Mediaeval Art - Introduction (1912)

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WHILE the distant civilization of China delays the hour of its death by turning to its past, while India, to assuage its fever, spreads a religion across Asia, the shadows deepen, little by little, over the shores on which was passed the brilliant and virile youth of the western world. From the beginning of history, the ocean of the peoples ebbs and flows from the plateau of Iran to the fresh and healthful lands that face the Atlantic. On the plains of northern Europe silent invasions have accumulated reserves of men who will renew the innocence of the southern peoples when a too enervating contact with Asia shall weaken their faith in their own intelligence. We have seen the Phoenicians bring to Greece and to Italy, together with the science and the ideals of Chaldea and Egypt, the echo from India of the mystic intoxications through which the religious thrill of universal life entered the order of the Occident. We have seen Greece, in the train of Alexander, transmitting its spark of inspiration to the troubled and tired soul of India. Rome, in its turn, is to feel the sensualism of Asia when it brings peace to that land. . . The movement was exhausting its rhythm little by little. A long repose had to follow the expenditure of energy from which the future of the world had come forth; human nature had to retire into itself to allow its overstrained mind and its perverted senses to forget their conquests and to renew the desire to get back to their natural sources.

From the day when the unity of the Greek soul begins to disintegrate, when two currents appear in the thought of the philosophers and the sensibility of the artists, when Plato and Praxiteles oppose spiritual life to the materialism of Lysippus and Aristotle, from that day the youth of mankind ceased to enchant the world. Their antagonistic tendencies—rationalism that halts the movement of instinct, and sensualism that unseats the will—both lead to the negation of effort. And the skeptic and the mystic open the road to the apostles who come to sow, in the anxious heart of the multitudes, remorse at having lived too fully and an eager desire to purge themselves of the impurity of the body by such an exaltation of the soul that a thousand years will be required by the peoples of the Occident to recover their dignity in a new equilibrium.

It was by the spiritual fusion of metaphysics and morality, by the projection beyond ourselves—who are wicked and corrupt—of an absolute which makes it our duty to repent having been born, that monotheism without compromise was formulated for the first time in the doctrine of the Hebrew prophets. God was outside of the world henceforward, man could no longer attain Him save beyond the confines of his own life. This unity of the divine, which was asserted by the theologians, implanted in our nature that terrible dualism which was doubtless an indispensable trial for all of us, and which still remains so. It was this dualism that caused us to wander for long centuries in search of ourselves. It kept alive for a thousand years, in the depths of our minds, the painful conflict between the solicitations of the senses and the haunting idea of salvation. But it is perhaps, thanks to this dualism again, that we know that our strength lies in the harmony, which we seek in suffering and realize in joy, between our animality—which is sacred —and our reason—which is sacred.

The most expressive and highest manifestation of that harmony — art, the living form which sprang from the marriage of matter and mind to affirm their unity—art had to die at the same time that the nature-creeds died, when the ethical religions appeared, denying its usefulness and precipitating humanity upon paths the reverse of those it had trod up to that time. First, the Jews, who brought into Occidental thought the imposing and sterile spirit of the solitudes, hated and condemned form. The Arabs, born of the same stock, were also to manifest their disdain for it. To change all this there was needed the contact with the soil of Europe, with its bays, its mountains, its fertile plains, its vivifying air, its variety of appearances, and its problems. And it was only after ten centuries of painful struggle, of efforts forever defeated and forever renewed, that the peoples of Europe tore themselves from the powerful embrace of the Semitic idea. It was necessary that India should feel in the very substance of the Buddhistic idea, vibrant within it and creating its strength and its compelling beauty, the incessant action of fecundity and death which causes its forests and rivers to move, in order that it should repeople the temples with its hundred thousand living gods.

After the pantheism of Vedic India and the polytheism of Aeschylean Greece had attained their highest expression, and their decline had commenced, there appeared, in the depths of the great moral religions which began to claim dominion over the world, the same despairing sentiment of the final uselessness of action. Man everywhere was fatigued by living, by thinking, and he deified his fatigue as, when he loved action, he had deified his courage. The resignation of the Christian, the belief in Nirvana of the Buddhist, the fatalism of the Arab, and the traditionalism of the Chinese are born of the same pessimistic need for avoiding effort. For some centuries the Arabs escaped the consequences of this discouraging idea, but only because the sole effort demanded from them by the Prophet was an outward effort, satisfying the essential needs of their nomadic and conquering life, and because repose was promised them in death itself, to which they hurled themselves in the charge of their cavalry, leaving to the vanquished peoples the task of working for them. The Chinese, again, escape only through their absence of idealism and their positive spirit whose energy is employed, precisely, to fetter and retard action. But the generalizing peoples of the Occident, the sensual peoples of India, could extricate themselves from these consequences only if they profited by the repose that the doctrines themselves imposed on them. And so they drove the roots of their instinct deeper into their earth and fought with all their rejuvenated power against the spirit of renunciation to which the disciples of Sakyamuni and of Jesus had dragged the crowds whose interest it was to listen to them while they hid the faces of the two men who were all love and therefore all action.

Now that the ethical religions are a part of history, now that we have learned that the moral need loses its power when it presumes to annihilate or diminish the aesthetic need of which it is only one aspect, we are sufficiently strong to recognize that Christianity and Buddhism introduced into the world an admirable element of passion. In India, Buddhism had never really assumed the character of radical opposition to Brahmanism that Christianity adopted toward the pagan religions. It was not the spirit of one soil and one race going forth to combat the spirit of another soil and another race. It was born of the very current that urged the peoples of India to mingle their soul with the voices of the universe, and to beseech the voices of the universe to permeate that soul incessantly; it was an extension in the moral world of the formidable sensualism whose appeal men could not ignore when that sensualism fused their mind with the mind of the wild beasts, the forests, the waters, and the stones. In the Occident, on the contrary, in the bosom of Christianity, organized into a political system, the invasion of the human soul by the forces of nature could take on no other aspect than that of rebellion. And therein we have the reason why the Christian soul has stamped a profound imprint on the form of our mind.

By teaching the hatred of life, Christianity multiplied our very power to live when the fatalities of economic and political evolution in Occidental society brought them into contact with life, adapted their organs to new functions, and assured new satisfactions to their needs. Our senses had kept silence for a thousand years; for a thousand years the sap of humanity had been turned back to our hearts; for a thousand years the mind had accumulated, in a frightful solitude, a world of confused desires, of unexpressed intuitions, of fevers only partly allayed, which caused the love of the world to burst forth from the mind when it could be restrained no longer, and then it appeared with all the intoxication of the beasts of the forests when released from cages. There is no more magnificent spectacle in history than that of humanity, in its religious frenzy, hurling itself on form to make it fruitful again.

It is in this spectacle that we must seek for the origin of the differences that are noticeable when we consider in their ensemble the manifestations of ancient art and mediaeval art, especially in India and in western Europe. The ancient world had never forbidden the love of form; it had, on the contrary, arrived through form—by a progressive, harmonious, continuous effort—at the philosophic generalizations formulated by the sculptors of Athens toward the middle of the century of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, and of Phidias. Egypt, confined by the theocracy within the metaphysical limits from which it was forbidden to go onward, had studied man in his structure and had defined for all time the form of the shadow that he will cast on the earth so long as the sun shall shine upon him. Greece, freed from dogma, had scrutinized the relations that unite man with nature, had found again in the volumes and gestures of living forms, the laws which determine harmony, in the revolution of the heavenly bodies, in the unfurling of the profiles of the earth, in the rising and falling motion of the seas. It rested with the Middle Ages of the Occident to render in form the relationships created between man and man by the griefs that have been lived through together, by the hopes too long deferred, by the joy of the senses liberated after centuries of asceticism and of physical and moral compression. The new spirit manifests itself everywhere by a wild eruption of reveling in matter that establishes an obscure and magical understanding between mediaeval Europe and mediaeval India. Brahman India felt living within itself the soul of Buddha as Gothic Europe, carried along by its social needs, felt living again within itself—despite the theologians, the councils, and the fathers of the Church—the loving soul, the pitiful, artist soul of Jesus.

The reawakening of the sensuality of men took on many forms. Among the Christians it had a revolutionary appearance; among the Indians it found its nutriment as well in the moral passion of Sakyamuni as in the pantheist fever of Brahma; it manifested itself against the very spirituality of Islam in the thrust of Berber mosques, in their embroidery of metal and of wood, and in the shimmer of jewels in Persian painting; it attempted a painful escape from the clasp of the fearful nightmare of the Aztecs, bringing together again the strips of flesh that were cut up before men's eyes; it appears in the patience of the Chinese, who, through the language of form, render the entities of their moral equilibrium fit for daily life. But everywhere in the Middle Ages, and whatever the aspect of the revival, the peoples were ignorant of the real object they were pursuing; everywhere their conquest of the life of the universe was accomplished under the pretext of religion, always with the support of the letter of the dogma, always against its spirit. It is this which emphasizes so powerfully, in the art of the Middle Ages, its confused liberty, its drunken and fecund plunge into the fields of sensation, its carelessness as to spoken language—provided that language expressed something, its disordered mixture of feelings springing from the contact of the soul with the world, in the naked strength of instinct. The philosophic idea, which compels all ancient art to seek harmony of form, is rendered useless here by the anchor of dogma, which, outside itself, leaves the rejuvenated and unfettered senses free to seek their realization and permits the love, that is universal at the moment, to release itself from the control of the human will. The admirable logic of the French cathedral builders of the Middle Ages is primarily applied to realizing a practical object, and if the Arab raises over the desert the abstract image of the mind, it is with roses and with women that he fills his cool Alhambras. Immortal Dionysus has reconquered the earth, mingling with his sensual fever the love of Buddha, the gentleness of Jesus, and the dignity of Mohammed; and when Prometheus, through the commune of the Occident, is reborn at his side, Prometheus is unconscious of himself: he also is flooded with mystic intoxication. The Middle Ages have recreated consciousness despite the gods that they adored.

It is always against the gods that the consciousness of mortals is created, even when these gods, as those of the Greek Olympus, express laws that are to be understood in order that they may be obeyed. An inevitable confusion has arisen in us, between the pretext for our beliefs and their real meaning. From the beginning of things we have seen art and religion following the same road, art being willing to move almost exclusively between the dikes of religious symbolism and changing its appearance as soon as one god replaces another. We have never asked ourselves why all the religions, even when they combat one another, express themselves in forms that constantly survive them and that time eventually finds to be in accord as well as a necessity. We have never asked ourselves why the finest creations of the artists do not always coincide with the moments of most intense religious exaltation, why the same religion often remains silent throughout its youth and expresses itself only when it approaches its decline. We have never asked ourselves why the French image makers imprinted their desires on the stones of the cathedrals only after the movement of revolt which assured the life of the commune against the oppression of the priest and the lord, why the signs of discouragement appeared among them precisely during the course of one century, the fifteenth, when the Catholic faith knew its moment of the most ardent fever and excitement. We have never asked ourselves why India mingled its contradictory gods in the same explosion of sensual intoxication; why Islam—which has preserved to our own day the uncompromising fanaticism of ten centuries ago—lets its mosques fall to ruin and builds no others; why the Chinese artist sometimes belongs to three or four different sects, whereas the Japanese artist almost always gives the impression of belonging to none; why the European raised altars to a God of mercy at the hour when the Aztec caused his altars to run with the blood of human victims. We have never asked ourselves whether the peoples did not give to their beliefs the form of their sensations.

We must, however, in our hours of virility, have as imperious a need of artistic creation as of food and love. This need sweeps our beliefs along in its triumphal movement, for there is creation even among those peoples whose theologians and philosophers teach the final nullity of effort; their own poets sing the vanity of our activity in terms that create life. Christianity is pessimistic, Islamism is pessimistic, pantheism is pessimistic. What matter? The Christian causes a sonorous forest of vaults, of windows, of towers to spring from the soil; the Mussulman spreads the cool shadow of his cupolas over his incurable inertia; the Indian disembowels the mountains to make them fruitful. Man wants to live, and he demands of those who sing and carve to show him the way of the true life, even when they speak to him of death. It is the people that makes its gods, whichever they may be.

To be sure, we need a faith. It is only in faith that we gather the strength necessary to resist our disillusionments and to maintain before our eyes the image of our hope. But this faith, which we decorate with new labels when a new system of metaphysics or of morality imposes itself on our needs—this faith changes only its aspect, it does not change in spirit; and as long as it lives in us, whatever the period in which our activity takes place, whichever the religion that serves it as a pretext, the forms of art, even the most diverse, will do no more than express the faith. It is simply the confidence that comes after long slumbers, and that grows weak upon a too prolonged contact with the mystery which our ardor for life urges us to penetrate. When a religion arrives at its most harmonious and expressive degree of development, this faith is not thereby awakened; on the contrary, the religion is born of the faith, it is the projection, into the field of our illusions, of the inner realities which guide and exalt us. When man is near to self-realization, he accepts, all at once and in the mass, a great simple synthesis of everything he is ignorant of, so as not to be troubled by doubt and anxiety in his search for what he wants to know. When he has learned too much, when his faith in himself weakens, his outward beliefs may last or even become exaggerated, but at the same time all the expressions of his thought vacillate. Peoples in action force any religion to bend itself to the manifestations of their original virtues. A religion models a people to its dogmas only when that people no longer believes in itself. Whatever our paradise, we realize it on earth when we have achieved self-confidence. To declare this paradise divine, we wait for centuries and search the world until the hour comes when life mounts fully in our heart, and the word "faith" is the religious name we give to energy.

Never before had this energy arisen in the world in such a violent eruption of intoxicated mysticism. It is this that causes really religious minds, from the moment they cross the threshold of the cathedral, the mosque, or the pagoda, to forget profoundly and completely the rite that is celebrated in the place; it is this that causes them to be absolutely indifferent to the dogmas on which these temples were built; hence, too, their exaltation over the arrested and dead forms of man's religion and over the dead forms in the unlimited field of his relations with his fellow-man. The word "mystic" is still to be defined. If mysticism is that form of despair which urges the human soul, in moments of lassitude, toward external gods in whose hands it abdicates all will and desire, toward gardens which open to the dead alone and offer them flowers that smell of corpses, then the first periods of Christianity were perhaps the only ones to know this mysticism, for at that time a minimum of humanity subsisted in the multitude of superstitions and religious practices. But if mysticism appears under that form of frantic and living hope that hurls itself on the rich fields of sensation and action and gathers into its flesh all the invading forces of renewal and exaltation which the approving world pours into it simultaneously, then it is the creative spirit itself, and its accord with its flesh reveals to it the necessary means. Whatever god he adores, or even if he rejects all the gods, the man who desires to create cannot express himself if he does not feel in his veins the flow of all the rivers—even those which carry along sand and putrefaction, he is not realizing his entire being if he does not see the light of all the constellations, even those which no longer shine, if the primeval fire, even when locked in beneath the crust of the earth, does not consume his nerves, if the hearts of all men, even the dead, even those still to be born, do not beat in his heart, if abstraction does not mount from his senses to his soul to raise it to the plane of the laws which cause men to act, the rivers to flow, the fire to burn, and the constellations to revolve.

And everywhere, or practically everywhere, in the Middle Ages, the creators had these hours of confused and limitless communion with the heart and mind of matter in movement. And what is admirable about these men is that none or almost none of them has left us his name. Therein lies a phenomenon, indeed, that is perhaps unique in history—the very masses of the people contributing their strength to the life whose tide flowed in them incessantly; it is a passionate abandonment by the multitudes to the blind impulse of their regenerated instincts. Antiquity—or Greek antiquity, at least—had not known this hour, because she had achieved her conquests in a progressive effort. Here the peoples recovered, at a single bound, the lost contact with the world; and as the conquests of their past still lived, though unknown to them, in the potential power that dwelt in them, the return to action took place in a prodigious tumult. These multitudes built their temples themselves; the beating of some obscure heart sealed every stone in its place. Never has there been such a spurting forth of vaults, pyramids, belfries, and towers, such a tide of statues rising from the soil like plants to invade space and capture heaven. From the Dutch Indies and from the Himalayas to the Atlantic, from the Atlas to the North Sea, from the Peruvian Andes to the Gulf of Mexico, a swift current of irresistible love passed through space to weld the worlds that were ignorant of each other. Architecture, the anonymous and collective art, the plastic hymn of the crowds in action, issued from them with so deep a murmur, in such a transport of intoxication, that it seemed the voice of the universal hope, the same among all the peoples of the earth, seeking in their substance the gods who were concealed from their eyes. When they had seen the face of these gods, the builders of the temples stopped, but with such a gesture of despair that it broke the iron armor within which the theocracies were walling in the intelligence, and decided the individual to make the conquest of himself.

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