Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Charles Eliot Norton (18271908)
[Born in Cambridge, Mass., 1827. Died there, 1908. Notes of Travel and Study in Italy. 1860.]
THE BEST Gothic architecture. wherever it may be found, affords evidence that the men who executed it were moved by a true fervor of religious faith. In building a church, they did not forget that it was to be the house of God. No portion of their building was too minute, no portion too obscure, to be perfected with thorough and careful labor. The work was not let out by contract, or taken up as a profitable job. The architect of a cathedral might live all his life within the shadow of its rising walls, and die no richer than when he gave the sketch; but he was well repaid by the delight of seeing his design grow from an imagination to a reality, and by spending his days in the accepted service of the Lord.
For the building of a cathedral, however, there needs not only a spirit of religious zeal among the workmen, but a faith no less ardent among the people for whom the church is designed. The enormous expense of construction, an expense which for generations must be continued without intermission, is not to be met except by liberal and willing general contributions. Papal indulgences and the offerings of pilgrims may add something to the revenues, but the main cost of building must be borne by the community over whose house-tops the cathedral is to rise and to extend its benign protection.
Cathedrals were essentially expressions of the popular will and the popular faith. They were the work neither of ecclesiastics nor of feudal barons. They represent, in a measure, the decline of feudalism, and the prevalence of the democratic element in society. No sooner did a city achieve its freedom than its people began to take thought for a cathedral. Of all the arts, architecture is the most quickly responsive to the instincts and the desires of a people. And in the cathedrals, the popular beliefs, hopes, fears, fancies, and aspirations found expression, and were perpetuated in a language intelligible to all. The life of the Middle Ages is recorded on their walls. When the democratic element was subdued, as in Cologne by a prince bishop, or in Milan by a succession of tyrants, the cathedral was left unfinished. When, in the fifteenth century, all over Europe, the turbulent, but energetic liberties of the people were suppressed, the building of cathedrals ceased.
The grandeur, beauty, and lavish costliness of the Duomo at Orvieto or of any other of the greater cathedrals, implies a persistency and strength of purpose which could be the result only of the influence over the souls of men of a deep and abiding emotion. Minor motives may often have borne a part in the excitement of feeling,motives of personal ambition, civic pride, boastfulness, and rivalry; but a work that requires the combined and voluntary offerings and labor of successive generations presupposes a condition of the higher spiritual nature which no motives but those connected with religion are sufficient to support. It becomes, then, a question of more than merely historic interest, a question, indeed, touching the very foundation of the spiritual development and civilization of modern Europe, to investigate the nature and origin of that widespread impulse which, for two centuries, led the people of different races and widely diverse habits of life and thought, to the construction of cathedrals,buildings such as our own age, no less than those which have immediately preceded it, seems incompetent to execute, and indifferent to attempt.
It is impossible to fix a precise date for the first signs of vigorous and vital consciousness which gave token of the birth of a new life out of the dead remains of the ancient world. The tenth century is often spoken of as the darkest period of the Dark Ages; but even in its dull sky there were some breaks of light, and, very soon after it had passed, the dawn began to brighten. The epoch of the completion of a thousand years from the birth of Christ, which had, almost from the first preaching of Christianity, been looked forward to as the time for the destruction of the world and the advent of the Lord to judge the earth, had passed without the fulfilment of these ecclesiastical prophecies and popular anticipations. There can be little doubt that among the mass of men there was a sense of relief, naturally followed by a certain invigoration of spirit. The eleventh century was one of comparative intellectual vigor. The twelfth was still more marked by mental activity and force. The world was fairly awake. Civilization was taking the first steps of its modern course. The relations of the various classes of society were changing. A wider liberty of thought and action was established; and while this led to a fresh exercise of individual power and character, it conduced also to combine men together in new forms of united effort for the attainment of common objects and in the pursuit of common interests.
Corresponding with, but perhaps subsequent by a short interval to the pervading intellectual movement, was a strong and quickening development of the moral sense among men. The periods distinguished in modern history by a condition of intellectual excitement and fervor have been usually, perhaps always, followed at a short interval by epochs of more or less intense moral energy, which has borne a near relation to the nature of the moral elements in the previous intellectual movement. The Renaissance, an intellectual period of pure immorality, was followed close by the Reformation, whose first characteristic was that of protest. The Elizabethan age, in which the minds of men were full of large thoughts, and their imaginations rose to the highest flights, led in the noble sacrifices, the great achievements, the wild vagaries of Puritanism. The age of Voltaire and the infidels was followed by the first energy, the infidel morality of the French Revolution. And so at this earlier period, the general intellectual awakening, characterized as it was by simple impulses, and regulated in great measure by the teachings of the Church, produced a strong outbreak of moral earnestness which exhibited itself in curiously similar forms through the whole of Europe.
The distinguishing feature of this moral revolution was the purely religious direction which it took. For a time it seemed that the moral sense of men had become one with their religious instincts and emotions. Religion lost its formality, and the religious creed of the times possessed itself thoroughly of the spirits of men. The separation which commonly exists between the professed faith of the masses of men and their intimate moral convictions, the separation between faith expressed in words and faith expressed in actions, was in large measure closed over. The creed even of the most intelligent was very imperfect. It was based on material conceptions, and was far from corresponding with the higher spiritual truths of Christianity. The creed of the ignorant was, for the most part, a system of irrational and contradictory opinions, in which a few simple notions of a material heaven and hell held the first rank. But these notions were believed in as realities. And, moreover, in accordance with a general law of human nature, the very materialism of the common creed afforded nourishment to religious mysticism and the ecstasies of devotion.
It is at such times as this, when moral energy corresponds with and supports a condition of spiritual enthusiasm, that the powers of men rise to their highest level. Personal interests are absorbed in devotion to great spiritual ideas. Enthusiasm neither submits to the common laws of reason, nor is bound by the established customs of society. It makes its abode in the New Jerusalem, and builds for itself mystical mansions of the spirit. But it must find external expression, and must relieve itself in action; for, when the full tide of faith floods the heart, it brings to the soul a sense of strength above its own, and compels it to its exercise. Thus, at this period, the religious excitement found vent in two extraordinary and utterly unparalleled expressionsthe Crusades and the Cathedrals. And the depth of the inward feeling was marvellously manifested by the long succession of exhausting efforts, by the persistence of hope, and by the actual accomplishment of works of the grandest design, during a course of more than two hundred years. Energy and enthusiasm had become, as it were, hereditary among men. A real faith in the Divine government of the earth, trust in the Divine power, zeal in the service of God, combined with selfish hopes and fears, and with heathen notions of propitiation, to inspire the various people of Europe with strength for the most arduous undertakings. Deus vult was the animating watchword of the times; the cross was the universal symbol,a symbol not merely of sacrifice, but of victory.
Such spiritual conditions as were then exhibited are possible only during periods of mental twilight, when the imagination is stronger than the reason, and shows the objects of this world in fanciful and untrue proportion. With the advance of civilization and enlightenment, popular enthusiasm becomes more and more rare, and, as a stimulus to combined and long-continued action, almost wholly ceases. Principles of one sort or another occupy, but do not supply its place. The works which it has produced cannot be repeated; for in their production it counts no cost extravagant, no labor vain, which makes them worthier offerings of faith, and more perfect expressions of devotion.