Christianity and the Commune (part IV)

View the scanned original illustrations

Everywhere else the multitude is master of the works. The honest master builder, to whom the Commune and the Bishop turn, knows practically nothing save his trade. Behind him is the confused Byzantine-Romanesque tradition which he possesses imperfectly; before him is a problem to be solved: to build an edifice vast enough to contain the inhabitants of a city. He knows his material well, the stone of France, powdery, watery, and easy to work. He has his compass, his water level, his plumb line, and his square. Around him are good workmen, of the same spirit as himself, filled with faith, not in the least disturbed by worry as to social questions or by doubt as to religion. He possesses that clear good sense, that free and direct logic, which later brought out of the same soil such men as Rabelais, Montaigne, Molière, La Fontaine, Rameau, Diderot, and Voltaire. A new function appears, so complex that it absorbs the life of the century. For the new organ to adapt itself to it, nothing more is needed than that the master builder consent to be a man of his time, like the least of his companions.

Whatever the force in the ascending movement of the French churches, whatever their lyrism, their perfect intelligence lies too deep within them to make its impression at once. Their whole form is determined by the ogive window that hides itself proudly in the upper shadows of the nave. It has not revealed to us the subtle passage that leads a French or a Norman mason to isolate in the Romanesque church the projections from the ribbed vault and to raise its lateral edges by means of the angular window which the Crusaders had seen in the Orient. But it was that window which overcame the round arch and the vertical weight that crushed the vessel. Everything is to radiate from the ogive—the drop of its diagonal ribbing on to the columns that spring up to separate the three naves, the entire vault that is inscribed in their intervals, and the flying buttress that carries off obliquely the thrust of the vault. Everywhere else one finds the immense expanses of glass through which the light penetrates. . . The logic is that of the skeleton, wherein all pressures are balanced and transmitted; it is the image of the absolute transported into the perishable order of the scattered elements of life. Between the flying buttress and the vault, the edifice is like the carcass of a gigantic cetacean suspended in space by iron hooks to permit the light of heaven to traverse it in every direction. It seems to float in the air.

[The ogive, of which an example is cited in England, at Durham, about 1104, appears for the first time in France, probably, about 1115, at Morienval, near Soissons and Noyon, between the Ile-de-France, Picardy, and Champagne, where, through Saint-Denis and Notre Dame, Amiens and Beauvais, Rheims, Laon, Sens, etc., it saw the birth of the most numerous and most beautiful architectural works consequent upon it. Who discovered it? Several master builders, perhaps, each one contributing a new idea, from the association of which the ogive was born spontaneously. Here is one of the most surprising characteristics of the Middle Ages in the Occident, and one that it shares with hardly any other art than that of ancient Egypt and India. Of all the image makers, scarcely a name has come down to us, and if we know who some dozens of architects were, it has required patient researches or chance to bring forth their names from the municipal account books that slept in our archives. This is an anonymous art, and, consequently, it is collective and disinterested, it is the social art. These men thought of nothing but the accomplishment of their task, and not one of them dreamed of laying claim to being the father of the most original creation in architecture since the vault of the Assyrians.

Guillaume de Sens, who was one of the greatest of the constructors and who was brought to England to build the nave of Canterbury, passed as the inventor of the ogive for a long time. He was, doubtless, one of the first to apply it to the construction of an edifice—the cathedral of Sens—whose whole structure it determines. But it seems to have received almost as complete an application, for an ensemble, with the building of the choir of Saint-Denis (1144), and in some churches of a transitional character dating from that period—Noyon, Lisieux, Le Mans, etc. In any case, it was in the Ile-de-France that, before the middle of the twelfth century, the architects systematized a process of construction which permitted Jean d'Orbais to build Rheims, Robert de Luzarches to build Amiens, Pierre de Montereau to build the Sainte-Chapelle, and a hundred others in every part of France and Europe to erect buildings of a unity of structure that is absolute and of a variety of aspects that is inexhaustible.]

Gothic architecture was opposed to leaving anything in darkness. Indeed, it died of its love of the light. Sens, Beauvais, Laon, Soissons, Amiens, Bourges (in spite of its five naves) are full of light, like our modern markets of iron and glass. But in these cathedrals there is, of course, the necessary framework which made some dark places; there is the stone skeleton work of the rose window, the leads which hold the stained glass, the wire netting which protects it, the dirt of centuries, due to all the old dust that has heaped up. . . When the cathedral is dark, it is because the master builder has miscalculated his effort, because he expected the building to yield more than it could, because he wanted to crowd too many people into it, as in Paris, where galleries press down on the four lateral naves. The object of the stained glass was not to darken the nave but to glorify the light, whose glow scintillated with the richness of powdered jewels. And this glass was used not only in the churches but for the rooms of the châteaux and for the houses of the middle class. The memory of the carpets hung up in the mosques filled the minds of the men, who were returning from the Orient, with visions transfigured by enthusiasm and regret. They opened the side of the wall to set into it a translucent painting, a fresco shot through by flames, illumined by the heavens. The stained glass offered to the pale light of the north its flaming matrix so that the sun should give a warmer caress to the stone that rose everywhere. Its azures, its dark blues, its saffron and golden yellows, its oranges, its vinous or purple reds, and its dark greens streaked the nave with the blood of Christ and the sapphire of the sky, with the russet of the autumn grapevines, and with the emerald of the distant seas and of the meadows round about. In the depths of the chapels of the apse, where the spot made by the candles caused the darkness to tremble, the light of the windows weakened only to accumulate around the sanctuary, the agonizing vagueness and the voluptuousness of its mystery. When, on one of those gray days of the Ile-de-France, one enters Notre Dame to wait for the sun, one knows when it has come out by the blond inundation that suddenly invades the nave, renders it aerial and golden, and little by little touches and makes dazzling the very ribbing which, under their rigid palm ornaments, suspends the shadow of the forests. At evening, when the darkness is almost nocturnal in the vast interior whose vaults one sees hovering high up like the wings of a great bird of the night, one thing alone remains luminous—the glass of the windows. The dying light from outside spatters the black pillars and the pavement which has disappeared, with a fiery shower, more intense and more glowing in proportion as the darkness increases. The rose windows gather up the last reflections of the sun that has set to illuminate the shadows with them.

Everything that gives the cathedral its meaning, everything that determines its aspect—the irresistible rise of its lines, the balancing of the curves that raise it above the cities—everything is brought about by the desire for light; and the desire for light increased among its architects at the same time that they became more familiar with the handling of its curves and its lines. Never did an edifice so truthful proclaim its function with such simplicity. At every point the bones were just beneath the flesh; each one recognized its role: there was not a recess, there was not a projection which did not justify its presence. The fixed framework of the exterior, the immense parallel arches which start up everywhere to suspend the central nave or to radiate to the apse, carry the building up into space and cradle it there, like the articulated members of a gigantic animal. Every one of its organs, from the haughtiest to the most obscure, participates in its power—the humble ornament, the flower that varies a plane that would be too bare without it, the slight bas-relief that gives movement to a profile, the small belfries that load the pinnacles to increase the strength of the piles which catch the thrust of the flying buttresses, the niches for statues hollowing out the buttresses wherever there is no pressure, the gargoyles that spout the rain water away from the building so that it shall not gnaw the stone, the long grooved columns on the body of the pillars themselves, giving to the supports of the vaults that nervous and sustained spring which causes them to spread out at their summit with the ease of a sheaf.

Nowhere else has sculptured ornament become so much a part of the edifice. In India the statue is incorporated in the building because both, at the same time, grow out of a pantheistic conception of life which sweeps the builders and the statue makers into its own headlong movement. Here, not only does the unity of conception, of traditions, and beliefs carry in the same current all who share in the work, but every statue, every carved column, every branch, or fruit on the wall is there to give more balance and solidity to the ensemble. The ornament gives animation and movement and carries off into space everything that would serve to rob the cathedral of mobility and to bind it to the soil.

Bare in the beginning, at Sens, at Saint-Denis, in the first tier of the cathedral of Paris and at Soissons, bare as a race abounding with life, the cathedral was covered in a century with the forms which this race had found on its pathway. The porches, the tympanums, the lintels, the galleries of colonnettes, the high towers—sonorous organs raising in a single flight their thickets of close-set stones, everything became part of the miracle, and this whole soil, which had been barren before, sprouted with trembling bas-reliefs, with the carving of the foliage that seemed ready to burst with sap—and in a thousand powerful statues quivered the life of a people. In the mist or in the sunshine, the world of the painted images caused the façades, from their severe base to their sweeping towers, to partake of the movement of the black streets into which the neighboring countryside penetrates unceasingly, with the hucksters, the traders, their horses and sheep, with the boatmen and the market gardeners who bring vegetables and wood to the city. On days of prayer, the people ask the stone symbols for the human significance of the mystic emotion that pervades the multitude of pure and gentle beings which surround the cathedral of Chartres. On rainy days, people take refuge under the porches of Notre Dame—the three porches inscribed in the bare wall, which is not more sober and simple and firmly built than they, and the stories that the image makers in their sheltered workshops have been telling for a century are discussed by the citizens. On feast days and in fine weather, people stop to look at the way in which the façade of Amiens is blossoming, as if the reapers and the vintagers on its doors were covering it with vine branches and sheaves—from the embroidered galleries to the flames of the great rose window. On fair-days, people at the top of the towers of Laon would see the oxen bending to their work in the fields. On coronation days, or at times of royal pomp, when the processions defile between the rows of narrow houses where the tapestries hang, people follow the harmony and the tumult of the marchers and are engulfed with the latter in the five porches of Bourges that shimmer with their painted sculptures; while at Rheims, the sculptures are carried on up to the summit of the cathedral, from which there pours the incessant torrent of the forms and colors of nature.

But inside—not an image. The nave would lose something of its sonority, its grandeur, its light. The vault, the generating principle, is bare, and only the capital of the columns is permitted to flower. The long, slender shafts, the long ribbing that ascends and descends to outline the stained glass of the windows, the absolute lines that converge and that answer one another, the pure radiance of the rose window—everything has the abstract force and the nakedness of the mind. And everywhere it is function that determines form. The armed castle is a church turned inside out, its exterior bare for purposes of resistance, and covered with frescoes and carpets within, well supplied with carved wood furniture and with forged iron for the delight of the eye and for repose. The only French cathedral in the ogive style, whose exterior is bare and whose form presents a hostile mass, was built at Albi in a spirit of defiance and combat—it is a fortress rising in a block to surround the sanctuary of the spirit with armor. In the south, the Roman majesty of the wall is retained, and even, at certain moments, enhanced. Especially in those places where the Romanesque spirit and the ogival spirit fuse, at Saintes-Maries de la Mer, at Aigues-Mortes, at Albi, at Agde, at the Château of the Popes in Avignon, a sublime art will appear. In the rhythmical alternation of the massive wall that mounts straight upward and of the offset inscribed directly in its thickness to make openings for the superimposed windows under the proud ogive at the top, it is so lofty, so bare, so measured and sober that, beside it—whether a church or a fortress—the Romanesque temple seems crushed or heavy or frail and the French cathedral seems overloaded with the decoration on its exterior.

In the architecture of the ogive, as in the Romanesque architecture, several schools have been isolated. And, in fact, it is as easy to distinguish in one's first glance at the ogival building, the sobriety and the measure of the Ile-de-France and the Valois, the gayety, the animation, the truculence, and the verve of Picardy and Champagne, the square and rugged force of Brittany, the profusion and complexity of Normandy, as, in the Romanesque construction, one can distinguish the patience of the workmen of Poitoux, the gathered power of the Auvergnats, the tense elegance of the men of Provence, and the vigor and the fineness of the men of Périgord. It is also easy to recognize the meeting of the two great styles in the stately eloquence of the Burgundians. But in one group as in the other and despite the general tendency which, in the south, gives predominance to the spiritual, abstract, structural, and didactic element and in the north to all the gradations of the living, anecdotal, and picturesque element, despite the predominance, in a word, of sculpture in the north and architecture in the south, a constant interpenetration of local styles, of epochs, and of influences from without transforms the whole land of France into a forest of stone designed and worked, and to compare with it there is perhaps only the growth that India brought forth from her miraculous soil. And we may add that Indian art and the art of the Khmers and the Javanese, and Byzantine art as well as that of the Arabs, and the art of Greece as well that of Rome, by direct or indirect connection, by reason or intuition, by the contact of thought or by chance, seem to gather here from every place on earth to summarize and co-ordinate themselves for a century in the ever-alert sensibility and the ready intelligence which characterize France. From one end of the land to the other, a wonderful variety of sensation and expression becomes easily a part of the spiritual unity of will and faith. Whether the Romanesque temple is carved like an ivory or whether it is simple, whether its tower is square, polygonal, or round, solid or open to the air by its juxtaposed windows, whether the belfry rises straight as a cry or whether it curves like the line of a lamentation, whether the apse is circular or whether it forms a polyhedron, whether the arches are multiplied on the moving surface or barely indicated at the summit of the straight walls that are as fierce as ramparts, everywhere the majesty and the force of the doctrine impregnate the expressive surfaces with the savor and the rhythm of life. Sometimes, on the ogival façades, the great silent planes are displayed almost bare between bare buttresses or, on the contrary, the buttresses are fluted like organ pipes, as if to accentuate their vertical flight toward the sky, and the façades are covered by a lacework of leaves and branches. Sometimes the porches are inscribed in the walls, at other times they bristle with pediments, spires, and pinnacles. The rose windows may be circular or flame-shaped, the number and the disposition of the towers vary endlessly—now they are cut into by high windows, now designed with clusters of colonnettes like wheat sheaves, or again they pass by insensible transitions from the square to the polygon and from the polygon to the cone. But everywhere the flood of the animated forms and innumerable aspects of life permits the logic of the function and the rationalism of the mind to appear freely. Even—and here the miracle is perhaps more surprising—when three centuries and four or five styles have mingled the Romanesque and the Gothic in a simple monument, the whole indivisible world of sentiments and sensations that it presents enters in a mass, and forever, into the immutable order of the mind.

No comments: