The Expansion of the French Idea (part III)

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The sea with its ebb and flow carries the thought from one shore to the other. England, which owed so much to the Scandinavians, in its turn carried Anglo-Norman art to Norway, whereas Sweden, whither Etienne Bonneuil had come with his companions from France at the end of the thirteenth century, to build the cathedral of Upsala, received a mingling of German and French architecture by way of the Baltic. Indirectly, it is still French art that fertilizes the eastern slope of the northern peninsula, for German art came in a straight line from the masons of Champagne, of Ile-de-France, and of Picardy.

That is not to say that Germany had not attempted repeatedly, from the darkest moments of the Middle Ages onward, to create a national art for herself from the elements which she received from without, or that she evolved from within. Charlemagne had created a mixed civilization—Ancient, Byzantine, Germanic, and Christian—whose plastic expression has practically disappeared. It was the work of monks and scribes, a crude and false thing that had to die. When the Romanesque appeared it found, on the contrary, a social and political soil perfectly adapted to give to it a very powerful, clear-cut, and pure character. The Holy Roman Empire, the clergy, and the feudal lords meet there for an hour and bind those enormous stones with a moral cement so hard that it did not seem possible that mystic and warlike Germany would ever cease building the red walls that are stained by the rain and seldom animated by statues. As a matter of fact, it was late when she ceased, and she did so with bad grace. And when Bohemia desired a national architecture and sought solid materials for it near-by, it was in the nervous and sober combination of the massive German Romanesque and of the French ogival style that she found the formula for her art. The temples on the banks of the Rhine combined round and octagonal forms in the apses, in the transepts, in the four towers at the corners, and in the short curved steeples. Doubtless, they never expressed the living emotion of a people any more than did the other architectural forms of Germany; they expressed the power of the affiliated military and religious castes, who nevertheless recognized the spontaneous expression of the popular classes, faithfully and strictly disciplined. The real soul of the German crowds was never in the stone. The men of this period, who revealed the German soul to the future, were the wandering minstrels who sang the tale of the Nibelungen as, later on, it was to be heard in the voice of the master singers of the industrial cities and the hero musicians of the hours of hope or of despair—Luther, Sebastian Bach, Beethoven, and Richard Wagner. The German cathedral is forever being built up and pulled down. A few men come together; suddenly cries ring out from all their breasts and float above them; anon the sounds have found their echoing form in aerial vaults for which all the hearts are pillars. And when the men are no longer assembled, the cathedral has disappeared.

Despite the Hansa, despite the league of the Rhine towns, despite the wealth of the free cities of Germany whose rise was assisted by the struggle, in the thirteenth century, between the Pope and the Emperor, despite the strength of the Teutonic Order which covered Bavaria and the Sieben Gebirge with square towers flanked with sharp-pointed watchtowers, Germany of the Middle Ages had no original architecture. [The cathedral of Cologne, which was for so long a time considered the type and the masterpiece of Gothic architecture, is a turgid, thin, and dry amplification of the cathedral of Amiens.] The German cathedral does not resemble the living monuments of the French provinces or the marvelous goldsmith architecture of England or the mighty markets of Flanders or those accumulations of stone over shadowy depths in which we get a gleam of gold, as in the Spanish churches. It remains quite itself by the pedantic complications of its lines, the tangle of its ribbing, its stiffness, and its bristling, narrow, and metallic movement. But it is especially when it frees itself from the formula which it extracted little by little from the ogival edifices of Picardy and Burgundy that it almost invariably sacrifices its law of internal structure to the abstract and confused sentimentalism of the ornamented surfaces.

It was the wise and foolish virgins of the French portals who came to Strassburg to bring the good news to Germany. The definite balance of ensemble and the grace of the smiling statues in which, however, there is already the mark of the good-natured sentimentalism of the Teutons would not have surprised a master builder of the valley of the Seine. But the hard red façade, with its resemblance to rusty iron, already showed the tendencies of the German style through the abundance and the stiffness of the vertical lines, the long, pious parallels, the dry spindling forms of the colonnettes, and despite the magic life of the whole work which reminds one of a windowpane in winter when it is enriched by the fern shapes of the frost. Such a building was the necessary step between the mighty animation of Amiens, of Rheims, of Notre Dame de Paris, and the dogmatism of Cologne in which the letter of the theological law had reigned two centuries earlier and which for a hundred years presided over the severe development of Romanesque architecture.

When the German cities had associated themselves to regulate the movement of all the treasures of Europe, the cloths of Flanders, the wines of France, the spices of the Orient brought by ships to the mouth of the Rhine and transported along its tributaries to the center and heart of the Teutonic continent, when by reason of the foreign war between the Papacy and the Empire, the currents of activity that circulated everywhere had brought to all the cities workmen from the Rhenish provinces, French image makers, wood carvers from the Black Forest, and bronze workers that the honest and powerful Roman school of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim had been educating for two centuries, a fertile mingling of all these confused forces developed in the German soil the revelation of its desires. To be exact, the process went on for a century. the thirteenth, during which the statue makers of Naumburg, before they reverted to the complication and the honest sentimentalism of German sculpture, made a vigorous effort in the direction of the monumental style whose qualities of love, strength, and simplicity the masters of Rheims were at that moment revealing to France and to the world. But this century sufficed to define the dominating tendencies of Gothic-building in Germany before the mind of the workman in the industrial cities had seized upon it and developed in it, with meticulous ingenuity and patience, the complications which, while it all contributed to lead architecture away from its true function, prepared Germany for the Renaissance by individualizing little by little its industries and crafts.

Beside the cathedrals of our northern provinces, square to the very base of their towers, established so powerfully on their horizontal lines and deriving all the elements of their incomparable lyrism from the life about them and from the need to fulfill a definite purpose, the German cathedral is subjective and confessedly sentimental; clearly, it aims to rise as high as possible at all costs and to attain its objects by abstract means. Everywhere we find hard lines mounting straight upward and giving all the more sweep to the edifice because its pyramidal form is indicated in them from the ground to the top of the spire that is planted full in the center of the façade, on a single tower which gathers together the elements of the ensemble in order to carry it still higher by prolonging the lines of the pointed steeples which shoot up from all sides. It was of German Gothic that those writers were thinking when they defined the Catholic architecture of the Middle Ages as an impetuous aspiration toward heaven. It is above all a moral aspiration, and it never attained so perfect an expression in balance of structure as to make it comparable with that which gives to the towers of Rheims their aerial lightness, to the old spire of Chartres its pure and infinite movement, and to the towers of Notre Dame or Amiens the tremendous power to lift the pavement of the cities to the very bosom of space where, every day of spring and summer and autumn, it is caressed by the gold of the last moments of the sunlight. It is a noble effort, none the less, a mighty and mystic elevation of human sentiment toward the poignant love for that unknown thing which the sense of life is, and which the great music will stir up, in the depths of our hearts, five centuries later. In the north of Germany, over which war passes less frequently, where the bare plains that descend to the seashore contrast with the overhanging rocks, the trailing mists of the Rhine, and the forests of black pines of the mountainous regions of Bavaria and Austria, where the most powerful Hanseatic cities of the Empire, Lubeck, Bremen, and Hamburg claimed the commerce of all northern Europe, from the counters of London and Bruges to the fairs of Nijni-Novgorod, the pyramidal thrust of the churches was far less wild. Representing wholesale commerce and maritime life, the solid Rathauses were set up with walls as high as cliffs, lightened by circular openings between pointed turrets, to withstand the salt spray which forms a green coating on the copper steeples that rise above the red roofs. The blue-and-black coating of the bricks gave them an oily varnish, and the fishermen with their boots of seal hide, returning from the ice flows, found again their slaty sky, their greasy waters, and the dull luster of the tar on their boats. Here the soil and the water took architecture back to themselves, and the ogive restored its original significance by adapting it to its function.

More profoundly rooted than the great Catholic idea, as a result of which Europe was to be covered with temples that should be of the same type everywhere, the local use of the edifice, at least in the countries of very marked character, weighed down the idea until it touched the earth at every point. The Dutch, a practical, moderately idealistic, and spontaneously balanced people, preserved the essential principles of their first monuments until the period when, in Germany and in France, the growing complication of ogival architecture marked the end of mediaeval society. The independence of Holland and the Reformation are announced by the bare naves, the massiveness and the roundness of the pillars which support them, and the sturdy gathered strength that is a quality of their mind, the mind of serious business men, of engineers, and of the solid soldiers that the Dutch make upon occasion. We see their quality everywhere—in the thick, low dikes that hurl back the sea, in the slow, full-bellied boats that come up to the heart of the pasture lands, as well as in the buildings of to-day which continue to embody the unshakable good sense of the Dutch amid the architectural anarchy of Europe. Flanders is nearer the soil on which the cathedrals rose. There, from the end of the twelfth century onward, the cities of workmen where the trade in hides and woolens centered, where cloths were woven and dyed—Bruges and Ypres especially—built formidable markets whose vertical walls, pierced by two regular rows of windows, have the sureness that comes of necessity. They unhesitatingly express a categorical ideal, thanks to a century of friendship" [Michelet, Histoire de France]. Here the admirable heroism of popular need triumphs over all narrow interests and belies the systems that endeavor to bring it back to an abstract, universal, and dogmatic form. Ogival art was so little the language of Christianity when the latter is stripped of everything which binds it to a given locality and to matter, that if its social expression in France assumed an externally religious form, the principle which it carried with it engendered commercial buildings in Flanders, as, in the Italian city, it brought forth sober fortresses and proud municipal palaces. The Flemings built these also, to be sure, but it was to defend their warehouses and their looms. Their finest monuments were born of their mercantile spirit, as the finest Italian monuments were born of the passionate individualism which characterizes Italy, and as the finest French monuments sprang from the social idealism which has been the life of France and which passes, through Rabelais and Diderot, from the Gothic cathedral to the Revolution.

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