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Suppose then, taking the same theme from another point of view, that for our knowledge of the customs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries we had no documents other than the works of Michelangelo and of his successors of the Roman school, what would we know of the sights that were familiar to them? That which constitutes the very substance of Venetian art, of the schools of the North, of our modern impressionism, that is to say the daily life of the artist, is totally lacking in the great schools of the classical Renaissance. That is because Humanism substituted the study of man in himself, of the ideal man, for the study of particular beings. That study was brought to an anatomical and typological conception of the human being. The Academies were founded with no other end than to reduce the painter's craft to deriving that abstraction from the copying of nature. Thus man, already divinised as artist, is also divinised as the object of art, as the artist's model. Is that not paganism, entire? Paganism consists essentially of the divinisation, by abstraction and generalisation, of human faculties or passions. When one of those faculties is divinised, the artist is obliged to give it a material form, to render it accessible to the senses, but he can only give us a visible idea of that abstract model through the help of another abstraction - the beau ideal. As Charles Blanc says: "he will take pains to elevate individual truth to the typological, and that typological truth to Beauty." 

Like the antique painter, he will make an assemblage of several imperfect models, here a leg conforming to the beau-ideal, here a torso, there a shoulder. Assembling those traits, a bad poet has said: 

... le sculpteur transporté,
Ne forme aucune belle, il forme la beauté. 

[... in his ecstasy, the sculptor forms not something beautiful, but Beauty.] 

I must insist that the person speaking to you admires our great Poussin as much as any man, and even Domenichino and Guide's Aurora in the gallery of the Carrachi in the Farnese Palace, and the Farnese villa, and the Té palace in Mantua, and Lebrun at Versailles. 

But the subject is religious art. As I am touched by a Rembrandt or by a Primitive, I note that the master did not look for beauty to the classical ideal, in a form separate from its matter, as St. Thomas says, but in tender and respectful contact with concrete nature. There is nothing pagan, nothing Platonic, nothing of the idealist in his aesthetic or his art. He loves God's reality with all his heart. 

I do not say that that is sufficient, but that such is the instrument of choice of Christian art. It is also needful that the artist be, in the supranatural sense, a man of good will. Place within such a humble and ingenuous soul an ardent faith and the gifts of a superior artist, and I give you Fra Angelico. 

It is not my intention here to dwell upon that great and beautiful figure. I have imposed enough on your attention. Yet I ask that you verify, in that master of the first half of the 15th century whose life and works are well-known to us, the characteristics which I have shown as being essential to the art of the whole Middle Ages. 

We know that he had respect for and passionately cultivated visible nature, that he observed man and landscapes with an untiring curiosity. We know that he was naive and awkward, that is to say that no convention, no pride, no prejudices as to what was suitable for picture making dulled the sharpness of his sensibility. He had nevertheless a superior mastery of his craft, the craft of a refined artisan, and I know of no frescos more subtle in their tone, more nuanced nor better fashioned than his. At Rome toward the end of his life, as Henry Cochin (9) has shown, he was preoccupied by the innovations of his time, taken by archaeology, by perspective and chiaroscuro, in a word, he was in the avant-garde of his generation. As a man of the Middle Ages, he believed in science, not separating science from religion, nor nature from Art, nor beauty from truth. But he preserved until the end that happy naivety, that admirable freshness. Those who know Tuscany find the species impressa, the impressionist charm so to speak, in those landscapes, those cloisters, those cypresses perceived over a little rosy rooftop, those beautiful gardens enclosed by a trellis of reeds, those beautiful blue backgrounds painted by Fra Angelico.

(9) Henry Cochin - 1854-1926. Writer, specialist in Renaissance studies, and politician, supporting Action Libérale, founded by former monarchists rallying to the Republic in obedience to the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII. He was President of the Société Saint-Jean, formed to encourage christian art. Denis may be referring to his study, Le bienheureux Fra Giovanni Angelico de Fiesole, published in 1906. 

But already, in his time, academic studies were displacing the naïve study of nature. With the exception of certain late Siennese masters, Fra Angelico is the last to give us the sensation of a fervent, childlike contact with nature. This mystic is the last of the medieval realists. 

There will come, after him, after the Renaissance, other genres of realism. Men will tire of the prestigious formulae of the beau ideal, they will search for other beauties in nature. We shall see works that are more dramatic, more conventionally beautiful, but not more religious. Together with Scholasticism and the naivety of the old masters, the gift of childhood will have disappeared, the virginal emotion, the freshness of poetry, to which we owe Gregorian melody, the statuary of the Cathedrals and the Italian Primitives. 

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