Christianity and the Commune (part II)

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The church built on the plan of a cross evolved from the old basilicas; stiff and thick-set, it has to make an effort to lift up toward heaven its two burly towers, vibrating with their bells, but unshaken by the wind. If the heavy arch that weighed on the central nave did not crush down its supports, it was because the other naves were loaded with lengthwise vaults supported by enormous walls which suppressed the empty spaces where the openings for windows would have been. The farther the nave was extended, the thicker the walls became, and the deeper became the darkness in the sanctuary, daubed with red and with blue. The short painted pillars there, with their capitals cut into by crude forms, seemed to bear the formidable weight of a sky filled with eyes that judge and with gates that close on paradises seen but for a brief moment. The edifice was like a crouching monster whose over-heavy spine bore down on its thick paws. In the center of the silent cloisters, which cut out a square of shade in the light of the south, the soil might crack with drought, but there was cold under the vaults. From these gathered forms, from these clear-cut façades, where the firm semicircle of the arch opened between massive columns, there radiated a naked strength which affirmed the elegance—austere, brutal, and categorical—of a caste in possession of undisputed power. It is the exact image of a fixed Catholicism—the authority of the Councils seated on rock. No outlook on life is afforded—the soul alone has the right to life, on condition that it never breaks through the continuous circle of stone in which it is held by dogma. Rome has cemented the thought of Saint Paul in the material of the churches.

When the uncompromising morality of this rigid world, clad in rough cloth and iron, was ready to quit the pages of the manuscripts and the pulpit of the temples and to show its symbolized face to the multitude, when the four animals of the Evangelists consented to have grow up beside them a new world of animate forms that descended the length of the columns and escaped to the very tympanums of the doors and invaded their lintels. Saint Bernard was the only one who perceived that an era was about to end. The monks could no longer close their eyes, when once the day had touched them with its light. Once life had begun to penetrate dogma, there could be no question as to the final result, even if a few centuries were still needed before life should be released by the compact and closed mass of doctrinary Christianity. In vain it opened its hell, sent stiff, devouring monsters to crawl upon the stones, unchained horrible battles between the absolute virtues and the irreducible vices, divided the world into definitive truths and definitive errors: life, poor and bruised, but regaining its mastery little by little, was introducing its subtle connecting passages between each of these pairs of moral entities in order to animate them and to unite them.

It was clearly impossible that in this universe which had been closed for ten centuries, the monk sculptor of the Romanesque churches, the theologian armed with a chisel, should discover any more, at first, than a meager type of nature—emaciated, compressed, and suffering, like himself. Long figures, which make a tragic effort to break the mold of the Byzantine, were flattened against the new façades, mechanically expressing an arrested symbolism. The only men, precisely, who reserved the right, at that moment, to express form and life were the heirs and guardians of a theology that had not ceased for a thousand years to look upon and to condemn form and life as contemptible appearances. For the same length of time, the people had been crushed between the material invasion of the barbarians and the moral invasion of Christianity. It had resigned itself, in the promised hope of a future life, to the hazards of its actual life, and, when it fled the devastations of its countryside, it found no other refuge than its feeling for the supernatural.

But despite everything, and contrary to the life and the ideal which they had accepted, the artist-monks were expressing, in those primitive sculptures that were invading the porches of the churches in ever denser crowds, the first sudden perturbations of the needs of their time. A singular force was mounting very rapidly within these works. In close-growing vegetation made up of these rough forms, there circulated something of the sap and the energy which, in the same centuries, were lifting up the wrought stone of the Dravidian pyramids and the Cambodian temples. A dull rhythm, a heavy and vigorous rhythm—like that with which the flood of the springtime carries its wealth of buds up out of the soil—runs through these rude figures, these heads, and bodies that are hardly more than squared off, and which are elevated in a single movement. A puissant grace, a candid and robust charm hesitate in the stone itself. Clear-cut planes define the elementary movements that incline one face toward another face and cause one hand to reach out toward another. They seem to obey the silent music which groups numbers into constructions and into figures, according to the summary but essential appearance that reveals them to us when our minds are strongly aroused. It is a rough expression but a fervent one that results from this dramatic meeting of Christian symbolism at its highest tension and popular realism in the innocence of its dawn. The breast of the world was dilating slowly, but with an irresistible effort that was to burst its armor. There had been no invasion for a century or two. Born of war and living by it, the feudal lord carries war to the surrounding countries. Gaul, to which the military chiefs had been leading their hordes for so many years, became the central hearth for the fire of expansion and conquest. About the closing years of the eleventh century, the one during which the Romanesque church allowed its compressed life to burst its shell, the Norman barons passed into Sicily and into England, and the first Crusade hurled the French barons upon the Holy Land. Feudal brutality emigrated for two hundred years.

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