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  The Rise Of Christian ArtTuesday, April 23rd, 2024  
by Clive Bell

"The Mourning of Christ", painted c.1305. Capella dell’Arena, Padua, Italy - Giotto
What do I mean by a slope? That I hope to make clear in the course of this chapter and the next. But, as readers may expect something to go on with, I will explain immediately that, though I recognise the continuity of the stream of art, I believe that it is possible and proper to divide that stream into slopes and movements. About the exact line of division there can be no certainty. It is easy to say that in the passage of a great river from the hills to the sea, the depth, the width, the colour, the temperature, and the velocity of the waters are bound to change; to fix precisely the point of change is another matter. If I try to picture for myself the whole history of art from earliest times in all parts of the world I am unable, of course, to see it as a single thread. The stuff of which it is made is unchangeable, it is always water that flows down the river, but there is more than one channel: for instance, there is European art and Oriental. To me the universal history of art has the look of a map in which several streams descend from the same range of mountains to the same sea. They start from different altitudes but all descend at last to one level. Thus, I should say that the slope at the head of which stand the Buddhist masterpieces of the Wei, Liang, and T'ang dynasties begins a great deal higher than the slope at the head of which are the Greek primitives of the seventh century, and higher than that of which early Sumerian sculpture is the head; but when we have to consider contemporary Japanese art, Graeco-Roman and Roman sculpture, and late Assyrian, we see that all have found the same sea-level of nasty naturalism.

By a slope, then, I mean that which lies between a great primitive morning, when men create art because they must, and that darkest hour when men confound imitation with art. These slopes can be subdivided into movements. The downward course of a slope is not smooth and even, but broken and full of accidents. Indeed the procession of art does not so much resemble a river as a road from the mountains to the plain. That road is a sequence of ups and downs. An up and a down together form a movement. Sometimes the apex of one movement seems to reach as high as the apex of the movement that preceded it, but always its base carries us farther down the slope. Also, in the history of art the summit of one movement seems always to spring erect from the trough of its predecessor. The upward stroke is vertical, the downward an inclined plane. For instance, from Duccio to Giotto is a step up, sharp and shallow. From Giotto to Lionardo is a long and, at times, almost imperceptible fall. Duccio is a fine decadent of that Basilian movement which half survived the Latin conquest and came to an exquisite end under the earlier Palaeologi. The peak of that movement rises high above Giotto, though Duccio near its base is below him. Giotto's art is definitely inferior to the very finest Byzantine of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and Giotto is the crest of a new movement destined and doomed inevitably to sink to depths undreamed of by Duccio.

All that was spiritual in Greek civilisation was sick before the sack of Corinth, and all that was alive in Greek art had died many years earlier. That it had died before the death of Alexander let his tomb at Constantinople be my witness. Before they set the last stone of the Parthenon it was ailing: the big marbles in the British Museum are the last significant examples of Greek art; the frieze, of course, proves nothing, being mere artisan work. But the man who made what one may as well call "The Theseus" and "The Ilissus," the man whom one may as well call Phidias, crowns the last vital movement in the Hellenic slope. He is a genius, but he is no oddity: he falls quite naturally into his place as the master of the early decadence; he is the man in whom runs rich and fast but a little coarsened the stream of inspiration that gave life to archaic Greek sculpture. He is the Giotto - but an inferior Giotto - of the slope that starts from the eighth century b.c. - so inferior to the sixth century a.d. - to peter out in the bogs of Hellenistic and Roman rubbish. Whence sprang that Hellenic impulse? As yet we cannot tell. Probably, from the ruins of some venerable Mediterranean civility, against the complex materialism of which it was, in its beginnings, I dare say, a reaction. The story of its prime can be read in fragments of archaic sculpture scattered throughout Europe, and studied in the National Museum at Athens, where certain statues of athletes, dating from about 600, reveal the excellences and defects of Greek art at its best. Of its early decline in the fifth century Phidias is the second-rate Giotto; the copies of his famous contemporaries and immediate predecessors are too loathsome to be at all just; Praxiteles, in the fourth century, the age of accomplished prettiness, is the Correggio, or whatever delightful trifler your feeling for art and chronology may suggest. Fifth and fourth century architecture forbid us to forget the greatness of the Greeks in the golden age of their intellectual and political history. The descent from sensitive, though always rather finikin, drawing through the tasteful and accomplished to the feebly forcible may be followed in the pots and vases of the sixth, fifth, fourth, and third centuries. In the long sands and flats of Roman realism the stream of Greek inspiration is lost for ever.

Before the death of Marcus Aurelius, Europe was as weary of materialism as England before the death of Victoria. But what power was to destroy a machine that had enslaved men so completely that they dared not conceive an alternative? The machine was grown so huge that man could no longer peer over its side; man could see nothing but its cranks and levers, could hear nothing but its humming, could mark the spinning fly-wheel and fancy himself in contemplation of the revolving spheres. Annihilation was the only escape for the Roman citizen from the Roman Empire. Yet, while in the West Hadrian was raising the Imperial talent for brutalisation to a system and a science, somewhere in the East, in Egypt, or in Asia Minor, or, more probably in Syria, in Mesopotamia, or even Persia, the new leaven was at work. That power which was to free the world was in ferment. The religious spirit was again coming to birth. Here and there, in face of the flat contradiction of circumstances, one would arise and assert that man does not live by bread alone. Orphism, Mythraism, Christianity, many forms of one spirit, were beginning to mean something more than curious ritual and discreet debauch. Very slowly a change was coming over the face of Europe.

There was change before the signs of it became apparent. The earliest Christian paintings in the catacombs are purely classical. If the early Christians felt anything new they could not express it. But before the second century was out Coptic craftsmen had begun to weave into dead Roman designs something vital. The academic patterns are queerly distorted and flattened out into forms of a certain significance, as we can feel for ourselves if we go to the textile room at South Kensington. Certainly, these second century Coptic textiles are more like works of art than anything that had been produced in the Roman Empire for more than four hundred years. Egyptian paintings of the third century bear less positive witness to the fumblings of a new spirit. But at the beginning of the fourth century Diocletian built his palace at Spalato, where we have all learned to see classicism and the new spirit from the East fighting it out side by side; and, if we may trust Strzygowski, from the end of that century dates the beautiful church of Kodja-Kalessi in Isauria. The century in which the East finally dominated the West (350-450) is a period of incubation. It is a time of disconcerting activity that precedes the unmistakable launch of art upon the Christian slope. I would confidently assert that every artistic birth is preceded by a period of uneasy gestation in which the unborn child acquires the organs and energy that are to carry it forward on its long journey, if only I possessed the data that would give a tottering support to so comforting a generalisation. Alas! the births of the great slopes of antiquity are shrouded in a night scarcely ruffled by the minute researches of patient archaeologists and impervious to the startling discoveries by experts of more or less palpable forgeries. Of these critical periods we dare not speak confidently; nevertheless we can compare the fifth century with the nineteenth and draw our own conclusions.

In 450 they built the lovely Galla Placidia at Ravenna. It is a building essentially un-Roman; that is to say, the Romanism that clings to it is accidental and adds nothing to its significance. The mosaics within, however, are still coarsely classical. There is a nasty, woolly realism about the sheep, and about the good shepherd more than a suspicion of the stodgy, Graeco-Roman, Apollo. Imitation still fights, though it fights a losing battle, with significant form. When S. Vitale was begun in 526 the battle was won. Sta. Sophia at Constantinople was building between 532 and 537; the finest mosaics in S. Vitale, S. Apollinare-Nuovo and S. Apollinare-in-Classe belong to the sixth century; so do SS. Sergius and Bacchus at Constantinople and the Duomo at Parenzo. In fact, to the sixth century belong the most majestic monuments of Byzantine art. It is the primitive and supreme summit of the Christian slope. The upward spring from the levels of Graeco-Romanism is immeasurable. The terms in which it could be stated have yet to be discovered. It is the whole length of the slope from Sta. Sophia to the Victoria Memorial pushed upright to stand on a base of a hundred years. We are on heights from which the mud-flats are invisible; resting here, one can hardly believe that the flats ever were, or, at any rate, that they will ever be again. Go to Ravenna, and you will see the masterpieces of Christian art, the primitives of the slope: go to the Tate Gallery or the Luxembourg, and you will see the end of that slope - Christian art at its last gasp. These memento mori are salutary in an age of assurance when, looking at the pictures of Cézanne, we feel, not inexcusably, that we are high above the mud and malaria. Between Cézanne and another Tate Gallery, what lies in store for the human spirit? Are we in the period of a new incubation? Or is the new age born? Is it a new slope that we are on, or are we merely part of a surprisingly vigorous premonitory flutter? These are queries to ponder. Is Cézanne the beginning of a slope, a portent, or merely the crest of a movement? The oracles are dumb. This alone seems to me sure: since the Byzantine primitives set their mosaics at Ravenna no artist in Europe has created forms of greater significance unless it be Cézanne.

With Sta. Sophia at Constantinople, and the sixth century churches and mosaics at Ravenna, the Christian slope establishes itself in Europe. In the same century it took a downward twist at Constantinople; but in one part of Europe or another the new inspiration continued to manifest itself supremely for more than six hundred years. There were ups and downs, of course, movements and reactions; in some places art was almost always good, in others it was never first-rate; but there was no universal, irreparable depreciation till Norman and Romanesque architecture gave way to Gothic, till twelfth-century sculpture became thirteenth-century figuration.

Christian art preserved its primitive significance for more than half a millennium. Therein I see no marvel. Even ideas and emotions travelled slowly in those days. In one respect, at any rate, trains and steam-boats have fulfilled the predictions of their exploiters - they have made everything move faster: the mistake lies in being quite so positive that this is a blessing. In those dark ages things moved slowly; that is one reason why the new force had not spent itself in six hundred years. Another is that the revelation came to an age that was constantly breaking fresh ground. Always there was a virgin tract at hand to take the seed and raise a lusty crop. Between 500 and 1000 a.d. the population of Europe was fluid. Some new race was always catching the inspiration and feeling and expressing it with primitive sensibility and passion. The last to be infected was one of the finest; and in the eleventh century Norman power and French intelligence produced in the west of Europe a manifestation of the Christian ferment only a little inferior to that which five hundred years earlier had made glorious the East.

Let me insist once again that, when I speak of the Christian ferment or the Christian slope, I am not thinking of dogmatic religion. I am thinking of that religious spirit of which Christianity, with its dogmas and rituals, is one manifestation, Buddhism another. And when I speak of art as a manifestation of the religious spirit I do not mean that art expresses particular religious emotions, much less that it expresses anything theological. I have said that if art expresses anything, it expresses an emotion felt for pure form and that which gives pure form its extraordinary significance. So, when I speak of Christian art, I mean that this art was one product of that state of enthusiasm of which the Christian Church is another. So far was the new spirit from being a mere ebullition of Christian faith that we find manifestations of it in Mohammedan art; everyone who has seen a photograph of the Mosque of Omar at Jerusalem knows that. The emotional renaissance in Europe was not the wide-spreading of Christian doctrines, but it was through Christian doctrine that Europe came to know of the rediscovery of the emotional significance of the Universe. Christian art is not an expression of specific Christian emotions; but it was only when men had been roused by Christianity that they began to feel the emotions that express themselves in form. It was Christianity that put Europe into that state of emotional turmoil from which sprang Christian art.

For a moment, in the sixth century, the flood of enthusiasm seems to have carried the Eastern world, even the official world, off its feet. But Byzantine officials were no fonder of swimming than others. The men who worked the imperial machine, studied the Alexandrine poets, and dabbled in classical archaeology were not the men to look forward. Only the people, led by the monks, were vaguely, and doubtless stupidly, on the side of emotion and the future. Soon after Justinian's death the Empire began to divide itself into two camps. Appropriately, religious art was the standard of the popular party, and around that standard the battle raged. "No man," said Lord Melbourne, "has more respect for the Christian religion than I; but when it comes to dragging it into private life...." At Constantinople they began dragging religion, and art too, into the sanctity of private capital. Now, no official worth his salt can watch the shadow being recklessly sacrificed to the substance without itching to set the police on somebody; and the vigilance and sagacity of Byzantine civilians has become proverbial. We learn from a letter written by Pope Gregory II to the Emperor Leo, the iconoclast, that men were willing to give their estates for a picture. This, to Pope, Emperor, and Mr. Finlay the historian, was proof enough of appalling demoralisation. For a parallel, I suppose, they recalled the shameful imprudence of the Magdalene. There were people at Constantinople who took art seriously, though in a rather too literary spirit - "dicunt enim artem pictoriam piam esse." This sort of thing had to be stopped. Early in the eighth century began the iconoclast onslaught. The history of that hundred years' war, in which the popular party carried on a spirited and finally successful resistance, does not concern us. One detail, however, is worth noticing. During the iconoclast persecution a new popular art makes its appearance in and about those remote monasteries that were the strongholds of the mystics. Of this art the Chloudof Psalter is the most famous example. Certainly the art of the Chloudof Psalter is not great. A desire to be illustrative generally mars both the drawing and the design. It mars, but does not utterly ruin; in many of the drawings something significant persists. There is, however, always too much realism and too much literature. But neither the realism nor the literature is derived from classical models. The work is essentially original. It is also essentially popular. Indeed, it is something of a party pamphlet; and in one place we see the Emperor and his cabinet doing duty as a conclave of the damned. It would be easy to overrate the artistic value of the Chloudof Psalter, but as a document it is of the highest importance, because it brings out clearly the opposition between the official art of the iconoclasts that leaned on the Hellenistic tradition and borrowed bluntly from Bagdad, and the vital art that drew its inspiration from the Christian movement and transmuted all its borrowing into something new. Side by side with this live art of the Christian movement we shall see a continuous output of work based on the imitation of classical models. Those coarse and dreary objects that crop up more or less frequently in early Byzantine, Merovingian, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, and early Italian art, are not, however, an inheritance from the iconoclastic period; they are the long shadow thrown across history by the gigantic finger of imperial Rome. The mischief done by the iconoclasts was not irreparable, but it was grave. True to their class, Byzantine officials indulged a taste for furniture, giving thereby an unintentional sting to their attack. Like the grandees of the Classical Renaissance, they degraded art, which is a religion, to upholstery, a menial trade. They patronised craftsmen who looked not into their hearts, but into the past - who from the court of the Kalif brought pretty patterns, and from classical antiquity elegant illusions, to do duty for significant design. They looked to Greece and Rome as did the men of the Renaissance, and, like them, lost in the science of representation the art of creation. In the age of the iconoclasts, modelling - the coarse Roman modelling - begins to bulge and curl luxuriously at Constantinople. The eighth century in the East is a portent of the sixteenth in the West. It is the restoration of materialism with its paramour, obsequious art. The art of the iconoclasts tells us the story of their days; it is descriptive, official, eclectic, historical, plutocratic, palatial, and vulgar. Fortunately, its triumph was partial and ephemeral.

For art was still too vigorous to be strangled by a pack of cultivated mandarins. In the end the mystics triumphed. Under the Regent Theodora (842) the images were finally restored; under the Basilian dynasty (867-1057) and under the Comneni Byzantine art enjoyed a second golden age. And though I cannot rate the best Byzantine art of the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries quite so high as I rate that of the sixth, I am inclined to hold it superior, not only to anything that was to come, but also to the very finest achievement of the greatest ages of Egypt, Crete, and Greece.

This article is a chapter from the classic book Art, by Clive Bell , published in 1913. It is in the public domain.

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