Germany and the Reformation

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IF the Renaissance defines the manner of understanding and of expressing life for which the Italian artists gave the formula, it is even more difficult in Germany than in Flanders to connect with it the movement which, beginning at the end of the fourteenth century, carries all minds along with it. If the Renaissance is the affirmation of a new ideal, which demands the submission of those conquests of intuition and of faith now compromised to the double test of experience and of reason, we must recognize it in the North as well as in the South. And also, everywhere—except in France where the creative originality of the people had manifested itself two centuries earlier—there is the victorious revival of the national temperament opposing its tendencies and its methods to the attempt of the church to reduce things to a single level. The German workman, taught by the mason and the image maker of France, dazzled by the painter of the Low Countries, and conquered by the Italian draftsman and fresco painter, arrives by degrees at a consciousness of his gifts and of the needs of his race at about the same time that Flanders and Italy are defining their qualities and their desires. Each one seizes the tool that suits his hand.

The Gothic art which France was forgetting, which Italy was rejecting, and which Flanders was slowly transforming so that she might attempt, with Breughel as later she would with Rubens, to find her accord with the thought of the South, continued to live much longer in Germany than anywhere else. In the seventeenth century it had not disappeared from Hildesheim. It was the Germans alone who developed its most important features, continuing to work in its ruins with an assiduity which prevented them from perceiving the enormous advance made by the adventurous mind of the Italians and the French. It is not astonishing that for so long a time it was believed that Gothic art was of German stock. The architects, painters, and sculptors of Germany had, little by little, taken possession of everything which, in the immense treasury of forms and ideas accumulated by the French artists in less than two centuries, could develop and flatter their nature. They rapidly lost sight of the profound principle of ogival architecture. And as it was very complex in its apparent simplicity, as it was very rich in lines harmonized to produce an effect of ensemble, very rich in ornaments to conceal or to accentuate the thousand organs which were necessary to its general function, they strove to complicate these lines and to multiply these ornaments, thus following the tendency toward minutiae which is a characteristic of their mind. The new architectural forms which came from France and Italy toward the end of the fifteenth century could not fail, with their false decorations, to confuse still further the erudition of the builders on the right bank of the Rhine. There came to pass even this thing: that while many Italians and Frenchmen were deciding wholly to divorce architecture and the arts of ornamentation and were expressing themselves directly through sculpture and painting, the majority of the Germans obstinately persisted in placing together, in inextricable disorder, all the separate elements of the symphony of the people whose echoes had been scattered by the Frenchmen of the thirteenth century over the whole Occident and to the very gates of Asia.

The art of the sculptured and painted altar screens with which, since the fourteenth century, Germany had been encumbering her churches, was developed in this confusion. These coarse works, which display, with a patience which nothing could disturb, the scenes of the Passion in an orgy of awkward forms, of contorted attitudes, of grimacing faces, of crosses, spears, sponges, crowns of thorns, nails, and hammers, furnished inexhaustible nutriment for the popular industry of wood carving which has always been carried on by the peasants of Tyrol, the Harz, the Black Forest, the Alps, Franconia, and all the German mountains and valleys where the larch and the pine grow. These woods yield a soft material in which the knife works easily, going back over its grooves, spreading them out in every direction, making deep hollows under hair or fur, under the folds of cloths and under curling locks, and working out the veins of hands and the wrinkles of faces; and so men pass their winter evenings, spare themselves the boredom of long watches, forget the solitude of the heights and the pasture lands, and bring incident into the monotony of the inner life which could not be satisfied by too bare a plane or too pure an outline. When the man of the mountains and the woods approaches the cities, he will see the spires standing like lacework against the sky. He will walk about in the crooked streets which are overhung by the triangular façades embroidered with painted woods and with gilt inscriptions, where the immense tile roofs descend quite close to the ground, where the overdecorated cornices rise in steps amid the pointed gables, the chimneys, the stork's nests, and the warriors of gold unfurling the inscriptions on their pennants. He will dip up his water from gaudily painted fountains, whose openwork pyramids are encumbered with sentimental or grotesque statues and with unexpected mechanisms. And when, in the workshop or in the booth, he comes upon the careful production of the good workmen in ivory and in metal, of the ironworkers, or the goldsmiths who lean over their dark benches, he will not rest until he himself has wrought some complicated thing in which will live again, in an order difficult to justify and impossible to define, the disordered sensations that he has collected in his travels. The churches, already overfilled with altar screens, pulpits, rood-lofts, tombs erected against the walls, and red and blue coats of arms weighted down under plumed helmets, will see their oak pews perforated like sponges under the chisel of the wood carver, while enormous tabernacles obstruct the perspectives and add to the unfortunate effect of the supplementary ribbing through the tangled lines of their spindles and their points. The Tyrolese Michel Pacher and old Syrlin at Ulm open the road. They will give birth to legions of artisans, skillful at cutting wood into long, slender colonnades, in embroidering it, in turning it into guipure, in combining real faces illustrative of the Scriptures with the minutely crossed bars of railings, of spirals, of crowns of thorns, and tufts of thistles. The houses of the guilds, the breweries, and the city halls painted within and without with red, gold, and blue, arise at the same time from the pavement of the commercial cities, amid the hovels with their framework of brown wood, to give to the joiners, to the blacksmiths, to the image makers, and the glassworkers of Germany the opportunity to exercise their slow, nearsighted, tireless, and specialized industry. A swarming legion of dwarfs, of gnomes, and of kobolds take by assault the beams and the carved furniture. The picturesque cities will be a museum of painted wood, in which not one bare edifice, not one straight line or pure curve, not one spot indicative of clearness and simplicity, will break the monotony. The alchemist, who handles his retorts or unrolls his parchments behind the green windowpanes set in leaden hexagons, will find again, upon crossing his threshold, all their tortured forms and the color of their illuminations in the frescoes which, among the Gothic ornaments, cover the façades of the Rathaus. It is an old, open book, corroded by the humidity of the street. In it one sees the unrolling of the cloths, of the banners, and of the plumes; one sees the useless volutes and the obstruction of the profuse, encroaching detail which make of German engraving, so rich and so patiently worked, the least authentic of works of art, but the most accomplished of the works of science, in their conscientiousness and their labor.

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