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Ecclesiastical Art

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Before speaking in detail of the developments of Christian art from the beginning down to the present day, it seems natural to say something in regard to the vexed question as to the source of its inspiration. It would not be possible here to treat adequately all the various theories which have been propounded, but the essentials of the controversy may be given in a few words. Afterwards there will be some mention of the principal works which Christian antiquity has left to us and a setting forth of the influence of the Catholic Church in stimulating and directing that artistic spirit which for so many centuries it alone was destined to keep alive.


There has been much discussion of late years as to the influences which were predominant in the development of early Christian art. Professor Wickhoff in a striking essay (Roman Art, tr., 1900) has contended that in the first century after Christ a distinctively Roman style was evolved both in painting and sculpture, the salient features of which he characterizes as impressionist or "illusionist". He marks several stages in the growth of this style, and claims for it especially the creation of what he calls the continuous method of composition, i.e. a method by which several successive stages of the same history are depicted together in a single painting. Further, he contends that this Roman style was adopted by the first Christian artists and that, though obscured and weakened, it persuaded the Roman world and maintained its identity throughout the Middle Ages until eventually it quickened again into fuller life under the stimulus of the Renaissance.

This view, an exaggeration of the Romanist hypothesis which long held the field has been severely criticized by many competent authorities and notably by Strzygowski ("Orient oder Rom", 1901, and "Kleinasien", 1903 ), who attributes the predominantly influence in the development of Christian art to the recrudescence of purely Oriental feeling. This, as he maintained, had always survived at Byzantium, Antioch and Alexandria, and it became operative once more when the Graeco-Roman artistic tradition at Rome had exhausted itself after the effort of a few centuries. Though Strzygowski may go too far when he claims that even the art of the Romanized provinces like Gaul came from the East direct and not through Rome, it seems highly probable that his contention is in substance accurate enough.

To Rome no doubt must be assigned the prevalence of the basilica type of church and the first effective conception of the possibilities of stone vaulting. But the transference of the seat of government by Honorius in 404 from Rome to Ravenna and the confusion that arose in the Western Roman Empire, had far-reaching consequences upon the development of art. If Rome was at all times the seat of the papacy, the vicars of Christ had not at this early date acquired any preponderating influence in the social and civil affairs of the Western world, while more than a hundred years after this beginning with the seventh century, no less than thirteen pontiffs who occupied in succession the chair of St. Peter were of Greek or Syrian origin. But what is perhaps most important of all, the Latin stock who occupied what was once the great city, but what now became only a provincial town, were morally and intellectually effete. The motive power for a new development was to come from outside. The impetuous energy of the Teutonic tribes of the North was full of latent possibilities for the arts of peace, when that energy was once diverted from the strenuous occupations of a time of war. Once again "Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit", but it was Greece enriched this time with the inheritance of Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, while the culture that now travelled west. and north found ultimately a more responsive soil than it had ever met with in Latium. In its adoption by Goths, Franks, and Saxons the art of Byzantium lost its rigidity, and something of its formalism. It was a living germ which soon developed an independent growth, and long before the Renaissance once more directed the minds of men to classic models, not only architecture and sculpture, but the arts of the painter, the iron-worker, the goldsmith. and the glass founder were full of vigorous life and promise throughout all Western Europe. The earliest specimens of decorations employed for a Christian purpose are found in the Roman catacombs. In the most ancient examples of all the private chambers used for Christian interment in the first and second centuries, there is decoration indeed, but it is only in a negative sense that it can be called Christian art , for while the abundant frescoes seen in the cemetery of Domitilla and notably in the cubiculum of Ampliatus exclude such pagan elements as would be unseemly, the character of the painting is in every respect the counterpart of the ornamentation of the contemporary private houses buried at Pompeii. There is nothing distinctively Christian. Perhaps the frequent recurrence of the vine as a principal element in the scheme of decoration may have been meant to suggest the thought of Christ, the true vine, but even this is doubtful. Symbolism occurs early, but it can only be recognized with confidence in the more public cemeteries of the second century, e.g. that of St. Callistus; here, under the influence of the "Discipline of the Secret", it is hardly wrong to recognize the true beginnings of a distinctively Christian art . No doubt this art in a most marked degree was imitative of the more decent forms of pagan decoration familiar at the period. It seems constantly to be forgotten by those who discuss this subject that it was the deliberate object of the early Christians, during the ages of suspicion and persecution to exclude from their places of sepulture all that would by its conspicuousness or strangeness attract the notice of the casual pagan intruder. No wonder that the theme of the Good Shepherd in introduced again and again in the fresco decorations of the early catacombs. This is no indication as rationalist critics have sometimes pretended, of the survival of an idolatrous mythology, but the very likeness of the beardless Good Shepherd to the type of the pagan Hermes Kriophorus -- a likeness, however, which is never so exact as to lead to real confusion -- constituted its recommendation to those who wished to hide their distinctive practices from the prying eyes of the people around them. In the same way the Orante, or praying figure, symbolical of the Church or the individual soul, bore a general resemblance to the statues of Pietas, familiar enough to the ordinary Roman citizen, while the dove, which was to the Christian eloquent of the grace of the Holy Spirit, would not have been distinguished by his pagan neighbour from the birds consecrated to Venus. The deeper mysteries of the Eucharist and of the other sacraments were still more artfully veiled in the frescoes of those early centuries. No doubt the fish was an object familiar enough in all kinds of pagan decoration, but that very fact rendered it most suitable for the purpose of the Christian when he wished to symbolize the marvellous workings of Christ ( Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter = ICHTHYS , the fish) in the waters of baptism. What again was more common in decoration than some form of banqueting scene -- a theme also often utilized by the worshippers of Mithra -- but these feasts depicted upon the walls of a sepulchral chamber had a far other and deeper significance for the Christian, who by some minute sign, the little cross, it may be, impressed upon the loaves, or the fishes which decked the frugal board, was quick to discern the reference to the life-giving mystery of the Blessed Eucharist. There are also human figures and Biblical scenes, especially those connected with the liturgy for the departed -- for example the miraculous restorations of Jonah and Daniel and Lazarus -- and in one or two isolated instances we may perhaps recognize a presentment of the Madonna, but the reference is always cryptic and only interpretable by the initiated. It was under these circumstances that the instinct of religious symbolism was developed when the art of the Church was yet in its infancy but the tradition thus created has never departed from true religious art throughout the ages. With the triumph of the Church under Constantine the necessity for the sedulous hiding of the mysteries of the Faith in large measure disappeared. From A. D. 313 to the end of the fifth century was a period of transformation and development in Christian art, and it may be conspicuously recognized upon the walls of the Roman catacombs. Biblical scenes abound, and the figure of Christ, no longer so frequently as the beardless Good Shepherd, but crowned with a nimbus and sitting or standing in the attitude of authority, is fearlessly introduced. The nimbus is also extended to others beside Christ, for example to Our Lady and some of the saints. Sculpture again, though in the catacombs the traces it has left are relatively few now for the first time becomes the helpmate of painting in the service of the Church. This is the age of the great Christian sarcophagi so wonderfully decorated with the figures of Christ and His Apostles and with biblical scenes still full of symbolic meaning. The old ways of the period of persecution had, it is plain, become not only familiar but dear to the body of the faithful. The allegorical method of representing the mysteries of the Faith did not disappear at once. But though with the triumph of Constantine the outline of the "chrisme" ( chi-rho ), or the Greek monogram of Christ, was universally held in honour and introduced into all Christian monuments and even into the coinage, the crucifix as a Christian emblem was as yet practically unknown. For more than a century the memory of the Sacrifice of Calvary was recalled to the minds of the faithful only by some such device as that of a plain cross impressed with the figure of a lamb. The first representations of the figure of the Saviour nailed upon the Rood, as we see it upon the carved doors of Sta. Sabina in Rome and in the British Museum ivory, belong probably to the fifth century, but for a long period after that this subject is very rarely found, and its occurrence in frescoes or mosaics is hardly recorded anywhere before the time of Justinian (527 - 565).


To find the beginning of the use of colour in the Roman Empire to anything like an important extent, we must look at the Roman pavements composed of myriads of tesserae, and representing in a flat and somewhat uninteresting manner mystic beings, extraordinary animals, fruits, flowers, and designs. Between these Roman pavements and one branch of the earliest Christian art, that of mosaic, there is a very close connexion.

It seems also possible that some of the early efforts of the art of the Christian Church are to be found in the decorations of gold on glass which have been discovered in the catacombs. Upon these glasses dating from the third to the fifth century, are found representations of Christ and of the Apostles, as well as drawings in gold-leaf, partly symbolic and partly realistic, referring to the miracles of Christ, the emblems of the Seven Spirits, a future life, and the events narrated in the New Testament. Simple and archaic as these are, yet many of them show considerable beauty. The primitive Church included within itself, not only the poor and humble, but persons of distinction, rank, and attainment, and it is clear from an examination of these drawings that some were executed by those who were in possession of considerable artistic skill, and who had been trained in a knowledge of Greek and Roman art.

Contemporaneous with these, and earlier, are frescoes painted upon the walls of the catacombs, including portraits of the Apostles and of Christ, representations of the martyrs, naive pictures of the scenes from the Holy Bible , and simple illuminatory symbolism.

Then, between the fourth and tenth centuries there is a long series of mosaics, in which for the first time strong evidence appears of a sense of colour. A few specimens of these mosaics adorned the catacombs, afterwards they are found in the oratories and places of worship of the primitive Church. It was speedily recognized that mosaic decoration possessed certain strong claims to attention, such as other methods of decoration lacked. While the artist himself must be responsible for fresco work, very much of the labour in mosaic decoration could be left to persons of subordinate position, and once the artist had drawn out the pattern and scheme which was to cover, for instance, the apse of the church, the actual manual labour of fitting in the tesserae could be done by workmen. Then, again, there was the quality of imperishability; the mosaic was as permanent, an actual part of the structure which it decorated; it did not vary in colour by reason of light or atmosphere, and could be cleansed from time to time. It was also capable of strong, broad effects, rendering it peculiarly suitable to positions at the end of a building, somewhat above the line of sight, and its colour could be made so emphatic and so brilliant that the darkest of curves or hollows could be lit up by its luminous beauty.

It is small wonder, therefore, that from the very earliest period the Church drew to itself the skilful workers in mosaic, and employed them, as can be seen by the wonderful remains at Ravenna, in Sicily, on Mount Athos, near Constantinople, and notably at Rome, to decorate the interiors of the basilicas, and to portray upon their walls the emblems of the Divine tragedy, of the Sufferings of Christ and of His saints, or to represent in hieratic magnificence the figures of Christ in his glory, or in benediction, so that the scenes might be well in sight of all the worshippers within the little churches. From the representation of single figures at the end of the church, the work speedily spread to more elaborate adornment of the walls and from the simplicity of a single emblem, a single figure, the artistic spirit grew until it represented in pictorial effect the parables and miracles of Christ, or spread long triumphant processions of virgins, Apostles, martyrs, along the walls of the aisles and transepts of the larger churches.

There is no city in Europe in which this earliest Christian art can be so well studied as at Ravenna. The difficult of approaching the place in its out-of-the-way position has enabled it to retain and preserve the monument which it is so rich, and which relate so exclusively to its early history. The baptistery dates back to the last years of the fourth century and was later ornamented in mosaic. There is in it a representation of the Baptism of Christ, and a circle of the Twelve Apostles ; the figures, of surpassing dignity, appear to move round the dome with a swing and grace very remarkable in effect. Another circle of mosaic decorations in the same building represents the four Books of the Gospels open upon four altars, and between them four thrones of dominion with crosses; these mosaics have never been restored, and are in the condition in which their makers left them. The huge font intended for baptism by immersion, which stands below them, is proof of their antiquity, but the actual inscription of dedication with its date still exists on the metal cross surmounting the building. In the chapel of the archbishop in the archiepiscopal palace are mosaics of the fifth century made during the reign of archbishop St. Peter Chrysologus, while in the tomb of the Empress Galla Placidia are mosaic decorations of her period; unfortunately, many of these latter works have been restored. The very finest mosaics in Ravenna, however relate to the great heresy of Arianism. In the time of Theodoric, the old heresy was beginning once more to make itself felt. Arius had long been dead, Athanasius had fought his courageous battle against the Arian heresy, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople had been held, and had pronounced against it, and the Nicene doctrine had been confirmed, so that within the Church the heresy could no longer exist, but outside the Catholic Church there were still those who practiced it. When Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, came into power, Arianism became once more a force to be reckoned with, and the emperor erected a cathedral and a baptistery at Ravenna for his Arian bishops. It is in the church now called Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, which was new more than a thousand years ago, that the great rhythmic array of saints and virgins alluded to above exists, the greater part of it as it was when Theodoric erected the church fourteen centuries ago. In the baptistery of the Arians, near by, the mosaics upon the roof were put in place practically after the baptistery became Catholic, and therefore date from about 550.

It is not only, however, in mosaics, that Ravenna illustrates the early art of the Church ; one of its great treasures, the ivory chair of St. Maximianus (546-556), made in the first half of the sixth century, has been in the city since it was first carved with the exception of a very short time when it was carried to Venice in 1001. It is perhaps the finest example in existence of such ivory carving, and was the work of Oriental craftsmen who entered into the service of the Church and carved this chair with its delicate and beautiful illustrations of the miracles of Christ and the history of Joseph.

The same city can illustrate other branches of applied art for the orphreys and textile fabrics made for San Giovanni in the fifth century, the sixth-century altar-cross of the archbishop, St. Agnellus (556-659), his processional cross of silver, and portions of his cathedral choir are still preserved in the cathedral, while the art of carving in marble of the same period is exceedingly well exemplified by the splendid stone sarcophagi existing in various churches of the city. Following the time of Theodoric came the rule of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), and the episcopate of St. Ecclesius (521-34), while the mosaic decoration in the church of San Vitale, done in the early and middle part of the sixth century, illustrate the change from Arian heresy to Catholic truth, and the exquisite beauty of the mosaic work the Church was able to make use of at that time.

A little journey outside Ravenna to the church of Sant' Apollinare in Classe will enable the student to bring his study of early mosaic work and earlier sculpture down to a still later period, as in that church there is the great mosaic erected by Archbishop Reparatus c. 671, the curved throne of St. Damianus (668-705), and the sarcophagi of various archbishops, extending in date to the end of the seventh century, and bearing religious emblems of very considerable importance. Attention should also be drawn to the pictures on unprepared linen cloth, executed in a material similar to transparent watercolour, ascribed to a period antecedent to the third century, they chiefly purport to be representations of the features of Christ. The most notable of course is the one known as the Handkerchief of St. Veronica, preserved in the Vatican, and which none but an ecclesiastic of very high rank is allowed to examine closely. Although the most important, it is by no means the only example of such a picture. There is another in Genoa, a third in the church of San Silvestro in Rome, and others in various European shrines.

The metal work executed during the Ostrogothic occupation of Italy was often work commissioned by the Church for use in the ceremonials of the service, and figures of Christ and of the saints, ornaments for copes, chasses in which to put relics, and vessels for use at the altar, belonging to this period of primitive art are the direct result of the teaching of the Church. As, however, the religious feeling, spread more and more, the desire arose among Christians to have artistic representations of the great events of the Faith in their houses, and it is possible that the beginnings of what we may term portable pictorial work arose in this way. The very early tempera paintings on wood of Eastern and Byzantine character, some of which are actually ascribed to the hand of the Apostle St. Luke himself, may very likely have been executed, not entirely as decorations for the Church, but that the wealthier members of the community, at least, might have in their homes, in the privacy of their own oratories, some cherished representation of the Man of Sorrows himself, or of some Apostle or saint from whom the owner was named, or towards whom he had some particular affection. In this way may perhaps be traced the beginning of the history of the icons which are so important a feature in the life of the Eastern Church, and which adorn every house, in many cases being found in all the rooms occupied by the various members of the family.


Leaving primitive times, the period of the Middle Ages is one of enormous artistic importance, and it is an era in which the influence of the Church is practically paramount.

To this period there does not belong any very long series of artistic objects relating exclusively to domestic life. There were, of course, articles of domestic interest marked by artistic skill, there were objects of personal decoration and appliances for use in the home; but the choicest talent and the efforts of the most supreme genius were almost invariably given to the work of the Church, and even where the commissions related to domestic ornamentation, there was generally a religious element in the decorations and the use of religious symbolisms.


To this period belong the magnificent work in enamels executed for church work. There are the tall pricket candlesticks, superb chasses and reliquaries, altar-crosses, crosiers, shrines, censers and incense boats, crucifixes, morses for copes and medallions for sacred vessels, triptychs and polyptychs for use on the altar, plaques for book-covers, especially for the adornment of the Book of the Gospels, cruets, basins, chalices, and book-binding in metal encrusted with jewels.

The very first British enamels were merely a kind of coarse decoration, applied to the adornment of shields and helmets, but later on to cups, vases, and drinking-vessels, but, when mention is made of the Ardagh Chalice and the Alfred Jewel, it will be realized that a period in enamel work has been reached when the Church laid its hand upon the craft. Concerning the use of the Alfred Jewel, it may be broadly stated that the most probable theory is that it was the ornament applied to the head of an ivory pointer used by the deacon when reading the Book of the Gospels, and that therefore this exquisite object now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is one of the earliest examples of ecclesiastical enamel work. The Ardagh Chalice, of translucent enamels on silver and gold, is only one of a group of Irish shrines, reliquaries, missal-covers, crosiers, and crosses, similarly decorated, and it would appear likely that these Irish or Celtic enamels, of which half a dozen adorn the altar of Sant' Ambrogio in Milan, are perhaps among the earliest existing examples of the art in connexion with ecclesiastical possessions.

In the first part of the eleventh century, Byzantium appears to have been the headquarters of the work of ecclesiastical enameling, and the pectoral cross in the South Kensington Museum maybe taken as an example of early Byzantine work. The art of the enameller was also in existence in Germany at an early date, and here also was applied exclusively to ecclesiastical objects. Towards the middle of the twelfth century the workers of Limoges came into prominence, and from that time down to the end of the thirteenth Limoges was the centre of production. In Italian enameling, the wonderful translucent reliquary, dated 1338, the work of Ugolino of Siena, in which is preserved the great relic of the Holy Corporal at Orvieto, is a masterpiece of the craft. The altar-frontal at Pistoja belongs to about the same period, and a little later comes the reliquary made by the brothers Arezzo, while during the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the enamellers were kept hard at work in Italy producing objects intended for Church work in two or three distinct processes, either that called champleve, or another method, that of floating transparent enamels, known by the name of bassetaille, or still another process called encrusting. At the end of the fifteenth century, and the beginning of the sixteenth, in the era of the Renaissance, the art left Italy, and, taking a new form, that of painted enamels, or more strictly, painting in enamels, had a recrudescence in France in the very same place, Limoges, in which the old enamels had been produced.


In another division of applied arts are the remarkable embroideries which adorned all the sacred vestments, representing in the most wonderful pictorial effect, groups of saints, sacred scenes, and religious symbols. On the chasubles, copes, albs, stoles, maniples, burses, veils, mitres, frontals, super-frontals, and altar-covers, palls, bags, and panels of that period, are to be seen triumphs of artistic excellence, worked with exceeding beauty, and with a glorious richness of colour, by the hands of the faithful women of the day and designed by the men of supreme genius whom the Church had attracted to her side.

Some of the very finest of this embroidery work was English, and references are found to the dignity of English embroidery before the end of the seventh century, as, St. Aldhelm Bishop of Sherborne, celebrated in verse the skilful work of the Anglo-Saxon embroideresses. Indeed, at one time, rather too much attention in the convents for women seems to have been given to this fascinating needlework, for a council held in 747 recommended that the reading of books and psalm-singing by the nuns should receive greater attention, and that not quite so many hours should be spent in needlework. As early as 855 the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelwulf when journeying to Rome took with him as presents silken vestments richly embroidered in gold, executed in his own country, and there are vestments of a stole and maniple, found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert (d. 687) which were produced under the auspices of the wife of Edward the Elder in 916 and placed in the saint's coffin. From that time down to the middle of the sixteenth century there was a constant demand for the work of the skilled embroideresses, and this section of art, so particularly suitable to ecclesiastical purposes, was one of perennial richness. It is well that some stress should be laid upon the question of embroidery, inasmuch as in the Middle Ages it was almost exclusively a branch of ecclesiastical art, and nearly everything that can be termed of importance in fine embroidery, especially in fine English embroidery previous to the fifteenth century, was executed for the Church. Enormous labour was given to the production of these beautiful vestments, and as an example it may be mentioned that a frontal presented to the Abbey of Westminster in 1271 took the whole labour of four women for three years and three-quarters. Lincoln Cathedral in the fourteenth century possessed over six hundred vestments in its sacristy, while the Abbey of Westminster had very nearly double as many, and even the English churches were far behind those of Spain in the sumptuous manner in which they were supplied with vestments.

There was therefore every possible necessity for the work, and no branch of art has a greater importance between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries than has this one of embroidery. Fortunately, a sufficient number of the old vestments have come down to the present day to give a satisfactory idea of their importance and beauty and the records and inventories of church goods prior to the sixteenth century afford still further information concerning this branch of art.

Motivating spirit

The spirit of devotion which has ever given the instinct to decorate the house of God with the very finest works of which man is capable led to this lavish display of artistic genius in the service of the Catholic Church, but it must also be borne in mind that there were other, subordinate causes to account for the work. The Church, following its Divine Master, has always inculcated the importance of good works and it has ever encouraged the faithful to give to its service of their best. If their skill was in metal-work, in embroidery, in carving wooden figures or wonderful choir-stalls, in stained glass, in jewelry, in fresco or in mosaic such skill was to be devoted to God's service as the choicest gift the artist had to lay upon the altar symbolic of his devotion to his faith.

Even beyond that, there came the occasions in which the penance for sin took the form of the devotion of artistic gifts to the work of the Church, and the other and very numerous cases in which this artistic labour was the constant employment of those persons who had devoted their entire life to the religious career, in the various monastic houses belonging to the different orders. One further cause must not be overlooked, the fact that it was the Crown, the clergy, and the nobility who alone could command, by reason of their means, the splendid productions of the men of genius of the time, and that while the commissions given by the clergy would most certainly be for church purposes almost exclusively, those given by the Crown and the higher nobility were in almost all instances for exactly the same purposes, and this for a double reason.

First, the desire to render the home beautiful had not yet arisen to any considerable extent, and secondly, there was every wish to make the private chapel or oratory, the public church or royal sanctuary, as beautiful as possible, both to carry out the instincts of the religious feeling and please those who held control of spiritual things, as well as to heap up a reward for good deeds which would have a corresponding equivalent in the future life and might serve as retribution for the deeds of violence that formed so integral a part of the life of these centuries. The period under consideration was not so much one of portable pictures as of applied art, devoted to the interior decoration of the sacred buildings and to every object having connexion with the service of the altar.

Monastic anonymity

One section of ecclesiastical art deserving special mention concerns almost exclusively the monastic orders, namely, that of illumination and transcription. All over Europe the monks of the pre-Renaissance time were engaged in preparing the books of the day and these books were almost exclusively religious ones. The number of those concerning domestic matters, agriculture, or the classics, transcribed by these diligent students, is relatively small, but the series of religious works from their diligent pens is an exceedingly long one. Their time was fully occupied in preparing manuscripts for use within the cloisters and for the service of the altar, as well as for the great patrons of the monasteries who desired to have books of devotion for their own use, or for gifts to other sovereigns or noblemen. These manuscripts are of incomparable beauty, being transcribed with extraordinary skill upon the finest of vellum, and adorned with initial letters, calendars, and illustrations, that are triumphs of artistic skill, and marvels of ingenuity.

The Books of Hours, Missals, Breviaries, and Psalters having their origin in the monastic houses of England, France, Germany, and Italy during the Middle Ages are now among the greatest artistic treasures of the world and with regard to them there is one very striking fact which must never be overlooked. This does not relate exclusively to books of devotion, it belongs nearly as much to every work of art produced during this period, and it is the fact that these triumphs of skill are for the most part anonymous. In the period hardly any great names are recorded in connexion with such work. There is a wonderful series of artistic treasures, but signatures scarcely ever exist. Here and there the name of an enameller is known or perchance the name of the place where he worked, occasionally the name of a wood-carver or a worker in stained glass has been preserved and there are just a few cases in which the name of the zealous monk who toiled over the manuscript is known, but the instances are exceedingly few, and they occur, one might say, by accident rather than by intention.

With respect to illuminations in books of devotion, one monk took up the task where the other had left it. Death caused no cessation of the self-imposed labour. The orders could never die, and as in the present day great literary works are undertaken by the leading orders, in the full knowledge that to carry them out will extend far beyond the life of the writer who begins the undertaking, but that his successor will be equally able to continue the task. So in the earlier days the monks laboured in their cloisters, each at his own work; each generation of monks in the footsteps of the former, hiding the individual identity in the name of the order and content, as the work was done for the greater glory of God, that while the work should remain, the monks themselves should be forgotten.

Few things are more striking in considering this period than the singleness of aim and devotion to duty which characterized these artists and led them to have no desire to perpetuate their own names, but simply to carry out to the best of their abilities, the allotted task for the glory of God and His Church. Partly, of course, the reason was that the dignity of personal labour was not fully realized, but the reason for this anonymity lies mainly in the facts already stated, that the work was religious work that the aim was a religious aim, and that the identity of the person did not matter, so long as the Church was properly served by her faithful.

Desire for perfection

There is one other aspect of the artistic work of the pre-Renaissance time to be alluded to. It is by no means confined to the pre-Renaissance period, but extends through the succeeding centuries, and it should extend to all the artistic labour of the present day, but it is more especially a feature of the period under discussion. It is that determination which is nearer satisfied with the work which has been done, but which is always straining forward for finer and better work. It is that element of untiring energy and ever-quickening desire for perfection which has always characterized the greatest art-workers of the world, and it finds its earliest and perhaps its strongest development in this period.

Early Italian painters

The early Italian painters fall into two groups: the first, that which may be called the group of the miniaturists or illuminators, as, for example, Enrico, Berlinghieri, and Oderico; the second, the very primitive painters, such as, Margaritone, Spinello, Uccello, Cimabue, Duccio, Memmi, Lorenzetti, and the various early masters of the schools of Siena, Padua, and Verona. The predecessors of these artists for the most part, worked without any reference to nature, under Byzantine influence, copying slavishly the methods fixed by the Greek Church. Their pictures, whether they illustrated scenes from the Sacred Writings , the legends of the Church, or the lives of the saints, were designed and painted according to fixed rules. Their work was inferior to that of the Byzantine workers in mosaic, but followed the same conceptions of art; in every way, in attitudes, compositions, types of face, folds of drapery, and even as regards colour, it was guided by the definite rules of tradition, so that the painter was little more than a mechanic. Still, despite what may be termed the ugliness of this particular school, there was a strong spirit of devotion exercising the minds of the artists, and they were able to put a certain amount of sympathy into their hard, angular productions, thus showing that their works were painted with religious sentiment, and with a desire to evoke that sentiment in others. Margaritone was one of the first to break through the hard crust of rules, and although his work does not show any very striking advance upon that of his predecessors, yet in his pictures and in those of the earliest painters of Siena, we begin to find the desire to paint a Mother of God bearing some living semblance to a Mother of Man. There is a struggling towards tenderness and sweetness of countenance, a desire to represent raiment gently floating in easy curves, and a greater command of sentiment, together with a simplicity in story-telling, which mark this primitive school, and prepare the way for the forerunner of natural treatment, Giotto himself.


The great era of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times which is called the Renaissance may be divided into the three periods of the Early Renaissance, Full Renaissance, and Late Renaissance. Here again the influence of the Church is found just as strong and as defined as in the past. The growing desire to have magnificent churches created the necessity for other workers in art.

The first years of this period give in Italy the earliest workers known by name in fresco, and in portable pictures, Cimabue, Orcagna, Giotto, and others. In their "frescoed theology ", decorating the churches of Assisi, Siena, Pisa and other parts of Italy, is seen the beginning of the long list of painters whom the Church enlisted in her service.

In bronze work Ghiberti produced the gates of the baptistery of Florence and with the appearance of Brunelleschi a new school of architecture for ecclesiastical buildings arose.

In this period belongs also the introduction of printing and here again, just as emphatically, the Church took the lead. The earliest printers mere Churchmen belonging to a religious order; the earliest books those of religion -- the first actual printed sheet being the Indulgence of Pope Nicholas V -- followed by a long list of religious and liturgical works, Sacred Scriptures , and patristic literature.

In the Low Countries the Van Eycks developed the methods of oil-painting and there arose a great school of artists, among whom were Van der Goes, Van der Weyden, Bouts, Cristus, Memling, and others who formed the transition from the Gothic school. Their most important works were altarpieces, and in some cases all their paintings were of a religious character, while in others the paintings not religious were portraits of the various patrons who had commissioned the altar-pieces, or who had their own private chapels decorated by these artists, therefore the intimate connexion between art and the Church was just as close as ever.

Towards the close of the Early Renaissance period is found the work in sculpture of Donatello and those of his school, Desiderio da Settignano, the Rossellini, Duccio, Verrochio, and Mino da Fiesole almost all the fine work of these men was for ecclesiastical purposes. Here and there are single detached statues, as for example the one of St. George by Donatello, but then it must be remembered that these were figures of saints, and intended for buildings more or less of a religious character, or for those erected by guilds distinctly religious, while some of the sculptors named, as for example Duccio of Perugia, were only known by the work they executed for the decoration of churches.

During this period among the workers in Germany were Adam Kraft, Veit Stoss, and the Vischers, who are associated with the superb tabernacle, the series of Stations of the Cross and the great bronze shrine in Nuremberg, all objects intimately connected with religious work. In England, the tomb of Henry VI and that of Henry VII by Torrigiano, both at Westminster must not be overlooked.

Every branch of artistic craftsmanship was at this time employed for the benefit of the Church. Finiguerra, Ghiberti, and others were at work at the great silver altar of the Florentine baptistery. The jewelers, Ghirlandajo, Verrochio and Francia were making jewels for altar vestments, medals for the great ecclesiastics, and pictures for the churches; Luca della Robbia was preparing his vitrified enamel medallions, that he might present the Blessed Virgin and her Child in attitudes of the most perfect tenderness on the exteriors of the churches and on the corners of the streets, while other potters were marking the sacred emblems on their finest productions, or painting religious scenes upon their vases and majolica plates.

The Arras tapestries of France, the English

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