The Relation of Art to Religion
31. It was stated, and I trust partly with your acceptance, in my opening lecture, that the study on which we are about to enter cannot be rightly undertaken except in furtherance of the grave purposes of life with respect to which the rest of the scheme of your education here is designed. But you can scarcely have at once felt all that I intended in saying so;--you cannot but be still partly under the impression that the so-called fine arts are merely modes of graceful recreation, and a new resource for your times of rest. Let me ask you, forthwith, so far as you can trust me, to change your thoughts in this matter. All the great arts have for their object either the support or exaltation of human life,--usually both; and their dignity, and ultimately their very existence, depend on their being "+meta logou alethous+," that is to say, apprehending, with right reason, the nature of the materials they work with, of the things they relate or represent, and of the faculties to which they are addressed. And farther, they form one united system from which it is impossible to remove any part without harm to the rest. They are founded first in mastery, by strength of _arm_, of the earth and sea, in agriculture and seamanship; then their inventive power begins, with the clay in the hand of the potter, whose art is the humblest but truest type of the forming of the human body and spirit; and in the carpenter's work, which probably was the early employment of the Founder of our religion. And until men have perfectly learned the laws of art in clay and wood, they can consummately know no others. Nor is it without the strange significance which you will find in what at first seems chance, in all noble histories, as soon as you can read them rightly,--that the statue of Athena Polias was of olive-wood, and that the Greek temple and Gothic spire are both merely the permanent representations of useful wooden structures. On these two first arts follow building in stone,--sculpture,--metal work,--and painting; every art being properly called "fine" which demands the exercise of the full faculties of heart and intellect. For though the fine arts are not necessarily imitative or representative, for their essence is in being +peri genesin+--occupied in the actual _production_ of beautiful form or colour,--still, the highest of them are appointed also to relate to us the utmost ascertainable truth respecting visible things and moral feelings: and this pursuit of _fact_ is the vital _element_ of the art power;--that in which alone it can develop itself to its utmost. And I will anticipate by an assertion which you will at present think too bold, but which I am willing that you should think so, in order that you may well remember it,--THE HIGHEST THING THAT ART CAN DO IS TO SET BEFORE YOU THE TRUE IMAGE OF THE PRESENCE OF A NOBLE HUMAN BEING. IT HAS NEVER DONE MORE THAN THIS, AND IT OUGHT NOT TO DO LESS.
32. The great arts--forming thus one perfect scheme of human skill, of which it is not right to call one division more honourable, though it may be more subtle, than another--have had, and can have, but three principal directions of purpose:--first, that of enforcing the religion of men; secondly, that of perfecting their ethical state; thirdly, that of doing them material service.
33. I do not doubt but that you are surprised at my saying the arts can in their second function only be directed to the perfecting of ethical state, it being our usual impression that they are often destructive of morality. But it is impossible to direct fine art to an immoral end, except by giving it characters unconnected with its fineness, or by addressing it to persons who cannot perceive it to be fine. Whosoever recognises it is exalted by it. On the other hand, it has been commonly thought that art was a most fitting means for the enforcement of religious doctrines and emotions; whereas there is, as I must presently try to show you, room for grave doubt whether it has not in this function hitherto done evil rather than good.
34. In this and the two next following lectures, I shall endeavour therefore to show you the grave relations of human art, in these three functions, to human life. I can do this but roughly, as you may well suppose--since each of these subjects would require for its right treatment years instead of hours. Only, remember, _I_ have already given years, not a few, to each of them; and what I try to tell _you_ now will be only so much as is absolutely necessary to set our work on a clear foundation. You may not, at present, see the necessity for _any_ foundation, and may think that I ought to put pencil and paper in your hands at once. On that point I must simply answer, "Trust me a little while," asking you however also to remember, that--irrespectively of any consideration of last or first--my true function here is not that of your master in painting, or sculpture, or pottery; but to show you what it is that makes any of these arts _fine_, or the contrary of _fine_: essentially _good_, or essentially _base_. You need not fear my not being practical enough for you; all the industry you choose to give me, I will take; but far the better part of what you may gain by such industry would be lost, if I did not first lead you to see what every form of art-industry intends, and why some of it is justly called right, and some wrong.
35. It would be well if you were to look over, with respect to this matter, the end of the second, and what interests you of the third, book of Plato's Republic; noting therein these two principal things, of which I have to speak in this and my next lecture: first, the power which Plato so frankly, and quite justly, attributes to art, of _falsifying_ our conceptions of Deity: which power he by fatal error partly implies may be used wisely for good, and that the feigning is only wrong when it is of evil, "+ean tis me kalos pseudetai+;" and you may trace through all that follows the beginning of the change of Greek ideal art into a beautiful expediency, instead of what it was in the days of Pindar, the statement of what "could not be otherwise than so." But, in the second place, you will find in those books of the Polity, stated with far greater accuracy of expression than our English language admits, the essential relations of art to morality; the sum of these being given in one lovely sentence, which, considering that we have to-day grace done us by fair companionship, you will pardon me for translating. "_Must it be then only with our poets that we insist they shall either create for us the image of a noble morality, or among us create none? or shall we not also keep guard over all other workers for the people, and forbid them to make what is ill-customed, and unrestrained, and ungentle, and without order or shape, either in likeness of living things, or in buildings, or in any other thing whatsoever that is made for the people? and shall we not rather seek for workers who_ CAN TRACK THE INNER NATURE OF ALL THAT MAY BE SWEETLY SCHEMED; _so that the young men, as living in a wholesome place, may be profited by everything that, in work fairly wrought, may touch them through hearing or sight--as if it were a breeze bringing health to them from places strong for life?_"
[Footnote 3: There were, in fact, a great many more girls than University men at the lectures.]
36. And now--but one word, before we enter on our task, as to the way you must understand what I may endeavour to tell you.
Let me beg you--now and always--not to think that I mean more than I say. In all probability, I mean just what I say, and only that. At all events I do fully mean _that_; and if there is anything reserved in my mind, it will be probably different from what you would guess. You are perfectly welcome to know all that I think, as soon as I have put before you all my grounds for thinking it; but by the time I have done so, you will be able to form an opinion of your own; and mine will then be of no consequence to you.
37. I use then to-day, as I shall in future use, the word "Religion" as signifying the feelings of love, reverence, or dread with which the human mind is affected by its conceptions of spiritual being; and you know well how necessary it is, both to the rightness of our own life, and to the understanding the lives of others, that we should always keep clearly distinguished our ideas of Religion, as thus defined, and of Morality, as the law of rightness in human conduct. For there are many religions, but there is only one morality. There are moral and immoral religions, which differ as much in precept as in emotion; but there is only one morality, WHICH HAS BEEN, IS, AND MUST BE FOR EVER, AN INSTINCT IN THE HEARTS OF ALL CIVILISED MEN, AS CERTAIN AND UNALTERABLE AS THEIR OUTWARD BODILY FORM, AND WHICH RECEIVES FROM RELIGION NEITHER LAW, NOR PLACE; BUT ONLY HOPE, AND FELICITY.
38. The pure forms or states of religion hitherto known, are those in which a healthy humanity, finding in itself many foibles and sins, has imagined, or been made conscious of, the existence of higher spiritual personality, liable to no such fault or stain; and has been assisted in effort, and consoled in pain, by reference to the will or sympathy of such purer spirits, whether imagined or real. I am compelled to use these painful latitudes of expression, because no analysis has hitherto sufficed to distinguish accurately, in historical narrative, the difference between impressions resulting from the imagination of the worshipper, and those made, if any, by the actually local and temporary presence of another spirit. For instance, take the vision, which of all others has been since made most frequently the subject of physical representation--the appearance to Ezekiel and St. John of the four living creatures, which throughout Christendom have been used to symbolise the Evangelists. Supposing such interpretation just, one of those figures was either the mere symbol to St. John of himself, or it was the power which inspired him, manifesting itself in an independent form. Which of these it was, or whether neither of these, but a vision of other powers, or a dream, of which neither the prophet himself knew, nor can any other person yet know, the interpretation,--I suppose no modestly-minded and accurate thinker would now take upon himself to decide. Nor is it therefore anywise necessary for you to decide on that, or any other such question; but it is necessary that you should be bold enough to look every opposing question steadily in its face; and modest enough, having done so, to know when it is too hard for you. But above all things, see that you be modest in your thoughts, for of this one thing we may be absolutely sure, that all our thoughts are but degrees of darkness. And in these days you have to guard against the fatallest darkness of the two opposite Prides;--the Pride of Faith, which imagines that the nature of the Deity can be defined by its convictions; and the Pride of Science, which imagines that the energy of Deity can be explained by its analysis.
[Footnote 4: Only the Gospels, "IV Evangelia," according to St. Jerome.]
39. Of these, the first, the Pride of Faith, is now, as it has been always, the most deadly, because the most complacent and subtle;--because it invests every evil passion of our nature with the aspect of an angel of light, and enables the self-love, which might otherwise have been put to wholesome shame, and the cruel carelessness of the ruin of our fellow-men, which might otherwise have been warmed into human love, or at least checked by human intelligence, to congeal themselves into the mortal intellectual disease of imagining that myriads of the inhabitants of the world for four thousand years have been left to wander and perish, many of them everlastingly, in order that, in fulness of time, divine truth might be preached sufficiently to ourselves: with this farther ineffable mischief for direct result, that multitudes of kindly-disposed, gentle, and submissive persons, who might else by their true patience have alloyed the hardness of the common crowd, and by their activity for good balanced its misdoing, are withdrawn from all such true services of man, that they may pass the best part of their lives in what they are told is the service of God; _namely, desiring what_ _they cannot obtain, lamenting what they cannot avoid, and reflecting on what they cannot understand_.
[Footnote 5: This concentrated definition of monastic life is of course to be understood only of its more enthusiastic forms.]
40. This, I repeat, is the deadliest, but for you, under existing circumstances, it is becoming daily, almost hourly, the least probable form of Pride. That which you have chiefly to guard against consists in the overvaluing of minute though correct discovery; the groundless denial of all that seems to you to have been groundlessly affirmed; and the interesting yourselves too curiously in the progress of some scientific minds, which in their judgment of the universe can be compared to nothing so accurately as to the woodworms in the panel of a picture by some great painter, if we may conceive them as tasting with discrimination of the wood, and with repugnance of the colour, and declaring that even this unlooked-for and undesirable combination is a normal result of the action of molecular Forces.
41. Now, I must very earnestly warn you, in the beginning of my work with you here, against allowing either of these forms of egotism to interfere with your judgment or practice of art. On the one hand, you must not allow the expression of your own favourite religious feelings by any particular form of art to modify your judgment of its absolute merit; nor allow the art itself to become an illegitimate means of deepening and confirming your convictions, by realising to your eyes what you dimly conceive with the brain; as if the greater clearness of the image were a stronger proof of its truth. On the other hand, you must not allow your scientific habit of trusting nothing but what you have ascertained, to prevent you from appreciating, or at least endeavouring to qualify yourselves to appreciate, the work of the highest faculty of the human mind,--its imagination,--when it is toiling in the presence of things that cannot be dealt with by any other power.
42. These are both vital conditions of your healthy progress. On the one hand, observe that you do not wilfully use the realistic power of art to convince yourselves of historical or theological statements which you cannot otherwise prove; and which you wish to prove:--on the other hand, that you do not check your imagination and conscience while seizing the truths of which they alone are cognizant, because you value too highly the scientific interest which attaches to the investigation of second causes.
For instance, it may be quite possible to show the conditions in water and electricity which necessarily produce the craggy outline, the apparently self-contained silvery light, and the sulphurous blue shadow of a thunder-cloud, and which separate these from the depth of the golden peace in the dawn of a summer morning. Similarly, it may be possible to show the necessities of structure which groove the fangs and depress the brow of the asp, and which distinguish the character of its head from that of the face of a young girl. But it is the function of the rightly-trained imagination to recognise, in these, and such other relative aspects, the unity of teaching which impresses, alike on our senses and our conscience, the eternal difference between good and evil: and the rule, over the clouds of heaven and over the creatures in the earth, of the same Spirit which teaches to our own hearts the bitterness of death, and strength of love.
43. Now, therefore, approaching our subject in this balanced temper, which will neither resolve to see only what it would desire, nor expect to see only what it can explain, we shall find our enquiry into the relation of Art to Religion is distinctly threefold: first, we have to ask how far art may have been literally directed by spiritual powers; secondly, how far, if not inspired, it may have been exalted by them; lastly, how far, in any of its agencies, it has advanced the cause of the creeds it has been used to recommend.
44. First: What ground have we for thinking that art has ever been inspired as a message or revelation? What internal evidence is there in the work of great artists of their having been under the authoritative guidance of supernatural powers?
It is true that the answer to so mysterious a question cannot rest alone upon internal evidence; but it is well that you should know what might, from that evidence alone, be concluded. And the more impartially you examine the phenomena of imagination, the more firmly you will be led to conclude that they are the result of the influence of the common and vital, but not, therefore, less Divine, spirit, of which some portion is given to all living creatures in such manner as may be adapted to their rank in creation; and that everything which men rightly accomplish is indeed done by Divine help, but under a consistent law which is never departed from.
The strength of this spiritual life within us may be increased or lessened by our own conduct; it varies from time to time, as physical strength varies; it is summoned on different occasions by our will, and dejected by our distress, or our sin; but it is always _equally human_, and _equally Divine_. We are men, and not mere animals, because a special form of it is with us always; we are nobler and baser men, as it is with us more or less; but it is never given to us in any degree which can make us more than men.
45. Observe:--I give you this general statement doubtfully, and only as that towards which an impartial reasoner will, I think, be inclined by existing data. But I shall be able to show you, without any doubt, in the course of our studies, that the achievements of art which have been usually looked upon as the results of peculiar inspiration have been arrived at only through long courses of wisely directed labour, and under the influence of feelings which are common to all humanity.
But of these feelings and powers which in different degrees are common to humanity, you are to note that there are three principal divisions: first, the instincts of construction or melody, which we share with lower animals, and which are in us as native as the instinct of the bee or nightingale; secondly, the faculty of vision, or of dreaming, whether in sleep or in conscious trance, or by voluntarily exerted fancy; and lastly, the power of rational inference and collection, of both the laws and forms of beauty.
46. Now the faculty of vision, being closely associated with the innermost spiritual nature, is the one which has by most reasoners been held for the peculiar channel of Divine teaching: and it is a fact that great part of purely didactic art has been the record, whether in language, or by linear representation, of actual vision involuntarily received at the moment, though cast on a mental retina blanched by the past course of faithful life. But it is also true that these visions, where most distinctly received, are always--I speak deliberately--_always_, the _sign of some mental limitation or derangement_; and that the persons who most clearly recognise their value, exaggeratedly estimate it, choosing what they find to be useful, and calling that "inspired," and disregarding what they perceive to be useless, though presented to the visionary by an equal authority.
47. Thus it is probable that no work of art has been more widely didactic than Albert Duerer's engraving, known as the "Knight and Death." But that is only one of a series of works representing similarly vivid dreams, of which some are uninteresting, except for the manner of their representation, as the "St. Hubert," and others are unintelligible; some, frightful, and wholly unprofitable; so that we find the visionary faculty in that great painter, when accurately examined, to be a morbid influence, abasing his skill more frequently than encouraging it, and sacrificing the greater part of his energies upon vain subjects, two only being produced, in the course of a long life, which are of high didactic value, and both of these capable only of giving sad courage. Whatever the value of these two, it bears more the aspect of a treasure obtained at great cost of suffering, than of a directly granted gift from heaven.
[Footnote 6: Standard Series, No. 9.]
[Footnote 7: The meaning of the "Knight and Death," even in this respect, has lately been questioned on good grounds.]
48. On the contrary, not only the highest, but the most consistent results have been attained in art by men in whom the faculty of vision, however strong, was subordinate to that of deliberative design, and tranquillised by a measured, continual, not feverish, but affectionate, observance of the quite unvisionary facts of the surrounding world.
And so far as we can trace the connection of their powers with the moral character of their lives, we shall find that the best art is the work of good, but of not distinctively religious men, who, at least, are conscious of no inspiration, and often so unconscious of their superiority to others, that one of the greatest of them, Reynolds, deceived by his modesty, has asserted that "all things are possible to well-directed labour."
49. The second question, namely, how far art, if not inspired, has yet been ennobled by religion, I shall not touch upon to-day; for it both requires technical criticism, and would divert you too long from the main question of all,--How far religion has been helped by art?
You will find that the operation of formative art--(I will not speak to-day of music)--the operation of formative art on religious creed is essentially twofold; the realisation, to the eyes, of imagined spiritual persons; and the limitation of their imagined presence to certain places. We will examine these two functions of it successively.
50. And first, consider accurately what the agency of art is, in realising, to the sight, our conceptions of spiritual persons.
For instance. Assume that we believe that the Madonna is always present to hear and answer our prayers. Assume also that this is true. I think that persons in a perfectly honest, faithful, and humble temper, would in that case desire only to feel so much of the Divine presence as the spiritual Power herself chose to make felt; and, above all things, not to think they saw, or knew, anything except what might be truly perceived or known.
But a mind imperfectly faithful, and impatient in its distress, or craving in its dulness for a more distinct and convincing sense of the Divinity, would endeavour to complete, or perhaps we should rather say to contract, its conception, into the definite figure of a woman wearing a blue or crimson dress, and having fair features, dark eyes, and gracefully arranged hair.
Suppose, after forming such a conception, that we have the power to realise and preserve it, this image of a beautiful figure with a pleasant expression cannot but have the tendency of afterwards leading us to think of the Virgin as present, when she is not actually present; or as pleased with us, when she is not actually pleased; or if we resolutely prevent ourselves from such imagination, nevertheless the existence of the image beside us will often turn our thoughts towards subjects of religion, when otherwise they would have been differently occupied; and, in the midst of other occupations, will familiarise more or less, and even mechanically associate with common or faultful states of mind, the appearance of the supposed Divine person.
51. There are thus two distinct operations upon our mind: first, the art makes us believe what we would not otherwise have believed; and secondly, it makes us think of subjects we should not otherwise have thought of, intruding them amidst our ordinary thoughts in a confusing and familiar manner. We cannot with any certainty affirm the advantage or the harm of such accidental pieties, for their effect will be very different on different characters: but, without any question, the art, which makes us believe what we would not have otherwise believed, is misapplied, and in most instances very dangerously so. Our duty is to believe in the existence of Divine, or any other, persons, only upon rational proofs of their existence; and not because we have seen pictures of them.
[Footnote 8: I have expunged a sentence insisting farther on this point, having come to reverence more, as I grew older, every simple means of stimulating all religious belief and affection. It is the lower and realistic world which is fullest of false beliefs and vain loves.]
52. But now observe, it is here necessary to draw a distinction, so subtle that in dealing with facts it is continually impossible to mark it with precision, yet so vital, that not only your understanding of the power of art, but the working of your minds in matters of primal moment to you, depends on the effort you make to affirm this distinction strongly. The art which realises a creature of the imagination is only mischievous when that realisation is conceived to imply, or does practically induce a belief in, the real existence of the imagined personage, contrary to, or unjustified by the other evidence of its existence. But if the art only represents the personage on the understanding that its form is imaginary, then the effort at realisation is healthful and beneficial.
For instance, the Greek design of Apollo crossing the sea to Delphi, which is one of the most interesting of Le Normant's series, so far as it is only an expression, under the symbol of a human form, of what may be rightly imagined respecting the solar power, is right and ennobling; but so far as it conveyed to the Greek the idea of there being a real Apollo, it was mischievous, whether there be, or be not, a real Apollo. If there is no real Apollo, then the art was mischievous because it deceived; but if there is a real Apollo, then it was still more mischievous, for it not only began the degradation of the image of that true god into a decoration for niches, and a device for seals; but prevented any true witness being borne to his existence. For if the Greeks, instead of multiplying representations of what they imagined to be the figure of the god, had given us accurate drawings of the heroes and battles of Marathon and Salamis, and had simply told us in plain Greek what evidence they had of the power of Apollo, either through his oracles, his help or chastisement, or by immediate vision, they would have served their religion more truly than by all the vase-paintings and fine statues that ever were buried or adored.
53. Now in this particular instance, and in many other examples of fine Greek art, the two conditions of thought, symbolic and realistic, are mingled; and the art is helpful, as I will hereafter show you, in one function, and in the other so deadly, that I think no degradation of conception of Deity has ever been quite so base as that implied by the designs of Greek vases in the period of decline, say about 250 B. C.
[Footnote 9: I am again doubtful, here. The most important part of the chapter is from Sec. 60 to end.]
But though among the Greeks it is thus nearly always difficult to say what is symbolic and what realistic, in the range of Christian art the distinction is clear. In that, a vast division of imaginative work is occupied in the symbolism of virtues, vices, or natural powers or passions; and in the representation of personages who, though nominally real, become in conception symbolic. In the greater part of this work there is no intention of implying the existence of the represented creature; Duerer's Melencolia and Giotto's Justice are accurately characteristic examples. Now all such art is wholly good and useful when it is the work of good men.
54. Again, there is another division of Christian work in which the persons represented, though nominally real, are treated as dramatis-personae of a poem, and so presented confessedly as subjects of imagination. All this poetic art is also good when it is the work of good men.
55. There remains only therefore to be considered, as truly religious, the work which definitely implies and modifies the conception of the existence of a real person. There is hardly any great art which entirely belongs to this class; but Raphael's Madonna della Seggiola is as accurate a type of it as I can give you; Holbein's Madonna at Dresden, the Madonna di San Sisto, and the Madonna of Titian's Assumption, all belong mainly to this class, but are removed somewhat from it (as, I repeat, nearly all great art is) into the poetical one. It is only the bloody crucifixes and gilded virgins and other such lower forms of imagery (by which, to the honour of the English Church, it has been truly claimed for her, that "she has never appealed to the madness or dulness of her people,") which belong to the realistic class in strict limitation, and which properly constitute the type of it.
There is indeed an important school of sculpture in Spain, directed to the same objects, but not demanding at present any special attention. And finally, there is the vigorous and most interesting realistic school of our own, in modern times, mainly known to the public by Holman Hunt's picture of the Light of the World, though, I believe, deriving its first origin from the genius of the painter to whom you owe also the revival of interest, first here in Oxford, and then universally, in the cycle of early English legend,--Dante Rossetti.
56. The effect of this realistic art on the religious mind of Europe varies in scope more than any other art power; for in its higher branches it touches the most sincere religious minds, affecting an earnest class of persons who cannot be reached by merely poetical design; while, in its lowest, it addresses itself not only to the most vulgar desires for religious excitement, but to the mere thirst for sensation of horror which characterises the uneducated orders of partially civilised countries; nor merely to the thirst for horror, but to the strange love of death, as such, which has sometimes in Catholic countries showed itself peculiarly by the endeavour to paint the images in the chapels of the Sepulchre so as to look deceptively like corpses. The same morbid instinct has also affected the minds of many among the more imaginative and powerful artists with a feverish gloom which distorts their finest work; and lastly--and this is the worst of all its effects--it has occupied the sensibility of Christian women, universally, in lamenting the sufferings of Christ, instead of preventing those of His people.
57. When any of you next go abroad, observe, and consider the meaning of, the sculptures and paintings, which of every rank in art, and in every chapel and cathedral, and by every mountain path, recall the hours, and represent the agonies, of the Passion of Christ: and try to form some estimate of the efforts that have been made by the four arts of eloquence, music, painting, and sculpture, since the twelfth century, to wring out of the hearts of women the last drops of pity that could be excited for this merely physical agony: for the art nearly always dwells on the physical wounds or exhaustion chiefly, and degrades, far more than it animates, the conception of pain.
Then try to conceive the quantity of time, and of excited and thrilling emotion, which have been wasted by the tender and delicate women of Christendom during these last six hundred years, in thus picturing to themselves, under the influence of such imagery, the bodily pain, long since passed, of One Person:--which, so far as they indeed conceived it to be sustained by a Divine Nature, could not for that reason have been less endurable than the agonies of any simple human death by torture: and then try to estimate what might have been the better result, for the righteousness and felicity of mankind, if these same women had been taught the deep meaning of the last words that were ever spoken by their Master to those who had ministered to Him of their substance: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children." If they had but been taught to measure with their pitiful thoughts the tortures of battle-fields--the slowly consuming plagues of death in the starving children, and wasted age, of the innumerable desolate those battles left;--nay, in our own life of peace, the agony of unnurtured, untaught, unhelped creatures, awaking at the grave's edge to know how they should have lived; and the worse pain of those whose existence, not the ceasing of it, is death; those to whom the cradle was a curse, and for whom the words they cannot hear, "ashes to ashes," are all that they have ever received of benediction. These,--you who would fain have wept at His feet, or stood by His cross,--these you have always with you! Him, you have not always.
58. The wretched in death you have always with you. Yes, and the brave and good in life you have always;--these also needing help, though you supposed they had only to help others; these also claiming to be thought for, and remembered. And you will find, if you look into history with this clue, that one of quite the chief reasons for the continual misery of mankind is that they are always divided in their worship between angels or saints, who are out of their sight, and need no help, and proud and evil-minded men, who are too definitely in their sight, and ought not to have their help. And consider how the arts have thus followed the worship of the crowd. You have paintings of saints and angels, innumerable;--of petty courtiers, and contemptible or cruel kings, innumerable. Few, how few you have, (but these, observe, almost always by great painters) of the best men, or of their actions. But think for yourselves,--I have no time now to enter upon the mighty field, nor imagination enough to guide me beyond the threshold of it,--think, what history might have been to us now;--nay, what a different history that of all Europe might have become, if it had but been the object both of the people to discern, and of their arts to honour and bear record of, the great deeds of their worthiest men. And if, instead of living, as they have always hitherto done, in a hellish cloud of contention and revenge, lighted by fantastic dreams of cloudy sanctities, they had sought to reward and punish justly, wherever reward and punishment were due, but chiefly to reward; and at least rather to bear testimony to the human acts which deserved God's anger or His blessing, than only, in presumptuous imagination, to display the secrets of Judgment, or the beatitudes of Eternity.
59. Such I conceive generally, though indeed with good arising out of it, for every great evil brings some good in its backward eddies--such I conceive to have been the deadly function of art in its ministry to what, whether in heathen or Christian lands, and whether in the pageantry of words, or colours, or fair forms, is truly, and in the deep sense, to be called (idolatry)--the serving with the best of our hearts and minds, some dear or sad fantasy which we have made for ourselves, while we disobey the present call of the Master, who is not dead, and who is not now fainting under His cross, but requiring us to take up ours.
60. I pass to the second great function of religious art, the limitation of the idea of Divine presence to particular localities. It is of course impossible within my present limits to touch upon this power of art, as employed on the temples of the gods of various religions; we will examine that on future occasions. To-day, I want only to map out main ideas, and I can do this best by speaking exclusively of this localising influence as it affects our own faith.
Observe first, that the localisation is almost entirely dependent upon human art. You must at least take a stone and set it up for a pillar, if you are to mark the place, so as to know it again, where a vision appeared. A persecuted people, needing to conceal their places of worship, may perform every religious ceremony first under one crag of the hill-side, and then under another, without invalidating the sacredness of the rites or sacraments thus administered. It is, therefore, we all acknowledge, inessential, that a particular spot should be surrounded with a ring of stones, or enclosed within walls of a certain style of architecture, and so set apart as the only place where such ceremonies may be properly performed; and it is thus less by any direct appeal to experience or to reason, but in consequence of the effect upon our senses produced by the architecture, that we receive the first strong impressions of what we afterwards contend for as absolute truth. I particularly wish you to notice how it is always by help of human art that such a result is attained, because, remember always, I am neither disputing nor asserting the truth of any theological doctrine;--that is not my province;--I am only questioning the expediency of enforcing that doctrine by the help of architecture. Put a rough stone for an altar under the hawthorn on a village green;--separate a portion of the green itself with an ordinary paling from the rest;--then consecrate, with whatever form you choose, the space of grass you have enclosed, and meet within the wooden fence as often as you desire to pray or preach; yet you will not easily fasten an impression in the minds of the villagers, that God inhabits the space of grass inside the fence, and does not extend His presence to the common beyond it: and that the daisies and violets on one side of the railing are holy,--on the other, profane. But, instead of a wooden fence, build a wall, pave the interior space; roof it over, so as to make it comparatively dark;--and you may persuade the villagers with ease that you have built a house which Deity inhabits, or that you have become, in the old French phrase, a "logeur du Bon Dieu."
61. And farther, though I have no desire to introduce any question as to the truth of what we thus architecturally teach, I would desire you most strictly to determine what is intended to be taught.
Do not think I underrate--I am among the last men living who would underrate,--the importance of the sentiments connected with their church to the population of a pastoral village. I admit, in its fullest extent, the moral value of the scene, which is almost always one of perfect purity and peace; and of the sense of supernatural love and protection, which fills and surrounds the low aisles and homely porch. But the question I desire earnestly to leave with you is, whether all the earth ought not to be peaceful and pure, and the acknowledgment of the Divine protection, as universal as its reality? That in a mysterious way the presence of Deity is vouchsafed where it is sought, and withdrawn where it is forgotten, must of course be granted as the first postulate in the enquiry: but the point for our decision is just this, whether it ought always to be sought in one place only, and forgotten in every other.
It may be replied, that since it is impossible to consecrate the entire space of the earth, it is better thus to secure a portion of it than none: but surely, if so, we ought to make some effort to enlarge the favoured ground, and even look forward to a time when in English villages there may be a God's acre tenanted by the living, not the dead; and when we shall rather look with aversion and fear to the remnant of ground that is set apart as profane, than with reverence to a narrow portion of it enclosed as holy.
62. But now, farther. Suppose it be admitted that by enclosing ground with walls, and performing certain ceremonies there habitually, some kind of sanctity is indeed secured within that space,--still the question remains open whether it be advisable for religious purposes to decorate the enclosure. For separation the mere walls would be enough. What is the purpose of your decoration?
Let us take an instance--the most noble with which I am acquainted, the Cathedral of Chartres. You have there the most splendid coloured glass, and the richest sculpture, and the grandest proportions of building, united to produce a sensation of pleasure and awe. We profess that this is to honour the Deity; or, in other words, that it is pleasing to Him that we should delight our eyes with blue and golden colours, and solemnise our spirits by the sight of large stones laid one on another, and ingeniously carved.
63. I do not think it can be doubted that it _is_ pleasing to Him when we do this; for He has Himself prepared for us, nearly every morning and evening, windows painted with Divine art, in blue and gold and vermilion: windows lighted from within by the lustre of that heaven which we may assume, at least with more certainty than any consecrated ground, to be one of His dwelling-places. Again, in every mountain side, and cliff of rude sea shore, He has heaped stones one upon another of greater magnitude than those of Chartres Cathedral, and sculptured them with floral ornament,--surely not less sacred because living?
64. Must it not then be only because we love our own work better than His, that we respect the lucent glass, but not the lucent clouds; that we weave embroidered robes with ingenious fingers, and make bright the gilded vaults we have beautifully ordained--while yet we have not considered the heavens, the work of His fingers, nor the stars of the strange vault which He has ordained? And do we dream that by carving fonts and lifting pillars in His honour, who cuts the way of the rivers among the rocks, and at whose reproof the pillars of the earth are astonished, we shall obtain pardon for the dishonour done to the hills and streams by which He has appointed our dwelling-place;--for the infection of their sweet air with poison;--for the burning up of their tender grass and flowers with fire, and for spreading such a shame of mixed luxury and misery over our native land, as if we laboured only that, at least here in England, we might be able to give the lie to the song, whether of the Cherubim above, or Church beneath--"Holy, holy, Lord God of all creatures; Heaven--_and Earth_--are full of Thy glory"?
65. And how much more there is that I long to say to you; and how much, I hope, that you would like to answer to me, or to question me of! But I can say no more to-day. We are not, I trust, at the end of our talks or thoughts together; but, if it were so, and I never spoke to you more, this that I have said to you I should have been glad to have been permitted to say; and this, farther, which is the sum of it,--That we may have splendour of art again, and with that, we may truly praise and honour our Maker, and with that set forth the beauty and holiness of all that He has made: but only after we have striven with our whole hearts first to sanctify the temple of the body and spirit of every child that has no roof to cover its head from the cold, and no walls to guard its soul from corruption, in this our English land.
One word more.
What I have suggested hitherto, respecting the relations of Art to Religion, you must receive throughout as merely motive of thought; though you must have well seen that my own convictions were established finally on some of the points in question. But I must, in conclusion, tell you something that I _know_;--which, if you truly labour, you will one day know also; and which I trust some of you will believe, now.
During the minutes in which you have been listening to me, I suppose that almost at every other sentence those whose habit of mind has been one of veneration for established forms and faiths, must have been in dread that I was about to say, or in pang of regret at my having said, what seemed to them an irreverent or reckless word touching vitally important things.
So far from this being the fact, it is just because the feelings that I most desire to cultivate in your minds are those of reverence and admiration, that I am so earnest to prevent you from being moved to either by trivial or false semblances. _This_ is the thing which I KNOW--and which, if you labour faithfully, you shall know also,--that in Reverence is the chief joy and power of life;--Reverence, for what is pure and bright in your own youth; for what is true and tried in the age of others; for all that is gracious among the living,--great among the dead,--and marvellous, in the Powers that cannot die.
This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.