Christianity and the Commune (part V)

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In reality, when France was covering with living flesh a framework so logical that it fixed the form of the monument in its every detail, she was still pursuing the conquest of herself. The French mind is of all the most structure-loving, but the structure must be simple in the proportion that its surface is mobile and rich in gradations, it must remain close to her soil, to her rivers, and to the winds that cross her skies. The men of this land have always loved to give to matter the image of their visions. The first engraved and carved objects which the world knows appeared on the territory that extends from the Atlantic to the Pyrenees and to the Cevennes. The Gauls beat, forged, and molded bronze before the arrival of the Legions. The Greco-Latin genius became vibrant each time that it touched this soil.

And yet before sculpture had departed from the cloister entirely, the saints, both men and women, had been far-away gods whom the people could barely see at the summit of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Once they had gained the street they lived there. The local god, the god of works and of days, the god of the fountains and the woods, the genius, who participated in all the acts of the agricultural, social, and industrial life of the people, joined the company of the saints—without any one perceiving it. Sculpture was suddenly invaded everywhere by a moral sentiment, which was as familiar and as penetrating and as simple as the living activity of humanity always is; and, without visible connection, this sentiment continued the oldest memories of man. Its actions were those of confession and protection and health, and their attraction was irresistible. Hands sought other hands and found them, faces bent toward other faces, from which emanated the gentleness that men show toward each other when they need one another. The virgin, deified against the desire of the clergy, carried her child in the crowd and showed him to the poor people.

Surely, those were good Christians who sculptured those round torsos, those flanks, swelling with child, which are lifted up by the bulk of the little one, those long limbs, nervous or full, under the woolen dress, and those good smiling faces which they copied in the workshop from the women who brought them their soup. If all they really loved in Christianity was its tender human myths, they accepted without question its belief in the supernatural, and, in consequence, they were not too severe with themselves for the acts which they committed. As long as they did their work well, they considered that their sin of gluttony had the advantage of renewing their strength and that their sins of incontinence compensated for many other disagreeable things. The churchmen were no more offended than the laymen by the ingenuous wantonness of the stories which the popular imagination never ceased to bring forth. We must remember that in these centuries, morals were not very edifying [See in Lavisse’s Histoire de France: “The Thirteenth Century,” by M. Langlois].  Almost all of the priests themselves had concubines, and not one of them made a secret of it. Life was too rich in rejuvenated strength to be restrained by any dikes. The man of this time brought to the service of the church his greatest and his simplest love; but it was the spirit which he adored, and the very power of his faith set free his power of action by rescuing him from the letter of the law. There was many a nudge of the elbow, many a slap exchanged during the preaching, and sometimes it was the priest who got the drubbing. And now it was no longer monks who continually represented the virtues on the lintels and the tympanums. Much more frequently it was the virtues, with the enchanted smile of a feminine face, that welcomed the poor people. It was thought very natural to see demons pushing into the caldrons a gesticulating troop of soldiers, bishops, and kings, all shuddering with fear. The people, in France, was too sure of itself not to pardon injuries, for it said what it thought with perfect candor, and although its hell was more comic than terrifying, it opened the gates, in its malice, to those who did not respect the task the accomplishment of which they pretended was their sacred mission.

The Almighty seldom appeared in the statuary of the churches. The poor image makers did not aspire that high. They were unable to create that which they had not seen. They did not lack imagination, certainly, and even a vague, universal, and confused culture. But their imagination moved within limits— immense and multiform, be it said—of the life that surrounded them, and their instinct as artists was too imperious to permit their theological and legendary culture to furnish them anything but pretexts for the manifestation of that instinct. Our Lady the Virgin stepped out of the stone alive, because the image of maternity, in this period of superabundant life, was everywhere. And if the saints and the angels surrounded the portals, it was because those who suffered saw faces of kindness and faces of hope bending over them daily in their distress.

The Church, in the course of its defensive organization, had turned aside, to the profit of its external power, the impulsion of sentiment from which Christianity had sprung. The France of the thirteenth century restored this impulsion of sentiment in the full life of humanity. Under the pressure of this inner force, the old world of theology cracked everywhere. Christianity, which until then had dominated life, was dominated by it and carried along in its movement. Moving on a higher plane than that of the Semitic idea of Saint Paul, who had prepared life for its explosion by forcing repose upon it, contrary to the discipline of Rome which, for a thousand years, had been raising dikes to protect it against the anarchical forces from without, life once more joined in the fraternal spirit of Him who was born in a stable, who was followed by troops of the poor, who received adulterous women, and who spoke to the flowers; it did so because man was emerging from a social state harder than that of the old world and because an insurrection of virile tenderness was becoming the universal need.
The civilizations of antiquity wept at their decline. Their sorrow has seemed declamatory and grimacing because life was leaving them. The Middle Ages, in which life was rising, mastered their suffering. They were happy, as happy as the old world in its full sweep upward, and for them pity was never more than one element in the generated energy of life. They did not even realize how courageous they were when they stretched out their two hands to all who asked for them. Without any effort, they found, in the fulfillment of their daily task, the social principle of Christianity, which the fathers of the Church had sought in a theocratic organization that was momentarily necessary to protect the growth of the new peoples, but that was a drawback to the manifestation of their original thought.

This social character defines French sculpture. When we see it from our distance, to be sure, when we see it in its ensemble from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, it strongly recalls the progression of the schools of antiquity from archaism to academism, with their passage through a point of equilibrium wherein science and sentiment, rising to their loftiest certitude, shine from the same focus. Romanesque art has the smiling strength and the rhythmical stiffness of the sixth century of Greece; the art of the thirteenth century is calm and mature like that with which Phidias and his precursors affirmed their complete self-possession. Afterward, in France as in Greece, virtuosity —descriptive, naturalistic, and picturesque—gains the upper hand little by little. Doubtless, the essential difference is that Gothic sculpture does not tend above all to the realization of that balance of volumes by which the statue makers of Olympia and of the Parthenon passed from one form to another form, from one idea to another idea, without leaving a trace by which the mind could follow the course that had been taken: it had to enter, with the sculptors, into the consciousness and the need of the universal harmony. When Gothic sculpture seizes this balance, we seem to be in the presence of an isolated attempt; a solitary individual seems to have made his impressive appearance in the midst of a murmuring throng. . . The Greek artists almost invariably spread out the inner life of the stone in rhythmic waves over the whole extent of the planes, to make all the figures participate in the cosmic equilibrium. The Frenchman almost invariably concentrates it in a bowed forehead, in a raised chin, a shoulder, a dress, an elbow, a haunch or a knee, which often breaks the line that one anticipates, so that we may see more clearly the direct, actual, and simple meaning of the action that he wants to express. . . In the sculptures of Olympia and in the Fates of the Parthenon there was, doubtless, the dawn of a modeling similar in spirit to the Gothic. But the desire for harmony dominated everything.

The contours of the Gothic statue are less defined than they were among the Egyptians and less subtle than among the Greeks. They are more varied and more living, for the light changes more frequently and is more diffused, and above all because they express a world of moral needs which neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians could feel. Never had shadows and lights been distributed with such an understanding of their psychological value. Never had the material been worked with an emotion so concrete, never had a more profound, a more complete, and a more gentle radiance emanated from it, from the full and broadly treated forms which exhibit the material to our eyes. Never had the necessity for effort been accepted with a more joyous soul by a youth with more courage to live its life, though it was better prepared than the younger races for the misfortune that awaited it. Certain statues of Rheims remind one of the Apollo of Olympia, by the rise into the light, from which their brow seems to emerge. The pure spring water that issues from the rock of Hellas seems to flow over the sides and the limbs of the statues of women, which watch over the portal above the transept of Chartres. Once more, men have lent their heroism to the gods.

It would be erroneous to conclude that even the greatest master builders and image makers among the French had ever possessed philosophic ideas so elevated as those of the sculptors from whom the Greek thinkers derived the life of the mind. But outside of the geographical conditions which so sensibly differentiated northern France with its humidity and its coolness from the arid and burnt land of Greece, life had been harder in the Middle Ages than in the century of Pericles, war and misery had made it more necessary for the masses to bring about an active solidarity, and man was more profoundly necessary to man. Moreover, these different conditions of natural and social life revealed themselves unexpectedly in the atmosphere of sentimental legend that Christianity created little by little. It is indubitable that the Greek sculptor who tore the ancient world from its exhausted rhythms, was intellectually as superior to the mason of the cathedral, as the "Prometheus" of Aeschylus or the "Antigone" of Sophocles is to a thirteenth-century mystery play; but it is certain that the mason of the cathedral easily rejoined him in the universal eurhythmy, because he was an element of the monumental symphony which the instinct, common to a whole throng, causes to spurt from its heart.

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