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Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


 

CHAPTER II.

 

The more then we believe that Art is the expression, more or less complete, of something inward and invisible, the less can we doubt its influence on the spiritual nature of man. And, in fact, men do not doubt its influence; nothing is more common than to say that the study of Art refines mankind, and I think it is evident that the effort to mould outward things to one's inward nature, or the constant sight of that effort by those who live in the presence of artistic works, must at last, for good or ill, have a very permanent effect. This has been very beautifully expressed by Wordsworth in his well-known description of Lucy and the effect produced on her by constant contact with the beauties of Nature:

.... hers shall be the breathing balm, And hers the silence and the calm Of mute insensate things.

 

The floating clouds their state shall lend To her; for her the willow bend;

Nor shall she fail to see

Even in the motions of the storm

Grace that shall mould the maiden's form

By silent sympathy.

That which we cannot study so easily in individual cases, we may study with considerable certainty in large bodies of men. How evident is the close connection of national Art with national character and national religion! If we turn to Egypt, that ever-wonderful  birthplace of human Art and Science, how striking is the connection between their strange forms of the redeeming Osiris and his destroying brother Set, of the snake-like Apep or the wonderful Isis of a myriad names, and the highly mystical religion  of their priestly philosophers!  How clearly do their colossal  figures, their temples built with enormous blocks of stone, their vast Pyra­mids, all speak of a people crushed down with a sense of oppression, suffocated by the sight of these immutable works of art, or these staring monstrosities, to a terrible degradation! Never was a philosophic caste   more learned, never was a people more wanting in all spirit and all originality than in Egypt. Does not the glittering mosque of the Mahometan with its thousand steepled minarets suggest the strange fasci­nation of destiny which makes a fatalist out of the gay and sensuous Moor or even of the grave Arab?   The dark rock-hewn  sanctuaries  of India, or the long vista of temple chambers ending in a blackness only broken by the restless eye of the sacred hawk in Egypt or the glitter of the golden cherubim  in Jerusalem, speak of religions whose first and fundamental thought was the mysterious and unapproachable sanctity of the Most High; and no one can doubt that they did  diffuse this thought among the beholders, filling them with an awe which might well suggest the words, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.'  How quickly does the Corinthian style of architecture suggest a many-sided cultivation, refined, yet  luxurious and unaspiring, such as belonged to the days when the Grecian glory had been tarnished by contact with Asia; or how certainly we read the simple beauty of the hardy Dorian or the stern massiveness of the Roman character in the works of their hands! And what a change from all this to the Gothic! nothing ever before expressed in such beautiful language the aspiration of an upward-looking heart. The hope of immortality, which lay silent, at least, and hid in every national religion before, has here blossomed in stone in every line and column; and the chaste unworldliness of that hope was plainly enough written in the pure grey stone and subdued colouring which now in an age of ‘restoration' is often indeed in danger of defacement by masses of gaudy gilt and paint.

In music again, although we do not know much of its nature among ancient peoples, how easy it is among moderns to trace, for instance, the cheerful sociability of the Germans in their Mozart, or their mystical tendencies in their Beethoven or Schumann, or both combined in Bach; to hear the light originality of the French in their Offenbach; or the straight­forward energy and somewhat formal greatness of the English character in their adopted Handel. The contrast of the intense formality of thought belonging to the end of the 17th century and the spiritual tendency of the early part of the 19th is as strongly marked between the works of Buononcini and Mendelssohn as between the thoughts of Dryden and Shelley.

The cultivation of Art, whether among individuals or nations, has this virtue at least, that it not only shews them to possess capabilities a little beyond the sphere of everyday life, but it also shews that they have a source of pleasure, and therefore a motive for action, very different from the gross pleasures which man has in common with the brutes. Thus, in its merely negative aspect, the love of Art and its cultiva­tion may do very much by winning away the mind from the pursuit of those animal indulgences which must at last stamp it with the seal of degradation. In this way, as I hinted before, Art becomes a stepping-stone towards Religion. No­thing is more commonly seen than the wish to cultivate Art, among men who, having spent years in the absorbing pursuit of money, look restlessly round at last for some more refined pleasure which shall satisfy the want in their minds, when mere wealth has lost its charm. Then they spend their riches in buying celebrated pictures, or filling their houses with frequent concerts and musical entertainments, not per­haps so much because they really enjoy works of first rate art as because they feel that here, at any rate, there is some­thing which is worth cultivating and which will in its turn hold them, as others, with a charm of which they were ignorant before.

As the love of Art and of all that is beautiful grows stronger and stronger in man, the more certain does its power become. The more distasteful to him become the pleasures he delighted in before, the more hateful to him become all kinds of deformity; and herein consists its refining influence. For since, in the world, evil is so often associated with ugli­ness, and indeed, if we could see aright, always so, it thus happens that the love of beauty makes men shrink more and more from the very sight or contact of physical or moral evil; it tends to make them live more and more apart from the world, from its sickening strife, from its harsh blindness, and from its 'hollow greetings where no kindness is;' and it leads them to seek an inner life of ideal beauty where the sights and sounds of the noisy world shall be once and for all shut out. In this very power lies at once the danger and the virtue of the study of Art. No one, who has known any­thing of the lives of poets or painters or musicians, can doubt that it makes men shrink away, almost with terror, from the struggle of outer life. The susceptibilities and keener feelings which Art educes, and which do necessarily belong to a higher civilisation, make us at the same time so much more liable to be wounded by the thorns of a rude world. As a man, turning his back now on the civilisation of the England of to-day, and setting his foot through all the centuries back again to the barbarous life of the early Britons, would shrink from mixing with them and their rude habits and would at last perhaps sink into a moody loneliness; so the true artist mind that has leaped many years beyond his race, with the dower of deeper thoughts and quicker sympathies belonging to a new age, feels himself ajar with the insensate criticism or the blind sensuality of his time, and is in danger himself too of flying from the forms of misery which meet him in crowded cities, of crimes which deface the fair seeming of village and hamlet, and the narrow-minded pride which runs its thread through the most educated even or religious society. So, one after another, how often has it happened that the Dante, or the Turner, or the Beethoven of his time has exiled himself or been exiled from the world, with the one complaint on his lips, so beautifully expressed by Shelley:-

O plead

With famine or wind-walking pestilence,

Blind lightning, or the deaf sea, not with man!

Cruel, cold, formal man; righteous in words,

In deeds a Cain