Continuity and Coherence

That culture and the cultivation of philosophy and the arts should be confined to the cloister would be a decline into a Dark Age that I shudder to contemplate; on the other hand the segregation of lay “intellectuals” into a world of their minds: which very few ecclesiastics or politicians either penetrate or have any curiosity about, is not a progressive situation either. A good deal of waste seems to me to occur through pure ignorance; a great deal of ingenuity is expended in half-baked philosophies, in the absence of any common background of knowledge. We write for our friends — most of whom are also writers — or for our pupils — most of whom are going to be writers; or we aim at a hypothetical popular audience which we do not know and which perhaps does not exist. The result, in any case, is apt to be a refined provincial crudity. What are the most fruitful social conditions for the production of works of the first order, philosophical, literary or in the other arts, is perhaps one of those topics of controversy more suitable for conversation than for writing about. There may perhaps be no one set of conditions most suitable for the efflorescence of all these activities; it is equally possible that the necessary conditions may vary from one country and civilisation to another. The regime of Louis XIV or of the Tudors and Stuarts could hardly be called libertarian; on the other hand, the rule of authoritarian governments in our time does not appear conducive to a renascence of the arts. Whether the arts flourish best in a period of growth and expansion, or in one of decay, is a question that I cannot answer. A strong and even tyrannous government may do no harm, so long as the sphere of its control is strictly limited; so long as it limits itself to restricting the liberties, without attempting to influence the minds, of its subjects; but a regime of unlimited thought in a democratic society does not appear any brighter than any other, unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual. It is not that I would defend a moral censorship: I have always expressed strong objections to the suppression of books possessing, or even laying claim to literary merit. But what is more insidious than any censorship, is the steady influence which operates silently in any mass society organised for profit, for the depression of standards of art and culture. The increasing organisation of advertisement and propaganda — or the influencing of masses of men by any means except through their intelligence — is all against them. The economic system is against them; the chaos of ideals and confusion of thought in our large scale mass education is against them; and against them also is the disappearance of any class of people who recognise public and private responsibility of patronage of the best that is made and written. At a period in which each nation has less and less “culture” for its own consumption, all are making furious efforts to export their culture, to impress upon each other their achievements in arts which they are ceasing to cultivate or understand. And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance. Accordingly the more serious authors have a limited, and even provincial audience, and the more popular write for an illiterate and uncritical mob.

You cannot expect continuity and coherence in politics, you cannot expect reliable behaviour on fixed principles persisting through changed situations, unless there is an underlying political philosophy: not of a party, but of the nation. You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction — however undemocratic it may sound — between the educated and the uneducated. I observed in America, that with a very high level of intelligence among undergraduates, progress was impeded by the fact that one could never assume that any two, unless they had been at the same school under the influence of the same masters at the same moment, had studied the same subjects or read the same books, though the number of subjects in which they had been instructed was surprising. Even with a smaller amount of total information, it might have been better if they had read fewer, but the same books. In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation. A nation’s system of education is much more important than its system of government; only a proper system of education can unify the active and the contemplative life, action and speculation, politics and the arts. But “education,” said Coleridge, “is to be reformed, and defined as synonymous with instruction.” This revolution has been effected: to the populace education means instruction. The next step to be taken by the clericalism of secularism, is the inculcation of the political principles approved by the party in power.

— T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, from Christianity and Culture, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949, pp. 1-78.

She Beckons to the Soul

There is no racial road to beauty, nor to any excellence. Genius, which leads thither, beckons neither to tribe nor clan, neither to school nor movement, but only to one soul here and to another there; so that the Icelander hears and speaks in Saga, and the brown Malay hears and carves delicately in ivory; and the men in Europe, from the Serb and the Finn to the Basque and the Breton, hear, and each in his kind answers; and what the Englishman says in song and romance and the deep utterance of his complex life, his mountain-kindred say in mabinogi or sgeul.

Even in those characteristics which distinguish Celtic literature — intimate natural vision; a swift emotion that is sometimes a spiritual ecstasy, but sometimes is also a mere intoxication of the senses; a peculiar sensitiveness to the beauty of what is remote and solitary; a rapt pleasure in what is ancient and in the contemplation of what holds an indwelling melancholy; a visionary passion for beauty, which is of the immortal things, beyond the temporal beauty of what is mutable and mortal — even in these characteristics it does not stand alone, and perhaps not preeminent. There is a beauty in the Homeric hymns that I do not find in the most beautiful of Celtic chants; none could cull from the gardens of the Gael what in the Greek anthology has been gathered out of time to be everlasting; perhaps only the love and passion of the stories of the Celtic mythology surpass the love and passion of the stories of the Hellenic mythology. The romance that of old flowered among the Gaelic hills flowered also in English meads, by Danish shores, along Teutonic woods and plains. I think Catullus sang more excellently than Bailê Honeymouth, and that Theocritus loved nature not less than Oisin, and that the ancient makers of the Kalevala were as much children of the wind and wave and the intimate natural world as were the makers of the ancient heroic chronicles of the Gael.

There is no law set upon beauty. It has no geography. It is the domain of the spirit. And if, of those who enter there, peradventure any comes again, he is welcome for what he brings; nor do we demand if he be dark or fair, Latin or Teuton or Celt, or say of him that his tidings are lovelier or the less lovely because he was born in the shadow of Gaelic hills or nurtured by Celtic shores.

It is well that each should learn the mothersong of his land at the cradle-place of his birth. It is well that the people of the isles should love the isles above all else, and the people of the mountains love the mountains above all else, and the people of the plains love the plains above all else. But it is not well that because of the whistling of the wind in the heather one should imagine that nowhere else does the wind suddenly stir the reeds and the grasses in its incalculable hour.

Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp)The Collected Works of Fiona MacLeod (Uniform Edition), Vol. V, London, 1920.

A Friendly Presence

Louise Bourgeois's sculpture, Maman, was installed over the grave of Belgian painter James Ensor's grave, in the churchyard of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Duinen (Our Lady of the Dunes), at Ostend, in 2006.
Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture, Maman, was installed over the grave of Belgian painter James Ensor’s grave, in the churchyard of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Duinen (Our Lady of the Dunes), at Ostend, in 2006.

The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.

Louise Bourgeois.

Walls of a Playground

Protestant iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images in Zurich, 1524.
Protestant iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images in Zurich, 1524.

And if we took the third chance instance, it would be the same; the view that priests darken and embitter the world. I look at the world and simply discover that they don’t. Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Stowe Missal: Folio 1 Recto

Folio 1 recto (incipit of the Gospel of St. John) from the Stowe Missal (MS D II 3, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin).
Folio 1 recto (incipit of the Gospel of St. John) from the Stowe Missal (MS D II 3, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin).

Buffoons, Drunken Germans, Dwarfs, and Other Such Absurdities

The Feast in the House of Levi, Paolo Veronese, 1573.
The Feast in the House of Levi, Paolo Veronese, 1573.

We painters use the same license as poets and madmen.

— Paolo Veronese.

* * *

This day, July eighteenth, 1573. Called to the Holy Office before the sacred tribunal, Paolo Galliari Veronese residing in the parish of Saint Samuel, and being asked as to his name and surname replied as above.

Being asked as to his profession:

Answer. I paint and make figures.

Question. Do you know the reasons why you have been called here?

A. No.

Q. Can you imagine what those reasons may be?

A. I can well imagine.

Q. Say what you think about them.

A. I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalen instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honor of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalen could be doing here; and this for many reasons, which I will tell, when occasion is granted me to speak.

Q. What is the picture to which you have been referring?

A. It is the picture which represents the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with His disciples in the house of Simon.

Q. Where is this picture?

A. In the refectory of the monks of San Giovanni e Paolo.

Q. Is it painted in fresco or on wood or on canvas?

A. It is on canvas.

Q. How many feet does it measure in height?

A. It may measure seventeen feet.

Q. And in breadth?

A. About thirty-nine.

Q. How many have you represented? And what is each one doing?

A. First there is the innkeeper, Simon; then, under him, a carving squire whom I supposed to have come there for his pleasure, to see how the service of the table is managed. There are many other figures which I cannot remember, however, as it is a long time since I painted that picture.

Q. Have you painted other Last Suppers besides that one?

A. Yes.

Q. How many have you painted? Where are they?

A. I painted one at Verona for the reverend monks of San Lazzaro; it is in their refectory. Another is in the refectory of the reverend brothers of San Giorgio here in Venice.

Q. But that one is not a Last Supper, and is not even called the Supper of Our Lord.

A. I painted another in the refectory of San Sebastiano in Venice, another at Padua for the Fathers of the Maddalena. I do not remember to have made any others.

Q. In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

A. He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

Q. Say them.

A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Q. Who are the persons at the table of Our Lord?

A. The twelve apostles.

Q. What is Saint Peter doing, who is the first?

A. He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table.

Q. What is he doing who comes next?

A. He holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him.

Q. Tell us what the third is doing.

A. He is picking his teeth with a fork.

Q. And who are really the persons whom you admit to have been present at this Supper?

A. I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.

Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?

A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

Q. Should not the ornaments which you were accustomed to paint in pictures be suitable and in direct relation to the subject, or are they left to your fancy, quite without discretion or reason?

A. I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

Q. Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities?

A. Certainly not.

Q. Then why have you done it?

A. I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.

Q. Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?

A. I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.

Q. Well, what did your masters paint? Things of this kind, perhaps?

A. In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling.

Q. Do you not understand that in representing the Last Judgment, in which it is a mistake to suppose that clothes are worn, there was no reason for painting any? But in these figures what is there that is not inspired by the Holy Spirit? There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?

A. No, my most Illustrious Sirs; I do not pretend to prove it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration. I had been far from imaging such a great disorder, all the more as I had placed these buffoons outside the room in which Our Lord was sitting.

These things having been said, the judges pronounced that the aforesaid Paolo should be obliged to correct his picture within the space of three months from the date of the reprimand, according to the judgments and decision of the Sacred Court, and altogether at the expense of the said Paolo.

—  English translation by Charles Yriarte of Italian original,
taken from Francis Marion Crawford’s Salve Venetia (New York, 1905. Vol. II: 29-34):

A. W. N. Pugin Tile

Ceramic tile design by A. W. N. Pugin, produced by Minton in 1850.
Ceramic tile design by A. W. N. Pugin, produced by Minton & Co., Stoke-on-Trent, England, in 1850.