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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Italian Art in its Relation to Religion

By John Addington Symonds (1840–1893)

From ‘The Renaissance in Italy’

THE MEDIÆVAL faiths were still vivid when the first Italian painters began their work; and the sincere endeavor of these men was to set forth in beautiful and worthy form the truths of Christianity. The eyes of the worshiper should no longer have a mere stock or stone to contemplate: his imagination should be helped by the dogmatic presentation of the scenes of sacred history, and his devotion be quickened by lively images of the passion of our Lord. Spirit should converse with spirit, through no veil of symbol, but through the transparent medium of art, itself instinct with inbreathed life and radiant with ideal beauty. The body and the soul, moreover, should be reconciled; and God’s likeness should be once more acknowledged in the features and the limbs of man. Such was the promise of art; and this promise was in a great measure fulfilled by the painting of the fourteenth century. Men ceased to worship their God in the holiness of ugliness; and a great city called its street Glad on the birthday festival of the first picture investing religious emotion with æsthetic charm. But in making good the promise they had given, it was needful for the arts on the one hand to enter a region not wholly their own—the region of abstractions and of mystical conceptions; and on the other to create a world of sensuous delightfulness, wherein the spiritual element was materialized to the injury of its own essential quality. Spirit indeed spake to spirit, so far as the religious content was concerned; but flesh spake also to flesh in the æsthetic form. The incarnation promised by the arts involved a corresponding sensuousness. Heaven was brought down to earth, but at the cost of making men believe that earth itself was heavenly.

At this point the subject of our inquiry naturally divides into two main questions. The first concerns the form of figurative art specially adapted to the requirements of religious thought in the fourteenth century. The second treats of the effects resulting both to art and religion from the expression of mystical and theological conceptions in plastic form.

When we consider the nature of the ideas assimilated in the Middle Ages by the human mind, it is clear that art, in order to set them forth, demanded a language the Greeks had never greatly needed, and had therefore never fully learned. To overestimate the difference from an æsthetic point of view between the religious notions of the Greeks and those which Christianity had made essential, would be difficult. Faith, hope, and charity; humility, endurance, suffering; the Resurrection and the Judgment; the Fall and the Redemption; heaven and hell; the height and depth of man’s mixed nature; the drama of human destiny before the throne of God;—into the sphere of thoughts like these, vivid and solemn, transcending the region of sense and corporeity, carrying the mind away to an ideal world, where the things of this earth obtained a new reality by virtue of their relation to an invisible and infinite beyond,—the modern arts in their infancy were thrust. There was nothing finite here or tangible, no gladness in the beauty of girlish foreheads or the swiftness of a young man’s limbs, no simple idealization of natural delightfulness. The human body, which the figurative arts must needs use as the vehicle of their expression, had ceased to have a value in and for itself, had ceased to be the true and adequate investiture of thoughts demanded from the artist. At best it could be taken only as the symbol of some inner meaning, the shrine of an indwelling spirit nobler than itself; just as a lamp of alabaster owes its beauty and its worth to the flame it more than half conceals, the light transmitted through its scarce transparent walls.

In ancient art those moral and spiritual qualities which the Greeks recognized as truly human, and therefore divine, allowed themselves to be incarnated in well-selected types of physical perfection. The deities of the Greek mythology were limited to the conditions of natural existence; they were men and women of a larger mold and freer personality: less complex, inasmuch as each completed some one attribute; less thwarted in activity, inasmuch as no limit was assigned to exercise of power. The passions and the faculties of man, analyzed by unconscious psychology and deified by religious fancy, were invested by sculpture with appropriate forms,—the tact of the artist selecting corporeal qualities fitted to impersonate the special character of each divinity. Nor was it possible that, the gods and goddesses being what they were, exact analogues should not be found for them in idealized humanity. In a Greek statue there was enough soul to characterize the beauty of the body; to render her due meed of wisdom to Pallas, to distinguish the swiftness of Hermes from the strength of Heracles, or to contrast the virginal grace of Artemis with the abundance of Aphrodite’s charms. At the same time, the spirituality that gave its character to each Greek deity was not such that, even in thought, it could be dissociated from corporeal form. The Greeks thought of their gods as incarnate persons; and all the artist had to see to, was that this incarnate personality should be impressive in his marble.

Christianity, on the other hand, made the moral and spiritual nature of man all-essential. It sprang from an earlier religion, that judged it impious to give any form to God. The body and its terrestrial activity occupied but a subordinate position in its system. It was the life of the soul, separable from this frame of flesh, and destined to endure when earth and all this it contains has ended,—a life that was continued conflict and aspiring struggle,—which the arts, in so far as they became its instrument, were called upon to illustrate. It was the worship of a deity, all spirit, to be sought on no one sacred hill, to be adored in no transcendent shape, that they were bound to heighten. The most highly prized among the Christian virtues had no necessary connection with beauty of feature or strength of limb. Such beauty and such strength at any rate were accidental, not essential. A Greek faun could not but be graceful: a Greek hero was of necessity vigorous. But St. Stephen might be steadfast to the death without physical charm; St. Anthony might put to flight the devils of the flesh without muscular force. It is clear that the radiant physical perfection proper to the deities of Greek sculpture was not sufficient in this sphere. Again, the most stirring episodes of the Christian mythology involved pain and perturbation of the spirit; the victories of the Christian athletes were won in conflicts carried on within their hearts and souls: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers,” demoniac leaders of spiritual legions. It is therefore no less clear that the tranquillity and serenity of the Hellenic ideal, so necessary to consummate sculpture, was here out of place. How could the Last Judgment—that day of wrath when every soul, however insignificant on earth, will play the first part for one moment in an awful tragedy—be properly expressed in plastic form, harmonious and pleasing? And supposing that the artist should abandon the attempt to exclude ugliness and discord, pain and confusion, from his representation of the Dies Iræ, how could he succeed in setting forth by the sole medium of the human body the anxiety and anguish of the soul at such a time? The physical form, instead of being adequate to the ideas expressed, and therefore helpful to the artist, is a positive embarrassment, a source of weakness. The most powerful pictorial or sculpturesque delineation of the Judgment, when compared with the pangs inflicted on the spirit by a guilty conscience,—pangs whereof words may render some account, but which can find no analogue in writhings of the limbs or face,—must of necessity be found a failure. Still more impossible, if we pursue this train of thought into another region, is it for the figurative arts to approach the Christian conception of God in his omnipotence and unity. Christ himself, the central figure of the Christian universe, the desired of all nations, in whom the Deity assumed a human form and dwelt with men,—is no fit subject for such art at any rate as the Greeks had perfected. The fact of his incarnation brought him indeed within the proper sphere of the fine arts; but the chief events of his life on earth removed him beyond the reach of sculpture. This is an important consideration. It is to this that our whole argument is tending. Therefore to enlarge upon this point will not be useless.

Christ is especially adored in his last act of love on Calvary; and how impossible it is to set that forth consistently with the requirements of strictly plastic art, may be gathered by comparing the passion of St. Bernard’s Hymn to our Lord upon the Cross with all that Winckelmann and Hegel have so truly said about the restrained expression, dignified generality, and harmonious beauty essential to sculpture. It is the negation of tranquillity, the excess of feeling, the absence of comeliness, the contrast between visible weakness and invisible omnipotence, the physical humiliation voluntarily suffered by him that “ruled over all the angels, that walked on the pavements of heaven, whose feet were clothed with stars,”—it is all this that gives their force and pathos to these stanzas:—

  • Omnis vigor atque viror
  • Hinc recessit; non admiror:
  • Mors apparet in inspectu,
  • Totus pendens in defectu,
  • Attritus ægrâ macie.
  • Sic affectus, sic despectus,
  • Propter me sic interfectus,
  • Peccatori tam indigno
  • Cum amoris in te signo
  • Appare clarâ facie.
  • We have never heard that Pheidias or Praxiteles chose Prometheus upon Caucasus for the supreme display of his artistic skill; and even the anguish expressed in the group of the ‘Laocoön’ is justly thought to violate the laws of antique sculpture. Yet here was a greater than Prometheus,—one who had suffered more, and on whose suffering the salvation of the human race depended,—to exclude whom from the sphere of representation in art was the same as confessing the utter impotence of art to grasp the vital thought of modern faith. It is clear that the Muses of the new age had to haunt Calvary instead of Helicon; slaking their thirst at no Castalian spring, but at the fount of tears outpoured by all creation for a stricken God. What Hellas had achieved, supplied no norm or method for the arts in this new service.

    From what has hitherto been advanced, we may assert with confidence that if the arts were to play an important part in Christian culture, an art was imperatively demanded that should be at home in the sphere of intense feeling; that should treat the body as the interpreter and symbol of the soul, and should not shrink from pain and passion. How far the fine arts were at all qualified to express the essential thoughts of Christianity,—a doubt suggested in the foregoing paragraphs,—and how far, through their proved inadequacy to perform this task completely, they weakened the hold of mediæval faiths upon the modern mind, are questions to be raised hereafter. For the present it is enough to affirm that least of all the arts could sculpture, with its essential repose and its dependence on corporal conditions, solve the problem. Sculpture had suited the requirements of Greek thought. It belonged by right to men who not unwillingly accepted the life of this world as final, and who worshiped in their deities the incarnate personality of man made perfect. But it could not express the cycle of Christian ideas. The desire of a better world, the fear of a worse; the sense of sin referred to physical appetites, and the corresponding mortification of the flesh; hope, ecstasy, and penitence and prayer,—imply contempt or hatred for the body, suggest notions too spiritual to be conveyed by the rounded contours of beautiful limbs, too full of struggle for statuesque tranquillity. The new element needed a more elastic medium of expression. Motives more varied, gradations of sentiment more delicate, the fugitive and transient phases of emotion, the inner depths of consciousness, had somehow to be seized. It was here that painting asserted its supremacy.

    Painting is many degrees further removed than sculpture from dependence on the body in the fullness of its physical proportions. It touches our sensibilities by suggestions more indirect, more mobile, and more multiform. Color and shadow, aerial perspective and complicated grouping,—denied to sculpture, but within the proper realm of painting,—have their own significance, their real relation to feelings vaguer but not less potent than those which find expression in the simple human form. To painting, again, belongs the play of feature, indicative of internal movement, through a whole gamut of modulations inapprehensible by sculpture. All that drapery by its partial concealment of the form it clothes, and landscape by its sympathies with human sentiment, may supply to enhance the passion of the spectator, pertains to painting. This art, therefore, owing to the greater variety of means at its disposal and its greater adequacy to express emotion, became the paramount Italian art.

    To sculpture in the Renaissance, shorn of the divine right to create gods and heroes, was left the narrower field of decoration, portraiture, and sepulchral monuments. In the last of these departments it found the noblest scope for its activity; for beyond the grave, according to Christian belief, the account of the striving, hoping, and resisting soul is settled. The corpse upon the bier may bear the stamp of spiritual character impressed on it in life; but the spirit, with its struggle and its passion, has escaped as from a prison-house, and flown elsewhither. The body of the dead man—for whom this world is over, and who sleeps in peace awaiting resurrection, and thereby not wholly dead, around whose tomb watch sympathizing angels or contemplative genii—was therefore the proper subject for the highest Christian sculpture. Here if anywhere the right emotion could be adequately expressed in stone; and the molded form be made the symbol of repose, expectant of restored activity. The greatest sculptor of the modern age was essentially a poet of Death.

    Painting, then, for the reasons already assigned and insisted on, was the art demanded by the modern intellect upon its emergence from the stillness of the Middle Ages. The problem, however, even for the art of painting, was not simple. The painters, following the masters of mosaic, began by setting forth the history, mythology, and legends of the Christian Church, in imagery freer and more beautiful than lay within the scope of treatment by Romanesque or Byzantine art. So far their task was comparatively easy; for the idyllic grace of maternal love in the Madonna, the pathetic incidents of martyrdom, the courage of confessors, the ecstasies of celestial joy in redeemed souls, the loveliness of a pure life in modest virgins, and the dramatic episodes of sacred story, furnish a multitude of motives admirably pictorial. There was therefore no great obstacle upon the threshold, so long as artists gave their willing service to the Church. Yet, looking back upon this phase of painting, we are able to perceive that already the adaptation of art to Christian dogma entailed concessions on both sides. Much, on the one hand, had to be omitted from the programme offered to artistic treatment, for the reason that the fine arts could not deal with it at all. Much, on the other hand, had to be expressed by means which painting in a state of perfect freedom would repudiate. Allegorical symbols, like Prudence with two faces, and painful episodes of agony and anguish, marred her work of beauty. There was consequently a double compromise, involving a double sacrifice of something precious. The faith suffered by having its mysteries brought into the light of day, incarnated in form, and humanized. Art suffered by being forced to render intellectual abstractions to the eye through figured symbols.

    As technical skill increased, and as beauty, the proper end of art, became more rightly understood, the painters found that their craft was worthy of being made an end in itself, and that the actualities of life observed around them had claims upon their genius no less weighty than dogmatic mysteries. The subjects they had striven at first to realize with all simplicity, now became the vehicles for the display of sensuous beauty, science, and mundane pageantry. The human body received separate and independent study as a thing in itself incomparably beautiful, commanding more powerful emotions by its magic than aught else that sways the soul. At the same time the external world, with all its wealth of animal and vegetable life, together with the works of human ingenuity in costly clothing and superb buildings, was seen to be in every detail worthy of most patient imitation. Anatomy and perspective taxed the understanding of the artist, whose whole force was no longer devoted to the task of bringing religious ideas within the limits of the representable. Next, when the classical revival came into play, the arts, in obedience to the spirit of the age, left the sphere of sacred subjects, and employed their full-grown faculties in the domain of myths and pagan fancies. In this way painting may truly be said to have opened the new era of culture, and to have first manifested the freedom of the modern mind. When Luca Signorelli drew naked young men for a background to his picture of the Madonna and the infant Christ, he created for the student a symbol of the attitude assumed by fine art in its liberty of outlook over the whole range of human interests. Standing before this picture in the Uffizzi, we feel that the Church, while hoping to adorn her cherished dogmas with æsthetic beauty, had encouraged a power antagonistic to her own; a power that liberated the spirit she sought to enthrall, restoring to mankind the earthly paradise from which monasticism had expelled it.

    Not to diverge at this point, and to entertain the difficult problem of the relation of the fine arts to Christianity, would be to shrink from the most thorny question offered to the understanding by the history of the Renaissance. On the very threshold of the matter, I am bound to affirm my conviction that the spiritual purists of all ages—the Jews, the Iconoclasts of Byzantium, Savonarola, and our Puritan ancestors—were justified in their mistrust of plastic art. The spirit of Christianity and the spirit of figurative art are opposed, not because such art is immoral, but because it cannot free itself from sensuous associations. It is always bringing us back to the dear life of earth, from which the faith would sever us. It is always reminding us of the body which piety bids us to forget. Painters and sculptors glorify that which saints and ascetics have mortified. The masterpieces of Titian and Correggio, for example, lead the soul away from compunction, away from penitence, away from worship even, to dwell on the delight of youthful faces, blooming color, graceful movement, delicate emotion. Nor is this all: religious motives may be misused for what is worse than merely sensuous suggestiveness. The masterpieces of the Bolognese and Neapolitan painters, while they pretend to quicken compassion for martyrs in their agony, pander to a bestial blood-lust lurking in the darkest chambers of the soul. Therefore it is that piety, whether the piety of monastic Italy or of Puritan England, turns from these æsthetic triumphs as from something alien to itself. When the worshiper would fain ascend on wings of ecstasy to God the infinite, ineffable, unrealized, how can he endure the contact of those splendid forms, in which the lust of the eye and the pride of life, professing to subserve devotion, remind him rudely of the goodliness of sensual existence? Art, by magnifying human beauty, contradicts these Pauline maxims: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain;” “Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth;” “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” The sublimity and elevation it gives to carnal loveliness are themselves hostile to the spirit that holds no truce or compromise with the flesh. As displayed in its most perfect phases, in Greek sculpture and Venetian painting, art dignifies the actual mundane life of man; but Christ, in the language of uncompromising piety, means everything most alien to this mundane life,—self-denial, abstinence from fleshly pleasure, the waiting for true bliss beyond the grave, seclusion even from social and domestic ties. “He that loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” “He that taketh not his cross and followeth me, is not worthy of me.” It is needful to insist upon these extremest sentences of the New Testament, because upon them was based the religious practice of the Middle Ages, more sincere in their determination to fulfill the letter and embrace the spirit of the Gospel than any succeeding age has been.

    If then there really exists this antagonism between fine art glorifying human life and piety contemning it, how came it, we may ask, that even in the Middle Ages the Church hailed art as her coadjutor? The answer lies in this: that the Church has always compromised. When the conflict of the first few centuries of Christianity had ended in her triumph, she began to mediate between asceticism and the world. Intent on absorbing all existent elements of life and power, she conformed her system to the Roman type, established her service in basilicas and pagan temples, adopted portions of the antique ritual, and converted local genii into saints. At the same time she utilized the spiritual forces of monasticism, and turned the mystic impulse of ecstatics to account. The Orders of the Preachers and the Begging Friars became her militia and police; the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was made an engine of the priesthood; the dreams of Paradise and Purgatory gave value to her pardons, interdictions, jubilees, indulgences, and curses. In the Church the spirit of the cloister and the spirit of the world found neutral ground, and to the practical accommodation between these hostile elements she owed her wide supremacy. The Christianity she formed and propagated was different from that of the New Testament, inasmuch as it had taken up into itself a mass of mythological anthropomorphic elements. Thus transmuted and materialized, thus accepted by the vivid faith of an unquestioning populace, Christianity offered a proper medium for artistic activity. The whole first period of Italian painting was occupied with the endeavor to set forth in form and color the popular conceptions of a faith at once unphilosophical and unspiritual, beautiful and fit for art by reason of the human elements it had assumed into its substance. It was natural, therefore, that the Church should show herself indulgent to the arts, which were effecting in their own sphere what she had previously accomplished; though purists and ascetics, holding fast by the original spirit of their creed, might remain irreconcilably antagonistic to their influence. The Reformation, on the contrary, rejecting the whole mass of compromises sanctioned by the Church, and returning to the elemental principles of the faith, was no less naturally opposed to fine arts; which after giving sensuous form to Catholic mythology, had recently attained to liberty and brought again the gods of Greece.

    A single illustration might be selected from the annals of Italian painting, to prove how difficult even the holiest minded and most earnest painter found it to effect the proper junction between plastic beauty and pious feeling. Fra Bartolommeo, the disciple of Savonarola, painted a Sebastian in the cloister of S. Marco; where it remained until the Dominican confessors became aware, through the avowals of female penitents, that this picture was a stumbling-block and snare to souls. It was then removed, and what became of it we do not know for certain. Fra Bartolommeo undoubtedly intended this ideal portrait of the martyr to be edifying. St. Sebastian was to stand before the world as the young man, strong and beautiful, who endured to the end, and won the crown of martyrdom. No other ideas but those of heroism, constancy, or faith, were meant to be expressed: but the painter’s art demanded that their expression should be eminently beautiful; and the beautiful body of the young man distracted attention from his spiritual virtues to his physical perfections. A similar maladjustment of the means of plastic art to the purposes of religion would have been impossible in Hellas, where the temples of Erôs and of Phœbus stood side by side; but in Christian Florence the craftsman’s skill sowed seeds of discord in the souls of the devout.

    This story is but a coarse instance of the separation between piety and plastic art. In truth, the difficulty of uniting them in such a way that the latter shall enforce the former lies far deeper than its powers of illustration reach. Religion has its proper end in contemplation and in conduct. Art aims at presenting sensuous embodiment of thoughts and feelings with a view to intellectual enjoyment. Now, many thoughts are incapable of sensuous embodiment; they appear as abstractions to the philosophical intellect or as dogmas to the theological understanding. To effect an alliance between art and philosophy or art and theology, in the specific region of either religion or speculation, is therefore an impossibility. In like manner there are many feelings which cannot properly assume a sensuous form; and these are precisely religious feelings, in which the soul abandons sense, and leaves the actual world behind, to seek her freedom in a spiritual region. Yet while we recognize the truth of this reasoning, it would be unscientific to maintain that until they are brought into close and inconvenient contact, there is direct hostility between religion and the arts. The sphere of the two is separate; their aims are distinct: they must be allowed to perfect themselves each after its own fashion. In the large philosophy of human nature, represented by Goethe’s famous motto, there is room for both, because those who embrace it bend their natures neither wholly to the pietism of the cloister nor to the sensuality of art. They find the meeting-point of art and of religion in their own humanity; and perceive that the antagonism of the two begins when art is set to do work alien to its nature, and to minister to what it does not naturally serve.