Tag Archives: Middle Ages


Matthaeus Grünewald

In Italy, Germany, Flanders, especially the latter, these artists had revealed the unsullied self-sufficiency of pious souls; their subjects, caught in life-like postures amid entirely authentic settings, with not a detail out of place, were rendered with mesmerizing sureness; from these heads, many of them common enough in themselves, and these physiognomies, often ugly but powerfully evocative as a group, emanated celestial joy or acute anguish, spiritual calm or turmoil. The effect was somehow of matter transformed, whether by distention or compression, an incomprehensible flight into remote infinity.

Durtal had been introduced to this form of Naturalism the year before at a time when the ignominious spectacle of the fin de siècle could hardly have been further from his thoughts. It had occurred in Germany, before a crucifixion by Matthaeus Grünewald.

He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. He could revisualize the picture there before him with extraordinary lucidity; and here, in his study, he mentally repeated the gasp of admiration which had escaped him as he had entered the little room in the Cassel museum as the Christ rose before him, impressive, on a cross, the trunk crudely transversed by an untrimmed branch by way of arms, which bent like a bow under the weight of the body.

As taut as a spring, it was as if this merciful branch was ready to propel the suffering flesh, transfixed to the world by the great nails which pierced the feet, far away from this cruel, sinful planet.

Dislocated, almost ripped from their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed bound their entire length in bulging cords of muscles; the tortured tendons of the armpits looked ready to snap; the hands, wide open, brandishing fingers contorted in a confused gesture of benediction and reproach; the trembling pectorals greasy with sweat; the rib-cage standing out of the torso like a row of staves; the flesh, swollen and bruised, speckled with flea-bites, pockmarked by the pinpricks left in the skin by the scourges. Purulence was setting in; the seeping wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealed blackberry juice; a milky pus tinged with a pinkish hue, similar to those grey Moselle wines, oozed down the chest and over the abdomen with its rumpled loin-cloth. The knees had been forced together, twisting the shins outwards over the feet which, stapled one on top of the other, had begun to putrefy and turn green beneath the seeping blood. These congealing, spongiform feet were terrible to behold; the flesh swelled over the head of the nail, while the toes, furiously clenched, with their blue, hook-like horns, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning benediction into a curse, as they frantically clawed at the ochre-coloured earth, as ferruginous as the purple soil of Thuringia.

Above this erupting cadaver rose the head, tumultuous and huge. Encircled by a ragged crown of thorns, it hung down lifeless, one lacklustre eye half-open in which a shudder of terror and sorrow could be detected; the face was furrowed, the brow craggy, the cheeks blanched; the features, crushed and defeated, weeping, while the sagging mouth, with its lower jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously. The torture had been unendurable, an agony which had forced the joking executioners to take to their heels.

Now, against a dark sky the colour of night, the cross seemed to descend until it barely hovered above the ground, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a blood-red hood cascading in tight waves over a blue robe with long pleats in it. Her face was rigid and pale, swollen with tears, like that of someone digging their nails deep into the palms of their hands. The other was Saint John, some species of vagabond, a sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard crimped into little corkscrews, dressed in a garment that looked like it had been cut out of bark. Over this he wore a scarlet tunic with a mantle of yellow chamois, puckered at the sleeves to reveal a lining of feverish green like unripened lemons. Exhausted from weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who though broken and spent was still standing, he joined his hands and swept forward towards the corpse which he contemplated with filmy red eyes, and he sobbed and choked silently in his mute outrage.

How far removed one is when confronted by this bloody and tear-stained Calvary from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since die Renaissance! This lockjawed Christ is no Christ of the rich, no Galilean Adonis, no dandified picture of health, no handsome youth with curly brown tresses, divided beard and insipid, equine features, such as the faithful have worshipped for the last four centuries. This is the Christ of Saint Justin, Saint Basil, Saint Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the early Christian Church, the common Christ, made ugly by the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, from humility, in the most abject manner. This is the Christ of the poor, the Christ who is one and the same with die most wretched of those He has come to save, the beggars and outcasts, all those whose indigence and helplessness redeem mankind’s cowardice; but it is also the most human of Christs, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until every torture has been exhausted; the Christ, like all those who are in agony, with no recourse except to His mother who, though heeding of His childish cries, is powerless to help.

In His infinite humility, He had agreed to suffer the Passion to the utmost extent of the human capacity to bear pain; and, in obedience to an order beyond our comprehension, He had cast off His divinity at the time of the scourging and the blows and the insults spat in His face, from those wanton preliminaries right through to the unspeakable torment of an endless agony. Nor did He spare himself, so that the fall might be the more complete, during this lingering death, a death such as a thief or a dog might suffer, so vile and base was it, even the final ignominies of pustulence and putrefaction.

Never, neither before nor since, had such a subject been broached from a Naturalist perspective; never before had a painter depicted the divine charnel-house so thoroughly, or dipped his brush so brutally in running sores and bleeding sockets. It was extreme and it was horrifying. Grünewald was the most uncompromising of realists; but to regard this Redeemer of the doss-house, this God of the morgue, was an inspirational experience. A gleam of light filtered from the ulcerated head; a superhuman expression illuminated the gangrened flesh and the convulsed features. This crucified corpse was truly that of a God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with only the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns for accoutrement, Jesus appeared in His celestial Super-essence, between the grief-stricken Virgin, blinded with tears, and a Saint John whose burning eyes could shed no more tears. These faces, by nature vulgar and commonplace, were resplendent, transfigured by suffering. The common criminal, the beggar-woman and the peasant had vanished; these were now supraterrestial beings in the presence of their God.

Grünewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never before had an artist so magnificently captured such rapture, never before had an artist leapt with such determination from the topmost peak of the spirit into the very sphere of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes and he had, in the triumphant depths of squalor, extracted the very essence of charity and despair. In this canvas a masterpiece of the impossible was revealed, an art ordained to render the invisible and the tangible, to make manifest the lamentable impurity of the flesh, and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.

No, there was no equivalent in any language. In literature, some pages of Anne Emmerich on the Passion approached, though in an attenuated manner, this ideal of supernatural realism and documentary disclosure. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, leaping forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with Grünewald’s divine abjection. Yet no, Grünewald’s masterpiece was unique, for it was at one and the same time totally out of reach yet entirely of the earth.

“But,” thought Durtal, rousing himself from his reverie, “if l am consistent, that means I shall have to embrace the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, a mystic Naturalism: that’s absurd, and yet, why not?”

J.-K. Huysmans, Là-Bas, 1891


Caspar David Friedrich

Now, from a practical point of view, what has been the influence of symbolism on the soul?

And Durtal answered himself: the Middle Ages, which knew that everything on earth is a sign and a figure, that the visible is valuable only for what is invisibly concealed beneath it, the Middle Ages which, as a consequence, wasn’t duped as we are today by appearances, studied this science very closely, and made of it the procuress and the handmaid of mysticism.

Convinced that the only aim that was important for man to follow, that the only goal that was necessary here below, was to enter into direct communication with heaven and to outstrip death by merging himself, by unifying himself as much as possible with God, it carried souls away, subjected them to the sobering diet of the cloister, pruned them of their earthly preoccupations, their carnal ambitions, always pointing them back to the same thoughts of renunciation and repentance, the same ideas of justice and love, and then, in order to hold them, to preserve them from themselves, it enclosed them with a fence, placed God always around them, under every form and under very aspect.

Jesus cropped up everywhere, attested to himself in the flora, in the fauna, in the structure of buildings, in decorations, in colours; whichever way man turned, he saw him.

And he saw also, as if in a mirror reflecting it, his own soul; he could discern, in certain plants, the qualities he had to acquire, the vices against which he had to defend himself.

And he had other examples before his eyes, because the symbolists didn’t limit themselves to turning treatises on botany, mineralogy, natural history, and other sciences into a course of catechism; some, Saint Melito among them, ended by applying their interpretative procedure to every object that came their way; to them, a zither turned into the chest of a devout man; the members of the human body metamorphosed into emblems: so the head signified Christ; the hairs were the saints; the nose, discretion; the nostrils, the spirit of faith; the eyes, contemplation; the mouth, temptation; the saliva, the sweetness of the inner life; the ears, obedience; the arms, the love of Jesus; the hands, good works; the knees, the sacrament of penance; the legs, the apostles; the shoulders, the yoke of Christ; the breasts, evangelical doctrine; the belly, avarice; the bowels, the mysterious precepts of Our Lord; the trunk and the loins, thoughts of lust; the bones, hardness of heart; the marrow, compunction; the cartilage, the feeble followers of Antichrist … and these writers extended this method of exegesis to the commonest objects of daily use, even to the tools and utensils that were within reach of everyone.

It was an uninterrupted succession of pious lessons. Ivo of Chartres tells us that priests instructed the people in symbolism, and Dom Pitra‘s research shows that in the Middle Ages Saint Melito’s treatise was popular and known to all. So the peasant knew that his plough was an image of the cross, that the furrows it made were like the freshly tilled hearts of the saints; he was not unaware that sheaves of corn signalled the fruit of repentance, that flour was the multitude of the faithful, the granary, the kingdom of heaven; and it was the same for many other professions; in short, this method of analogy was a constant invitation to everyone to observe more carefully and to pray better.

Used like this, symbolism served as a brake, bringing the forward march of sin to a grinding halt, and as a set of points, shifting souls and helping them pass through the stops of the mystical life. No doubt this science, translated into so many languages, was only intelligible in broad outline to the masses, and at times, when it was extruded through intricate minds such as that of the worthy Durand of Mende, it appeared overwrought, full of contradictions and accidental meanings. Then it seemed as if the symbolists took pleasure in splitting hairs with embroidery scissors; but in spite of these exaggerations, which it tolerated with a smile, the Church succeeded nevertheless through this tactic of repetition in saving souls, in carrying out the work of the saints on a large scale.

Then came the Renaissance, and symbolism foundered at the same time as church architecture.

J.-K Huysmans, The Cathedral, 1898

The Poverty of Modernity

. . . what is called the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to the Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the most outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts, and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have a very artificial character, as it meant the re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. As for the traditional sciences of the Middle Ages, after a few final manifestations around this time, they disappeared as completely as those of long distant civilizations long since destroyed in the cataclysm; and this time nothing was to arise in their place. Henceforth there was only “profane” philosophy and “profane” science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytic study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization–a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927