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Legendary and Early Christian Art

Our knowledge of ancient types of womanhood is scant because of the lack of written records and ignorance, in those days, of art expression. Communications were oral, handed down as tradition from generation to generation. In process of years such traditions became embellished more or less. Facts were doubtless foundations for what we would call fiction, till a fact became a legend, a story for the preservation of the fact, and to unfold a lesson—the primitive method of teaching. Then, too, there were long centuries that give us no record concerning the development of the race. But man's pathway, through plans and purposes of the Eternal, has led to a hill from whence we may look forward through a glass darkly, and far back through the mists of time.

B. C.

Stand here, upon this hill of Palestine,
Where once stood shepherds keeping watch by night;
Upon each fear-fraught face the starlight shone.
Its growing splendor piercing this world's dark.
In yonder manger lay the infant Christ,
A helpless miracle of God in life;
Light of the world was He, and is, and shall
Be till the end. Stand here, for in the light
That radiates from Him, the Bethlehem Babe,
We scan the ages of a bygone time
That circles the development of man.

This brings us to the epoch of, and reason for, early Christian art, for it is the foundation of all art expression through mediaeval, renaissance, and modern centuries. There are three reasons for that early art production. First, it was a dire necessity. Symbols were used by the early Christians who were hunted and persecuted at Rome to furnish fiendish pleasure for a depraved pagan populace, hunted for death in the arena, or worse, the converts to the new religion of the Christ were driven to hide in the Clochia or the Catacombs outside the city walls. To communicate their names, whereabouts, or approaching danger they formed a code of symbols. In time those figured signs elaborated into legends, till the Apostles and Evangelists appeared in pictures accompanied by their sign; Matthew, for instance, was known by a cherub, Mark by a lion, Luke's sign the ox, John's the eagle, and so on. Such symbols have not been easy to understand in our day, but rather difficult, as Chaucer's English, requiring close study.

The second reason for the slow unfolding of early art was the lack of books. The ignorance of the common people of those centuries would have been yet more dire but for the pictured legend and story. Such was a powerful means of teaching the youth; it gripped heart and mind.

The art that first represented the legends of Saints Agnes and Ursula must have been crude in form and perspective, but it preached unselfishness, purity, helpfulness, and other virtues needful for development of character in young womanhood. The pictures were not altogether beautiful, not perfect in drawing, but they pointed out the weeds of the heart to be plucked by the roots and destroyed. Art, character, the idea and perception of beauty were all crude in early years; were it not so these pages would not be written. It is of deep interest and help to trace development in womankind; the purifying of heart, broadening of mental vision and understanding as shown in various forms of art.

The Renaissance period really was born out of the mediaeval centuries; the legends and influence of early Christian teaching, going on through the Dark Ages almost unnoticed, furnished incentive and motifs for the world's most renowned painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, giving striking examples of the evolution of art.

"Saint Barbara," by Palma Vecchio, represents for us the evolution of an idea. She was the patron saint of armorers and fortifications, an armed Pallas of ancient mythology of the far east grafted onto an early legend of a Christian martyr, and in the fifteenth century appeared as a motif for a dozen or more of the Renaissance painters, because to the mind she was a picturesque character and in the religious sense she was a martyr; to men at arms she was a divinity, to young girls and women she was an example and patron saint. To appreciate her value to various minds we will note a few interesting points in the legend, with thanks to Mrs. Jameson for her preservation of ancient legends. It gives one trend of the spread of the Christian religion.

About the year 300 A. D.—so the legend runs—a certain rich nobleman of Heliopolis had a daughter famed for her beauty. To keep her to himself he imprisoned her in a high tower where no man could see her and ask her in marriage. From her lofty window the virtuous maid looked over valley and plain, mountain, river, and sky. The fathomless depths of blue, that night after night by beckoning stars taught her the idea of knowledge, lifted the thoughts of the young girl, till her soul acknowledged, as did the Greeks in the days of Paul, "an unknown God."

Surely the idols of wood and stone worshiped by her father and mother could not have made the heavens that compelled her gaze and her reverence. Hearing of a saintly man in Alexandria who expounded the fact and teaching of such a God as nature told her of, she wrote to him, sending the letter by the hand of a trusted messenger, who brought in reply a letter from one of the great leaders of the new faith, Origin; and through the teaching of one of his disciples Barbara accepted the love and faith of the Christ, and became a baptized Christian.

Legend now embellishes the seeming facts. When her father returned from an absence he was furious that his daughter had become a Christian, and attempted to kill her. But by angels she was wrapped from his view and carried to a distance. Some shepherds pointed to her hiding place, from which her father dragged her, and shut her in a dungeon. In short, she was tormented for a long time, after which her cruel parent cut off her head.

In this legend we have the new, the spiritual element in the development of woman. All the paintings of Santa Barbara are represented with the tower of her imprisonment, a crown of spikes, a sword, arms or armor, and always the palm of peace. Palma Veccho put on canvas his ideal of the woman whose character warranted the legend, portraying her with dignity, poise, and serenity, as a product of Christian virtues blooming like a flower in the desert of paganism.

Whatever of truth is in the legend will last, while the fiction that has been added will fall away as dead leaves or calyx that have encased a lovely flower.

We of today look to the prophetic, literary, and artistic merits of such a character, but may never know the full spiritual influence of Santa Barbara's story on millions in those mediaeval times, who had no books and scant teaching.

Let us not forget that Barbara and her legend were of the third century, and that Palma and others painted idealized pictures of her twelve hundred years later. That means thirty-six generations for the Christianizing and developing of the race. Hence models for fifteenth century painters were far in advance of her time.

True, the Dark Ages intervened, so we will consider a woman of that period; the period that followed centuries of wars, that saw Greece broken and pillaged by Rome; that saw the cross on the imperial standard of Rome, and Christianity declared the religion of the Empire.

That was the century in which Santa Barbara was supposed to have lived. But the influence of the Great Constantine did not continue to help Christianity, for as his worldly success extended he returned to the old pagan rites and sacrifices. The flame of Christianity flickered through oncoming centuries, but did not go out.

Another story, historical as to time, awakens a woman's interest in Theodora of the Byzantine world. She belongs in a sense to a semi-pagan people, influenced somewhat by principles of the new religion at that time beginning to be felt.

The seed-sowing and germinating may well be likened to the parable of the sower, for some fell among thorns and brambles, some by the wayside, others into good ground, springing up and bringing forth an hundred fold.

From a street dancer to an actress were the steps that led Theodora to the throne of the Roman world, as Empress beside the Emperor Justinian. A law had to be revoked to permit his marriage with an actress. A Byzantine by birth, she surrounded herself as empress with all the sparkle and glitter of gems and the richest of fabrics. Being of the people she was popular with the people, and her influence with her husband was great. They purposely took opposite sides in discussions of politics and religious subjects.

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant, French painter of queens, has supplemented history with a beautiful painting of that mediaeval empress. Again we have one man's ideal of a queen and an epoch.

In deep richness of tones he has contrasted the greens of her outer robe of velvet with the warm, pearl-like marble of her imperial throne. The paneled hall is of green marble; her robe is the palest of blue satin embroidered with silver and gold, and studded with gems, notably with large emeralds, while a huge diamond on her left hand fairly dazzles in the shadow. The green and blue are blended by the lining of pearl-green of the velvet robe. The warmth of sunlight and depth of shadow on the rich materials lend a magnificent orientalism to the canvas, and as the eye turns from the throne, the dazzle of her eyes, her gems, and the deep softness of colors go with one. The one note of contrast is the handful of creamy-pink roses dropped on the marble at her feet. It is the accidental note that brings out the full harmony of the color scheme. Her face is expressionless save for the far-away hard look of the eyes. As a work of art it is a masterpiece in pigment, texture, and technique, a type of woman that passed with the Byzantine power.

The painters of the Renaissance were students of the scriptures, of history,
Woman in Art - Empress Theodora.png


Jean Benjamin Constant

no less than of nature. Their art has kept alive many a legend and spiritual truth, that even a reading world of recent times has well-nigh lost sight of.

Raphael was an idealist or he could never have painted the prodigious number of Madonnas and Saints that have given honor and fame to his name. The story of Saint Margaret lived as a legend through many centuries, coming from pagan Greece to the heart of the Renaissance and its most illustrious painter.

Raphael's ideal of Saint Margaret stands for the soulful art of that great artist; it stands for innocence, purity, and the faith and peace that fears no evil; on his canvas hers is the sweetest and purest face known in art.

Maid Margaret was the daughter of a priest of Antioch. Being a delicate child she was sent to be nursed by a woman in the country. The woman was secretly a Christian and brought up Margaret in the true faith. The artist has personified evil by the loathsome dragon that would crush virtue, but the power of love and faith have triumphed, and the evil that had surrounded her has burst asunder; and like a liberated soul, the maid steps up and out of his power.

Not only did the centuries of the Renaissance awaken the mind of man in the field of art, discovery, science, and literature, as arteries toward a higher civilization, but the Christ-spirit was awakening a new life wherever unselfishness permitted.

While artists worked from models, yet they painted more or less of their own spirit and ideals into their pictures.

Another of the greatest painters of the world represents this growth of ideals and spirituality. The "Immaculate Conception," by Murillo, is a gem of spiritual idealism. The Virgin is spiritually above the earth; even amid the clouds her gaze is heavenward, rapt with the wonder of the heavenly message. Her poise, with one foot on the crescent moon, signifies the rapport of soul—she is in a transport in the realm of spirit. The background is vibrant with cherubs. That ideal of the Virgin could not have been painted five hundred years before Murillo put it on canvas. Mind and soul had not reached that stage of development. It could not be painted today, five hundred years after Murillo ceased to work, for materialism and impressionism are not the instruments for soul-expression. Like begets like, spirit impresses spirit, and the spiritual dominated Murillo.

Influence is the unspoken language of the invisible man; it is spirit.

Elements of love and truth were enlarging as new powers in the life of woman, and ethics taught by St. Paul were doing emancipating work, enlightening the darkness that has been her portion for ages. In writing of legendary art, Mrs. Jameson says this: "If those who consider works of art would be content to regard them not merely as pretty pictures, nor yet as repudiated idols, but as lovely allegories to which the world listened in its dreamy childhood, like the ballad or fairy tale which kept sleep from our eyes and our breath suspended in infancy, they would still have a charm for our later years."

They would indeed derive much pleasure, and a lesson or two, from pictures they now pass with indifference and a certain amount of ignorance.

Saint Catherine of mediaeval legend was supposed to be the daughter of a half brother of Constantine, and her mother the royal princess of Alexandria. As their only daughter, Catherine, was a paragon of learning, she was much sought in marriage. At the age of fifteen the death of her father brought her to the throne, and her subjects desired her to marry. But she would have only perfection in the man whom she would accept as her husband.

We have all heard the old saying, "Perfection never visited the earth but once, and then envy crucified Him."

Catherine's realm was pagan, but there were Christians also in Alexandria and her learning extended to their religion. The legend says the Virgin Mary sent a message to the queen saying that her Son was the perfect one for her espousal. The queen was converted, baptized, and in a dream or vision was betrothed as shown in the pictures of her. "The Marriage of St. Catherine," by Correggio, and one given by Andrea del Sarto (called the faultless painter by his contemporaries), are the most harmonious presentations of that patroness of learning. Del Sarto's composition, drawing, and color seem all that could be desired. Certainly the happiness in all the faces is in harmony with the occasion. The legend is long and interesting, even to her cruel martyrdom. Young girls and women were guided by her into avenues of learning open to them in those times, and were inspired to religous devotion.

We of fifteen centuries later know that learning is rarely phenomenal, but is acquired by application and will. The legend, the pictures, and even the name Catherine have been potential in developing character, in holding the mind to a standard, and as an example in refinement—all as encouragements to the young. There are fifty-three churches in England named for this woman, as representing religious faith and Christian love.