The Expansion of the French Idea (part IV)

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Perhaps in all Europe during the Middle Ages of Christianity, mystic Spain was the only country that was unable to attain the summarized architectural expression of the desire of its multitudes. Two centuries of incessant warfare between the natives and the Moors, a violent confusion of races and languages, a soil cut up by ravines, by mountains, and by inaccessible plateaus which stony deserts isolated one from another, were enough to prevent a collective soul from defining itself there. Spain underwent the influence of Roman architecture, Arab architecture, Romanesque architecture, and French architecture, one after the other, until the hour of political unity revealed her to herself, but too late for her to escape the influences of nascent European individualism, which at least encouraged her to release the brutal and subtle energy that she possessed even though she did not recognize it. For four hundred years the little Christian monarchies of her northern provinces had to send for the architects and sculptors of France, of Burgundy, of Germany, and the Netherlands to build and decorate the alcazars and the churches. The sculptors of the school of Toulouse invaded Castile, Galicia, Navarra, and Catalonia whither, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the image makers and the architects of the valley of the Seine repaired in their turn. In the sixteenth century, in the full tide of the Renaissance, when Italy was already pressing upon her through her Mediterranean provinces, Spain was still calling in French and Burgundian masters.

From the time when the Cistercians and the Clunisians introduced Romanesque sculpture into Spain, the art, upon contact with this people that loves picturesque projections and brutal contrasts of light and shade, assumed a character of exuberance and of decorative profusion in which architectural line was lost. It was in vain that the hell which caused the capitals and tympanums to bristle with monstrous beasts retreated before the invasion of the saints and the Virgin which the French image makers brought with them when the building guilds in France were too rich in workmen to employ them for the construction and decoration of the churches. The native pupils of the visiting artisans were men of a different type: half-warriors, half-peasants, whom the fire of the sky had rendered as hard as their flints, and who chopped away the trees so as to have no shade in which to cool their blood; such men could not accommodate the mystic fever that consumed them to the profiles of the churches whose sculptured stone lent animation to the work without in any way impairing its power, even as an undulation passes over the mass of leaves at the edge of a forest. At the same time the memory of the Moorish leather workers, armorers, and goldsmiths pursued them at their labors. They chiseled stone as though it were a metal that one can cast, twist, and emboss from within. When Gil de Siloe, the fifteenth-century master, received the manifold heritage from the French statue makers, from the Spaniards whom they had educated, and from the Berber decorators who sawed the lacework of the paneling and the railings of the mosques out of wood—the tombs and the altar screens, enormous jewels of the lapidary which came from his hands, seemed to be incrusted with gems and to bristle with stalactites; they were fluted and warty like an embossed copper.

When Spain had only Granada to recapture from the Moors, when the dust and the rocks of the peninsula had been reunited under the Catholic scepter, there was really an hour when, if moral fellowship was not attained in order to reach great architecture at a single bound, there was, at least, a fever that infected the whole land in common; something funereal, cruel, and frenzied fired all the somber hearts and spurted forth from them like jets of blood thickened with black clots, like furious torrents of gold and stones. What need there was for order and harmony! The naves built by the French and the mosques built by the Mussulmans were torn open so that in the middle of them, between gratings of gold, a choir filled with golden ornaments might be installed, a mountain of gold that gleams in the shadows. Without the lamps it would have been impossible to see the clothed idols, the crucified corpses with the bleeding knees, or the crust of gold which covered the tangled ribbing of the vaults, or the night that swallows up everything. The golden orgy of the Flemish altar screens encumbers the whole nave, enormous golden staircases descend into the churches which are crushed by heavy lacework of stone. Here is a forest of heavily built belfries, here are thick traceries of closely worked embroidery in which the flame of the Gothic twists like an arabesque and under which the Arab arch breaks the ogival arch and causes it to become round and undulating. Here is an ocean of enervated sculptures wherein the most mystic of peoples offers the fearful testimony of its submission to the purposes of the most mystic of centuries. We are made to think of the crackling of the fires that burn victims at the stake, of their charred bodies, and of the frightful immolation of the human being to the savage powers that he can neither control nor understand and obey.

Between the sublime instinct of the crowds who accepted all the symbols so as to permit their creative force to reach its goal without weakening, and the newborn reason of the individuals who discussed all the symbols in order that they might try to penetrate the mystery of nature, there was a separation that tore men's flesh, and it was here that the expression of this tragic period reached its apogee of confusion and disorder. Spain must have felt that she was born to the collective life too late and that she was no longer in time to be the first to expound the shaken idea of Catholicism; and it was perhaps because of remorse over the fact that she had not lived it through until after the others had done so, that she remained attached to it the most fiercely of all, and that she was the last. In her fever, she heaped up all the stones wrought by the sculptors who, for five hundred years, had been living on her lean flanks, the Visigoths, the French, the Flemings, the Germans, the Moors, the Jews, and the Iberians, and it was with furor that she affirmed her irreducible fanaticism at the hour when the workmen of the north, in the countries torn by war, were confessing their despair.

However, nothing was lost. Man, goaded by doubt, was commencing once more his climb toward the inaccessible summit. While the last masons were setting the last and the highest spires over the last and the highest naves, there sallied forth from a port of that same Spain three caravels that were to plunge into the west. In barely a hundred and fifty years, at a time when there were no other roads than the rivers, when the cities were surrounded by walls, when several months of dangerous navigation were needed to go from the coasts of France to the coasts of the Levant, the thing which had enabled the men of the Middle Ages to establish over the whole of Europe one of the densest and yet one of the most coherent and deeply rooted civilizations in history—their obscure solidarity —was now suddenly expanding as if the life of a too-powerful body had burst its armor, as if its blood, its glance, and its thought were spreading on all sides through the rifts in the metal. The Portuguese architects were already asking the great mariners, who were colonizing Africa and India, to tell them how the Indians decorated their temples, and to bring back to them from their voyages the things that they would group in the last flowerings of Moorish art and of ogival art: keels, anchors, cables, the fauna and flora of the seas, octopuses, madripores, corals, and shells. . . The conquest of the sea and the sky was to cause the spirit to leap when once it was stripped of its ancient beliefs, and bring it to the threshold of new intuitions where new beliefs elaborate themselves little by little.

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