The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century

The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century

The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century

The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century

Excerpt

To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know--the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts--all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. The pathetic name of Biblia pauperum given by the printers of the fifteenth century to one of their earliest books, might well have been given to the church. There the simple, the ignorant, all who were named "sancta plebs Dei," learned through their eyes almost all they knew of their faith. Its great figures, so spiritual in conception, seemed to bear speaking witness to the truth of the Church's teaching. The countless statues, disposed in scholarly design, were a symbol of the marvellous order that through the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas reigned in the world of thought. Through the medium of art the highest conceptions of theologian and scholar penetrated to some extent the minds of even the humblest of the people.

But the meaning of these profound works gradually became obscure. New generations, with a different conception of the world, no longer understood them, and from the second half of the sixteenth century mediæval art became an enigma. Symbolism, the soul of Gothic art, was dead.

The Church was ashamed of the once beloved legends, in which for so many centuries Christianity had been nurtured. The council of Trent marks the end of the old artistic tradition, and we know from a book full of the spirit of the council, that the writer--Molanus the theologian--had lost the key to the art of the Middle Ages.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Benedictines of Saint- Maur, when writing of the ancient churches of France, displayed an ignorance which was anything but creditable to their order's reputation for learning. In his Monuments de la monarchie française Montfaucon reads into the cathedral façades scenes from the history of France and portraits of her kings.

And what can one say of those who speak of Gothic bas-reliefs and statues as they might speak of the antiquities of India. Some have imagined . . .

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