Page images
PDF
EPUB

" The day in his hotness,

The strise with the palm,
The night in her silence,
The stars in their calm." !

The celestial sisterhood are heard and seen no more; their voices are hushed, but the goat-footed Pan, who is not dead but very much alive, is still piping with great vigor, and the songs that we hear are the songs of the sirens and the satyrs, who continue to load the air with bacchanalian minstrelsy and erotic madrigals.

The decadence of Art, that is, of the arts in space, or arts of design, to which we shall now confine ourselves, is confessed on all sides with much speculation and eloquent discourse as to the cause or causes of it. Indeed, the investigation of the influences and circumstances which brought the arts to perfection in ancient and mediæval times, and of those adverse influences “rigged with curses dark" which wrought their downfall in both periods, especially those which blighted Italian painting and sculpture, constitute no small part of the volume of art literature. One of the essays cited above, Professor Palgrave's, deals with the whole subject, but only in a cursory way, and several of his generalizations are open to criticism. The other, the last annual lecture of the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederick Leighton, confines itself to Italian painting, and his rationale of the subject embraces questions which he does not answer, though he asks them, but doubtless which he will answer, or attempt to answer, on a future occasion. In many respects we think he shoots wide of the mark. Meantime we proceed to offer an answer to the main question on these pages because, to the best of our knowledge, no satisfactory elucidation of it is to be found in English art literature, which, for the most part, is vitiated by anti-Catholic prejudice.

We may say at the outset that the authorities all agree that religion has had a great deal to do with the development of the fine arts—a mere truism, by the way—but none of them, as far as we know, give it the paramount place in the catagory of æsthetic motives, nor dwell in any detail on the purposes which called its creative energies into play, now in one field, now in another, in the wide domain of art. Some tell us that a happy conjunction of circumstances, together with qualities of race, accounts for those marvels of architecture, sculpture and painting which signalized the age of Pericles, and Phidias, and their immediate successors, and made Athens and Olympia the most beautiful cities in the world. Similar reasons are given for a still more wonderful phenomenon-an ampler revelation of the beautiful-Italian painting and Gothic architecture of the prime. These explanations are insufficient and quite superficial. The conditions necessary to the production of great works of art are many. First of all comes the artist himself, of whom we must not only postulate genius, but genius quickened by fervid feeling and exalted by sublime ideals. Of necessity he breathes the spirit of the age, which is the bequest of all the past to the present, and which is as inevitable in its workings as the law of gravitation. If great ideas are in the air, he inhales them and reproduces them, with the element of his own personality added. If that spirit be inimical to high art, that is, to religious and ethic creations, as it undoubtedly is in these days, the light within him burns low and his magistral hand is crippled. Then genius is the gift of nature to the individual, not to the generation or the race, although at certain rare epochs it is lavishly bestowed on groups of contemporaries, while at other times it is not vouchsafed at all. The tide of poetic inspiration ebbs and flows. Other conditions may be mentioned. The traditions of the schools handed down from one master to another, until the professional secrets thus communicated became the property of the whole profession; the severe technical training which the old apprenticeship system enforced and which compelled the apprentice to travel from city to city to perfect himself in his art. To these must be added the peace and prosperity of the land, and the patronage of princes, nobles and ecclesiastics of all ranks, of which the modern equivalent is the indiscriminate but profuse patronage of the public under the law of supply and demand. Most of the treasures of the museums have been taken from churches and monasteries, and these works have lost much of their meaning and power by their removal. Torn from the buildings to which they belonged, and from associations which hallowed their charms, and having no relation with their present surroundings but a numerical one, they suggest, in the vulgar light in which they are now seen, nothing so much as Samson making sport for the Philistines.

' Matthew Arnold. --Apollo Musagetes.

We are told that Evolution, including the “Reformation," is the great irresistible cause of the decadence of the fine arts, which movement of decadence has been going on ever since the Parthenon was rebuilt and the Acropolis and Athens restored, after the Persian wars, with the exception of a season of reaction or revival towards the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern history. The Greeks were the chosen race to endow the human family with beauty in art, and the Italians, who were partly of their blood and taught by them, took up the mission at a later day, but carried the torch only for a space before it died out in their hands. The Greeks, directly or indirectly, were all in all! Christian art was but the after-glow of a sunken sun, and the “Reformation' simply imparted velocity to the downward movement which had begun two thousand years before. We venture to say, contrary to all this, that art was flourishing and advancing when struck with blight by the “ Reformation,” and that the sole cause of its progressive decline and degradation since is not evolution or dearth of genius or want of technical skill, but PROTESTANTISM.

If all monumental art in Egypt, Greece, Babylon, Nineveh, Phænicia and the regions sacred to Mohammed, Buddha, Brahma, and Confucius in the east, and to the deities of the Toltecs, Aztecs and Peruvians in the west, was an expression of the supernatural or heroic, all Christian art, with exceptions too slight to notice, down to the “RENAISSANCE," was purely religious. Christian painting and sculpture began in the Catacombs, and this fact is one of great significance. Although it is not questioned, we may as well cite De Rossi, the first of Roman archæologists, as the latest authority for it, with whose name we will couple that of Rio, author of the celebrated work, “ De La Poésie Chrétienne.” When God, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, appeared among men, the commandment forbidding the making of images and human likenesses for religious purposes ceased to have the prohibitive character it possessed under the Old Law. In fact, it was practically repealed, like much else in the Jewish system. Symbolic and emblematic representations of the mysteries and miracles of the New Faith began to appear round her altars, and especially on the walls and ceilings of the cubicula in the Catacombs as soon as the persecuted Christians began to bury their martyrs, hold their prayer meetings and celebrate the eucharistic and other sacramental rites in those subterranean cemeteries and chapels. Nor were the wall-paintings limited to the representation of symbols and signs. The Saviour appears in various guise, sometimes as a shepherd wearing a Phrygian cap and carrying a lamb on his shoulders, sometimes as Orpheus, playing on the lyre and taming savage beasts, sometimes with a rod in his hand restoring Lazarus to life or performing some other miracle. The Blessed Virgin with the Infant Saviour, and Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Saints and Angels are depicted without disguise. The parallelism of the Old and New Testaments—the figure and the thing which it prefigured—the type and ante-type are also delineated. In fact, every path which sacred art pursued in after ages was opened up in the Catacombs, and all the great themes, with the exception of one or two, were treated there long before the first ecclesiastical basilica was decorated with mosaic paintings. The principal exception was the Crucifixion, which was too solemn or awful a subject for the early Christians. The veil of centuries had to be thrown over

that stupendous event before it could be approached from the side of art.

The sculptures found in the Catacombs and other cemeteries, and in the burial vaults in the precincts of St. Paul's and St. Peter's, correspond in subject and treatment to the frescos.

The sarcophagi, of which a considerable number have been disinterred, are covered with reliefs, representing, for the most part, scenes and personages in sacred history. The statuary of the Catacombs, of which but little has been recovered, is of the same character. The statues of the Good Shepherd and of St. Hyppolytus in the Lateran museum may be mentioned as the best specimens. These precious sepulchral monuments and remains, as well as the sepulchral inscriptions on the marble fragments of the tombs, and a thousand objects of Christian archæology, such as terra cotta lamps, glass chalices, etc., are housed in the Lateran and Kircher museums and in the crypt of St. Peter's, where they give ocular proof that the primitive Christians had no antipathy even to “graven images,” and that hieratic writing on stone and hieratic art on stone were each the complement of the other.

Thus the relation between Christianity and Art dates from the earliest days of the former. When our HOLY RELIGION emerged from her hidden sanctuaries into the light of day in the time of Constantine, her handmaid, Art, accompanied her and shared her prosperity and proclaimed her triumph in many a noble monument. New altars rose on the crests of the Seven Hills, and on the spots sanctified by the blood of the martyrs. The form of the pagan temple was not suitable for the new system of worship; that of the basilica was, for it afforded accommodation to the public. The temple was constructed for the convenience of the priests, augurs and magistrates; the Church, which opened wide its portals and invited the laity to assist at the sacred ceremonies and participate in the sacrament of the altar, required the broader plan of the hall of justice and market-house. The new basilicas were majestic structures of large dimensions. Their inner walls and arches soon began to glow with pictorial compositions in glass mosaics of the same purport as the catacomb paintings and sculptures. Mosaic painting is the most enduring form of pictorial art, and lasts as long as the walls on which it glistens. Soon the vast interiors exhibited a panorama of sacred history-a luminous unfolding of the successive scenes, events and characters of the wondrous drama of the doom and destiny of the human race from creation down. Without this epic splendor, this radiant symbolism, this imperial robe of many shining colors, the Church were an unfinished and unfurnished house—the Spouse of Christ were without her wedding garment. The craft of the mosaicist was no new one, but the new religion infused new life into it and elevated it in a literal as well as a moral sense. It was lifted from the floor to wall and arch. Hitherto it had been employed almost exclusively as a decorative pavement for the Roman villas, palaces and baths; but now, cubes of dyed glass of every shade and tint were substituted for the dull tessera in which the floor designs were executed; and walls and entablature, apse, arch and domethe whole rotunda of the baptistery, the vast rectangular area of the basilica, were clothed with spacious compositions of grand design, in the new brilliant material.

It soon became apparent that the form of the basilica as a sacred edifice demanded modification. Transepts must be added to realize the figure of the cross and make that type the fundamental one in all church architecture-an idea that has been fully realized. The altar was a new feature, and the most important of all.

It was the centre of the system, the heart of the organism, as it were, of which the lofty roof was but the canopy. The church was the House of God in no metaphorical or hyperbolic sense. He dwelt there visibly, though in mystery as in the darkness of excessive light. The altar was His throne and special place of abode.

His oracles, in which there was no ambiguity, were delivered from the ambones that rose, the one on the right side, the other on the left. The winged emblems of the four evangelists looked down on the readers of the gospels and epistles,-Oh! you whom He has called and chosen, to whom He has promised everlasting life in the mansions of His Father, whom He feeds from that altar with the "bread of life" which is Himself, build Him a tabernacle like that which Peter proposed to build on Mount Tabor. Array and adorn it, clothe it and crown it with all the magnificence, splendor and beauty your genius, your skill and your earthly riches can compass. From of old you know the appropriate elements to use. Let precious stones and gold and silver and ivory be employed. Let the colors be purple, scarlet, blue and orange.

Let chalice. pyx and paten, lamp and candelabrum, crozier and mitre be studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and further enriched with figured representations of divine persons and things. Let the sacrifical robes of the priest be of purple and fine linen and gold embroided tissues from the Orient and flowered silks from the looms of Greece and Sicily and far Cathay. Let stole and cope and chasuble be also sown with gems, and shimmer and shine as he moves in front of that tabernacle celebrating the august mystery of the Mass. Let the TE DEUM and MAGNIFICAT, in Ambrosian chant, accompanied by “flute and soft recorder," rise through the thick mist of incense to the echoing rafters, filling every soul with gladness. And to crown all, let the majestic

« PreviousContinue »