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with people. The high-priest is about to offer a sacrifice. You can almost hear the tinkling of the golden bells on his robe, and the rustling of the white garments of the acolyte. But where is the temptation ? Three minute and indistinct visions high in the aerial background ! It is plain that the painter has put them there because they did not admit of a realistic treatment, nor give opportunity for the exercise of his skill in ornamentation and fertility in the invention of figures. The secret of weakness is discovered, the seed of decay and death in the school of the Florentine realists. For whenever science is substituted for
The LAST SUPPER.—EMBROIDERY FROM THE DALMATICA OF THE WATICAN.
of the Magi. We can recognize the faces of the Medici, the Tornabuoni, Politian, the painter's friends and contemporaries. Amid the crowd of high-bred women who are assisting at the birth of John the Baptist we can pick out the beautiful Ginevra di Benci, with her golden hair and long slender neck, the fairest and best of the daughters of Florence. The second feature which attracts our notice is the increasing love of ornamentation. Helmets, armor, temples, palaces, all manner of natural and classical accessories, are introduced. On these are spent the greatest pains and labor; other things are slighted. Botticelli paints the ‘’ Temptation of Our Lord.” It is a scene in front of the Temple, crowded
faith, whenever the technical skill exalts itself above the vital emotion, then the doom of religious art—indeed, of all true art—is sealed. In this group of painters culminates the second of the methods in which Gospel history has been treated in Italian painting. From Giotto down we have traced the process of realization, by which our Lord and his disciples have been transformed from cold formal abstractions to a living actual humanity. Now follows the process of idealization, in which that humanity is refined and clarified by the great masters of the Cinque-cento to an ideal beauty of form and expression. It would be manifestly absurd to attempt to give an account of the causes which made possible the existence of three such men as Michael Angelo, Leonardo, and Raphael at the same time and in the same city. But, given the men, it is easy to discern the influences which determined their artistic strivings toward the creation of an ideal of human beauty and perfection. The continuance and refinement of literary culture; the study of classic models in poetry and sculpture, producing at last a veritable revival of paganism; the recklessness with which earthly pleasures were pursued and enjoyed at the court of the Vicar of Heaven; the development of a style of luxury which demanded the fullness of physical life to support it— these and many other kindred causes made men think of the many-sided perfection of humanity as the highest and most desirable thing. This sentiment was expressed and fostered, nobly or basely as the case might be, by the artists. Their goal was not any longer the exact imitation of existing forms, but the invention of a more perfect ideal. Michael Angelo, the mighty, labored on the physical side; Leonardo, the universal genius, on the intellectual side; Raphael, the beloved, combined them both, and added a richness and delicacy of emotion which were peculiarly his own. This spirit of idealism had two effects on sacred painting—first, as to the choice of subjects, a partial abandonment of the historical for the purely ideal or symbolical region, which lies outside the scope of this essay; second, a creative rather than an imitative method in the treatment of Gospel history. The highest fruit of this method is undoubtedly the great painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo, slowly fading from the walls of the Milanese monastery, but happily preserved and familiarized to the world by the engraver's art. What a vast distance separates this noble picture from the earlier representations of the Supper! On the Dalmatica of the Vatican it is a symbolic act: Christ, with wafer and chalice, is administering the eucharist to the apostles. In the mediaeval mosaics it is equally cold and unreal. Giotto conceived the scene, but was unable to paint it. Roselli, in the Sistine Chapel, painted it, but was unable to conceive it. He has depicted it with such hardness of mere humanity, with so many tricks of realistic art, which must put Judas alone on the opposite side of the table to express
his separation from Christ, and paint a little black devil whispering in his ear to assure us of his temptation, that we are chilled and repulsed by the picture. But here at last we find in Leonardo's painting a true and worthy conception of that unparalleled scene. That noble head of Christ, so grand and yet so tender; the clear, dramatic grouping of the apostles; the solemnity of the intense emotion; the deep, uncertain shadow of gloom which has fallen upon the room with the mysterious words of the Master—these are the work of the highest genius in its most patient, strenuous exertion. Slowly, carefully, reverently, with an instant concentration of all his powers, the great master labored to put his thought on the wall of that little Milanese refectory. The prior of the monastery was not content with the slowness of the work, and came to reproach and vex the painter. He answered, with a fine dignity: “I still want two heads, one of which, the Saviour, I can not hope to find on earth, and I have not yet attained to the power of presenting it to myself in imagination with all that perfection of beauty and spiritual grace which appears to me to be demanded for the representation of the Divine Incarnation. The other is that of Judas, since I hardly think it possible to render graphically the features of the man who, after so many benefits from his Master, betrayed the Lord and Creator of the world.” This was the secret, this spirit of reverent idealism, which enabled Leonardo to paint the first and the last worthy picture of the Last Supper; for beside this work Tintoretto's is only a company of Venetians carousing, and Horace Vernet’s a company of Bedouins sitting on the floor. This is the fulfillment of Ruskin's fine description of high art: “It is a true or inspired ideal seen at once to be ideal; that is to say, the result of all the highest powers of the imagination engaged in the discovery and apprehension of the purest truths, and having so arranged them as best to show their preciousness and exalt their clearness.” The one picture from Gospel history which the judgment of the world would place beside, or even above, Leonardo's “Last Supper” is Raphael’s “Transfiguration.” And therefore, although it seems to me by no means the best product of his
* Modern Painters, vol. iii., p. 144. Am. ed.
idealism, and I would far rather linger over the master's work in Florence or in Dresden, we must spend a little time before “the jewel of the Vatican.” Undoubtedly our first feeling on seeing this world-famous picture is one of disappointment. The coloring is not pleasant; a harsh critic has even dared to call it crude and motley. And the picture is hung so low that it is impossible to get the true effect of the foreshortening. But after this feeling has passed away a little, we can ask ourselves quietly how the master has conceived his theme, and how accomplished his work. The first question that suggests itself is why the artist has joined in one picture the Transfiguration of our Lord and the failure of the disciples to heal the demoniac boy. Three reasons are suggested. First, a practical reason : because the monks of S. Pietro in Montorio, for whom the picture was made, ordered it to be so composed, in accordance with a popular fashion of combining two scenes on one canvas. Second, a historical reason: because the Gospel narratives present the probability that the events were nearly simultaneous.* Third, an artistic reason: because this conjunction gave the painter room to express in the most ideal perfectness the great contrast of darkness and light, human suffering and divine glory. Here, close before us, in the world of our daily life, is the tortured demoniac, and the troubled disciples powerless to help him. The shadow of a sorrowful darkness rests upon them. They suffer with the wretched boy and his parents, but they can do nothing. They point up to the mountain, whither Jesus has gone with Peter and John. That hand of faith is the connecting link. They do not see the glory that lies up yonder. But for us Raphael has drawn aside the curtain, and we look in upon the vision of Christ and Moses and Elias, floating in pale golden light above the mount. Out of that world of divine peace and glory help and light shall flow down into the dark underworld. From that radiant form of the Christ shall issue a healing and redeeming influence to the weary and afflicted children of men. That is the significance of the picture. The execution has cost the most strenuous and skillful labor. The more we look
* St. Matthew, xvii.; St. Mark, ix.
at it, the more we are impressed with the perfectness of the technique. Here is absolute mastery of the human form, not only in the knowledge of bones and muscles, but also in the play of feature and significant gesture. This kneeling woman in the foreground, with her ideally perfect body and head, expresses in every curve and line her eager and half-taunting appeal to the disciples for help. The grace of her attitude, the modelling of her shoulder, the dramatic force of her gesture, fasten the attention more and more closely, and compel a wondering acknowledgment of Raphael's supreme skill. And yet it is upon this picture in particular, as well as upon Raphael's work in general, that the great irascible Ruskin pours out the vials of his invective eloquence. He calls the figures of Moses and Elias “kicking gracefulnesses.” He can only express his contempt for the artist in exclamation points, that favorite form of literary imprecation. In another passage he declares that Raphael has passed from the path of life to the path of death, and comparing his Madonnas with those of the earlier artists, finds evidence of his utter want of religious feeling in the fact that he “no longer desires to pour out the treasures of earth at the Virgin's feet, or crown her brows with golden shafts of heaven.” Now I must confess that this latter tirade seems to me unmeaning and unjust. Surely Mr. Ruskin would not teach that gold and jewels are the only worthy offerings for the mother of our Lord. If we are to find the evidence of devotion and sincerity in the glittering ornaments, the aureoles like metal plates, the robes embossed with precious stones, with which Gentile da Fabriano and the Vivarini adorned their sacred pictures, why can we not find just as sincere and worthy an offering in the ideal beauty which Raphael brought to crown his Madonna 2 Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment 2 The worship of the shepherds is as true and precious as the wealthy adoration of the Magi. The glory of pure and perfect womanhood which dwells in the eyes of the Sistine Madonna is more costly and adorable than all the treasures of earth, than all the golden shafts of a thousand aureoles. In regard to the “Transfiguration,” however, wonderful as it is merely as painter's work, it is doubtless unsatisfac