The Mission of Francis of Assisi (part III)

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And so at the hour when northern France was lifting up, amid the tremendous vibration of the bells, sonorous poems of stone and glass that hover and sway over the cities, Italy was defining herself in the violent, straight-lined palaces by the quality which, much later, will define her Renaissance. Already, here in the Middle Ages, she was affirming the rights of the individual. The Romanesque architects of Italy often signed their works and all of Tuscany knew Nicola Pisano, the sculptor, when not one of the image makers of France had thought to tell his name. The Scaligers, erect on their war horses, were already stamping the dust. It was not possible for popular Christianity to take on the form in the Italian imagination which French sensibility had given it. Only few individuals could, without being consumed by it, embody in their lives the poetry of exalted sentiment which marked the character of the Christianity of the people. There is, indeed, a cathedral in Italy. But all the crowd could do was to cherish an ardent desire for it. It did not set its hand to the work. The body of the cathedral is Francis of Assisi. Its towers are Dante and Giotto.

The foundation of the century is violence. The feudal Church, here, weighs down more heavily than in other places. The tiara and the miter are bought, when they are not taken by assault. Through the fear of hell the priest obtains obedience of the poor, among whom furious feeling obscures the sense of social duty, even as it does with the priest himself. Remember with what rage the tortures of the inferno are painted on the walls of the Canipo Santo of Pisa.

It was by a reaction that gentleness was born. It was as absolute as the preceding violence because, like the latter, it set fire to minds whose passion refused to stop short of full surrender to their insatiable instinct. Francis of Assisi was transported by love as other men were by the frenzy of killing. If he lived under the rule of the men whose corruption and violence had provoked his coming, it was because he felt in himself a gentleness, an invincible power, capable of cleansing and reviving the world. When he caused the human spirit to re-enter nature, from which primitive Christianity had torn it away, he restored to it the nurture of its dignity and strength. His pantheism protested against the Christian dualism which defines the discord between the soul and the flesh, and brutally cuts off access to the great harmonies. Dying, he repented of having practiced asceticism, of having ''offended his brother the body." The profound and charming word! He was, in Italy, in the realm of sentiment, what Abelard had been in France and what Roger Bacon was to be in England in the domain of reason. The whole of pagan humanity, which he bound up with the spirit of Christ, revived in his love for universal life. And this love led him, where it had led the last thinkers of the pagan world, to the inner negation of property, which is to say—to freedom.

He did not preach moral sermons to the men of his time, to weary them without changing them. With a poetry so passionate that, while he spoke, he trembled, he laughed, he wept for joy, he told them that everything that was in him spoke of love for what is on the earth. He never ceased loving. He fell asleep and awoke under the trees. He called the beasts to him, he sang, warbled, and whistled with them, he begged alms for them, and the beasts followed him. He asked counsel of the crickets and they gave it to him, and he did not hesitate to follow it. He did not know theology, but he left this prayer:

Praised be my Lord God, with all his creatures, and especially our brother the sun, who brings us the day and who brings us the light; fair is he, and he shines with a very great splendor. O Lord, he signifies to us thee.
Praised be my Lord for our sister the moon, and for the stars, the which he has set clear and lovely in heaven.
Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind, and for air and clouds, calms and all weather, by which thou upholdest life in all creatures.
Praised be my Lord for our sister water, who is very serviceable to us, and humble and precious and clean.
Praised be my Lord for our brother fire, through whom thou givest us light in the darkness; and he is bright and pleasant, and very mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our mother the earth, the which doth sustain us, and bringest forth divers fruits and flowers of many colors, and grass.
(Translation of Maurice Francis Egan.)

When he died, the cities of Umbria fought around his coffin for the possession of his bones. Such is the understanding of men. No matter. Even this again was passion. And he left in the piety of the multitudes and in the imagination of the strong a memory so resplendent that it illuminated Italy until the end of her evening. He restored to her the love of forms, and on that love she lived for four hundred years.

The greatest poet and the greatest painter of the Middle Ages drank from the well of his memory. At one bound the towers sprang up from the nave. The one rough and thickly growing, shot through by flames, full of the sound of the organ and of thunder—is upheld by iron ribbing. The other is calm, a ray rising from the world of the senses to follow in a straight course to the light of the spirit. Dante and Giotto. The two faces of the Middle Ages. The Inferno and Paradise. Above all, the two faces of Italy, loving and violent, as she is charming and savage in her luminous bays and in her harsh rocks. It is the first of the great contrasts which we shall find up to the end of her heroic life, contrasts that are enveloped in the same harmony of passion and of intelligence; Masaccio and Fra Angelico, Donatello and Gozzoli, Luca Signorelli and Ghirlandajo, Michael Angelo and Raphael. The same heaven harkens to the voice of the prophet and to the song of the shepherd as their sound rises to its sparkling spheres.

Giotto is not a primitive, any more than Dante. He is the conclusion of a long effort. If he revealed the language of forms to those who came a hundred years after him, it is slightly in the manner in which Phidias can still reveal it to those who love him enough to refuse to follow him. Guido, Cimabue, Duccio himself, the noble Sienese who recovered, through Byzantine tradition, the real soul of Greece and for the first time translated the drama of the Passion into terms of humanity, had not been able to force open the hieratic mold offered by the painters of Ravenna and the mosaicists sent by Constantinople. With Giotto everything invades the forms at once—movement, life, intelligence, and the great architectural calm. Because he was almost the first one to arrive, the means he used were limited, but with them he was able to translate a perfectly mature conception of the world and of life. His epoch permitted him to give only one expression to them, and he gave it, completely and consciously, with the freedom and the sobriety of the men who bear within them one of those decisive moments that humanity sometimes expends several centuries in attaining. He was one of those after whom dissociation and analysis must inevitably begin again. Renaissance Italy is separated from him by an abyss, and we shall have to wait until Raphael sketches and Rubens completes, for the modern spirit, the synthesis that Giotto made for the mediaeval spirit.

He had that genius for the symbol which mediaeval Christianity imposed on its poets as, upon those who cultivate the soil. Nature imposes the rhythm of her seasons. Since life for these poets symbolized the divine idea, they were unable to find their symbol save in the material of life which was passionately loved and passionately studied for what it contains and reveals. The symbol came to Giotto in the attitudes of men, in the humble movement of the beasts which grazed or hopped about at the level of the soil, in the prodigious blue carpet that day spread across space, and in the innumerable fires that night revealed there. Although he had within him only the potential forces accumulated by the unsatisfied needs of the men who had gone before him, although practically no one before his time had observed the life of forms, he could see at once that all our desires, and all our dreams, and all that is divine in us comes to us from our meeting with living forms, from the rough or charming places amid which we have lived, from the majestic bodies which we have seen bowed with weeping or raised again by hope, from the hands that supplicate, or that open, or that part the long hair over faces attentive, dolorous, or grave. His sense of all this was so pure that the image of it all, which he has made to live on the walls of Assisi and of Padua, passes directly into us like a process of life, without our having the time to perceive that the thing before us is neither sculpture, in the exact sense of the word, since the profiles and the groups, though disposed sculpturally, are projected on a painted surface—nor is it painting, since the role of the values, of the reflections, and the passages is barely suspected. This rudimentary form is traversed by a lightning flash of the soul which instantly causes it to stand erect.

In Italy he was, in himself, the incarnation of the Christianity of the people which, in that period, covered with its thick tangled growth the field of sensibility of the French crowds. Like them, he could easily feel the meaning for everyone of the birth, the life, and the death of the Man whom the poor had caused to be deified that they might the better recognize themselves in Him; and he told the story in that language both of the intellect and the heart which his race and his sky alone could dictate to him. In the ingenuousness of his heart he found the loftiest drama of man. And as he saw only the essential direction of the gestures of those who enacted that drama, he made them more direct, more exact, and more true in order to bring its scenes before men who, after his time, would need only to close their eyes to feel the drama living within them.

It comes over us gently, in calm and incessant waves. Like a leaf that has fallen on the great waters of a river, we follow the movement of irresistible gentleness which is within men and women and which causes them to prostrate themselves around the dead hero that is in their hands as they support the bloodless head and the broken feet and arms; it spreads like a steady light over earth and heaven which become tranquil round about Him. No one before Giotto, not even those who had turned to woman to speak their farewell through her, no one had ever quite grasped her role in the inner life of humanity, no one had ever seen her thus forever surrounded by passion, ceaselessly torn by maternity and by love, and crucified at all times. Never had anyone said that she, unlike the living gods that we nail to the cross, has not the consolation of pride, that she allows herself to be tortured, and yet does not lose faith in her executioners, who are her sons and the fathers of her sons, and that she asks of them no other recompense than the right to suffer for them. The world had not yet observed all that there is in a face where the eyes are hollow under the agonized lines of the brow, in a head that rests on two knotted hands, or in the gesture of two outstretched arms. This work is the greatest dramatic poem in the history of painting. It is not to be described, it is not to be explained, it is not to be evoked, it must be lived through. One must have seen, at Assisi, how those burning harmonies cause the shadows to tremble, one must have seen the heaps of murdered children, the mothers who die or supplicate or gaze at the little limp body across their knees, one must have seen the soldiers who look like butchers. And in Florence, one must have seen the friends of Francis who bow over his death under the wave of sorrow of the last moments. At Padua, one must have seen the kneeling women, those who open their arms and those whose clasped hands make a cradle for the divine corpse, and the Christ among the hideous men who insult Him, and the men who suffer and the ones who pray and the ones who love. And when one has seen this, it is like a strong and gentle wine that one bears away within him forever.

Giotto had picked up the echo of French art in the illuminations in the books, and had certainly met, in Italy, masons and image makers from the banks of the Seine. The son of the old sculptor of Pisa, Giovanni, who came but a short time before him, had touched him by his Nativities, full of animation and tenderness, where one sees the enchantment of the actors in the scene as they hear the cry of the child, as they see the beasts cropping the grass, and as they surprise life at its dawn with the charmed mother who bends over the cradle. Giovanni had left him speechless with his scenes of murder, his crucifixions, and his massacres of the innocents, dramas so burning and so full of movement that they seemed to fill the stone with their passion and to hurl it in gusts of flame before the spectator. He had roused him to enthusiasm by the surety of his language, as powerful and flexible as a long sword that one bends double and that flashes lightning as it springs back. Through the Sienese painters, he had got back to Ravenna, where, before the splendor of the polychrome of the shining mosaics, he had surmised, beyond Byzantium, the calm of the Panathenaic processions that still took their course around the Parthenon. He had seen the architecture of antiquity at Rome, at Naples, and at Assisi, where Cavallini, the painter, brought to him the tradition of the Roman mosaicists. Standing before the frescoes of Cimabue, that were still fresh, with their blue and the gold that reddened in the glow of the torches, he had worked in the darkness of the lower church where all the mystic skies have accumulated in the plaster their azure, their twilights, and the stars of their nights. The line of the mountains had called to him everywhere, likewise the bays and men. Behold those figures that stand out, pure and with a single movement, those harps and those violins that are played upon, those palms that are waved, those banners that are bowed, and those noble groups around the beds where there is a death or a birth. Something is quivering there that the Greeks did not know, a sadness in the mouths, a gentleness in the eyes, the confidence that man for a moment had in man and in the hope that suffering might cease. Something shines there that the Middle Ages of the Occident no longer knew, a re-echoing of forms in other forms, a harmony of movements that answer one another, a line which by its rhythmic undulation connects the torsos which bend over with others that are prostrate and still others that stand erect.

I cannot, for my part, imagine a man more intelligent than Giotto. And I am sure that this intelligence is nothing else than the progressive and logical refining of the most direct thought and of the most unstudied emotion. When he had seen how his friend died, and had seen his wife giving birth, or his child suffering, he knew the spontaneous organization among the attitudes of those who weep or those who act in and about the drama, all of them having the drama itself as the sole center of attraction. Without effort, as it seems, and to express this drama and the circumstances of it directly and naturally, the living masses obey the secret laws that have presided over the harmony of the groups since the beginning of time. It is because each one of the beings who takes part therein acts according to the character of his sentiment which he contributes to the more general character of the ensemble—the artistic, or if you will, metaphysical character that reproduces the mysterious eurhythmy of the worlds with an instinctive, musical, and yet close fidelity. Beside the old Florentine master, Raphael seems to have perceived the mere externals of action, Michael Angelo gives the impression of a desperate effort toward that perfect equilibrium which, in Giotto, is an essential function; Rubens seems to force into theatrical attitudes the inner movement that arranges and distributes; and Rembrandt, at times, seems to be seeking effects. The order that all of them feverishly pursue in the sudden intuitions, the tempests, the revolts, or the sustained tension of the spirit enters into Giotto with the emotion itself, and he acquires an architectural and plastic character through the harmonious meeting of the mind and the heart. And, considered in this way, the "composition" of Giotto is perhaps the greatest miracle in the history of painting. I say "miracle," because a miracle is the most spontaneous realization in action of the desire that is most inaccessible in the mind. These clasped hands, these fingers that clutch at the breast, these bodies kneeling or arising or half-bowed or erect, this progressive building up in steps of human forms, all the outer attributes of the despair, of the supplication, of the adoration, and of the prayer that make up this pathetic work enter like a flood into the unity of thought to demonstrate the well-defined accord of our moral requirements with our aesthetic needs. A powerful and contagious melody runs through and sways all the violent actions. . . This poet of sorrow possessed the joy that belongs to the epochs of life in which everything reaches a climax and unites and agrees in all minds, so that it may one day comfort those who will seek the traces of these minds, whatever the faith and the life of the seekers, whatever the cause of their suffering and the form of their hope. It was not Giotto who brought about the unity of his work: it was the unity of the time that created him. And Unity, which is a hymn, raises us above tears. Giotto does not weep over the Christ or over woman, nor do we, as we look at his work. With Giotto we are in the presence of an unspeakable gentleness, an unspeakable hope. He understands, he bends over, he reaches out a strong hand, he lifts up the man who has fallen, and, to sustain him and carry him along, he intones a magnificent chant; his great severe line undulates, rises, descends and reascends, like a voice.

Profoundly Italian though his idealistic, dramatic, and decorative genius, and containing, although he epitomized only a single moment of Italy, the whole Italy that was to come, even fallen Italy, the universal quality of humanity that Giotto possessed brings him into communion with all the heroes of painting, through the piety with which he welcomed life, through the passionate feeling he had for the burdens that it laid upon him, and through the divine desire that caused him to transfigure the world and support the celestial blue of the half-opened paradise on the grave human accents of the reds, the greens, and the blacks. . . His hope never rose higher than his courage as a man. On the day when he re-assembled, around the crucified Jesus, angels half emerging from heaven on their wings made up of rays of light, he recovered the supreme symbol, that Aeschylus had imagined, to fortify our courage when he saw in flight around Prometheus the swarm of the Oceanides.

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