John Ruskin.

The Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford online

. (page 6 of 7)
Online LibraryJohn RuskinThe Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford → online text (page 6 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Danae,' and her "Tunis aenea" becomes a myth of Christian safety, of
which the Scriptural significance may be enough felt by merely looking
out the texts under the word "Tower," in your concordance; and whose
effectual power, in the fortitudes alike of matter and spirit, was in
all probability made impressive enough to all Christendom, both by
the fortifications and persecutions of Diocletian. I have endeavoured
to mark her general relations to St. Sophia in the little imaginary
dialogue between them, given in the eighth lecture of the 'Ethics of
the Dust.'

Afterwards, as Gothic architecture becomes dominant, and at last
beyond question the most wonderful of all temple-building, St.
Barbara's Tower is, of course, its perfected symbol and utmost
achievement; and whether in the coronets of countless battlements worn
on the brows of the noblest cities, or in the Lombard bell-tower on
the mountains, and the English spire on Sarum plain, the geometric
majesty of the Egyptian maid became glorious in harmony of defence,
and sacred with precision of symbol.

As the buildings which showed her utmost skill were chiefly exposed
to lightning, she is invoked in defence from it; and our petition
in the Litany, against sudden death, was written originally to her.
The blasphemous corruptions of her into a patroness of cannon and
gunpowder, are among the most ludicrous, (because precisely contrary
to the original tradition,) as well as the most deadly, insolences and
stupidities of Renaissance Art.

IV. St. Margaret of Antioch was a shepherdess; the St. Geneviève of
the East; the type of feminine gentleness and simplicity. Traditions
of the resurrection of Alcestis perhaps mingle in those of her contest
with the dragon; but at all events, she differs from the other three
great mythic saints, in expressing the soul's victory over temptation
or affliction, by Christ's miraculous help, and without any special
power of its own. She is the saint of the meek and of the poor; her
virtue and her victory are those of all gracious and lowly womanhood;
and her memory is consecrated among the gentle households of Europe;
no other name, except those of Jeanne and Jeanie, seems so gifted with
a baptismal fairy power of giving grace and peace.

I must be forgiven for thinking, even on this canonical ground,
not only of Jeanie Deans, and Margaret of Branksome; but of
Meg - Merrilies. My readers will, I fear, choose rather to think of the
more doubtful victory over the Dragon, won by the great Margaret of
German literature.

V. With much more clearness and historic comfort we may approach the
shrine of St. Cecilia; and even on the most prosaic and realistic
minds - such as my own - a visit to her house in Rome has a comforting
and establishing effect, which reminds one of the carter in 'Harry
and Lucy,' who is convinced of the truth of a plaustral catastrophe at
first incredible to him, as soon as he hears the name of the hill on
which it happened. The ruling conception of her is deepened gradually
by the enlarged study of Religious music; and is at its best and
highest in the thirteenth century, when she rather resists than
complies with the already tempting and distracting powers of sound;
and we are told that "cantantibus organis, Cecilia virgo in corde suo
soli Domino decantabat, dicens, 'Fiat, Domine, cor meum et corpus meum
immaculatum, ut non confundar.'"

("While the instruments played, Cecilia the virgin sang in her
heart only to the Lord, saying, Oh Lord, be my heart and body made
stainless, that I be not confounded.")

This sentence occurs in my great Service-book of the convent of
Beau-pré, written in 1290, and it is illustrated with a miniature of
Cecilia sitting silent at a banquet, where all manner of musicians are
playing. I need not point out to you how the law, not of sacred music
only, so called, but of _all_ music, is determined by this sentence;
which means in effect that unless music exalt and purify, it is not
under St. Cecilia's ordinance, and it is not, virtually, music at all.

Her confessed power at last expires amidst a hubbub of odes and
sonatas; and I suppose her presence at a Morning Popular is as little
anticipated as desired. Unconfessed, she is of all the mythic saints
for ever the greatest; and the child in its nurse's arms, and every
tender and gentle spirit which resolves to purify in itself, - as the
eye for seeing, so the ear for hearing, - may still, whether behind the
Temple veil,[25] or at the fireside, and by the wayside, hear Cecilia
sing.

[Footnote 25:"But, standing in the lowest place,
And mingled with the work-day crowd,
A poor man looks, with lifted face,
And hears the Angels cry aloud.

"He seeks not how each instant flies,
One moment is Eternity;
His spirit with the Angels cries
To Thee, to Thee, continually.

"What if, Isaiah-like, he know
His heart be weak, his lips unclean,
His nature vile, his office low,
His dwelling and his people mean?

"To such the Angels spake of old -
To such of yore, the glory came;
These altar fires can ne'er grow cold:
Then be it his, that cleansing flame."

These verses, part of a very lovely poem, "To Thee all Angels cry
aloud," in the 'Monthly Packet' for September 1873, are only signed
'Veritas.' The volume for that year (the 16th) is well worth getting,
for the sake of the admirable papers in it by Miss Sewell, on
questions of the day; by Miss A.C. Owen, on Christian Art; and the
unsigned Cameos from English History.]

It would delay me too long just now to trace in specialty farther the
functions of the mythic, or, as in another sense they may be truly
called, the universal, Saints: the next greatest of them, St. Ursula,
is essentially British, - and you will find enough about her in
'Fors Clavigera'; the others, I will simply give you in entirely
authoritative order from the St. Louis' Psalter, as he read and
thought of them.

The proper Service-book of the thirteenth century consists first
of the pure Psalter; then of certain essential passages of the Old
Testament - invariably the Song of Miriam at the Red Sea and the last
song of Moses; - ordinarily also the 12th of Isaiah and the prayer of
Habakkuk; while St. Louis' Psalter has also the prayer of Hannah,
and that of Hezekiah (Isaiah xxxviii. 10-20); the Song of the Three
Children; then the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis.
Then follows the Athanasian Creed; and then, as in all Psalters after
their chosen Scripture passages, the collects to the Virgin, the
Te Deum, and Service to Christ, beginning with the Psalm 'The Lord
reigneth'; and then the collects to the greater individual saints,
closing with the Litany, or constant prayer for mercy to Christ, and
all saints; of whom the order is, - Archangels, Patriarchs, Apostles,
Disciples, Innocents, Martyrs, Confessors, Monks, and Virgins. Of
women the Magdalen _always_ leads; St. Mary of Egypt usually follows,
but _may_ be the last. Then the order varies in every place, and
prayer-book, no recognizable supremacy being traceable; except in
relation to the place, or person, for whom the book was written. In
St. Louis', St. Geneviève (the last saint to whom he prayed on his
death-bed) follows the two Maries; then come - memorable for you best,
as easiest, in this six-foil group, - Saints Catharine, Margaret, and
Scolastica, Agatha, Cecilia, and Agnes; and then ten more, whom
you may learn or not as you like: I note them now only for future
reference, - more lively and easy for your learning, - by their French
names,

Felicité,

Colombe,

Christine,

* * * * *

Aurée, Honorine,

* * * * *

Radegonde,

Praxède,

Euphémie,

* * * * *

Bathilde, Eugénie.

Such was the system of Theology into which the Imaginative Religion of
Europe was crystallized, by the growth of its own best faculties, and
the influence of all accessible and credible authorities, during the
period between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries inclusive. Its
spiritual power is completely represented by the angelic and apostolic
dynasties, and the women-saints in Paradise; for of the men-saints,
beneath the apostles and prophets, none but St. Christopher, St.
Nicholas, St. Anthony, St. James, and St. George, attained anything
like the influence of Catharine or Cecilia; for the very curious
reason, that the men-saints were much more true, real, and numerous.
St. Martin was reverenced all over Europe, but definitely, as a man,
and the Bishop of Tours. So St. Ambrose at Milan, and St. Gregory at
Rome, and hundreds of good men more, all over the world; while the
really good women remained, though not rare, inconspicuous. The
virtues of French Clotilde, and Swiss Berthe, were painfully borne
down in the balance of visible judgment, by the guilt of the Gonerils,
Regans, and Lady Macbeths, whose spectral procession closes only
with the figure of Eleanor in Woodstock maze; and in dearth of
nearer objects, the daily brighter powers of fancy dwelt with
more concentrated devotion on the stainless ideals of the earlier
maid-martyrs. And observe, even the loftier fame of the men-saints
above named, as compared with the rest, depends on precisely the same
character of indefinite personality; and on the representation, by
each of them, of a moral idea which may be embodied and painted in
a miraculous legend; credible, as history, even then, only to the
vulgar; but powerful over them, nevertheless, exactly in proportion
to the degree in which it can be pictured and fancied as a living
creature. Consider even yet in these days of mechanism, how the
dullest John Bull cannot with perfect complacency adore _himself_,
except under the figure of Britannia or the British Lion; and how the
existence of the popular jest-book, which might have seemed secure in
its necessity to our weekly recreation, is yet virtually centred on
the imaginary animation of a puppet, and the imaginary elevation to
reason of a dog. But in the Middle Ages, this action of the Fancy,
now distorted and despised, was the happy and sacred tutress of every
faculty of the body and soul; and the works and thoughts of art, the
joys and toils of men, rose and flowed on in the bright air of it,
with the aspiration of a flame, and the beneficence of a fountain.

And now, in the rest of my lecture, I had intended to give you a broad
summary of the rise and fall of English art, born under this code of
theology, and this enthusiasm of duty; - of its rise, from the rude
vaults of Westminster, to the finished majesty of Wells; - and of its
fall, from that brief hour of the thirteenth century, through the wars
of the Bolingbroke, and the pride of the Tudor, and the lust of the
Stewart, to expire under the mocking snarl and ruthless blow of the
Puritan. But you know that I have always, in my most serious work,
allowed myself to be influenced by those Chances, as they are now
called, - but to my own feeling and belief, guidances, and even, if
rightly understood, commands, - which, as far as I have read history,
the best and sincerest men think providential. Had this lecture been
on common principles of art, I should have finished it as I intended,
without fear of its being the worse for my consistency. But it deals,
on the contrary, with a subject, respecting which every sentence I
write, or speak, is of importance in its issue; and I allowed, as you
heard, the momentary observation of a friend, to give an entirely new
cast to the close of my last lecture. Much more, I feel it incumbent
upon me in this one, to take advantage of the most opportune help,
though in an unexpected direction, given me by my constant tutor,
Professor Westwood. I went to dine with him, a day or two ago,
mainly - being neither of us, I am thankful to say, blue-ribanded - to
drink his health on his recovery from his recent accident. Whereupon
he gave me a feast of good talk, old wine, and purple manuscripts. And
having had as much of all as I could well carry, just as it came to
the good-night, out he brings, for a finish, this leaf of manuscript
in my hand, which he has lent me to show you, - a leaf of the Bible of
Charles the Bald!

A leaf of it, at least, as far as you or I could tell, for Professor
Westwood's copy is just as good, in all the parts finished, as the
original: and, for all practical purpose, I show you here in my hand
a leaf of the Bible which your own King Alfred saw with his own bright
eyes, and from which he learned his child-faith in the days of dawning
thought!

There are few English children who do not know the story of Alfred,
the king, letting the cakes burn, and being chidden by his peasant
hostess. How few English children - nay, how few perhaps of their
educated, not to say learned, elders - reflect upon, if even they know,
the far different scenes through which he had passed when a child!

Concerning his father, his mother, and his own childhood, suppose you
were to teach your children first these following main facts, before
you come to the toasting of the muffin?

His father, educated by Helmstan, Bishop of Winchester, had been
offered the throne of the great Saxon kingdom of Mercia in his early
youth; had refused it, and entered, as a novice under St. Swithin the
monastery at Winchester. From St. Swithin, he received the monastic
habit, and was appointed by Bishop Helmstan one of his sub-deacons!

"The quiet seclusion which Ethelwulph's slow[26] capacity and meek
temper coveted" was not permitted to him by fate. The death of his
elder brother left him the only living representative of the line of
the West Saxon princes. His accession to the throne became the desire
of the people. He obtained a dispensation from the Pope to leave the
cloister; assumed the crown of Egbert; and retained Egbert's prime
minister, Alstan, Bishop of Sherborne, who was the Minister in peace
and war, the Treasurer, and the Counsellor, of the kings of England,
over a space, from first to last, of fifty years.

[Footnote 26: Turner, quoting William of Malmesbury, "Crassioris et
hebetis ingenii," - meaning that he had neither ardour for war, nor
ambition for kinghood.]

Alfred's mother, Osburga, must have been married for love. She was the
daughter of Oslac, the king's cup-bearer. Extolled for her piety and
understanding, she bore the king four sons; dying before the last,
Alfred, was five years old, but leaving him St. Swithin for his tutor.
How little do any of us think, in idle talk of rain or no rain on St.
Swithin's day, that we speak of the man whom Alfred's father obeyed as
a monk, and whom his mother chose for his guardian!

Alfred, both to father and mother, was the best beloved of their
children. On his mother's death, his father sent him, being then five
years old, with a great retinue through France and across the Alps
to Rome; and there the Pope anointed him King, (heir-apparent to the
English throne), at the request of his father.

Think of it, you travellers through the Alps by tunnels, that you
may go to balls at Rome or hells at Monaco. Here is another manner
of journey, another goal for it, appointed for your little king. At
twelve, he was already the best hunter among the Saxon youths. Be sure
he could sit his horse at five. Fancy the child, with his keen genius,
and holy heart, riding with his Saxon chiefs beside him, by the Alpine
flowers under Velan or Sempione, and down among the olives to Pavia,
to Perugia, to Rome; there, like the little fabled Virgin, ascending
the Temple steps, and consecrated to be King of England by the great
Leo, Leo of the Leonine city, the saviour of Rome from the Saracen.

Two years afterwards, he rode again to Rome beside his father; the
West Saxon king bringing presents to the Pope, a crown of pure gold
weighing four pounds, a sword adorned with pure gold, two golden
images,[27] four Saxon silver dishes; and giving a gift of gold to all
the Roman clergy and nobles,[28] and of silver to the people.

[Footnote 27: Turner, Book IV., - not a vestige of hint from the stupid
Englishman, what the Pope wanted with crown, sword, or image! My own
guess would be, that it meant an offering of the entire household
strength, in war and peace, of the Saxon nation, - their crown, their
sword, their household gods, Irminsul and Irminsula, their feasting,
and their robes.]

[Footnote 28: Again, what does this mean? Gifts of honour to the
Pope's immediate attendants - silver to all Rome? Does the modern
reader think this is buying little Alfred's consecration too dear, or
that Leo is selling the Holy Ghost?]

No idle sacrifices or symbols, these gifts of courtesy! The Saxon King
rebuilt on the highest hill that is bathed by Tiber, the Saxon street
and school, the Borgo,[29] of whose miraculously arrested burning
Raphael's fresco preserves the story to this day. And further
he obtained from Leo the liberty of all Saxon men from bonds
in penance; - a first phase this of Magna Charta, obtained more
honourably, from a more honourable person, than that document, by
which Englishmen of this day, suppose they live, move, and have being.

[Footnote 29: "Quæ in eorum lingua Burgus dicitur, - the place
where it was situated was called the Saxon street, Saxonum vicum"
(Anastasius, quoted by Turner). There seems to me some evidence in the
scattered passages I have not time to collate, that at this time the
Saxon Burg, or tower, of a village, included the idea of its school.]

How far into Alfred's soul, at seven years old, sank any true image of
what Rome was, and had been; of what her Lion Lord was, who had saved
her from the Saracen, and her Lion Lord had been, who had saved her
from the Hun; and what this Spiritual Dominion was, and was to be,
which could make and unmake kings, and save nations, and put armies to
flight; I leave those to say, who have learned to reverence childhood.
This, at least, is sure, that the days of Alfred were bound each to
each, not only by their natural piety, but by the actual presence and
appeal to his heart, of all that was then in the world most noble,
beautiful, and strong against Death.

In this living Book of God he had learned to read, thus early; and
with perhaps nobler ambition than of getting the prize of a gilded
psalm-book at his mother's knee, as you are commonly told of him. What
sort of psalm-book it was, however, you may see from this leaf in my
hand. For, as his father and he returned from Rome that year, they
stayed again at the Court of Charlemagne's grandson, whose daughter,
the Princess Judith, Ethelwolf was wooing for Queen of England, (not
queen-consort, merely, but crowned queen, of authority equal to his
own.) From whom Alfred was like enough to have had a reading lesson or
two out of her father's Bible; and like enough, the little prince, to
have stayed her hand at this bright leaf of it, the Lion-leaf, bearing
the symbol of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

You cannot, of course, see anything but the glittering from where
you sit; nor even if you afterwards look at it near, will you find
a figure the least admirable or impressive to you. It is not like
Landseer's Lions in Trafalgar Square; nor like Tenniel's in 'Punch';
still less like the real ones in Regent's Park. Neither do I show it
you as admirable in any respect of art, other than that of skilfullest
illumination. I show it you, as the most interesting Gothic type of
the imagination of Lion; which, after the Roman Eagle, possessed the
minds of all European warriors; until, as they themselves grew selfish
and cruel, the symbols which at first meant heaven-sent victory, or
the strength and presence of some Divine spirit, became to them only
the signs of their own pride or rage: the victor raven of Corvus sinks
into the shamed falcon of Marmion, and the lion-heartedness which gave
the glory and the peace of the gods to Leonidas, casts the glory and
the might of kinghood to the dust before Chalus.[30]

[Footnote 30: 'Fors Clavigera,' March, 1871, p. 19. Yet read the
preceding pages, and learn the truth of the lion heart, while you
mourn its pride. Note especially his absolute law against usury.]

That death, 6th April, 1199, ended the advance of England begun
by Alfred, under the pure law of Religious Imagination. She began,
already, in the thirteenth century, to be decoratively, instead of
vitally, religious. The history of the Religious Imagination expressed
between Alfred's time and that of Cœur de Lion, in this symbol of the
Lion only, has material in it rather for all my seven lectures than
for the closing section of one; but I must briefly specify to you the
main sections of it. I will keep clear of my favourite number seven,
and ask you to recollect the meaning of only Five, Mythic Lions.

First of all, in Greek art, remember to keep yourselves clear about
the difference between the Lion and the Gorgon.

The Gorgon is the power of evil in heaven, conquered by Athena, and
thenceforward becoming her ægis, when she is herself the inflictor of
evil. Her helmet is then the helmet of Orcus.

But the Lion is the power of death on earth, conquered by Heracles,
and becoming thenceforward both his helmet and ægis. All ordinary
architectural lion sculpture is derived from the Heraclean.

Then the Christian Lions are, first, the Lion of the Tribe of
Judah - Christ Himself as Captain and Judge: "He shall rule the
nations with a rod of iron," (the opposite power of His adversary,
is rarely intended in sculpture unless in association with the
serpent - "inculcabis supra leonem et aspidem"); secondly, the Lion of
St. Mark, the power of the Gospel going out to conquest; thirdly, the
Lion of St. Jerome, the wrath of the brute creation changed into love
by the kindness of man; and, fourthly, the Lion of the Zodiac, which
is the Lion of Egypt and of the Lombardic pillar-supports in
Italy; these four, if you remember, with the Nemean Greek one, five
altogether, will give you, broadly, interpretation of nearly all
Lion symbolism in great art. How they degenerate into the British
door knocker, I leave you to determine for yourselves, with such
assistances as I may be able to suggest to you in my next lecture;
but, as the grotesqueness of human history plans it, there is actually
a connection between that last degradation of the Leonine symbol, and
its first and noblest significance.

You see there are letters round this golden Lion of Alfred's
spelling-book, which his princess friend was likely enough to spell
for him. They are two Latin hexameters: -

Hic Leo, surgendo, portas confregit Averni
Qui nunquam dormit, nusquam dormitat, in ævum.
(This Lion, rising, burst the gates of Death:
This, who sleeps not, nor shall sleep, for ever.)

Now here is the Christian change of the Heraclean conquest of Death
into Christ's Resurrection. Samson's bearing away the gates of Gaza is
another like symbol, and to the mind of Alfred, taught, whether by
the Pope Leo for his schoolmaster, or by the great-granddaughter of
Charlemagne for his schoolmistress, it represented, as it did to all
the intelligence of Christendom, Christ in His own first and last,
Alpha and Omega, description of Himself, -

"I am He that liveth and was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore,
and _have the keys_ of Hell and of Death." And in His servant St.
John's description of Him -

"Who is the Faithful Witness and the First-begotten of the dead, and
the Prince of the kings of the earth."

All this assuredly, so far as the young child, consecrated like David,
the youngest of his brethren, conceived his own new life in Earth and
Heaven, - he understood already in the Lion symbol. But of all this I
had no thought[31] when I chose the prayer of Alfred as the type of
the Religion of his era, in its dwelling, not on the deliverance from
the punishment of sin, but from the poisonous sleep and death of it.
Will you ever learn that prayer again, - youths who are to be priests,
and knights, and kings of England, in these the latter days? when
the gospel of Eternal Death is preached here in Oxford to you for the
Pride of Truth? and "the mountain of the Lord's House" has become a
Golgotha, and the "new song before the throne" sunk into the rolling
thunder of the death rattle of the Nations, crying, "O Christ, where
is Thy Victory!"

[Footnote 31: The reference to the Bible of Charles le Chauve was
added to my second lecture (page 54), in correcting the press,
mistakenly put into the text instead of the notes.]


NOTES.

1. _The Five Christmas Days_. (These were drawn out on a large and


1 2 3 4 6

Online LibraryJohn RuskinThe Pleasures of England Lectures given in Oxford → online text (page 6 of 7)