Art – The First Millennium Of The Christian Era

THE religion of Christ, which had been furtively practised for three centuries, and its devotees, principally members of the humbler classes, persecuted, had gathered strength, and its doctrines had invaded the palaces of the patricians; by the time of Constantine its status was such that he could first proclaim it to be on an equal footing with the other faiths of the Empire and subsequently make it the state religion. The Christian congregations, when they were free to venture forth from the catacombs and other secret places of their worship, were first allowed to use the basilicas, or law courts, many of them fallen into disuse in Italy through the removal of the seat of government to Byzantium. From the simple germ of the basilican plan were gradually evolved the rich and splendid plans of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

In his new capital of Constantinople, to which Constantine had summoned the artists of the Empire to make the re-christened city of Byzantium worthy of the glory of the Roman name, there developed, out of the conditions of its site on the Golden Horn, equally in touch with Greece and the arts of the farther East, a new and luxuriant style known as the Byzantine, combining many evidences of the influence of Greek art in its carved details, a superb use of color due to Asian sources of inspiration, and the traditions of Rome in arch and vault and the use of rich marbles. The new style spread through the channels of trade and of national intercourse; it reacted upon the city of Rome itself and produced many of the Christian basilicas—the first churches built by the Christians on the general plan of the secular basilicas. We have here to record the regrettable fact that the early Christians through ignorance and misguided religious zeal are responsible both in Greece and Italy for the destruction of many of the beautiful monuments of antiquity, stealing the marble columns, using the walls as quarries or defacing them to dig out the metal clamps, and burning the most exquisite marble sculptures for the lime. It is but fair to say that vandalism of this sort was rife for centuries—indeed until quite recent years.

Not long after the new seat of empire had been established, there occurred one of those strange episodes in the history of mankind that have grave and far-reaching issues—the movement of the Barbarians. We have already noted their earlier descents upon the civilized lands to the south of them. But those we have now to record were far more serious and their sequels in the ethnical, political, and artistic worlds, important. The Visigoths and the Ostrogoths—the Western and the Eastern Goths—whose very name had become a terror to the southlands and who had been held beyond the Danube, sued for permission to cross the river and place it between them and a horde more terrible than they had ever been—the Huns, who were sweeping westward in an irresistible wave. Once across, they began their usual course of plunder and rapine; and the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome in 410 A. D. for six days and nights. Not long afterward the Vandals, more dreaded than the Goths, passing through Spain and North Africa, plundering, burning, massacring as they went, invaded Sicily from the vantage ground of Tunis, reached Rome under Genseric and sacked it in their turn. Then came Attila with his Huns, who made it his boast that the grass never grew again where once his horse’s hoof had trod. He was decisively defeated in 451 and with his defeat was determined the question whether Europe was to be heathen or Christian. The survivors of these waves of invasion, those neither killed nor enslaved, either retired to their native steppes and forests in Russia and Germany or were absorbed into the populations of the lands they had ravaged and pillaged.

The fabric of the Roman Empire was shaken by the fury of these onslaughts and in 476 the Empire of the West ceased to be and Italy became a province of the Empire of the East. The complete removal of secular authority from Rome was a strongly contributing cause of the growth of power of the Bishops of the Church of Rome, soon to become a new world force as the Papacy.

The desolation, devastation, and misery wrought by the Barbarians, added to the horrors of successive epidemics that dealt death to vast numbers of persons, had a frightful effect upon all the arts. There was no longer any education nor means of obtaining it, and ignorance the most appalling descended like a sable cloud upon the masses of the people. What vestiges of learning there were took refuge with men of letters in the monasteries that began to spring up in Europe. As if Hun, Vandal, and pestilence were not enough,. Leo, the Isaurian, the Emperor at Byzantium, embraced the Heresy of the Iconoclasts so-called, and persecuted with fury all those engaged in the pursuits of art or learning.

The common people in Italy, in the provinces of Gaul, and elsewhere forgot their old traditions, lost the memory of their past completely, and at last believed the work of their own ancestors to be that of magicians and potent sorcerers. Only in Constantinople, whose name reverted to the original Byzantium, did there burn some of the authentic fire of the arts. However, these five frightful centuries between the fifth and the tenth were necessary for worn and decadent Italy in which to absorb the infusion of strong, fresh North-ern blood she had received, assimilate the new elements, and gather strength for future tasks.

In the meantime, while the Christianized world of the West was sunk in a deathlike stupor, an Arabian camel-driver and trader named Mohammed, down in Mecca in the Arabian desert, invented for himself a new religion and declared himself the Prophet of it. It was based in some particulars upon the same ideas as the Jewish belief, was suited to the simple desert peoples, and its tenets were stated with precision; it professed one God; it provided four wives for every man who could provide for them—a popular provision; and the point that is of special interest to the student of art is that it adopted literally and applied rigorously the Mosaic commandment as to graven images and banished the representation of any living thing, man, beast, bird, fish, or vegetable from Mohammedan art. To this prohibition is due its distinctive character, which depends for all the decorative elements of design upon the most ingenious and intricate arrangements and interlacements of lines and bands deco-rated with vivid and beautiful color.

In five and twenty years the new faith had been spread by the Moslem sword along the North African littoral, overwhelmed Persia, extended nearly to the Indus and up to the Oxus and the Caspian Sea. In another hundred years all of North Africa including Egypt, all of Spain, the East beyond the Indus, and most of Turkestan were under Moslem rule. Then its advance slackened until the Turks, new converts to the faith of Islam, poured down out of the mountains of Turkestan and, adding Asia Minor to the Company of the Faithful, revived the intense and fanatical hatred of the Christian Dog which had somewhat abated for the two hundred years or so prior to the eleventh century. The Mohammedans became masters of Sicily in 878 and had appeared before Rome in 846. Their most northerly advance in France was stayed between Poitiers and Tours in 732 by Charles the Hammer, who flung them back beyond the Pyrenees; and at Vienna as late as 1529 ! The entire Mediterranean was a Moslem lake and its coasts are studded to-day with the remains of the towers where watch was kept for the dreaded lateen sail of the corsairs.

Therefore, when all of Western Europe except those portions under Mohammedan rule was whelmed in mental darkness, Christendom was almost surrounded by this virile, active civilization—for it was a real civilization of great refinement, learning, and cultivation; all the astronomical and astrological lore of the Semitic races, all the philosophy, practical and theoretical, of Aristotle, were theirs. During the passage of their faith from land to land the Moslems had evolved an architectural style, borrowed as concerned the main structural features from Persian or Sassanid buildings, which they spread through all the Mohammedan conquests. Saracenic and Moorish are thus two geographical designations of the arts practised by those who professed the Mohammedan faith. The dome and pointed horseshoe-shaped arches are distinguishing characteristic details. The long Moslem sojourns in Sicily and Spain affected strongly the Christian art of those countries. The seclusion of the women and the jealous privacy of the family life of the Mohammedans expressed themselves in architecture by presenting to the street a bare wall pierced by a door and an occasional barred window and, high up, perhaps a heavily latticed projecting bay from which the women could catch a glimpse of what was going on below without themselves being seen. The houses were built around courtyards as has always been the custom in warm climates and where women have been denied freedom. The Greeks secluded their women also, and while no remains of dwellings of an early date exist in Greece itself, the Graeco-Roman house, miraculously pre-served to us by the eruption of Vesuvius which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum, probably perpetuates the general disposition of rooms and courtyards customary in the mother country. The Roman house and the Roman villa followed Greco-Roman lines and we may still trace this old tradition in the buildings of the Renaissance in Italy. But in Spain the Moorish occupation lasted so long—the Moriscos, as they were called, were not driven from Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella until 1492 and were not expelled from Spain until 1609—that the Moorish character, its distinctive distribution of walls and openings, is stamped indelibly upon the architecture of Spain. To the Mohammedans we are indebted, in Sicily, in Southern Italy, and in Spain, for glazed tile domes in color and the use of colored faience in architectural decoration.

The rise and spread of Mohammedan faith, arms, civilization, arts, and sciences, is one of the most interesting as it is one of the most eloquent exemplars of what has been said in a previous chapter of the forces which unite to mould the simplest bit of art. Unlike the arts of Egypt, Assyria, and even of Greece and Rome, the steps of its progress being comparatively modern are practically unbroken and readily traced, and the action and reaction between them and the arts contemporaneous with them, easily observed and verified.

One bright spot gleams in Christian Europe in the Dark Ages when hope of an intellectual revival burns for a space during the reign of Charlemagne; but when he passed the arts sunk into a deeper lethargy.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian tribes, restless explorers, had spread through Northern Europe and were gradually absorbed by the populations except a small colony in the northern part of France. These were the Normans or North-men. They remained here quite tranquilly for a century or so, when, the old Norse spirit of wandering adventure reasserting itself, they sailed to Spain, to Sicily, and Italy, and succeeded in establishing footholds there. These expeditions and their great subsequent adventure, the conquest of England under William the Conqueror in 1066, were of much importance in the arts, for to them is due the dissemination of the style we know as Norman. A style of architecture, the Romanesque, had been slowly shaping itself in Italy and France, partially due to the presence of the remains of Roman buildings everywhere, a style exhibiting the unscientific features of all primitive building in piers and walls and arches far too heavy for the tasks they were called upon to perform. The Norman style is one of the forms of early Romanesque; and out of the Romanesque grew the Gothic, as we shall see.

Just prior to the year 1000 A. D. a superstition is said to have prevailed in Western Europe that the world would be destroyed in that year, and this fear paralyzed all progress of every sort. Many who wished to be on the safe side flocked to the monasteries and nunneries. When the eleventh century dawned and found the prediction unfulfilled a new impetus was given to industries of all kinds. The great monastic institutions naturally took the initiative—for to them had retired the larger proportion of the more intellectual classes, partly through fear of destruction at the close of the first millennium and the desire for spiritual preparation for the event, and partly because in them alone was to be found a peaceful refuge from the anarchy that prevailed in the outer world. The religious excitement created in all classes by the fear of the Judgment Day, augmented by a sense of relief that translation to a better land was deferred, was intensified by the reports of pilgrims fresh from Palestine where the Tomb of the Saviour was in the possession of the Infidel. In 1095 Europe rose, petty feuds were abandoned, and hundreds of thousands enrolled themselves as Soldiers of God, pledging themselves to the recovery of the Holy Places and the extermination of the Paynim. Once more Europe, by this and the subsequent Crusades, was brought into contact with the East; and, of far greater significance, the peoples of Europe were for the first time united in a common cause of common interest, on a lofty spiritual plane.