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AMONG the quaint superstitions that surround the popular legend of the Middle Ages, there is none more distorted and baseless than that this was a period gray, miserable and morose, and chiefly characterized by priestly tyranny, civil oppression, abysmal ignorance and a deplorably low state of culture. It is a matter of faith that in all respects any comparison between the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, inclusive, and the subsequent Renaissance, shows the former period in a most unfavourable light, while there is no comparison whatever between the same and our own era of enlightenment under the beneficent influence of technological civilization.
Mr. Bridaham has made a book which ought to dispel at least one of these amusing "errors of mortal mind" and that is that the Middle Ages were centuries of gloom. His pictures should do more, revealing as they do the artistic sense, the creative inspiration and the technical mastery of the quite illiterate craftsmen of the time, points in which they far excel the workmen of today, even though the latter may have had the benefit of a complete public school education, are free of election to any political office however high (which they frequently fill) and are possessed of a radio, a motor car and the electoral franchise. Some of these sculptures in stone and wood are better as art than could be produced today by more than the smallest minority of professional sculptors with the best of Paris training behind them, yet none of their fabricators could read, none had any training except as an apprentice in a stoneyard, and all of them subsisted, and manifestly were sufficiently happy, on a wage that today would be considered the pittance of a pauper.
This by the way. The real point is that these "gargoyles, chimères and grotesques" gathered by Mr. Bridaham from every part of France, demonstrate that whatever else they may have lacked, the Middle Ages were a time when fun was "fast and furious," certainly in no respect behind our own day, the chief difference being that then it expressed itself in more comely and withal more really amusing ways than through the "comic strips," the radio humourists and the other dramatic outlets for contemporary joy in life.
Just because they were a sincerely religious people and involved in the sacraments, services and practises of their religion from the day of birth to that of death—and after—it is assumed that this must have knocked all the gaiety out of life and that they must have been sad, terror-struck and morose. Now so far as the people as a whole were concerned, and apart from a very few ascetics whose fancy took this turn, the reverse was the case and it was not until the sixteenth century that this degradation of the religious impulse took on such a peculiar form, finding its culmination in Calvinism and Puritanism. This was partly due to the fact that then for the first time, and as a result of the peculiar doctrines then evolved, religion and life began to separate, falling into two quite distinct categories, marked by six days in the week on the one hand, and one day—Sunday—on the other. In the Middle Ages religion was a natural and a companionable and a familiar thing, laughter was not averse from it, nor was joking, even sometimes of rather a broad sort, out of the question in relation to what we should consider "serious matters." Hence churches, as these pictures show, broke out into delightful gaiety here and there under the hands of high spirited or waggish workmen, and they, and the religion they expressed, were the better for the wholesome sense of life.
It takes a fertile imagination to be really funny, but this imagination that gives these old grotesques such vivid life, was not always humourous in its nature. It was an imaginative age and men were fancying all sorts of fantastic things in the face of a world that was (and still is for that matter) so baffling in its ways and generally incomprehensible. As the Greeks peopled air and water, fields and woods with myriad mysterious little creatures and strange personifications, so did the Mediaeval man, and he took the greatest joy in working out their semblances in stone and wood. This book is a sort of "Bestiary" of apocryphal beasts as well as a sculptured satire on the very common foibles of fellowmen, whether clerical or secular.
As is of course well known, during the Middle Ages every stonemason who had passed from being an apprentice and become a journeyman, worked out his own ideas in his carving. He was, in a sense, an independent artist and he was free to do pretty much what he liked. Today every piece of carved ornament of any sort has to be made in an architects office, the modeller following the full sized detailing as well as he can, the carver copying the model with all the exactness possible. Indeed, it is not seldom that all he has to do is to direct a pneumatic tool. This is one reason why it is so hard to get Gothic vitality into the revived Gothic architecture, also incidentally, why so much labour is an irksome task instead of a creative joy. These gargoyles and grotesques show very plainly the complete freedom under which the old craftsmen worked and the immense originality and variety that were the result. Here are hundreds of spontaneous creations, each as individual as possible, and not only this but many of them show a brilliancy of space composition and a fineness of line that would not shame a great sculptor. Craftsmen these, but also creative artists.
Sacheverel Sitwell has recently in "The Gothick North" shown new and veritable aspects of Mediaevalism through the minor arts of the time, rather than through the cathedrals and great sculptures that usually are chosen as the avenues of revelation. In the same way, by means of these "unimportant" gargoyles, chimères and grotesques, Mr. Bridaham has cast an added light on a great but, until recently, much misunderstood and maligned epoch; a light that, if you will, pierces deeper into the soul of the time than the surface of artistic beauty which was its invariable accompaniment.
RALPH ADAMS CRAM.
Excerpted from The Gargoyle Book by Lester Burbank Bridaham. Copyright © 2006 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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