Christianity and the Commune (part VII)

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Nothing in this social and natural expression is foreign to the earth and to the people from which it came forth spontaneously. And the unity of the symphony is the more impressive, through the vast number of voices that entered it, for song and prayer, to murmur, to weep, and to laugh, and to combine the changing melody of the lacework of stone and glass and their rays of light with the intermittent thunder of the bells and with the hum of the sonorous naves, where the plain song rises and falls. The cathedral often sheltered the neighboring university [The councils of the University of Paris were held at St. Julien le Pauvre.] and never entirely relinquished to it the cult of the intellectual life, for the students met the artisans under its vaults to commune with them in the collective and confused elaboration of farces, mystery plays, and moralities; and so, even before the university, it presented a powerful summary of the idea of the century and of the images of life. It formulated for us those turbulent schools where four or five nations came for their instruction, where the overlapping elements of all kinds collaborate—the master with his disciples, the Greek philosophers with the fathers of the Church, and what is taught with what is learned. The immeasurable mind of Aristotle, from which revolutionary thought claimed its authority against the theologians, would have recognized in the disordered unity and the rich material of this time the irruption of the genius of the senses which every thousand years arises from the depths of the peoples to save the world from the dangers of pure abstraction.

Men had cursed the flesh, disdained form, and repressed the desire to love them for what they teach us. And they had continued to do this for so long a time that on the day when that desire could no longer be restrained, it changed the axis of life, revealed life to itself, and finally stifled it. There was such an overflowing of forms, men were so drunk with sensations, that not only was the Christian idea of purification annihilated, but the art which had come to protest against that idea was devoured. It died because it had satisfied, with too great a violence, the needs that had given it birth. In less than three hundred years the French mind followed the course that leads from Sens or from Noyon, from Notre Dame, from Chartres, from Beauvais—from naked logic, unity, harmony, and the ever-present impulse of sobriety and strength, to Rheims, the magnificent, sensual orgy, and to Rouen, the frail and flamboyant death struggle. Sculpture, affixed to the walls at first, incorporated in the walls, later on, detached itself from the walls; and once the dissociation had begun, it accentuated itself rapidly, until the final anarchy. From the fourteenth century on, it expresses scarcely more than that which one finds in an individual portrait having such characteristics as penetration, health, cordiality, and self-confidence. And then the image maker knows too much, he handles his chisel with such ease that he can watch it toying with the material, and the force that once governed his heart has entirely passed into his hand. The lines of the cathedral become complicated and entangled; they lose their meaning; its vaults are encumbered with supplementary ribbing which will soon be cut up into fragments by useless ornament. The cathedral disappears under the profusion of the detail, its supports are weakened by being hollowed out with carving; every day its solid parts are diminished and a greater risk of a collapse is incurred by making room for the great windows that were invading it more and more. When it had appeared, the world was dying of darkness, of solitude and silence; the cathedral revealed light, form, and tumult to the world, and was to die as a result.

Hence the explosive and transitory character of the French art of the Middle Ages. The cathedral had crutches, as Michelet said in his reproach. Its flying buttresses are so pure because they bear faithfully the weight of a world, as a century gathers the effort of a thousand years into a single effort. And so the cathedral has that aspect of improvisation which renders it so alive and which also gives it its appearance of fragility. When we think of the haste with which the work was done, we are tempted to think that the French people, suddenly aroused from sleep to enter upon the intoxication of life, dazzled with the daylight, overrun by innumerable images, and overflowing with energy and joy, had a premonition that, between the theocratic oppression which had reached its death struggle and the military oppression which was coming, it would barely have time to express, in tempestuous confusion, that which it had understood of Nature upon its first meeting with her since the death of the ancient gods. When the cathedral was vanquished, at the same time with the Commune and for the same reasons, there remained nothing—save itself—of the impulse from which it had come forth. The energy of the nation, at first enervated by its own growth, and then crushed under the renewed invasions and under what was perhaps the most atrocious misery that history has known—the energy of the nation gave way. Nothing was left in France but the growing monarchy and Catholicism, which, by working upon the disheartened spirits of the people, was regaining the ground it had lost. The upper clergy, the representative of political Christianity, took possession of the cathedral in order to oppose the doctrinal Christianity of the regular clergy against the human Christianity of the people. It is, thanks to the people, that Catholicism profited by the blows which the Middle Ages had dealt it and gained the fame for aesthetic greatness which has rendered it so alluring. It became for the future the sweet and terrible thing that we know, so powerful in its art, so powerful in its morality. It was diverse corresponding to the way in which it manifested itself in France, in Italy, in Flanders, in Spain, in Germany, or in England, and yet it was one in its dogma and in its authority. It was at once theological and popular, traditional and spontaneous, universal and national. Students have believed—the Catholic Church itself sincerely believed—that it had made the Occident of the thirteenth century in its own image. In reality, it was France and Europe, in the exaltation of their life, which, for one hundred and fifty years, caused Catholicism to assume their own appearance.

When St. Bernard, already anathematizing the stiff Romanesque sculpture which decorated the earlier temples, was at the same time combating the communal spirit and, in Abelard, condemning the spirit of the universities, he said, "so numerous and so astounding did the variety of the forms appear everywhere, that the monk is more tempted to study the marbles than his books and to meditate on these figures far more than on the law of God." The cathedral is Christian only for those who do not feel that all things human contain Christianity, and precede and survive it, as it is anti-Christian only for those who do not sense the way in which Christianity remains human. [Stated in the modern form, the problem is without meaning. People are still discussing as to whether the builders of the cathedral were not "anticlerical." When will they begin to understand that every rise of life in the breast of the masses shatters the dogma of yesterday, even when it celebrates it? Whether they are freemasons or not is of no importance. The image makers of the Middle Ages are not freethinkers. They are free instincts.] The cathedral is human and traditional and revolutionary, and profoundly opposed to the principle of authority in moral matters set forth by Christianity when it claimed to be definitively organized; we see this opposition in the way that Gothic art expressed moral ideas in the form most accessible to our senses and translated into the language which is most purely that of the senses, the dogmas which affirm the majesty of pure spirit. It rehabilitates the nature of man, it rehabilitates nature itself in the world where he lives. It loves man for himself, weak and filled with an unbounded courage, and it describes his paradise with the trees, the waters, and the clouds which he sees when he raises his eyes or when he goes forth from the gates of his city; it tells of the vegetables full of earth and the fruits that are brought to him from the fields on market days by the domestic animals who share his lot.

The cathedral, indeed the whole art of the ogive, realizes for a moment the equilibrium between the virgin forces of the people and the metaphysical monument whose mold Christian philosophy had been preparing for a thousand years. But these forces break the mold when they have attained their full expansion. The masons and the image makers, in opposition to the Church, consecrate the entrance of the ever-dying and ever-renascent form of the world into our spirit and our flesh. The desire of the people sweeps on into its movement all the inert matter of the prohibitions and the formulas in which the mechanism of theocracy claims the right to imprison it. Undoubtedly, the clergy imposed on the decorators an obligation, which they, however, very cheerfully accepted—that of respecting in the images a rigorous hierarchy, an inflexible and symbolic method of writing, over the arrangement of which the Church kept surveillance; "the art alone belongs to the painter, the law to the Fathers," said the council of Nicea. [For everything that concerns the external relationships in the art of the cathedrals, consult L'Art Religieux du 13e Siècle en France, by Émile Mâle.] The council of Nicea was not aware that the art is everything and that the law without it is only an empty garment, for at the moment when art springs from the hearts of men it is passion, will, suffering, religion, justice, life. What did it matter, therefore, that the edifice was the cross, that the apse was the crown of thorns, that the choir was the head of Christ, that the fire of the stained glass was celestial light, and that the towers were arms in prayer? The crowd in the Middle Ages expressed itself symbolically because the symbol summarized the higher moral realities which it did not discuss, so that it might remain the freer to discover its spiritual realities and because it found within itself an inexhaustible pretext for giving voice to the thing that was stifling it. In the Middle Ages, symbolism and theology were bound up with life, and their life was the real one; they were only one element in the formidable symphony in which all the forces of that period met, responded to each other and were associated one with another. Society, unconcerned as to the elements which constituted it, allowed its equilibrium and its activity to be organized spontaneously by the fiery life of these elements.

When we stand at a distance or on a height, it seems as if we could not apprehend the history of a great race save in the general characteristics which mark that race for us. It then seems to us to be contained entirely in one particular work and to take on a form that is, so to speak, visible or tangible, wherein all the adventures of its intelligence and its sorrow appear, as if sublimated. It seems to have lived, bled, carried on war and commerce, cultivated the soil, and wrought in iron, only that this work may be born, that it may contain, summarize, and exalt the obscure lives and the unformulated feeling of the billions of its living and its dead. And thereafter, each time that we evoke the spirit of a people, the name of a man who most obviously represents it in its most decisive hour comes to our lips. Beethoven brings us Germany, Shakespeare England, Michael Angelo Italy, Cervantes Spain, Rubens Flanders, Rembrandt the Netherlands. When we think of France, we hesitate. Montaigne is the hero of the eternal intelligence, standing above the destiny of the peoples, above their language, above their passion. Pascal has not the divine joy that mounts with the blood of the people in its acts, even when these are the acts of injustice and despair. In those who have best told our story, Rabelais, La Fontaine, and Molière, there is lacking that kind of mystic passion which renders the human soul heroic and which makes it possible that, through a single man and at a single moment, there may be concentrated and epitomized within the human soul all the powers of life, which, at that particular moment, define for our eyes the course of destiny and of the world. Hugo puffs up his power with programs and sermons. Well then! the cathedral has everything we love in Hugo or Pascal; everything of ourselves that we find in Rabelais, Molière, or La Fontaine; everything that, in Montaigne, rises above time and place. But by its vaults and by its towers it elevates all this in so lyrical a passion, that it lifts the French crowd up to the supreme conceptions which the greatest of our artists have almost never attained.

The French hero is the cathedral.

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