Back to article index


Let us ask ourselves the question: What is it we find touching in Medieval Art? And I respond: its youth of soul, its sincerity, its naivety, the simplicity of the relationship it establishes between ourselves and nature. And what is proper to it is precisely this sincere, naive, virginal attitude, humble before nature: the religious character of its objectivity. 

Neither theological perfection of subject, as I have shown you, nor the faith that can be found in all eras of Christianity, nor hieratism, nor symbolism, nor dogmatic allegory are sufficient to create superior works of religious art. Something else is necessary: the instrument, the art in itself, must conform to the Christian spirit. Yes, what we like is that such art be a language stripped of all pride and all manner of rhetoric, a language which speaks directly to our senses, to our sensibility, to our reason, with no intermediary save the object, presented in a simple and straightforward fashion. All art is to be preferred to that described by Rodin when he says: "All is ugly in art which is false, all that is artificial, all that which tries to be pretty or beautiful instead of expressive, all that which smiles without a reason, and which is affected, prancing and cavorting, which is but a show of beauty and grace, all that which lies." 

Falsehood is more intolerable in the domain of religious sentiment than it is anywhere else. When the young persons depicted on the ceiling of the "Gesù", whom Coypel imitated in the chapel at Versailles, display, in trompe-l'oeil on the corniche, the shadow of their elegant legs, it is impossible for us not to think of it as a beauty parade, that those celestial personages prance and cavort as gods in the theatre, gesticulating outside life and truth, and we are unable to pray before them.

 Antoine Coypel (1661-1722), God the Father in Glory (!-PB), from the ceiling of the Chapelle Royale, Versailles

I go further and say that we so much love sincere expression that, in the realm of religious emotion, we should rather go to the pathetic than to the academic; yes, we prefer Bernini's St. Teresa, El Greco's dramas, Grünwald's romanticism, all that is boiling, passionate: despair, doubt, the sinner's remorse, all that is violent, beyond measure, contrary to the rules of art. Yes, all that rather than that which is only harmonious and coldly aesthetic. It is because we are repelled by academic art, by a horror of falsehood, that we turn with such force toward that which is primitive, naive, simple, childlike, true. 

Have no doubt, ladies and gentlemen, that this is a legitimate preference, that it conforms to reason enlightened by Christian dogma. I come now to the heart of my thesis. Together we can now see where the superiority of the art of the Middle Ages is to be found. 

As far as we can penetrate into the mystery of religious feeling, we find a naive sense of dependence and of fear, an overwhelming sensation of wonderment before the unknown. To this impossibility of understanding the world and existence, our origin and our destiny, Faith brings, together with truth, the remedy of a joyful humility, and the trusting nature of the child who believes everything you tell him when you respond to his perpetual questioning, "why?" For the Christian, the unknown exists no more, but mystery persists and he retains a sort of tender emotion toward all the humble things of life that God made specially for him and which manifest His glory as much as the most imposing of spectacles. As he goes to see the rising of the sun, the Christian does not need the famous discourse of the Savoyard vicar. (8) He discovered nature before him. The marvels of Creation and of the Gospel are for him inseparable. Remembrance of the Gospel ennobles everything: sowing the seed, gathering the harvest, the lilies of the field, the mustard seed and the little birds in the sky. Everything, in the most literal manner, amazes him. Everything for him is a perpetual and charming miracle. He is a child. When he prays, he says: Our Father, knowing that if he does not become as one of those little ones, he will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. One may say of him what Renan said of genius: "genius is a child, genius is the people, genius is simple. The sophisticated man despises those things - animals and children - which the people and the man of genius find most interesting ... The sincere man, " he further states, "wears himself out in adoration before life at its most naive, before the child who smiles, believing all things, before the young girl who knows not that she is beautiful, before the bird singing on the branch only for singing's sake, before the hen walking proudly among her chicks. There is God, naked."

(8) Allusion to a well-known passage of J-J Rousseau's Émile, ou l'éducation, Book iv. 

Let us not linger too long over those magnificent words, as they might lead us far from the thought we want to express and from our subject. Let them just help us to understand the miracle of daily life which, hidden from the wise, has been revealed to the humble and simple. 

Yes, the attitude of the primitive is that of a child, and that is why it is profoundly religious. He looks at nature through the eyes of a child, while a modern sees it through the eyes of a painter. The observation of a primitive, of Giotto, for example, is not concentrated only on outward appearances, but also on the everyday qualities of objects. He looks at them with a new soul, and his interest is as much that of the sage as of the artist. He wants to see clearly and explain to us what he has seen and what he knows about these objects. His awkwardness is, then, the mark of his sincerity. He bestows the value of art on all objects, seeking to draw as many elements as possible into the realm of art. His inexperience comes from multiplying his experiences. His ignorance, from wanting to embrace too great a quantity of knowledge. He is awkward because the world is vast and his craft, narrow. 

Consider what Ingres used to tell his pupils: "Forever preserve that happy naivety," and also take care that, when you see that naivety in an artist, you think of it in terms of his discretion, you say that he looks on his model in a spirit of veneration. You feel in a confused way that humility, simplicity, good fellowship, love are religious virtues and that an artist must possess them; it is because of this that my friend Georges Desvallières could say that "all types of art are religious"