SPANISH Painting, so far as it represents a school, is singularly limited in scope and rigidly circumscribed. This is due partly to the racial character, self-centered and conservative, out of which it grew: partly also, to the influences that immediately shaped its growth. For it developed under the patron-age of the Crown and the Church. Nor were these, in theory or in practice, antagonistic to each other. The Church was the embodiment, the Crown the de-fender, of the Faith : the efforts of both being united to preserve the Faith against the inroads alike of Humanism and Protestantism. Hence the art of Spain, while it might be incidently concerned with portraiture, discovered its essential characteristics as the exponent of Bible story and Saintly lore and as an exhortation to faith and pious living. Its home was the sacred edifice, where it embellished walls, vaultings, and ceilings, or presided in the ceremonial altar-piece. Its language for the most part was that of the vernacular; the sacred imagery being translated into the idiom of common knowledge, its mysteries into expressions of common experience. It was in consequence a naturalistic art.
Had the artists of Spain painted for the general public or followed their own bent in the pursuit of beauty, they would doubtless have developed branches of genre and still life painting that might have emulated the work of the Holland artists; for they had a similar love of the intimate beauty of simple things around them. But since they had to reach the masses of the people through the intervention mostly of the Church, which not only commissioned the subject but prescribed its treatment, they achieved their self-expression through religious pictures which had the character of sacred genre. Yet this Spanish brand of genre is inferior to the secular genre of Holland or to the sacred genre of old Flemish religious paintings. It has a quality, perceptible in neither of the latter, of obviousness. Its motive is less surely an aesthetic delight in things of beauty ; more evidently influenced by the practical intention of rounding out the story.
I doubt if the student of Spanish painting, particularly if he visits Spain, can escape the feeling that it exhibits a certain oppressive obviousness. How is this to be accounted for? In the first place, surely, by the influence of the Church, ever more intent on making art a handmaid of its own purposes than on developing its own inherent beauties. And, if this was true under the conditions in Italy, where the Church itself was penetrated with Humanism, how much more is it to be expected under those which existed in Spain ! But there is another reason, incident to the Spanish character. The latter, as has been suggested in the previous chapter, was the product of a long and heroic struggle on behalf of nationality and the Christian Faith. Among its conspicuous traits, in consequence, were self-consciousness and inflated egoism; traits that, if you consider it, are those of the actor; the necessary groundwork on which he builds his better qualities as an artist.
The Spaniards are a race of actors. The arts in which they have most naturally expressed themselves are those of the drama and the novel of character and action. And this trait similarly affects their painting. It is dramatic, concerned frequently with action, always with characterisation. Meanwhile, self-consciousness and egoism readily yield to the temptation of exaggeration. Spanish literature evaded this weakness be-cause it was left to go its own way and the artistic conscience of the author was permitted to discover for itself a sense of true values. But in the painter’s case the Church intervened and being, so to say, interested in the box-office receipts, compelled him to play to the gallery. It favored sensationalism and encouraged melodrama. The meekness of the martyr must be represented so that the dullest spectator would not miss the moral; the executioner’s hatred of virtue so portrayed that no one could fail to recognise him as a villain; love and devotion must be sentimentalised, and blood, pain and disease so vividly exhibited that the crudest sensibilities would be wrung. Imagination must not be counted upon and suggestion, the subtle road there-to, must be abandoned for the direct and detailed statement. Aim at the crude instincts and make the message obvious !
This Spanish tendency toward the related traits of exaggeration and obviousness is not confined to painting. It appears also in the architecture and sculpture. Foreign architects, for example, were employed in the erection of cathedrals in the Gothic style ; but the latter’s noble logic of plan and elevation was disturbed by the innovations which Spanish taste, or lack of it, dictated. Conspicuous among these was the erection of a Coro in the center of the nave ; an inclosure walled around, carried to a great height and profusely adorned with sculpturesque ornament. This monstrous choir effectually blocks the view of the high-altar from any spot except the narrow space which separates the two, and also interrupts what should be one of the sublime features of a Gothic cathedral, its endless variety of stately vistas. In every direction the perspective of pillars, arches and vaultings is barred by the tasteless magnificence of the Coro. For the latter, like the Capilla Mayor with its high-altar, is overloaded with excess of ornament. In one case it may be in the “plateresque” style, a network of intricate and minute embellishments that vies with the dainty exuberance of the workers in silver-plate. Elsewhere, it is wantonly “grotesque” or pompously “baroque” or characterised by that orgy of material extravagance, called “Churrigueresque” after the name of the sculptor who introduced it. In this, sculpture has been degraded to the most blatant naturalism; Madonnas clothed like dolls in brocaded gowns; the tragedy of Calvary or the glory of Heaven, presented with figures, background and accessories, painted, posed and set like a theatrical tableau. It is not for a moment suggested that there is no beauty and grandeur in Spanish architecture and sculpture. Yet to one whose taste is attuned to the imaginative spaciousness, sublimity and mystery of pure Gothic or to the inventive refinement of choice Renaissance design, the net impression of a Spanish cathedral is likely to be one of oppression and distaste. And more so, as one analyses the psychological cause of this extravagant display. It seems to be the Spanish instinct to close himself round with interest in what is nearest to him, so that he abandons breadth or height of visionimagination, in factin favor of the immediately present, which he invests with all the fervor of his pent up nature. This leads inevitably to a materialistic point of view and to the baldly naturalistic method; in a word, to the obviousness which we have noted.
Spain, in fact, with its large admixture of Germanic blood, exhibits in its art the trait that affects other races akin to the Teutonic : the German itself, the English and American. She, no more than they, has much sense of beauty in the abstract. The idea that beauty for its own sake is desirable may penetrate the imagination of some artists in all these countries, but is a principle of art in none of them, and by the general public of all is not understood. The usual idea is that painting is primarily the representation of some person, place or thing, and is to be judged by what it represents. The idea that it should contribute to the beauty of life, and that beauty is one of the qualities most needful and desirable in life; that, indeed, properly considered, it should be the ideal of life, is even today only slowly dawning upon our comprehension. We still make the ideal of our civilization material progress and the ideal of education the preparation to play a part in it. In a word, our ideal is materialistic; a contradiction of terms, confusing the high issues of life. For, if a man or a nation is to have an ideal it must be something above the necessary matter of life, correlating the spiritual sense to what it conceives of spirit in the universe. It was so that the Greek, learning of Egypt and the Orient, drawing inspiration, in fact, from the deep wells of human consciousness, established his ideal and interpreted it under the symbol of beauty.
For my own part, this difference between the older idea of art and our own, which was shared by Spain, is most illuminatively enforced by the contrast between two of the great architectural monuments of Spain : the Escorial and the Alhambra. Both are palaces, memorials of the greatest epoch in the history of each race; but one is a palace of the dead and of preparation for death, the other a lordly pleasure house, redolent of the joy of living; the Escorial is a monument of sternness; the Alhambra a miracle of beauty.
Yet for the student of humanity and of art in relation thereto what a poignant interest attaches to the Escorial! True, it is the self-expression of one man; but the imagination may not be astray in discovering in it some expression also of the race and its time. For Philip II was so loyal a son of the Church or, if you will, so morbid a victim of the Church’s influence, and that influence was then so rooted in the conscience of the people, that he was in a large measure representative of them.
Philip was bound by the terms of his inheritance to create a mausoleum for the remains of his father, Charles V. He set about making it a burying place of sufficient dignity for his father, himself and succeeding Catholic Kings. To the mausoleum must be attached a church, and to the latter a monastery, to make perpetual provision for the saying of masses. His father had retired to a monastery after laying down the cares of government. Philip, while still handling the affairs of his vast dominion, would also lead the cloistered life. Meanwhile there were the mundane needs of a court to be considered and Philip himself tempered his asceticism with gallantry, so that a palace must be included. Hence ensued the idea of the Escorial, wherein life consorts with death and business and pleasure are pursued under the shadow of a judgment to come. Surely a monument to the strangest medley of motives that history can show! Morbid, magnificent!
Architects were employed, but Philip constantly supervised the design. He planned his monument to last forever. Far from the possible vicissitudes of the capital, remote from the petty changes of daily life, he laid its foundations in the bed-rock of the mountains; and built their strength into its walls. With its back to the precipitous wall of the Guadarrama Sierra, it stands a colossal squared mass, facing the undulating vista of tableland. Its facades are severely simple, bare of ornamental detail, proclaiming their monastic purpose; and similarly the interior, as originally planned, was characterised by the dignity- of constructional simplicity. The church also, until Luca Giordano at a later period covered the vaultings with flaunting mural paintings, was a unique example of stern austerity; its plan of a Greek cross being uninterrupted by a central coro and the only magnificence permitted being massed about the high-altar. A strange contrast, in fact, the imagination of Philip offered to the art instincts of his people. While they eschewed vistas and rejoiced in extravagance of detail, he was wedded to simplicity and sought a prospect of the widest vision. Yet in his personal life he shrank into narrowness. A private door communicated with a corner seat at the back of the coro, so that unobserved he could join the monks, as one of them, in their devotional routine. While he provided himself with a palace for ceremonial purposes, he actually lived in a tiny suite of meagre rooms, sleeping in a cubicle. Its window opened into the church, commanding a view of the high-altar, where the celebrant as he said mass stood directly above the tombs of the dead kings. This Pantheon of the dead, a low, octagonal chamber with flattened vaultings, lined with shelves on which repose sarcophagi, was originally of extreme simplicity. For the present bastard profusion of sombre ornamentation was added by Philips III and IV.
Today as one wanders through this vast and silent edifice of the Escorial it can well seem as if that sanctuary of death, buried beneath the church, is the dead heart, connected by the arteries of its nearly one hundred miles of corridors with the huge organs and spreading limbs of a prodigious leviathan. One has left behind the exhilaration of the air of the Sierras the glorious spaciousness of the outside prospect, and as the artificial vastness closes in about one, the spirit becomes numbed and chill. It is a stupendous Golgotha, a colossal Place of Skulls. Yet we shall be lacking in imagination if we cannot realise that the dead heart once beat and that the ponderous body once enshrined a soul. It may have been a mad soul; certainly it was a proud one, of high exaltation, white to its core with the flame of an intense ideal. None the less was it something of a craven soul, evading the problems of this life, and fearing the life to come; closing its eyes to the light and wrapping itself in the darkness of superstition. It is the soul of one man that was thus enshrined; but in many respects it is revealed as the soul of the Spanish people.
Seen at noonday in summer, the Escorial stands, shadowless in the sunshine, at the foot of the bare Sierra, looking out over a vista of barren stubble, parched grass and dried up water-courses; an undulating sweep of pallid buff, interrupted sparsely by grey olive bushes; pitilessly inhospitable. But, in the slanting light of the afternoon, the Sierras near and far lose the bleakness of their pinkish buff beneath transparent tones of mauve and lavender, while the harsh nudity of the endless vega becomes clothed in tender veils of variously modulated greys. Even the inexorableness of the granite pile is assuaged, as the shadows creep about its base, the contours and surfaces of its facades melt into iridescent hues and the dome and towers rise up to meet the cooling sky with something of aerial suggestion. Slowly, as the light wanes the Escorial and its vast setting become to the imagination spiritualised ; but the spirit that hovers over them and enters into yours is, if I mistake not, for all its beauty impregnated with sadness, which, as the darkness blots out distance and buries the monastery beneath the gloom of the Sierras, dies into a sense of awe.
And now let us revisit the Alhambra, which en-shrines the soul of another race. No colossal formality here, or precision of foot-rule and compass from which the free spirit of the artist’s imagination has been dogmatically barred! On the contrary, the palace of the Moorish kings grew cell to cell by accretion, expressive of an accumulating sense of the power and joy of life, alive with the breath of artistic imagination. It dominates its own hill, looking across, on the one hand, to the protecting barrier of higher hills, and on the other, over a smiling hospitable vega, a far reaching garden of luxuriant fertility. The hill itself is a paradise of refreshment. Its slopes are richly clothed with shade trees and semi-tropical vegetation, embowered in flowers, fragrant with the scents of living growths, musical with the song of birds, the tinkle of tiny runnels, and the plash of fountains and cascades. Set above this scene of ordered wildness, where the license of nature is united to the task of man, stands what is left of the palace of the Arab Sovereigns of Granada.
There is no need to describe its plan of gardens, fountains, courts and corridors, halls of ceremony and suites of living rooms. It is the spirit of the whole that we may try to capture. Here, as in the Mosque of Cordova, the Arab’s love of vistas is revealed; but while the former spreads over a large space, the perspectives of the Alhambra are actually restricted. In their case even more than in the other is created an illusion of distance. The triumph is one not of material emphasis but of artistic suggestion. It was the human imagination, finding its free expression in art, that gave form and fabric to this Oriental dream of beauty. It is a visualised symphony, whose theme is life; the joy of life and beauty that irradiates the joy. And the inspiration is drawn from nature. To those who know the Alhambra it will not sound like freakishness of speech to say, that the imagination of the artist has en-snared a portion of the spirit of beauty which roams at large in the desert and sky and lurks in the silences of woods and gardens ; and, because he felt the phenomena of nature in relation to the supreme whole, has captured something of the infinity of the universal and enshrined it in his microcosm of beauty. Also more intimately he has fashioned his invention upon nature; studying her forms and methods and adapting them to the conventions of art. In the endless variety of decorative encrustration with which the wall-spaces, the soffits of the arches and the vaultings of the chambers are embroidered, the motives are drawn from the interlacing of boughs and vines, the rhythm of the brooklet meandering through luxuriant undergrowth of vines and flowers, from the facets of the crystal and the accumulated cells of bees. But they are not interpreted in a naturalistic vein. The Oriental imagination, at its best, rises above naturalistic representation; it accepts the fertilization of nature, but conventionalises the product to conform to the artist’s idea of abstract beauty.
It may be that in the Alhambra he has carried this idealization too far and become too prodigal with its motives. The dainty fabric has little structural dignity; architectonic substance being sacrificed to vistas and surface decoration, while the last may easily be judged too profuse. Yet the Arab, when he chose, was a builder and engineer, continuing the Roman tradition of solid and scientific construction. Even at the Alhambra this fact is attested by the foundations that are rooted in the rock and carried down its precipitous flank, and by the aqueducts which convey water from the neighboring hills to supply the fountains and baths, the sudorific chambers and the system of heating. He faced the necessities and facts of life as they arose, but in the pleasure-house of his soul surrendered himself to the abstract, wrapping himself in contemplation of the beautiful. So he encouraged his artists until their imagination reached its zenith of profuse invention in the so-called “Room of the Two Sisters.”
Above a dado of iridescent glass mosaic the walls are overlaid with a rich lace work as of carved ivory, the interstices of which are colored red and blue. Their surfaces are interrupted by niches, framed with columns and arches of surpassing delicacy. From the four corners, at considerable height project pendentives, converting the square of the room into an octagon from which springs the domed ceiling. The pendentives are groups of stalactite forms, and the vaulting above is composed of innumerable concave cells. Each differing slightly from the others, they cling together in pen-dent masses, here projecting like a bunch of swarming bees, there receding into the mystery of a fairy grotto; all the while mounting up the curve of the ceiling, which undulates like a vine yielding to the weight of its grapes ; climbing higher and higher in endless frolic of invention until they draw together at the ceiling’s peak. Enough gold still adheres to the myriad facets to suggest to the imagination the mysterious lustre of the ceiling, when it was lighted by a suspended lantern with its clusters of crystal lights. This gem of the Alhambra jewel, the heart of the Harem chambers, opens, as you remember, on one side into an alcove. Through the windows of this appear the tops of cypress trees, which rise from the boskage of pomegranates, roses and oleanders in a little garden court. On the other side, the “Court of the Lions,” once shaded with orange trees, still soothes the ear with the plash of its central fountain and the drip of the tiny jets that spring like rods of silver from the marble pavement of the arcades. A spot, indeed of exquisite sensations ; where everything conspires to alternate moods of reverie and poignant stimulation; where the physical senses are rarified, exalted, till perception swims into a sea of subtleties that melts into a dreamy subconsciousness of infinity.
This you may say is a supreme achievement, tainted with weakness. Here the yearning after beauty for its own sake has created such a subtlety and luxuriance of beauty as to suggest that the motive was ornament for the sake of ornament; sense-gratification for indulgence sake; exquisiteness at the cost of living energy. For, while the maze of decoration is ordered with most refined sensibility, it is none the less expressive of inordinate and almost tortured sensuousness. If you adopt this view it is to admit that the Alhambra was a product of the decadence of the Oriental idea; and it is interesting to note how it bred a corresponding decadence in the artistic motives of the Christian conquerors. It was unquestionably from the Arabs that the Spaniard derived his taste for excess. But his racial instinct and his Catholic faith colored the result with a great difference. His sensuous and religious ecstasy found their expression not in abstract symbols but in concrete actualities. They prompted him to take delight in the actual representation of blood and torture and to render his conception of Heaven by means of sculptured figures reposing on marble clouds amid gilded spikes of glory. Gradually, in fact, he degraded his conception to the most obvious kind of perception. He ex-pressed his spiritual ideas in terms of naturalism.
It may seem illogical to invite the reader to be interested in Spanish art and then discourage him by laying bare its weakness. But I believe that every one who visits Spain, where alone the inwardness of Spanish art can be reached, must feel at the outset more or less conscious of these limitations to his interest; that, in fact, he suffers a preliminary discouragement. If so, is it not better to admit it; to accustom oneself to the expectation of temporary disillusionment, in order that one may the sooner get over it and settle down to a just appreciation of the admirable qualities which actually exist in Spanish painting?