On the Renaissance

IN ROME a man feels suddenly the paradox of the Renaissance. It was a Christian miracle if it called up a Pagan god.  It was in itself a Christian notion that, if the dead could return, they would not be shadows from Hades, but human beings from Heaven or Hell. But as a fact, of course, the god who rose again was not pagan. He could not be, since he was carved by Christians, even by bad and blasphemous Christians.  Something that had not been in heathen antiquity had entered the very blood and bones of the human race; and it entered equally into the stone and clay of all that the human race could make.  Without it, even the worst of men would now have felt suddenly cold and strange, like fishes, or, rather, like fossils. To be a Greek god was as impossible as to be a fossil, though both might be beautiful mouldings or even beautiful models in stone. To be completely heathen was no longer to be completely human.

The examples are obvious.  Many people must have pointed out that Michelangelo was really more like Michael the Angel than Apollo the Archer.  It was not for nothing that his very name is Hebrew and Greek as well as Italian.  Every one must have noticed that there is, in some mysterious way, more colour in the monochrome marbles and bronzes of the Renaissance than in many of the cold, clay-like pigments that were called colours in the pagan houses of Pompeii.  Even where the work is materially a matter of light and shade, it is not something put down in black and white: the light is richer and the shadow glows.  Of course, a great part of the problem here is connected with modern religious controversies. Because modern pagans wanted to go back to paganism, in the sense of destroying Christianity, they said that the sixteenth-century artists wanted it too, though there was not one of them that would not have drawn a sword or dagger and destroyed the critic who told him that he wanted to destroy the Cross.  Benvenuto Cellini would have been as prompt as Giotto; for the Christian Church is not made for good men, but for men.

The difficulty of history is that historians seldom see the simple things, or even the obvious things, because they are too simple and obvious. It is sometimes said of the pictures of the Renaissance artists, especially of the pictures of Rubens, that we ought to stand far back in order to take in the whole stupendous design, and not be annoyed because some detail is technically careless or emotionally coarse.  It is probably true of more than one Renaissance picture of the Resurrection; and it is certainly true of that general Resurrection that is called the Renaissance. There has been too much bickering over bits of the astonishing business; too much casuistry about whether this or that painter in this or that point surrendered to heathenism, or merely to human nature. The whole story consists of two staggering truths.  First, that these men did really raise the dead.  They did call up all heathenism, which might seem about as safe as calling up all hell. And, second, that they did really in a manner convert and christen the dead; that they did baptize all that bodily manifestation and materialization into the body of Christ.  Even when it had been and was no more, it did become something that it had not been. They paraded before the world a wild hypothetical pageant of what old Greece and Rome would have been if they had not been pagan. To do this with any dead society is an amazing achievement. To copy the old body in any case is amazing; to copy the old body, and also put in a new soul, is amazing beyond praise, beyond question, and certainly beyond quibbling.  The fact is so familiar that it has ceased to amaze; the only chance of conveying it would be to take some fantastic parallel in modern and ancient things. We should be mildly surprised to hear that the English in Egypt had reconstructed for themselves the ancient Egyptian civilization; that all the proclamations of Lord Lloyd had been carved on obelisks in Egyptian hieroglyphics; that Lord Cromer had been preserved on the premises in the form of a mummy; or that Lord Kitchener at Cairo had religiously gone the round of worshipping a series of stuffed cats. But we should be surprised, with something less of mildness, if we were told that all this was done in such a way as to cause no embarrassment, or even amusement, to the English gentlemen who were doing it; and who managed to do it without the least sense that their code of manners was altered, or that their religion, when they had any, was suffering neglect.  Just as it would be a remarkable thing for men to become ancient Egyptians and yet remain modern Englishmen, so it was a remarkable thing when these men became ancient Greeks and yet remained medieval Christians.

There are many morals to the story; but one must be manifest in the mere word I have used.  If the medieval religion had really been such a silly superstition as some of its simpler enemies represent, it quite certainly would have been swallowed up for ever in such an earthquake of enlightenment as the great Renaissance. The fact that the vision of a superb and many-sided human culture did not disturb the fundamental ideas of these late medieval Christians has a simple explanation:  that the ideas are true. The application of these true ideas in medieval times had been very much hampered by local ignorance and feudal prejudice. But the truths were so true that they would have survived, in really thinking men, through ten Renaissances and twenty Revivals of Learning.  We see this vividly in the intensely intellectual character of the religious conviction in men like Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci.  Nobody knew better than they that Christianity is really wiser, and even wider, than Paganism; that Aquinas was not only better but broader than Aristotle. Not from such men came the clumsy denials of the deep dogmas of the Faith.  Michelangelo was not the man to dispute that the truly divine humanity would be crucified; nor could Raphael be reckoned on for a breezy protest against the respect felt for the Madonna. But if the whole thing had been a dirty asceticism of the desert, the mere monkey tricks of the Manichees, it would have fallen like filthy rags from men who had seen the grace of the Greek athletes. If it had been only a worship of dolls with tinsel crowns, it would have looked a paltry and pygmy affair in the presence of the great head of Jupiter.  But the real men of the Renaissance knew that, as a matter of fact, there was much more humanity in the rules for the brethren gathered by St. Francis than in the rules for the boys beaten before the altar of Diana; and that, as a matter of fact, the Church had a much more logical idea about the exact position of Jesus in Heaven than the heathens had ever had about the exact position of Jupiter on Olympus. It was the intellectual value of the creed that preserved it through any revolution of aesthetic values, just as it preserves it still amid the wildest changes in aesthetic taste to-day. Michelangelo went on being a Christian then, just as Mr. Eric Gill goes on being a Christian now, because a man may be original without being separated from the origins; and because a man may be able to think, even if he can also draw.

I would not be provocative, but I think this rather neglected truth is due to these great artists, when so many people imagine them to have been Pagans and some can even imagine them as Puritans. It seems clear to me that those despised medieval superstitions, suited only for barbarians like Dante and St. Francis, were exactly the ideas that did remain rooted in the most civilized centres of the world, when they were disputed in the more barbarous provinces. When we consider how exciting the destructive quest of the intellect really is (though it is generally people totally devoid of intellect who say so), it is really rather remarkable that there was comparatively so little of it in these great adventurers, who were devoted to the creative quest of the imagination. When we consider how wild they often were in the matter of morals (though it is generally the sort of moderns who have no morals at all who darkly denounce the immorality of these later men of the medieval decline) it is really rather remarkable that they kept as much as they did of the faith from which the morals grew--or ought to have grown.  When we consider that it really is a fact (though the first fool in the street will tell you so) that scepticism had begun to appear here and there even among priests and bishops, it is really singular, upon the balance, that it had not appeared more among painters and sculptors. We may talk, as they sometimes may have talked, about reviving the gods of Greece.  But Moses is Moses and David is David, and a Pagan would have stood puzzled before them.

~G.K. Chesterton:  All is Grist, Essay XXV.

Pietà, by Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Marble, 1499; Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican.