosophy was very largely the scorn of the barbarian who stood before the Greek marble, and considered it valuable only for burning in the kiln to produce lime. It has begun to be perceived that medieval thought was exceedingly beautiful, exceedingly subtle, exceedingly profound; that, in short, modern thinkers, in rejecting this immaterial and absolute speculation, have rejected something that the world is very much the worse off for not having. Mediaeval thought may be compared to pure mathematics. The mathematician who follows his speculation in the solution of problems which can have no practical or utilitarian result Ś at least directly Ś and is yet so carried away by his intellectual curiosity that he gives his time and his genius lavishly to their solution, is the nearest approach in our age to the mediŠval thinker. It is almost inconceivable to us that mental gymnastics could have been enjoyed to such an extent and for their own sake. We, who shrink from every mental exertion, and can be spurred to mental activity only by the prods of our comfort or our pocket-books, cannot understand the overflowing energy of the mediŠval genius, its delight in intellectuality for its own sake, its scorn of the easy and the obvious, its love for the subtle. Yet the mediŠval mind, in a way, is as superior to ours as a spirited stallion is to a dray horse. By means of its exuberant, almost wasteful energy, it achieved results of which we are incapable.

Mediaeval art is the faithful reflection of the medieval mind in its intellectuality, in its subtlety, in its avoidance of the obvious. Like mediŠval thought, it was long held in scorn and derision by later ages which were unable to fathom its profundity. Notwithstanding the increased appreciation of modern times, the vital beauties of the Gothic cathedral still roll by far above the head, not only of the average layman, but also of the average architect.

A curious example of the modern lack of comprehension of the Middle Ages, and of the modern tendency to scorn everything which it cannot understand, is afforded by the history of the researches of Mr. Goodyear. This archŠologist stated that mediŠval buildings were not built upon straight lines as modern buildings are. It was a question of a fact found in practically all mediŠval buildings, to be easily demonstrated and tested, even by a casual inspection. Mr. Goodyear's announcement was at first greeted with incredulity, and no one was more in-credulous than the archŠologists and the architects. In modern buildings the T-square and triangle rule supreme, all lines are straight, hard and metallic. It was therefore unthinkable to the modern architect that there could be any other way of building. Yet the mediŠval method of construction was infinitely more subtle, infinitely more intellectual. For the obviousness of regular spacing, it introduced the subtlety of spacing which was not quite regular. For the obviousness of straight 'hard lines, it substituted the refinement of lines which were not straight and not hard. For the obviousness of something taken in and comprehended at a glance, it introduced something so subtle and illusive that its very existence was lost sight of for long centuries.

The same principle of variation is carried out in every detail of the Gothic structure. In a classical building, all the capitals of an order are precisely the same. One model serves for the lot. It is impossible to distinguish one from the other. Gothic builders would never do anything so banal. They made each capital different. Each has something new to say. The attentive observer will find in each a new design, a fresh beauty. Take a large building such as a cathedral, which undoubtedly contains hundreds and probably thousands of capitals. The intellectual appeal afforded by mediŠval art, where each of these capitals was a source of an intellectual demand upon its creator, and where each one affords an intellectual delight to the observer, is infinitely greater than in a classical building, where every capital is like every other, and where all are designed according to a well established and immovable norm. Yet I do not think that the classic order, repeated thoughtlessly, almost mechanically, so many thousands and millions of times, at its very best was absolutely more beautiful, better studied, more thoughtfully worked out, than a French capital of the twelfth century, which was a new and original creation forever unique.

It is not only in the capitals that the medieval building possesses this greater wealth of creative imagination. The same details are never repeated. Each moulding is varied. The medieval cathedral is never obvious. Its choicest delights are reserved for those who study it patiently and long. Even the grotesques, which at first sight seem so na´ve and simple that 'the word intellectuality can hardly be applied to anything so immediately appealing, are, in reality, extremely subtle. These strange creatures are infinitely varied among themselves, unlike the grotesques on a classical building, where, for example, the same lion-head is repeated many times. The medieval grotesques, as wild and elusive as the bats and rooks in whose company they spend their existence, are endowed with the fascination and mystery of untamed things. They are finer grained, more sensitive than classic grotesques, just as the wild flower possesses a poetry lacking in cultivated blossoms. They reveal the intellectual thirst of the Middle Ages, the insatiable longing of the men of that time to know what might be contained in unexplored portions of the universe. For in those days men lusted feverishly, unreasoningly after knowledge. Where means of accurate information were lacking, they, just as we today, resorted to conjecture and imagination, with, however, the difference that their imagination was infinitely finer and more poetic than ours. The intense interest excited by the bestiaries is to be explained on this ground. The strange and romantic animals there described are largely those which are not found in Europe, and the Middle Age brooded long and thoughtfully over the marvellous characteristics of these fabulous beings of distant continents. The grotesques seem to be merely another flight of the mediŠval imagination in its efforts to conjecture what the fauna of unknown countries might be like. The Gothic artists set themselves no meaner task than to represent in the cathedral everything which exists in the universe. The Church was the reflection of the supreme goodness of God, as shown in the work of His hands. As such, it was fitting that the animals of the world should be represented alongside the other manifestations of divine wisdom.

From an artistic point of view, these lighter and more fanciful figures serve as a contrast to the profound and mysterious imagery which elsewhere adorns the cathedral. Like a burst of childish laughter they relieve the gravity of the long lines of saints, the soberness of the symbols of man's sin and redemption.

A classical building (unless it chance to be Greek) is understood at a glance. We may take the Pantheon as an example. There is one great dome, the portico before it, niches, and a certain amount of stereotyped decoration repeated with variations. One look at this building reveals to the educated eye all there is. The proportions, the rhythm, the grandiose conception, the simplicity, the undeniable greatness and beauty are at once comprehended. They are so evident that one would have to be stupid indeed to miss them. The consequence is that the Pantheon always has, and always will, appeal to the superficial. Gothic architecture, on the other hand, is infinitely more subtle. The very fact that the Pantheon contains one large vault, whereas the Gothic church contains ten or twelve or more, makes the classical building much easier to comprehend. The mind catches at a glance the outline and shape of the structure. It is impossible to forget that there is just one dome in the Pantheon, whereas even one who knows Amiens intimately would be unable to tell off-hand how many vaults there are or how many bays the nave is long. The mediaval conception is more subtle, less obvious. Also the details of a classical building, however exquisite, are easily comprehended; those of a mediŠval building cannot be completely understood after years of study. Nothing is placed in a Roman or modern building where it does not immediately catch the eye and show. The Gothic building, on the other hand, is full of exquisite detail lavished upon the roofs and cornices, in places where it is necessary to seek with the greatest perseverance to find it. It is natural that the intellectually degenerate modern age should prefer the classical building, and that modern architecture should be modelled upon it. We who are too lazy Ś as the existence of advertising proves--- even to make the intellectual effort necessary to decide which kind of breakfast food it is best for us to use, but have to have the poorer kind thrust down our throats by means of electric signs and glaring bill-boards, which we, the consumers, cheer-fully pay for rather than make the mental effort necessary to decide what we want Ś we naturally prefer architecture that is built upon the principle of advertising, and that proclaims any merits it may have with such insistence that they cannot be missed. In fact, in modern American buildings, one will generally seek in vain for subtlety of thought or detail. Everything is obvious, pounded forth with a brass band, brandished in our faces. Our style is actually, as well as historically, exhibition architecture, with all of vulgarity that the word implies.

The Gothic architects, for all their interest in detail, were too wise to confuse their general design. In the fašade of Reims, for example, there was absolute unity of composition. The broad masses of the buttresses, the form of the towers, the stories were marked as clearly as in a modern construction. The big divisions were not obscured by the profusion of detail. Yet the quantity and quality of the detail was incredible. Each capital, each statue, each bit of tracery, each moulding, was a masterpiece. The delight which this fašade gave was therefore much greater than that which a modern building is capable of bestowing. We had not only the first joy in the main lines of the composition (such as we might conceivably receive from a modern structure), but the longer we remained the greater became our delight in the details, the existence of which was at first hardly perceived.

The Gothic builders applied the same principle to stained glass, which offers a striking example of the difference in spirit between medieval and modern art. The medieval artists made of their glass primarily an architectural accessory. When we first enter a Gothic church, we see in the windows merely a mass of colour, the most exquisite imaginable colour. We distinguish no figures, we see no pictures. It is only when we approach closer that we see each of these windows forms an ornamental pattern of small medallions, and that each of these medallions contains a number of small figures. We have to look with attention to perceive them. When we do give this attention, however, we find that the pictorial design is worthy of the most careful study. Not only are the subjects represented full of profound philosophical and theological meaning, but the flow of line, the rhythm, the composition, and, above all, the colouring, are sources of unending delight. I have heard modern critics reproach mediŠval glass for not being naturalistic. They find fault with the figures because they are not lifelike. Nothing could be more characteristic of the nineteenth century attitude towards art. Some wit has defined modern architecture as that art which makes some-thing constructed of one material look as though it were constructed of another, which, were it genuine, would be objectionable. Modern architects, consequently, instead of being content to let stained glass look like stained glass, have sought to make it look first like a painting and then like the actual object represented. According to this point of view, the perverted genius who, in the Borghese Palace at Rome I think it was, painted upon tables, papers and books so realistically that almost all visitors attempt to pick them up, would be an artist of the highest order. The truth appears to be that realism in itself is not a highly desirable quality, even in pictorial art. The modern schools of painting are revolting from it, and the best critics are preferring more and more the unrealistic Italian painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to the realistic artists of later ages. If a painting have beauty of content, line, colour and composition, the realism is an entirely minor consideration; and how much more is this the case with stained glass, which because of technical limitations should never attempt illusion!

The modern glass-painter who puts in his windows a great glaring figure of realistic character achieves obviousness at the expense of intellectual value. Such figures we take in at a glance or at half a glance. They are eminently unarchitectural, break the structural contours, and call the attention immediately from the large divisions. Like an advertisement, they catch our eye, but like an advertisement also, they give us little in return for our attention. The carefully thought-out detail, the content of subject, the deep strong virile colour, in short the intellectuality of ancient glass, are painfully lacking in the great majority of these modern creations.

In regard to the colouring of mediŠval glass, it should be noticed that its effect is never obtained' by the use of large fields. Small pieces of blue and red and other colours of primary hue are placed next to each other. From a distance these colours combine to form one tone of entrancing brilliancy. As Dr. Durham has called to my attention, modern art made the discovery that the finest colour effects are produced, not by mixing the paint before it is put on the palette, but by placing bits of the elementary hues alongside of each other on the canvas and leaving the eye to fuse them. For example, if we want to produce a purple there are two methods of doing so. We may mix the blue and red paint together, and then colour our glass or our canvas, and this is the usual manner of procedure. The more effective way, however, and the Gothic way, is to place very small bits of blue and red beside each other and let the eye blend them to form purple. By this means the Gothic glass painters not only achieved a richer and more vibrant tone, but they avoided running into obviousness by the use of broad fields of colour. A window made on this mosaic system does not strike the eye to the same extent as would a window in which are used the same colours and in the same amount, but in broader fields.

Another indication of the intellectual calibre of the Middle Ages, of their passion for learning, is to be found in the representations of the Liberal Arts in iconography. These seven disciplinesŚGrammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric and Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy, were merely the subjects included in the curricula of the mediŠval universities. Few graduates of American colleges would be inclined to set up a statue to Latin, Greek or Trigonometry. And yet this was precisely what the Middle Ages did, and did repeatedly. For there is hardly a cathedral or an important building of the period that does not, or did not, contain somewhere a representation of the disciples.

With the seven Liberal Arts was generally associated the figure of Philosophy. In the mediaeval conception, Philosophy included infinitely more than religion. It was the love of learning in the deepest sense of the word, and this learning included naturally the study of that eschatology which was so vital and living in the thirteenth century. To the mediŠval mind, Philosophy was at once the end and the consummation of all learning. It was through knowledge of the tangible that man rose to grasp the intangible. His finest mental endeavour, the best training, were necessary to fit him for the contemplation of the divine. Accordingly, Philosophy is always represented as the queen of the other arts. In the Ivrea mosaic she is seated in the centre Ś the position of honour Ś and wears a crown. This mediaeval conception of religion differs significantly from that of the present day.

Instead of lifting man up to appreciate an intellectual religion, we have debased religion to bring it down to the level of the meanest understanding.

In a mosaic at Ivrea it is also notable that Dialectic occupies the second most important position to the left of Philosophy (for in north-ern Italy, the usual law of hierarchical precedence is often reversed so that left, instead of right, is the side of honour). Dialectic is not taught in our American universities, and for an excellent reason. There are probably today very few students capable of studying such a course, and it is certain that there are no professors who could teach them. Our nearest substitute is Logic, but an inspection of a mediŠval text-book on Dialectic will suffice to show how infinitely more subtle, difficult and intellectual was the mediŠval subject. It is very significant that in the Ivrea mosaic the highest places should be given to Philosophy and Dialectic. The two great characteristics of the Middle Ages that we find reflected in all mediŠval thought and in all mediŠval art are the love of Philosphy and the love of Logic. It will be well to note how these passions are expressed in the Gothic cathedral, that consummate product of the mediŠval genius, for whose perfection the philosopher collaborated with the sculptor and the glass-painter, the dialectician with the architect.

The logical structure of the Gothic church has long been recognized. Every stone follows as a dialectic necessity. The foundations, with the buttress spurs, proclaim the rib vault of the soaring nave. Given the buttresses, the design of the entire church is in a measure determined. Contrast with this logic of the Gothic construction the dome of St. Peter's at Rome where (as Professor Moore has shown) we see buttresses formed of coupled columns vigorously applied to the drum where there is no thrust, and where we see ribs appliquÚd on the surface of the cupola itself, in such a manner that, far from gathering or relieving the structural strain, they merely increase it by so much added weight.

In the Gothic church, the ground plan announces that the weight of the structure is carried on a skeleton frame, that the wall surface has been removed and replaced by glass, adding little extra weight to the points of support, and requiring but a thin screen of masonry beneath. The section of the piers is determined by the archivolts and ribs. The size of the buttresses even gives the height of the church. For the medieval masons did not waste stone. They experimented until they discovered how much was necessary to support the weight of the vaults; and they would have considered it a violation of that strict principle of logic to which they were so bound to employ more than was needed. If the plan of a modern building, say the Boston Public Library, be compared with that of Amiens, it will be seen what the study of logic did for mediŠval art. From the plan of the modern edifice, it would be impossible to determine what system of roofing was to be employed, what were the dispositions of the interior, how many stories there were to be, where the windows were to be placed, or even the purpose of the edifice. The mediŠval building shows a strictly unified conception growing out of a mind trained by the practice of dialectic. The modern structure shows the aim-less rambling of an untutored intellect. Yet planning is considered the forte of modern architects.

The central fact, the postulate of a Gothic church, is the rib vault. As a necessary conclusion follow not only the peculiar type of plan, but the entire edifice with its forests of columns and pinnacles, its varied and rich ornament. From the rib vault were derived by a logical necessity the pointed arches which lead us, as Suger remarked in the twelfth century, "into a region which, if not heaven, is neither yet entirely of this world." From the rib vault followed the long vertical lines of the system, shooting upwards like sky-rockets, carrying the eye and the emotions towards the serenity of the Šther. From the rib vault came the blazing windows of stained glass, filled with harmonies of purple and red and blue. From the rib vault came the tracery of ever-varied design, vining the windows and even the arches. From the rib vault came the buttresses which give strong, powerful lines to the exterior design, and introduce an ever-changing play of light and shadow. From the rib vault carne too the mighty flying buttresses with their rugged power and grandeur, their Alpine majesty. From the rib vault, in short, came the entire Gothic cathedral. And there was nothing adventitious about this development. Step by step, the evolution was accomplished, necessarily, logically, dialectically. Given the rib vault, everything else followed because it was logical that it should follow. It was to training in dialectic, in reasonableness, in rationalness, that the Middle Ages owed Gothic architecture.

This spirit of logic did not stop with the main lines of the edifice. It was carried into, the most minute details. The gargoyles, of such charming decorative effect that they have been frequently copied in modern buildings in a perfectly meaningless way, were evolved in the Gothic structure for a definite and specific end, that is, to throw the water of the gutters far from the walls, so that it might not corrode the stone. The pinnacles which crowned the buttresses, and which modern architects (at St. Patrick's in New York, for instance) have reproduced for purely decorative reasons, were invented by the Gothic builders as a means of stiffening the outer buttresses by the addition of extra weight. Even the mouldings, far from being purely ornamental, were ,so profiled as to prevent the water from trickling down the exterior walls. A Gothic capital is a very different thing from a classical capital. The architrave that rests on the latter would be quite as secure if placed directly on the shaft. The Gothic builders, however, gave the capital a structural function, which was that of adjusting a larger load to a more slender sup-port. If we remove the capital, the entire building comes crashing about our heads. This feeling for logic and unity led the Gothic architects of the best period strictly to sub-ordinate all detail to the demands of architecture. The sculptures, far from disturbing, are an integral and essential part of the architectural composition. The figures are intrinsically beautiful and full of content. Indeed, in such a work as the western portal of Chartres, the Gothic artist produced sculpture, which, considered for itself alone, is unexcelled, I do not hesitate to say, by any ever executed by the hand of man. These statues combine the " singing line " of Botticelli, the tenderness of the Sienese, with a certain sincerity that is purely Gothic. Yet such beauty and significance are never attained at the expense of the repose of the entire edifice. In the sculpture as in the glass the Gothic artist expressed ideas, ideas so big that they are not infrequently beyond the grasp of us degenerates of the twentieth century, but, notwithstanding, he has never for an instant sacrificed to his detail the unity of the building as a whole. A modern artist, having infinitely less to convey, would still have been unable to say it without ruining the architecture. The mediŠval artist, on the other hand, contrived to give to his glass and to his sculpture just that decorative character which was required to lend the past perfection to the Gothic building.

Although Logic was the favourite art of the Middle Ages, it was still only the hand-maiden to the super-art, Philosophy. It was in the service of Philosophy that the cathedral was primarily built and it is of Philosophy that it is primarily an expression.

This philosophical content was conveyed largely by means of symbolism. It is necessary to draw a sharp distinction between allegory and symbolism. By allegory I mean the use of figures which in themselves have no reality, but are merely personifications of abstractions. By symbolism, on the other hand, I mean that infinitely more subtle and intellectual system by which figures that in themselves have a perfectly definite and tangible reality still are made to shadow forth or suggest some other idea. Allegory of the most bald and obvious kind is the plague of modern art. Everywhere, for example, we see dry and uninspired figures of Electricity, Progress, Autumn, Industry, and the like. Symbolism, on the other hand, we find in the plays of Ibsen, where a character in the drama is perfectly real and logical and self-consistent in itself, but also suggests to our minds another reality. Now mediaeval philosophy is expressed in the cathedral by means of a peculiarly subtle system of symbolism. Allegory is rarely used. The example of the Liberal Arts, cited above, is one of the few I recollect, and even that is by a variety of expedients given a subtlety and intellectual character quite at variance with modern allegorical conceptions.

It was the profound conviction of the Middle Ages that the Bible was a book of double meaning, that, in addition to the actualities narrated, each event foreshadowed or reflected another greater event connected with the Life and Passion of Christ.' This same system was applied not only to the Bible but to the entire visible and material universe. Thus, to the mediaeval mind, reality was but a symbol of unreality, matter but a reflection of the immaterial. Our earth became only a shadow of heaven. Everywhere in the things and objects about us God has implanted the image of eternal truth. It is a thought of singular beauty that grips one more deeply the longer one dwells upon it. But the mediŠval philosophers did not stop there. They were tempted to read in this book of double meaning, the world, and to interpret its symbolism and significance. Studying nature with the aid of the Bible and their own poetic imagination, the media val sages arrived at results strange, but hauntingly beautiful. By their musing every least object in the world was vested with meaning. Profound mysteries were concealed in every flower, in every tree, in every cloud that chanced to float across the sky.

Especially was this mystic interpretation applied to the most profound of books, the Bible. If God had implanted symbolism in every form of the material world, how much more must he have imparted it to His revelation, to the book in which was written all that man need know for his enlightenment and salvation. And so, for the Middle Ages, the Bible became the mystery of mysteries. In every word lurked a hidden meaning, in every phrase a double significance. And this mystical interpretation was carried over into the imagery of the cathedral. Thus when we see represented in the stained glass or in the sculpture some personage or scene from the Old Testament, we may be very sure the artist intended to suggest to our minds also another idea of which this scene was but the symbol. When on a capital of the cathedral of Verona, we see Jonah vomited forth by the whale, we are to think of Christ who descended into Limbo, and on the third day arose from the dead. When we see Melchisedech, we must think of another priest and another king who offered bread and wine to His disciples. When we see Adam, we must recall that Christ is the new Adam, who redeemed the world as the first Adam had lost it. When, in the scenes of the Crucifixion, we see Mary and John standing at either side of the cross, we are to think, not only of the Mother of God and the beloved Apostle; but of the Church, which, by means of the Crucifixion of Christ, supplanted the Synagogue. In the exquisite relief of the Deposition by Benedetto, the figures of the Church and the Synagogue are actually introduced, like persons living and present at the scene. The Synagogue, with shattered lance, is pushed down into the dust by an archangel. The Church holds a chalice in her hand. In this relief, there are introduced on either side of the cross also figures of the sun and moon, other symbols of the Church and the Synagogue. In Gothic representations of the Crucifixion, Mary and the Church are commonly identified, and the Virgin holds a chalice in which she catches the blood that flows from the side of Christ.

In the prophet of Carpi, who 'holds his head in his hand, and whose features express so eloquently the strength and power of his prophetic vision Ś a vision of hope and ultimate salvation not untinged by a comprehension of the sadness and tragedy of the world Śwe are to see not only that Isaiah who had proclaimed Ecce Virgo concipiet, but we may recognize the features of the Apostle to the Gentiles. In a window of the cathedral of Chartres, the four Evangelists are represented standing on the shoulders of the four major prophets. The glass-painter clearly wished to indicate that the Evangelists found their points of support in the prophets, but saw farther and more clearly. The mediŠval artists never wearied of placing in parallel the four Evangelists, the four rivers of Paradise and the four cardinal Virtues; the twelve Apostles and twelve Prophets. In the archivolt of a lunette in the baptistery of Parma, we see seated the twelve Apostles, each bearing a medallion with the figure of a Prophet.

One of the conceptions which most powerfully weighed upon the spirit of the Middle Ages was the mysterious property of numbers. The Greek philosophers had long meditated upon the subject, and Pythagoras had sought to find in numbers the explanation of the entire universe. The Middle Ages adopted the idea with passion. The great Isidore of Seville wrote a long treatise on the subject. Of all numbers the most mystic were four and three, their sum, seven, and their multiple twelve. Throughout the mediŠval cathedral, as throughout mediŠval philosophy, these numbers and their mystic significance echo back and forth like a returning cadence in a piece of music.

In all mediaeval imagery, the law of hierarchical precedence plays an important part. The centre is the place of honour, right has precedence over left, the upper over the lower. It is, therefore, never by chance that a particular subject is represented in a particular place in the cathedral. If the story of St. John is depicted in one window, the story of St. Peter in another, we may be certain that there is a definite reason why one is placed here and the other there.

The centre of the principal portal, the post of greatest honour, was generally given to the figure of the Redeemer. To illustrate the wealth of thought bestowed upon every detail in Gothic art, let us study the two little animals which are placed under the feet of the Beau Dieu at Amiens. A careful examination will reveal that these figures, which at first sight might be taken to be purely decorative, are, in reality, the aspic and basilisk. Now, in the bestiaries Ś those strange, unnatural histories composed by the united imaginations of antiquity and of the Middle Ages, and which combined a complete ignorance of scientific truth almost as profound as that displayed in some of the books on natural history until recently in use in our public schools, with a poetry such as only the Middle Ages could have read into such a subjectŚthere is a great deal about the aspic and the basilisk. The aspic is a kind of dragon that one can charm with songs, but who is on his guard against the charmers, and when he hears them, places one ear against the ground and closes the other with his tail so that he can hear nothing. Thus he escapes being taken. The Middle Ages found no difficulty in understanding this singular animal. For them, the aspic was the image of the sinner who shuts his ears to the words of life Ś that is, the Gospel. The basilisk, on the other hand, has such a nature that when he has passed the seventh year of his age, he feels an egg grow in his stomach. Thereupon he is amazed at himself and suffers the greatest pain that a beast can suffer. The toad, another bestiary animal, has such a nature that he smells the egg which the basilisk carries, and as soon as it is laid he goes to cover it. The young basilisk hatches out with the head, neck and breast of a cock and the tail of a serpent. He then goes to live in a crack in a cistern. He is of such a nature that if a man see him first he dies, but if he see the man first the man dies. He has, moreover, such a nature that he throws his venom and kills birds. He who wants to kill the basilisk must cover himself with a vessel of glass; for the beast throws his poison with his eyes, and if it strikes against the glass it rebounds on the beast himself and kills him. The basilisk is a symbol of the Devil and is the very one who tempted Adam and Eve, for which he was banished from Paradise into the cistern of Hell. The vessel of glass is the Virgin, in whose womb Christ enclosed himself. Therefore when we see the Beau Dieu of Amiens standing upon the aspic and the basilisk, it is evident that we have represented in reality the triumph of Christ over Sin and Satan. If you will turn, not to your Revised Version, but to the Vulgate, you will find that the Psalmist says : " Thou shalt trample on the aspic and the basilisk, and the dragon and adder shalt thou cast under foot." Indeed, a close examination of the Amiens pillar will reveal the adder and the dragon, carved not far from the aspic and the basilisk. The mediaeval artist has represented the profound dogma of primary sin and redemption. It is peculiarly fitting that this fundamental conception of the Church should be placed in the most important position of the cathedral. Such is the meaning of the two little animals, one of the smallest of the myriad details with which the Gothic church is covered.

The same sense of propriety, the same sense of order and of unity pervades the iconography of the entire cathedral. M. MÔle has proved that the mediaeval church in its imagery is as essentially and as vitally unified as in its structure. The four great mirrors of Nature, of Science, of Morals and of History into which Vincent de Beauvais divides his work upon human knowledge and which in the medieval conception reflected the manifestation of the glory of God on earth Ś each finds in the cathedral imagery its appropriate, logical and fitting place. At Chartres, for example, on the north side (the region of darkness and cold), were displayed subjects drawn from the Old Testament, from those ages which awaited the coming of the Sun of Christ. On the south (the region of sunshine and warmth), were told the solemn stories of the life of Christ and the Christian saints.

Over the western portal was enrolled the dreadful drama of the Last Judgment, so placed that the setting sun might illumine this terrible scene of the final evening of the world.

I am sensible how inadequate are my few pages to convey an impression of the beauty and poetry of mediŠval iconography. Happily M. MÔle's admirable study is within the reach of all. What I have said may be sufficient to indicate in some measure the type of symbolism used by the Gothic artists. It is through the imagery that in Gothic architecture Philosophy is made to sit crowned, a queen over all the arts, harmonizing and combining them into a mighty unity. It is through the imagery that Gothic architecture acquires its supreme intellectuality, that it becomes not only decorative, but illustrative.

As I use these two words " decorative " and " illustrative " in a special sense, it will be well to define the meaning I seek to convey by them. Mr. Berenson has already acclimated them to painting. By " decoration " I mean to indicate all the intrinsic merits of a work of art, all the intellectual qualities that make it in itself pleasing to us. These would include in painting and sculpture, form, colour, line, movement; in architecture, proportion, scale, massing; in literature, style, the choice of words, verse; in music, harmony, rhythm, modulations. " Illustration" on the other hand indicates all the extrinsic merits of a work of art, those intellectual qualities that make it pleasing to us by outside suggestion. Character drawing is an example of illustration applicable to the three arts of painting, sculpture and literature. By means of the sculpture and glass, Gothic architecture became highly illustrative; it conveys to us ideas and pleasurable emotions quite outside of the material building itself.

I think there can be no doubt that an art depends more than is commonly recognized upon its illustrative quality. Over-emphasis of decoration has been a disastrous mistake of the modern age. What one says matters far more than how one says it. The ability for expression, technique Ś in the last analysis decoration is hardly more Ś is indeed a necessary prerequisite; but if art stops here it has essentially failed. Decoration is merely a means to the supreme endŚillustration. This is the whole gospel of art.

Modern criticism is beginning to perceive at last the value of illustration. Mr. Berenson after having seen importance only in decoration, has now reversed his opinion. Knowledge of oriental art has opened our eyes to the fact that the artist who sets himself illustration as his ultimate aim is alone capable of reaching the greatest heights. The decadence of modern art appears to be largely due to the abandonment of all ideals of illustration. Nothing contributes so largely to the feeling of depression caused by an academy exhibition as the fact that most of these painters, for all their technique, have nothing Ś no joy Ś to express. It is only illustration that can lift art to the highest level.

That this statement be not misunderstood, I hasten to add that I attach to the word " illustration " an even broader meaning than that given it by Mr. Berenson. I should make it include not only the conveying of a concrete idea but also the expression of an emotion. It was this that CÚzanne meant when he spoke of the petite sensation he tried to fix upon his canvas. Thus an andante of Beethoven or Brahms would be as completely illustrative as a piece of program music by Strauss or Debussy. An Asia Minor rug may have a strong illustrative element Ś the good ones in fact do even when the forms are least realistic. Mr. Berenson would doubtless judge Giotto a very poor illustrator because he is not successful in interpreting the finer and more subtle aspects of the legends he paints;

I should call him a great illustrator because he conveys to me a very definite mood Ś not the same mood evoked by the Legends of St. Francis or of Christ or of the Virgin which he paints, but an emotion of poetry, of joy.

Thus all architecture that is of significance is in a manner illustrative. Surely none conveys an emotion more powerfully than Gothic. But mediŠval art is illustrative also in the Berensonian sense. It unites the qualities of a Sassetta with those of a Giotto.

It is a curious though by no means incomprehensible fact, that a race of men is capable of producing more finely artistic thought than an individual. Folk art has almost invariably possessed greater vitality than the productions of any genius. This is, perhaps, another direction in which the highly individualistic modern age has gone astray. It can hardly be doubted that the use of traditional material was a great source of strength to Homer and the tragic poets of Greece. Shakespeare drew his plots from what really was the equivalent of folk tradition. The Renaissance painters found in subjects of a traditional character (although the conventions were al-ready in precipitate decline) an inspiration which is lacking to our modern painters, free to paint what they will. Now of all legends none was so refined by passing through count-less hands, none so full of life, none so imbued with intellectuality of the highest type as the religious legend of the Middle Ages. The world for twelve centuries had brought its best to the elaboration and perfection of the scholastic system. The straightforwardness and human sympathy of the people, the imagination of the poets, the deepest thought of the philosophers were there blended and combined. By comparison the myths of the Hebrews seem crude, even those of Greece appear lacking in subtlety. It is the possession of this supreme legend that raises the Divina Commedia above all other epics. It is the possession of this supreme legend that places on the brow of Gothic art its highest intellectual crown.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com