Friday, August 11, 2006


We normally think of the nineteenth century as an era of growing secularism. And indeed the traditional Christian worldview suffered a series of crushing blows. Perhaps the two most serious were delivered by geologists and Darwinians. From evidence residing in the earth itself geologists conclusively showed that the earth was not a mere 6,000 years old—as the Bible would have it--but in fact had a history stretching over millions of years. Beginning the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 Charles Darwin showed that the evolution of living beings was also a very lengthy process. While some, even today, struggle to defend Creationism, it was clear that things would never be the same.

Yet religion, or perhaps one should say more broadly religious feeling, did not disappear. Some hold that it may be “hard-wired” into our species—ironically a result of the very process of survival of the fittest traced by Darwin. Others say that religion offers answers to questions of human destiny that natural science does not address. Still others hold that religion is simply a persistent delusion.

However this may be, closer examination of the cultural evidence from the beginning of the nineteenth century shows that a strong countercurrent to the secularism of the Enlightenment was under way. To some extent this merged with the Romantic Movement, though not entirely, since such figures as P. B. Shelley and Victor Hugo rejected religion as it is usually understood.

Among the artists reacting against the enlightenment was William Blake (1757-1827), nominally an adherent of the Church of England who created his own poetic theology out of materials that seemed to be Judeo-Christian, but were in fact highly personal. Some of Blake’s prints show the influence of medieval manuscripts. Others reveal a kind ineffable atmosphere that anticipates the Symbolist artists later in the century.

The religious affinities of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) in northern Germany are less explicit. However, his “Monk by the Seashore” has been regarded as an immediate forerunner of abstract art. This is one of a number of works showing a nostalgic approach to the medieval heritage. His Tetschen altarpiece may be said to anticipate Franz Marc’s later call for the altarpieces of a new age. Yet it remained unique.

The German artists known as the Nazarenes (from 1808) onwards showed a more conventional approach to religious imagery. However, their technique adumbrated an important trend, which was the idea that the High Renaissance had gone too far in its concessions to naturalism. Artists must hark back to the more restrained work of the Quattrocento—or perhaps to the middle ages itself.

The English Pre-Raphaelite artists took up this program. In their use of medieval legend they anticipate Symbolism.

This corresponded to a heightened scholarly interest in the Middle Ages. As a result the Gothic style was rehabilitated, being regarded by some as superior to the Renaissance as a model, especially for architecture. Others studied medieval lyric and epic poetry. At its peak in nineteenth- century England, this new medievalism represented an attempt to recapture the lost values of an idealized past, claiming to find in the favored era a more just social system. Not implausibly, liberal observers, believers in progress, charged the medievalists with being reactionaries.

However, the full medieval program of social restoration proved impractical, and what was left was a new appreciation for an era that boasted notable accomplishments in art. With its tendencies to flatness, stylization, and symbolic simplification, medieval art offered an alternative to the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition. It seemed to commit its adepts to a life of the spirit, a significant motive for some abstract art. As it came to be better known, medieval art seemed holistic, not honoring the Renaissance split between the fine arts and the applied arts.

The fusion of new tendencies with medieval stimuli is apparent in the English Arts and Crafts Movement, especially as personified by William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and their many followers. In due course this gave way to the ornamental stylizations of the art nouveau, inspired in part by the Celtic interlace of the Book of Kells and other medieval manuscripts.

In France Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Maurice Denis looked to the middle ages for a new sense of flatness and pure color. In the works of Odilon Redon special techniques of pastel combine with an affinity for mystical themes, Christian, classical, and Asian. Even secularist artists such as Claude Monet, Robert Delaunay, and Henri Matisse were inspired by medieval cathedrals, which they depicted in their works. In the 1940s even Jackson Pollock was to echo this interest in the titles, and possibly the form as well, of paintings.

In Russia a special variant of Slavic medievalism flourished in relation to populism and the revival of the folk crafts. A number of works of Vassily Kandinsky from the first decade of the century draw upon this subject matter. They are also influenced stylistically by Russian folk prints (lubki), which arguably continue medieval traditions of flatness and stylization.

Russian Jewish artists, such as Marc Chagall and El Lissitzky, drew upon Jewish ritual objects and book illustrations, reflecting medieval forms.

In her recent life of Arshile Gorky, Nouritza Matossian traces the sources of the artist's style to colorful Armenian manuscript illuminations and the geometrical patterns of rugs he would have seen as a boy. A friend has even sought to connect the work of Andy Warhol with the icons of the Uniate church in which he was raised.

To a considerable degree medievalism, which has many affinities, flowed together with primitivism, and also with the Sublime.

REFERENCES Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century Literature, London, 1971; Bernard Rosenthal and Paul E. Szarmach, eds., Medievalism in American Culture, Binghamton, NY, 1989.


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