Obrázky stránek

themes we may also trace a certain ponderous force, a dignity analogous to that of fresco and mosaic. Subjects which in themselves are vast, imaginative, and capable of only a suggestive handling, such as the Parliaments of Heaven and Hell, Creation, Judgment, and the Resurrection from the dead, when conceived with positive belief and represented with the crudest realism, acquire a simple grandeur. Remote from the conditions of our daily life, these mysteries express themselves in fittest form by bare uncompromising symbols. For this reason, there are not a few among contemporary artists who will prefer a colossal Christ in mosaic on the tribune of a Romanesque basilica to a Christ by Raphael in transfigured ecstasy, a Last Judgment sculptured by an unnamed artist on some Gothic portal to the fleshly luxuriance of Rubens' or the poised symmetry of Cornelius' design. It is rare indeed to find instances of emancipated art so satisfactory in such high themes as the “Creation of Adam' by Michelangelo, or the Christ before Pilate' of Tintoretto.

The literal translation of spiritual truths into corporeal equivalents, which distinguished the medieval religious sense—that positive and materialising habit of mind which developed the belief in wonder-working relics, the Corpus Christi miracle, the sensuous God of the Host-lent a certain quaint sublimity to the dramatic presentment of mysteries beyond the scope of plastic art. But the same qualities degenerated into unconditioned grossness, when the playwright had to touch such topics as the Immaculate Conception of our Lord. It is with a sense of wonder bordering



upon disgust that we read the parts assigned to the Holy Ghost and to Joseph in this episode. The same material coarseness of imagination mars the æsthetical effect of many passages, which might, according to our present canons of taste, have been more profitably left to such pantomimic presentation as a purely figurative art affords. But this was not the instinct of those times. The sacredness of the subject matter banished all thought of profanity. The end of edification justified the plainest realism of presentment. What was believed to have actually taken place in the scheme of man's redemption, that could lawfully and with all reverence, however comically and grotesquely, be exhibited.

Scenery and action rendered the bare poetry of the Miracle-play imposing ; and we have every reason to believe that both were adequate to their purpose. For

. we must remember that the people who performed these plays were the same folk who filled the casements of our churches with stained glass, hung the chapel walls with tapestries, carved the statues, and gilt the shrines. They knew what was needed to bring their pageants into harmony with edifices, not then as now vacant and whitewashed, swept by depredators of the Reformation period, garnished by churchwardens of the eighteenth century, scrubbed and scraped and desolated by selfstyled restorers; but glowing with deep and solemn hues cast from clerestory windows, enriched with frescoes, furnished with the multitudinous embellishments of art expended on each detail of the structure by the loving prodigality of pious hands. Little indeed is left to us in England of that earlier architectural magnificence,

[ocr errors]

when the Cathedral or the Abbey Church was a poem without speech, perfected in every part with beauty, a piece of stationary music sounding from symphonious instruments, a storied illustration of the spiritual life of Christendom, conveying through the medium of forms and colours what the mind had not yet learned to frame in rhythmic words. When a Miracle was shown in such a building, it completed and enlivened the whole scene. The religion, which appealed from every portion of the edifice to the intellect through the senses, now found ultimate expression in dramatic action. The wooden scaffold, richly gilt and painted, curtained with embroidered arras, and occupied by actors in their parti-coloured raiment, shone like a jewelled casket in the midst of altar-shrines and tabernacles, statues and fretted arches, mellow with subtly tinted arabesques. The character of the spectacle was determined not by the poetic genius of the monk who wrote the words of the play, but by the unison of forms and colours which prevailed throughout the edifice. What the whole building strove to express in stationary and substantial art, started for some hours into life upon the stage.

The Passion Plays of Ammergau enable us at the present time to understand the effect produced by Miracles upon a medieval audience. Multitudes of men and women derived their liveliest conceptions of sacred history from those pageants.

In countless breasts those scenes excited profound emotions of awe, terror, sympathy, and admiration. Nor was this influence, so ,

, powerful in stimulating religious sentiment, without its direct bearing on the arts. Painters of church walls,




stainers of choir windows, craftsmen in metal, stone, and wood, received impressions which they afterwards translated into form upon the Chapter House of Salisbury, the front of Lincoln, over the west porch of Reims, in the choir stalls and the panels of a hundred churches. The origins of art in medieval Europe reveal a common impulse and a common method, which the study of subsequent divergences renders doubly interesting and suggestive. Between the bas-reliefs of the Pisani at Orvieto, from which Michelangelo's frescoes of the Creation descend in a direct line, and the rude work of those English stone-cutters, before whom a female Eve and a male Adam in the Miracles stood naked and were not ashamed, we may trace a close resemblance, proving how the same ideas took similar form in divers nations. Plastic art and the religious drama acted and reacted, each upon the other, through the period of medieval incubation. Thus it is not too much to affirm that the Mysteries contributed in an essential degree to the development of figurative art in Europe. How and in what specific details Miracles aided the evolution of the modern theatre in England, must now be briefly investigated.



The dramatic elements of the Miracles may sufficiently, for present purposes, be classified under the following titles: Tragic, Pathetic, Melodramatic, Idyllic, Comic, Realistic, and Satiric. By reviewing these with due brevity we shall be able to estimate on what foundations in this medieval work of art the playwrights of the coming period built. But first it should be plainly stated that the regular drama cannot be regarded either as the exact successor in time, or as the immediate offspring of religious plays. Those plays continued to be acted until quite late in the sixteenth century, at an epoch when English tragedy and comedy were fully shaped ; nor is it reasonable to suppose that the people would have abandoned the custom of performing them except for changes in religious feeling wrought by the Reformation, and for changes in æsthetic taste effected by the Revival of Learning. Contact with Italian culture, the study of classical literature, and the larger instinct of humanity developed by the Renaissance, determined both the form and spirit of our drama. Still the medieval Miracle bequeathed to the Elizabethan playwright certain well-defined dramatic characters and situations, a popular species of comedy, a plebeian type of melodrama, and, what is far more important, a widely diffused intelligence of dramatic customs and conventions in the nation. The English people had been educated by their medieval pageants for the modern stage.

The Miracles supplied those antecedent conditions which rendered a national theatre possible, and saved it from becoming what it mostly was in Italy, a plaything of the Court and study: The vast dogmatic fabric of the Miracle was abandoned, like so many Abbey Churches, to decay and ruin. The religious spirit which had animated medieval art, was superseded by a new enthusiasm for humanity and nature. But the comprehensive and colossal lines on which that elder ruder work of art had been de

« PředchozíPokračovat »