We have the shreds and tatters of treasures hoarded in our museums but of the power that could make them we have nothing. More than nine thousand years ago, there flourished in the valley of the Nile a school of free sculpture with a genius surpassing ours, the proof of it preserved by a single figure or so. And then there came in Egypt, two thousand years after, another art, that of Karnak and the Ramisseum, with a scale and style that to us are equally unattainable. On the horizon of Babylonian civilization are said to loom two widely separated periods of Art the earliest represented by a few fragments, the later by a room or two in National Museums. In comparison with such ancient arts, the Hellenistic is near to us, and we speak of Greek art as the most perfect that the world has known. Professors fill books with the philosophy of its aspirations, scholars tabulate its progressions, and the tradition of its style, so our sculptors tell us, is to be the beacon for all time. But is there now any warmth thereby for the masses of London or New York? Can they be truly said to catch even a glimpse of its shining?
Gothic art may come close to achieving this goal; as it is wholly native to western culture. May we not then raise our superstructure of Art to greater heights upon its eminence? Can we not at least share in its glory, copy what is left us, and appropriate its crown? Fifty years ago, the hope was an eager one in the enthusiasm of our Gothic revival. Yet what has actually come of our endeavor this last half century? We have now, as then, perishing masses of Gothic fabric, but where is the color of Gothic painting, the life of Gothic sculpture, and the manifold mysteries of Gothic texture? This story is a sad one. To find out its secrets, we have laid our ancient art on the dissecting table, have stripped it to the bone, and made a vain effort to put new flesh to the old skeleton. Such autopsies of Greek art have had great impact on contemporary art. But what can be said of the Gothic influence?
Western Europe, up to the middle of the sixteenth century, might be called a treasure house, filled with gems of Gothic genius. The desecrations and revolutions of two centuries swept Gothic churches clear of their ornaments, and then leveled to the ground many of the fabrics which they furnished. Of much that was not actually destroyed, carelessness and neglect, and the necessities of rebuilding have since caused equal havoc. Yet at the beginning of this new millenium, enough remains to arouse immense admiration of the art that had given to the world such masterpieces. But this admiration has given us no art of our own it seems, indeed, it has only served to have blinded our reason. A strange perversity has attended the efforts of the “revival,” so that it has finally been more deadly to what it admired, than the fires of revolution, or the neglects due to classicism. While Gothic utterance was limited a century ago, it still spoke clear and true. But now well into the 21st century, under the name of “restoration,” we lack wholesale any gothic sentiment. Through a well-intentioned but misguided process of substitution, we have turned our churches and cathedrals into caricatures, instead of the institutions of Gothic inspiration they were intended and rightfully ought to be.
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