The Franco-Flemish Cycle

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THE true spirit of the Renaissance was introduced into the west and the north of Europe only by means of the wars of Italy. In France and in Flanders, the fifteenth century is Gothic; the individualizing of the forms of thought takes place unknown to the artists there. Architects, painters, sculptors, and workers in stained glass all retain the mediaeval soul, dissociated and fragmentary, but perhaps intensified as well. It even seems that when we take the fifteenth century in a mass, in its ensemble, it corresponds better to the general and superficial idea of the Gothic which we make for ourselves than the centuries which preceded it. The communal spirit is conquered. The reign of the theologian begins again, but it is a theologian imprisoned by the letter of the law, and one in whom the flame is extinguished. The people, crushed again under feudal power, and no longer having any hope, turn in the direction of artificial paradises. The magnificent equilibrium of the great cathedrals is entirely destroyed. The flame rises, crackling, twisting, and licking the vaults; it covers the bare skeleton which had defined for the minds of men the real meaning of the edifice, which inclines toward openwork in the stone and toward slightness, exhausting itself in vain leaps, becomes breathless, and involves itself in the complications of fine detail and of technical tricks. The sickly mysticism of unhappy men, fatigued by the efforts of their will and in despair because of their feeling that life was escaping from them, invaded all the forms of thought and of action. Man no longer believes in his strength; the miracle is everywhere: it explains everything, it answers everything, nothing is expected any longer save by grace of the miracle. The only miracle of that century, Joan of Arc, who represents the common sense of the people struggling against the stupidity of the clergy, the spirit of justice rebelling against the spirit of quibbling, the awakening of pure faith after its disfigurement by bigotry, is first regarded as a providential event through which man is saved the trouble of acting.

The abjectness of the people, before the coming of its great daughter, was only too easy to explain. Never had northern France known times so hard. At the end of the sixteenth century its population was reduced by two thirds. The peasant, having taken refuge in the woods or the quarry, abandoned the fields and the roads to the armed bands. Guides, brigands, and soldiers devastated the countryside and held the towns for ransom under the banner of France, of England, of Burgundy, or of Armagnac. Cold and hunger killed more people than war did. Emptied by the plague, by famine, pillage, and taxes, the ruined cities were nothing more than camps, where all industry, all traffic, and all social life were arrested. The wolves wandered about Paris in broad daylight. The people ate what they could—nameless refuse, garbage, and even human flesh, dead or alive.

And so the moment was one of silence. The Ile de France, in the space of a hundred years, saw the erection of only one edifice, the Bastille, and that was a fortress. Even the enervated cathedrals grew only in those regions where, in place of hope, there were to be found vegetables, meat, bread, and money—in Rouen and in Normandy, which were held by the English. The French, properly so called, now carved no more than tombs, and the inspiration which Gothic painting seemed to have taken for a moment under the Valois—the first known portrait in France is that of Jean le Bon by Girard d'Orléans—the inspiration of Gothic painting, a descendant of the stained-glass window, was killed. Wandering artists, it is true, followed the wandering monarchy; Jean Foucquet, the painter of Charles the Seventh, founded the School of the Loire and kept alive, in the face of English oppression and of Burgundian and Flemish wealth, the soul of the image makers of the Ile de France and of the tellers of the ancient tales and verse. But almost all of them went where they found action and a little security. The Gothic workmen turn in a semicircle which connects the low countries with the valley of the Rhone by way of Burgundy, that connects the Flemish cities with the people caught at Avignon by way of the ducal court of Dijon; they flee the occupied zone even as the statues and the paintings escape from the forgotten or perverted social architecture.

Flanders, which for four centuries had been such a focus of life, could not help being a focus of art at the same time. From the eleventh century onward, one hears of Bruges, of Ghent, and of Ypres, a great workshop of the dye industry and of weaving. A people of poor workmen, who were, however, grouped into strong guilds, fermented there and rose in a mass at the call of the bells in the steeples when there was need of defending, against the King of France, their municipal liberties, and even before these, the privileges and wealth of the merchants. What matter? The tide was rising. Bruges and Ghent, in the fourteenth century, were able to check Philip the Fair. And the deed was accomplished with a tumult which revealed depths of life capable of overflowing and of engendering an irresistible moral activity when the hour at which it would be needed should come. And in this place also, art was born of the will to affirm a new force, looking toward men and away from death.

And indeed, here as everywhere else, the freeing of individual energies was to translate itself especially through the development of that plastic expression which best corresponded with them—painting. Flemish architecture of the new century, still ogival in technique and in appearance, is a manifestation of the middle classes—of the weavers and the brewers. It is very rich, but when analyzed it is feeble. There are too many statues on the complicated façades—statues of aldermen, of merchants, and of soldiers, a perfect orgy of official effigies stretching out everywhere in line above line, and nowhere opening the leaded panes of the windows to announce the Renaissance. The upright parallel lines enriched with gold from top to bottom and the openwork of the belfries through which the bells sent down their peal form a chiseled shrine which has an appearance of pettiness because it is set in too narrow a space, because of the lines which stretch out and ascend but which are broken at every moment, and because the glitter of the glass and the metals is interrupted and reflected a thousand times. Every time that architecture gains in height and loses in breadth, when the empty spaces are increased and the full portions are slighted, when, in order to obtain effects, it forgets what bound it to the soil, when it forgets its function and its origin, it is on the point of surrendering the role that art possesses among us and of effacing itself in favor of other forms of activity. As it has to abandon the search for a plastic expression of a lofty and collective character, something between the mediaeval palace of Siena or of Perugia and the individual plastic expression through which Michael Angelo announces a new intellectual order, it has to abandon the hope of discovering in Flanders, between the markets of Ypres arid the work of Rubens, a monument in which all the elements of the century shall march on with the exaltation that comes of strength and of harmony. But in Flanders, in the fifteenth century, the social symphony is not completely broken up, and if the movement of dissociation which is to reveal its painters to it is accentuated little by little, the new man will not assert himself until a hundred years after the time when he had appeared in Italy.

Moreover, the Flemish city is submissive. An ally of English commerce, it cannot reject the union, at first purely nominal, with the richest of the French provinces (which itself draws support from England), and yet refuse to associate itself with the ruin of the French monarchy whose many assaults it had to withstand in the hundred years preceding. Burgundy is, like the Flemish city, a very ancient center of activity. Before the appearance of the ogive, it was the chief focus of the Romanesque school of the North. French architecture in Burgundy took on a character of abundance, of luxury, and of materialism far removed from the ideal of Champagne, of Paris, or of Picardy, and when the sculpture of the tombs was developed there, as in France, it was with quite a different accent. These are no longer the pure, fine, grave effigies which stretch out in the almost impenetrable shadow of the dark vaults of the churches; they are made for chapels whose light is warm with the rays of stained glass and candles; the blue giants lie on their black marble and are wept over by angels, the monks are well dressed, well fed, and have comfortable incomes; and sometimes, as in the tomb of Philippe Pot, there is a funereal sumptuousness in the strength of the fallen warrior, in the drapery of the black mourners whose faces are hidden, and in the depths of the reds and the golds that glow warmly in the darkness. When the dukes of Burgundy arrive at Dijon, the movement of economic and intellectual exchange between the Flemish provinces and the Burgundian provinces has become more active because of the profound affinities existing between the temperaments of the two peoples. There is the same luxuriance of life—denser perhaps in Flanders, where the atmosphere is heavy with water, where industrial life is concentrated in the cities and revolves about the trades. The people wrap themselves in its wool and in cloth; its drink is a heavy beer. Life is more eloquent and ostentatious in Burgundy, where the closely woven carpet of the grape vines extends from Beaune to Dijon over the dark gold of the hillside, where the breast drinks in more of the air and sunlight in the vineyards, where the red wine inflames the faces and floods the blood with warmth. The popular festivals of the Flemings, the great heavy festivals where there is so much eating and drinking, show the nature of the pleasures peculiar to the people. At the court of Dijon, the men and women, dressed in velvet, in brocade, and cloth of gold, on the brutal feast-days, express their taste in their heaps of food, their display of coarse love making, their picnics, drinking bouts, jousts, tournaments, and cavalcades over roads strewn with flowers, their fountains pouring forth mead and beer, and the setting they give themselves: cloths worked with escutcheons, velvet cloaks, silken standards, and brilliant tapestries.

As a matter of fact, with the merchant-drapers and their dyed cloths, artists soon arrived from the Low Countries at the court of Dijon. There came Melchior Broederlam, a painter of gilded altar pieces, candid, but already drunk with color, like every good Fleming from Flanders. There came Claux Sluter, a good theologian and a great sculptor, whose vigorous influence was to make itself all France and Germany, because he wrenched form from the wall of the cathedral and from the slab of the tomb and because he pushed onward in a movement of such rude and broad eloquence that Donatello and Michael Angelo themselves are shaken by it later. He was, however, the only man of the North, at that moment, who was worthy of the victory, through his strength as an individual and through the decision with which he characterized, by an expressive figure, some essential and simple moral idea. The others took from the tapestry weavers, from the goldsmiths, and from the innumerable miniaturists who frequented the court of the Duke, more than they gave to them. The Valois confirmed the tradition of their family. Like Philip the Bold himself, his brothers surrounded themselves with artists. Jean Bandol came from Bruges at the call of Charles the Fifth. The Book of Hours of the Due de Berry, a great collector of illuminations, had been covered with admirable little pictures by Pol de Limbourg, the first among the Flemings to feel his fraternity with the soil that we dig, with the air that penetrates us, and with the animals that work for us; the first to seize the poetry that is forever in all our gestures and in all objects, and of the murmur of summer, and of the silence of the snow—the first to foresee that Breughel was to come.

In the northwest of Europe, where the walls of the cathedrals, invaded by the great windows, did not, as in Italy, permit the development of the fresco, painting came forth from the very heart of the great Gothic body through the illuminated manuscript. Since the sixth century in Ireland, the seventh in England, the eighth and ninth in France, from the Loire to the Rhine, where antique and Byzantine influences had entered with Roman architecture, sacred books, missals, psalters, and Gospels had begun, very timidly and discreetly at first, to be covered with figures in flat tints, awkward, stiff, rendered anaemic by monastic rules whose rigor was even to be accentuated by the Benedictines of the tenth century. When the school of Paris arrived, at the hour when all the territory watered by the Seine was being covered with ogives and with towers, the flood of light that invaded the nave of the cathedrals illuminated the sacred texts.

Then an immense song of joy bursts forth. The monks are no more able to retain the monopoly of painting than that of the sculptured image or of the art of building. The laymen seize upon books which, even when they are sacred works, live wholly because of their images. Formerly, the images had hardly dared to decorate the capital letters, to call attention to the text for purposes of meditation. Now they take possession of entire pages and every day they drive back the margin which they will end by suppressing. The old background of uniform gold does not always disappear—the blues, the blacks, the reds, and the greens sing against it with so much force!—but the illuminator reserves the right to make use of it according to his will. It lights up with his cheerfulness. Patient because he is happy, he sometimes spends his whole lifetime in making the indestructible parchment flower with his idle gossip. When one opens those heavy volumes which from the outside seem so tiresome, there is an eruption of hymns to the light and of sudden apparitions of gardens and skies. One must look very closely to discover the gentle Christian mythology hidden under the downpour of rays of light, like a pale flower in the fire of summer. Everything is a pretext for putting fire into the dull pages, the sea, the woods, blood, wine, the plumes in the wings of angels, the robes of male saints, the eyes of female saints, their hair, their aureoles, the open gates of heaven. In the fourteenth century, after Flanders has grafted upon the malicious and frank observation of the French illuminators, her love for real landscape and for the real human face, both scrutinized in their smallest and their heaviest details, we have nearly reached the synthesis from which the painting of the northwest of Europe will come forth. The illumination has invaded the page, and it stifles there; it lacks air, although into its too-limited space a great draught of air has entered, although the landscape has distance and the planes separate from the rich chaos of the colors, although men's relationship with the deep universe is already more than suspected. It is a picture, and if it is to last, it is all the more necessary that it escape from the book, because the printing press is coming to transform the book, to dethrone it from its rank as an almost inaccessible idol, and to enthrone it in the popular realm of endless diffusion and circulation.

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