WHY is it that Western Europe, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, reached a climax of art comparable with Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome?
The Norse and Saracen raids had been beaten off, the Magyars had been tamed. The Crusades aroused a fever of creative energy, and brought back to Europe a thousand ideas and art forms from the Byzantine and Moslem East. The reopening of the Mediterranean, and the opening of the Atlantic to Christian commerce, the security and organization of trade along the rivers of France and Germany and on the northern seas, and the expansion of industry and finance, generated a wealth unknown since Constantine, new classes capable of affording art, and prosperous communes each resolved to build a finer cathedral than the last. The coffers of abbots, bishops, and popes were swelling with the tithes of the people, the gifts of the merchants, the grants of nobles and kings. The Iconoclasts had been defeated; art was no longer branded as idolatry; the Church, which once had feared it, found in it now a propitious medium for inculcating her faith and ideals among the letterless, and for stirring souls to a devotion that lifted spires like supplicating litanies to the sky. And the new religion of Mary, rising spontaneously from the hearts of the people, poured its love and trust of the Divine Mother into magnificent temples where thousands of her children might gather at once to do her homage and beg her aid. All these influences, and many more, came together to flood half a continent with profuse streams of unprecedented art.
The ancient techniques had here and there survived barbarian devastation and municipal decay. In the Eastern Empire the old skills were never lost; and it was above all from the Greek East and Byzantine Italy that artists and art themes now entered the life of the resurrected West. Charlemagne drew into his service Greek artists fleeing from Byzantine Iconoclasts; hence the art of Aachen married Byzantine delicacy and mysticism to German solidity and earthiness. The monk artists of Cluny, inaugurating in the tenth century a new era in Western architecture and adornment, began by copying Byzantine models. The school of monastic art developed at Monte Cassino by Abbot Desiderius (1072) was taught by Greek teachers on Byzantine lines. When Honorius III (1218) wished to decorate San Paolo fuori le mura he sent to Venice for mosaicists; and those who came were steeped in the Byzantine tradition. Colonies of Byzantine artists could be found in a score of Western cities; and it was their style of painting that molded Duccio, ‘Cimabue, and the early Giotto himself. Byzantine or Oriental motives—palmettes, acanthus leaves, animals within medallions—came to the West on textiles and ivories and in illuminated manuscripts, and lived hundreds of years in Romanesque ornament. Syrian, Anatolian, Persian forms of architecture—the vault, the dome, the tower-flanked façade, the composite column, the windows grouped by two or three under a binding arch—appeared again in the architecture of the West. History makes no leaps, and nothing is lost.
Just as the development of life requires variation as well as heredity, and the development of a society needs experimental innovation as well as stabilizing custom, so the development of art in Western Europe involved not only the continuity of a tradition in skills and forms, and the stimulation of Byzantine and Moslem examples, but also the repeated turning of the artist from the school to nature, from ideas to things, from the past to the present, from the imitation of models to the expression of self. There was a somber and static quality in Byzantine art, a fragile and feminine elegance in Arabic ornament, that could never represent the dynamic and masculine vitality of a rebarbarized and reinvigorated West. Nations that were rising out of the Dark Ages toward the noon of the thirteenth century preferred the noble grace of Giotto’s women to the stiff Theodoras of Byzantine mosaics; and, laughing at the Semitic horror of images, they transformed mere decoration into the smiling angel of the Reims Cathedral, and the Golden Virgin of Amiens. The joy of life conquered the fear of death in Gothic art.
It was the monks who, as they preserved classic literature, maintained and disseminated Roman, Greek, and Oriental art techniques. Seeking self-containment, the monasteries trained their inmates to the decorative as well as the practical crafts. The abbey church required altar and chancel furniture, chalice and pyx, reliquaries and shrines, missal, candelabra, perhaps mosaics, murals, and icons to inform and inspire piety; these the monks for the most part fashioned with their own hands; indeed, the monastery itself was in many cases designed and built by them, as Monte Cassino rises by Benedictine labor today. Most monasteries included spacious workshops; at Chartres, for example, Bernard de Tiron founded a religious house and gathered into it, we are told, “craftsmen both in wood and iron, carvers and goldsmiths, painters and stonemasons … and others skilled in all manner of cunning work.”1 The illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages were almost all the work of monks; the finest textiles were produced by monks and nuns; the architects of the early Romanesque cathedrals were monks;2 in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries the abbey of Cluny furnished most of the architects for Western Europe, and many of the painters and sculptors;3 and in the thirteenth century the abbey of St. Denis was a thriving center of varied arts. Even the Cistercian monasteries, which in the days of the watchful Bernard had closed their doors to decoration, soon surrendered to the lure of form and the excitement of color, and began to build abbeys as ornate as Cluny or St. Denis. As the English cathedrals were usually monastic minsters, the regular or monastic clergy continued to the end of the thirteenth century to dominate ecclesiastical architecture in England.
FIG. 16—Cimabue: Madonna with Angels and St. Francis Cathedral of Assisi
FIG. 17—Portrait of a Saint Book of Kells
FIG. 18—Glass Painting, 12th Century Chartres Cathedral
FIG. 19—Rose Window Strasbourg Cathedral
FIG. 20—Notre Dame Paris
FIG. 21—Gargoyle Notre Dame, Paris
FIG. 22—Gargoyle Notre Dame, Paris
FIG. 23—Cathedral, West View Chartres
FIG. 24—“Modesty” North transept, Chartres Cathedral
FIG. 25—“he Visitation” North transept, Chartres Cathedral
But a monastery, however excellent as a school and refuge for the spirit, is condemned by its seclusion to be a repository of traditions rather than a theater of living experiment; it is better fitted to preserve than to create. Not until the widened demands of a richer laity nourished secular artists did medieval life find the exuberant expression, in unhackneyed forms, that brought Gothic art to fullness. First in Italy, most in France, least in England, the emancipated and specializing laymen of the twelfth century, grouped in guilds, took the arts from monastic teachers and hands, and built the great cathedrals.