Christianity and the Commune

[TRANSLATOR’S NOTE.—The following lines from the Encyclopaedia Britannica will explain M. Faure's preference for the words "ogive" and "ogival" as against the more common but less precise word "Gothic," in speaking of the architecture dealt with in this chapter and the next.

"A very great step in advance was made by the invention or application of diagonal ribs under the intersection of the plain groined vault. This association of strengthening ribs in a cross form to each bay of the structure forms the ogive, the characteristic form from which the alternative name of Gothic, 'ogival,' has been derived. . . The word 'Gothic' was applied by Italian writers of the Renaissance to buildings later than Roman. What we now call 'Gothic' the same writers called 'Modern.' Later the word came to mean the art which filled the whole interval between the Roman period and the Renaissance, and then, last of all, when the Byzantine and Romanesque forms were defined, Gothic became the art which intervened between the Romanesque era and the Renaissance."]

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THE Semitic spirit, at the decline of the old world, tried to conquer Europe through the apostles of Christ, as it was to take possession of western Asia and of Africa through the knights of Islam. But through the desert, the bare sky, and life without movement the religion of Mohammed remained near to its sources. It could easily retain its original form and spiritualize everything, even to its expression in plastics. Europe offered to the Jewish idea an outline less suited to it. The contact with the cultivated land, with the woods, with the running waters, with the clouds, and with mobile and living form, was to impose on the religion of Saint Paul a sensuous and concrete form which turned the idea from its original direction, little by little, and was to bring the peoples of the Occident back to the course of their natural destiny.

It is true that the impress had been made. The Jewish apostolate, through the power for penetration which it derived from its disinterested faith, carried with it a disappointing dualism, but at the same time it peopled the inner solitude of the masses who had been forgotten by the civilizations of the past. Its pitiless insistence on justice fortified the social instinct in them. And it is thanks to this that the Greek spirit and the Semitic spirit slowly brought about in the crucible of the Occident an accord of which Aeschylus had the presentiment and for which Jesus had the desire.

Had Christianity remained as Saint Paul desired it and as the fathers of the Church defined it, it must needs have turned its back upon the plastic interpretations of the ideas which it introduced. But as it wished to live, it obeyed the law which compels us to give to our emotions the form of the things that we see. In Rome, while it was groping in the shadow, trying to tear its doctrine from the confused mass of the old myths, graven and painted figures were appearing, from the first century onward, upon the walls of the Catacombs. They announced new gods, to be sure, but their form remained pagan, even Greek, most often, for it was the Oriental slave who propagated the religion of Galilee in Rome. Grown clumsy in the hands of the poor people, the art which, above the street level, builds thermae and amphitheaters, which covers villas with frescoes and gardens with statues, hesitates in the darkness underground. The soul of the people will not be silent until the day when official Christianity emerges from beneath the soil to take possession of the Roman basilicas and decorate them with pompous emblems. It will require ten centuries of seclusion before it finds its real expression and compels the upper classes to return to the deeper life and to embrace the hope which has been set free.

The organization of the new theocracy, the repeated invasions of the barbarians, hunger, torpor, and the frightful misery of the world between the fall of the Empire and the time of the Crusades, did not permit any people of western Europe to take root in its soil. In return, although every human tide carried away the new cities built on the newly made ruins, the tribes descending from the north succumbed, little by little, to the domination of the moral unity inherent in the Christian idea for which the trappings of the ancient civilizations offered an imposing framework. Over the heads of the peoples in their unhappiness, the instinct of the military chiefs, who had rallied to the letter of organized Christianity, brings them into alliance with the higher clergy, whose spirit, through contact with the warrior class, becomes more and more harsh. When Gregory the Great, some years after Justinian, ordered the destruction of what remained of the old libraries and of the temple of the ancient gods, he consecrated the accord of Rome with the barbarians. The soul of antiquity was dead, indeed. The monarchies of the Orient gather up its last echoes, the monasteries stir up its dust.

The religious communities had remained, up to the Crusades, the only isles of light in darkened Europe. The cloistered luxury of a chosen few, a hothouse civilization, was the representative of sixty centuries of effort, of sensibility, of living realizations. Thebes, Memphis, Babylon, Athens, Rome, and Alexandria were contained within the four walls of a monastery, in old manuscripts thumbed by the hard men who opposed the necessary counterpoise of the Rule, to the frightful impulses of a world that had fallen back to the primitive state. But it was around these walls, in these out-of-the-way valleys, away from the great highways which saw the massacres that, here and there, the people of the countryside were assembling to shape the future. The north of Gaul during the Merovingian period had no other centers of activity in the chaos of manners, races, and languages that hovered over this agony of the burning cities and the ruined harvests.

In the south, on the contrary, tradition was still profoundly alive. The aqueducts, the arenas, the thermae, and the temples were still erect in the landscape that is silvered by the forests of olive trees. The amphitheaters still opened their pure curve to the light. The sculptured sarcophagi were in their accustomed place, bordering the roads shaded by the plane trees that are whitened by winter when it despoils them of their leaves and that remain white under the dust of summer. On this burnt earth of southern France, which outlines itself against the sky with the sure lines that one finds again beside the bays of Greece, Gallo-Roman art united quite naturally the positivism of Rome, Hellenic elegance, and the fresh vitality of the Gauls. It declined but little, if at all, upon the passage of the Arabs, who were adopted by this burning soil. Nothing could arrest its fever. Under its violent sun, the blood of nomadic Asia mingled with that of Greco-Latin Gaul. It was a strange, cruel, perverse world, but one of intense, irrepressible life; its ideal was one of equality and it was freer and more extensive than the remainder of France when the division of the empire of Charlemagne had separated it from the north, which was beginning to discuss its problem of Frankish or Norman domination.

When an orgy of love and blood craves the excitement that results from the nervous tension of the higher culture, when morbid sensuality and exasperated intelligence arise from the same ground, the lightning that flashes from their meeting sets fires burning, and their flame leaps high into the air, fed by all the winds that blow, by the dust they bring, and by the debris of green wood and dead wood alike which they hurl into the blaze together. A hybrid and convulsive art emerges from the earth, a trifle frail, but so glowing in its intensity that its onrush leaves a groove that cannot be effaced. The trail of fire passed over Provence, surrounded Toulouse, and ascended to the plateau of central France. The antique columns were set up again round the nervous and clumsy bas-reliefs that were painfully inscribed within the rigid curve of the portals. Byzantium and Islam deposited their ferment and their spark in the heart of the material that still retained its memory of the Romans; and the Crusades brought back to the stones, stirring in their new animation, a disordered tribute of memories of Greece and the Syrian world, and, with these, the more distant echo of Persia and India. When the Clunisians set to work upon the stones, about the eleventh century, and erected them according to Norman and Scandinavian ideas, which we see also in the heavy jewels that bear the trace of the oldest traditions of Asia, the great Romanesque style crystallized suddenly, to become, in the hands of the monks, the purest architectural expression of organized Christianity.

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