The Beginnings of Christian Art

By D. Talbot Rice | Go to book overview

ENVOI

IN some ways it seems inappropriate to end the story of early Christian art with the mention of these late icons in Venice. When dealing with the West the story was broken off at around the year 1100, when the old art was at its height and was giving way to a new one, derived to some extent from it, but which was to see more than one age of great glory in the years that were to follow. In the East we have continued the tale past the twelfth century "Revival", through the last age of glory in the early fourteenth century, down to the final periods of undoubted decadence. It may be that we should have ended it with the mosaics of Kahrieh Cami. But what followed was an intrinsic part of what went before. Late Byzantine art was not a new art, like Gothic. The old forms were to be repeated, the old ideas re-enacted for several centuries to come, and if at times the repetitions were arid, the enactments banal, they were all done not only in good faith but also in the light of old ideas. In fact, though some of the last icons of quality were painted in the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century, they were still early Christian in spirit and character. Thus with them the story reaches its legitimate close, not at an apex, as in Britain, France or Germany about 1100, but at its end. In the West in the last thirty years we have been watching the change from an old to a new idiom in art, and however much we may be amazed by some of the most recent manifestations, we feel sure that in the end something of quality will emerge. Whatever form the new art may take, whether it be representational or abstract, naturalistic or formal, there will be something there to bind the new art to the old, just as the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh is bound to that of the Impressionists, that of the Impressionists to Constable, that of Constable to Rubens. In the East Christian world, on the other hand, the story has ended; the old art is dead and can never with honesty be revived. The next phase will come by revolution, not by evolution. What form it will take we cannot say. Enough, for us, that the old art was great and that it constituted for many hundreds of years the supreme expression of faith in a large section of the civilised world.

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