FROM Cimabue to Masaccio we have traced the evolution of art consistently toward its chosen goal of realism. We have seen its abandonment of mosaic, its surrender of gold and decorative pattern, its relinquishment of symmetry and even of bright color, all in the interest of naturalness. In that same interest, we have seen the freer composition, the deepening perspective, the more realistic drawing, the importation of relevant but novel incident, and finally the delving into the inner sanctuary of life and the exposure of its inner-most secrets. The movement was all one way. We have noted no exception, no protest.
But there was both exception and protest. We find them in Florence, where modernism is overwhelmingly in the ascendant. We find them much more in Siena where semi-annihilation by the great plague of 1348 and hopeless sub-ordination to Florence, strengthened a naturally conservative tendency. During the period of Florentine prosperity, Sienese artists frequently found employment in Florence, and Florentine artists were not wanting whose ideals were congenial to the Sienese if not directly influenced by them. Throughout the Giotto century, however, there seems to have been no conscious conflict of principle between the two schools. There were differences, it was clear, but they seemed matters of taste rather than of principle. Thus, the Sienese usually painted in dark and warm tones, while the Florentines, even those who were in sympathy with Siena, preferred the light and cheerful tones of Giotto. But neither color scheme did or could plead nature as its warrant, and so with other differences, whatever they might be. We shall hardly understand the double mind of this period unless we think of it as unconscious of its own contradictions. Much of this seeming unity was doubtless due to the genial greatness of Giotto, whose leadership was so congenial that even those most opposed to him in temperament and principle seem to have thought of themselves as loyal followers. The opposition of purpose, however, was not the less real.
Florence fortunately furnishes us perfect examples of the conservative art of the Giotto century, both of the Sienese and the Florentine sort. Both are contained within the precincts of that wonderful old church, Santa Maria Novella, where we have already found the Rucellai Madonna. For the masterpiece of the Sienese, we must pass through the side door into the great cloister and enter the old Chapter House, later known as the Spanish Chapel. It is covered with Sienese paintings of differing merit, of which we will take the two great side walls as being best and most significant. The wall on the left represents the glorification of Saint Thomas Aquinas (B 105), the great Dominican theologian. High in the arched top of the great wall sits the saint in an imposing chair, while on either side, in a straight row, sit the worthies of the church, among whom Moses is recognized by his flame-like horns. Above these worthies, symmetrically grouped, are the seven cardinal virtues in the form of angels, while beneath the feet of the saint sit the three arch-heretics, Arius, Sabellius and Averrhoes, whom Saint Thomas was supposed to have confounded by his reasoning. Lower down, in a long row across the great wall, in splendid Gothic chairs or stalls, sit female figures representing the arts and sciences of the day, while below them sit male figures, historical or legendary characters, who are supposed to have distinguished them-selves in the art or science in question. The identity is established through more or less recognizable attributes or symbols, music by the little organ, architecture by the square, and so forth. Besides these more obvious symbols, the wall is packed with lesser symbols, especially in the medallion decorations of the chairs, symbols largely taken from Dante, the interpretation of which belongs to literature rather than to art.
The dominant characteristic of this art is instantly apparent. It is decorative. Everywhere is symmetry, and nowhere is action or life. In the drawing of the figures the artist has unquestionably been influenced by the modern art. Their attitudes, too, are more varied than in the great mosaics, and show a certain amount of spontaneity. But this touch of modernism is neither profound nor significant. The principle on which the whole composition is based is that of symmetry and decorative arrangement. The painting is, in so far, wholly mediæval in spirit. As a decoration it is magnificent. The dignified worthies above, the graceful winged virtues, the fair female forms below, above all, the splendid band of Gothic stalls, make a wall which some have called the most beautiful in Italy.
Next to this decorative tendency, we must note the redundant symbolism. This, too, we recall as a mediæval characteristic. It would be difficult, however, to find a Florentine work of any period so packed with symbolism as this. We shall notice this more plainly if we turn to the opposite wall, the Church Militant (B 107). The church, of course, is symbolized by a church building in which we easily recognize the great cathedral, then building. Alongside stands an imposing group in which we recognize the Pope and the Emperor with crozier and sword, theoretical joint rulers over the lives and con-sciences of men. Other figures are alleged by tradition, let us hope erroneously, to be portraits of contemporary painters. The day when complacent egotism was to undermine the sincerity of religious art, was, for the most part, still remote. In front of these figures is a little platform on which rest a couple of unplausible sheep, guarded by two spotted dogs, black and white, while other similar dogs are making short shrift of some grey wolves near by. This, we are told, represents an old pun at first leveled against the Dominicans but afterward taken by them in good part. Their name, in Latin, Dominicanes, if cut in two, makes two Latin words, Domini-Canes, Dogs of the Lord. As the order was formed to suppress heresy, they were quick to retort that they were indeed the dogs set to guard the Lord’s sheep from the here-tics, the wolves. Their black and white garments suggest the spotted dog which we see in the picture. Going farther, we see the great Dominican arguing with heretics who are plainly confounded by his citations from Holy Writ, while farther still, another is preaching to the people who show a gratifying enthusiasm. Our pathway now turns back upon itself and meanders upward across the wall to a point where St. Dominic of colossal size points out to a crowd of tiny folk the way to the gate of Heaven where St. Peter stands with his keys. St. Peter again is a colossus, but as these tiny folk pass through the gate, they suddenly become as large as Peter.
It is unnecessary to pursue farther this puzzle which may amuse the curious. It is sufficient to note that this symbolism is as arbitrary as it is voluminous, and that in this case all symmetry and other decorative quality is sacrificed to it. This extravagant use of symbolism, appealing to the mind rather than to the feeling, and subordinating all other characteristics, we may call the didactic in art. It is perhaps the feeblest of all æsthetic elements. It continually recurs in later art in the form of allegory, which, however, slowly emancipates itself from symbolism, that is, from the arbitrary meaning which is peculiarly its own, and remains merely as a graceful and meaningless figure study. Such are Raphael’s Prudence, Force and Moderation (C 169), allegorical now only in name, without a sign of an attribute or of character resemblance, but a mere study in beautiful figures and graceful composition.
Judging by these two examples, and they are fairly representative, Sienese art during this Giotto century was essentially mediaeval art, with its well known tendency to symmetry and decoration, and with an exaggerated and essentially local tendency to symbolism. It knows nothing of the new ideals and the larger program. It is but superficially modern.
Different and yet similar is the splendid wall of the Strozzi Chapel in this same old church, to which we now return. Here is Orcagna’s Paradise (B 83), the creation of one of the most gifted of Giotto’s contemporaries, and the highest representative of the art of the old school. High in the center of the arch-topped wall sit the Christ and the Madonna, while on either side in serried ranks from top to bottom are the glorified spirits whose beauty is the only and the sufficient furnishing of Paradise.
“Where loyal hearts and true stand ever in the light, All rapture through and through in God’s most holy sight.”
These figures are not like those of a later time, but they are certainly not less beautiful. It may be doubted whether any other picture in Italian art offers so many beautiful faces. The artist, too, has quite succeeded in giving them the modern and lifelike touch which allies the work to the art of Giotto. Yet in their straightness, their perfectly formal arrangement, their absolute symmetry and their lack of all trace of perspective, they vie with the mosaics themselves in their loyalty to the old tradition. We may describe the whole as a painting in mosaic style, done in Giotto colors, by an artist of singular delicacy and taste.
Why did Orcagna choose to paint in this style ? The first suggestion is that he did not know the new perspective style, but this is quickly dispelled by a glance at the center foreground, where are represented in smaller scale a large number of figures in unmistakable perspective. The next suggestion is that he preferred the formal and flat style to the freer and pictorial manner of Giotto because of its decorative superiority. There is much reason to believe that Orcagna did prefer it for this reason, but we are a little puzzled that he should not have held to this style throughout. There is a marked distinction between this group in the lower center, which is not only in perspective, but is free and irregular in arrangement, and the great decorative ranks on either side. The reason cannot be merely one of decoration, for the center of the wall does not differ from the sides in this respect. The reason must rather be sought in the subject. Here the difference is clear. The central group below represents earth and life upon it. Here naturalness, perspective and realism seem to the artist appropriate. The rest of the picture represents Paradise, and here he reverts to the old manner. The motive which lies back of this conservatism is not decoration, but religion. The choice is no accident. It rests upon a principle as old as history. In each period of Egyptian civilization we find the priests using for ceremonial purposes vessels and implements which had been in vogue for other purposes in the preceding epoch. The early picture writing, long discarded for practical purposes in favor of the easier cursive hand, was retained by the priests as hieroglyphs, sacred letters. When the Jews had passed through the stone age and the bronze age and down into the iron age, they were still per-forming their religious ceremonies with stone knives, – sacred knives. When Phidias made his statue of Athena in a sincere effort to deepen and exalt the religious feeling of the Athenians, he draped the figure in an old-fashioned manner which was altogether obsolete except for religious purposes. Each recurring effort at religious revival in Greece was marked by a like revival of obsolete forms of art. This is the universal tendency of religion, a tendency closely identified with its strength and its value to men. For religion is essentially a matter of feeling. There are reasons for this feeling, of course, but the feelings are not mere reasoning, and cannot be created by mere reasoning. Now it is characteristic of feelings, especially of those which are stable and serve the great purpose of steadying life, that they grow slowly and are very tenaciously attached to those objects or customs with which they have long been associated. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about stone knives, but there is something sacred about old knives as contrasted with new ones. The adoption of a new religion may operate powerfully to change the direction of art, for there is no such thing as destroying the old religion without breaking these long standing associations of art and custom. The real explanation of the rapid change which took place in art during the sixteenth century is to be found in the fact that for a time there was, in the triumph of humanism, something very like the adoption of a new religion, and men welcomed the changes in religion which might be effected by innovations in art. But where men have been sincerely desirous of maintaining existing religious sentiment, they have usually shown a marked reluctance to break with tradition in art, or in anything else with which religious sentiment has been historically associated.
It would therefore be contrary to all precedent if the innovations of Giotto and his followers did not find opposition on the part of the religious party. That this opposition was not at first violent or even conscious does not change its character. Orcagna cannot bring himself to represent the celestial forms in any but the time-honored manner, though he shows himself quite as much a master of the new method as Giotto himself. It is not that flat and symmetrical decorations represent Paradise more correctly. That is a thesis that he would hardly have defended. But devotion and reverence were wonted to these forms, and could not at once adjust themselves to new ones. What one of us would care to see an archangel armed with a Mauser rifle? Yet save in the matter of age it is quite as appropriate as a mediaeval sword.
But if the protest of faith was silent and half unconscious in the days of Giotto, it could not remain so as realism scored its dazzling triumphs.
As the new program became so overwhelmingly apparent in Masaccio’s art, it was impossible for the older art any longer to be unconscious of its danger. Threatened with destruction, it asserted itself in passionate protest. Fortunately for it and for us, it is represented in the new century by one of the most gifted painters of any time. Easily misunderstood, frequently disparaged as old-fashioned and out of date, Fra Angelico is, after all, one of the rarest spirits that art has ever claimed for its own. A monk, he represented in very deed the characteristics that were so universal in theory and so rare in practice. It was an age that felt, perhaps even more than our own, the imperfections of human character and the inadequate conditions under which our life is lived. The chance that life would develop fair and pure under the conditions then prevailing, was so infinitesimal that it is not strange the belief should have gained credence that purity and holiness were not of this world, that only in isolation could one attain in some degree to that serenity, purity and peace which were the accepted characteristics of the life in the heavenly hereafter. Those who were farthest from the monastic life or the monastic character were as little disposed as any to question the monastic ideal. To escape from the world, its temptations and its disillusions, that was not practicable for all, for how should life continue if all men forsook the callings which alone could perpetuate it ? But fortunate indeed were those to whom was given the privilege of living in pure contemplation, of seeing heavenly visions, and of acquiring, uninterrupted, an increasing measure of the heavenly character. Probably William the Conqueror would have been as prompt to recognize the felicity of the monk, as he was to accept his own very different calling.
Rarely has a monk so perfectly exemplified the monastic theory as Fra Angelico. A gentle and loving spirit, he seems to have been not only free from, but strangely ignorant of, the harsher passions that are so large a part of human experience. If he was ever angry, it has left no trace ; if he ever saw anger, it seems to have pained him too deeply to permit of understanding or careful observation. From all the discord and din of strife which sounds in our ears, he seems to have lived apart. As a painter, his touch is the most ineffable of any that we know. If it be true, as we are told, that he never began to paint without first kneeling and praying to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and that having thus prayed he thought it sacrilege to doubt that guidance, even to the extent of changing what he had once done, his work certainly goes far to bear out his own conviction of heavenly guidance. He is fond of miniature, tiny faces the size of one’s finger nail, worked out with a perfection so complete that, magnified to natural size, they still show scarce a touch of imperfection. His feeling for color is as unerring as his handiwork. It is the bright color that speaks at once of mediæval art and of Giotto’s transforming touch, but beyond this, Giotto counts for nothing in the art of Fra Angelico. The same lovely groupings with perfect symmetry, the same exquisite backgrounds of lustrous figured gold, the same naïve conception of heavenly scenes that characterized the middle ages, are familiar to us in the art of the wonderful monk. His ceaseless industry, furthered by the appreciative pressure of his Prior, resulted in a multitude of works in the preservation of which Fate has been exceptionally kind.
It will be interesting to begin our acquaintance with Fra Angelico by examining a picture that was painted not far from the time that Masaccio was painting in the Brancacci Chapel. The two men were of very different age, Fra Angelico already passing his prime, and Masaccio still a youth, but this difference of age is not significant. There is little of development in Fra Angelico. The other was a youth, but the monk was always a youth, so the comparison is less inappropriate than it might seem.
At first sight this picture seems more nearly related to Cimabue than to Masaccio. There is the same formal presentation of the Madonna and Child (B 1115), the same tip of the Madonna’s head, the same curtained background, rich with gold, the splendid frame, but decorated with angels which have acquired a factitious interest, and are the all too frequent representatives of the artist all this is mediæval. In some respects it is far more so than Cimabue’s work, notably in the representation of the Christ Child. Cimabue leaves something to be desired, but there is no question as to his purpose. It is to represent a natural child, a purpose which we can attribute to Fra Angelico only by assuming his total ignorance of the subject he was treating. Such ignorance is indeed often assumed. We are told that the good monk, living in his cloister, saw nothing of the world. The Christ Child is such as he imagines a child to be. Equally, the use of gold backgrounds was fatal to the larger realism of the time, which was based on perspective. These and other characteristics seem to indicate an unconsciousness of the mighty advance which art had made.
A glance at some of the details, however, makes it doubtful whether ignorance is the true explanation. It is interesting to compare closely this Madonna of the Linaiuoli with the Rucellai Madonna by Cimabue. They seem alike until we put them together. Then all is contrast. How different, for instance, are the draperies in the background. Cimabue, as we have seen, has nothing but a few, vaguely hinted folds that are carried right across the figures in the gold background, as though figures and folds had no relation to each other. Not so in Fra Angelico’s work. The figures adjust themselves perfectly to the broken. pattern of the folds. The shadows are used with masterly skill. In a word, the curtain is drawn from the actual, not from imagination. Now that is the very essence of the new art. The old art imagines things. If it copied anything it copied another painting. The new art studies actualities and copies nature with only such modifications as the limitations of the artist or his higher artistic purpose may require. If Fra Angelico studies actual curtains he is using the method of the new art. There are abundant reasons to believe that he was familiar with both the methods and ideals of that art. If his own art had different methods and ideals, it is his deliberate choice, not his helplessness.
How then can we account for such an impossible child as we have here ? Neither proportion, expression, nor draperies, are in the remotest degree possible for a real child. It is essentially a doll, and a very artificial one at that. It is interesting to imagine a meeting between these two painters. The painter of the shivering youth might gaze upon the work of the good monk, and say with a smile, good-natured, doubtless, “My dear Frate, do you imagine that babies look like that ? Have you never seen the children playing in the streets? ” A poser, such a question might seem to be, too often accepted by those familiar only with the canons of our own art, as the sufficient condemnation of this artist whose gaze and whose affections turned back toward the age that was past. But let us not be too precipitate. Can we not imagine the quiet eye of the monk turned round upon his good-natured critic, with the reply, “My dear Masaccio, can you think of nothing better for art to do than to imitate the children that are playing in the streets? Wherein are we the richer if this commonplace of our experience is pain-fully duplicated in our art? ” Nor is it easy to refute the argument. Are we, after all, largely remunerated for our toil and pains by mere duplication of the commonplaces of nature ?
Fra Angelico has quite another goal for art, one which the Christ Child may well illustrate. His purpose, like that of Orcagna, and this time much more pronouncedly and certainly, was religious. If he painted the Madonna, it was not that she might be radiantly beautiful. It was that she might aid in that great purpose which controlled his life and which he fain would make the purpose of all life. The Christ Child was to him sacred, must needs be so to those who viewed his art, must incite to devotion rather than to admiration, still less to mere wonder at the cleverness of the artist ; and, in accordance with the principle with which we are already familiar, to be religious it must needs be old-fashioned, must needs suggest the forms long associated with sanctity and devotion. Hence the artist does not take as his starting point the child in the streets, which, whatever its significance to us, has never been suggestive of the heavenly powers nor the heavenly life. He goes rather to the church where a sacred image has so often prompted to devotion, and takes this sacred image, unconsciously modified by centuries of tradition until it but remotely suggests the human infant which was its origin: This image, fantastically dressed, often-times decorated with gems and revered as the possessor of occult powers, this must be the starting point for his art ; the starting point, notice, for it is not the end and substance of Fra Angelico’s art. Paris doll though the Bambino may be, it is a Paris doll transfigured. There is no return to natural-ism. There is a transfiguring touch of celestial beauty, a suggestion of that heavenly life which it is the purpose of art to help men to attain. The first glance at Fra Angelico’s pictures reminds us always of the middle ages. Closer observation will as invariably reveal to us a higher skill, a transfiguring, spiritualizing touch.
The principle already suggested in connection with the Christ Child is everywhere apparent. The Madonna is much the same as tradition had known before, but sweeter, truer, lovelier, more heavenly if not more human. The backgrounds, the accessories, all are familiar, yet all are new.
It is most important that we should emphasize this new or higher element in his art rather than its superficial resemblance to the old art whose tradition he unquestionably accepted. It is the something more that makes Fra Angelico the supreme artist. That something more is not in the line of Masaccio’s development, not in the line of the progress of his time. It is for that reason so much the more to be attributed wholly to himself. Perhaps we shall best appreciate it if we notice the Meeting of Christ with the two Dominican Monks (B 119). It is useless to compare this figure of the Saviour with any other that Italian art can give us. It is worthy of comparison, but comparison is futile. All is contrast. Look upon it and ask yourself the familiar test questions. Is this the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief “? There is scarce a trace of grief, present or past, in this celestial countenance. Is this he who drove the money changers out of the temple ? The thought is equally impossible. Nearer, perhaps, we shall come if we ask if this is he who blessed little children ? And yet even here longer observation will leave us in doubt. No, without disparagement to this wonderful creation, there is scarce an incident in the life of Jesus that we can associate with it. And when we have applied our test in vain, it will perhaps occur to us that this is precisely what we should expect. The painter is not trying to give us the historic Christ. It is none of these incidents that he would recall to our mind. On the contrary, he would disclose to us in the Christ as in the Madonna, in the angels, in that marvellous series of heavenly personalities which gaze at us so serenely from his pictures, early and late, he would reveal to us in all these, not the earthly, but the heavenly life. It is no part of his purpose, no part of his ideal, that life should develop what we commonly call character that adaptation to the earthly surroundings, that calmness and poise that fit us for mastery in the great human struggle. Of all that struggle he knows and will know nothing. He will rather reveal to us the beauty of the heavenly life, make us long to attain it, and through that longing adapt ourselves in some measure to it before it is as yet our portion.
Most significant of all his pictures we must account the Last Judgment (B 116), strangest of themes for this interpreter of the soul’s ecstasy. In the perfectly symmetrical composition of this somewhat complicated picture, we have first of all the Christ, sitting high in the center, a Christ little suited to the stern occasion, but seraphically beautiful ; and on either side, in a long row, are the saints and worthies, while surrounding the Christ are a group of heavenly ministrants. They are the angels whose happy lot it is to sing praises before the throne, and those who, in mimicry of the warfare that there can never be known, wear little helmets and armor as the Saviour’s bodyguard. It is in these little faces, perhaps, that we shall see the artist at his best. They are the tiniest that his art affords, but infinitely perfect. Uniform, yet without monotony, they epitomize that heavenly spirit that dominates the painter’s thought.
Below this heavenly group there are the open graves, so strange to our modern thought but precisely such as are suggested by any Italian cemetery. To the left of these graves are the Blessed. All classes and conditions are represented, but a quiet joy and peace suffuses all. The sward is decked with flowers, among which walk the souls of the happy Just, conducted about by angels in naïve, child-like sweetness. Angels and glorified spirits meet in a fond embrace, and hand in hand, go circling in childish glee in the games that children know. Off, far to the left, is a gate, the hint, beyond which no artist ever dared to go, of that heavenly Jerusalem the description of which has so taxed the imagination of poet and seer. Through the open gateway stream long rays of golden light up which angels sail into the Presence which mortal eye can never behold. Nothing can exceed the charm of our artist’s composition. Infinite beauty and quiet loveliness pervade both the forms and the suggestion of these transfigured faces.
The most violent of all contrasts is called for in this theme. On the opposite side are the spirits of the Damned, driven by demons toward the place of torture. The demons are conventional, such as Fra Angelico had seen represented in works of art many a time. He contributes little to the conventional idea and exploits but imperfectly its ferocious possibilities. The Damned themselves fall far short of our weird imaginings. Their faces, doubtless intended to depict agonized terror, are somewhat ambiguously distorted. We are prepared to see their mock agony turned into a peal of laughter, and tragedy end in a joke. The artist is totally unable to express adequately those passions from which he had lived so remote, and as the completion of the picture, according to traditional ideas, called for a deeper depth and a more terrible scene, he gave up in sheer despair. The picture of Hell at the right is painted by another and a coarser hand. The good artist’s scruples are not shared by the substitute. He is inadequate enough, but his inadequacy is due to his grossness, not to the shrinking tenderness of a soul unable to endure the thoughts that he was compelled to suggest. It would be difficult to find, confined within a single frame, in all Italy a contrast so great as that between the coarseness of this alien hand and the ineffable delicacy of the inspired monk.
But the artist’s chief glory is forever associated with the Monastery of San Marco where he shares the honors with the great monk of a later day. There, in a long series of cells, he has wrought with varying but marvellous skill, the scenes of the Passion. Never has the suffering of the Saviour been represented in so spiritual a guise. Compare the buffeting of the blind-folded Jesus with a representation of the passion by Rubens, and we have some idea of the abyss that separated these two interpreters of our faith. Supreme among these creations must be accounted the Annunciation (B 120). The Angel appears to Mary, announcing that she is to be the mother of the Lord, and she, bowing in obedience, replies unmistakably, by attitude and expression, “Behold the hand-maid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” Let the head drop a trifle lower, and instantly it becomes obsequious ; hold it a little higher and something of haughty reserve mars the perfect spirit of the scene. Not by the deviation of a hair could this picture be modified without sacrificing something of its spiritual perfectness. If we wish to realize the possibilities of this theme for better, for worse, let us compare this creation of Fra Angelico with the same theme by Veronese, which for ogling, coquettish vulgarity, is the very bathos of art.
Again, fame resulted in a call from Rome. It must have been with no small trepidation that Fra Angelico, long sheltered within the walls of his monastery, heard at last this call from the Holy Father himself. Doubtless his mind, however,, childlike and content, had its doubts, at least, let us say, its wondering questions as to things, in the faith not easy to understand. Indeed, he had even questioned whether his art were the highest form of service, and had decided to relinquish it and give himself unreservedly to devotion, when the Prior, less troubled with scruples of this sort, had peremptorily commanded him to resume his work ; and this he did, nothing doubting, simple soul that he was. He had taken upon himself the vow of obedience. The Prior knew what was right, and responsibility and wisdom were his. And so the childlike life and faith continued. And now, not the Prior, but a greater than he, a higher and holier than he, was to be the master under whose eye his work was to be wrought.
How much more perfectly the Vicar of Christ must appreciate the heavenly life ; how much purer his vision than that of the simple monk ! So we may imagine ran the thought of this simple spirit. Next to heaven itself must be association with this highest representative of the heavenly Master !
Alas for our good monk. Something else than heavenly visions are remembered in connection with the Vatican of those days. We will not draw back the curtain that hides too much that is unsightly. The Vatican had fallen upon evil days. Humanism, that ambitious program of philosophy and life which aimed to formulate the results of experience, not Christian, nor pagan, but of all human experience, had resulted, as such programs are wont to do, in relaxing the stern grip of Christian morals and faith, and in bringing back, not the greatness and the glory, but the ‘weakness of pagan-ism. Humanism it was meant to be neo-paganism it really became. It was a passing phase in the experience of the Vatican, but one that coincided with the art of this wonderful century. At its best we find. it in Lorenzo de’ Medici, at its worst in some of the popes of the period.
Just what our good monk found, we do not know. Of one thing we are sure, the lovely traditional art to which he added a new spiritual touch, the art which, with its wealth of religious associations, had seemed so obviously Christian as contrasted with the new art that was so secular and profane, this art for which he had expected a still more illuminating insight, a more inspiring appreciation in the Vatican, he found disparaged. The Vatican stood for Masaccio, not for Fra Angelico. Doubtless they broke the news to him gently. Doubtless their disparagement of his ideals was a kindly one. Incidents are not recorded, but one can well imagine with what troubled spirit the monk slowly became conscious of the fact that the things that he had unhesitatingly rejected were the things that here were approved ; that the ideals to which he had devoted his life were here regarded as obsolete and outworn. Let us hope that no worse disillusioning was his portion.
As we enter the little Chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican, by far the most religious spot in that vast palace of the popes, we recognize at once the delicacy and refinement of Fra Angelico. But there are things that seem strange to us. St. Stephen preaching is a pure and exalted spirit, but despite everything, he seems tame. There is a touch of the perfunctory in the representation even of this saint, while the listeners, for our artist at least, are commonplace. And behind them, in the background of the scene, tower huge buildings, utterly meaningless but showing evident interest in the problem that had been engaging the attention of the uninspired Masolino. Vistas and streets and architecture now fill the space where angels had been before. The artist is trying to be up to date.
It is pitiful to notice the cheap complacency with which the critics here recognize progress in Fra Angelico. The progress which they note is nothing but the surrender of a troubled and distracted spirit to ideals which, whatever their possibilities for the future, were for him worldly and profane. And soon we read, not without a sigh of relief, upon a humble tomb in a church near by, the name, Beato Angelico.
Of all tragedy there is none that compares with the shattering of a life’s ideals. The torture of the flesh is as nothing to the torture of the spirit. When Savonarola was imprisoned and put to the torture, his followers, devout believers in the purity of his intentions, and completely committed to those ideals which in his earlier years he had stated with such uncompromising directness, but troubled later by those seeming compromises that as practical ruler he felt himself compelled to make, waited for some word from the dungeon which should explain what to them was inexplicable, which should restore their perfect faith before silence should still his voice forever. And at last the word came, saddest word in all his history, a word so different from what they expected, but a word, properly understood, infinitely more significant than any other he could have given “Brethren, pray for me, for God hath removed from me the spirit of prophecy.”