The Revolt Against The Church
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE protest of Fra Angelico was in vain. The movement which he fain would check was not the movement of an individual or a group. It was the movement of a world. Conditions far beyond the limits of art were undergoing a profound change. The complete reconstruction of society, affecting every department of human life, could not but destroy the old ideals of art. Masaccio was not the creator of new ideals ; he was but their expression. The old order was changing, yielding place to new, not without the loss of much that was good, as the inspired monk so deeply felt, a loss without adequate compensation, if we will, but the change was not the less inevitable. The change was from decoration and symbolism to realism, and, incidentally, from religious to secular control. This is not the place to discuss the interdependence of these ideas. Whether realistic art can ever be religious we may leave each to settle for himself. Certain it is that as art turned toward nature and away from symbolism and tradition, it lost the power to inspire reverence and incite to devotion. The church felt that loss and would have resisted the change much more strenuously and effectively than it did, had it not been that by a strange accident, the church for the time being fell under a control that was anything but religious. Backed up by the Vatican itself, the new ideals gained rapid headway until, when at last human-ism lost its hold upon the church, the destruction of the old ideals was so far complete as to make their restoration impossible.
A dramatic touch was given to this transition by the peculiar temperament of one of the greatest of Florentine artists, Filippo Lippi. A waif in the streets of Florence, he had accepted the monastic life at the ripe age of eight years, in blissful ignorance both of the nature of that life and of his own temperament. He seems to have been a man of attractive personality, one who had the power to win the favor even of those who least approved of his conduct. It was a time, too, when laxity in the monastic orders was too common to feel the full measure of social reprobation. Yet Fra Lippo scandalized even this tolerant age. There was in his career of indulgence an element of romantic daring and a disregard of those standards of honor which commonly restrain even the social trespasser, which would have exposed him to the severest penalties if he had not enjoyed the immunity which is accorded to genius and personal charm. Doubtless the inconsistency between his vows and his conduct is responsible for much of the scandal which has gathered about his name. This scandal we might well ignore were it not for the unfortunate fact that his character, and, in particular, one of his escapades, exercised an important influence upon his art. Commissioned to execute some important frescoes in the Cathedral of Prato, he was allowed as his model a girl of good Florentine family, living in a con-vent there, whether as a nun, a novice, or a protégée of the nuns, is not quite clear. With this girl he eloped, to the mortal offense of her family and the scandal of the whole community. The penalty, according to the canon law of the church, was death, but a genius like Fra Lippo had little occasion, in any age, to fear extreme penalties. A dispensation from their vows enabled them to marry, and a son born of this union, Filippino Lippo, was destined, in his turn, to make a name in art. We shall soon have occasion to note that this temperament of Fra Lippo, and this episode in particular, had important consequences in the development of Florentine art. It is surmised that even his death was not dissociated from the scandals of his life.
In all this surmise we must make much allowance for the exaggeration of rumor and gossip, but there can be little question that the monk made upon his time the impression of a talented libertine, endowed with great personal charm, though perhaps more a slave to unfortunate circumstance than a blackhearted villain. Despite his much scandalized career he seems to have borne a charmed life and to have been everywhere the object of admiration and good will if not of approval.
It is necessary, as we study Filippo Lippi's art to keep constantly in mind this contradiction between his calling and his temperament and conduct. It is quite gratuitous to assume that he was wholly wanton. Doubtless he felt often enough, and often enough had occasion to feel, the inconsistency between his life and his profession. This inconsistency must have galled him, goading him at first toward reform and repentance, possibly extorting from him many a painful penance, and then again, as the case became hopeless, goading him equally to madness against restraints which were conceived rather as arbitrarily laid upon him than as inhering in the order of nature. That this contradiction was present in his mind seems the inevitable conclusion from our study of his art. Dominated at first by a sincere piety, expressing the sentiments which were probably often enough his own, and which he sincerely though vainly strove to make paramount, it becomes toward the end wantonly defiant and breaks consciously and violently with sacred tradition.
The first authentic work of Filippo Lippi is a beautiful Annunciation (B 154), extremely simple, the standing figures of the angel and the Virgin occupying two panels which would hardly permit of any other representation. There is an absence of pictorial background, though not the background of flat gold to which we have been accustomed. The figures have the same tender loveliness if not quite the same spiritual expression that we find in similar works by Fra Angelico. There is indeed something closely akin between these faces and that of the Madonna in Fra Angelico's famous Annunciation already referred to. There is an equally beautiful, possibly even more subtle feeling for color. The resemblance goes still farther. The draperies, which fall in not very natural but traditional folds, remind us of the draperies on the< familiar angels from the frame of the Madonna of the Linaiuoli. There is no downright imitation of Fra Angelico. There is, on the contrary, seemingly a kinship of spirit. The observer, gazing upon this work, might have exclaimed, "Here we have another Fra Angelico, not quite mature as yet, but give him a little time and he will rival the work of the blessed brother." There is not a hint as yet that we have in the painter a revolté.
Our next picture is again, strangely enough, an Annunciation (B 155). Differently shaped and differently conceived, it is, after all, not wholly different in spirit. The Virgin, sitting now, bows perhaps with less suggestion of spiritual comprehension than in the work of Fra Angelico, but, after all, in close sympathy with it. The work is now highly pictorial. There is background, perspective and a great deal of beautiful, though not always appropriate detail. The perspective is careless but vivid, for our artist had a bit of slapdash freedom about him which now begins to show. As we turn to the angel, however, we can clearly trace the beginning of a new spirit. The angel is decorous, performs his part perfectly, much as a child 'ministrant before the altar, but the face suggests the nonchalance and the carefreeness of the child and not the spiritual significance of the occasion. There is nothing at all of the tender reverence that is so beautifully manifest in the earlier work. The angel is simply a lovely boy with quite inappropriate wings. His boyishness is in no wise offensive. It merely is not in the least redolent of sanctity.
If now we turn to the beautiful Madonna and Child with two Angels (B 152), in the Uffizi, we see a still further advance along the same line, not to mention advance along other lines, for our artist has become the great colorist of Florence. Nothing can surpass the beauty with which he now tones his color with shadow, giving it that richness and depth which the mere surface color of ordinary Florentine art can never know. But we must confine our interest for the moment rather to his spiritual ideals. The Madonna is still fairly true to her rôle. There may be a suspicion of spiritual shallowness in her demure face but she in no wise travesties the part. But the Christ Child, and still more, the childish angel that complete the picture, have lost the faintest suggestion of spiritual things. More materialistic, healthy little animals it would be impossible to imagine. There is more than animalism and health ; there is the most undisguised suggestion of mischief in these sturdy little faces, more particularly the angel. There is the plain evolution now of a type which henceforth is not to be dissociated from Fra Lippo's work, a type good-natured and buoyant but irreconcilable with spiritual suggestion.
Precisely the same type of Christ Child appears in the Madonna of the Pitti, and as we look closer we make out the same type of Madonna. We are perhaps somewhat more in doubt than before as to whether she takes her Madonna rôle very seriously. She is demure and proper on the surface rather than deeply imbued with the heavenly temper. Indeed, the longer we gaze, the less suited to the rôle she seems. It is therefore not so much of a surprise when we learn that in both the pictures we have been studying we have a portrait of the woman of the episode above referred to. The inappropriateness of this choice is not aggravated by any unnecessary suggestion on the artist's part, but it remains a shocking innovation, little less than an outrage for those who have the slightest concern for the older ideal. Up to this time the introduction of portraits in sacred pictures had been rare, not to say unknown. The few cases previously recorded are for the most part in second-class pictures and rest upon doubtful authority. In the later Renaissance such portraits are more frequent ; in the art of the North exceedingly common. The Sistine Madonna is a portrait. But the great artists of the Italian Renaissance are ordinarily careful to quite disguise the portrait. The personality is transfigured; and the picture becomes rather a derivative than a true portrait, the disturbing irrelevancy being thus greatly diminished. In the northern pictures, too, where the artist was usually sadly lacking in high-minded propriety, not to say in sense of humor, as also in some of the better Venetian works, the portraits introduced are distinctly excluded from the sacred rôles. The picture of the donor is usually in a side panel in an attitude of devotion toward the saint for whose picture he has paid. Or, if included in the picture, as in Titian's Madonna of the Pesaro Family, the separation of rôle is none the less distinct. Even so, the portrait is a disturbing factor, at least to the generation who recognizes its identity. We have but to transfer it into our own time and to imagine sacred pictures with saints and prophets interspersed with portraits of present day statesmen or captains of industry to appreciate the incongruity of these medleys, fortunately so rare in better Italian art.
But Fra Lippo has done worse than this. He has not merely painted a portrait as a detail in a picture representing a sacred person. The sacred person herself is a portrait, and the portrait of a person distinctly disreputable, to the common knowledge of all spectators. This is little less than conscious sacrilege, and can be interpreted only as a deliberate affront to the religious sentiments of his time. The artist, as we have seen, was little in sympathy with these -sentiments at the best, and the consciousness that he was under indictment before the bar of social sentiment was one to which he could not be indifferent, and whose influence he could not throw off.
In other and larger works we find the same traits, as well as some other characteristics that are worthy of note. Such, for instance, is the Coronation of the Virgin to which Browning refers in his well-known poem, as also the Virgin with attendant Saints. We have the same types, the same good-natured, carnal temperament, not vicious but unspiritual. We have the same indifference to spiritual symbols and suggestion. Notice, for instance, that in the Coronation of the Virgin, nearly every person in the company turns his back upon the performance and looks out from the picture, conscious of the audience, not conscious of the ostensible subject of interest. Note again the emergence of Fra Lippo himself in the right foreground of the picture, -- a masterly portrait and suggestive of the jovial good-nature of the man, but again an irrelevancy bordering on profanation. The same spirit characterizes the still more ambitious scene of the Burial of St. Stephen, a part of the great series of frescoes which Fra Lippo executed upon the walls of the Cathedral of Prato. Here for the first time, but unfortunately not for the last time, we see the total disregard of the real spirit of the theme. Only a hired mourner or two, making ado over the body of the saint, while the others line up in ranks as though the camera were focused upon them and the one matter of real importance were their appearance in the picture.
To sum up, Fra Lippo makes a distinct advance in the technique of Florentine art. He does not catch the marvelous vision of Masaccio ; no later Florentine did. The mystery of atmosphere and light, the dreamy poetry of nature, that was reserved for another time and for another environ-ment of feeling and ideas. But, ignoring Masaccio for the moment — that spirit at once so transcendent and so alien to the temper of his time, Fra Lippo takes up the art of Masolino and the others, and distinctly plods farther. His greater mastery of the human figure, his improvement of perspective, above all things and unique in his work, his magnificent mastery of color, could not but command for him a respect which made him influential in the farther development of art. But recognizing all these facts, the real significance of Fra Lippo is the changing temper which he brought to the traditional themes of Florentine art. Himself a monk, and therefore, in a certain sense, conspicuously aligned with the ecclesiastical influence, he openly defies that ecclesiastical leadership, and that the more so because he seldom if ever abandons the religious theme. "It is saints and saints and saints again," and painted with something of the listlessness and satiety which Browning's lines suggest, but not unfrequently painted with a deliberate fling disastrous to their sanctity. Had he been less of a painter, his revolt against the religious tutelage of art would have had less influence. As it was, it coincided with the general movement of his time. There were few who were disposed to openly affront the church. There were few to whom the features of a discredited woman in the rôle of Madonna did not bring something of a shock. But that sacredness which Fra Angelico saw in these themes and which he tried to instill so deeply into art was incompatible with the growing enthusiasm for nature. To explain is necessarily to substitute known terms for the unknown, that is, to restate the thing we are explaining in terms of our own experience. A thing thus explained becomes natural, and once natural, it ceases of necessity to be supernatural. The realistic tendency in art was also and perforce a secularizing tendency in art. This being true, the mighty influence of Fra Lippo came at a fateful moment. None of his followers indulged in open flings at the Church. None make angels and saints quite so carnal as Fra Lippo, still less do they travesty these themes in his audacious manner. But his listlessness and satiated appetite for these themes from this time is normal.
No Florentine after Fra Lippo's time hesitates to introduce portraits into sacred scenes. The Medici bring their Magian gifts to the Christ Child. Burghers of Florence line up to see the angel appear unto Zacharias. The thrill of recognition and of meaning which once greeted these themes is gone now forever. Florentine art as the expression of religious sentiment has run its course. Only the great Florentine whose art transcends that of Florence, was able, contrary to all precedent, and by the exercise of superhuman powers, again to make these exhausted themes glow with feeling and life.