Careless of any peril to dogmatic orthodoxy, and undeterred by the dread of encouraging pagan sensuality, the artists wrought out their modern ideal of beauty in the double field of Christian and Hellenic legend. Before the force of painting was exhausted, it had thus traversed the whole cycle of thoughts and feelings that form the content of the modern mind.
This being in general the task assigned to art in the Renaissance, we may next inquire what constituted the specific quality of modern as distinguished from antique feeling, and why painting could not fail to take the first place among modern arts. In other words, how was it that, while sculpture was the characteristic fine art of antiquity, painting became the distinguishing fine art of the modern era?
THE FINE ARTS
No true form of figurative art intervened between Greek sculpture and Italian painting. The latter took up the work of investing thought with sensible shape from the dead hands of the former. Nor had the tradition that connected art with religion been interrupted, although a new cycle of religious ideas had been substituted for the old ones. The late Roman and Byzantine manners, through which the vital energies of the Athenian genius dwindled into barren formalism, still lingered, giving crude and lifeless form to Christian conceptions.
But the thinking and feeling subject, meanwhile, had undergone a change so all-important that it now imperatively required fresh channels for its self-expression. It was destined to find these, not as of old in sculpture, but in painting. During the interval between the closing of the ancient and the opening of the modern age, the faith of Christians had attached itself to symbols and material objects little better than fetishes.
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The host, the relic, the wonder-working shrine, things endowed with a mysterious potency, evoked the yearning and the awe of medieval multitudes. To such concrete actualities the worshippers referred their sense of the invisible divinity. Like Thomas, they could not be contented with believing; they must also touch and handle. At the same time, in apparent contradistinction to this demand for things of sense as signs of super-sensual power, the claims of dogma on the intellect grew more imperious, and mysticism opened for the dreaming soul a realm of spiritual rapture.
For the figurative arts there was no true place in either of these regions. Painting and sculpture were alike alien to the grosser superstitions, the scholastic subtleties, and the ecstatic trances of the Middle Ages; nor had they anything in common with the logic of theology. Votaries who kissed a fragment of the cross with passion, could have found but little to satisfy their ardour in pictures painted by a man of genius.
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A formless wooden idol, endowed with the virtue of curing disease, charmed the pilgrim more than a statue noticeable only for its beauty or its truth to life. In architecture alone, the mysticism of the Middle Ages, their vague but potent feelings of infinity, their yearning towards a deity invisible, but localised in holy things and places, found artistic outlet. Therefore architecture was essentially a medieval art. The rise of sculpture and painting indicated the quickening to life of new faculties, fresh intellectual interests, and a novel way of apprehending the old substance of religious feeling; for comprehension of these arts implies delight in things of beauty for their own sake, a sympathetic attitude towards the world of sense, a new freedom of the mind produced by the regeneration of society through love.
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The eyes of the worshipper should no longer have a mere stock or stone to contemplate: his imagination should be helped by the dramatic presentation of the scenes of sacred history, and his devotion be quickened by lively images of the passion of our Lord. Spirit should converse with spirit, through no veil of symbol, but through the transparent medium of art, itself instinct with inbreathed life and radiant with ideal beauty. The body and the soul, moreover, should be reconciled; and God's likeness should be once more acknowledged in the features and the limbs of man.
Such was the promise of art; and this promise was in a great measure fulfilled by the painting of the fourteenth century. But in making good the promise they had given, it was needful for the arts on the one hand to enter a region not wholly their own—the region of abstractions and of mystical conceptions; and on the other to create a world of sensuous delightfulness, wherein the spiritual element was materialised to the injury of its own essential quality.
The incarnation promised by the arts involved a corresponding sensuousness. Heaven was brought down to earth, but at the cost of making men believe that earth itself was heavenly. At this point the subject of our inquiry naturally divides into two main questions. The first concerns the form of figurative art specially adapted to the requirements of religious thought in the fourteenth century. The second treats of the effect resulting both to art and religion from the expression of mystical and theological conceptions in plastic form.
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When we consider the nature of the ideas assimilated in the Middle Ages by the human mind, it is clear that art, in order to set them forth, demanded a language the Greeks had never greatly needed, and had therefore never fully learned. Faith, hope, and charity; humility, endurance, suffering; the Resurrection and the Judgment; the Pall and the Redemption; Heaven and Hell; the height and depth of man's mixed nature; the drama of human destiny before the throne of God: into the sphere of thoughts like these, vivid and solemn, transcending the region of sense and corporeity, carrying the mind away to an ideal world, where the things of this earth obtained a new reality by virtue of their relation to an invisible and infinite Beyond, the modern arts in their infancy were thrust.
There was nothing finite here or tangible, no gladness in the beauty of girlish foreheads or the swiftness of a young man's limbs, no simple idealisation of natural delightfulness. The human body, which the figurative arts must needs use as the vehicle of their expression, had ceased to have a value in and for itself, had ceased to be the true and adequate investiture of thoughts demanded from the artist.
At best it could be taken only as the symbol of some inner meaning, the shrine of an indwelling spirit nobler than itself; just as a lamp of alabaster owes its beauty and its worth to the flame it more than half conceals, the light transmitted through its scarce transparent walls.
In ancient art those moral and spiritual qualities which the Greeks recognised as truly human and therefore divine, allowed themselves to be incarnated in well-selected types of physical perfection. The deities of the Greek mythology were limited to the conditions of natural existence: they were men and women of a larger mould and freer personality; less complex, inasmuch as each completed some one attribute; less thwarted in activity, inasmuch as no limit was assigned to exercise of power.
The passions and the faculties of man, analysed by unconscious psychology, and deified by religious fancy, were invested by sculpture with appropriate forms, the tact of the artist selecting corporeal qualities fitted to impersonate the special character of each divinity.
Nor was it possible that, the gods and goddesses being what they were, exact analogues should not be found for them in idealised humanity. In a Greek statue there was enough soul to characterise the beauty of the body, to render her due meed of wisdom to Pallas, to distinguish the swiftness of Hermes from the strength of Heracles, or to contrast the virginal grace of Artemis with the abundance of Aphrodite's charms. At the same time the spirituality that gave its character to each Greek deity, was not such that, even in thought, it could be dissociated from corporeal form. The Greeks thought their gods as incarnate persons; and all the artist had to see to, was that this incarnate personality should be impressive in his marble.
Christianity, on the other hand, made the moral and spiritual nature of man all-essential.
It sprang from an earlier religion, that judged it impious to give any form to God. The body and its terrestrial activity occupied but a subordinate position in its system. It was the life of the soul, separable from this frame of flesh, and destined to endure when earth and all that it contains had ended—a life that upon this planet was continued conflict and aspiring struggle—which the arts, insofar as they became its instrument, were called upon to illustrate.
It was the worship of a Deity, all spirit, to be sought on no one sacred hill, to be adored in no transcendent shape, that they were bound to heighten. The most highly prized among the Christian virtues had no necessary connection with beauty of feature or strength of limb. Such beauty and such strength at any rate were accidental, not essential. A Greek faun could not but be graceful; a Greek hero was of necessity vigorous. But S.
Stephen might be steadfast to the death without physical charm; S. Anthony might put to flight the devils of the flesh without muscular force. It is clear that the radiant physical perfection proper to the deities of Greek sculpture was not sufficient in this sphere. Again, the most stirring episodes of the Christian mythology involved pain and perturbation of the spirit; the victories of the Christian athletes were won in conflicts carried on within their hearts and souls—"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers," demoniac leaders of spiritual legions.
It is, therefore, no less clear that the tranquillity and serenity of the Hellenic ideal, so necessary to consummate sculpture, was here out of place. How could the Last Judgment, that day of wrath, when every soul, however insignificant on earth, will play the first part for one moment in an awful tragedy, be properly expressed in plastic form, harmonious and pleasing?
The physical form, instead of being adequate to the ideas expressed, and therefore helpful to the artist, is a positive embarrassment, a source of weakness. The most powerful pictorial or sculpturesque delineation of the Judgment, when compared with the pangs inflicted on the spirit by a guilty conscience, pangs whereof words may render some account, but which can find no analogue in writhings of the limbs or face, must of necessity be found a failure. Still more impossible, if we pursue this train of thought into another region, is it for the figurative arts to approach the Christian conception of God in His omnipotence and unity.
Christ Himself, the central figure of the Christian universe, the desired of all nations, in whom the Deity assumed a human form and dwelt with men, is no fit subject for such art at any rate as the Greeks had perfected. The fact of His incarnation brought Him indeed within the proper sphere of the fine arts; but the religious idea which He represents removed Him beyond the reach of sculpture.
This is an all-important consideration. It is to this that our whole argument is tending. Therefore to enlarge upon this point will not be useless.
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Christ is specially adored in His last act of love on Calvary; and how impossible it is to set that forth consistently with the requirements of strictly plastic art, may be gathered by comparing the passion of S. Bernard's Hymn to our Lord upon the Cross with all that Winckelmann and Hegel have so truly said about the restrained expression, dignified generality, and harmonious beauty essential to sculpture. It is the negation of tranquillity, the excess of feeling, the absence of comeliness, the contrast between visible weakness and invisible omnipotence, the physical humiliation voluntarily suffered by Him that "ruled over all the angels, that walked on the pavements of heaven, whose feet were clothed with stars"—it is all this that gives their force and pathos to these stanzas:.
We have never heard that Pheidias or Praxiteles chose Prometheus upon Caucasus for the supreme display of his artistic skill; and even the anguish expressed in the group of the Laocoon is justly thought to violate the laws of antique sculpture. Yet here was a greater than Prometheus—one who had suffered more, and on whose suffering the salvation of the human race depended, to exclude whom from the sphere of representation in art was the same as confessing the utter impotence of art to grasp the vital thought of modern faith.
It is clear that the muses of the new age had to haunt Calvary instead of Helicon, slaking their thirst at no Castalian spring, but at the fount of tears outpoured by all creation for a stricken God. What Hellas had achieved supplied no norm or method for the arts in this new service.
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From what has hitherto been advanced, we may assert with confidence that, if the arts were to play an important part in Christian culture, an art was imperatively demanded that should be at home in the sphere of intense feeling, that should treat the body as the interpreter and symbol of the soul, and should not shrink from pain and passion. For the present it is enough to affirm that, least of all the arts, could sculpture, with its essential repose and its dependence on corporeal conditions, solve the problem.
Sculpture had suited the requirements of Greek thought. It belonged by right to men who not unwillingly accepted the life of this world as final, and who worshipped in their deities the incarnate personality of man made perfect. But it could not express the cycle of Christian ideas. The desire of a better world, the fear of a worse; the sense of sin referred to physical appetites, and the corresponding mortification of the flesh; hope, ecstasy, and penitence and prayer; all these imply contempt or hatred for the body, suggest notions too spiritual to be conveyed by the rounded contours of beautiful limbs, too full of struggle for statuesque tranquillity.
The new element needed a more elastic medium of expression. Motives more varied, gradations of sentiment more delicate, the fugitive and transient phases of emotion, the inner depths of consciousness, had somehow to be seized. It was here that painting asserted its supremacy. Painting is many degrees further removed than sculpture from dependence on the body in the fulness of its physical proportions. It touches our sensibilities by suggestions more indirect, more mobile, and more multiform.