DURTAL had begged his housekeeper, Madame Mesurat, to serve his coffee in his study. He thus hoped to escape having her constantly standing in front of him, as she did all through his meal, asking him if his mutton-cutlet were good.
And though that meat had a taste of flannel, Durtal had nodded a sketchy affirmative, knowing full well that if he ventured on the least comment he would have to endure an incoherent harangue on all the butchers in the town.
As soon as this woman, at once servile, despotic, and obsequious, had placed his cup on the table, he buried his nose in a book, and by his repellent attitude compelled her to fly.
He knew the book he was turning over almost by heart, for he had often read it between the hours of service at the cathedral. It was so entirely sympathetic to him, with its artless faith and ingenuous enthusiasm, that it was to him like the familiar speech of the Church itself.
The little volume contained the prayers composed in the fourteenth century by Gaston Phcebus, Comte de Foix. Durtal had it in two editions, one printed in the original form of his authentic words and antiquated spelling, by the Abbe de Madaune; the other modernized, but with great skill and taste, by Monsieur de la Brière.
Durtal, as he turned the pages, came on such lamentable and humble prayers as these: "Thou who hast shapened me in my mother’s womb, let me not perish... Lord, I confess my poverty... My conscience gnaws me and shows me the secrets of my heart. Avarice constrains me, concupiscence befouls me, gluttony disgraces me, anger torments me, inconstancy crushes me, indolence oppresses me, hypocrisy beguiles me... and these, Lord, are the companions with whom I have spent my youth, these are the friends I have known, these are the masters I have served." And further on he exclaims, "Sin have I heaped upon sin, and the sins which I could not commit in very deed yet have I committed by evil desire."
Durtal closed the volume, regretting that it should be so entirely unknown to Catholics. They were all busy chewing the cud of the old hay left at the heading or end of the "Christian’s Day" or "The Eucologia," or meditating on the pompous prayers elaborated in the ponderous phraseology of the seventeenth century, in which there is no accent of sincerity to be found — nothing, not an appeal that comes from the heart, not even a pious cry!
How far were these rhapsodies all cast in the same mould from this penitent and simple language, from this easy and candid communion of the soul with God?
Then Durtal dipped again here and there, and read:-
"My God and my Mercy, I am ashamed to pray to Thee for very shame of my evil conscience; give a fountain of tears to my eyes and my hands largess of alms and charity; give me a seemly faith, and hope, and abiding charity. Lord, Thou holdest no man in horror save the fool that denies Thee. Oh, my God, the Giver of My Redemption and Receiver of my soul, I have sinned and Thou hast suffered me!"
Then, turning over a few more pages, he came at the end of the volume to a few passages collected by Monsieur de la Brière, among them these reflections on the Eucharist culled from a manuscript of the fifteenth century:-
"Not every man can assimilate this meat; some there be who eat it not, but swallow it down in haste. It should be chewed as much as possible with the teeth of the under: standing, to the end that the sweet of its savour be pressed out of it, and may come forth from it. Ye have heard it said that in nature, that which is most crushed is most nourishing; now the crushing of the teeth is our deep and keen meditation on the Sacrament itself."
Then, after having elucidated the individual use of each tooth, the author adds, in speaking of the fifteenth, "the Sacrament on the altar is not merely as meat to fill and refill us; but, which is more, to make us divine."
"Lord!" murmured Durtal, laying down the book. "O Lord! If we allowed ourselves nowadays to use such materialistic comparisons and make use, of such homely terms in speaking of Thy supremely adorable Body, what a clamour would arise from the ’respectable’ among the worshippers and the blessed legion of the’ good women who have comfortable praying-chairs and reserved places near the altar — like front seats in a theatre — in the House where all are equal."
And Durtal pondered over these reflections which assailed him every time he happened to take up a clerical journal or one of the Manuals introduced by some prelate’s note of approval, like a clean bill of health.
He could never get over his amazement at the incredible ignorance, the instinctive aversion for art, the type of ideas, the terror of words, peculiar to Catholics. Why was this? For after all there was no reason why believers should be more ignorant and stupid than any other folks. Indeed, the contrary ought to be the truth.
Whence did this inferiority proceed? And Durtal could answer himself. It was due to the system of education, to the training in intellectual timidity, to the lessons in fear, given in a cellar, far from a vital atmosphere and the light of day. It really seemed as if there were some intention of emasculating souls by nourishing them on driedup fragments, literary white-meat; some set purpose of destroying all independence and initiative in the disciples by levelling them, crushing them all under the same roller, and restricting the sphere of thought by maintaining a deliberate ignorance of art and literature.
And all merely to avert the temptation of forbidden fruit, of which the idea was suggested under the pretext of inspiring dread of it. By this method curiosity with regard to the veiled unknown tormented their young brains and excited their senses, for it was always in the background, and in a form all the more dangerous because it had the effect of a more or less transparent gauze. The imagination could not fail to exasperate itself by cogitating its desire to know and its fear of knowing, and it was ready to fly off at the least word.
Under these circumstances the most anodyne book was a source of danger from the simple fact that love was alluded to, and woman depicted as an attractive creature; and this was enough to account for all — for the inherent ignorance of Catholics, since it was proclaimed as the preventive cure for temptations — for the instinctive horror of art, since to these craven souls every written and studied work was in its nature a vehicle of sin and an incitement to fall.
Would it not really be far more sensible and judicious to open the windows, to air the rooms, to treat these souls as manly beings, to teach them not to be so much afraid of their own flesh, to inculcate the firmness and courage needed for resistance? For really it is rather like a dog which barks at your heels and snaps at your legs if you are afraid of him, but who beats a retreat if you turn on him boldly and drive him off.
The fact remains that these schemes of education have resulted, on the one hand, in the triumph of the flesh in the greater number of men who have been thus brought up and then thrown into a worldly life, and on the other, in a wide diffusion of folly and fear, an abandonment of the possessions of the intellect and the capitulation of the Catholic army surrendering without a blow to the inroads of profane literature, which takes possession of territory that it has not even had the trouble of conquering.
This really was madness! The Church had created art, had cherished it for centuries; and now by the effeteness of her sons she was cast into a corner. All the great movements of our day, one after the other — romanticism, naturalism — had been effected independently of her, or even against her will.
If a book were not restricted to the simplest tales, or pleasing fiction ending in virtue rewarded and vice punished, that was enough; the propriety of beadledom was at once ready to bray.
As soon as the most modern form of art, the most malleable and the broadest — the Novel — touched on scenes of real life, depicted passion, became a psychological study, an effort of analysis, the army of bigots fell back all along the line. The Catholic force, which might have been thought better prepared than any others to contest the ground which theology had long since explored, retired in good order, satisfied to cover its retreat by firing from a safe distance, with its old-fashioned match-lock blunderbusses, on works it had neither inspired nor written.
The Church party, centuries behind the time, and having made no attempt to follow the evolution of style in the course of ages, now turned to the rustic who can scarcely read; it did not understand more than half of the words used by modern writers, and had become, it must be said, a camp of the illiterate. Incapable of distinguishing the good from the bad, it included in one condemnation the filth of pornography and real works of art; in short, it ended by emitting such folly and talking such preposterous nonsense, that it fell into utter discredit and ceased to count at all.
And it would have been so easy for it to work on a little way, to try to keep up with the times, and to understand, to convince itself whether in any given work the author was writing up the Flesh, glorifying it, praising it, and nothing more, or whether, on the contrary, he depicted it merely to buffet it-hating it. And, again, it would have done well to convince itself that there is a chaste as well as a prurient nude, and that it should not cry shame on every picture in which the nude is shown. Above all, it ought to have recognized that vices may well be depicted and studied with a view to exciting disgust of them and showing their horrors.
For, after all, this was the great theory of the Middle Ages, the theological method in sculpture, the literary dogma of the monks of that time; and this is the meaning and purpose of certain groups which even now shock the propriety of our methodistical purists. These unseemly subjects and images of indecency are very numerous at Saint Benoit on the Loire, in the cathedral of Reims, at le Mans, in the crypt at Bourges, everywhere in our churches; for in those where they do not occur, it is because the prudery which was most rife in the most immoral times, broke them by stoning them in the. name of a morality very unlike that which was inculcated by the mediaeval saints.
These subjects have for many years been the delight of Freethinkers and the despair of Catholics; those see in them a scathing satire on the manners of the monks and bishops, these lament that such turpitude should ever have fouled the walls of the Temple. And yet it would have been so easy to explain the purpose of these scenes; far from seeking to apologize for the tolerance of the Church that allowed them, her honesty and breadth should have been held up to admiration. By acting thus, the Church manifested her determination to inure her sons by showing them the ridiculous side of the temptations which assail them. It was, so to speak, an object lesson or demonstration, and at the same time a bidding to self-examination before venturing into the sanctuary which was thus prefaced by a catalogue of sins as a reminder to confession.
This was part of her plan of education, for she aimed at moulding manly souls and not crippled creatures such as are turned out by the spiritual orthopedists of our day; she dragged out vice and lashed it wherever it lurked, and did not hesitate to preach the equality of men before God, insisting that bishops and monks should, when guilty, be placed in the pillory of its doorways; nay, she gibbeted them more willingly than others, to set an example.
These scenes were practically a comment of the Sixth (Seventh) Commandment, a sculptured paraphrase of the Catechism; the Church’s accusation and teaching plainly expressed so as to be understood of all men.
And Our Mother did not restrict herself to one mode only of expressing Her warnings and reproofs; to reiterate them she borrowed the language of other arts. Literature and the pulpit were inevitably the interpreters that she employed to vituperate the sins of the people.
And they were not a whit more prudish or less audacious than sculpture. We have only to open the books of the Church to convince ourselves of the violent language in which she was wont to lash the sins of the flesh. Beginning with the Scriptures, the Bible itself — which no one dares read now but in mawkish French versions — what priest, for instance, would venture to recommend to the nerveless spirit of his flock the study of the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel or of the Song of Songs, that Epithalamium of Jesus and the Soul — down to the Fathers and the Doctors?
How our modern Pharisees would reprove the uncompromising language of Saint Gregory the Great when he exclaims, "Speak the truth! A scandal is better than a lie;" or Saint Epiphanius’ plain speaking in discussing the Gnostics and describing in detail the abominations of that sect, quietly adding in the face of the congregation, ’Why should I shrink from speaking of the things you do not fear to do? By speaking thus, I hope to fill you with horror of the turpitude you commit."
Or what would they think of Saint Bernard expatiating in his third meditation on horrible physiological details to demonstrate the baseness of our carnal ambition and the foulness of our pleasures? Or of Saint Hildegarde, who placidly discusses the various factors of such pleasures, Saint Vincent Ferrier freely dealing in his sermons with the sins of Onan and of Sodom, using the simplest language, and comparing confession to a purgative, and asserting that the priest, like a doctor, should examine the excreta of the soul and prescribe for it?
What reprobation would be poured on the splendid passage by Odo of Cluny quoted by Remy de Gourmont in his "Latin Mystique," the passage where that terrible monk analyzes the attractions of woman, turns them over, eviscerates them, and flings them aside like a drawn rabbit on a butcher’s stall; and again on Clement of Alexandria, who sums the whole matter up in two sentences:-
"I am not ashamed to name the parts of the body wherein the foetus is formed and nourished; and why indeed should I be, since God was not ashamed to create them?"
None of the great writers of the Church were prudish. This mock-modesty which has so long stultified us dates actually from the ages of impiety, the period of paganism, the return on threadbare classicism which was known as the Renaissance; and see how it has developed since! Its hot-bed and nursery ground lay in the lewd and gorgeous years of the so-called Grand-siècle; the virus of Jansenism, the old Protestant taint mingled with the blood of Catholics, and pollutes it still.
"It is very true! And pretty results have come of this infection of decency!" Durtal burst out laughing as he thought of the cathedral at Chartres.
"Here" said he to himself; "we reach the climax: pious imbecility can go no further. Among the subjects in sculpture in the ambulatory of the choir there is a group representing the Circumcision, Saint Joseph holding the Infant while the Virgin has a napkin ready and the High Priest is preparing to operate. And there has been a priest so modest, a divine so decorous as to regard this scene as licentious and to paste a piece of paper over the Child’s nakedness!
"The indecency of God, the obscenity of a new-born Babe is too much!
"Bah!" said he. "The time has slipped away in all this meditation, and the Abbé will be waiting."
He ran quickly downstairs and hurried across to the cathedral, where the Abbé Plomb was pacing to and fro in front of the northern porch, reciting his Breviary.
"The side where sinners and demons are figured is especially that of the Virgin, who saves those and crushes these," said the Abbé. "The northern porch of a church is usually the most lively of all; here, however, the Satanic incidents are on the southern side, because they form part of the Last Judgment represented over the south door. Otherwise Chartres, unlike her sister cathedrals, would have no scenes of that kind."
"Then the rule in the thirteenth century was to place the Virgin in the northern portion "
"Yes. To the men of that time the north meant the gloom of winter, the dejection of darkness, the misery of cold; the ice-bound chant of the winds was to them the very blast of evil; to the north was the home of the devil, the hell of nature, as the south was its Eden.’’
"But that is absurd!" cried Durtal, "the greatest blunder ever introduced into the symbolism of the elements. The mediaeval sages were mistaken, for snow is pure and cold is chastity. It is the sun, on the contrary, that is the active agent in developing the germs of rottenness, the ferment of vice!
"They forget that the third Psalm of Compline speaks of the hot hour of noon as the most harassing and dangerous of all; they must have overlooked the horrors of sweat and unwholesome heat, the risks of relaxed nerves, of loosened dresses, all the abominations of leaden clouds and hard blue skies!
"There are diabolical effluvia in the storm, and in weather when the air stirs like the vapours from a furnace, rousing evil instincts and bringing about us the raging swarm of evil angels."
"But remember the passages in which Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of Lucifer as dwelling in the blast of the north wind; and recollect that the great cathedrals did not originate in the south but in the middle and north of France; consequently, after having adopted this symbolism of seasons and weather, the pious architects dreamed of the horror of men buried in snow, and longing for a gleam of sunshine and a bright day. Naturally they thought of the east as the region of the original Paradise, and of those lands as milder and less inclement than their own."
"That does not hinder the fact that this theory was controverted by Our Lord Himself."
"Where do you find that?" asked the Abbé Plomb.
"On Calvary; Jesus died turning His back to the south, which had crucified Him, and extending His arms on the Cross to bless and embrace the north. He seemed to be withdrawing His favours from the east, to bestow them on the west. Hence, if any region is accurst and inhabited by Satan, it is the south and not the north."
"You abominate the south and its races, that is evident," said the Abbé, laughing.
"I do not love them. Their scenery, vulgarized by crude daylight, their dusty trees standing out against a sky of washerwoman’s blue, have no charm for me; as to the natives, hairy and noisy, with a blue bar under their nostrils if they shave, I flee from them!"
"Here, in short, we are face to face with a fact which no discussions can alter. This side of the church is dedicated to the Virgin. Shall we now examine it, first as a whole, and then in detail?
"This portal, brought forward like an open porch, a sort of verandah in front of the doors, is an allegory of the Saviour showing the way into the heavenly Jerusalem. It was begun in the year 1215 under Philip Augustus, and finished by about 1275, under Philip the Bold; thus it was nearly sixty years in building, the greater part of the thirteenth century. It is divided into three parts, corresponding to the three doors behind it; there are more than seven hundred statues grouped here, large and small, representing, for the most part, personages from the Old Testament.
"It forms, in fact, three deep bays or gulfs.
"The central portal, before which we are standing, and which leads to the middle door, has for its subject the Glorification of the Virgin.
"The left-hand bay contains the life and virtues of the Virgin.
"The right-hand bay is devoted to images of Mary Herself.
"According to another interpretation, put forward by Canon Davin, this porch, which was built at the time when Saint Dominic instituted the Rosary, is a reproduction in images of its mysteries."
"On that theory, the left-hand arch, containing the scenes of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, answers to the Joyful Mysteries; the central bay, containing the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, to the Glorious Mysteries; arid that to the right, where we find a presentment of Job, precursor, of the Crucifixion under the ancient law, to the Sorrowful Mysteries."
"There is a third interpretation," said Durtal, "but it is ridiculous. That of Didron, who regards this front as the first page of the Book of Chartres. He opens it at this porch, and asserts that the sculptors began to render the Encyclopedia of Vincent de Beauvais by representing the creation of the world. But if so, where are those wonderful representations of Genesis hidden?
"There," said the Abbé, pointing to a row of statuettes lost in a hollow moulding at the very edge of the porch.
"But to ascribe so much importance to tinl figures which, after all, are there merely to fill up, as stop-gaps — it is preposterous!" cried Durtal.
"No doubt. But now let us examine the work.
"You will observe in the first place that, in opposition to the ritual observed in most of the great churches of the time — those of Amiens, Reims, and Paris, to name but three — it is not the Virgin who stands on the pillar between the two halves of the door, but Her Mother, Saint Anne; and inside, in the windows, we find the same thing: Saint Anne, as a negress, her head bound in a blue kerchief, holds Mary in her arms, as brown as a half-caste."
"Why is this?"
"No doubt because the Emperor Beaudouin, after the sack of Constantinople, bestowed that Saint’s head on this cathedral.
"The ten colossal statues placed on each side of Her in the niches of the porch are familiar to you, for they attend Our Lady in every sanctuary of the thirteenth century — in Paris, at Amiens, at Rouen, Reims, Bourges, and Sens. The five to the left are a series figurative of the Son; the five on the right symbolize Our Lord Himself.
"They stand in chronological order: the prototypes of the Messiah, or the Prophets who foretold His birth, death, resurrection, and everlasting priesthood.
"To the left, Meichizedec, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David; to the right, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Simeon, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Peter."
"But why," remarked Durtal, "is the son of Jonas in the midst of the Old Testament? His place is not there, but in the Gospels."
"Yes, but you will observe that Saint Peter here stands next to Saint John the Baptist; the two statues are side by side and touch each other. Then do you not perceive the meaning of this juxtaposition? One was the Precursor and the other the Successor of Christ; the first anticipated Him, the second carried out His mission. It was quite natural to place them together, and that the Chief of the Apostles should figure as the conclusion to the premisses set forth by the other statues of this portal.
"Finally, in addition to this series of patriarchs and prophets, you may see there, in the hollow between the pilasters, a pair of statues, one on each side of the door: Elijah the Tishbite, and Elisha his disciple.
"The first prefigures the Saviour’s Ascension by his being carried up alive to Heaven in a chariot of fire; the second typifies Jesus saving and preserving mankind in the rerson of the Shunammite’s son.
"Argument is vain," murmured Durtal, who was meditative. "The Messianic prophecies are irresistible. All the logic of the Rabbins, the Protestants, the Freethinkers, all the ingenuity of the Germans, have failed to find a crack or to undermine the old rock of the Church. There is such a body of evidence, such certainty, such demonstration of the truth, such an indestructible foundation, that a man must be stricken with spiritual blindness, to dare deny it."
"Yes: and to the end that there should be no mistake, no possibility of alleging that the inspired Scriptures were written subsequent to the arrival of the Messiah they prophesy, to prove that they were neither invented nor added to after the event, it was God’s pleasure that they should be translated into Greek in the Septuagint version and known to the whole world more than two hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ."
"To imagine the impossible — supposing the Gospels were to be annihilated, they could, I suppose, be restored, and a brief history written of the Saviour’s life as they relate it merely by studying the Messianic announcements in the books of the Prophets?"
"No doubt; for, after all, and it cannot be too often repeated, the Old Testament is the story before the event of the Son of Man and the founding of His Church; as Saint Augustine bears witness, ’the whole history of the Jewish people was a perpetual prophecy of the expected King.’
"You will see, apart from personages prefiguring the Redeemer which you may find in every page of the Bible: Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David, Jonah, to name five taken at random; apart, too, from the animals and objects that symbolized Him under the Old Laws, as, for instance, the Paschal Lamb, the Manna, the Brazen Serpent, and others, we can, if you please, simply by quoting the Prophets, trace the broad outlines of Emmanuel’s life and epitomize the Gospels in a few words. Listen!"
The Abbe paused for thought, his hand over his eyes.
"That he should be born of a Virgin is foretold by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel — that this Advent should be preceded by a special messenger, Saint John, is noted by Malachi, whom Isaiah confirms, adding for greater certainty that he should be as ’the voice of one crying in the Wilderness.’
"The place of His birth, Bethlehem, is mentioned by Micah; the adoration of the Magi, offering gold, myrrh and frankincense, is announced by Isaiah and the Psalm ascribed to Solomon.
"His youth and His calling are clearly suggested by Ezekiel, who speaks of Him as seeking the lost sheep, and by Isaiah, who tells beforehand of the miracles He would perform on the blind and the deaf and dumb, and who finally declares that He will be ’a stone of stumbling’ to the Jews.
"But it is when they speak of His Passion and Death that the prophecies become mathematically exact, incredibly precise. The offering of palm branches, the betrayal by Judas, and the price of thirty pieces of silver appear in Zechariah; and Isaiah takes up the parable to describe the rejection and opprobrium of Calvary: ’He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities... The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all... He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief... He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.’
"David expatiates on the dreadful scene: ’He was a worm and no man, a very scorn of men and the outcast of the people.’
"Details are multiplied. The wounds in His hands are spoken of by Zechariah; David enumerates the circumstances of the Passion, word for word: the pierced hands, the division of His raiment, casting lots for the robe. The hooting of the Jews, bidding Him to save Himself if He be the Son of God, is mentioned in chapter ii. of the Book of Wisdom, and again by David; the gall and the vinegar offered Him on the Cross and the very words of Jesus giving up the ghost are to be found in the Psalms.
"Nor is this the last of the prophecies to be found in the Old Testament.
"Its prophetic mission is carried out to the end. The establishment of the Church in the place of the Synagogue is foretold by Ezekiel, Isaiah, Joel, and Micah; and the Mass, the Eucharistic Sacrament, is plainly adumbrated by Malachi, who declared that for the offerings of the Old Law offered only in the Temple at Jerusalem shall be substituted ’a pure offering to be offered in every place and by all nations’ — by priests chosen from among all people, Isaiah adds, and David says after the order of Melchizedec.
"Pascal very truly remarks that ’the fulfilment of the prophecies is a perpetual miracle, and that no other proof is needed to show the divine origin of the Christian Religion.’"
Durtal had gone closer to the statues, standing by Saint Anne, and was looking at one on the left wearing a pointed cap, a sort of papal tiara with a crown round the edge, robed in an alb girt round the middle with knotted cord, and a large cope with a fringe; the features were grave, almost anxious, and the eye fired with an absorbed gaze into the distance. This figure held a censer in one hand, and in the other a chalice covered with a paten on which there was a loaf; and this image of Meichizedec, the King of Salem, threw Durtal into a deep reverie.
He was, in fact, one of the most mysterious types of the Holy Scriptures — this monarch mentioned in Genesis as the Priest of the Most High God. He consummates the sacrifice of bread and wine, blesses Abram, receives tithes from him, and then vanishes into the darkness of history. And suddenly his name is found in a psalm of David’s, who declares that the Messiah is a priest for ever after the order of Meichizedec, and again he is lost without leaving a trace.
Then quite unexpectedly he reappears in the New Testament, and what Saint Paul says of him in the Epistle to the Hebrews makes him more enigmatical than ever. The apostle speaks of him as "without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like unto the Son of God, abiding a priest continually." Saint Paul is explicit to show how great a person he was — and the dim light he casts on this figure goes out.
"You must confess that this King of Salem is a puzzle. What do the commentators think of him?" asked Durtal.
"They say but little. Only Saint Jerome observes that when Saint Paul speaks of him as without parents, without descent, without beginning, and without end, he does not mean to convey that Meichizedec came down from Heaven or was created ab initio like the first man, by the Ancient of Days. The phrase simply means that he is introduced into the history of Abraham without our knowing whence he came, who he was, when he was born, or at what time he died.
"In fact, the inscrutable part played by this prototype of Jesus in the canonical Scriptures has led to the most grotesque legends and heresies.
"Some have asserted that he was Shem, the son of Noah; others have thought that he was Ham. Simon Logothetes considers him an Egyptian; Suidas believes him to have belonged to the accursed race of Canaanites, and that this is why the Bible says nothing of his ancestry.
"The gnostics revered him as an Eon superior to Jesus; and in the third century Theodore le Changeur also asserted that he was not a man, but a virtue transcending Christ, because Christ’s priesthood was but a copy of Melchizedec’s.
"According to another sect, he was neither more nor less than the Paraclete. But come, in the absence of early Scriptures what do the seers say? Does Sister Emmerich speak of him?"
"She tells us nothing precise," replied Durtal. "To her he was a sort of priestly angel charged with the preparation for the great Act of Redemption."
"That is very much the view held by Origen and Didymus, who also ascribed to him the angelic nature."
"Thus she perceives him long before the advent of Abram in various desert spots of Palestine; he unlocks the springs of Jordan, and in another passage of the life of Christ she adds that it was he who taught the hebrews the culture of wheat and of the vine. In fact, she throws no light on this insoluble enigma."
"From the artist’s point of view," Durtal went on, "Melchizedec is one of the best statues in this porch. But what a strange face is that of his neighbour Abraham, seen only three-quarters full, with hair like rolled grass, a beard like a river god, and a long nose straight from the forehead, coming down between the eyes without a bridge, like the proboscis of a tapir, with cheeks that seem swollen with cold, and a look — how shall I describe it? — of a conjuror who has made away with his son’s head."
"In point of fact, he is listening to the commands of the angel, whom he cannot see; observe, below on the pedestal the ram caught in the thicket, and the symbolism is evident.
"This is the Father sacrificing his Son, and Isaac is the very image of the Son — Isaac bearing the wood to fire the altar, as Jesus bore the Cross; then the ram becomes figurative of the Saviour, and the bush in which he is caught by the horns is symbolical of the Crown of Thorns.
"To do full justice to this subject and to the teaching by figures that it contains, we ought also to have had the Patriarch’s two wives carved on the supporting pillar or plinth, and his other son Ishmael. For, as you know, these two women are emblems, Hagar of the Old Dispensation, and Sarah of the New; the former disappears to make way for the second, the Old Law being merely the preparation for the New; and the two sons born of these two mothers are by analogy the children of the Books, and thus Ishmael represents the Israelites, and Isaac the Christians.
"Next to Abraham, the father of believers, stands Moses, as a symbol of Christ; for the deliverance of Israel is an image of the Redemption of Man snatched by the Saviour from the devil, just as the passage of the Red Sea is an image of Baptism. He holds the Table of the Law and the staff round which the Brazen Serpent is twined. Then comes Samuel, in many ways typical of Christ, the founder of the Royal Priesthood and of Pontifical Kingship; and last of all, David holding the Lamb and Crown of Calvary.
"I need hardly remind you that this Prophet-King, more than any other personage, prefigured the. sorrows of the Messiah, and that he too, to make the resemblance more perfect, had his Judas in the person of Achitophel, who, like the later traitor, hanged himself."
"You must admit," said Durtal, "that these statues, before which the historians of this cathedral go into ecstasies, declaring in chorus they are the highest achievement of thirteenth-century sculpture, are far inferior to those of the twelfth century that adorn the great north porch. How evident is the lowering of the divine standard! Their action is freer, no doubt, and the play of drapery is broader. The rhubarb-stem plaits of the robes are fuller, and have some movement, but where is the grace as of a sculptured soul that we see in the royal porch? All these statues, with their massive heads, are thick-set and mute, devoid of communicative life. This is pious work — fine work, if you will — but devoid of the ’beyond’; here is art indeed, but it has ceased to be mysticism.
"Look at St. Anne with her gloomy expression, either cross or suffering — how far she is from the so-called Radegonde and Berthe!
"With the exception of two, St. John and St. Joseph over there in the innermost part of the arch, these are familiar figures. They also occur at Reims and at Amiens. And do you remember the Simeon, the Virgin, and the St. Anne at Reims? The Virgin so guilelessly charming, so exquisitely chaste, holding out the Infant to Simeon, who stands mild and devout in his solemn garb as High Priest. St. Anne — a head of the same type as St. Joseph’s, and as those of two angels on the same frontal, standing by St. Nicasius, with his head cut off at the brows — St. Anne with a smiling, arch expression and yet elderly — a sharp little chin, large eyes, a thin, long, pointed nose, the look of a youthful duefla, kindly but knowing.
"But, indeed, those image-makers excelled in creating these singular, indefinable countenances. Do you recall Our Lady of Paris, later, I believe, by a century? She is scarcely pretty, but so expressive, with the smile of happiness parting such melancholy lips. Seen from one side She is smiling at Jesus, watchful, almost sportive; it would seem as though she were waiting for the Child to say some merry word before laughing out; She is a girl-mother, not yet accustomed to her Child’s caress. Seen from another angle, this smile, apparently in the bud, has vanished. The mouth is puckered in sorrow, and promises tears.
"Perhaps when he succeeded in stamping on the face of Our Lady two such opposite expressions of peace and of fear, the sculptor intended to suggest at once the joy of the Nativity and the anticipated anguish of Calvary. Thus he has portrayed in one and the same image, the Mother of Sorrows and the Mother of Joy — has, without knowing it, embodied the prototypes of the Virgin of La Salette and the Virgin of Lourdes.
"And yet all this is inferior to the living and dignified art, so full of individuality and mystery, that we see in the royal porch of Chartres!"
"I will not contradict you," said the Abbe Plomb.
Now that we have studied the series of types placed on St. Anne’s left hand, let us consider the prophetic series on her right.
"First we see Isaiah; the pedestal on which he stands represents Jesse sleeping. The familiar stem, rooted in him, passes between the prophet’s feet, and the branches of the Virgin’s ancestry according to the flesh and the spirit, .as they rise, fill the four courses of moulding in the central arch. By his side is Jeremiah, who, meditating on the Passion of Christ, wrote this lamentable passage which is read in the fifth lesson of the second Nocturn on Easter Eve: ’All ye that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.’ Next Simeon holding the Infant whose Birth he had foreseen, at the same time with the sorrows of the Virgin and the anguish of Golgotha; Saint John the Baptist, and finally Saint Peter, whose dress is an interesting study since it is copied from that of the thirteenth-century Popes.
"With what care is every detail wrought! Admire the treatment of the sandals, the gloves, the broidered amice, the alb, the maniple, the dalmatic, the pallium marked with six crosses, the triple crown, the conical tiara of brocaded silk, the pontifical breastplate, everything is. chiselled, pierced, and patterned as if by a goldsmith."
"Very true. But how superior altogether is the Saint John to his fellows on this front. What mastery we discern in that hollow, emaciated face, as expressive as the others are dull. He is apart from the conventional and hackneyed type. He stands upright, savage but mild, with his beard in curling prongs, his lean frame, his raiment of camel-skin; we can hear him speaking as he points to the Lamb carrying the hastate cross surrounded by a nimbus, pressing it to his bosom with both hands. That statue is sublime, and it is most certainly not by the same hand that carved the Abraham, nor even his immediate neighbour, Samuel. This prophet appears to be offering to David, who cares not, a lamb he is feeling, head downwards. He is a butcher pricing his goods, weighing the meat, inviting you to feel it, and hesitating to sell till he gets the best price. How different from the Saint John!"
"The tympanum of the door will have no charm for us," the Abbe went on. "The death of the Virgin, Her assumption and coronation are more curious to read of in the Golden Legend than to study in those bas-reliefs which are but an epitome.
"We will proceed to the left-hand doorway.
"It is much mutilated, in a lamentable state of ruin. Most of the large statues have disappeared. There were once, it would seem, as on the royal porch of Notre Dame at Paris and the southern porch at Reims, the figures of the Synagogue and the Church; also Leah and Rachel, typifying the active and the contemplative life, of which we shall decipher the details recorded in the archivolt.
"Of the large figures that remain, three are regarded as masterpieces the Virgin, Saint Elizabeth, and Daniel.
"That is saying a great deal," cried Durtal. "They are stupid-looking and the drapery is cold; the arrangement of their robes recalls the Greek peplum; they have a prophetic savour of the Renaissance."
"I will not contradict you; but what is really attractive is the scheme of ideas expressed by the figures in the hollow mouldings of the arch of this portal, based on an equilateral triangle. As to the tympanum, which displays the Nativity, the calling of the Shepherds of Bethlehem, the dream and adoration of the Kings, it is marred and worn by time; nor is it in a style of art that can move us deeply.
"Study the mouldings of the arch with the four rows of images that adorn them. First the inner one, with its ten torch-bearing angels; the second, illustrating the parable of the wise and foolish virgins; the third, representing the Psychomachia, or struggle between the Virtues and the Vices; the fourth, a row of twelve queens embodying the twelve fruits of the Spirit; and linger over the enchanting series of statues in the moulding at the very edge of the archway of the porch, representing the occupations of the active and the contemplative life.
"The active life, on the left, is imagined in accordance with the picture of the virtuous woman in the last chapter of Proverbs. She is seen washing wcol in a bowl, carding it, stripping the flax, beating it, spinning it on a distaff, and winding it into hanks.
"On the right is seen the contemplative life; a woman praying, holding a closed book, opening it, reading it; she shuts it to meditate on it, teaches others, and falls into an ecstasy.
"Finally, in the outermost hollow of the moulding of the arch, the nearest to us and the most visible, there are fourteen statues of queens, leaning on shields with coats-ofarms, and formerly holding banners. The meaning of these statuettes has been much discussed, especially of the second figure on the left, which is named ’Libertas,’ the word being carved in the stone. Didron believed them to represent the domestic and social virtues; but the question has been finally and definitively settled by the most erudite and clearsighted symbolist of our day, Madame Félicie d’Ayzac, who, in a very edifying pamphlet published in 1843 on these statues and on the animals of the Tetramorph, has proved to demonstration that these fourteen queens are none else than the fourteen heavenly Beatitudes as enumerated by Saint Anselm: Beauty, Liberty, Honour, Joy, Pleasure, Agility, Strength, Concord, Friendship, Length of Days, Power, Health, Safety, and Wisdom.
"Is not this porch, as a whole, so closely set with imagery, one of the most ingenious and interesting doorways known, from the points of view of theology and of mysticism alike?
"And no less from the point of view of art. You are perfectly right; these toiling and meditative women are so delicate and so loving, that we can but regret that they should be hidden in the shadow of a cavern. What artists must those have been who worked thus for the glory of God and for their own satisfaction, creating marvels while knowing that no man would see them!"
"And they had not even the vanity to sign them; they were always anonymous?"
"Ah! they were men of a different mould from us. Prouder souls, and humbler."
"And holier," added the Abbé. "Shall we now inquire into the iconography of tie, right-hand portal? It has suffered less, and may be expla1ned in a few words.
"This sculptured vault is, as you know, dedicated to types of Mary; but we might more accurately say that it is devoted to prototypes of Christ, for in this doorway, as in the other two, indeed, the image-makers of the thirteenth century have made it their task to identity the Son with the Mother."
"In fact, most of the personages we have already studied relate more especially to Christ. What, then, are those in the Old Testament, which are more essentially proper to the daughter of Joachim, and transferred in images of stone to be deciphered here?"
"The allegories of the Virgin in the Scriptures are numberless. Whole books, as the Song of Songs and the Book of Wisdom, allude in every verse to Her beauty and wisdom. As to the non-human emblems that may be applied to Her, you know them well: Noah’s Ark, in which the Redeemer dwells; the Dove, the Rainbow, as a sign of alliance between the Lord and the earth; the burning bush whence came out the name of God; the cloud of fire guiding Israel in the desert; the Rod of Aaron which alone blossomed of those of the twelve tribes taken by Moses; the Ark of the Covenant; Gideon’s fleece; and a whole series, if possible, more obviously representative; David’s tower; Solomon’s throne; the garden enclosed and the fountain sealed of the Canticle; the dial of Ahaz; Elijah’s saving cloud; Ezekiel’s doorway — and I mention none but those of which the interpretation has received the seal and sanction of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
"As to the living beings that prefigured Her on earth, instances abound; the greater part of the famous women of the Old Testament are but anticipatory images of Her graces. Sarah, to whom an angel foretells the birth of a son who is himself a type of the Son; Miriam, the sister of Moses, who, by saving her brother from the river, freed the Jews; Jephthah’s daughter; Deborah, the prophetess; Jael, who, like the Virgin, was called Blessed among women; Hannah, the mother of Samuel, whose song of praise seems like a forecast of the Magnificat; Jehosheba preserving Joash from the fury of Athaliah, as the Virgin afterwards saved Jesus from the wrath of Herod; Ruth personifying both the contemplative and the active life; Rebecca, Rachel, Abigail, Solomon’s mother, the mother of the Maccabees, who witnessed the death of her sons; and again those whose names are inscribed under these arches; Judith and Esther, the first representative of courageous chastity, and the second of mercy and justice."
"However, to avoid confusion, we will follow the statues in order as they stand in this porch, three on each side.
"On the left Balaam, the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.
"On the right, Jesus the son of Sirach, Judith or Esther, and Joseph."
"Balaam is this statue of a worthy peasant, smug and friendly, smiling in his .beard, a stick in his hand and a hat like a pie-dish; and the Queen of Sheba, the woman who bends forward a little, looking as if she were cross-questioning and arguing over some deed she condemned. But what have these two persons to do with the life of the Virgin?"
"Balaam is a type of the Messiah. It was he who prophesied that a star should’, come out of Jacob and a sceptre rise out of Israel. As to the Queen of Sheba, according to the teaching of the Fathers, she is an image of the Church; Solomon’s spouse, as the Church is the spouse of Christ."
"Well, well," muttered Durtal to himself. "The thirteenth century could not give a fitting presentment of that queen, whom we picture to ourselves as dressed with foolish magnificence, rocking on a camel across the desert at the head of a caravan under the blazing sky across the furnace of sand. Her charms have appealed to writers, and not the smallest of them; Flaubert for one — this Queen Balkis, Mékida or Nicaule. But in the ’Tentation de Saint Antoine’ she has failed to assume any form but that of a puerile and flimsy creature, a skipping and lisping puppet. In fact, no one but Gustave Moreau, the painter of Salome, could represent the woman, a virgin and a courtesan, a casuist and a coquette. He only could give life, under the flowered panoply of dress and the blazing gorget of jewels, to the crowned foreign face, with its smile as of an artless sphinx, come from so far to ask enigmas. Such a woman is too complicated for the spirit and the ingenuous art of the Middle Ages.
"Indeed, the sculptured image is neither mysterious nor suggestive. She is hardly pretty, and stands in the obsequious attitude of an advocate. Solomon looks like a jovial good fellow. The two effigies on the other side of the door might perhaps invite attention if they were not so completely crushed by the third. Again a question. By what right does the author of that admirable book ’Ecclesiastes’ find a place in these ranks of honour?"
"Jesus the son of Sirach prefigures the Messiah as a Prophet and a Doctor. As to the figure next to him, it may equally well be Judith or Esther: her identity is doubtful; there is nothing that can help us to determine it.
"At any rate, as I told you but now, each is a harbinger of the Virgin: As to Joseph persecuted and sold, a slave raised almost to the throne, the merciful protector of his people, he is the prototype of Christ."
Durtal paused to gaze up at the beardless face, with curling hair cut close round. The youth wore a tunic under a surcoat embroidered round the neck, and he stood motionless, a sceptre in his hand. He might be a very young monk, humble, simple, and so far advanced in the mystic road that he was unconscious of it. This statue was undoubtedly a portrait, and it seemed certain that some refined and innocent novice had served as a model to the artist. It was the work of a chastened and happy soul superior to the crowd. "This one, even more than the St. John, is a perfect dream," said Durtal to the Abbé, who assented with a nod, and went on,-
"The sculptures over the arches are practically invisible, for you must dislocate your neck to see them. Nor is the art they display exciting. Only the subjects are interesting. Besides a row of angels bearing stars and torches, they represent the achievements of Gideon; the story of Samson, who, when a prisoner, rose in the night, and carrying away the gates of Gaza, escaped from the town, as Christ broke the gates of death, and escaped alive from His sepulchre; the history of Tobit, as a divine paragon of mercy and patience; and finally, in the corner we find a replica of the grand porch, the signs of the zodiac, and a calendar in sculptured stone.
"The tympanum, as you see, is divided into two portions.
"In the upper part we see the Judgment of Solomon, as figuring the Sun of Justice, Christ Himself.
"In the lower half Job lies stretched on his dunghill, and the Messiah, of whom he is a prototype, comes, supported by two angels, to give him a palm-branch.
"To complete the elucidation of the symbolism of these doorways, it now only remains to glance at the three arches of the porch that precedes them. Here we see chiefly the benefactors of the cathedral and the saints of the See; also, mingled with these, certain prophets for whom there was not room in the arches of the doors. This vestibule is, so to speak, a postscript, a supplement added to the work.
"Here, where we stand in the right-hand arch are Saint Potentien, the first apostle of Chartres, and Saint Modesta, the daughter of Quirinus, the Governor of the city, who killed her because she would not deny Christ. Here you see Ferdinand of Castille. He presented certain windows distinguished by his arms, gules, three castles or, side by side with the azure shield and fleur-de-lys of France, in the principal window of this front. Next to him that shrewd and severe face is probably that of Baruch, the judge, and here, barefoot and burthened with a penitent’s satchel, you see Saint Louis, who loaded the cathedral with gifts and inaugurated its use.
"Under the porch of the middle door are two vacant pedestals, on which formerly stood the effigies of Philip Augustus and Richard Cceur de Lion, two of the most liberal donors to the church. On the other plinths stand the Comte and Comtesse de Boulogne, a buxom dame with masculine features, wearing a biretta; a prophet who is nameless, but no doubt Ezekiel, for he is missing from the series in this porch; Louis VIII., Saint Louis’ father; and, finally, that king’s sister Isabella, who founded the Abbey of Longchamps under the rule of Saint Clare. She is dressed as a nun, and next her in the shadow is a personage of the Old Dispensation carrying a censer, like Melchizedec. Remark, too, the firm and solemn mien of that priest, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, whose canticle ’Benedictus’ foretells the blessings of Christ.
"Thus ends our review of this wonderful text-book of the Old Testament types, and the historical memorial of those benefactors whose gifts endowed the church with this sculptured imagery of the Ancient Word."
Durtal lighted a cigarette, and they walked up and down in front of the palace railing.
"Setting aside the question of art," said Durtal, "in this long array of Christ’s ancestors there is one — David — who really confounds me, for he is the most complex of all; at once so august and so small! he is quite puzzling! "
"Well, only think of the life of the man who was by turns shepherd, warrior, and outlaw chief; an omnipotent king and a fugitive without either hearth or home; who was a wonderful poet and an exact prophet and seer! And is not the monarch’s character even more enigmatical than his career?
"He was mild and indulgent, devoid of rancour and hatred, and yet he was ferocious. Remember the. punishments he inflicted on the Ammonites; his vengeance was appalling. He had them sawn asunder, cut them with harrows of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln.
"He was loyal, wholly devoted to the Lord, and just; but he committed the crime of adultery, and ordered the death of the husband he had betrayed. What contradictions!"
"To understand David," said the Abbé Plomb, "you must not think of him apart from his surroundings, nor take him out of the age in which he lived, otherwise you measure him by the ideas of our own time, and that is absurd. In the Asiatic conception of royalty, adultery was almost permitted to a being whom his subjects regarded as superior to the common run of humanity; besides, women were then as a species of cattle belonging almost absolutely to him as the despot and supreme master. It was but the exercise of his regal power, as has been plainly shown by Monsieur Dieulafoy in his study of that king. And, on the other hand, if he is accused of tortures and bloodshed, why, the whole of the Old Testament is full of them! Jehovah Himself pours out blood like water, and exterminates men as if they were flies. It is well not to forget that the world then still lived under the Law of Fear. So it is not very surprising that, with a view to terrifying his enemies, whose manners and customs were not indeed any milder than his own, he should have tortured the inhabitants of Rabbah and baked the Ammonites.
"But in contrast to these acts of violence and the sins which he expiated, see how generous he was to Saul, and admire the magnanimity and charity of the man whom the followers of Renan would have us regard as a bandit chief and outlaw. Remember, too, that he taught the world, as yet ignorant, the virtues which at a later time Christ was to preach — humility in its most touching form, and repentance in its bitterest shape. When the prophet Nathan reproved him for the murder of Uriah, he confessed his sin with tears, fell on his face before God, bravely accepted the most terrible punishment: incest and murder in his family, the rebellion and death of his son, treason, misery, and a desperate flight in the woods; and with what urgency he implores for pardon in the ’Miserere,’ with what love and contrition he cries to the God he had offended!
"He was a man whose vices were small and few if compared with those of the kings of his time — of admirable and exceptional virtues if compared with those of sovereigns of any time of every age. Why, then, fail to understand that God should have chosen him as a precursor? Besides, Jesus came to ransom sinners, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world. Was it not natural, then, that He should take to prefigure Him, a man who, like others, had sinned? "
"Yes; that is true, no doubt."
And that evening, when he was away from the Abbé Plomb, from whom he parted on the church steps, as Durtal stretched himself on his bed, he recapitulated in his memory this theory of the Old Testament personages and the sculpture in the porch.
"To epitomize this north front," said he to himself, "it must be regarded as an abridged history of the Redemption prepared so long beforehand, a table of sacred history, a compendium of the Mosaic Law, and at the same time foreshadowing the Christian law.
"The vocation of the Jewish nation is set forth in these three doorways, their whole mission from Abraham to Moses; from Moses to the Babylonian Captivity; from the Captivity till the death of Christ, comprehending three phases of its history: the making of Israel, its independent existence, its life among the Gentiles.
"And how slowly, with what difficulty; was this fusion of tribes achieved! With what waste and what ejection of dross! What massacres were needed to discipline those rapacious wanderers, to quell the greed and licentiousness of the race!"
And in a succession of bewildering images he beheld the irruption into Judaea of the headlong and indignant prophets, hurling imprecations against the crimes of the kings and the atrocities of that unstable race perpetually tempted by the voluptuous worships of Asia, always rebelling and complaining, and ready to break the iron bit with which Moses had subdued them.
And prominent in this group of declaiming judges, towering above the masses, he saw Samuel, the man of contradictions, going whither the Lord drove him, achieving work which he was destined to overthrow, creating the monarchy which he reprobated, consecrating a fanatic king — a sort of madman, who passes across behind the transparent sheet of history with frantic and threatening gestures; and then Samuel has to overwhelm this extraordinary Saul under the burthen of his curses, to anoint David king — David, whom another prophet is to accuse of his crimes. And these inspired men succeed each other, continuing from year to year their task of guardians of the public soul, watching over the consciences of judges and kings, expectant of the Divine word, and ready to proclaim it over the head of the crowd; announcing disasters, ending often as martyrs, prominent from beginning to end of the sacred annals till they disappear in John beheaded by an Herodias!
Then came Elijah, cursing the worship of Baal, contending with the dreadful Jezebel; Elijah founding the first society of monks, the only man of the Old Testament history except Enoch who did not die; and Elisha, his disciple; the greater prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel, and the groups of minor prophets announcing the advent of the Son, rising up in commination or lamentation, threatening or comforting the people.
The whole history of Israel flowed along in a torrent of curses, rivers of blood, oceans of tears!
This dismal procession at last oppressed Durtal. With closed eyes he suddenly beheld a patriarch who stood before him, and he recognized with awe that this was Moses, an old man with a beard like a cataract, hair sweeping his shoulders, a master workman whose powerful hands had kneaded those rough Hebrews and coagulated their medley hordes. He was indeed father and lawgiver to this people.
Facing the scene on Calvary there rose before him the scene on Sinai, the close and the opening of the great chronicle of the nation that was dispersed by its own crime, enclosing the whole purpose of its existence in the space between those two hills.
A terrific spectacle! Moses alone on the smoking height, while lightnings rend the clouds and the mountain trembles at the sound of the invisible trumpet. Below, the awe-stricken people fly; and Moses, unmoved amid the roar of thunder and the repeated fires of lightning, listens to Him who Is, and who dictates the terms of His protection of Israel; and then Moses, with shining face, descends from the Mount, which, according to St. John Damascene, is the type of the Virgin’s Womb, as the smoke that rises from it is that of the desires and flames of the Holy Spirit.
Suddenly this picture vanished; the Patriarch remained, and by his side appeared the first High Priest of the worship of Jehovah, whom the sculptors had omitted to represent on the exterior of the porch, but whose image the glass-workers have portrayed in a window of the same front; Aaron, the great Pontiff, anointed by Moses.
And this ceremony, during which Moses conferred the order of priesthood on the person and the descendants of his elder brother, arose before Durtal’s fancy as a terrific scene. The details he had formerly read of this ordination, the ceremonies lasting seven days, recurred to his mind. After ablution and the anointing with oil, the holocaust of victims began. Flesh sputtered on the walls, mingling the black stench of burnt fat with the blue vapour of incense; the Patriarch anointed the right ear and thumb and foot of Aaron and his sons with blood; then, taking up the flesh of the sacrifice, he placed them in the hands of the new-made priests, who rocked first on one foot and then on the other., thus waving the offerings above the altar.
Then all bowed their heads under a shower of oil mingled with blood with which the Consecrator inundated them. They looked like slaughterers from the shambles and lamp trimmers, all sprinkled as they were with clots of red mire, on which glistened yellow eyes.
And then, as in the swift change of magic-lantern slides, this savage scene, this worn-out symbol of a splendid and subtle liturgy, stammered out in a hoarse voice, disappeared, giving way to the solemn array of Levites and priests marching in procession under the guidance of Aaron, resplendent in his turban with the crown of gold above it, in his purple robe, on its hem the open pomegranates of scarlet and blue, with tinkling bells of gold; and he wore the linen ephod, girt with a girdle, blue and purple and scarlet, and kept in its place by shoulder-pieces fastened with onyx stones, his breastplate in a blaze, flashing sparks that lighted up as he moved in the twelve gems of the breastplate.
Again the scene changed. He beheld an amazing palace; under the shade of its domes of giddy height, tropical trees and flowers were planted by tepid pools; monkeys sported there, hanging in bunches to the boughs, while long-drawn, insinuating melodies were scraped on stringed instruments, and the rattle of tambourines made the eyed plumes quiver in the peacocks’ outspread tails.
In this strange hot-bed, filled with clumps of flowers and of women, this immense harem where his seven hundred princesses and his three hundred concubines disported themselves, Solomon watched the whirl of dances, gazed at the living hedge of women, seen against the background of gold-plated walls, their bodies clothed only in the transparent veil of vapour rising from resins burning on tripods.
He appeared as a typical Eastern monarch, a sort of Khalif or Sultan, or fairy-tale Rajah — the prodigious king at once polygamous, unbridled, insatiable by luxury, and learned, artistic, peace-loving, the wisest among men. In advance of the ideas of his time, he was the great builder in Israel, and the commerce of the country was of his making. He left such a reputation for wisdom and justice that he came at last to be regarded as an enchanter and wizard. Even Josephus tells us that he wrote a book, of Magic, of incantations for laying evil spirits; in the Middle Ages he was said to have owned a magic ring, charms, forms of evocation, secrets for exorcism; and in all these legends the image of the king becomes confused.
And he would remain to this day a figure out of the Thousand and One Nights, were it not that in the decline of his glory we see him as a grandiose image of the mournfulness of life, the vanity of joy, the nothingness of man.
His old age was melancholy. Exhausted and governed by women, he denied God and sacrificed to idols. We discern in him wide gaps, vast clearings in the soul. Weary of everything, sick of enjoyment, and drunken with sin, he wrote some admirable reflections and anticipated the blackest pessimism of our day, summing up the misery of him who endures the condemnation of living, in phrases that are its final expression. What distress is that of the Preacher: All the days of man are sorrow, and his travail grief; better is the day of death than the day of birth; all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
After his death, too, the old king remains a mystery. Had he expiated his apostacy and his fall? Was he, like his fathers, received into Abraham’s bosom? And the greatest writers of the Church have not agreed about it.
According to St. Irenus, St. Hilary, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome, his penance was accomplished, and he is saved.
According to Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great, he did not repent to amendment, and so he is damned.
Durtal turned over in his bed and tried to lose consciousness. Everything was in confusion in his brain, and at last he fell into disturbed slumbers mingled with hideous nightmares, in which he saw Madame Mesurat standing in the place of the queen on a pedestal in the porch; and Durtal fumed at her ugliness, raging against the Canons, to whom he vainly appealed to remove his housekeeper and replace the queen.
THIS church symbolism, this psychology of the cathedral, this study of the soul of the sanctuary, so entirely overlooked since medival times by those professors of monumental physiology called archologists and architects, so much interested Durtal that he was able by its help to forget for some hours the turmoil and struggles of his soul; but the moment he ceased to ponder on the inner sense of things seen, he was as bad as ever.
The sort of requisition he had laid before the Abbé Gévresin, to put an end to his tossing and decide for him one way or the other, was distracting while it terrified him.
The cloister! He must reflect a long time before making up his mind to imprison himself. And the pros and cons tormented him in endless alternation.
"Here I am just where I was before I set out for La Trappe!" said he to himself, "and the decision to be taken is even more serious; for Notre Dame de l’Atre was but a temporary refuge. I knew when I went there that I should not stay; it was a painful time to be endured, but it was only a short time; whereas at this moment I have to come to a determination from which there is no turning back, to go to a place where, if I once shut myself in, I must stay till I die. It is imprisonment for life, with no mitigation of the penalty, no pardon and release; and the Abbé talks as if it were the simplest thing!
"What am I to do? Renounce all freedom, be nothing but a machine, a chattel, in the hands of a man I do not know — God knows I am willing! But there are other and more pressing questions from my point of view; in the first place, this matter of literature — to write no more, to give up what has been the occupation and aim of my life; that would be painful; still, it is a sacrifice I could make. But to write and then see my language stripped and washed in pump-water, all the colour taken out by another man, who may be a learned man or a saint, but have no more idea of art than St. John of the Cross! That is too hard. That one’s ideas should be picked over and weeded, from’the theological point of view, I quite understand, nothing could be more just; but one’s style! And in a monastery, so far as I can learn, nothing is printed till the Prior has read it; and he has the right to revise everything, alter it — suppress it if he chooses. It would evidently be better not to write at all, but this again is not a matter of choice, since under the rule of obedience each one must submit to orders, and treat of any subject in any way the Abbot commands.
"And unless the master were very exceptional, what a stone of stumbling!
"And then, besides this, which is to me the most important question of all, there are others worth considering. From the little I have been told by my two priests, the blessed silence of the Cistercians is not the rule with the black-frocked Orders. Now, however perfect these cenobites may be, they remain none the less men; or, to express it otherwise, sympathy and antipathy live in constant and compulsory friction; with very restricted subjects of discussion, living in complete ignorance of all that is going on outside, conversation, must degenerate into chatter; at last the only interest of life centres in trivialities, in petty questions which in such an atmosphere assume the importance of events.
"A man becomes an old maid, and how infinitely wearisome must this talk be, unvaried by the unforeseen.
"Finally, there is the question of health. In the convent nothing but stews and salads! A disordered stomach before long, broken sleep, crushing fatigue in an ill-treated frame — ah, all that is neither attractive nor amusing! Who knows whether, after a few months of this mental and physical rule, I should not have sunk into bottomless dejection, whether the sloth of those monastic gaols would not have crushed me and left me absolutely incapable of thought or action?"
And he concluded:-
"It is madness to think of a cloistered life; I should do better to remain at Chartres."
But hardly had he made up his mind not to move, when the reverse of the medal forced itself upon him.
A convent! Why, it was the only logical existence, the only right life All these fears he suggested to himself were imaginary. In the first place, as to his health. Had he forgotten La Trappe, where the food was far more innutritious and the rule far stricter? Why be alarmed beforehand?
And, on the other hand, could he fail to perceive the need for conversation, the wisdom of speech, relieving the solitude of the cloister just when weariness might supervene? It was a remedy against constant introspection, arid exercise taken with others secured health to the soul and gave tone to the body; and as for saying that these monastic dialogues would be trivial, were the conversations he might hear in any other society more edifying? In short, was not the company of the Brethren far superior to that of men of any profession, condition, or sort, whom he would be obliged to meet in the world outside?
And what, after all, were these trifles, these minor details in the splendid completeness of the cloister? What were these petty matters — mere nothings — in the scale as against peace, the cheerfulness of the soul in the joy of the services and the fulfilment of the task of praise? Would not the tide of worship cleanse everything, and wash away the small defects of men, like straws in a stream? Was it not the case of the mote and the beam, with the parts reversed — imperfections discerned in others, when he was so far their inferior?
"Constantly, at the end of every argument, I find my own lack of humility," said he to himself. "What efforts are needed to remove the mire of my sins! In a convent perhaps I might rub the rust off," and he dreamed of a purer life, a soul soaked in prayer, expanding in communion with Christ, who might perhaps, without too much soiling Himself; come down to dwell in him. "It is the only life desirable," cried he. "It is settled!"
But then, like a douche of cold water, a reflection overwhelmed him. It would in any case be the life in common, school-life, which would begin again for him; it would be the garrison-rule of a convent!
This floored him. Then he tried to fight against it, and lost patience.
"Come, come!" he growled, "a man does not shut himself up in an abbey to take his ease there; a convent is not a pious Sainte-Périne; he retires there, I suppose, to expiate his sins and prepare for death. What, then, is the use of expatiating on the kind of punishments to be endured? A determination to accept them is all, to endure them and be strong!"
Did he, then, sincerely long for suffering and penance? He dared not answer himself. In the depth of his soul a hesitating "Yes" rose up, smothered at once by the clamour of cowardice and fear. Why then go?
He was only bewildering himself; and when the worst of this turmoil was over he thought of a respite, or of some half-measure, some mild mortification quite endurable, some repentance so slight as to be none at all.
"I am an idiot," he concluded; "I am fighting with the air; I am puzzling myself with words, about habits of which I have no knowledge. The first thing to be done is to visit some Benedictine monastery — nay, several — to compare them, and to see for myself what the life is that is led there. Then the matter as to the oblates must be cleared up; if the Abbé Plomb is well informed, their fate depends on the caprice of the Abbot, who can tighten or loosen the halter according to his more or less domineering character. But is that quite certain? There were always oblates throughout the Middle Ages; consequently they are controlled by the secular law!
"And all this is so human, so vile! For it is not a matter of disputing texts and more or less accommodating clauses. It is a case of subjection without reserve, of leaping boldly into the water; of giving oneself up entirely to God. Any other view of the cloister is to regard it as a citizen’s home, and that is absurd. My apprehensions, my antagonism, my compromises, are disgraceful!
"Yes; but where can I find the necessary strength to brush myself clean from this dust of the soul?"
And at last, when he felt himself bruised by these alternating desires and fears, he took refuge with Notre Dame de Sous-Terre.
The crypt was closed in the afternoon, but he found his way in by a small door in the sacristy inside the cathedral, and descended into utter darkness.
Having reached the crypt in front of the altar, he round once more the doubtful but soothing odour of that vault, smoked by burning tapers, and went forward in the soft, warm atmosphere of frankincense and a cellar. It was even darker than in the early morning, for the lamps were out; floating wicks only, shining through what looked like very thin orange-peel, threw gleams of tarnished gold on the sooty walls.
As he turned, with his back to the altar, he could see the low aisle in retreating perspective, and at the end, as in a tunnel, the light of day-unluckily, for it allowed him to discern certain hideous paintings of scenes commemorating the ecclesiastical glories of Chartres: the visit paid to the cathedral by Mary de’ Medici and Henri IV.; Louis XIII. and his mother; Monsieur Olier offering to the Virgin the keys of the Seminary of Saint Sulpice with a dress of gold brocade; Louis XIV. at the feet of Notre Dame de Sous-Terre; by the grace of heaven, the remaining frescoes seemed extinct; at any rate, they lay in shadow.
What was really blissful was to be alone with the Virgin, who looked down, her dark face gleaming dimly in the gloom when a wick happened to flicker with short flashes of brighter light.
Durtal, kneeling before Her, determined to address Her, to say to Her,-
"I am afraid of the future and of its cloudy sky, and I am afraid of myself; for I am wasting in depression and bewilder. ment. Thou hast hitherto led me by the hand. Do not desert me; finish Thy work. I know that it is folly thus to take care for the future, for Thy Son has said, ’ Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.’ Still, that depends on temperament. What is easy to some is so hard for others. Mine is a restless spirit, always astir, always on the alert. Do what I will, it wanders, feeling its way about the world, and gets lost! Bring it home, keep it near Thee in a leash, kind Mother, and after so much weariness, grant me to find rest!
"Oh! to be no longer thus torn in sunder, to be of one mind! Oh! to have a soul so quenched that it should know no sorrows, no joys, but those of the liturgy, that it might only be claimed, day by day, by Jesus or by Thee, and follow Your lives as they are unfolded in the annual cycle of the Church services! To rejoice at the Nativity, to laugh on Palm Sunday, to weep in Holy Week, arid be indifferent to all else, to cease to hold oneself as of any account, to care not at all for one’s individual self! What a dream! How easy it then would be to take refuge in a cloister!
"But is this possible to any but a saint? What a stripping of the soul it presupposes; what an emptying out of every profane idea, of every earthly image; what a taming of the subjugated imagination, never venturing forth but on one track, instead of wandering haphazard as mine does!
"And yet how foolish is every other care — for all that does not tend to Heaven is vain on earth. Aye, but as soon as I try to put these thoughts into, practice, my jade of a soul plunges and rears; do what I will, it only bucks and makes no advance.
"Alas! Blessed Virgin, I do not seek to excuse myself and my sins. And still I dare confess to Thee that it is discouraging, heart-breaking, to understand nothing and see nothing! Is this Chartres where I am vegetating a waiting-place, a halting-place between two monasteries, a bridge leading from Notre Dame de l’Atre to Solesmes or some other Abbey? Or is it, on the contrary, the final stage where it is Thy will that I should remain fixed? But then my life has no further meaning! It is purposeless, built and overthrown with the shifting of sands. To what end, if this be the case, are these monastic yearnings, these calls to another life, this all but conviction that I have stopped at a station, and am not yet at the place whither I am to travel?
"If only it might be now, as on other occasions when I have felt Thee near me, when in response to my questions Thou hast answered me, if only it might be here as at La Trappe, much as I suffered there! But no, I hear Thee not — Thou dost not heed me."
Durtal was silent. Then he went on,-
"I am wrong to address Thee thus," he said. "Thou dost not carry us in Thine arms unless we be unable to walk; Thou hast care and caresses for the poor soul born anew by conversion; but when it can stand it is set down on the ground, and Thou lookest on while it makes trial of its strength.
"This is meet and right; but it does alter the fact that the memory of those celestial alleviations, those first, lost joys is crushing to the soul.
"O Holy Virgin, Holy Virgin, have pity on the rickety souls that struggle on so painfully when they are no longer upheld by Thee! Have pity on the bruised souls to whom every effort is painful; on the souls whom nothing can console, to whom everything is affliction! Take pity on the homeless, outcast souls, the wandering souls, unable to settle and dwell with their kind, the tender, budding souls! Take pity on all souls such as mine! Have pity on me!"
And before quitting the Mother he would often visit Her in those depths where, since the Middle Ages, the faithful no longer seek her; he would light an end of taper, and, turning aside from the nave of the crypt, follow the curved line of the wall along the entrance passage as far as the sacristy of this underground church, where in the ponderous stone-work was a door strengthened with iron-work.
Through and down a little flight of steps, he reached a cellar which was the ancient martyrium where, of old, in time of war the ciborium was concealed. An altar stood in the middle of this well, dedicated in the name of Saint Lubin. In the crypt the distant hum of the bells, the sounds of life in the cathedral above, could still be heard; here, nothing! It was like being in the tomb. Unfortunately, some squalid, square columns whitened with lime-wash, built on the altar to give support to Bridan’s group in the chois above, spoilt the barbaric simplicity of this oubliette, forgotten, lost in the night of ages, and underground.
He went up again comforted nevertheless, accusing himself of ingratitude, and asking himself how he could dream of leaving Chartres and going away from the Virgin, with whom he could thus so easily converse in solitude whenever he would.
On other days, when it was fine, he would take for the object of his walk a convent whose existence had been revealed to him by Madame Bavoil. One afternoon he had met her in the square, and she had said to him,-
"I am going to see the little Jesus of Prague at the Carmelite convent here. Will you come with me, our friend?"
Durtal had no liking for these petty pilgrimages made by good women; but the idea of going to the Carmelite chapel, which was unknown to him, tempted him to accompany her, and she led the way to the Rue des Jubelines, behind the railway line and beyond the station. They had to cross a bridge that groaned under the weight of rolling trains, and turned to the right down a path winding between the embankment on one side, and on the other thatched huts, and old sheds, and other houses less poverty-stricken, indeed, but closed and impenetrable after daybreak. Madame Bavoil led him to where this alley ended under the arch of another bridge. Overhead was a siding, with its signals round and square, red and yellow, and posts with cast-iron ladders; and there always in the same place an engine was being fired, or, with shrill whistling, was moving out backwards.
Madame Bavoil stopped at a door under a round arch in an immense wall, which not far off ran against the embankment, forming an impassable angle; it was built of mill-stone grit of the colour of burnt almonds, like that used for the Paris reservoirs; here dwelt the nuns of Saint Theresa.
Madame Bavoil, as being used to convent ways, pushed open the door which stood ajar, and Durtal saw before him a paved walk between strips of river pebbles, dividing a garden stocked with fruit-trees and geraniums. Two yews, clipped into spheres, with a cross on the top of each, gave this priestly close a graveyard flavour.
The path led upwards, cut into steps. When they reached the top Durtal saw a building of brick and plaster pierced with windows guarded by iron bars, and a grey door with a wicket bearing these words painted in white, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who put our trust in Thee."
He looked about him, surprised at seeing nobody, hearing nothing; but Madame Bavoil beckoned to him, made her way round the house, and led the way into a sort of vestibule along which clambered a vine wrapped in swathing, and she turned into a little chapel, where she knelt down on the flagstones.
Durtal, amazed, seemed to breathe the melancholy that weighed on this naked sanctuary.
He was in a building of the end of the eighteenth century; in the middle, raised on eight steps, stood an altar of waxpolished wood in the shape of a tomb; above it was a shrine covered with a curtain of white brocade and surmounted by a picture of the Annunciation, a washy painting mounted in a gilt frame. To the right and left were two medallions in relief, on one side Saint joseph and on the other Saint Theresa, and above the picture, close to the ceiling, were the arms of the Carmelites, also in relief: a shield with a cross and stars beneath a marquis’s coronet, from which an arm emerges wielding a sword. This was held up by fat little angels, the swollen infants of the sculptors of that period, and floating in the air was a scroll bearing the motto of the order: "Zelo, zelatus sum, pro Domino Deo Exercituum."
Finally, to the right of the altar, the iron grating of the nunnery was seen in an arch in the wall; and on the steps of the altar, inside the railing for the communicants, an annoying statue was emerging from under a gilt canopy — the Infant Christ holding a globe in one hand, and raising the other as if to command attention; a statue of painted plaster as of some precocious mountebank, with homage offered in this deserted chapel, of two pots of hydrangea and a floating wick in a crimson glass.
"How cold and dismal is such rococo!" thought Durtal. He knelt down on a chair, and by degrees his impressions underwent a change. This holy place, saturated with prayer, seemed to let its ice melt and grow balmy. It was as though visions percolated through the gate of the cloister and shed warm puffs of air in the place. A sense of warmth of soul stole over him, of being at home in this solitude.
The only astonishing thing, was to hear, in such remote seclusion, the whistling of trains and the rumbling of engines.
Durtal went out before Madame Bavoil had finished the rosary. Standing in the doorway, he saw, just opposite, the cathedral in profile, but with only one spire, the old belfry being hidden by the new. Under a cloudy sky it stood massively solid, green and grey, with its roof of oxidized copper, and the pumice-stone hue of the tower.
"It is stupendous!" said Durtal to himself, recalling the various aspects it could assume according to the season and the hour, as the colour of its complexion varied. "The whole effect under a clear sky is silvery grey, and if the sun lights it up it turns pale golden yellow; seen from near, its skin is like a nibbled biscuit, a siliceous limestone eaten into holes; at other times, when the sun is setting, it turns crimson and appears like some vast and exquisite shrine, all rose colour and green; and in the twilight it is blue, and seems to evaporate into violet.
"And those porches!" he went on. "That of the royal front is the least variable; it remains of a cinnamon-brown half-way up, of a dull pumice-grey as it rises; that on the south side, more eaten into by lichens, is wearing green, while the arches on the north, with their stones like concrete full of shells, suggest to the fancy a sea-grotto left high and dry."
"Well, our friend, are you dreaming?" said Madame Bavoil, tapping him on the shoulder.
"This Carmelite convent you see is a very austere house," said she, "and as you may suppose, grace abounds;" and when Durtal murmured,-
"What a contrast between this dead spot and the railway that runs past it, always in a stir!" she exclaimed,-
"Do you suppose that anywhere else you will find, side by side, such an image of the contemplative life and the active life?"
"And what must the nuns think as they hear these continual departures for the outer world? Those who have grown old in the convent would, of course, despise these calls, these invitations to live; the quietude of their spirits must increase as they find themselves protected for ever from the perils which the noisy rush of the trains must bring before them every hour of the day and night; they will feel more drawn to pray for those whom the chances of life carry away to Paris, or bring back to the country, outcasts from the city. But the postulants — the novices? In the hours of desertion, of doubt as to their vocation, which must come over them, is it not appalling to think of the constantly revived memories of home, of friends, of all that they have left to shut themselves up for ever in a convent?
"As each asks herself whether she can endure watching and fasting, must it not be a permanent temptation to rebel against being buried alive in a tomb?
"And I cannot help thinking of the appearance as of a reservoir that the style of building gives to this Carmel. The image is precise, for the convent is indeed a reservoir into which God dips to draw forth the good works of love and tears, and restore the balance of the scales in which the sins of the world are so heavy!"
Madame Bavoil smiled.
"A very old Carmelite nun," said she, "who had gone into this House before railways were invented, died here hardly three months ago. She had never been outside the walls, and never saw an engine or a railway carriage. Under what form could she picture to herself the trains she heard thundering and shrieking?"
"As some diabolical invention, no doubt, since these conveyances carry us to the wicked but delightful sins of towns," replied Durtal, smiling. " But it is a curious case, nevertheless."
He was silent; then, changing the subject, he said,-
"And do you still hold communion with Heaven, Madame Bavoil?"
"No," she answered, sadly. "I no longer have any converse or any visions. I am deaf and blind. God is silent to me."
She shook her head, and, after a pause, she added, speaking to herself,-
"Such a little thing is enough to displease Him. If He detects a trace of vanity in the soul on which He shines, He departs. And as the Father tells me, the mere fact of having spoken of the special graces vouchsafed to me by Jesus, proves that I am not humble. In short, His will be done! — And you, our friend, do you still think of taking shelter in a cloister?"
"I — my spirit still craves a truce; my soul is but shifting ballast."
"Because, no doubt, you are not honest in your dealings. You behave as if you meant to strike a bargain with Him; that is not the way to set to work."
"What would you do in my place?"
"I should be generous; I should say to Him, ’Here I am, do with me as Thou wilt. I give myself unconditionally to Thee. I ask but one thing: Help me to love Thee.’"
"And do you suppose that I have not blamed myself for my cowardice of heart?"
They walked on in silence. When they reached the cathedral, Madame Bavoil proposed that they should pay a visit to Notre Dame du Pilier.
They seated themselves in the gloom of the side aisle of the choir, where the dark-toned windows were still further obscured by a poorly executed wooden niche, in which the Virgin, as dark as her namesake in the crypt, Notre Dame de Sous-Terre, stood on a pillar, hung round with bunches of metal hearts and little lamps on coronas, from the roof. Frames of tapers on each side shot up little tongues of flame, and prostrate women were praying, their faces hidden in their hands or upturned to the dark countenance, on which the light did not fall.
It struck Durtal that the woes repressed in the morning hours were poured out in the twilight; the faithful did not now come for Her alone, but for themselves; each one brought a load of sorrows and opened it before Her. What anguish of soul was poured out on the stones by these women, leaning prostrate against the railing that protected the pillar which each kissed as she rose.
And the swarthy image, carved in the early part of the sixteenth century, had listened, Her face invisible, to the same sighs, the same complaints, from succeeding generations, had heard the same cries, echoing down the ages, for ever lamenting the bitterness of life, for ever expressing the desire, all the same, for length of days!
Durtal looked at Madame Bavoil. She was praying with closed eyes, kneeling on the stones and sitting on her heels, her arms hanging, her hands clasped. How happy was she to be able thus to abstract herself.
And he tried to force himself to say a prayer, quite a short one, in the hope that he might succeed in getting to the end without letting his mind wander. He began "Sub tuum" — "Under Thy protection do we take refuge; Holy Mother of God, despise not us." What it was really indispensable that he should obtain from the Father Superior was permission to, take his books with him into the monastery, and to have at least a few pious toys in his cell. Ah-but how could he explain that any profane literature was necessary in a convent, that, from an artist’s point of view, it was requisite to refresh one’s memory of the prose of Hugo, of Baudelaire, of Flaubert — " I am at sea again!." said Durtal suddenly to himself;
He tried to brush away these distractions, and went on: "Despise not the prayers we put up to Thee in our needs -" And he was off again at a gallop in his dreams — "Even supposing that no difficulty were made about this guest, the question would still remain as to submitting manuscripts for revision, obtaining the imprimatur; and how would that be arranged?"
Madame Bavoil interrupted his wanderings by rising from her knees. Recalled to himself, he hastily finished his prayer — "but deliver us from all perils, glorious and blessed Virgin; Amen." And he parted from the housekeeper on the steps of the church, going home much vexed by his dissipation of mind.
He there found a note from the Editor of the Review, which had published his paper on the Fra Angelico in the Louvre, asking him for another article.
This diversion made him glad; he thought that this task might perhaps preserve him from vain thoughts of his discomfiture at Chartres and his fancy for the cloister.
"What can I send to the Review?" said he to himself: "Since what they chiefly ask for is criticism of religious art, I might write some short study of the early German painters. I have ample notes, made on the spot in the galleries there; let us see!"
He turned them over, lingering to read a note-book containing his impressions of travel. A summing up of his remarks on the School of Cologne arrested his attention.
At every page he gave vent to his surprise in more and more vehement exclamations, at the false ideas and absurd theories put forward for so many years with regard to these pictures.
Every writer, without exception, had expatiated, each more enthusiastically than the last, on the pure and religious art of these early painters, speaking of them as seraphic artists who had depicted superhuman beauty, white and sylph-like Virgins all soul, standing out like celestial visions, against backgrounds of gold.
Durtal, prejudiced by the unanimity of this universal praise, expected to find almost impalpably fair angels, Flemish Madonnas, etherealized in some sort, having shed their husk of flesh, rapturous Memlings with eyes full of heaven, and bodies that had almost ceased to be — and he remembered his dismay on entering the galleries of the Cologne Museum.
In point of fact his disenchantment had begun as soon as he stepped out of the train. Carried in the course of a night from Paris to that city, he had made his way through narrow streets where every basement window exhaled the fragrance of sauerkraut, and he had reached the cathedral square, beautified by Farina’s shop-signs, where in front of the famous Dom he had been obliged to confess that this façade, this exterior, was a huge piece of patchwork — a delusion. Every part of it was furbished up, and the church sheltered no sculpture under its portals; it was symmetrical, built by peg and line; its rigid forms, its hard outlines were an offence.
The interior was better, in spite of the vulgar blaze, the cheap fireworks, of ignoble modern glass. And there, in a chapel near the choir, might be seen, for a consideration, the most famous picture of the German school, the Dombild, by Stephan Lochner, a triptych representing the Adoration of the Magi on the centre panel, with St. Ursula on the left hand shutter and St. Gereon on the right.
Durtal’s consternation had risen to the highest pitch. The work was thus arranged. Against a gold background, a Virgin, crowned, red-haired, bullet-headed, dressed in blue, held on her knees an Infant blessing the Kings, two kneeling on each side of the throne. One, an old fellow with a short beard like a retired officer, and hair curled like shavings over his ears, was sumptuously arrayed in crimson velvet brocaded with gold, his hands clasped; the other, a dandy with long hair and a large beard, dressed in green shot with gold and trimmed with fur, held up a golden cup. And behind each, other figures were standing, flourishing their swords and standards, in cavalier attitudes, and posing for the public, thinking much more of the visitors than of the Virgin.
This, then, was the type of Madonna, of the supersensual and sublimated Virgins of Cologne! This one was puffy, redundant, chubby; she had the neck of a heifer, and flesh like cream, or hasty pudding, that quivers when it is touched. Jesus, whose expression was the only interesting feature of the picture, a certain manly gravity that was shown without any disfigurement of the character of childhood, was also round and well-fed, and the scene took place on a lawn strewn with flowers — primroses, violets, and strawberries painted in fine stipple with the touch of a miniaturist.
You might call this picture what you pleased, the execution, smooth and wavy, and cold in spite of the brilliant colours, was a finished piece of work, brilliant, dexterous — but not religious; it betrayed a decadence; the work was laboured, complicated, pretty, but it was in no sense that of an early master.
This common, squat Virgin, fat and pudgy, was simply a good German girl, well-dressed and squarely seated, but she could never have been the ecstatic Mother of God! Then these kneeling and standing men were not in prayer; there was no devotion in this picture; the personages were all thinking of something else, folding their hands and looking round at the painter who was depicting them. As to the wings, it were better to say nothing about them. What was to be thought of the Saint Ursula with a prominent forehead like a cupping-glass and a burly stomach, surrounded by other creatures as shapeless as herself, their squab noses poking out of the bladders of lard that did duty for their faces?
And Durtal found the same impression of insensibility to mysticism in the picture gallery. There he could study Stephan Lochner’s precursor, Master Wilhelm — the first early German painter whose name is known — and in this again he found the look of elaborate chubbiness as in the Dombild. Wilhelm’s Virgin was indeed less vulgar than the Virgin of the cathedral; but in feeling she was equally insipid, over-finished, and even more simperingly pretty. She was the triumph of delicate pertness, and had the look of a stage chamber-maid with her hair crimped over her forehead. And the child, twisted into an unnatural attitude, while he caressed his Mother’s chin, turned his face round to be the better seen.
In short, this Virgin was neither human nor divine; she had not even the too realistic touch of Lochner, and could, no more than the other, have been the chosen Mother of God.
It is indeed strange that these very early painters should have begun where painting as an art ends, in mere finish .and smoothness; men who from the first put sugar in their new wine and betray their lack of energy, of enthusiasm, of simplicity, while no faith projects itself from their work. They are the very converse of every other school; for everywhere else, in Italy, Flanders, Holland, Burgundy, pictures began by being clumsy and unfinished, barbarous and hard, but at least ardent and pious!
As he studied the other pictures in this collection, the mass of anonymous work, the paintings ascribed to the Master of the Lyversberg Passion, and the Master of the Saint Bartholomew, Durtal came to the conclusion that the School of Cologne had known nothing of mysticism till it had felt the influence of the Flemish painters. It had needed a Van Eyck, and the yet more exquisite Roger van der Weyden, to breathe the air of Heaven into these craftsmen. They thus had changed their manner, had imitated the ascetic innocence of the Flemings, had assimilated their tender piety and simplicity, and, th their turn, had sung the glory of the Mother and mourned over the sufferings of the Son in ingenuous hymns.
"This school may be thus summed up," said Durtal. "It is the triumph of padding and puffing, the apotheosis of fatness and sheen, and this has nothing to do with Christian art in the true sense of the word.
"If we want to understand the whole personal character of German religious painting, we must study other schools than this, the only one ever spoken of, and always with praise. We must turn to the less familiar schools of Franconia and Swabia; there we find the very opposite. As art it is savage and rough, but it lives — it weeps, nay it cries aloud, but it prays. We must look at the works of these unkempt geniuses, such as Grünewald, whose Christs, rebellious and wrathful, grind their teeth; or Zeitbiom, whose .’Veronica’s veil,’ in the Berlin Museum, is unpleasant, no doubt; the angels have black leather crosses on their breasts, and the Saviour’s head is terrible, horrible; still there is such energy in the work, such decision, such crudity, that the very sincerity of its ugliness is impressive.
"Certainly," Durtal went on, "even setting apart such daring painters as Grünewald, I prefer many an unknown artist whose work is strange rather than beautiful, but at any rate mystical, to the honey and lard of Cologne; for instance, an anonymous painter who is to be found in the Grand Duke’s collection at Gotha, as the author of one of those curious Mass-scenes which in the Middle Ages were called the ’Mass of Saint Gregory,’ wherefore, we know not."
Durtal turned over his note-book and read through the description he had recorded of this work, which he remembered as an instance of a sort of pious brutality.
The picture was set out on a gold background. A little above the altar, but scarcely higher, a wooden sarcophagus, a sort of square bath, was seen, with a board over it from end to end. On this plank-bridge sat the Christ, His legs hidden in this tomb, holding a cross. His face was haggard and hollow, He was crowned with green thorns, and His emaciated body was spotted all over by the ends of the scourges as if the wounds were flea-bites. Over Him, in the air, floated the instruments of the Passion: the nails, the sponge, a hammer and a spear; to the left, on a very small scale, were the bust of Jesus and of Judas, near a pedestal on which lay three rows of pieces of silver.
In front of this altar, adoring this truly hideous Saviour painted in accordance with the prophetic descriptions of Isaiah and David, were Pope Gregory on his knees, his hands clasped, a grave Cardinal, whose hands were hidden under his robe, and a rough-looking Bishop, standing, in a dark green cloak embroidered with gold; he held a cross.
It was enigmatical and it was sinister, but those austere and commanding faces were alive. There was a stamp of faith, indomitable and resolute, in those countenances. It was harsh to the palate, the roughest wine of mysticism; but at least it was not the mawkish syrup of the early Cologne painters.
"Ah! that mystical breath by which the soul of the artist becomes incorporate in the colour on a canvas, in the lines of carved stone, in written words, and speaks to the souls of those who can understand! How few have had it!" thought Durtal, closing his notes of travel. "In Germany it may be seen in the very bunglers among painters in Italy, setting aside Angelico, whose works reveal his saintly spirit and are the coloured image of his secret soul, and his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, the last of the Mediaeval painters; if we also except his precursors: Cimabue, the survivors of the rigid Byzantines, Giotto — who thawed those fixed and puzzling figures, Orcagna,Simone di Martino, Taddeo Gaddi — all the very early painters — how much dexterous trickery do we find among the great painters, mimicking the religious note, and producing a deceptive imitation by sheer sham.
The Italians of the Renaissance, above all others, excèlled in this spurious piety, and those are comparatively rare who, like Botticelli, were honest enough to confess that their Virgins were Venuses and their Venuses Virgins.
The Berlin gallery, where he is to be seen in some exquisite and triumphant examples, shows this very plainly; we see the two versions of the type side by side.
First we have a wonderful Venus, nude, with pure gold hair brought round her body by one hand, standing out in her white flesh against a black background, gazing with limpid grey eyes, liquid with the colour of stagnant water, and edged with lids like a young rabbit’s — pink lids; she must have wept much, and her disconsolate look, her drooping attitude, suggest some far-away thought of the unsatisfied weariness of the senses and the intolerable unrest of horrible desires that nothing can satisfy.
And not far away is a Virgin, very like her-indeed her very self; with her sensitive, slightly upturned nose, her lips like a folded clover-leaf, her brackish eyes, her pink lids, her golden hair, her greenish complexion, her stronglymoulded frame and large hands. The countenance is the same, fretful and weary; it is evident that the same model sat for both. They are both purely pagan. For the Venus, well and good! But the Virgin!
It may be added that in this picture a row of torch-bearing angels makes the result, if possible, even less Christian, for these delightful creatures, with their ambiguous smiles and supple grace, have all the dangerous attraction of wicked angels. They are Ganymedes, borrowed from mythology, not from the Bible.
"How far we are from God with this paganism of Botticelli’s!" said Durtal to himself. "What a difference between this painter and that Roger van der Weyden whose Nativity is the glory of one of the adjoining rooms in that magnificent Old Museum of Berlin!"
Ay, that Nativity! — He had only to turn to his notes to see it plainly before him.
Painted as a triptych, on the right wing was an old man in front of some wondering bystanders, burning incense to the Virgin, who is visible through an open window above a landscape in distant perspective with avenues undulating to the horizon; while a woman, her head dressed in a muffler that is almost a turban, touches the old man’s shoulder with one hand and raises the other with an indescribable gesture of surprise and joy, her face expressive of ecstasy. On the left wing kneel the three Kings, their hands uplifted, their eyes raised to Heaven, contemplating an Infant beaming from the heart of a star; nothing can be more beautiful than these three transfigured faces; and these are praying with all their heart, never troubling themselves about us.
Still, these two divisions are but accessory to the central subject which they complement, and which is thus arranged:
In the middle, in front of a sort of ruined palace or columnar cow-shed without a roof, the Virgin kneels in prayer before the Babe; to the right the donor, the Chevalier Bladelin, is seen, also kneeling, and on the left Saint Joseph, holding a lighted taper, gazes down on Jesus. There are besides six little angels, three below at the— door of the stable and three above in the air. This is the whole scene.
It is noteworthy that the goldsmith’s work, the mingled splendour of Oriental hangings, the brocades hemmed with fur and strewn with gems of which Van Eyck and Memling made such free use to array their figures of the Virgin and the donors, are not to be seen in this panel. The textures are rich and heavy, but have none of the gorgeous colouring of the silks of Bruges or the carpets of Persia. Roger van der Weyden seems intentionally to have reduced the whole setting of the scene to its simplest expression, and yet, while using an unaffectedly sober key of colour, he has produced a masterpiece of pure and lucid harmony.
Mary, with no diadem, no jewelled band, not a bracelet or a gem, her head simply crowned by a few golden rays, is seen in a white dress, closed to the throat, and a blue cloak of which the ample folds lie on the ground; the sleeves of her under dress, fastened at the wrists, are of a rich blue violet, more nearly black than red.
Her face is indescribable; of superhuman loveliness, with long red-gold hair; the brow high, the nose straight, the lips full, the chin small; but words are of no avail; what cannot be described is the expression of candour and sadness, the tide of love that rises to those downcast eyes as she looks down on the tiny, helpless Babe, round whose head there is a rosy nimbus starred with gold.
Never was there a more unearthly and yet more living Virgin. Neither Van Eyck, with his rather vulgar and never beautiful heads, nor Memling — more tender and refined, no doubt, but limited to his ideal of a woman with a round forehead and a face shaped like a kite, wide above and pointed below — ever achieved the elegance of form or the purity of a woman made divine by love, a being who, even apart from her surroundings and bereft of the attributes by which she is recognizable, could be none other than the Mother of God.
By her side the Chevalier Bladelin, dressed all in black, with his equine type of face, his shaven cheeks, his dignity, at once priestly and princely, is lost in contemplation, far away from the world; he is praying in good earnest. And Saint Joseph, opposite to him, represented as a bald old man, with a short beard, and wearing a red cloak, comes forward as if amazed at his happiness, and scarce daring to believe that the moment has come when he may adore the Messiah born at last; he smiles, deferentially, mildly stepping with the almost clumsy care of an old man who would fain be serviceable but fears to intrude.
To make the whole thing more than perfect, above the figure of Pierre Bladelin extends a wondrous landscape, cut across by the High Street of Middelburg, the town founded by this nobleman, a street bordered by castellated houses with battlements and church towers, and vanishing in a country scene lighted up by a clear sky, a blue spring day; above Saint Joseph a meadow and woods, sheep and shepherds, and three exquisite angels in robes, one of pinkish yellow, one of purple like a campanula, and one of greenish citron hue; three really ethereal beings, having no relationship with the pertly innocent pages invented by the Renaissance.
If we sum up the whole impression produced by this work, we are led to the conclusion that mystical art, still dwelling on earth, and not restricted to scenes in Heaven, as Angelico had chosen to limit it in his "Coronation of the Virgin," has produced in Roger van der Weyden’s triptych the purest effluence of prayer to be found in painting. Never has the Nativity been so gloriously set forth, nor, it may be said, more artlessly and simply expressed. The masterpiece of the Christmas festival is at Berlin, just as the masterpiece of the Deposition is at Antwerp, in the agonized and magnificent work of Quentin Matsys.
"The early Flemish painters were the greatest that ever lived! " said Durtal to himself, "and this Roger Van der Weyden, or Roger de la Pasture as he is sometimes called, crushed between the fame of van Eyck and of Memling — as Gherard David was later, and Hugo van der Goes, Justus of Ghent, and Dierck Bouts — was in my opinion superior to them all.
"And after them what a falling away! Theatrical Crucifixions, the fleshy coarseness of Rubens which Vandyck tried to mitigate by making it leaner. We must leap into Holland to find the mystic accent once more, and it reveals itself in the soul of a Judaizing Protestant, under an aspect so mysterious and eccentric that at first sight we hesitate, feeling ourselves, as it were, to make sure that we are not mistaken in regarding this as religious art.
"Nor need we go to Amsterdam to verify the truth of this impression. It is enough to go to see the ’Disciples at Emmaus,’ in the Louvre."
Durtal, started on this theme, fell into a reverie over Rembrandt’s strange conception of Christian sthetics. It is evident that in his mode of depicting Gospel scenes this painter still exhales a breath of the Old Testament; his church, even if he had meant to paint it as it was in his day, would still be a synagogue, so strong is the odour of the Jew in all his work; he is possessed by the imagery, the prophecies, all the solemn and barbarous side of the East. And this we can understand when we know that he was the companion of Rabbis, whose portraits he has left us, and the friend of Manasseh ben Israel, one of the most learned men of his age. On the other hand, we may admit that this Protestant Dutchman engrafted on this stock of cabalistic learning and Mosaic ceremonial an attentive and assiduous study of the Old Testament, for he possessed a Bible, which was sold by auction with his furniture to pay his debts.
This would be enough to justify his choice of subjects and the composition of his pictures; but the riddle remains unsolved of the results achieved by an artist whom we cannot conceive of, after all, as praying before he would paint: like Angelico and Roger van der Weyden.
Be this as it may, he, with the eye of a visionary, with his serious but fervid art, his genius for concentration, for getting a spot of the essence of sunlight into the heart of darkness, has accomplished great results; and in his Biblical scenes has spoken a language which no one before him had even attempted to lisp.
Is not this picture of the Pilgrims to Emmaus a typical instance of this? Pull the work to pieces; it ought to seem dull, monotonous, voiceless. As a composition it is utterly common: we see a sort of cellar of stone-work, a table facing us, behind which sits Jesus, His feet bare, His lips colourless, His complexion muddy, His raiment of a pinkish grey; He is breaking the bread, while, to His right, an apostle, clutching his napkin, looks at Him, fancies he recognizes Him, and on the left another disciple, quite sure that he knows Him, clasps his hands — and this one utters a cry of joy that we can hear! A fourth figure, with an intelligent profile, sees nothing, but, attentive to his duties, waits on the guests.
It is a meal of humble folk in a prison; the colours are limited to a key of sad greys and browns, excepting in the case of the man who twists his napkin, whose sleeves are thick with a vermilion like red sealing-wax, while the others might be painted with dust and pitch.
These are the literal facts; but they are not the truth, for everything is transfigured. The head of Christ is luminous merely by the way He looks up; a pale radiance fills the room. This Jesus, ugly as He is, with lips like death, asserts Himself by a gesture, a look of ineffable beauty, as the murdered Son of a God!
We stand dumfounded, not even trying to understand; for this work, stamped with transcendent naturalism, is beyond and apart from painting; no one can copy or reproduce it.
"After Rembrandt," Durtal went on, "there is an irremediable decay of religious feeling in painting. The seventeenth century has not left a single picture in which there is a genuine stamp of manly devotion; excepting, indeed, in Spain at the time when Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross flourished there; then the mystical realism of its painters produced some fiercely fervid works;" and Durtal recalled a picture by Zurbaran he had seen and admired in the Gallery at Lyons, Saint Francis of Assisi standing upright in a habit of grey serge, the cowl over his head, his hands hidden in his sleeves.
The face looked as if it had been moulded or chiselled out of cinders; the mouth was open, livid, below ecstatic eyes as white as if they had been blinded. It was a wonder how this corpse, of which nothing was left but the bones, could hold itself up and terror came over the beholder as he thought of the excessive maceration and overwhelming penances that must have exhausted that frame and seamed that face.
This painting was the evident outcome of the relentless and terrible mysticism of Saint John of the Cross, the art of the rack, the delirium tremens of divine intoxication here on earth; aye, but what a passion of adoration, what a voice of love stifled by anguish found utterance in this canvas.
As to the eighteenth century, it was not worth a thought; that century was the age of the belly and the bath-room; as soon as art tried to touch the Church it only made a washing-basin into a holy-water stoup.
In our own time, again, there is nothing to note.
Overbeck, Ingres, Flandrin — all sorry jades harnessed willy-nilly to religious tasks by commissions from the pious. In the church of Saint Sulpice Delacroix extinguishes all the feeble art that surrounds him, but his sense of Catholic art is null.
In truth, faith is now dormant, and without that no mystical work is possible!
At the present moment Signol is dead, but Olivier Merson is left; vacuity all along the line. We need not take into account the got-up absurdities and paintings to puzzle Rosicrucian simpletons; nor, again, the feeble imagery of the wealthy idlers or the worthy youths who fancy that if they paint a woman larger than life, that makes her mystical. Silence would befit the subject, only that, unluckily, a well-meaning publisher was struck by the idea of mobilizing the clerical forces to hail James Tissot as an evangelical painter. His Life of Christ is one of the least religious works conceivable, for, in fact, it might be regarded as a hesitating paraphrase of the Life of Jesus as narrated by that cheerful apostate and terrible jester, Renan.
The firm of Marne has completed this artist’s treason by the issue of these melancholy chromo-lithographs. Under the pretext of realism, of information acquired on the spot, of authenticated costumes — all extremely doubtful, since we should be forced to conclude that nothing has changed in Palestine in the course of nineteen centuries — Monsieur Tissot has given us the basest masquerade that anyone has yet dared present as an illustration of the Scriptures. Look at that disreputable trull, a street slut tired of shouting "This way to the boats!" till she falls fainting. This is the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin. That epileptic boy with outstretched arms is Jesus in the Temple. Look at the Baptism, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Saint Peter walking on the Sea, the Magdalen at the feet of Jesus, the ridiculous Consummatum est — look at them all: these prints are matchless for platitude, effeteness, poverty of spirit. They might have been designed by the first-comer, and are painted with muck, wine-sauce, mud!
Certainly the hapless Catholics have no luck when once they try to meddle with what they do not understand; their incurable lack of artistic sense is once more displayed in this attempt over which the whole world of art and letters is laughing in their sleeve.
"Then is there nothing, absolutely nothing, to the credit side for the Church?" exclaimed Durtal. "And yet some attempts at ascetic art have been made in this century. A few years since, the Benedictine House at Beuron, in Bavaria, tried to revive ecclesiastical art"; and Durtal remembered having looked through some reproductions of mural frescoes painted by these monks in a tower at Monte Cassino.
These frescoes had gone back to the types of Assyria and Egypt, with their crowned gods, their sphynx-headed angels having fan-shaped wings behind their heads, their old men with plaited beards playing on stringed instruments; and then the Friars of Beuron had given up this hieratic style, in which, it must be owned, they succeeded but ill, and in certain later works — especially in a volume of the Way of the Cross, published at Freiburg in Breisgau — they had adopted a strange medley of other styles.
The Roman soldiers who figured in those pages were huge firemen, a bequest from the schools of Guérin and David; and then, unexpectedly, in certain plates where the Magdalen and the Holy women appeared, a younger spirit seemed to prevail among the commonplace groups — Greek female types derived from the Renaissance, pretty and elegant, evidently imported from the works of the preRaphaelites, and strongly recalling Walter Crane’s illustrations.
Thus the ideal at Beuron had developed into an alloy of the French art of the First Empire and contemporary English work.
Some of these compositions were all but laughable, that of the Ninth Station, to mention one: Christ lying at full length on His face, and being pulled up by a rope tied to His bound hands; it looked as if He were learning to swim. Still, but for feeble and vulgar incidents, clumsy and obvious details, what strange scenes suddenly rose before his mind, distinct from the mass : Veronica on her knees before Jesus, was really distracted with grief, really fine; the borrowed or copied figures of the other persons represented disappeared; even in the least original of these compositions the coarse, unsatisfactory utterances of these monks spoke an almost eloquent language; and this because intense faith and fervour lurked in the work. A breath had passed over those faces, and they were alive; the emotion, the voice of prayer, was felt in the silence of this conventional crowd. This Way of the Cross was matchless from this point of view: Monastic piety had introduced an unexpected element, giving evidence of the mysterious power it has at its command, infusing a personal emotion, a peculiar aroma, into a work which, without it, would never indeed have existed. These Benedictines had suggested the sensation of kneeling worship and the very fragrance of the Gospel, as artists of wider scope had failed in doing.
Their attempt, however, had begotten no following, and at this day the school is almost dead, producing nothing but feeble prints for old women designed by the lay-brothers.
How, indeed, could it have been anything but still-born? The idea of doing for the West what Manuel Panselinos did for the East, of eliminating study from nature, imposing an uniform ritual of colour and line, of compelling every artistic temperament to squeeze itself into the same mould, shows an absolute misapprehension of art in the mind of the man who attempted it. The system was bound to end in ankylosis, in the paralysis of painting, and this, in fact, was the result.
At about the same time with these Religious an unknown artist, living in the country, and never exhibiting in Paris, was painting pictures for churches and convents, working for the glory of God and refusing all remuneration from priests or monks. Durtal knew his pictures, and they had suggested much the same reflections as those aroused by the Benedictine paintings of Beuron.
At first sight Paul Borel’s work is neither cheerful nor attractive; the phrases he used might often have made a partisan of the modern smile;. and besides, to judge his work fairly it is indispensable to get rid of part of it, to refuse to see anything but that which has evaded the too-familiar formulas of commonplace unction; and then what a spirit of manly fervency, of ardent piety, filled and upheld it.
His most important paintings are buried in the chapel of the Dominican school at Oullins, in a remote corner of the suburbs of Lyons. Among the ten subjects that decorate the nave, we find Moses Striking the Rock, the Disciples at Emmaus, the Healing of One Possessed, of One Born Blind, and of Tobit; but in spite of the calm energy shown in these frescoes, they are disappointing by reason of their general heaviness and of the sleepy and unwonted effect of colour. Not till we reach the choir, beyond the communion railing, do we find works of a quite different kind of art, above some magnificent figures of saints of the Order of Friars Preacher, amazing in the power of prayer, the essence of saintliness that they diffuse.
There, too, Durtal had found two large compositions: one of the Virgin bestowing the Rosary on Saint Dominic, and the other of Saint Thomas Aquinas kneeling before an altar on which stands a Crucifix radiating light. Never since the Middle Ages had monks been so understood and so painted; never had a more impetuous fount of soul been revealed under so stern a casing of features. Borel was the painter of the Monastic Saints; his art, by nature rather torpid, soared up with them as soon as he tried to paint them.
At Versailles, again, even better perhaps than in the chapel of the Oullins seminary, the sincere and deeply religious work of Borel might be studied. At the entrance to the chapel of the Augustine Sisters in that town, of which Borel had painted the nave and the choir, there stood a figure of an Abbess of the fourteenth century, Saint Clare of Montefalcone, in the black robes of an Augustinian Nun, against the stone walls of her cell, an open book on one side of the figure and a brass lamp on the other, somewhat behind her on a table.
In that face, bent over the Crucifix she was pressing to her lips, in that countenance, at once sweet and hungering, in the movement of the arms closely folded over her bosom, raised to her face, and themselves forming ’a cross, he had seen the complete absorption of a bride, the rapt, ecstatic joy of the purest love, and at the same time something of the anxious affection of a mother cherishing the Christ she kissed, and seemed to shelter in her bosom like a suffering child.
And this was all set forth without any theatrical attitude or forced gestures, with perfect simplicity. This Saint Clare has no ravings, no outcries, like Saint Magdalen of Pazzi; she does not soar with the flight of divine intoxication. The mystic possession manifests itself in a mute rapture; her transports are controlled, and her inebriety is grave; she does not diffuse herself, but opens her soul, and Jesus, as He enters in, stamps her with His likeness, impresses her with the image of the Crucifix she holds, and of which the impress was found graven on her heart when it was examined after her death.
This was the most remarkable religious painting of our time, and it was achieved with no borrowing from the Early painters, no trickery of awkward attitudes supported by iron bars, no affectations, no artifice. And what a devout Catholic, what an emotionally pious artist must the man be who could produce such a work!
After him the rest was silence. Among the religious youth of to-day no one is to be found equal to the presentment of Church subjects. "Only one," said Durtal, thinking it over, "gave any hope of such powers, for he stands apart from the rest, and, at any rate, has talent."
He rose and went to turn over his portfolios, picking out the lithographs by Charles Dulac.
This artist had begun with a series of landscapes, idealizing nature, at first with a timid hand — extravagantly large pools, and trees with leaves that looked like wild wigs tossed by the wind; then he had produced a rendering in black and white of a Canticle of the Sun, or of Creation, and had poured out in nine plates, printed in different states of tone, that effluence of mystical feeling which in his first set was still latent and undecided.
The rather hackneyed dictum that "a landscape is a state of mind," was strictly appropriate to this work; the artist had stamped his faith on these views, studied, no doubt, from nature, but seen, it was evident, not by the eyes alone, but by a captivated spirit singing in the open air Daniel’s hymn and David’s psalm, as interpreted by Saint Francis, and repeating after them the thought that all the Elements shall sing to the glory of Him who created them.
Among these plates two were genuinely inspiring: that with the title, Stella Matutina, and the other with the words, Spiritus Sancte Deus; but another, the broadest, the most decisive, and the simplest of them all, bearing the title Sol Justitiae, seemed best of all to set forth the individual sympathies of the artist.
It was thus composed: A light, remote, translucent distante was lost in infinitude — a peninsula, a desert waste of waters with ribs of shore, tongues of land planted with trees repeated in the mirror of the lake; on the horizon the sun, half set, cast its beams reflected by the sheet of waters; that was all, but amazing placidity and calm, a sense of fulness was shed over all. The idea of justice, to which that of mercy answers as its inevitable echo, was symbolized in the serene solemnity of this expanse lighted up by the glow of a kindly season and mild atmosphere.
Durtal drew back to get a more complete view of the work as a whole.
"There is no denying it," said he; "this artist has the instinct, the subtle sense of aerial space, of expanse; he understands the soul of calm waters flowing under a vast sky! And then, this print diffuses emanations as from a Catholic, which steal into us, slowly soak into our heart.
"And by this time," said he, closing the portfolio, "I am far enough away from the original matter, and none the nearer to any article I can write for the Review. A paper on the primitive German painters would, indeed, be quite in its line; yes, but what an undertaking! I should have to work up my notes, and after dealing with Meister Wilhelm, Stephan Lochner, and Zeitbiom, to speak of Berrihardt Strigel, an almost unknown painter, of Albert Durer, Holbein, Martin Schongauer, Hans Balding, Burgkmayer, and I know not how many more. I should have to account for whatever may have survived of orthodoxy in Germany after the Reformation; to mention, at any rate, from the Lutheran point of view, that extraordinary painter, Cranach, whose Adams are bearded Apollos of the complexion of a Red Indian, and his Eves slender, chubbyfaced courtesans, with bullet heads, little shrimps’ eyes, lips moulded out of red pomatum, breasts like apples close under the neck, long, slim legs, elegantly formed, with the calf high up, and large, flat feet with thick ankles.
"Such a treatise would carry me too far. It is amusing to dream over, but not to write. I should do better to seek a less panoramic, a compacter subject. But what? — Well, I will see later," he concluded, getting up, for Madame Mesurat jovially announced that dinner was ready.