Sculpture, Christian

Sculpture, Christian.

The art Of sculpture has an antagonistic principle to overcome in the Christian conception of the world, and its progress has been much impeded by that fact; for, while this art must deal primarily with physical forms, and, at the most, can only regard the spirit as, with the body, a coordinate part Of a common whole, the Christian idea exalts the spirit, making of the body a mere instrument and medium of development, which is laid aside when the stage of a higher spiritual existence is reached; and in the measure m which Christianity confines all ideality to the realm of spirit, so does it render impossible the attainment of its ideal to an art which aims to achieve in its representations a unity of spirit and body, of idea and phenomenon. The history of Christian sculpture down to the 16th century accordingly shows that the constant effort of artists was to discover a mode of conception and treatment, i.e. a style, which would enable them to be true to the Christian idea, and: at the same time, to the laws of the plastic art; and the several periods, as well as the sculptors and their productions, differ among themselves chiefly as the consciousness of this task has become apparent and the problem been more or less successfully solved.

Sculpture was neglected, however, during the first period in the history of Christian art (1st to 10th century) to a degree that permitted but a slight recognition of this task. The dislike of heathenism and its idolatries, in which service the noblest efforts of ancient art had been expended, was at first so great that a cultivation of the formative arts was out of the question; and when this aversion lost its controlling power, the energies of Christian art were employed in painting rather than sculpture, the only object being to bring before the faithful representations of scenes and incidents recorded in the Scriptures; and for this purpose paintings and mosaics were more suitable than sculptures. But four statues of a religious character may with certainty be attributed to this period:

(1) a marble statue of Hippolytus, bishop of Portus Romanus and martyr, in the former half of the 3d century. the figure seated and wearing a toga, the execution thoroughly ancient in the lower part of the sculpture, while the upper part is a modern renovation;

(2) the celebrated bronze statue of St. Peter whose feet the faithful are expected to kiss on festival occasions at Rome, resembling the Hippolytus in style and character, and probably executed at Constantinople in the 5th century; and

(3) two statues of the Good Shepherd, one belonging to the 5th or 6th century, and the other to a later period, when ancient Christian art was already in its decline. We have historical information respecting sculptures of a non-religious character also, e.g. equestrian statues of Justinian and Theodoric the Great, but none have been preserved to this time. Such other relics of this period as are still extant belong to the class of sculptures in relief — -e.g. the designs found on sarcophagi and tombs, of which a considerable number belonging to the 3d and 6th centuries are known, among them the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, the praefect of Rome, who died in 359 soon after his conversion to Christianity — one of the most important remains of early Christian sculpture. The carvings in ivory, some of which may date back to the 4th century, also deserve mention. They were employed in the ornamentation of the diptychs (q.v.), and of chairs, book-covers, and other articles. Similar work was done in silver and gold, which metals were largely employed in the ornamenting of doors in churches, pulpits, etc.; but too little has been preserved to enable us to judge of its value in the light of art, and the fact of its having been used so largely as it was serves only to illustrate the craving of the Church for external pomp and show, and the coarse taste of a period which could delight in an excess of glittering tinsel.

The different works in relief which have been preserved to us from the early Christian period all resemble each other in character in the fact that they ignore the peculiar demands of the plastic art as completely as do the representations in color in the art of painting. Both arts were treated in the same spirit and style — a style that was neither picturesque nor plastic, that did not aim at an organic blending of the diverse elements, nor yet at a modification of the antagonizing principles, but simply at a mechanical combination of the two by seizing on certain elements from either side and disregarding others — specifically the early Christian style. The two arts went hand in hand in the further development of this method; but sculpture appears to have fallen into a decline earlier than painting, since it would seem that only sculptures in stone were executed in Italy as early as the 7th century, and that all work in bronze was obtained from Constantinople. In Byzantium, too, the compromise of the council of 787, by which the Iconoclast controversy was brought to a close, hastened the decline of the art of sculpture by providing that only paintings and reliefs should be allowed in the churches, and that all statuary should be rigidly excluded.

The Middle-age style differs from that of the preceding period in that it no longer aims at a mechanical combination of the plastic and the picturesque, but executes all sculptures directly in the spirit and method peculiar to the painter's art. It therefore becomes as picturesque as the architecture of that age, and, like painting, dependent on it. But the further development of this style led sculptors involuntarily to a mode of apprehension and execution more in harmony with the special laws of their art, and thus gave rise to the Romanesque in sculpture, which starts out with the traditional old Christian types, but endeavors to impart to them more soul and feeling, and also a more natural form. The aim was not realized at once, but the effort to achieve it gave to the work accomplished something of that plastic character which early Christian art had so persistently perverted and ultimately wiped out. There are in Germany (on the so-called golden gate of the cathedral at Freiberg, in Saxony, and on the pulpit and altar of the church at Wechselburg) magnificent sculptures of this period, whose plastic beauty recalls to mind the masterpieces of antiquity. It is significant that Nicolo Pisano (about 1230), called the father of Italian sculpture, and, at all events, the leading sculptor of the Romanesque school in Italy, suddenly turned away from the old Christian (Byzantine) types and devoted himself to the study of the monuments of antiquity, at least with reference to form and apparel. The Romanesque style, however, was too much an exotic, and did not sufficiently reflect the ideas and tendencies of the Middle Ages to endure. The Gothic took its place, and with it came in a new era, inasmuch as both painting and sculpture turned directly to nature and to the actual world for their ideals. Figures in relief or in statues obtained greater individuality thereby, though beauty of form was entirely disregarded, and all emphasis was laid on adequate expression of the inner life. The plastic character of the sculptor's works was, of course, sacrificed by this method, and it was only natural that the aid of colors should be called in to transform all figures into statuary paint-lugs; but as the Gothic style aimed primarily to express the fundamental truths of the Christian philosophy of the world and of the Christian moral life, and employed natural forms only as the vehicle of such expression, it was readily led to attach importance, in the end, to such beauty of physical form as would adequately represent the beauty of soul m which the ideal of its aspirations had been unified. The picturesque was, in consequence, so greatly modified in many of the later productions of this style that the aesthetical impression does not suffer in any way.

The third and most flourishing period in the history of Christian art is characterized by the conscious effort to bring works of art into thorough harmony with the forms and principles of growth in nature, and with the conditions and requirements of art in general, and of every branch of art in particular, so that, independently of tradition and the Church. it may represent the Christian ideal with artistic freedom and with adequate beauty of form. Sculptors now sought to reconcile the Christian idea with the requirements of their art, special attention being given to works in relief anti to a combination of high with low reliefs in their representations, as being most likely to secure the end in view. We can do little more in this place than mention a few of the more successful artists.

In Italy, the celebrated Lorenzo Ghiberti (born at Florence about 1380, died after 1455), one of the greatest masters of Christian sculpture, deserves special mention, as does also his talented rival, Donate di Betto Bardi (1383-1466), called Donatello, and Luca della Rob-bia (1440- 81),and several other Venetian artists. At the beginning of the 16th century a number of masters appeared by the side of Leonardo da Vinci — the Florentines Giovanni Francesco Rustici and Andrea Contucci, and the Venetian Alonzo Lombardi — who succeeded in honoring the idealism of Christianity, and also in doing justice to the claims of realism to natural and living representation in sculpture. Their works fall below the greatest masterpieces in painting by Raphael only as they are unable to represent the transcendental side of Christianity, the transformation of the human into the divine, with equal clearness. Michael Angelo Buona-rotti, however, soon displaced these masters in sculpture by the success he secured in his strivings after the grand, overpowering, and extraordinary, in which he paid but little attention to ideal beauty of form or to the requirements of plastic art. The result was that in the middle of the 16th century Italian sculptors had adopted a style which aimed chiefly at effect, and which was marred by ostentation and mannerisms, and often governed by a coarse naturalism.

German sculptors were not favored with the advantages secured to their Italian compeers by the possession of the models of antiquity; but their works nevertheless attained to a degree of perfection during this period which renders them not unworthy to be placed by the side of the products of Italian art. Various monuments of stone erected to the dead in the cathedral at Mayence and other Rhenish churches exhibit a depth and ingenuity of conception and a beauty of form in the sculptures executed by unknown hands in the 15th and 16th centuries which are worthy of special note. The principal work of German sculptors, however, was done in bronze. The Nuremberg artist family, of which Peter Vischer (died 1529) was the most celebrated member, is especially prominent. The best works of the latter artist (especially those in St. Sebald's Church at Nuremberg) will bear comparison with those of the Italian masters, and they even indicate a higher stage in the development of art in Germany than is apparent in the paintings of such masters as Durer and Holbein, since the works of these artists fail to show that ideality of physical shape and formal beauty which art imperatively requires. But Vischer and a few colleagues stand almost alone, and the height upon which they Stood was not maintained by their successors. A rapid decline took place, and by the middle of the 16th century German art, both sculpture and painting, had degenerated into a bare imitation of the Italian masters.

This point marks the transition to the fourth period in the history of Christian art. Great convulsions in the political and religious world gave rise to new impulses, but they affected sculpture less than painting. The products of the early part of this period display warmth of feeling and passion combined with a decidedly naturalistic treatment, in both of which qualities they violate not only the Christian ideal, but the spirit and nature of plastic art itself; and as these qualities show that sculpture and architecture (q.v.) were similarly affected by causes then at work, so the progress of events involved them in a similar degradation. In Italy, Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), celebrated both as a sculptor and an architect, an imitator of the style of Michael Angelo, introduced the same forced style into sculpture which he had given to his buildings, and it became the fashion to affect the imposing and ostentatious, and by the use of all manner of curves and crooks to secure the idea of movement. France at once adopted the new style and added to it the feature of theatrical display. Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany clung to purer methods for a time, hut in the 18th century likewise gave way to French taste and the Rococo style, which, from that point, increased in affected adornment, coquettish elegancies, and frivolous licentiousness.

A better spirit was aroused by Winckelmann's writings and a growing familiarity with the relics of antiquity. The painter Asmus Jacob Carstens (1754-98) was the first to gain a true conception of the beautiful, and left a number of drawings which are thoroughly penetrated by the spirit of antiquity. With his younger contemporary, Antonio Canova (1757-1822), that spirit entered again into the domain of sculpture, though as yet impure and showing traces of the French style. It is purer in the German Johann Heinrich von Dannccker (1758-1841), and best of all in the gifted Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844). All that has been done, however, though much of it is excellent, serves only to afford further proof that the Christian ideal and the Greek style are irreconcilable with each other; and for this reason some sculptors (of Munich) have gone back to the position occupied by the great masters at the beginning of the 16th century. Nothing definite has been accomplished, and it remains for the future to determine whether Christian sculpture can be carried forward from that point to a higher perfection.

The only modern work dealing specially with the history of Christian sculpture that need be mentioned is Cicognara, Storia della Scultura, dal sue Risorgimento in Italia sine al Secolo di Napoleone (Venice, 1813, 3 vols.), much of whose matter is however, already antiquated.

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