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Gothic Art, The War And After

( Originally Published 1912 )

THE cathedral of Reims is in ruins. We all know it. We have grown accustomed Ś almost callous Ś to the fact. The cathedral of Reims, unequalled for its fašade and for its wealth of sculpture, is destroyed. We shall never more study the wonderful glass of the clearstory with its blazing scarlets and reds, the warmest, the most pulsating, the most daring glass-work in all France. The grave saints that lined the portals with faces so full of dignity and Christian fortitude are broken into bits. Even the wonderful angel of never-to-be-forgotten gentleness, so solicitous, so tender, was not spared. What two fires and the wars of six hundred years had left uninjured our age has reduced to ruin. German cannonading was able to destroy a monument the equal of which fifteen centuries of boasted German culture have been unable to produce.

Nor has the destruction been limited to the cathedral of Reims. The region through which the German armies have swept, leveling all to the ground before them, was the classic region, the Tuscany, the Attica of France.

Gothic art, the most perfect of all expressions of beauty, reached its complete culmination only in a small district. It was in the Ile-de-France and especially in the region to the east of Paris that it was born and that it attained its flower. It was copied from one end of Europe to the other, but in its pure essence, at its absolute best, it is to be found only here. Complete statistics are yet lacking, but it is certain that in addition to the cathedral of Reims, the cathedral of Soissons, with its fairy-like south transept, its noble nave; Saint-LÚger and Saint-MÚdard of Sois-sons; glorious Saint-Remi; Acy-en-Multien, with the earliest rib vault in the Ile-de-France; Rhuis, where ribs were first given a profile; Vailly, with the finest parish fašade of the Soissonnais; Fontenoy, Roye-sur-Matz, Les Hurtus, Marquivilliers, many other abbeys and parishes lie in more or less complete ruin. Since the barbarian invasions art has suffered no such loss. It is the study of these early buildings that has opened our eyes to the true character and true beauty of mediŠval work. Each of the country churches of the Soissonnais was a master-work in its way, each unrivalled.

It may be that in the centuries to come the other wrongs of this war will be forgotten. We no longer ask whether the Huns did or did not have a justifiable pretext for over-running Italy. To-day we care very little whether Alaric took or did not take Rome, or how long he held it. We have forgotten about the sufferings of the vanquished, the wrongs of the women, the death agony of individuals and peoples. We hardly know even the name of the barbarians who overran Greece. Their conquests, their gains and losses, are recorded only in the obscure pages of dusty histories. What we are acutely conscious of is the fact that Greek art was in great part destroyed, that not a single Greek painting has come down to us, that the works of Menander and Sappho are lost, that the Greek temples are in ruins, that masterpieces of Greek sculpture ended in the lime-kiln. And so it shall be with this war. Other things, however atrocious, time, which heals almost everything, may cure. But the wanton destruction of Gothic art must always remain to the end of time an act which the civilized world can never forgive, a wrong which the Germans have committed not only against France, but against all humanity, against themselves. For centuries still to come German children must learn that their fore-fathers in wantonness and cold blood destroyed the most beautiful of arts, and they must realize that their own lives have by this act been deprived of a source of happiness which they might otherwise enjoy. The barbarians who sacked Rome might plead one excuse --- they knew not what they did. They had no conception of art nor of its value. The Germans can plead no such excuse. The Germans knew what they did. They knew the value of what they destroyed.

When the war ends, the question must inevitably arise, what is to be done with the partially ruined monuments left by the Germans. There is grave reason to fear that the mistake of a century ago may be repeated. French Gothic architecture, it will be re-membered, suffered terrible damage in the Revolution, but worse than this were the ill-advised restorations which followed. The question of restoration is an exceedingly delicate one. It is the friends, and the very sincere friends of the monuments, who pro-mote it, frequently at great sacrifices. Their zeal and good intentions are undoubted. It therefore seems ungrateful to point to them as dangers. Since, however, an agitation is already being started to restore the ruined Gothic monuments, it is very necessary to come to a realization of what may only too probably result from misguided enthusiasm.

Gothic monuments are valuable from two distinct points of view. In the first place they are historical documents giving us information about past ages, the philosophy, the building methods, the character of the Middle Ages. This may be called their archŠological value. Even more important is their purely artistic value, the joy they are capable of communicating as a thing of beauty. Both these values are liable to, nay almost certain of, destruction by restoration.

From the point of view of the archŠologist a restoration puts in his hand a falsified document. It is impossible to be certain what is old, what is restored upon reliable authority and what is merely conjecture liable to be entirely misleading. The very fact that restorations are generally cleverly done makes it impossible to disentangle the old from the new. Only one who has worked for years upon mediŠval monuments can realize the extent of the mischief wrought by modern renovations. Paradoxical as the statement may seem, the better these restorations are, the more deplorable is the archŠological result.

A few instances of the way in which the modern restorer has led astray the learned may give some idea of this evil. In the ninth decade of the nineteenth century the church of S. Vincenzo in Prato at Milan was restored. It was rescued from almost certain destruction in being used as a chemical factory and reopened to the Christian cult. At that time it was believed that arched corbel-tables were characteristic of all Lombard monuments, and the cornice of the fašade was rebuilt with arched corbel-tables. As a matter of fact this motive was not used in Lombardy until the eleventh century, while S. Vincenzo dates from the ninth century. It was forgotten that the corbel-tables had been added by restorers, and archŠologists concluded that those of S. Vincenzo were of the ninth century. The entire history of Lombard architecture was consequently con-fused. Because of the corbel-tables of S. Vincenzo a whole group of monuments of later date was ascribed to the Carlovingian epoch.

Nothing would be easier than to multiply similar instances. The statues of the S. Zeno pontile at Verona are modern, added in the nineteenth century restoration. Yet they have been discussed as ancient by almost all critics of Italian mediŠval sculpture, and whole theories of attribution have been based upon them. The best and most conscientious archŠologists have been frequently deceived by restorations. Cattaneo published a modern capital of S. Vincenzo as an example of the Lombard style of the ninth century. Professor Moore was deceived by the modern statues of the fašade of Paris. An archŠologist of the present day, when he studies a mediŠval monument, is obliged to spend weeks in tracing the changes wrought in the nineteenth century. Only so can he be certain what is genuine and what is restoration. And in many monuments even of the greatest importance it is already impossible to prove what is new and what is old. Such buildings are without archŠological value, although they may be nine-tenths authentic. It is impossible to be certain that the particular point in question may not be included in the one-tenth conjecture.

The usual plea for restoration is founded upon the Šsthetic appeal of a work of art. It is generally felt that the total effect is marred by damaged portions and that the building can be better enjoyed if these are put in harmony with the rest so as not to distract the attention. Yet in point of fact I think even the most tactful modern restoration is quite as pernicious from an artistic as from an archŠological point of view. Modern work-men cannot reproduce nor copy Gothic work. The hardness of modern machine-made methods completely ruins that verve and feeling which is the vital force in mediŠval art. Here again the restoration is so much the more mischievous that it is not easy to disentangle the new portions from the ancient. Better a thousand times, from an artistic standpoint, a ruin than a restored building. The ruin may have a certain picturesqueness of its own; at any rate it tells no lies. What is there is genuine, is mediaeval. The practised eye may imagine missing portions, reconstructing mentally the building as it was. In the restored building, however, the original beauty is hopelessly and forever lost. Not even the most experienced eye can reconstitute the edifice as it was, strip it of the modern metallic hardness, re-invest it with its ancient poetry. It cannot be emphasized too solemnly that restoration of mediŠval work is destruction of mediŠval art.

It would be as vain to attempt to restore the ruined Gothic churches as to repaint the lost pictures of Apelles. A Shelley, it is true, might give us, not a lost tragedy of AEschylus (that would, indeed, be impossible), but another poem conceivably as beautiful; but there are no Shelleys among modern architects. The touch of the modern on mediŠval monuments is a profanation and a destruction. During the last half century the mediŠval monuments of all Europe have been gradually, little by little, replaced by modern copies under the name of restoration. The inferiority of the copies is so great, that I have often felt that it would be better to tear a building down absolutely than to make an unbeautiful misleading copy for the misinformation of posterity. No oneŚleast of all an art criticŚsuggested, When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, that the loss could be made good by having a copy painted and replaced in the frame. Yet how much more nearly would a copy of the Mona Lisa approach the value of the original than a copy of the cathedral of Reims could approach the building which has been destroyed!

We must realize frankly, therefore, that the destroyed churches of France are in danger of a fate even worse than that which has al-ready befallen them. Ill-advised enthusiasm among people whose perceptions are not specially trained is very liable to result in crowding the competent authority Ś which is the official Commission des Monuments Historiques Ś into sanctioning or even promoting the restoration of these buildings.

Gothic churches cannot and must not be restored. What is done cannot be undone. The losses caused by the Revolution in ignorance were great. Of an important part of the heritage which earlier centuries had already in ignorance depleted, the Germans have in knowledge deprived all 'humanity. Let us not make the matter worse and still further reduce the patrimony by restoration. Works of restoration should be undertaken only when necessary to prevent further disintegration. Let the destroyed monuments of France stand as ruins, but poetic, beautiful ruins, not machine-made modern churches. Let them stand a sempiternal reproach and source of shame to the Germans; but let it never be said that what their enemies had spared their friends destroyed.

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