IT is appropriate that we take our leave of Michelangelo in the darkness with the candle gone out. Never did art die so utterly with the death of one man as with that of Michelangelo. Sculpture and painting, to be sure, went on briskly, but inspiration ceased. The most extraordinary achievements of technique of all preceding artists seem to have been severally considered and indubitably surpassed, all to the satisfaction of both performers and spectators, but to the inexpressible ennui of posterity who came to demand; as posterities have a way of doing, the purpose of all these displays, only to find that art had insensibly lost sight of purpose as a vital factor in its program. The artist went through the same motions and society offered the same applause for a time, it would seem, from mere momentum, because it was easier to go on than it was to stop. Unfortunately, the extraordinary means adopted by Michelangelo for extraordinary purposes were now adopted by his successors for ordinary purposes, or for no purpose at all. The worst orgy that art ever knew was to follow in that century and a half of baroque art which centers around the great and awful name of Bernini. This art takes its cue from the later art of Michelangelo. For the most extraordinary reason he had transcended the limits of legitimate sculpture. They saw his achievements, not in the greatness of the purpose which he realized, but in the bravoure of his trespass. It forthwith becomes the passion of art to emulate and if possible to exceed his trespass. The demand of sane art, whatever its medium or form, is: “Show me the line of least resistance, that so I may best accomplish my purpose.” The demand of the baroque artist was: “Show me the line of greatest difficulty, that so I may best demonstrate my skill.” Instead of making stones heavy and stable, they sought to make them float in the air. Instead of striving for integrity of mass, they sought to honeycomb with cleverness. Painting, sculpture, architecture, all went the same evil way. Compare Bernini’s David or his Pietà with that of Michelangelo, or, best of all, let the Pietà of the great sculptor make its deep impression upon you, and then walk down the great nave of St. Peter’s and look at Bernini’s large bronze in the Tribune, and some conception will then be possible of the abyss into which the candle of art fell when it dropped from the keeping of Michelangelo.
But why ? The misguided imitation of one man, however great, cannot pervert the art of the world when it has ideals and inspiration. Why was it that when this candle flickered and went out, no other was found burning upon the altar of art ? The answer is not easy, nor is any single answer adequate, but one observation at least becomes necessary as we close our study. Christian art was complete. Art is never the creation of an individual, but its subject matter is the slowly formulated experience of communities of men. Slowly these experiences take shape in more or less uniform conceptions of truth and currents of feeling. This formulation once tolerably complete, it begins to find expression in art. Its exponents struggle with problems of utterance, slowly overcome difficulties, and at last arrive at the full expression of these slowly elaborated ideals. When expression is complete, interest in the subject languishes. Farther utterance lacks originality and frantic efforts are made to increase the impression by sensational modes of expression. Witness Bernini’s Pietà or Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo. Art becomes theatrical and insincere. It scores a brief triumph and produces a deadlier ennui. Yet the power of expression, at this moment of completed utterance, is at its height, and goads its possessor to ever more frantic oratory as mankind turns an increasingly deaf ear. There is but one remedy. Man must live some more and get interested in something which shall again crave utterance.
Such a period of lassitude had now arrived in the art of Italy. So long as Christian ideals were expressed superficially, by conventional symbols, art had not accomplished her task, such is the art of Cimabue and the lesser men of later times. Not even when its great dogmas are represented spiritually, but as things unique and unrelated to our common experience do we rest content. Such is the art of Fra Angelico and of Bellini in Venice. Nor is art ever quit of her task through revolt, as in Fra Lippo, or through retrospective classicism, as in Botticelli, or stately irrelevancies as in Ghirlandajo. All these in some degree evade the issue.
The goal short of which no system, no race experience, no faith, can ever rest content is its final statement in terms of universal human experience. The Madonna will never quite satisfy us until she stands for something as broad as humanity and as old as life. Let her suffer, let her love, but as humanity suffers and loves, or rather, as humanity would fain suffer and love. She must cease to be a special case, and must express humanity’s ideal. Likewise the Crucifixion, the symbol of sacrifice in the interest of soul enlargement. Make not too much of the halo, the spear or the chalice that receives his blood. These isolate the suffering whose meaning we must somehow link with our own. No matter what our personal theories, the history of art is explicit. Theology may speak of the sacrifice, but art will speak of sacrifice, never ceasing its quest till the great synthesis is reached.
That is precisely the meaning of these last great days of the Renaissance. The great synthesis had been reached. The Madonna comes down from her throne and her homage and walks in the beauty of the world that we love ; but more than that, she lays aside all claim to special prerogative, and we discover with infinite joy and relief that the love she bore in her heart is the same love that irradiates the life about us. The smile that the dear old monk went to heaven to find in her celestial face, we accept with glad recognition, yearning the while for a still more heavenly radiance ; and when the last perfecting touch is given, the heavenly vision that we sought is but the perfect ideal of the smile that a child beholds in a mother’s face. And the great tragedy of the Cross, whose mystery we had so long sought to fathom, art struggles to interpret, with ceaseless patience suiting itself to the cravings of our hearts, when lo, as symbol gives way to soul, we discover with the same relief of spirit, it is but the ministry of sorrow that is as broad as life itself. Everywhere it is the same. Dogma is broadened and deepened till it is as large as life itself. In Leonardo’s Madonna of the cartoon, in Michelangelo’s Deposition, there is nothing local, nothing provincial, nothing for the skeptic to doubt, nothing for the fanatic to exaggerate. The local has found the universal, and that which drew from out the boundless deep has turned again home.