Christianity and the Commune (part VI)

View the scanned original illustrations

The entire people in the Middle Ages, with all that it knew, all that it desired, and all that it confusedly dreamed, built its temple, the house of its reality and its hope, as it was building up at the same time, through the freedom of the Commune, its right to live, the right for future ages to conquer through thought. It was not, as has been claimed, that each inhabitant of the city and the country contributed his stone to the pile. But the corporations which worked at it, the carpenters, the masons, the stonecutters, the glassmakers, the plasterers, the leadworkers, and the painters, all plumbed the lowest depths of the people whose forebodings and needs they drew forth wholeheartedly. The master builder laid out the plan, and distributed the work; then each man, with his instinct for independent action, animated a capital, sculptured an image, framed in lead the holiday splendor of a piece of stained glass, and set in line, between the diagonal ribbing, the little stones cut by hand that suspended the vault a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet above the soil. The cathedral lived so completely the life of its builders that it changed at the same time they did, and one generation would erect a tier in the pointed style on top of a tier of round arches, while another would abandon the arm of a transept already half constructed, would add a crown of chapels, change the profile of the towers, multiply or leave them unfinished, or would set a rose window flaming at the front of a Romanesque nave which had been relieved of its vault. The cathedral rose, sank, and spread out with our feelings and our desires.

Hence its close, rich unity wherein, as in a crowd or in nature, all the different forms derived their solidarity from the current of the same sap. Hence the liberty, the sweep, and the violence, and the sweetness of the hymn which these innumerable voices chanted and with which it still trembles. It was an Encyclopaedia, chiseled with love from the stuff of which France is made. The Bible story and the Christian myth, translated into active life, were lost in the rising tide of the expressive forms which told, with their thousand mingling voices, everything that was contained in the soul, now mischievous, now naïve, now lyrical, now genial, of the men who had heard these voices awakening within them. The good knights were bringing back the dragons and chimeras from the Orient. The newly acquired strength of the imagination made more concrete the figures of the vampires and the man wolves, the moralizing beasts, and the talking beasts of the old fables in verse. As the image makers had not seen the legendary kings, saints, or bishops, they asked the men in the street to furnish them with the most characteristic faces. The cathedral trembled with the noise of the crafts and the forges. Here are the peasants sowing their wheat, reaping their grain, pressing out their grapes or their apples. Here are horses, asses, and oxen breaking their furrow, or dragging their cart. The goats and the sheep show no astonishment when, at the turn of a pillar, they meet an elephant, a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus, or a king or the Magi on their camels. Gothic sculpture is an image of freedom, uniting man's future with the far-away memories which he had saved from the shipwreck of the ancient world. Whether the cathedral remains awake or goes to sleep, these memories are ever-present and living, with a confused and murmuring life full of the songs of birds, of the sound of springs, and of the swarming of the creatures under the moss. About the capitals, the whole plant world sprouted with great buds, then with leaves of pure outline which earthy hands laid on the half-dressed stone; then came the overflow of vine branches with their leaves, and thick tree stems bearing all the leaves of France and sending forth their sound in the wind that animated the organ of the towers: the vine, the rosebush, the strawberry plant, the willow, the sage, the mallow, the clover, the celery, the cabbage, the thistle, the parsley, the watercress, the fern—the leaves of France dug out from matter in such a transport of the senses that they changed at every moment into vague moving forms—lips, breasts, and folds of flesh where universal life hesitated in its primitive appearances. The bas-reliefs that grew out of the walls seem the very flower of the stone; they seem to make concrete and visible, little by little, the forms that it contains in germ, so well does the image mingle with its surroundings, with its background of misty space.

There is nothing that more clearly reveals the futility of the old opposition between architecture and the so-called imitative arts than the French cathedral, where the living surfaces cover a living skeleton. There is nothing more superficial than the ordinary definition of plastics, whose function is not to imitate the world of forms, but to seize in it the relationships which architecture precisely expresses most abstractly. It is not only its sculptured or painted ornamentation which causes architecture to re-enter the life of earth and sky, it is its first origin, the instinctive repetition that it presents of the great architecture of nature from which the human mind gathers up the elements of logical revelation that we call invention. All the vaults have evolved from the forms that were taught us by the cupola of the heavens and the droop of the long branches; all the columns are trees, all the walls are rocks or cliffs, and the roof is spread out only to permit the people dwelling beneath it to shelter themselves from the winds of the night—it slopes only to carry off the rain to the earth, which drinks it. The northern countries, which are wooded and whose light is diffused, impose ornate façades on our imagination; the southern countries, which are bare and whose light is dazzling, dictate long, pure lines: the Romanesque endured in the south. Water penetrates the stone of the north, changes it, mingles it with the damp mold, with the mosses and rotten leaves. The marble of the south is so saturated with the sun that little by little it becomes a focus of light, a source of heat as life-giving as that which concentrates autumn and summer in fruit. Everything attaches to a soil the edifice built of the stone which was drawn from that soil; it belongs to it as the waters and the winds and the color of the sky and the crops and the accustomed rhythm of the seasons. Under the pavement of the naves we get the forest underground, the thick columns plunge to the darkness of the crypt, to permit the vertical sweep of their shafts and the spreading of their branches and leaves to take root in the earth. In the French cathedral, in its long, pale columns, we get the tremulousness of the forests of alburnum and of birch, the light airy forests of Picardy and Champagne, and we see their illumined branches in the flames of the stained glass. When twilight floods the nave, making the pillars seem larger in its glow and thrusting back the solemn vaults even deeper into the mystery which darkens the gold of the waning light, one thinks of our oak forests. And the light vapor of our skies, permeating the whole mass of the air, mingling the confused movement of the ornamental forms with the silence of their depths, penetrating the openwork of the towers, and casting a veil of blond smoke over the conflagration of the stained glass, seems to lift the cathedral above the slopes and the plains, as it carries the heavy water of the winding rivers into the upper air, where we see the faint tremor of the trees whose leaves, shorn by autumn, are merged by the rain with the mud of the roads. Branches move, sounds arise, and a whispering begins again when the wind has died away. At Coutances, the lines of the spires of the central tower and of the polygonal belfries are characterized by the ascending movement with which they launch upward everywhere. They penetrate space with a flight so pure and so bare that their points are lost in it like voices. Laon, from its base to the top of its towers, is green with moss and wild plants, the buttresses of Beauvais, which spring up to a height three times greater than that of the woods of the country, have the sound of a forest in a storm, and the old spire of Chartres is a golden flame hung in the mist.

No comments: