The Dawn Of Christian Art

WOULD you see the face of your God? Then look WOULD into the heart of your fellow man. Why do men paint pictures, build cathedrals or whittle with a jack-knife? Pray do not tell me it is for pleasure, or profit. Nor prate of an urge to satisfy the ego. The answer is well down in the human heart, in the intangible fibers that make up the human mind, in the utmost depths of the human soul.

Religion was ever the fountain-head of art. No greater force entered into the development of Western art and civilization than Christianity. Yet how does art grow out of religion? Is it through inspiration, through holy zeal? Is it God-inspired? Or is it but nurtured on the golden purse of a church grown fat?

There is an ancient, picturesque and rather poetic sect among the Jews, called Hassidim. Their colorful rituals are built on a belief in the omniscience and omnipresence of God. God is everywhere, in all things, in all beings. God is within the breast of kings and in the heart and blood of the lowliest serf. He is in the eagle that soars the air, in the rock or cliff, and in the fallen log.

Hassidic belief might explain the relation between religion and art. Art would be the expression of the divinity reposing within us. A little further delving and art becomes the expression of our innermost depth, call it the soul or what you will. And that same depth may in turn become the source of our religion, our God, and all our highest aims and aspirations. But to go back to Christianity.

In the record of world events accidents are few or none. Effect follows cause and cause begets effect. Art is born of human experience. All great movements are reflected in contemporaneous art. Religion makes art. In turn art becomes a vital factor in keeping alive the faith which gave it birth. Why, then, did it take so long for the art of Christianity to reach its fullest flower? Why were not the great paintings of the Renaissance done one or two centuries after the birth of Christ? Why did it take a thousand years for Gothic architecture to make its appearance? When Buddhism first came to China it was quickly followed by Buddhist art. Yet centuries passed before Christianity began to express itself in anything but words. For Christian art to attain its highest development took fifteen hundred years. Why?

A proper answer to this question would require a good-sized book. Nor is it at all certain that it would satisfy. Much of the history involved is clouded by the Dark Ages. We do know, however, that the Christian religion was born under highly unfavorable conditions. The Crucifixion, which was to prove so great an influence in building up the faith, is evidence of its early handicaps.

Pitiful is the story of the followers of the faith in Nero’s day. Like hunted rats they would slink into holes. Catacombs, underground chambers and passage-ways of Rome, were their places of worship. A Roman law forbade secret meetings. Severe punishment was meted out to these zealots for breaking that law. Much too severe for the crime—even in Rome. The fact is, Christians were despised. But why? Stray creeds were no novelty. The East had many new cults. All of them sought converts in Rome. Why, then, were the followers of the Nazarene persecuted?

For one thing, this particular little cult originated from the hated Jews. There was something sinister in its belief. Like the stubborn incorrigibles in Jerusalem, the proponents of the new faith were proclaiming the one God. They offered the only serious challenge to Jupiter. How was this to be met? How, indeed, is religious difference in any age met?

Jesus preaches peace on earth. So does Mohammed. “Down with the infidel?” cry devout Mohammedans. And Islam, inspired by the Mohammedan version of peace on earth, covers all Europe with Christian blood. From far and wide come Christian Crusaders to rescue the tomb of Christ. Mohammedan non-believers in their brand of pious peace shall be made to give up the sacred shrine. Do they ask for it, attempt to regain it peace-fully? No, indeed. It must be got by the sword. And along the way they do the proper thing by others who do not subscribe to their particular religion of peace. In cold blood Jewish men, women and children are slaughtered, by the thousands and hundred thousands. By no means extinct even now is this formula for settling religious differences.—”Forgive them, oh, Lord. They know not what they do.”

Christian doctrine must have lent itself to ridicule at Rome. Humility was of its essence. The humble are ever favored with contemptuous kicks. Picture the jeers and jibes which must have met disciples of meekness in a land of might, of fistic glory. The jingo Roman spat at deluded, ridiculous weaklings who hid under the ground to kneel and pray. And the poor cowed fools—sneaking out of range of the oppressor’s boot they break a law of Rome! Witness, then, the delightful spectacle in the Arena of shivering Christians mumbling prayers before ferocious beasts.

No fertile soil here for artistic expression. Art does not thrive on persecution. Furthermore, most of the art of the time had to do with Roman and Greek gods. Christians would have none of them. Nor of their art. Nor of any art. Associated with an abhorrent religion, art itself was despised.

Yet thought must find outlet. Neither chains nor dungeons nor catacombs of Rome may fetter the human spirit. Gradually, haltingly, Christianity in under-ground tunnels and labyrinths begins to express itself. Symbols of the faith, like the PX, denoting Christ and the cross, appear on cavern walls. Imagery soon creeps in. We find Jesus represented as the Good Shepherd—the original emanating from the pagan Greek.

Christian art, however, is not built upon previous achievement. There is a complete breaking away. Outer beauty is discarded. Crude attempts are made instead at depicting something of the spirit of man. This art of the catacombs, little more than childish in execution, ridiculous by comparison even with that of decadent Rome, is nevertheless possessed of a fine something which transcends technique. In place of the Greek ideal of physical perfection we see here a groping for the expression of abstract spiritual concepts.

Nurtured on persecution, the underground religion grows and becomes a power. His empire crumbling, Constantine recognizes in the Christians the largest organized group in his domains. Accordingly, in the year 313 A.D., he adopts the faith. Christianity now replaces heathen gods. It becomes the fashion in the Roman Empire.

Does art now spread its wings and soar? Oh, no. Oppression takes queer turns. Who is himself newly freed may become the most cruel despot. The Church now assumes power. It sets up laws on art. “It is not the invention of the painter which creates a picture, but in-violable law, a tradition of the Catholic Church. It is not the painters, but the holy fathers who have to invent and to dictate. To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the execution.” Thus are laid down rules dictating religious subjects and the exact manner of their portrayal. Rules for preparing and applying color, for grouping of figures in sacred subjects. Types, attitudes, color of dress and mental qualities of holy personages are enumerated. The Church dictates exact lines and shadows to be used in expressing youth or age.

This brings us to the Byzantine period. Constantine had moved his capital to Byzantium, on the Bosphorus. Growing in size and magnificence, that seaport came to be known as the “City of Constantine,” or Constantinople.

At the new capital the emperor built one of the world’s most famous churches. It was dedicated to “Hagia Saphia,” Greek for “Divine Wisdom”—since corrupted into “Saint Sophia.” Four transepts opposite and at right angles to each other formed a Greek cross. Over the central space was a huge dome. Many such churches were built throughout the eastern empire. Later ones had smaller domes over each of the transepts. This is a feature of Byzantine architecture.

Saint Sophia is one of the most impressive domed buildings in the world. Over a square space bounded by four semicircular arches rises the great dome, one hundred and seven feet in diameter and a hundred and eighty feet in height. Around the dome is a belt of forty windows. Saint Sophia’s interior is profuse with colored marble and mosaics of gilded glass. Its altar originally was heaped with gems and enamels. In profusion of color its effect is Persian.

Early Byzantine painting was characterized by extreme stiffness and monotonous repetition of unnatural attitudes. Faces and bodies appear like caricatures. Correct drawing is absent. But there is an abundance of gold and brilliant colors. The background is almost always in gold. Representations of Christ, the Virgin, Mother and Child, became traditional types. The Nativity, Crucifixion, Baptism and other Christian scenes were conventionalized. Figures were inert and helplessly feeble. Imaginative power was totally lacking. The Church, custodian of the Christian faith, had crushed all inspiration in this field of Christian art.

In the year 475 A.D. civilization suffered its greatest setback—the fall of the western Roman Empire. Chaos and ruin came with Goths and Huns. Destruction followed destruction with vengeance unparalleled, with unhuman ferocity. For the time being the light of civilization in the West was quite dim. Utter confusion followed. Six centuries were engulfed in darkness—the Dark Ages. Gone were emperors. Nations were no more. No replacement of one ruler with another, mind you, but complete and utter disintegration. Every city and town became an independent government. And within its own gates was a bedlam of confusion. A most unhealthy soil here for art.

Byzantium was now the art center of the world. In architecture it produced the pendentive, a means of covering a square space with a circular dome. It developed the arch along correct scientific lines. It introduced elaborate modifications into the Corinthian capital, adding rosettes, animals and birds to the traditional acanthus leaves. Mosaics brought marvelous effects to decoration. Marble and gold were used in profusion. Geometrical patterns were emblazoned in brightest hues.

Byzantine churches and Byzantine art spread throughout the eastern empire, and as far north as Rome itself. In Ravenna we find elaborate mosaics in the manner of the Greek frieze, depicting processions of saints. The Emperor Justinian is seen surrounded by ecclesiastics and dignitaries. Their poses are crude but their costumes most sumptuous. Everywhere are themes from the New Testament elaborately done in mosaic.

Between the late eighth and middle ninth centuries the Iconoclasts, or image breakers, destroyed a good many mosaics and other Byzantine works of art. They contended that sacred images had been abused and tainted with idolatry. The result of this quarrel over images, strangely, enough, was the return to prominence of Alexandrian pagan art. Exotic Persian influences were also brought in.

Ivory carving was important in Byzantine art. Astonishing in fineness, it embraces both Greek and eastern influences. Great skill was likewise shown in enamelling and in the working of precious metals.

In its dress Byzantium showed its love of luxury and ostentation. The simple Roman toga was replaced by richly ornamented dalmatics. The Bishop of Damascus writes, “When men dressed thus appear in the street the passerby regards them as painted walls; their clothes are pictures to which children point. There are lions, bears, panthers, rocks, wood, huntsmen.”

Byzantine art is the foundation of Russian art. It exercised its greatest influence on Kieft’. From there it spread to Moscow and the other Russian cultural centers.

The second great blow to Christian art was the con-quest of the eastern empire by the Saracens. Eastern Christian art was now nipped in the bud. Converted basilicas and Christian churches were given over to the Mohammedan religion. Christian civilization was temporarily checked. Byzantine traditions, however, influenced Saracenic art. The mosque became a combination of Persian, Sassanian and Byzantine. Saracens adapted to their needs arcades, capitals, domes and gilded ornamentation. Their own architecture contributed the intricate arcade carried on slender columns. The Koran forbids the imitation of the human form, hence their highly elaborate arabesque floral and geometrical designs.

Mosques are of considerable interest. The term mosque means gathering place for the faithful. Prayer is at the wall facing toward Mecca, before a niche called the mihrab, which in large mosques is covered by a dome supported on four columns. At its right is the preacher’s pulpit, or mimbar. Opposite the mihrab is a dekka, or stone tribune. The center of the court holds the Meidaah, or water basin for the ablutions of believers. Minarets of slender towers rise from the sides of the mosque, with circular balconies and galleries from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Throughout Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor and Constantinople you may find excellent examples of mosque architecture. But the leading monuments of Saracenic art are in Spain. The celebrated mosque in Cordova, begun in the seventh century, has a veritable forest of columns.

The Alhambra, at Grenada, is the finest example of Saracenic or Moorish art. “It is a palace of the Arabian Nights which has remained untouched through the centuries, with courts, pavilions, terraces and towers, in which arcades, doors and windows are cut like lace. The walls and ceilings are covered with ceramics of blue, green, silver and gold, in simple but varied designs. The hall of the two Sisters, the hall of the Abencerrages, the court of Lions are fairy visions which only the Oriental mind could conceive, evoking the magic castles which fairy tales attribute to enchantment.” (Blum-Tatlock, History of Art.)

Mohammedan industrial arts combine Persian, Syrian and Byzantine influences. With these runs a fine strain of Saracenic originality, a unique harmony of line and color. Great technical skill is shown in chiseling of complicated subjects on copper, in astonishing minuteness of ivory carving, also in weaving of silks and tapestries. Damascus and Kaironan had famous textile factories in the tenth century. Saracenic civilization, felt as far as Sicily, was entrenched long after the expulsion of the Moslems.

Now comes the early dawn in the West. Europe is seen rubbing its eyes, stretching its arms, opening a cavernous mouth in a waking yawn. Charlemagne is making a desperate effort at civilizing the Germanic cities and states. At last Christianity is able fully to express itself.

Romanesque art is ushered in—a combination of Roman features with a modified and purified barbarian style. The result was not at all bad. With the re-establishment of the western empire came the separation between the Greek and the Latin Church. There followed the struggle for supremacy between popes and emperors, the emperors losing out. These events helped to mould the new European art.

The Roman Church had triumphed in Italy. Free and independent cities, encouraged by the popes, showed a new kind of patriotic enthusiasm. The Florentine, for example, loved his city with a boundless passion. Eagerly he put on armor to fight for her. Loudly he pro-claimed his city to be the most beautiful on earth. He would do anything to make that boast true.

The Church was now at the height of its power. Popes were busy adding to their territories and mending political fences, to the sorrow of soul-starved religious flocks. Saint Francis of Assisi, forsaking family riches and making poverty his “bride,” set out to resurrect Christian humbleness. To offset the lust of power in the official Church monasteries sprang up. These in turn developed a power of considerable magnitude.

Monks were the intellectuals of the time. Their establishments were the finest buildings in the Romanesque period. Monasteries were self-sufficient. They had their own industries as well as churches. As the monks grew in power they too deviated from simple ways. The Cluniac order in France, for instance, had nearly two thousand monasteries, all richly decorated and fantastic in detail.

Romanesque church architecture began as a simple development of the Roman Basilicas, which Constantine had transformed for Christian use. The ground plan of the Romanesque church was usually in the form of a Latin cross with a nave. Sometimes it had no aisles; at other times there was a double aisle. At the entrance was a porch, or narthex. Naves were covered with vaults. Some churches had a series of transverse barrel vaults. The dome was at first placed over the square of the crossing, vaults being used for the rest of the church. Later examples show the entire length of the nave covered with a series of domes. Like the barrel vault, the dome usually had a solid roof over it, no carpentry being employed. Towers and steeples became an important feature in the Romanesque church. Pisa Cathedral in Italy, with its famous “Leaning Tower,” is one of the leading examples of Romanesque architecture. Bridges, aqueducts, fountains and baths also occupied the builders of the time.

Romanesque sculpture was influenced by Roman, Saracenic, Persian, Byzantine and barbarian elements. Motives include beading, scrolls, geometric designs, flowers, the Roman egg and dart and rosette, animals and birds. In spite of occasional awkwardness and distortion it shows considerable skill and imagination. In the “Second Coming of Christ” in Angoleme Cathedral and on the facade of Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers we see a pronounced vivacity of movement.

Painting was not on a par with sculpture. Yet the French school of miniaturists, inspired by the Anglo-Saxons, did some creditable work. So did a number of German groups. The most interesting murals are the frescoes of St. Savin, of the eleventh century, depicting history from the Creation to the time of Moses. Their colors are laid on flat inside of hard outlines. Consider-able skill in figure composition was shown in painting on glass. The windows of the Abbey of St. Denis, 1140-1144, are the best preserved Romanesque windows in existence. They show a Tree of Jesse and scenes in the life of Moses.

In Romanesque art we are impressed with its back-ground of religious inspiration. The true expression of Christianity, so long retarded, is here keenly felt. Architects, imbued with the monastic virtue of humility, did their work anonymously. No fame nor rewards did they seek, but solely to express the glory of their God. Yet they were slaves to convention, even as their Byzantine predecessors had been. Their churches lacked light. This produced an effect of mystic beauty. But it grew unpopular with worshippers. That is one reason for the rise of Gothic architecture; though it is infinitesimal compared to the deeper reasons. Fully to understand these you must reconstruct a complete picture of the times, scan all movements, sense the thought of a changing world, thrill to the dreams and aspirations of millions newly awakened.

My one regret in this effort at presenting a bird’s-eye view of a vast subject is the limited space at my command for this part of my story. Gothic architecture is deserving of many volumes. Endless are its lessons for the student of art. Humanitarians find it an ever-flowing fountain of inspiration. Much of history, philosophy and religion are intertwined in its development. Yet, stressing relations and underlying principles rather than facts of art, I must not give way to temptation.

Slowly evolved by Romanesque builders, Gothic architecture is the universal monument of the Church at the height of its power. Also it is a symbol in stone of man’s aspiration toward freedom. It is the prophecy of the Lutheran revolt, of the Huguenots and of political democracy. “Gothic” was a term applied to this style of art during the Renaissance. It meant barbarous, the work of Goths. Yet it brought new grace to church architecture, and much besides.

The first point of departure of Gothic architecture from the past was in the ceiling vault. Barrel vaults were liable to cracking, hence the evolution of the somewhat pointed Gothic vault formed of two segments of a circle intersecting at the summit. The pointed arch and flying buttress are important Gothic features. Not only did they give added support to the structure, but they made possible thinner walls, larger windows and taller buildings. Gothic builders enlarged the naves, pointed and raised the vault. By an imposing interior they sought to raise the imagination of worshippers. The new-style vault was intended to lift the eyes of the multitude to heaven.

It was symbolic of the lofty aspirations of the artists who worked on it and of the community they served.

Here was a free religious art. Monasticism had begun to lose power. The populace demanded churches and cathedrals. Free cities were in keen competition for the erection of magnificent edifices. Vast projects were under-taken by combined groups of towns. Enterprises most daring were conceived and carried out, despite heart-breaking handicaps of labor, expense or transportation. Enthusiasm was unbounded. Talent was unearthed by open competition. Royalty encouraged the movement. The guilds sprang up. Workmen banded together under a “master builder” to increase their own efficiency and raise finer structures.

The feudal system brought a need for fortified castles. These began to appear in the tenth century and by the twelfth were quite numerous. Here, too, Gothic architecture played its part. Every hill was crowned with a fortress. If natural elevations ran short artificial terraces or mounds were piled up to hold new strongholds.

Ramparts and fortifications were built for the defense of cities and towns. The Abbey of Mont St. Michel is a type of monastery built almost like a fortress. It was an age in which fortifications were needed everywhere. Bridges of the time show marked achievement in engineering. Some of these, too, were fortified. We have belfried town-halls, fountains and hospitals of Gothic origin. The thirteenth century also saw the construction of many richly sculptured dwellings.

English church architecture was under French influence up to the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Then it started along lines all its own. As against the French aim at breadth, height and daring, English builders, through solidity of construction and modest height, sought an effect of peace and repose. The English tried to enrich small sized churches with beautiful mouldings and other ornamentation rather than to raise vast monuments. In fact, every country modified Gothic architecture to suit its own taste and purposes. In all of them these wonderful buildings stand as monuments to the supremacy of the Christian Church. Gothic architecture continued in prominence to the sixteenth century.

Thirteenth century sculpture aimed at unity and simplification. Sculptors tried to translate into stone the lessons of the Church—the Original Sin, the Redemption, Judgment Day. In plastic rhythm they sought to teach piety to the people. Their theology was directed both to the reason and the emotions. Suffering on the part of the damned was widely portrayed. The Coronation of the Virgin, often a smiling, vivacious Virgin, is a favorite subject. The lives of the saints came in for a good deal of representation.

During this century sculpture also sought to portray the entire range of human knowledge. Moral allegories, vices, virtues, seasons, months, the signs of the zodiac, agriculture, industry, all are represented in plaster and marble. Yet teaching and preaching did not keep the sculptors from a proper study, of nature. Realistic gargoyles of animals testify to that.

Painting is noted mostly for its miniatures. In these the northern schools showed a freedom comparable with that of contemporary sculpture. Some good work was done by English artists. But the finest miniature painting of the thirteenth century was of the Parisian school.

Subjects were for the most part illustrations of biblical stories and decorations of religious manuscripts.

Stained glass formed the chief ornamentation of buildings. Immense church windows were elaborately painted. You may see some fine examples of thirteenth century windows at Chartres Cathedral. The glass workers of Lyons worked in the same colors as those of Chartres and added considerable individuality of technique. Later the best productions were Parisian. The celebrated windows in the Sainte Chapelle are the finest examples we have. All this time stained glass followed the lines of mosaics. By the end of the thirteenth century colors improve, draperies no longer cling to the figure. We see rich garments floating on air. Fourteenth century windows are more like paintings than mosaics. Mural decoration was either borrowed or copied from the windows.

Metal work was important at this time. Its tendency was very decorative. Many silversmiths’ shops were set up in the time of Charlemagne. Grace and beauty were put into goblets, shrines and crosses. Enamel work for shrines and reliquaries showed imagination and originality, particularly in the district of Limoges. Tapestry weaving became a popular art. Tapestries were to be found not only in churches and palaces, but decorating the streets on holiday festivals. Subjects are from the New Testament, from romances of chivalry and from history.

The finest ivory carvings were produced by French artists. Early examples are the Coronation of the Virgin in the Louvre and the Virgin and Child in Cluny Museum. Thirteenth and early fourteenth century carvings are mainly diptychs. One in Soissons Cathedral depicting the Passion is a worthy example. The Equestrian in the British Museum and the Jeu d’Amour in the Louvre are excellent fourteenth century examples of ivory carvings of secular subjects.

Outside of architecture Gothic art had about it an air of timidity and awkwardness. Representation of the nude was forbidden. This may have hindered the fullest development of art. Sculpture became mannered and complicated. But all was soon to be restored to renewed vigor. Art was to be re-animated by the breath of a new spirit, the spirit of the Renaissance.