Decline of the West, Vol II
A thousand years later, when here also all was inwardly fulfilled and done with, there appeared on the unpromising soil of France, sudden and swiftly mounting, Germanic-Catholic Christianity. It was in this case as in every other; whether the whole stock of names and practices came from the East, or whether thousands of particular details were derived from primeval Germanic and Celtic feelings, the Gothic religion is something so new and unheard-of, something of which the final depths are so completely incomprehensible by anyone outside its faith, that to contrive linkages for them on the historical surface is meaningless jugglery.
The mythic world that thereupon formed itself around this young soul, an integer of force, will, and direction seen under the symbol of Infinity, a stupendous action-into-distance, chasms of terror and of bliss suddenly opening up— it was all, for the elect of this early religiousness, something so entirely natural that they could not even detach themselves sufficiently to "know" it as a unit. They lived in it. To us, on the contrary, who are separated from these ancestors by thirty generations, this world seems so alien and overpowering that we always seek to grasp it in detail, and so misunderstand its wholeness and undividedness.
The father-godhead men felt as Force itself, eternal, grand, and ever-present activity, sacred causality, which could scarcely assume any form comprehensible by human eyes. But the whole longing of the young breed, the whole desire of this strongly coursing blood, to bow itself in humility before the meaning of the blood found its expression in the figure of the Virgin and Mother Mary, whose crowning in the heavens was one of the earliest motives of the Gothic art. She is a light-figure, in white, blue, and gold, surrounded by the heavenly hosts. She leans over the new-born Child; she fells the sword in her heart; she stands at the foot of the cross; she holds the corpse of the dead Son.
From the turn of the tenth century on, Petrus Damiani and Bernard of Clairvaux developed her cult; there arose the Ave Maria and the angelic greeting and later, among the Dominicans, the crown of roses. Countless legends gathered round her figure. She is the guardian of the Church's store of Grace, the Great Intercessor. Among the Franciscans arose the festival of the Visitation, amongst the English Benedictines (even before 1100) that of the Immaculate Conception, which elevated her completely above mortal humanity into the world of light.
But this world of purity, light, and utter beauty of soul would have been unimaginable without the counter-idea, inseparable from it, an idea that constitutes one of the maxima of Gothic, one of its unfathomable creations — one that the present day forgets, and deliberately forgets. While she there sits enthroned, smiling in her beauty and tenderness, there lies in the background another world that throughout nature and throughout mankind weaves and
breeds ill, pierces, destroys, seduces — namely, the realm of the Devil. It penetrates the whole of Creation, it lies ambushed everywhere. All around is an army of goblins, night-spirits, witches, werewolves, all in human shape. No man knows whether or not his neighbour has signed himself away to the Evil One. No one can say of an unfolding child that it is not already a devil's temptress. An appalling fear, such as is perhaps only paralleled in the early spring of Egypt, weighs upon man. Every moment he may stumble into the abyss. There were black magic, and devils' masses and witches' sabbaths, night feasts on mountain-tops, magic draughts and charm-formulae.
The Prince of Hell, with his relatives — mother and grandmother, for as his very existence denies and scorns the sacrament of marriage, he may not have wife or child — his fallen angels and his uncanny henchmen, is one of the most tremendous creations in all religious history. The Germanic Loki is hardly more than a preliminary hint of him. Their grotesque figures, with horns, claws, and horses' hoofs, were already fully formed in the mystery plays of the eleventh century; everywhere the artist's fancy abounded in them, and, right up to Dürer and Grünewald, Gothic painting is unthinkable without them.
The Devil is sly, malignant, malicious, but yet in the end the powers of light dupe him. He and his brood, bad-tempered, coarse, fiendishly inventive, are of a monstrous imaginativeness, incarnations of hellish laughter opposed to the illumined smile of the Queen of Heaven, but incarnations, too, of Faustian world-humour opposed to the panic of the sinner's contrition.
It is not possible to exaggerate either the grandeur of this forceful, insistent picture or the depth of sincerity with which it was believed in. The Mary-myths and the Devil-myth formed themselves side by side, neither possible without the other. Disbelief in either of them was deadly sin. There was a Mary-cult of prayer, and a Devil-cult of spells and exorcisms. Man walked continuously on the thin crust of the bottomless pit. Life in this world is a ceaseless and desperate contest with the Devil, into which every individual plunges as a member of the Church Militant, to do battle for himself and to win his knight's spurs. The Church Triumphant of angels and saints in their glory looks down from on high, and heavenly Grace is the warrior's shield in the battle. Mary is the protectress to whose bosom he can fly to be comforted, and the high lady who awards the prizes of valour.
Both worlds have their legends, their art, their scholasticism, and their mysticism — for the Devil, too, can work miracles. Characteristic of this alone among the religious Springtimes is the symbolism of colour — to the Madonna belong white and blue, to the Devil black, sulphur-yellow, and red. The saints and angels float in the aether, but the devils leap and crouch and the witches rustle through the night. It is the two together, light and night, which fill Gothic art with its indescrib-
able inwardness — that, and not any "artistic" fancifulness. Every man knew the world to be peopled with angel and devil troops. The light-encircled angels of Fra Angelico and the early Rhenish masters, and the grimacing things on the portals of the great cathedrals, really filled the air. Men saw them, felt their presence everywhere. Today we simply no longer know what a myth is; for it is no mere aesthetically pleasing mode of representing something to oneself, but a piece of the most lively actuality that mines every corner of the waking-consciousness and shakes the innermost structure of being. These creatures were about one all the time. They were glimpsed without being seen. They were believed in with a faith that felt the very thought of proof as a desecration. What we call myth nowadays, our litterateur's and connoisseur's taste for Gothic colour, is nothing but Alexandrianism. In the old days men did not "enjoy" it — behind it stood Death. **
** So also in the Classical, the Homeric figures were for educated people of Hellenistic times nothing but literature, representation, artistic motive. Even for Plato's period they were little more than this. But in 1000 BC, Demeter and Dionysus were a fearful actuality before which men collapsed.
For the Devil gained possession of human souls and seduced them into heresy, lechery, and black arts. It was war that was waged against him on earth, and waged with fire and sword upon those who had given themselves up to him. It is easy enough for us today to think ourselves out of such notions, but if we eliminate this appalling reality from Gothic, all that remains is mere romanticism. It was not only the love-glowing hymns to Mary, but the cries of countless pyres as well that rose up to heaven. Hard by the Cathedral were the gallows and the wheel.
Every man lived in those days in the consciousness of an immense danger, and it was hell, not the hangman, that he feared. Unnumbered thousands of witches genuinely imagined themselves to be so; they denounced themselves, prayed for absolution, and in pure love of truth confessed their night rides and bargains with the Evil One. Inquisitors, in tears and compassion for the fallen wretches, doomed them to the rack in order to save their souls. That is the Gothic myth, out of which came the cathedral, the crusader, the deep and spiritual painting, the mysticism. In its shadow flowered that profound Gothic blissfulness of which today we cannot even form an idea.
In Carolingian times, all this was still strange and far. Charlemagne in the first Saxon Capitulary (787) put a ban on the ancient Germanic belief in werewolves and night-gangers ( striga ), and as late as 1120 it was condemned as an error in the decree of Burkard of Worms. But twenty years later it was only in a dilute form that the anathema reappeared in the Decretum Gratiani . Caesarius of Heisterbach, already, was familiar with the whole devil-legend and in the Legenda Aurea it is just as actual and as effective as the Mary-legends. In 1233, when the Cathedrals of Mainz and Speyer were being vaulted, appeared the bull Vox in Rama , by which the belief in Devil and witch was made canonical.
St. Francis's "Hymn to the Sun" had not long been written, and the Franciscans were kneeling in intimate prayer before Mary and spreading her cult afar, when the Dominicans armed themselves for battle with the Devil by setting up the Inquisition. Heavenly love found its focus in the Mary-image, and eo ipso earthly love became akin to the Devil. Woman is Sin — so the great ascetics felt, as their fellows of the Classical, of China, and of India had felt. The Devil rules only through woman. The witch is the propagator of deadly sin. It was Thomas Aquinas who evolved the repulsive theory of Incubus and Succuba. Inward mystics like Bonaventura, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, developed a full metaphysic of the devilish.
The Renaissance had ever the strong faith of the Gothic at the back of its world-outlook. When Vasari eulogized Cimabue and Giotto for returning to Nature as their teacher, it was this Gothic nature that he had in mind, a nature influenced in every nook by the encircling troops of angels and devils that stood there, ever threatening, in the light. "Imitation" of Nature meant imitation of its soul, not of its surface. Let us be rid at last of the fable of a renewal of Classical "Antiquity." Renaissance, Rinascita , meant then the Gothic uplift from A.D. 1000 onward, the new Faustian world-feeling, the new personal experience of the Ego in the Infinite .
For some individual spirits, no doubt, it meant a sentimental enthusiasm for the Classical (or what was thought to be the Classical), but that was a manifestation of taste, nothing more. The Classical myth was entertainment-material, an allegorical play, through the thin veil of which men saw, no less definitely than before, the old Gothic actuality. When Savonarola stood up, the antique trappings vanished from the surface of Florentine life in an instant. It was all for the church that the Florentines laboured, and with conviction.
Raphael was the most deeply intimate of all Madonna-painters. A firm belief in the realm of Satan, and in deliverance from it through the saints, lay at the root of all this art and literature; and every one of them, painters, architects, and humanists — however often the names of Cicero and Virgil, Venus and Apollo were on their lips — looked upon the burning of witches as something entirely natural and wore amulets against the devil. The writings of Marsilius Ficinus are full of learned disquisitions on devils and witches. Francesco della Mirandola wrote (in elegant Latin) his dialogue "The Witch" in order to warn the fine intellects of his circle against a danger. When Leonardo da Vinci, at the summit of the Renaissance,
was working upon his "Anna Selbdritt”, the "Witches' Hammer" was being written in Rome (1487) in the finest humanistic Latin. It was these that constitute the real myth of the Renaissance, and without them we shall never understand the glorious and truly Gothic force of this anti-Gothic movement. Men who did not feel the Devil very near at hand could not have created the Divina Commedia or the frescoes of Orvieto or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
It was the tremendous background of this myth that awakened in the Faustian soul a feeling of what it was. An Ego lost in Infinity, an Ego that was all force, but a force negligibly weak in an infinity of greater forces; that was all will, but a will full of fear for its freedom. Never has the problem of Free-will been meditated upon more deeply or more painfully. Other Cultures have simply not known it. But precisely because here Magian resignation was totally impossible — because that which thought was not an "it" or particle of an all-soul, but an individual, fighting Ego, seeking to maintain itself — every limitation upon freedom was felt as a chain that had to be dragged along through life, and life in turn was felt as a living death. And if so — why? For what ?