In the first decade of our century, Europe appeared a civilized continent. In most of the world there was peace, and it seemed as if it would be a lasting condition. Exchanges between countries in science and the humanities were lively. No travel passport was necessary except for Spain and Russia. This was the period in which the idea of this book came first to my mind. Perhaps here some personal history might be in place.
Years before I graduated from Latin School, Impressionist painting had gained a wide following in my native Budapest; also, a considerable number of works by El Greco were accessible. El Greco fascinated and puzzled me. I was drawn to his unconventional color combinations, his unusual composition, and was puzzled by a strange tenseness in his painting. I could not fit him entirely into either the Venetian or the Spanish school. Somewhat later, when I studied the beginnings of Christian art and got away from the routine chapters of art history, my perplexity gradually gave place to understanding. At that time I was writing and translating poetry and had published essay on music, literature, and the arts. One of my favorite pastimes was visiting the Magyar National Museum of Fine Arts, which was then barely a few years old and not only utilized modern exhibition techniques but even was equipped with a type of air conditioning. Though I had my favorite paintings, I made it a habit to walk slowly through the halls of Byzantine and Gothic art and so work my way up to the Italians. I liked to stand before an early panel and look beyond, into another room where the Venetian canvases glowed. I tried to identify them by learning their characteristics through my eye. The guards knew me and let me lean close to observe the details. I still recall vividly some of those pictures, their composition and tonality, and I remember too the patterned or plain wall coverings in rooms where I sat long. Going home on the sunny side of a broad avenue, I had the feeling of coming from a banquet.
Scholarly interest and connoisseurship were oriented nearly exclusively toward Western art. The great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and America were little appreciated. Even that vast world, the Levant, where Christ was born and his teaching gained the first followers, was. neglected. The biblical lands had belonged for centuries to the Ottoman Empire. They were not easily penetrated, and when explorers were able to visit one or another region they found the Christian monuments in ruins, mosaics and murals damaged or erased. The records of their voyages are mostly without clear illustrations.