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Fraser’s Magazine, March, 1849. —“Sacred and Legendary Art.” By Mrs. Jameson. 2 vols. London. 1848, Longman and Co.
Much attention has been excited this year by the alleged fulfilment of a prophecy that the Papal power was to receive its death-blow — in temporal matters, at least — during the past year 1848. For ourselves, we have no more faith in Mr. Fleming, the obsolete author, who has so suddenly revived in the public esteem, than we have in many other interpreters of prophecy. Their shallow and bigoted views of past history are enough to damp our faith in their discernment of the future. It does seem that people ought to understand what has been, before they predict what will be. History is “the track of God’s footsteps through time;” it is in His dealings with our forefathers that we may expect to find the laws by which He will deal with us. Not that Mr. Fleming’s conjecture must be false; among a thousand guesses there ought surely to be one right one. And it is almost impossible for earnest men to bend their whole minds, however clumsily, to one branch of study without arriving at some truth or other. The interpreters of prophecy therefore, like all other interpreters, have our best wishes, though not our sanguine hopes. But, in the meantime, there are surely signs of the approaching ruin of Popery, more certain than any speculations on the mystic numbers of the Revelation. We should point to recent books — not to books which merely expose Rome, that has been done long ago, usque ad nauseam — but to books which do her justice: to Mr. Maitland’s “Dark Ages;” Lord Lindsay’s “Christian Art;” and last, but not least, to the very charming work of Mrs. Jameson, whose title heads this review. In them, and in a host of similar works in Germany, which Dr. Wiseman’s party hail as signs of coming triumph, we fancy we see the death-warrant of Romanism; because they prove that Rome has nearly done her work — that the Protestants are learning the lesson for the sake of which Providence has so long borne with that monstrous system. When Popery has no more truth to teach us, but not till then, will it vanish away into its native night.
We entreat Protestant readers not to be alarmed at us. We have not the slightest tendency toward the stimulants of Popery, either in their Roman unmixed state, or in their diluted Oxford form. We are, with all humility, more Protestant than Protestantism itself; our fastidious nostril, more sensitive of Jesuits than even those of the author of “Hawkstone,” has led us at moments to fancy that we scent indulgences in Conduit-street Chapel, and discern inquisitors in Exeter Hall itself. Seriously, none believe more firmly than ourselves that the cause of Protestantism is the cause of liberty, of civilisation, of truth; the cause of man and God. And because we think Mrs. Jameson’s book especially Protestant, both in manner and intention, and likely to do service to the good cause, we are setting to work herein to praise and recommend it. For the time, we think, for calling Popery ill names is past; though to abstain is certainly sometimes a sore restraint for English spirits, as Mrs. Jameson herself, we suspect, has found; but Romanism has been exposed and refuted triumphantly, every month for centuries, and yet the Romish nations are not converted; and too many English families of late have found, by sad experience, that such arguments as are in vogue are powerless to dissuade the young from rushing headlong into the very superstitions which they have been taught from their childhood to deride. The truth is, Protestantism may well cry: “Save me from my friends!” We have attacked Rome too often on shallow grounds, and finding our arguments weak, have found it necessary to overstate them. We have got angry, and caught up the first weapon which came to hand, and have only cut our own fingers. We have very nearly burnt the Church of England over our heads, in our hurry to make a bonfire of the Pope. We have been too proud to make ourselves acquainted with the very tenets which we exposed, and have made a merit of reading no Popish books but such as we were sure would give us a handle for attack, and not even them without the precaution of getting into a safe passion beforehand. We have dealt in exaggerations, in special pleadings, in vile and reckless imputations of motive, in suppressions of all palliating facts. We have outraged the common feelings of humanity by remaining blind to the virtues of noble and holy men because they were Papists, as if a good deed was not good in Italy as well as in England. We have talked as if God had doomed to hopeless vileness in this world and reprobation in the next millions of Christian people, simply because they were born of Romish and not of Protestant fathers. And we have our reward; we have fared like the old woman who would not tell the children what a well was for fear they should fall into one. We see educated and pious Englishmen joining the Romish communion simply from ignorance of Rome, and have no talisman wherewith to disenchant them. Our medicines produce no effect on them, and all we can do is, like quacks, to increase the dose. Of course, if ten boxes of Morison’s pills have killed a man, it only proves that — he ought to have taken twelve of them. We are jesting, but, as an Ulster Orangeman would say, “it is in good Protestant earnest.”
In the meantime some of the deepest cravings of the human heart have been left utterly unsatisfied. And be it remembered, that such universal cravings are more than fancies; they are indications of deep spiritual wants, which, unless we supply them with the good food which God has made for them, will supply themselves with poison — indications of spiritual faculties, which it is as wicked to stunt or distort by mis-education as it is to maim our own limbs or stupefy our understanding. Our humanity is an awful and divine gift; our business is to educate it throughout — God alone must judge which part of it shall preponderate over the rest. But in the last generation — and, alas! in this also — little or no proper care has been taken of the love for all which is romantic, marvellous, heroic, which exists in every ingenuous child. Schoolboys, indeed, might, if they chose, in play-hours, gloat over the “Seven Champions of Christendom,” or Lemprière’s gods and goddesses; girls might, perhaps, be allowed to devour by stealth a few fairy tales, or the “Arabian Nights;” but it was only by connivance that their longings were satisfied from the scraps of Moslemism, Paganism — anywhere but from Christianity. Protestantism had nothing to do with the imagination — in fact, it was a question whether reasonable people had any; whether the devil was not the original maker of that troublesome faculty in man, woman, and child. Poetry itself was, with most parents, a dram, to be given, like Dalby’s Carminative, as a pis-aller, when children could not possibly be kept quiet by Miss Edgeworth or Mrs. Mangnall. Then, as the children grew up, and began to know something of history and art, two still higher cravings began to seize on many of them, if they were at all of deep and earnest character: a desire to associate with religion their new love for the beautiful, and a reverence for antiquity; a wish to find some bond of union between themselves and the fifteen centuries of Christianity which elapsed before the Reformation. They applied to Protestant teachers and Protestant books, and received too often the answer that the Gospel had nothing to do with art — art was either Pagan or Popish; and as for the centuries before the Reformation, they and all in them belonged utterly to darkness and the pit. As for the heroes of early Christianity, they were madmen or humbugs; their legends, devilish and filthy puerilities. They went to the artists and literary men, and received the same answer. The medieval writers were fools. Classical art was the only art; all painters before the age of Raphael superstitious bunglers. To be sure, as Fuseli said, Christianity had helped art a little; but then it was the Christianity of Julio and Leone — in short, of the worst age of Popery.
These falsehoods have worked out their own punishment. The young are examining for themselves, and finding that we have deceived them, a revulsion in their feelings has taken place, similar to that which took place in Germany some half-century ago. They are reading the histories of the Middle Ages, and if we call them barbarous — they will grant it, and then quote instances of individual heroism and piety, which they defy us or any honest man not to admire. They are reading the old legends, and when we call them superstitious — they grant it, and then produce passages in which the highest doctrines of Christianity are embodied in the most pathetic and noble stories. They are looking for themselves at the ante-Raphaellic artists, and when we tell them that Fra Angelico’s pictures are weak, affected, ill-drawn, ill-coloured — they grant it, and then ask us if we can deny the sweetness, the purity, the rapt devotion, the saintly virtue, which shines forth from his faces. They ask us how beautiful and holy words or figures can be inspired by an evil spirit. They ask us why they are to deny the excellence of tales and pictures which make men more pure and humble, more earnest and noble. They tell us truly that all beauty is God’s stamp, and that all beauty ought to be consecrated to his service. And then they ask us: “If Protestantism denies that she can consecrate the beautiful, how can you wonder if we love the Romanism which can? You say that Popery created these glorious schools of art; how can you wonder if, like Overbeck, “we take the faith for the sake of the art which it inspired?”
To all which, be it true or false (and it is both), are we to answer merely by shutting our eyes and ears tight, and yelling “No Popery!” or are we to say boldly to them: “We confess ourselves in fault; we sympathise with your longings; we confess that Protestantism has not satisfied them; but we assert that the only cause is, that Protestantism has not been true to herself; that Art, like every other product of the free human spirit, is her domain and not Popery’s; that these legends, these pictures, are beautiful just in as far as they contain in them the germs of those eternal truths about man, nature, and God, which the Reformation delivered from bondage; that you can admire them, and yet remain thorough Protestants; and more, that unless you do remain Protestants, you will never enter into their full beauty and significance, because you will lose sight of those very facts and ideas from which they derive all their healthy power over you”?
These thoughts are not our own; they are uttered all over England, thank God! just now, by many voices and in many forms; if they had been boldly spoken during the last fifteen years, many a noble spirit, we believe, might have remained in the Church of its fathers which has now taken refuge in Romanism from the fruits of mis-education. One great reason why Romanism has been suffered to drag on its existence is, we humbly think, that it might force us at last to say this: We have been long learning the lesson; till we have learnt it thoroughly Romanism will exist, and we shall never be safe from its allurements.
These thoughts may help to explain our opening sentences, as well as the extreme pleasure with which we hail the appearance of Mrs. Jameson’s work.
The authoress has been struck, during her examination of the works of Christian artists, with the extreme ignorance which prevails in England on the subjects which they portray.
We have had (she says, in an introduction, every word of which we recommend as replete with the truest Christian philosophy)—
Inquiries into the Principles of Taste, treatises on the Sublime and Beautiful, Anecdotes of Painting, and we abound in antiquarian essays on disputed pictures and mutilated statues; but up to a late period any inquiry into the true spirit and significance of works of art, as connected with the history of religion and civilisation, would have appeared ridiculous or, perhaps, dangerous. We should have had another cry of “No Popery!” and Acts of Parliament prohibiting the importation of saints and Madonnas. — P. xxi.
And what should we have gained by it, but more ignorance of the excuses for Popery, and, therefore, of its real dangers? If Protestantism be the truth, knowledge of whatsoever kind can only further it. We have found it so in the case of classical literature. Why should we strain at a gnat and swallow a camel? Our boys have not taken to worshipping Jupiter and Juno by reading about them. We never feared that they would. We knew that we should not make them pagans by teaching them justly to admire the poetry, the philosophy, the personal virtues of pagans. And, in fact, the few who since the revival of letters have deserted Christianity for what they called philosophic heathenism, have in almost every case sympathised, not with the excellences, but with the worst vices of the Greek and Roman. They have been men like Leo X. or the Medici, who, ready to be profligates under any religion, found in heathenism only an excuse for their darling sins. The same will be the fruits of a real understanding of the medieval religion. It will only endanger those who carried already the danger in themselves, and would have fallen into some other snare if this had been away. Why should we fancy that Protestantism, like the Romanism which it opposes, is a plant that will not bear the light, and can only be protected at the expense of the knowledge of facts? Why will we forgot the great spiritual law which Mrs. Jameson and others in these days are fully recognising, that “we cannot safely combat the errors of any man or system without first giving them full credit for whatever excellences they may retain”? Such a course is the true fruit of that free spirit of Protestantism which ought to delight in recognising good to whatever party it may belong; which asserts that every good gift and perfect gift comes directly from above, and not through the channel of particular formularies or priesthoods; which, because it loves faith and virtue, for their own sakes, and not as mere parts of a “Catholic system,” can recognise them and delight in them wherever it finds them.
Upon these creations of ancient art (as Mrs. Jameson says) we cannot look as those did for whom they were created; we cannot annihilate the centuries which lie between us and them; we cannot in simplicity of heart, forget the artist in the image he has placed before us, nor supply what may be deficient in his work through a reverentially excited fancy. We are critical, not credulous. We no longer accept this polytheistic form of Christianity; and there is little danger, I suppose, of our falling again into the strange excesses of superstition to which it led. But if I have not much sympathy with modern imitations of medieval art, still less can I sympathise with that narrow puritanical jealousy which holds the monuments of a real and earnest faith in contempt: all that God has permitted to exist once in the past should be considered as the possession of the present; sacred for example or warning, and held as the foundation on which to build up what is better and purer. — Introd. p. xx.
Mrs. Jameson here speaks in the name of a large and rapidly-increasing class. The craving for religious art, of which we spoke above, is spreading far and wide; even in dissenting chapels we see occasional attempts at architectural splendour, which would have been considered twenty years ago heretical or idolatrous. And yet with all this there is, as Mrs. Jameson says, a curious ignorance with regard to the subject of medieval art, even though it has now become a reigning fashion among us.
We have learned, perhaps, after running through half the galleries and churches in Europe, to distinguish a few of the attributes and characteristic figures which meet us at every turn, yet without any clear idea of their meaning, derivation, or relative propriety. The palm of victory, we know, designates the martyr, triumphant in death. We so far emulate the critical sagacity of the gardener in “Zeluco,” that we have learned to distinguish St. Laurence by his gridiron, and St. Catherine by her wheel. We are not at a loss to recognise the Magdalene’s “loose hair and lifted eye,” even when without her skull and her vase of ointment. We learn to know St. Francis by his brown habit, and shaven crown, and wasted ardent features; but how do we distinguish him from St. Anthony, or St. Dominick? As for St. George and the Dragon — from the St. George of the Louvre — Raphael’s — who sits his horse with the elegant tranquillity of one assured of celestial aid, down to him “who swings on a sign-post at mine hostess’s door”— he is our familiar acquaintance. But who is that lovely being in the first blush of youth, who, bearing aloft the symbolic cross, stands with one foot on the vanquished dragon? “That is a copy after Raphael.” And who is that majestic creature holding her palm-branch, while the unicorn crouches at her feet? “That is the famous Moretto at Vienna.” Are we satisfied? Not in the least! but we try to look wiser and pass on.
In the old times, the painters of these legendary scenes and subjects could always reckon securely on certain associations and certain sympathies in the minds of the spectators. We have outgrown these associations, we repudiate these sympathies. We have taken these works from their consecrated localities, in which they once held each their dedicated place, and we have hung them in our drawing-rooms and our dressing-rooms, over our pianos and our sideboards, and now what do they say to us? That Magdalene weeping amid her hair, who once spoke comfort to the soul of the fallen sinner — that Sebastian, arrow-pierced, whose upward ardent glance, spoke of courage and hope to the tyrant-ridden serf — that poor tortured slave to whose aid St. Mark comes sweeping down from above — can they speak to us of nothing save flowing lines, and correct drawing, and gorgeous colour? Must we be told that one is a Titian, the other a Guido, the third a Tintoret, before we dare to melt into compassion or admiration? or the moment we refer to their ancient religious signification and influence, must it be with disdain or with pity? This, as it appears to me, is to take not a rational, but rather a most irrational, as well as a most irreverent, view of the question: it is to confine the pleasure and improvement to be derived from works of art within very narrow bounds; it is to seal up a fountain of the richest poetry, and to shut out a thousand ennobling and inspiring thoughts. Happily there is a growing appreciation of these larger principles of criticism as applied to the study of art. People look at the pictures which hang round their walls, and have an awakening suspicion that there is more in them than meets the eye — more than mere connoisseurship can interpret; and that they have another, a deeper significance than has been dreamed of by picture dealers and picture collectors, or even picture critics. — Introd. xxiii.
On these grounds Mrs. Jameson treats of the Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art. Her first volume contains a general sketch of the legends connected with angels, with the scriptural personages, and the primitive fathers. Her second, the histories of most of “those sainted personages who lived, or are supposed to have lived, in the first ages of Christianity, and whose real history, founded on fact or tradition, has been so disfigured by poetical embroidery that they have in some sort the air of ideal beings.” Each story is followed by a series of short but brilliant criticisms on those pictures in which the story has been embodied by painters of various schools and periods, and illustrated by numerous spirited etchings and woodcuts, which add greatly to the value and intelligibility of the work. A future volume is promised which shall contain the “legends of the monastic orders, and the history of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, considered merely in their connection with the revival and the development of the fine arts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”— a work which, if it equal the one before us, will doubtless be hailed by those conversant with that wonderful phase of human history as a valuable addition to our psychologic and æsthetic literature.
We ought to petition, also, for a volume which should contain the life of the Saviour, and the legends of the Virgin Mary; though this latter subject, we are afraid, will be too difficult for even Mrs. Jameson’s tact and delicacy to make tolerable to English readers, so thoroughly has the Virgin Mary, as especial patroness of purity, been intermixed in her legends with every form of prudish and prurient foulmindedness. 199
199 Since this was written, Mrs. Jameson’s volume on the Legends of the Madonna has succeeded excellently in giving us, if not a complete, yet still a readable and modest picture of medieval Mariolatry.
The authoress has wisely abstained from all controversial matters. In her preface she begs that it may be clearly understood, “that she has taken throughout the æsthetic and not the religious view of these productions of art; which, in as far as they are informed with a true and earnest feeling, and steeped in that beauty which emanates from Genius inspired by Faith, may cease to be religion, but cannot cease to be poetry; and as poetry only,” she says, “I have considered them.” In a word, Mrs. Jameson has done for them what schoolmasters and schoolboys, bishops and Royal Academicians, have been doing for centuries, by Greek plays and Greek statues, without having incurred, as we said above, the slightest suspicion of wanting to worship heathen gods and goddesses.
Not that she views these stories with the cold unbelieving eye of a Goethe, merely as studies of “artistic effect;” she often transgresses her rule of impartiality, and just where we should wish her to do so. Her geniality cannot avoid an occasional burst of feeling, such as concludes her notice of the stories about the Magdalene and the other “beatified penitents.”
Poets have sung, and moralists and sages have taught, that for the frail woman there was nothing left but to die; or if more remained for her to suffer, there was at least nothing left for her to be or do — no choice between sackcloth and ashes and the livery of sin. The beatified penitents of the early Christian Church spoke another lesson — spoke divinely of hope for the fallen, hope without self-abasement or defiance. We, in these days, acknowledge no such saints; we have even done our best to dethrone Mary Magdalene; but we have martyrs —“by the pang without the palm”— and one, at least, among these who has not died without lifting up a voice of eloquent and solemn warning; who has borne her palm on earth, and whose starry crown may be seen on high even now amid the constellations of Genius. — Vol. ii. p. 386.
To whom the authoress may allude in this touching passage our simplicity cannot guess in the least. We may, therefore, without the suspicion of partiality, say to the noble spirit of purity, compassion, and true liberality which breathes throughout this whole chapter, “Go on and conquer.”
Nor again can Mrs. Jameson’s English honesty avoid an occasional slip of delicate sarcasm; for instance, in the story of St. Filomena, a brand-new saint, whose discovery at Rome, in 1802, produced there an excitement which we should suspect was very much wanted, which we recommend to all our readers as an instance of the state into which the virtues of honesty and common sense seem to have fallen in the Eternal City — of humbugs.
No doubt there are many such cases of imposture among the list of saints and martyrs; yet, granting all which have been exposed, and more, there still remains a list of authentic stories, sadder and stranger than any romance of man’s invention, to read which without deep sympathy and admiration our hearts must be callous or bigoted indeed. As Mrs. Jameson herself well says (vol. ii. p. 137):
When in the daily service of our Church we repeat these words of the sublime hymn (“The noble army of martyrs praise Thee!”), I wonder sometimes whether it be with a full appreciation of their meaning? whether we do really reflect on all that this noble army of martyrs has conquered for us? Did they indeed glorify God through their courage, and seal their faith in their Redeemer with their blood? And if it be so, how is it that we Christians have learned to look coldly upon the effigies of those who sowed the seed of the harvest which we have reaped? — Sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum! We may admit that the reverence paid to them in former days was unreasonable and excessive; that credulity and ignorance have in many instances falsified the actions imputed to them; that enthusiasm has magnified their numbers beyond all belief; that when the communion with martyrs was associated with the presence of their material remains, the passion for relics led to a thousand abuses, and the belief in their intercession to a thousand superstitions. But why, in uprooting the false, uproot also the beautiful and the true?
Thoroughly and practically convinced as we are of the truth of these words, it gave us some pain when, in the work of a very worthy person, “The Church in the Catacombs,” by Dr. Maitland (not the author of “The Dark Ages”), we found, as far as we could perceive, a wish “to advance the Protestant cause,” by throwing general doubt on the old martyrologies and their monuments in the Roman catacombs. If we shall have judged hastily, we shall be ready to apologise. None, as we have said before, more firmly believe that the Protestant cause is the good cause; none are more reverentially inclined toward all honest critical investigations, more anxious to see all truth, the Bible itself, sifted and tested in every possible method; but we must protest against what certainly seems too contemptuous a rejection of a mass of historic evidence hitherto undoubted, except by the school of Voltaire; and of the hasty denial of the meaning of Christian and martyrologic symbols, as well known to antiquaries as Stonehenge or Magna Charta.
At the same time, Dr. Maitland’s book seems the work of a righteous and earnest man, and it is not its object, but its method, of which we complain. The whole question of martyrology, a far more important one than historians generally fancy, requires a thorough investigation, critical and historical; it has to be done, and especially just now. The Germans, the civil engineers of the intellectual world, ought to do it for us, and no doubt will. But those who undertake it must bring to the work, not only impartiality, but enthusiasm; it is the spirit only, after all, which can quicken the eye, which can free the understanding from the idols of laziness, prejudice, and hasty induction. To talk philosophically of such matters a man must love them; he must set to work with a Christian sympathy, and a manly admiration for those old spiritual heroes to whose virtue and endurance Europe owes it that she is not now a den of heathen savages. He must be ready to assume everything about them to be true which is neither absurd, immoral, nor unsupported by the same amount of evidence which he would require for any other historic fact. And, just because this very tone of mind — enthusiastic but not idolatrous, discriminating but not captious — runs through Mrs. Jameson’s work, we hail it with especial pleasure, as a fresh move in a truly philosophic and Christian direction. Indeed, for that branch of the subject which she has taken in hand, not the history, but the poetry of legends and of the art which they awakened, she derives a peculiar fitness, not merely from her own literary talents and acquaintance with continental art, but also from the very fact of her being an English wife and mother. Women ought, perhaps, always to make the best critics — at once more quicksighted, more tasteful, more sympathetic than ourselves, whose proper business is creation. Perhaps in Utopia they will take the reviewer’s business entirely off our hands, as they are said to be doing already, by-the-bye, in one leading periodical. But of all critics an English matron ought to be the best — open as she should be, by her womanhood, to all tender and admiring sympathies, accustomed by her Protestant education to unsullied purity of thought, and inheriting from her race, not only freedom of mind and reverence for antiquity, but the far higher birthright of English honesty.
And such a genial and honest spirit, we think, runs through this book.
Another difficult task, perhaps the most difficult of all, the authoress has well performed. We mean the handling of stories whose facts she partly or wholly disbelieves, while she admires and loves their spirit and moral; or doctrines, to pronounce on whose truth or falsehood is beyond her subject. This difficulty Mr. Newman, in the “Lives of the English Saints,” edited and partly written by him, turned with wonderful astuteness to the advantage of Romanism; but others, more honest, have not been so victorious. Witness the painfully uncertain impression left by some parts of one or two of those masterly articles on Romish heroes which appeared in the “Quarterly Review;” an uncertainty which we have the fullest reason to believe was most foreign to the reviewer’s mind and conscience. Even Mr. Macaulay’s brilliant history here and there falls into the same snare. No one but those who have tried it can be aware of the extreme difficulty of preventing the dramatic historian from degenerating into an apologist or heating into a sneerer; or understand the ease with which an earnest author, in a case like the present, becomes frantically reckless, under the certainty that, say what he will, he will be called a Jesuit by the Protestants, an Infidel by the Papists, a Pantheist by the Ultra-High-Church, and a Rogue by all three.
Now, we certainly shall not say that Mrs. Jameson is greater than the writers just mentioned; but we must say, that female tact and deep devotional feeling cut the Gordian knot which has puzzled more cunning heads. Not that Mrs. Jameson is faultless; we want something yet, in the telling of a Christian fairy-tale, and know not what we want: but never were legends narrated with more discernment and simplicity than these.
As an instance, take the legend of St. Dorothea (vol. ii. p. 184), which is especially one of those stories of “sainted personages who,” as Mrs. Jameson says, “lived, or are supposed to have lived, in the first ages of Christianity: and whose real history, founded on fact or tradition, has been so disguised by poetical embroidery, that they have in some sort the air of ideal beings;” and which may, therefore, be taken as a complete test of the authoress’s tact and honesty:
In the province of Cappadocia and in the city of Cæsarea, dwelt a noble virgin, whose name was Dorothea. In the whole city there was none to be compared to her in beauty and grace of person. She was a Christian, and served God day and night with prayers, with fasting, and with alms.
The governor of the city, by name Sapritius (or Fabricius), was a very terrible persecutor of the Christians, and hearing of the maiden, and of her great beauty, he ordered her to be brought before him. She came, with her mantle folded on her bosom, and her eyes meekly cast down. The governor asked “Who art thou?” and she replied: “I am Dorothea, a virgin, and a servant of Jesus Christ.” He said: “Thou must serve our gods, or die.” She answered mildly: “Be it so; the sooner shall I stand in the presence of Him whom I most desire to behold.” Then the governor asked her: “Whom meanest thou?” She replied: “I mean the Son of God, Christ, mine espoused! his dwelling is paradise; by his side are joys eternal; and in his garden grow celestial fruits and roses that never fade.” Then Sapritius, overcome by her eloquence and beauty, ordered her to be carried back to her dungeon. And he sent to her two sisters, whose names were Calista and Christeta, who had once been Christians, but who, from terror of the torments with which they were threatened, had renounced their faith in Christ. To these women the governor promised large rewards if they would induce Dorothea to follow their evil example; and they, nothing doubting of success, boldly undertook the task. The result, however, was far different; for Dorothea, full of courage and constancy, reproved them, as one having authority, and drew such a picture of the joys they had forfeited through their falsehood and cowardice, that they fell at her feet, saying: “O blessed Dorothea, pray for us, that, through thy intercession, our sins may be forgiven and our penitence accepted!” And she did so. And when they had left the dungeon they proclaimed aloud that they were servants of Christ.
Then the governor, furious, commanded that they should be burned, and that Dorothea should witness their torments. And she stood by, bravely encouraging them, and saying: “O my sisters, fear not! suffer to the end! for these transient pangs shall be followed by the joys of eternal life!” Thus they died: and Dorothea herself was condemned to be tortured cruelly, and then beheaded. The first part of her sentence she endured with invincible fortitude. She was then led forth to death; and, as she went, a young man, a lawyer of the city named Theophilus, who had been present when she was first brought before the governor, called to her mockingly: “Ha! fair maiden, goest thou to join thy bridegroom? Send me, I pray thee, of the fruits and flowers of that same garden of which thou hast spoken: I would fain taste of them!” And Dorothea looking on him inclined her head with a gentle smile, and said: “Thy request, O Theophilus, is granted!” Whereat he laughed aloud with his companions; but she went on cheerfully to death.
When she came to the place of execution, she knelt down and prayed; and suddenly appeared at her side a beautiful boy, with hair bright as sunbeams:
A smooth-faced glorious thing,
With thousand blessings dancing in his eyes.
In his hand he held a basket containing three apples, and three fresh-gathered and fragrant roses. She said to him; “Carry these to Theophilus; say that Dorothea hath sent them, and that I go before him to the garden whence they came, and await him there.” With these words she bent her neck, and received the death-stroke.
Meantime the angel (for it was an angel) went to seek Theophilus, and found him still laughing in merry mood over the idea of the promised gift. The angel placed before him the basket of celestial fruit and flowers, saying: “Dorothea sends thee this,” and vanished. What words can express the wonder of Theophilus? Struck by the prodigy operated in his favour, his heart melted within him; he tasted of the celestial fruit, and a new life was his; he proclaimed himself a servant of Christ, and, following the example of Dorothea, suffered with like constancy in the cause of truth, and obtained the crown of martyrdom.
We have chosen this legend just because it is in itself as superstitious and fantastic as any in the book. We happen to hold the dream of “The Spiritual Marriage,” as there set forth, in especial abhorrence, and we have no doubt Mrs. Jameson does so also. We are well aware of the pernicious effect which this doctrine has exercised on matrimonial purity among the southern nations; that by making chastity synonymous with celibacy, it degraded married faithfulness into a restriction which there were penalties for breaking, but no rewards for keeping. We see clearly enough the cowardice, the shortsightedness, of fancying that man can insure the safety of his soul by fleeing from the world — in plain English, deserting the post to which God has called him, like the monks and nuns of old. We believe that the numbers of the early martyrs have been exaggerated. We believe that they were like ourselves, imperfect and inconsistent human beings; that, on the showing of the legends and fathers themselves, their testimony for the truth was too often impaired by superstition, fanaticism, or passion. But granting all this, we must still say, in the words of one who cannot be suspected of Romanising — the great Dr. Arnold —
Divide the sum total of reported martyrs by twenty; by fifty, if you will; after all, you have a number of persons of all ages and sexes suffering cruel torments and deaths for conscience’ sake, and for Christ’s; and by their sufferings, manifestly with God’s blessing, insuring the triumph of Christ’s Gospel. Neither do I think that we consider the excellence of this martyr spirit half enough.
Indeed we do not. Let all the abatements mentioned above, and more, be granted; yet, even then, when we remember that the world from which Jerome or Anthony fled was even worse than that denounced by Juvenal and Persius — that the nuptials which, as legends say, were often offered the virgin martyrs as alternatives for death, were such as employed the foul pens of Petronius and Martial — that the tyrants whom they spurned were such as live in the pages of Suetonius, and the Augustæ Historiæ Scriptores — that the gods whom they were commanded to worship, the rites in which they were to join, were those over which Ovid and Apuleius had gloated, which Lucian had held up to the contempt of heathendom itself — that the tortures which they preferred to apostacy and to foul crimes were, by the confessions of the heathens themselves, too horrible for pen to tell — it does raise a flush of indignation to hear some sleek bigot-sceptic, bred up in the safety and luxury of modern England, among Habeas Corpus Acts and endowed churches, trying from his warm fireside to sneer away the awful responsibilities and the heroic fortitude of valiant men and tender girls, to whose piety and courage he owes the very enlightenment, the very civilisation, of which he boasts.
It is an error, doubtless, and a fearful one, to worship even such as them. But the error, when it arose, was at worst the caricature of a blessed truth. Even for the sinful, surely it was better to admire holiness than to worship their own sin. Shame on those who, calling themselves Christians, repine that a Cecilia or a Magdalen replaced an Isis and a Venus; or who can fancy that they are serving Protestantism by tracing malevolent likenesses between even the idolatry of a saint and the idolatry of a devil! True, there was idolatry in both, as gross in one as the other. And what wonder? What wonder if, amid a world of courtesans, the nun was worshipped? At least God allowed it; and will man be wiser than God? “The times of that ignorance He winked at.” The lie that was in it He did not interfere to punish. He did more; He let it work out, as all lies will, their own punishment. We may see that in the miserable century which preceded the glorious Reformation; we may see it in the present state of Spain and Italy. The crust of lies, we say, punished itself; to the germ of truth within it we partly owe that we are Christian men this day.
But granting, or rather boldly asserting all this, and smiling as much as we choose at the tale of St. Dorothea’s celestial basket, is it not absolutely, and in spite of all, an exquisite story? Is it likely to make people better or worse? We might believe the whole of it, and yet we need not, therefore, turn idolaters and worship sweet Dorothea for a goddess. But if, as we trust in God is the case, we are too wise to believe it all — if even we see no reason (and there is not much) for believing one single word of it — yet still we ask, Is it not an exquisite story? Is there not heroism in it greater than of all the Ajaxes and Achilles who ever blustered on this earth? Is there not power greater than of kings — God’s strength made perfect in woman’s weakness? Tender forgiveness, the Saviour’s own likeness; glimpses, brilliant and true at the core, however distorted and miscoloured, of that spiritual world where the wicked cease from troubling, where the meek alone shall inherit the earth, where, as Protestants too believe, all that is spotless and beautiful in nature as well as in man shall bloom for ever perfect?
It is especially in her descriptions of paintings that Mrs. Jameson’s great talents are displayed. Nowhere do we recollect criticisms more genial, brilliant, picturesque than those which are scattered through these pages. Often they have deeper merits, and descend to those fundamental laws of beauty and of religion by which all Christian art must ultimately be tested. Mrs. Jameson has certainly a powerful inductive faculty; she comprehends at once the idea 210 and central law of a work of art, and sketches it in a few vivid and masterly touches; and really, to use a hack quotation honestly for once, “in thoughts which breathe, and words which burn.” As an instance, we must be allowed to quote at length this charming passage on angel paintings, so valuable does it seem not only as information, but as a specimen of what criticism should be:
On the revival of art, we find the Byzantine idea of angels everywhere prevailing. The angels in Cimabue’s famous “Virgin and Child enthroned” are grand creatures, rather stern, but this arose, I think, from his inability to express beauty. The colossal angels at Assisi, solemn sceptred kingly forms, all alike in action and attitude, appeared to me magnificent.
In the angels of Giotto we see the commencement of a softer grace and a purer taste, further developed by some of his scholars. Benozzo Gozzoli and Orcagna have left in the Campo Santo examples of the most graceful and fanciful treatment. Of Benozzo’s angels in the Ricardi Palace I have spoken at length. His master, Angelico (worthy the name!), never reached the same power of expressing the rapturous rejoicing of celestial beings, but his conception of the angelic nature remains unapproached, unapproachable: it is only his, for it was the gentle, passionless, refined nature of the recluse which stamped itself there. Angelico’s angels are unearthly, not so much in form as in sentiment; and superhuman, not in power but in purity. In other hands, any imitation of his soft ethereal grace would become feeble and insipid. With their long robes falling round their feet, and drooping many-coloured wings, they seem not to fly or to walk, but to float along, “smooth sliding without step.” Blessed blessed creatures! love us, only love us! for we dare not task your soft serene beatitude, by asking you to help us!
There is more sympathy with humanity in Francia’s angels: they look as if they could weep as well as love and sing.
. . . . .
Correggio’s angels are grand and lovely, but they are like children enlarged and sublimated, not like spirits taking the form of children; where they smile it is truly — as Annibal Caracci expresses it — con una naturalezza et simplicità che innamora e sforza a ridere con loro: but the smile in many of Correggio’s angel heads has something sublime and spiritual, as well as simple and natural.
And Titian’s angels impress me in a similar manner — I mean those in the glorious “Assumption” at Venice — with their childish forms and features, but an expression caught from beholding the face of “our Father that is in heaven:” it is glorified in fancy. I remember standing before this picture, contemplating those lovely spirits, one after another, until a thrill came over me like that which I felt when Mendelssohn played the organ — I became music while I listened. The face of one of those angels is to the face of a child just what that of the Virgin in the same picture is compared with the fairest of the daughters of earth: it is not here superiority of beauty, but mind, and music, and love kneaded, as it were, into form and colour.
But Raphael, excelling in all things, is here excellent above all; his angels combine in a higher degree than any other, the various faculties and attributes in which the fancy loves to clothe these pure, immortal, beatified creatures. The angels of Giotti, of Benozzo, of Fiesole, are, if not female, feminine; those of Filippo Lippi and of Andrea, masculine; but you cannot say of those of Raphael, that they are masculine or feminine. The idea of sex is wholly lost in the blending of power, intelligence, and grace. In his early pictures, grace is the predominant characteristic, as in the dancing and singing angels in his “Coronation of the Virgin.” In his later pictures the sentiment in his ministering angels is more spiritual, more dignified. As a perfect example of grand and poetical feeling, I may cite the angels as “Regents of the Planets,” in the Capella Chigiana. The cupola represents in a circle the creation of the solar system, according to the theological and astronomical (or rather astrological) notions which then prevailed — a hundred years before “the starry Galileo and his woes.” In the centre is the Creator; around, in eight compartments, we have, first, the angel of the celestial sphere, who seems to be listening to the divine mandate: “Let there be light in the firmament of heaven;” then follow in their order, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The name of each planet is expressed by its mythological representative; the Sun by Apollo, the Moon by Diana: and over each presides a grand colossal-winged spirit, seated or reclining on a portion of the zodiac as on a throne. I have selected two angels to give an idea of this peculiar and poetical treatment. The union of the theological and the mythological attributes is in the classical taste of the time, and quite Miltonic. In Raphael’s child-angels, the expression of power and intelligence, as well as innocence, is quite wonderful; for instance, look at the two angel-boys, in the Dresden Madonna di San Sisto, and the angels, or celestial genii, who bear along the Almighty when he appears to Noah. No one has expressed like Raphael the action of flight, except perhaps Rembrandt. The angel who descends to crown Santa Felicità cleaves the air with the action of a swallow: and the angel in Rembrandt’s Tobit soars like a lark with upward motion, spurning the earth.
Michael Angelo rarely gave wings to his angels; I scarcely recollect an instance, except the angel in the “Annunciation:” and his exaggerated human forms, his colossal creatures, in which the idea of power is conveyed through attitude and muscular action, are, to my taste, worse than unpleasing. My admiration for this wonderful man is so profound that I can afford to say this. His angels are superhuman, but hardly angelic: and while in Raphael’s angels we do not feel the want of wings, we feel while looking at those of Michael Angelo that not even the “sail-broad vans” with which Satan laboured, through the surging abyss of chaos could suffice to lift those Titanic forms from earth, and sustain them in mid-air. The group of angels over the “Last Judgment,” flinging their mighty limbs about, and those that surround the descending figure of Christ in the “Conversion of St. Paul,” may be referred to here as characteristic examples. The angels, blowing their trumpets, puff and strain like so many troopers. Surely this is not angelic: there may be power — great, imaginative, and artistic power — exhibited in the conception of form, but in the beings themselves there is more of effort than of power: serenity, tranquillity, beatitude, ethereal purity, spiritual grace, are out of the question.
In this passage we may remark an excellence in Mrs. Jameson’s mode of thought which has become lately somewhat rare. We mean a freedom from that bigoted and fantastic habit of mind which leads nowadays the worshippers of high art to exalt the early schools to the disadvantage of all others, and to talk as if Christian painting had expired with Perugino. We were much struck with our authoress’s power of finding spiritual truth and beauty in Titian’s “Assumption,” one of the very pictures in which the “high-art” party are wont to see nothing but “coarseness” and “earthliness” of conception. She, having, we suppose, a more acute as well as a more healthy eye for the beautiful and the spiritual, and therefore able to perceive its slightest traces wherever they exist, sees in those “earthly” faces of the great masters, “an expression caught from beholding the face of our Father that is in heaven.” The face of one of those “angels,” she continues, “is to the face of a child just what that of the Virgin in the same picture is compared with the fairest of the daughters of earth: it is not here superiority of beauty, but mind, and music, and love, kneaded, as it were, into form and colour.”
Mrs. Jameson acknowledges her great obligations to M. Rio; and all students of art must be thankful to him for the taste, learning, and earnest religious feeling which he has expended on the history of the earlier schools of painting. An honest man, doubtless, he is; but it does not follow, alas! in this piecemeal world, that he should write an honest book. And his bigotry stands in painful contrast to the genial and comprehensive spirit by which Mrs. Jameson seems able to appreciate the specific beauties of all schools and masters. M. Rio’s theory (and he is the spokesman of a large party) is, unless we much misjudge him, this — that the ante-Raphaelic is the only Christian art; and that all the excellences of these early painters came from their Romanism; all their faults from his two great bugbears — Byzantinism and Paganism. In his eyes, the Byzantine idea of art was Manichean; in which we fully coincide, but add, that the idea of the early Italian painters was almost equally so: and that almost all in them that was not Manichean they owe not to their Romanism or their asceticism, but to their healthy layman’s common sense, and to the influence of that very classical art which they are said to have been pious enough to despise. Bigoted and ascetic Romanists have been, in all ages, in a hurry to call people Manicheans, all the more fiercely because their own consciences must have hinted to them that they were somewhat Manichean themselves. When a man suspects his own honesty, he is, of course, inclined to prove himself blameless by shouting the loudest against the dishonesty of others. Now M. Rio sees clearly and philosophically enough what is the root of Manicheanism — the denial that that which is natural, beautiful, human, belongs to God. He imputes it justly to those Byzantine artists who fancied it carnal to attribute beauty to the Saviour or to the Virgin Mary, and tried to prove their own spirituality by representing their sacred personages in the extreme of ugliness and emaciation, though some of the specimens of their painting which Mrs. Jameson gives proves that this abhorrence of beauty was not so universal as M. Rio would have us believe. We agree with him that this absurdity was learned from them by earlier and semi-barbarous Italian artists, that these latter rapidly escaped from it, and began rightly to embody their conceptions in beautiful forms; and yet we must urge against them, too, the charge of Manicheanism, and of a spiritual eclecticism also, far deeper and more pernicious than the mere outward eclecticism of manner which has drawn down hard names on the school of the Caracci.
For an eclectic, if it mean, anything, means this — one who, in any branch of art or science, refuses to acknowledge Bacon’s great law, “that nature is only conquered by obeying her;” who will not take a full and reverent view of the whole mass of facts with which he has to deal, and from them deducing the fundamental laws of his subject, obey them whithersoever they may lead; but who picks and chooses out of them just so many as may be pleasant to his private taste, and then constructs a partial system which differs from the essential ideas of nature, in proportion to the number of facts which he has determined to discard. And such a course was pursued in the art by the ascetic painters between the time of Giotto and Raphael. Their idea of beauty was a partial and a Manichean one; in their adoration for a fictitious “angelic nature,” made up from all which is negative in humanity, they were prone to despise all by which man is brought in contact with this earth — the beauties of sex, of strength, of activity, of grandeur of form; all, that is, in which Greek art excels: their ideal of beauty was altogether effeminate. They prudishly despised the anatomic study of the human figure, of landscape and chiaroscuro. Spiritual expression with them was everything; but it was only the expression of the passive spiritual faculties of innocence, devotion, meekness, resignation — all good, but not the whole of humanity. Not that they could be quite consistent in their theory. They were forced to paint their very angels as human beings; and a standard of human beauty they had to find somewhere; and they found one, strange to say, exactly like that of the old Pagan statues (wings and all — for the wings of Christian angels are copied exactly from those of Greek Genii), and only differing in that ascetic and emasculate tone, which was peculiar to themselves. Here is a dilemma which the worshippers of high art have slurred over. Where did Angelico de Fiesole get the idea of beauty which dictated his exquisite angels? We shall not, I suppose, agree with those who attribute it to direct inspiration, and speak of it as the reward of the prayer and fasting by which the good monk used to prepare himself for painting. Must we then confess that he borrowed his beauties from the faces of the prettiest nuns with whom he was acquainted? That would be sad naturalism; and sad eclecticism too, considering that he must have seen among his Italian sisters a great many beauties of a very different type from that which he has chosen to copy; though, we suppose, of God’s making equally with that of his favourites. Or did he, in spite of himself, steal a side-glance now and then at some of the unrivalled antique statues of his country, and copy on the sly any feature or proportion in them which was emasculate enough to be worked into his pictures? That, too, is likely enough; nay, it is certain. We are perfectly astonished how any draughtsman, at least how such a critic as M. Rio, can look at the early Italian painters without tracing everywhere in them the classic touch, the peculiar tendency to mathematic curves in the outlines, which is the distinctive peculiarity of Greek art. Is not Giotto, the father of Italian art, full of it in every line? Is not Perugino? Is not the angel of Lorenzo Credi in Mrs. Jameson’s woodcut? Is not Francia, except just where he is stiff, and soft, and clumsy? Is not Fra Angelico himself? Is it not just the absence of this Greek tendency to mathematical forms in the German painters before Albert Dürer, which makes the specific difference, evident to every boy, between the drawing of the Teutonic and Italian schools?
But if so, what becomes of the theory which calls Pagan art by all manner of hard names? which dates the downfall of Christian art from the moment when painters first lent an eye to its pernicious seductions? How can those escape the charge of eclecticism, who, without going to the root-idea of Greek art, filched from its outside just as much as suited their purpose? And how, lastly, can M. Rio’s school of critics escape the charge of Manichean contempt for God’s world and man, not as ascetics have fancied him, but as God has made him, when they think it a sufficient condemnation of a picture to call it naturalistic; when they talk and act about art as if the domain of the beautiful were the devil’s kingdom, from which some few species of form and elements were to be stolen by Christian painters, and twisted from their original evil destination into the service of religion?
On the other hand, we owe much to those early ascetic painters; their works are a possession for ever. No future school of religious art will be able to rise to eminence without taking full cognisance of them, and learning from them their secret. They taught artists, and priests, and laymen too, that beauty is only worthy of admiration when it is the outward sacrament of the beauty of the soul within; they helped to deliver men from that idolatry to merely animal strength and loveliness into which they were in danger of falling in ferocious ages, and among the relics of Roman luxury; they asserted the superiority of the spirit over the flesh; according to their light, they were faithful preachers of the great Christian truth, that devoted faith, and not fierce self-will, is man’s glory. Well did their pictures tell to brutal peasant, and to still more brutal warrior, that God’s might was best shown forth, not in the elephantine pride of a Hercules, or the Titanic struggles of a Laocoon, but in the weakness of martyred women, and of warriors who were content meekly to endure shame and death, for the sake of Him who conquered by sufferings, and bore all human weaknesses; who “was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and, like a sheep dumb before the shearer, opened not his mouth.”
We must conclude with a few words on one point on which we differ somewhat from Mrs. Jameson — the allegoric origin of certain legendary stories. She calls the story of the fiend, under the form of a dragon, devouring St. Margaret, and then bursting at the sign of the cross while the saint escaped unhurt, “another form of the familiar allegory — the power of Sin overcome by the power of the Cross.”
And again, vol. ii. p. 4:
The legend of St. George came to us from the East; where, under various forms, as Apollo and the Python, as Bellerophon and the Chimæra, as Perseus and the Sea-monster, we see perpetually recurring the mythic allegory by which was figured the conquest achieved by beneficent Power over the tyranny of Wickedness, and which reappears in Christian art in the legends of St. Michael and half a hundred other saints.
To us these stories seem to have had by no means an allegorical, but rather a strictly historic foundation; and our reasons for this opinion may possibly interest some readers.
Allegory, strictly so called, is the offspring of an advanced, and not of a semi-barbarous state of society. Its home is in the East — not the East of barbarous Pontine countries peopled by men of our own race, where the legend of St. George is allowed to have sprung up, but of the civilised, metaphysical, dark-haired races of Egypt, Syria, and Hindostan. The “objectivity” of the Gothic mind has never had any sympathy with it. The Teutonic races, like the earlier Greeks, before they were tinctured with Eastern thought, had always wanted historic facts, dates, names, and places. They even found it necessary to import their saints; to locate Mary Magdalene at Marseilles, Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, the three Magi at Cologne, before they could thoroughly love or understand them. Englishmen especially cannot write allegories. John Bunyan alone succeeded tolerably, but only because his characters and language were such as he had encountered daily at every fireside and in. every meeting-house. But Spenser wandered perpetually away, or rather, rose up from his plan into mere dramatic narrative. His work and other English allegories, are hardly allegoric at all, but rather symbolic; spiritual laws in them are not expressed by arbitrary ciphers, but embodied in imaginary examples, sufficiently startling or simple to form a plain key to other and deeper instances of the same law. They are analogous to those symbolic devotional pictures in which the Madonna and saints of all ages are grouped together with the painter’s own contemporaries — no allegories at all, but the plain embodiment of a fact in which the artist believed; not only “the communion of all saints,” but also their habit of assisting, often in visible form, the Christians of his own time.
These distinctions may seem over-subtle, but our meaning will surely be plain to anyone who will compare “The Faërie Queen,” or the legend of St. George, with the Gnostic or Hindoo reveries, and the fantastic and truly Eastern interpretation of Scripture, which the European monks borrowed from Egypt. Our opinion is, that in the old legends the moral did not create the story, but the story the moral; and that the story had generally a nucleus of fact within all its distortions and exaggerations. This holds good of the Odinic and Grecian myths; all are now more or less inclined to believe that the deities of Zeus’s or Odin’s dynasties were real conquerors or civilisers of flesh and blood, like the Manco Capac of the Peruvians, and that it was around records of their real victories over barbarous aborigines, and over the brute powers of nature, that extravagant myths grew up, till more civilised generations began to say: “These tales must have some meaning — they must be either allegories or nonsense;” and then fancied that in the remaining thread of fact they found a clue to the mystic sense of the whole.
Such, we suspect, has been the history of St. George and the Dragon, as well as of Apollo and the Python. It is very hard to have to give up the dear old dragon who haunted our nursery dreams, especially when there is no reason for it. We have no patience with antiquaries who tell us that the dragons who guarded princesses were merely “the winding walls or moats of their castles.” What use then, pray, was there in the famous nether garment with which Regnar Lodbrog (shaggy-trousers) choked the dragon who guarded his lady-love? And Regnar was a real piece of flesh and blood, as King Ælla and our Saxon forefathers found to their cost; his awful death-dirge, and the effect which it produced, are well known to historians. We cannot give up Regnar’s trousers, for we suspect the key to the whole dragon-question is in the pocket of them.
Seriously, Why should not those dragons have been simply what the Greek word dragon means — what the earliest romances, the Norse myths, and the superstitions of the peasantry in many parts of England to this day assert them to have been —“mighty worms,” huge snakes? All will agree that the Python, the representative in the old world of the Boa-constrictor of the new, lingered in the Homeric age, if not later, both in Greece and in Italy. It existed on the opposite coast of Africa (where it is now extinct) in the time of Regulus; we believe, from the traditions of all nations, that it existed to a far later date in more remote and barbarous parts of Europe. There is every reason to suppose that it still lingered in England after the invasion of the Cymri — say not earlier than B.C. 600 — for it was among them an object of worship; and we question whether they would have been likely to have adored a foreign animal, and, as at Abury, built enormous temples in imitation of its windings, and called them by its name.
The only answer to these traditions has as yet been, that no reptile of that bulk is known in cold climates. Yet the Python still lingers in the Hungarian marshes. A few years ago a huge snake, as large as the Pythons of Hindostan, spread havoc among the flocks and terror among the peasantry. Had it been Ariosto’s “Orc,” an à priori argument from science would have had weight. A marsupiate sea-monster is horribly unorthodox; and the dragon, too, has doubtless been made a monster of, but most unjustly: his legs have been patched on by crocodile-slaying crusaders, while his wings — where did they come from? From the traditions of “flying serpents,” which have so strangely haunted the deserts of Upper Egypt from the time of the old Hebrew prophets, and which may not, after all, be such lies as folk fancy. How scientific prigs shook with laughter at the notion of a flying dragon! till one day geology revealed to them, in the Pterodactylus, that a real flying dragon, on the model of Carlo Crivelli’s in Mrs. Jameson’s book, with wings before and legs behind, only more monstrous than that, and than all the dreams of Seba and Aldrovandus (though some of theirs, to be sure, have seven heads), got its living once on a time in this very island of England! But such is the way of this wise world! When Le Vaillant, in the last century, assured the Parisians that he had shot a giraffe at the Cape, he was politely informed that the giraffe was fabulous, extinct — in short, that he lied; and now, behold! the respectable old unicorn (and good Tories ought to rejoice to hear it) has been discovered at last by a German naturalist, Von Müller, in Abyssinia, just where our fathers told us to look for it! And why should we not find the flying serpent too? The interior of Africa is as yet an unknown world of wonders; and we may yet discover there, for aught we know, the descendants of the very satyr who chatted with St. Anthony.
No doubt the discovery of huge fossil animals, as Mrs. Jameson says, on the high authority of Professor Owen, may have modified our ancestors’ notions of dragons: but in the old serpent worship we believe the real explanation of these stories is to be found. There is no doubt that human victims, and even young maidens, were offered to these snake-gods; even the sunny mythology of Greece retains horrible traces of such customs, which lingered in Arcadia, the mountain fastness of the old and conquered race. Similar cruelties existed among the Mexicans; and there are but too many traces of it throughout the history of heathendom.
The same superstition may, as the legends assert, have lingered on, or been at least revived during the later ages of the empire, in remote provinces, left in their primeval barbarism, at the same time that they were brutalised by the fiendish exhibitions of the Circus, which the Roman governors found it their interest to introduce everywhere. Thus the serpent became naturally regarded as the manifestation of the evil spirit by Christians as well as by the old Hebrews; thus, also, it became the presiding genius of the malaria and fever which arose from the fens haunted by it — a superstition which gave rise to the theory that the tales of Hercules and the Hydra, Apollo and the mud-Python, St. George and the Dragon, were sanitary-reform allegories, and the monsters whose poisonous breath destroyed cattle and young maidens only typhus and consumption. We see no reason why early Christian heroes should not have actually met with such snake-gods, and felt themselves bound, like Southey’s Madoc, or Daniel in the old rabbinical story, whose truth has never been disproved, to destroy the monsters at all risk. We see no reason, either, why their righteous daring may not have been crowned with victory; and suspect that on such events were gradually built up the dragon-slaying legends which charmed all Europe, and grew in extravagances and absurdities, till they began to degenerate into the bombast of the “Seven Champions,” and expired in the immortal ballad of the “Dragon of Wantley,” in which More of More Hall, on the morning of his battle with the monster, invoked the saints no more, but —
To make him strong and mighty —
He drank by the tale
Six pots of ale
And a quart of aqua-vitæ.
So ended the sublime sport of dragon-slaying. Its only remnant may now be seen in Borneo, whither that noble Christian man, Bishop Macdougall, took out the other day a six-chambered rifle, on the ground that “while the alligators ate his school-children at Sarawak, it was his duty as a bishop to shoot the alligators.”
210 We are sorry to see, however, that Mrs. Jameson has been so far untrue to her own faculty as to join in the common mistake of naming Raphael’s well-known cartoon at Hampton Court, “Elymas the Sorcerer struck Blind.” On the supposition that this is its subject, its method of arrangement is quite unworthy of the rest, as the action would be split into the opposite corners of the picture, and the post of honour in the centre occupied by a figure of secondary importance; besides, the picture would lose its significance as one of this great series on “Religious Conviction and Conversion.” But, strange to say, Raphael has all the while especially guarded against this very error, by labelling the picture with a description of its subject. Directly under the central figure is written, “Sergius Paulus, Proconsul, embraces the Christian faith at the preaching of Paul.” Taking which simple hint, and looking at the face of the proconsul (himself a miracle of psychology) as the centre to which all is to be referred, the whole composition, down to the minutest details, arranges itself at once in that marvellous unity which is Raphael’s especial glory.
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