HotFreeBooks.com
Essays on Life, Art and Science
by Samuel Butler
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Dear mamma has come. We felt sure she would, and that any little misunderstandings between her and Joachim would ere long be forgotten and forgiven. They are both so good and sensible if they would only understand one another. At any rate, here she is, in high state at the right hand of the bed. She is dressed in black, for she has lost her husband some few years previously, but I do not believe a smarter, sprier old lady for her years could be found in Palestine, nor yet that either Giovanni d'Enrico or Giacomo Ferro could have conceived or executed such a character. The sacristan wanted to have it that she was not a woman at all, but was a portrait of St. Joachim, the Virgin's father. "Sembra una donna," he pleaded more than once, "ma non e donna." Surely, however, in works of art even more than in other things, there is no "is" but seeming, and if a figure seems female it must be taken as such. Besides, I asked one of the leading doctors at Varallo whether the figure was man or woman. He said it was evident I was not married, for that if I had been I should have seen at once that she was not only a woman but a mother-in-law of the first magnitude, or, as he called it, "una suocera tremenda," and this without knowing that I wanted her to be a mother-in- law myself. Unfortunately she had no real drapery, so I could not settle the question as my friend Mr. H. F. Jones and I had been able to do at Varallo with the figure of Eve that had been turned into a Roman soldier assisting at the capture of Christ. I am not, however, disposed to waste more time upon anything so obvious, and will content myself with saying that we have here the Virgin's grandmother. I had never had the pleasure, so far as I remembered, of meeting this lady before, and was glad to have an opportunity of making her acquaintance.

Tradition says that it was she who chose the Virgin's name, and if so, what a debt of gratitude do we not owe her for her judicious selection! It makes one shudder to think what might have happened if she had named the child Keren-Happuch, as poor Job's daughter was called. How could we have said, "Ave Keren-Happuch!" What would the musicians have done? I forget whether Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was a man or a woman, but there were plenty of names quite as unmanageable at the Virgin's grandmother's option, and we cannot sufficiently thank her for having chosen one that is so euphonious in every language which we need take into account. For this reason alone we should not grudge her her portrait, but we should try to draw the line here. I do not think we ought to give the Virgin's great-grandmother a statue. Where is it to end? It is like Mr. Crookes's ultimissimate atoms; we used to draw the line at ultimate atoms, and now it seems we are to go a step farther back and have ultimissimate atoms. How long, I wonder, will it be before we feel that it will be a material help to us to have ultimissimissimate atoms? Quavers stopped at demi-semi-demi, but there is no reason to suppose that either atoms or ancestresses of the Virgin will be so complacent.

I have said that on St. Anne's left hand there is a lady who is bringing in some flowers. St. Anne was always passionately fond of flowers. There is a pretty story told about her in one of the Fathers, I forget which, to the effect that when a child she was asked which she liked best—cakes or flowers? She could not yet speak plainly and lisped out, "Oh fowses, pretty fowses"; she added, however, with a sigh and as a kind of wistful corollary, "but cakes are very nice." She is not to have any cakes, just now, but as soon as she has done thanking the lady for her beautiful nosegay, she is to have a couple of nice new-laid eggs, that are being brought her by another lady. Valsesian women immediately after their confinement always have eggs beaten up with wine and sugar, and one can tell a Valsesian Birth of the Virgin from a Venetian or a Florentine by the presence of the eggs. I learned this from an eminent Valsesian professor of medicine, who told me that, though not according to received rules, the eggs never seemed to do any harm. Here they are evidently to be beaten up, for there is neither spoon nor egg-cup, and we cannot suppose that they were hard-boiled. On the other hand, in the Middle Ages Italians never used egg-cups and spoons for boiled eggs. The mediaeval boiled egg was always eaten by dipping bread into the yolk.

Behind the lady who is bringing in the eggs is the under-under-nurse who is at the fire warming a towel. In the foreground we have the regulation midwife holding the regulation baby (who, by the way, was an astonishingly fine child for only five minutes old). Then comes the under-nurse—a good buxom creature, who, as usual, is feeling the water in the bath to see that it is of the right temperature. Next to her is the head-nurse, who is arranging the cradle. Behind the head-nurse is the under-under-nurse's drudge, who is just going out upon some errands. Lastly—for by this time we have got all round the chapel—we arrive at the Virgin's grandmother's-body-guard, a stately, responsible-looking lady, standing in waiting upon her mistress. I put it to the reader—is it conceivable that St. Joachim should have been allowed in such a room at such a time, or that he should have had the courage to avail himself of the permission, even though it had been extended to him? At any rate, is it conceivable that he should have been allowed to sit on St. Anne's right hand, laying down the law with a "Marry, come up here," and a "Marry, go-down there," and a couple of such unabashed collars as the old lady has put on for the occasion?

Moreover (for I may as well demolish this mischievous confusion between St. Joachim and his mother-in-law once and for all), the merest tyro in hagiology knows that St. Joachim was not at home when the Virgin was born. He had been hustled out of the temple for having no children, and had fled desolate and dismayed into the wilderness. It shows how silly people are, for all the time he was going, if they had only waited a little, to be the father of the most remarkable person of purely human origin who had ever been born, and such a parent as this should surely not be hurried. The story is told in the frescoes of the chapel of Loreto, only a quarter of an hour's walk from Varallo, and no one can have known it better than D'Enrico. The frescoes are explained by written passages that tell us how, when Joachim was in the desert, an angel came to him in the guise of a fair, civil young gentleman, and told him the Virgin was to be born. Then, later on, the same young gentleman appeared to him again, and bade him "in God's name be comforted, and turn again to his content," for the Virgin had been actually born. On which St. Joachim, who seems to have been of opinion that marriage after all was rather a failure, said that, as things were going on so nicely without him, he would stay in the desert just a little longer, and offered up a lamb as a pretext to gain time. Perhaps he guessed about his mother-in-law, or he may have asked the angel. Of course, even in spite of such evidence as this I may be mistaken about the Virgin's grandmother's sex, and the sacristan may be right; but I can only say that if the lady sitting by St. Anne's bedside at Montrigone is the Virgin's father—well, in that case I must reconsider a good deal that I have been accustomed to believe was beyond question.

Taken singly, I suppose that none of the figures in the chapel, except the Virgin's grandmother, should be rated very highly. The under-nurse is the next best figure, and might very well be Tabachetti's, for neither Giovanni d'Enrico nor Giacomo Ferro was successful with his female characters. There is not a single really comfortable woman in any chapel by either of them on the Sacro Monte at Varallo. Tabachetti, on the other hand, delighted in women; if they were young he made them comely and engaging, if they were old he gave them dignity and individual character, and the under-nurse is much more in accordance with Tabachetti's habitual mental attitude than with D'Enrico's or Giacomo Ferro's. Still there are only four figures out of the eleven that are mere otiose supers, and taking the work as a whole it leaves a pleasant impression as being throughout naive and homely, and sometimes, which is of less importance, technically excellent.

Allowance must, of course, be made for tawdry accessories and repeated coats of shiny oleaginous paint—very disagreeable where it has peeled off and almost more so where it has not. What work could stand against such treatment as the Valsesian terra-cotta figures have had to put up with? Take the Venus of Milo; let her be done in terra-cotta, and have run, not much, but still something, in the baking; paint her pink, two oils, all over, and then varnish her—it will help to preserve the paint; glue a lot of horsehair on to her pate, half of which shall have come off, leaving the glue still showing; scrape her, not too thoroughly, get the village drawing-master to paint her again, and the drawing-master in the next provincial town to put a forest background behind her with the brightest emerald-green leaves that he can do for the money; let this painting and scraping and repainting be repeated several times over; festoon her with pink and white flowers made of tissue paper; surround her with the cheapest German imitations of the cheapest decorations that Birmingham can produce; let the night air and winter fogs get at her for three hundred years, and how easy, I wonder, will it be to see the goddess who will be still in great part there? True, in the case of the Birth of the Virgin chapel at Montrigone, there is no real hair and no fresco background, but time has had abundant opportunities without these. I will conclude my notice of this chapel by saying that on the left, above the door through which the under-under-nurse's drudge is about to pass, there is a good painted terra-cotta bust, said—but I believe on no authority—to be a portrait of Giovanni d'Enrico. Others say that the Virgin's grandmother is Giovanni d'Enrico, but this is even more absurd than supposing her to be St. Joachim.

The next chapel to the Birth of the Virgin is that of the Sposalizio. There is no figure here which suggests Tabachetti, but still there are some very good ones. The best have no taint of barocco; the man who did them, whoever he may have been, had evidently a good deal of life and go, was taking reasonable pains, and did not know too much. Where this is the case no work can fail to please. Some of the figures have real hair and some terra cotta. There is no fresco background worth mentioning. A man sitting on the steps of the altar with a book on his lap, and holding up his hand to another, who is leaning over him and talking to him, is among the best figures; some of the disappointed suitors who are breaking their wands are also very good.

The angel in the Annunciation chapel, which comes next in order, is a fine, burly, ship's-figurehead, commercial-hotel sort of being enough, but the Virgin is very ordinary. There is no real hair and no fresco background, only three dingy old blistered pictures of no interest whatever.

In the visit of Mary to Elizabeth there are three pleasing subordinate lady attendants, two to the left and one to the right of the principal figures; but these figures themselves are not satisfactory. There is no fresco background. Some of the figures have real hair and some terra cotta.

In the Circumcision and Purification chapel—for both these events seem contemplated in the one that follows—there are doves, but there is neither dog nor knife. Still Simeon, who has the infant Saviour in his arms, is looking at him in a way which can only mean that, knife or no knife, the matter is not going to end here. At Varallo they have now got a dreadful knife for the Circumcision chapel. They had none last winter. What they have now got would do very well to kill a bullock with, but could not be used professionally with safety for any animal smaller than a rhinoceros. I imagine that some one was sent to Novara to buy a knife, and that, thinking it was for the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, he got the biggest he could see. Then when he brought it back people said "chow" several times, and put it upon the table and went away.

Returning to Montrigone, the Simeon is an excellent figure, and the Virgin is fairly good, but the prophetess Anna, who stands just behind her, is by far the most interesting in the group, and is alone enough to make me feel sure that Tabachetti gave more or less help here, as he had done years before at Orta. She, too, like the Virgin's grandmother, is a widow lady, and wears collars of a cut that seems to have prevailed ever since the Virgin was born some twenty years previously. There is a largeness and simplicity of treatment about the figure to which none but an artist of the highest rank can reach, and D'Enrico was not more than a second or third-rate man. The hood is like Handel's Truth sailing upon the broad wings of Time, a prophetic strain that nothing but the old experience of a great poet can reach. The lips of the prophetess are for the moment closed, but she has been prophesying all the morning, and the people round the wall in the background are in ecstasies at the lucidity with which she has explained all sorts of difficulties that they had never been able to understand till now. They are putting their forefingers on their thumbs and their thumbs on their forefingers, and saying how clearly they see it all and what a wonderful woman Anna is. A prophet indeed is not generally without honour save in his own country, but then a country is generally not without honour save with its own prophet, and Anna has been glorifying her country rather than reviling it. Besides, the rule may not have applied to prophetesses.

The Death of the Virgin is the last of the six chapels inside the church itself. The Apostles, who of course are present, have all of them real hair, but, if I may say so, they want a wash and a brush-up so very badly that I cannot feel any confidence in writing about them. I should say that, take them all round, they are a good average sample of apostle as apostles generally go. Two or three of them are nervously anxious to find appropriate quotations in books that lie open before them, which they are searching with eager haste; but I do not see one figure about which I should like to say positively that it is either good or bad. There is a good bust of a man, matching the one in the Birth of the Virgin chapel, which is said to be a portrait of Giovanni d'Enrico, but it is not known whom it represents.

Outside the church, in three contiguous cells that form part of the foundations, are:—

1. A dead Christ, the head of which is very impressive while the rest of the figure is poor. I examined the treatment of the hair, which is terra- cotta, and compared it with all other like hair in the chapels above described; I could find nothing like it, and think it most likely that Giacomo Ferro did the figure, and got Tabachetti to do the head, or that they brought the head from some unused figure by Tabachetti at Varallo, for I know no other artist of the time and neighbourhood who could have done it.

2. A Magdalene in the desert. The desert is a little coal-cellar of an arch, containing a skull and a profusion of pink and white paper bouquets, the two largest of which the Magdalene is hugging while she is saying her prayers. She is a very self-sufficient lady, who we may be sure will not stay in the desert a day longer than she can help, and while there will flirt even with the skull if she can find nothing better to flirt with. I cannot think that her repentance is as yet genuine, and as for her praying there is no object in her doing so, for she does not want anything.

3. In the next desert there is a very beautiful figure of St. John the Baptist kneeling and looking upwards. This figure puzzles me more than any other at Montrigone; it appears to be of the fifteenth rather than the sixteenth century; it hardly reminds me of Gaudenzio, and still less of any other Valsesian artist. It is a work of unusual beauty, but I can form no idea as to its authorship.

I wrote the foregoing pages in the church at Montrigone itself, having brought my camp-stool with me. It was Sunday; the church was open all day, but there was no mass said, and hardly any one came. The sacristan was a kind, gentle, little old man, who let me do whatever I wanted. He sat on the doorstep of the main door, mending vestments, and to this end was cutting up a fine piece of figured silk from one to two hundred years old, which, if I could have got it, for half its value, I should much like to have bought. I sat in the cool of the church while he sat in the doorway, which was still in shadow, snipping and snipping, and then sewing, I am sure with admirable neatness. He made a charming picture, with the arched portico over his head, the green grass and low church wall behind him, and then a lovely landscape of wood and pasture and valleys and hillside. Every now and then he would come and chirrup about Joachim, for he was pained and shocked at my having said that his Joachim was some one else and not Joachim at all. I said I was very sorry, but I was afraid the figure was a woman. He asked me what he was to do. He had known it, man and boy, this sixty years, and had always shown it as St. Joachim; he had never heard any one but myself question his ascription, and could not suddenly change his mind about it at the bidding of a stranger. At the same time he felt it was a very serious thing to continue showing it as the Virgin's father if it was really her grandmother. I told him I thought this was a case for his spiritual director, and that if he felt uncomfortable about it he should consult his parish priest and do as he was told.

On leaving Montrigone, with a pleasant sense of having made acquaintance with a new and, in many respects, interesting work, I could not get the sacristan and our difference of opinion out of my head. What, I asked myself, are the differences that unhappily divide Christendom, and what are those that divide Christendom from modern schools of thought, but a seeing of Joachims as the Virgin's grandmothers on a larger scale? True, we cannot call figures Joachim when we know perfectly well that they are nothing of the kind; but I registered a vow that henceforward when I called Joachims the Virgin's grandmothers I would bear more in mind than I have perhaps always hitherto done, how hard it is for those who have been taught to see them as Joachims to think of them as something different. I trust that I have not been unfaithful to this vow in the preceding article. If the reader differs from me, let me ask him to remember how hard it is for one who has got a figure well into his head as the Virgin's grandmother to see it as Joachim.



A MEDIEVAL GIRL SCHOOL {8}

This last summer I revisited Oropa, near Biella, to see what connection I could find between the Oropa chapels and those at Varallo. I will take this opportunity of describing the chapels at Oropa, and more especially the remarkable fossil, or petrified girl school, commonly known as the Dimora, or Sojourn of the Virgin Mary in the Temple.

If I do not take these works so seriously as the reader may expect, let me beg him, before he blames me, to go to Oropa and see the originals for himself. Have the good people of Oropa themselves taken them very seriously? Are we in an atmosphere where we need be at much pains to speak with bated breath? We, as is well known, love to take even our pleasures sadly; the Italians take even their sadness allegramente, and combine devotion with amusement in a manner that we shall do well to study if not imitate. For this best agrees with what we gather to have been the custom of Christ himself, who, indeed, never speaks of austerity but to condemn it. If Christianity is to be a living faith, it must penetrate a man's whole life, so that he can no more rid himself of it than he can of his flesh and bones or of his breathing. The Christianity that can be taken up and laid down as if it were a watch or a book is Christianity in name only. The true Christian can no more part from Christ in mirth than in sorrow. And, after all, what is the essence of Christianity? What is the kernel of the nut? Surely common sense and cheerfulness, with unflinching opposition to the charlatanisms and Pharisaisms of a man's own times. The essence of Christianity lies neither in dogma, nor yet in abnormally holy life, but in faith in an unseen world, in doing one's duty, in speaking the truth, in finding the true life rather in others than in oneself, and in the certain hope that he who loses his life on these behalfs finds more than he has lost. What can Agnosticism do against such Christianity as this? I should be shocked if anything I had ever written or shall ever write should seem to make light of these things. I should be shocked also if I did not know how to be amused with things that amiable people obviously intended to be amusing.

The reader may need to be reminded that Oropa is among the somewhat infrequent sanctuaries at which the Madonna and infant Christ are not white, but black. I shall return to this peculiarity of Oropa later on, but will leave it for the present. For the general characteristics of the place I must refer the reader to my book, "Alps and Sanctuaries." {9} I propose to confine myself here to the ten or a dozen chapels containing life-sized terra-cotta figures, painted up to nature, that form one of the main features of the place. At a first glance, perhaps, all these chapels will seem uninteresting; I venture to think, however, that some, if not most of them, though falling a good deal short of the best work at Varallo and Crea, are still in their own way of considerable importance. The first chapel with which we need concern ourselves is numbered 4, and shows the Conception of the Virgin Mary. It represents St. Anne as kneeling before a terrific dragon or, as the Italians call it, "insect," about the size of a Crystal Palace pleiosaur. This "insect" is supposed to have just had its head badly crushed by St. Anne, who seems to be begging its pardon. The text "Ipsa conteret caput tuum" is written outside the chapel. The figures have no artistic interest. As regards dragons being called insects, the reader may perhaps remember that the island of S. Giulio, in the Lago d'Orta, was infested with insetti, which S. Giulio destroyed, and which appear, in a fresco underneath the church on the island, to have been monstrous and ferocious dragons; but I cannot remember whether their bodies are divided into three sections, and whether or no they have exactly six legs—without which, I am told, they cannot be true insects.

The fifth chapel represents the birth of the Virgin. Having obtained permission to go inside it, I found the date 1715 cut large and deep on the back of one figure before baking, and I imagine that this date covers the whole. There is a Queen Anne feeling throughout the composition, and if we were told that the sculptor and Francis Bird, sculptor of the statue in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, had studied under the same master, we could very well believe it. The apartment in which the Virgin was born is spacious, and in striking contrast to the one in which she herself gave birth to the Redeemer. St. Anne occupies the centre of the composition, in an enormous bed; on her right there is a lady of the George Cruikshank style of beauty, and on the left an older person. Both are gesticulating and impressing upon St. Anne the enormous obligation she has just conferred upon mankind; they seem also to be imploring her not to overtax her strength, but, strange to say, they are giving her neither flowers nor anything to eat and drink. I know no other birth of the Virgin in which St. Anne wants so little keeping up.

I have explained in my book "Ex Voto," {10} but should perhaps repeat here, that the distinguishing characteristic of the Birth of the Virgin, as rendered by Valsesian artists, is that St. Anne always has eggs immediately after the infant is born, and usually a good deal more, whereas the Madonna never has anything to eat or drink. The eggs are in accordance with a custom that still prevails among the peasant classes in the Valsesia, where women on giving birth to a child generally are given a sabaglione—an egg beaten up with a little wine, or rum, and sugar. East of Milan the Virgin's mother does not have eggs, and I suppose, from the absence of the eggs at Oropa, that the custom above referred to does not prevail in the Biellese district. The Virgin also is invariably washed. St. John the Baptist, when he is born at all, which is not very often, is also washed; but I have not observed that St. Elizabeth has anything like the attention paid her that is given to St. Anne. What, however, is wanting here at Oropa in meat and drink is made up in Cupids; they swarm like flies on the walls, clouds, cornices, and capitals of columns.

Against the right-hand wall are two lady-helps, each warming a towel at a glowing fire, to be ready against the baby should come out of its bath; while in the right-hand foreground we have the levatrice, who having discharged her task, and being now so disposed, has removed the bottle from the chimney-piece, and put it near some bread, fruit and a chicken, over which she is about to discuss the confinement with two other gossips. The levatrice is a very characteristic figure, but the best in the chapel is the one of the head nurse, near the middle of the composition; she has now the infant in full charge, and is showing it to St. Joachim, with an expression as though she were telling him that her husband was a merry man. I am afraid Shakespeare was dead before the sculptor was born, otherwise I should have felt certain that he had drawn Juliet's nurse from this figure. As for the little Virgin herself, I believe her to be a fine boy of about ten months old. Viewing the work as a whole, if I only felt more sure what artistic merit really is, I should say that, though the chapel cannot be rated very highly from some standpoints, there are others from which it may be praised warmly enough. It is innocent of anatomy-worship, free from affectation or swagger, and not devoid of a good deal of homely naivete. It can no more be compared with Tabachetti or Donatello than Hogarth can with Rembrandt or Giovanni Bellini; but as it does not transcend the limitations of its age, so neither is it wanting in whatever merits that age possessed; and there is no age without merits of some kind. There is no inscription saying who made the figures, but tradition gives them to Pietro Aureggio Termine, of Biella, commonly called Aureggio. This is confirmed by their strong resemblance to those in the Dimora Chapel, in which there is an inscription that names Aureggio as the sculptor.

The sixth chapel deals with the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. The Virgin is very small, but it must be remembered that she is only seven years old, and she is not nearly so small as she is at Crea, where, though a life-sized figure is intended, the head is hardly bigger than an apple. She is rushing up the steps with open arms towards the High Priest, who is standing at the top. For her it is nothing alarming; it is the High Priest who appears frightened; but it will all come right in time. The Virgin seems to be saying, "Why, don't you know me? I'm the Virgin Mary." But the High Priest does not feel so sure about that, and will make further inquiries. The scene, which comprises some twenty figures, is animated enough, and though it hardly kindles enthusiasm, still does not fail to please. It looks as though of somewhat older date than the Birth of the Virgin chapel, and I should say shows more signs of direct Valsesian influence. In Marocco's book about Oropa it is ascribed to Aureggio, but I find it difficult to accept this.

The seventh, and in many respects most interesting chapel at Oropa, shows what is in reality a medieval Italian girl school, as nearly like the thing itself as the artist could make it; we are expected, however, to see in this the high-class kind of Girton College for young gentlewomen that was attached to the Temple at Jerusalem, under the direction of the Chief Priest's wife, or some one of his near female relatives. Here all well-to-do Jewish young women completed their education, and here accordingly we find the Virgin, whose parents desired she should shine in every accomplishment, and enjoy all the advantages their ample means commanded.

I have met with no traces of the Virgin during the years between her Presentation in the Temple and her becoming head girl at Temple College. These years, we may be assured, can hardly have been other than eventful; but incidents, or bits of life, are like living forms—it is only here and here, as by rare chance, that one of them gets arrested and fossilised; the greater number disappear like the greater number of antediluvian molluscs, and no one can say why one of these flies, as it were, of life should get preserved in amber more than another. Talk, indeed, about luck and cunning; what a grain of sand as against a hundredweight is cunning's share here as against luck's. What moment could be more humdrum and unworthy of special record than the one chosen by the artist for the chapel we are considering? Why should this one get arrested in its flight and made immortal when so many worthier ones have perished? Yet preserved it assuredly is; it is as though some fairy's wand had struck the medieval Miss Pinkerton, Amelia Sedley, and others who do duty instead of the Hebrew originals. It has locked them up as sleeping beauties, whose charms all may look upon. Surely the hours are like the women grinding at the mill—the one is taken and the other left, and none can give the reason more than he can say why Gallio should have won immortality by caring for none of "these things."

It seems to me, moreover, that fairies have changed their practice now in the matter of sleeping beauties, much as shopkeepers have done in Regent Street. Formerly the shopkeeper used to shut up his goods behind strong shutters, so that no one might see them after closing hours. Now he leaves everything open to the eye and turns the gas on. So the fairies, who used to lock up their sleeping beauties in impenetrable thickets, now leave them in the most public places they can find, as knowing that they will there most certainly escape notice. Look at De Hooghe; look at "The Pilgrim's Progress," or even Shakespeare himself—how long they slept unawakened, though they were in broad daylight and on the public thoroughfares all the time. Look at Tabachetti, and the masterpieces he left at Varallo. His figures there are exposed to the gaze of every passer-by; yet who heeds them? Who, save a very few, even know of their existence? Look again at Gaudenzio Ferrari, or the "Danse des Paysans," by Holbein, to which I ventured to call attention in the Universal Review. No, no; if a thing be in Central Africa, it is the glory of this age to find it out; so the fairies think it safer to conceal their proteges under a show of openness; for the schoolmaster is much abroad, and there is no hedge so thick or so thorny as the dulness of culture.

It may be, again, that ever so many years hence, when Mr. Darwin's earth- worms shall have buried Oropa hundreds of feet deep, some one sinking a well or making a railway-cutting will unearth these chapels, and will believe them to have been houses, and to contain the exuviae of the living forms that tenanted them. In the meantime, however, let us return to a consideration of the chapel as it may now be seen by any one who cares to pass that way.

The work consists of about forty figures in all, not counting Cupids, and is divided into four main divisions. First, there is the large public sitting-room or drawing-room of the College, where the elder young ladies are engaged in various elegant employments. Three, at a table to the left, are making a mitre for the Bishop, as may be seen from the model on the table. Some are merely spinning or about to spin. One young lady, sitting rather apart from the others, is doing an elaborate piece of needlework at a tambour-frame near the window; others are making lace or slippers, probably for the new curate; another is struggling with a letter, or perhaps a theme, which seems to be giving her a good deal of trouble, but which, when done, will, I am sure, be beautiful. One dear little girl is simply reading "Paul and Virginia" underneath the window, and is so concealed that I hardly think she can be seen from the outside at all, though from inside she is delightful; it was with great regret that I could not get her into any photograph. One most amiable young woman has got a child's head on her lap, the child having played itself to sleep. All are industriously and agreeably employed in some way or other; all are plump; all are nice looking; there is not one Becky Sharp in the whole school; on the contrary, as in "Pious Orgies," all is pious—or sub-pious—and all, if not great, is at least eminently respectable. One feels that St. Joachim and St. Anne could not have chosen a school more judiciously, and that if one had daughter oneself this is exactly where one would wish to place her. If there is a fault of any kind in the arrangements, it is that they do not keep cats enough. The place is overrun with mice, though what these can find to eat I know not. It occurs to me also that the young ladies might be kept a little more free of spiders' webs; but in all these chapels, bats, mice and spiders are troublesome.

Off the main drawing-room on the side facing the window there is a dais, which is approached by a large raised semicircular step, higher than the rest of the floor, but lower than the dais itself. The dais is, of course, reserved for the venerable Lady Principal and the under-mistresses, one of whom, by the way, is a little more mondaine than might have been expected, and is admiring herself in a looking-glass—unless, indeed, she is only looking to see if there is a spot of ink on her face. The Lady Principal is seated near a table, on which lie some books in expensive bindings, which I imagine to have been presented to her by the parents of pupils who were leaving school. One has given her a photographic album; another a large scrap-book, for illustrations of all kinds; a third volume has red edges, and is presumably of a devotional character. If I dared venture another criticism, I should say it would be better not to keep the ink-pot on the top of these books. The Lady Principal is being read to by the monitress for the week, whose duty it was to recite selected passages from the most approved Hebrew writers; she appears to be a good deal outraged, possibly at the faulty intonation of the reader, which she has long tried vainly to correct; or perhaps she has been hearing of the atrocious way in which her forefathers had treated the prophets, and is explaining to the young ladies how impossible it would be, in their own more enlightened age, for a prophet to fail of recognition.

On the half-dais, as I suppose the large semicircular step between the main room and the dais should be called, we find, first, the monitress for the week, who stands up while she recites; and secondly, the Virgin herself, who is the only pupil allowed a seat so near to the august presence of the Lady Principal. She is ostensibly doing a piece of embroidery which is stretched on a cushion on her lap, but I should say that she was chiefly interested in the nearest of four pretty little Cupids, who are all trying to attract her attention, though they pay no court to any other young lady. I have sometimes wondered whether the obviously scandalised gesture of the Lady Principal might not be directed at these Cupids, rather than at anything the monitress may have been reading, for she would surely find them disquieting. Or she may be saying, "Why, bless me! I do declare the Virgin has got another hamper, and St. Anne's cakes are always so terribly rich!" Certainly the hamper is there, close to the Virgin, and the Lady Principal's action may be well directed at it, but it may have been sent to some other young lady, and be put on the sub-dais for public exhibition. It looks as if it might have come from Fortnum and Mason's, and I half expected to find a label, addressing it to "The Virgin Mary, Temple College, Jerusalem," but if ever there was one the mice have long since eaten it. The Virgin herself does not seem to care much about it, but if she has a fault it is that she is generally a little apathetic.

Whose the hamper was, however, is a point we shall never now certainly determine, for the best fossil is worse than the worst living form. Why, alas! was not Mr. Edison alive when this chapel was made? We might then have had a daily phonographic recital of the conversation, and an announcement might be put outside the chapels, telling us at what hours the figures would speak.

On either of side the main room there are two annexes opening out from it; these are reserved chiefly for the younger children, some of whom, I think, are little boys. In the left-hand annex, behind the ladies who are making a mitre, there is a child who has got a cake, and another has some fruit—possibly given them by the Virgin—and a third child is begging for some of it. The light failed so completely here that I was not able to photograph any of these figures. It was a dull September afternoon, and the clouds had settled thick round the chapel, which is never very light, and is nearly 4000 feet above the sea. I waited till such twilight as made it hopeless that more detail could be got—and a queer ghostly place enough it was to wait in—but after giving the plate an exposure of fifty minutes, I saw I could get no more, and desisted.

These long photographic exposures have the advantage that one is compelled to study a work in detail through mere lack of other employment, and that one can take one's notes in peace without being tempted to hurry over them; but even so I continually find I have omitted to note, and have clean forgotten, much that I want later on.

In the other annex there are also one or two younger children, but it seems to have been set apart for conversation and relaxation more than any other part of the establishment.

I have already said that the work is signed by an inscription inside the chapel, to the effect that the sculptures are by Pietro Aureggio Termine di Biella. It will be seen that the young ladies are exceedingly like one another, and that the artist aimed at nothing more than a faithful rendering of the life of his own times. Let us be thankful that he aimed at nothing less. Perhaps his wife kept a girls' school; or he may have had a large family of fat, good-natured daughters, whose little ways he had studied attentively; at all events the work is full of spontaneous incident, and cannot fail to become more and more interesting as the age it renders falls farther back into the past. It is to be regretted that many artists, better known men, have not been satisfied with the humbler ambitions of this most amiable and interesting sculptor. If he has left us no laboured life-studies, he has at least done something for us which we can find nowhere else, which we should be very sorry not to have, and the fidelity of which to Italian life at the beginning of the last century will not be disputed.

The eighth chapel is that of the Sposalizio, is certainly not by Aureggio, and I should say was mainly by the same sculptor who did the Presentation in the Temple. On going inside I found the figures had come from more than one source; some of them are constructed so absolutely on Valsesian principles, as regards technique, that it may be assumed they came from Varallo. Each of these last figures is in three pieces, that are baked separately and cemented together afterwards, hence they are more easily transported; no more clay is used than is absolutely necessary; and the off-side of the figure is neglected; they will be found chiefly, if not entirely, at the top of the steps. The other figures are more solidly built, and do not remind me in their business features of anything in the Valsesia. There was a sculptor, Francesco Sala, of Locarno (doubtless the village a short distance below Varallo, and not the Locarno on the Lago Maggiore), who made designs for some of the Oropa chapels, and some of whose letters are still preserved, but whether the Valsesian figures in this present work are by him or not I cannot say.

The statues are twenty-five in number; I could find no date or signature; the work reminds me of Montrigone; several of the figures are not at all bad, and several have horsehair for hair, as at Varallo. The effect of the whole composition is better than we have a right to expect from any sculpture dating from the beginning of the last century.

The ninth chapel, the Annunciation, presents no feature of interest; nor yet does the tenth, the Visit of Mary to Elizabeth. The eleventh, the Nativity, though rather better, is still not remarkable.

The twelfth, the Purification, is absurdly bad, but I do not know whether the expression of strong personal dislike to the Virgin which the High Priest wears is intended as prophetic, or whether it is the result of incompetence, or whether it is merely a smile gone wrong in the baking. It is amusing to find Marocco, who has not been strict about archaeological accuracy hitherto, complain here that there is an anachronism, inasmuch as some young ecclesiastics are dressed as they would be at present, and one of them actually carries a wax candle. This is not as it should be; in works like those at Oropa, where implicit reliance is justly placed on the earnest endeavours that have been so successfully made to thoroughly and carefully and patiently ensure the accuracy of the minutest details, it is a pity that even a single error should have escaped detection; this, however, has most unfortunately happened here, and Marocco feels it his duty to put us on our guard. He explains that the mistake arose from the sculptor's having taken both his general arrangement and his details from some picture of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, when the value of the strictest historical accuracy was not yet so fully understood.

It seems to me that in the matter of accuracy, priests and men of science whether lay or regular on the one hand, and plain people whether lay or regular on the other, are trying to play a different game, and fail to understand one another because they do not see that their objects are not the same. The cleric and the man of science (who is only the cleric in his latest development) are trying to develop a throat with two distinct passages—one that shall refuse to pass even the smallest gnat, and another that shall gracefully gulp even the largest camel; whereas we men of the street desire but one throat, and are content that this shall swallow nothing bigger than a pony. Every one knows that there is no such effectual means of developing the power to swallow camels as incessant watchfulness for opportunities of straining at gnats, and this should explain many passages that puzzle us in the work both of our clerics and our scientists. I, not being a man of science, still continue to do what I said I did in "Alps and Sanctuaries," and make it a rule to earnestly and patiently and carefully swallow a few of the smallest gnats I can find several times a day, as the best astringent for the throat I know of.

The thirteenth chapel is the Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee. This is the best chapel as a work of art; indeed, it is the only one which can claim to be taken quite seriously. Not that all the figures are very good; those to the left of the composition are commonplace enough; nor are the Christ and the giver of the feast at all remarkable; but the ten or dozen figures of guests and attendants at the right-hand end of the work are as good as anything of their kind can be, and remind me so strongly of Tabachetti that I cannot doubt they were done by some one who was indirectly influenced by that great sculptor's work. It is not likely that Tabachetti was alive long after 1640, by which time he would have been about eighty years old; and the foundations of this chapel were not laid till about 1690; the statues are probably a few years later; they can hardly, therefore, be by one who had even studied under Tabachetti; but until I found out the dates, and went inside the chapel to see the way in which the figures had been constructed, I was inclined to think they might be by Tabachetti himself, of whom, indeed, they are not unworthy. On examining the figures I found them more heavily constructed than Tabachetti's are, with smaller holes for taking out superfluous clay, and more finished on the off-sides. Marocco says the sculptor is not known. I looked in vain for any date or signature. Possibly the right-hand figures (for the left-hand ones can hardly be by the same hand) may be by some sculptor from Crea, which is at no very great distance from Oropa, who was penetrated by Tabachetti's influence; but whether as regards action and concert with one another, or as regards excellence in detail, I do not see how anything can be more realistic, and yet more harmoniously composed. The placing of the musicians in a minstrels' gallery helps the effect; these musicians are six in number, and the other figures are twenty-three. Under the table, between Christ and the giver of the feast, there is a cat.

The fourteenth chapel, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is without interest.

The fifteenth, the Coronation of the Virgin, contains forty-six angels, twenty-six cherubs, fifty-six saints, the Holy Trinity, the Madonna herself, and twenty-four innocents, making 156 statues in all. Of these I am afraid there is not one of more than ordinary merit; the most interesting is a half-length nude life-study of Disma—the good thief. After what had been promised him it was impossible to exclude him, but it was felt that a half-length nude figure would be as much as he could reasonably expect.

Behind the sanctuary there is a semi-ruinous and wholly valueless work, which shows the finding of the black image, which is now in the church, but is only shown on great festivals.

This leads us to a consideration that I have delayed till now. The black image is the central feature of Oropa; it is the raison d'etre of the whole place, and all else is a mere incrustation, so to speak, around it. According to this image, then, which was carved by St. Luke himself, and than which nothing can be better authenticated, both the Madonna and the infant Christ were as black as anything can be conceived. It is not likely that they were as black as they have been painted; no one yet ever was so black as that; yet, even allowing for some exaggeration on St. Luke's part, they must have been exceedingly black if the portrait is to be accepted; and uncompromisingly black they accordingly are on most of the wayside chapels for many a mile around Oropa. Yet in the chapels we have been hitherto considering—works in which, as we know, the most punctilious regard has been shown to accuracy—both the Virgin and Christ are uncompromisingly white. As in the shops under the Colonnade where devotional knick-knacks are sold, you can buy a black china image or a white one, whichever you like; so with the pictures—the black and white are placed side by side—pagando il danaro si puo scegliere. It rests not with history or with the Church to say whether the Madonna and Child were black or white, but you may settle it for yourself, whichever way you please, or rather you are required, with the acquiescence of the Church, to hold that they were both black and white at one and the same time.

It cannot be maintained that the Church leaves the matter undecided, and by tolerating both types proclaims the question an open one, for she acquiesces in the portrait by St. Luke as genuine. How, then, justify the whiteness of the Holy Family in the chapels? If the portrait is not known as genuine, why set such a stumbling-block in our paths as to show us a black Madonna and a white one, both as historically accurate, within a few yards of one another?

I ask this not in mockery, but as knowing that the Church must have an explanation to give, if she would only give it, and as myself unable to find any, even the most farfetched, that can bring what we see at Oropa, Loreto and elsewhere into harmony with modern conscience, either intellectual or ethical.

I see, indeed, from an interesting article in the Atlantic Monthly for September 1889, entitled "The Black Madonna of Loreto," that black Madonnas were so frequent in ancient Christian art that "some of the early writers of the Church felt obliged to account for it by explaining that the Virgin was of a very dark complexion, as might be proved by the verse of Canticles which says, 'I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.' Others maintained that she became black during her sojourn in Egypt. . . . Priests, of to-day, say that extreme age and exposure to the smoke of countless altar-candles have caused that change in complexion which the more naive fathers of the Church attributed to the power of an Egyptian sun"; but the writer ruthlessly disposes of this supposition by pointing out that in nearly all the instances of black Madonnas it is the flesh alone that is entirely black, the crimson of the lips, the white of the eyes, and the draperies having preserved their original colour. The authoress of the article (Mrs. Hilliard) goes on to tell us that Pausanias mentions two statues of the black Venus, and says that the oldest statue of Ceres among the Phigalenses was black. She adds that Minerva Aglaurus, the daughter of Cecrops, at Athens, was black; that Corinth had a black Venus, as also the Thespians; that the oracles of Dodona and Delphi were founded by black doves, the emissaries of Venus, and that the Isis Multimammia in the Capitol at Rome is black.

Sometimes I have asked myself whether the Church does not intend to suggest that the whole story falls outside the domain of history, and is to be held as the one great epos, or myth, common to all mankind; adaptable by each nation according to its own several needs; translatable, so to speak, into the facts of each individual nation, as the written word is translatable into its language, but appertaining to the realm of the imagination rather than to that of the understanding, and precious for spiritual rather than literal truths. More briefly, I have wondered whether she may not intend that such details as whether the Virgin was white or black are of very little importance in comparison with the basing of ethics on a story that shall appeal to black races as well as to white ones.

If so, it is time we were made to understand this more clearly. If the Church, whether of Rome or England, would lean to some such view as this—tainted though it be with mysticism—if we could see either great branch of the Church make a frank, authoritative attempt to bring its teaching into greater harmony with the educated understanding and conscience of the time, instead of trying to fetter that understanding with bonds that gall it daily more and more profoundly; then I, for one, in view of the difficulty and graciousness of the task, and in view of the great importance of historical continuity, would gladly sink much of my own private opinion as to the value of the Christian ideal, and would gratefully help either Church or both, according to the best of my very feeble ability. On these terms, indeed, I could swallow not a few camels myself cheerfully enough.

Can we, however, see any signs as though either Rome or England will stir hand or foot to meet us? Can any step be pointed to as though either Church wished to make things easier for men holding the opinions held by the late Mr. Darwin, or by Mr. Herbert Spencer and Professor Huxley? How can those who accept evolution with any thoroughness accept such doctrines as the Incarnation or the Redemption with any but a quasi-allegorical and poetical interpretation? Can we conceivably accept these doctrines in the literal sense in which the Church advances them? And can the leaders of the Church be blind to the resistlessness of the current that has set against those literal interpretations which she seems to hug more and more closely the more religious life is awakened at all? The clergyman is wanted as supplementing the doctor and the lawyer in all civilised communities; these three keep watch on one another, and prevent one another from becoming too powerful. I, who distrust the doctrinaire in science even more than the doctrinaire in religion, should view with dismay the abolition of the Church of England, as knowing that a blatant bastard science would instantly step into her shoes; but if some such deplorable consummation is to be avoided in England, it can only be through more evident leaning on the part of our clergy to such an interpretation of the Sacred History as the presence of a black and white Madonna almost side by side at Oropa appears to suggest.

I fear that in these last paragraphs I may have trenched on dangerous ground, but it is not possible to go to such places as Oropa without asking oneself what they mean and involve. As for the average Italian pilgrims, they do not appear to give the matter so much as a thought. They love Oropa, and flock to it in thousands during the summer; the President of the Administration assured me that they lodged, after a fashion, as many as ten thousand pilgrims on the 15th of last August. It is astonishing how living the statues are to these people, and how the wicked are upbraided and the good applauded. At Varallo, since I took the photographs I published in my book "Ex Voto," an angry pilgrim has smashed the nose of the dwarf in Tabachetti's Journey to Calvary, for no other reason than inability to restrain his indignation against one who was helping to inflict pain on Christ. It is the real hair and the painting up to nature that does this. Here at Oropa I found a paper on the floor of the Sposalizio Chapel, which ran as follows:—

"By the grace of God and the will of the administrative chapter of this sanctuary, there have come here to work —- —-, mason —- —-, carpenter, and —- —- plumber, all of Chiavazza, on the twenty-first day of January 1886, full of cold (pieni di freddo).

"They write these two lines to record their visit. They pray the Blessed Virgin that she will maintain them safe and sound from everything equivocal that may befall them (sempre sani e salvi da ogni equivoco li possa accadere). Oh, farewell! We reverently salute all the present statues, and especially the Blessed Virgin, and the reader."

Through the Universal Review, I suppose, all its readers are to consider themselves saluted; at any rate, these good fellows, in the effusiveness of their hearts, actually wrote the above in pencil. I was sorely tempted to steal it, but, after copying it, left it in the Chief Priest's hands instead.



ART IN THE VALLEY OF SAAS {11}

Having been told by Mr. Fortescue, of the British Museum, that there were some chapels at Saas-Fee which bore analogy to those at Varallo, described in my book "Ex Voto," {12} I went to Saas during this last summer, and venture now to lay my conclusions before the reader.

The chapels are fifteen in number, and lead up to a larger and singularly graceful one, rather more than half-way between Saas and Saas-Fee. This is commonly but wrongly called the chapel of St. Joseph, for it is dedicated to the Virgin, and its situation is of such extreme beauty—the great Fee glaciers showing through the open portico—that it is in itself worth a pilgrimage. It is surrounded by noble larches and overhung by rock; in front of the portico there is a small open space covered with grass, and a huge larch, the stem of which is girt by a rude stone seat. The portico itself contains seats for worshippers, and a pulpit from which the preacher's voice can reach the many who must stand outside. The walls of the inner chapel are hung with votive pictures, some of them very quaint and pleasing, and not overweighted by those qualities that are usually dubbed by the name of artistic merit. Innumerable wooden and waxen representations of arms, legs, eyes, ears and babies tell of the cures that have been effected during two centuries of devotion, and can hardly fail to awaken a kindly sympathy with the long dead and forgotten folks who placed them where they are.

The main interest, however, despite the extreme loveliness of the St. Mary's Chapel, centres rather in the small and outwardly unimportant oratories (if they should be so called) that lead up to it. These begin immediately with the ascent from the level ground on which the village of Saas-im-Grund is placed, and contain scenes in the history of the Redemption, represented by rude but spirited wooden figures, each about two feet high, painted, gilt, and rendered as life-like in all respects as circumstances would permit. The figures have suffered a good deal from neglect, and are still not a little misplaced. With the assistance, however, of the Rev. E. J. Selwyn, English Chaplain at Saas-im-Grund, I have been able to replace many of them in their original positions, as indicated by the parts of the figures that are left rough-hewn and unpainted. They vary a good deal in interest, and can be easily sneered at by those who make a trade of sneering. Those, on the other hand, who remain unsophisticated by overmuch art-culture will find them full of character in spite of not a little rudeness of execution, and will be surprised at coming across such works in a place so remote from any art- centre as Saas must have been at the time these chapels were made. It will be my business therefore to throw what light I can upon the questions how they came to be made at all, and who was the artist who designed them.

The only documentary evidence consists in a chronicle of the valley of Saas written in the early years of this century by the Rev. Peter Jos. Ruppen, and published at Sion in 1851. This work makes frequent reference to a manuscript by the Rev. Peter Joseph Clemens Lommatter, cure of Saas-Fee from 1738 to 1751, which has unfortunately been lost, so that we have no means of knowing how closely it was adhered to. The Rev. Jos. Ant. Ruppen, the present excellent cure of Saas-im-Grund, assures me that there is no reference to the Saas-Fee oratories in the "Actes de l'Eglise" at Saas, which I understand go a long way back; but I have not seen these myself. Practically, then, we have no more documentary evidence than is to be found in the published chronicle above referred to.

We there find it stated that the large chapel, commonly, but as above explained, wrongly called St. Joseph's, was built in 1687, and enlarged by subscription in 1747. These dates appear on the building itself, and are no doubt accurate. The writer adds that there was no actual edifice on this site before the one now existing was built, but there was a miraculous picture of the Virgin placed in a mural niche, before which the pious herdsmen and devout inhabitants of the valley worshipped under the vault of heaven. {13} A miraculous (or miracle-working) picture was always more or less rare and important; the present site, therefore, seems to have been long one of peculiar sanctity. Possibly the name Fee may point to still earlier Pagan mysteries on the same site.

As regards the fifteen small chapels, the writer says they illustrate the fifteen mysteries of the Psalter, and were built in 1709, each householder of the Saas-Fee contributing one chapel. He adds that Heinrich Andenmatten, afterwards a brother of the Society of Jesus, was an especial benefactor or promoter of the undertaking. One of the chapels, the Ascension (No. 12 of the series), has the date 1709 painted on it; but there is no date on any other chapel, and there seems no reason why this should be taken as governing the whole series.

Over and above this, there exists in Saas a tradition, as I was told immediately on my arrival, by an English visitor, that the chapels were built in consequence of a flood, but I have vainly endeavoured to trace this story to an indigenous source.

The internal evidence of the wooden figures themselves—nothing analogous to which, it should be remembered, can be found in the chapel of 1687—points to a much earlier date. I have met with no school of sculpture belonging to the early part of the eighteenth century to which they can be plausibly assigned; and the supposition that they are the work of some unknown local genius who was not led up to and left no successors may be dismissed, for the work is too scholarly to have come from any one but a trained sculptor. I refer of course to those figures which the artist must be supposed to have executed with his own hand, as, for example, the central figure of the Crucifixion group and those of the Magdalene and St. John. The greater number of the figures were probably, as was suggested to me by Mr. Ranshaw, of Lowth, executed by a local woodcarver from models in clay and wax furnished by the artist himself. Those who examine the play of line in the hair, mantle, and sleeve of the Magdalene in the Crucifixion group, and contrast it with the greater part of the remaining draperies, will find little hesitation in concluding that this was the case, and will ere long readily distinguish the two hands from which the figures have mainly come. I say "mainly," because there is at least one other sculptor who may well have belonged to the year 1709, but who fortunately has left us little. Examples of his work may perhaps be seen in the nearest villain with a big hat in the Flagellation chapel, and in two cherubs in the Assumption of the Virgin.

We may say, then, with some certainty, that the designer was a cultivated and practised artist. We may also not less certainly conclude that he was of Flemish origin, for the horses in the Journey to Calvary and Crucifixion chapels, where alone there are any horses at all, are of Flemish breed, with no trace of the Arab blood adopted by Gaudenzio at Varallo. The character, moreover, of the villains is Northern—of the Quentin Matsys, Martin Schongauer type, rather than Italian; the same sub- Rubensesque feeling which is apparent in more than one chapel at Varallo is not less evident here—especially in the Journey to Calvary and Crucifixion chapels. There can hardly, therefore, be a doubt that the artist was a Fleming who had worked for several years in Italy.

It is also evident that he had Tabachetti's work at Varallo well in his mind. For not only does he adopt certain details of costume (I refer particularly to the treatment of soldiers' tunics) which are peculiar to Tabachetti at Varallo, but whenever he treats a subject which Tabachetti had treated at Varallo, as in the Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns, and Journey to Calvary chapels, the work at Saas is evidently nothing but a somewhat modified abridgement of that at Varallo. When, however, as in the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and other chapels, the work at Varallo is by another than Tabachetti, no allusion is made to it. The Saas artist has Tabachetti's Varallo work at his finger-ends, but betrays no acquaintance whatever with Gaudenzio Ferrari, Gio. Ant. Paracca, or Giovanni D'Enrico.

Even, moreover, when Tabachetti's work at Varallo is being most obviously drawn from, as in the Journey to Calvary chapel, the Saas version differs materially from that at Varallo, and is in some respects an improvement on it. The idea of showing other horsemen and followers coming up from behind, whose heads can be seen over the crown of the interposing hill, is singularly effective as suggesting a number of others that are unseen, nor can I conceive that any one but the original designer would follow Tabachetti's Varallo design with as much closeness as it has been followed here, and yet make such a brilliantly successful modification. The stumbling, again, of one horse (a detail almost hidden, according to Tabachetti's wont) is a touch which Tabachetti himself might add, but which no Saas woodcarver who was merely adapting from a reminiscence of Tabachetti's Varallo chapel would be likely to introduce. These considerations have convinced me that the designer of the chapels at Saas is none other than Tabachetti himself, who, as has been now conclusively shown, was a native of Dinant, in Belgium.

The Saas chronicler, indeed, avers that the chapels were not built till 1709—a statement apparently corroborated by a date now visible on one chapel; but we must remember that the chronicler did not write until a century or so later than 1709, and though, indeed, his statement may have been taken from the lost earlier manuscript of 1738, we know nothing about this either one way or the other. The writer may have gone by the still existing 1709 on the Ascension chapel, whereas this date may in fact have referred to a restoration, and not to an original construction. There is nothing, as I have said, in the choice of the chapel on which the date appears, to suggest that it was intended to govern the others. I have explained that the work is isolated and exotic. It is by one in whom Flemish and Italian influences are alike equally predominant; by one who was saturated with Tabachetti's Varallo work, and who can improve upon it, but over whom the other Varallo sculptors have no power. The style of the work is of the sixteenth and not of the eighteenth century—with a few obvious exceptions that suit the year 1709 exceedingly well. Against such considerations as these, a statement made at the beginning of this century referring to a century earlier, and a promiscuous date upon one chapel, can carry but little weight. I shall assume, therefore, henceforward, that we have here groups designed in a plastic material by Tabachetti, and reproduced in wood by the best local wood-sculptor available, with the exception of a few figures cut by the artist himself.

We ask, then, at what period in his life did Tabachetti design these chapels, and what led to his coming to such an out-of-the-way place as Saas at all? We should remember that, according both to Fassola and Torrotti (writing in 1671 and 1686 respectively), Tabachetti {14} became insane about the year 1586 or early in 1587, after having just begun the Salutation chapel. I have explained in "Ex Voto" that I do not believe this story. I have no doubt that Tabachetti was declared to be mad, but I believe this to have been due to an intrigue, set on foot in order to get a foreign artist out of the way, and to secure the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, at that precise time undertaken, for Gio. Ant. Paracca, who was an Italian.

Or he may have been sacrificed in order to facilitate the return of the workers in stucco whom he had superseded on the Sacro Monte. He may have been goaded into some imprudence which was seized upon as a pretext for shutting him up; at any rate, the fact that when in 1587 he inherited his father's property at Dinant, his trustee (he being expressly stated to be "expatrie") was "datif," "dativus," appointed not by himself but by the court, lends colour to the statement that he was not his own master at the time; for in later kindred deeds, now at Namur, he appoints his own trustee. I suppose, then, that Tabachetti was shut up in a madhouse at Varallo for a considerable time, during which I can find no trace of him, but that eventually he escaped or was released.

Whether he was a fugitive, or whether he was let out from prison, he would in either case, in all reasonable probability, turn his face homeward. If he was escaping, he would make immediately for the Savoy frontier, within which Saas then lay. He would cross the Baranca above Fobello, coming down on to Ponte Grande in the Val Anzasca. He would go up the Val Anzasca to Macugnaga, and over the Monte Moro, which would bring him immediately to Saas. Saas, therefore, is the nearest and most natural place for him to make for, if he were flying from Varallo, and here I suppose him to have halted.

It so happened that on the 9th of September, 1589, there was one of the three great outbreaks of the Mattmark See that have from time to time devastated the valley of Saas. {15} It is probable that the chapels were decided upon in consequence of some grace shown by the miraculous picture of the Virgin, which had mitigated a disaster occurring so soon after the anniversary of her own Nativity. Tabachetti, arriving at this juncture, may have offered to undertake them if the Saas people would give him an asylum. Here, at any rate, I suppose him to have stayed till some time in 1590, probably the second half of it, his design of eventually returning home, if he ever entertained it, being then interrupted by a summons to Crea near Casale, where I believe him to have worked with a few brief interruptions thenceforward for little if at all short of half a century, or until about the year 1640. I admit, however, that the evidence for assigning him so long a life rests solely on the supposed identity of the figure known as "Il Vecchietto," in the Varallo Descent from the Cross chapel, with the portrait of Tabachetti himself in the Ecce Homo chapel, also at Varallo.

I find additional reason for thinking the chapels owe their origin to the inundation of September 9, 1589, in the fact that the 8th of September is made a day of pilgrimage to the Saas-Fee chapels throughout the whole valley of Saas. It is true the 8th of September is the festival of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, so that under any circumstances this would be a great day, but the fact that not only the people of Saas, but the whole valley down to Visp, flock to this chapel on the 8th of September, points to the belief that some special act of grace on the part of the Virgin was vouchsafed on this day in connection with this chapel. A belief that it was owing to the intervention of St. Mary of Fee that the inundation was not attended with loss of life would be very likely to lead to the foundation of a series of chapels leading up to the place where her miraculous picture was placed, and to the more special celebration of her Nativity in connection with this spot throughout the valley of Saas. I have discussed the subject with the Rev. Jos. Ant. Ruppen, and he told me he thought the fact that the great fete of the year in connection with the Saas-Fee chapels was on the 8th of September pointed rather strongly to the supposition that there was a connection between these and the recorded flood of September 9, 1589.

Turning to the individual chapels they are as follows:—

1. The Annunciation. The treatment here presents no more analogy to that of the same subject at Varallo than is inevitable in the nature of the subject. The Annunciation figures at Varallo have proved to be mere draped dummies with wooden heads; Tabachetti, even though he did the heads, which he very likely did, would take no interest in the Varallo work with the same subject. The Annunciation, from its very simplicity as well as from the transcendental nature of the subject, is singularly hard to treat, and the work here, whatever it may once have been, is now no longer remarkable.

2. The Salutation of Mary by Elizabeth. This group, again, bears no analogy to the Salutation chapel at Varallo, in which Tabachetti's share was so small that it cannot be considered as in any way his. It is not to be expected, therefore, that the Saas chapel should follow the Varallo one. The figures, four in number, are pleasing and well arranged. St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and St. Zacharias are all talking at once. The Virgin is alone silent.

3. The Nativity is much damaged and hard to see. The treatment bears no analogy to that adopted by Gaudenzio Ferrari at Varallo. There is one pleasing young shepherd standing against the wall, but some figures have no doubt (as in others of the chapels) disappeared, and those that remain have been so shifted from their original positions that very little idea can be formed of what the group was like when Tabachetti left it.

4. The Purification. I can hardly say why this chapel should remind me, as it does, of the Circumcision chapel at Varallo, for there are more figures here than space at Varallo will allow. It cannot be pretended that any single figure is of extraordinary merit, but amongst them they tell their story with excellent effect. Two, those of St. Joseph and St. Anna (?), that doubtless were once more important factors in the drama, are now so much in corners near the window that they can hardly be seen.

5. The Dispute in the Temple. This subject is not treated at Varallo. Here at Saas there are only six doctors now; whether or no there were originally more cannot be determined.

6. The Agony in the Garden. Tabachetti had no chapel with this subject at Varallo, and there is no resemblance between the Saas chapel and that by D'Enrico. The figures are no doubt approximately in their original positions, but I have no confidence that I have rearranged them correctly. They were in such confusion when I first saw them that the Rev. E. J. Selwyn and myself determined to rearrange them. They have doubtless been shifted more than once since Tabachetti left them. The sleeping figures are all good. St. James is perhaps a little prosaic. One Roman soldier who is coming into the garden with a lantern, and motioning silence with his hand, does duty for the others that are to follow him. I should think more than one of these figures is actually carved in wood by Tabachetti, allowance being made for the fact that he was working in a material with which he was not familiar, and which no sculptor of the highest rank has ever found congenial.

7. The Flagellation. Tabachetti has a chapel with this subject at Varallo, and the Saas group is obviously a descent with modification from his work there. The figure of Christ is so like the one at Varallo that I think it must have been carved by Tabachetti himself. The man with the hooked nose, who at Varallo is stooping to bind his rods, is here upright: it was probably the intention to emphasise him in the succeeding scenes as well as this, in the same way as he has been emphasised at Varallo, but his nose got pared down in the cutting of later scenes, and could not easily be added to. The man binding Christ to the column at Varallo is repeated (longo intervallo) here, and the whole work is one inspired by that at Varallo, though no single figure except that of the Christ is adhered to with any very great closeness. I think the nearer malefactor, with a goitre, and wearing a large black hat, is either an addition of the year 1709, or was done by the journeyman of the local sculptor who carved the greater number of the figures. The man stooping down to bind his rods can hardly be by the same hand as either of the two black-hatted malefactors, but it is impossible to speak with certainty. The general effect of the chapel is excellent, if we consider the material in which it is executed, and the rudeness of the audience to whom it addresses itself.

8. The Crowning with Thorns. Here again the inspiration is derived from Tabachetti's Crowning with Thorns at Varallo. The Christs in the two chapels are strikingly alike, and the general effect is that of a residuary impression left in the mind of one who had known the Varallo Flagellation exceedingly well.

9. Sta. Veronica. This and the next succeeding chapels are the most important of the series. Tabachetti's Journey to Calvary at Varallo is again the source from which the present work was taken, but, as I have already said, it has been modified in reproduction. Mount Calvary is still shown, as at Varallo, towards the left-hand corner of the work, but at Saas it is more towards the middle than at Varallo, so that horsemen and soldiers may be seen coming up behind it—a stroke that deserves the name of genius none the less for the manifest imperfection with which it has been carried into execution. There are only three horses fully shown, and one partly shown. They are all of the heavy Flemish type adopted by Tabachetti at Varallo. The man kicking the fallen Christ and the goitred man (with the same teeth missing), who are so conspicuous in the Varallo Journey to Calvary, reappear here, only the kicking man has much less nose than at Varallo, probably because (as explained) the nose got whittled away and could not be whittled back again. I observe that the kind of lapelled tunic which Tabachetti, and only Tabachetti, adopts at Varallo, is adopted for the centurion in this chapel, and indeed throughout the Saas chapels this particular form of tunic is the most usual for a Roman soldier. The work is still a very striking one, notwithstanding its translation into wood and the decay into which it has been allowed to fall; nor can it fail to impress the visitor who is familiar with this class of art as coming from a man of extraordinary dramatic power and command over the almost impossible art of composing many figures together effectively in all-round sculpture. Whether all the figures are even now as Tabachetti left them I cannot determine, but Mr. Selwyn has restored Simon the Cyrenian to the position in which he obviously ought to stand, and between us we have got the chapel into something more like order.

10. The Crucifixion. This subject was treated at Varallo not by Tabachetti but by Gaudenzio Ferrari. It confirms therefore my opinion as to the designer of the Saas chapels to find in them no trace of the Varallo Crucifixion, while the kind of tunic which at Varallo is only found in chapels wherein Tabachetti worked again appears here. The work is in a deplorable state of decay. Mr. Selwyn has greatly improved the arrangement of the figures, but even now they are not, I imagine, quite as Tabachetti left them. The figure of Christ is greatly better in technical execution than that of either of the two thieves; the folds of the drapery alone will show this even to an unpractised eye. I do not think there can be a doubt but that Tabachetti cut this figure himself, as also those of the Magdalene and St. John, who stand at the foot of the cross. The thieves are coarsely executed, with no very obvious distinction between the penitent and the impenitent one, except that there is a fiend painted on the ceiling over the impenitent thief. The one horse introduced into the composition is again of the heavy Flemish type adopted by Tabachetti at Varallo. There is great difference in the care with which the folds on the several draperies have been cut, some being stiff and poor enough, while others are done very sufficiently. In spite of smallness of scale, ignoble material, disarrangement and decay, the work is still striking.

11. The Resurrection. There being no chapel at Varallo with any of the remaining subjects treated at Saas, the sculptor has struck out a line for himself. The Christ in the Resurrection Chapel is a carefully modelled figure, and if better painted might not be ineffective. Three soldiers, one sleeping, alone remain. There were probably other figures that have been lost. The sleeping soldier is very pleasing.

12. The Ascension is not remarkably interesting; the Christ appears to be, but perhaps is not, a much more modern figure than the rest.

18. The Descent of the Holy Ghost. Some of the figures along the end wall are very good, and were, I should imagine, cut by Tabachetti himself. Those against the two side walls are not so well cut.

14. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The two large cherubs here are obviously by a later hand, and the small ones are not good. The figure of the Virgin herself is unexceptionable. There were doubtless once other figures of the Apostles which have disappeared; of these a single St. Peter (?), so hidden away in a corner near the window that it can only be seen with difficulty, is the sole survivor.

15. The Coronation of the Virgin is of later date, and has probably superseded an earlier work. It can hardly be by the designer of the other chapels of the series. Perhaps Tabachetti had to leave for Crea before all the chapels at Saas were finished.

Lastly, we have the larger chapel dedicated to St. Mary, which crowns the series. Here there is nothing of more than common artistic interest, unless we except the stone altar mentioned in Ruppen's chronicle. This is of course classical in style, and is, I should think, very good.

Once more I must caution the reader against expecting to find highly-finished gems of art in the chapels I have been describing. A wooden figure not more than two feet high clogged with many coats of paint can hardly claim to be taken very seriously, and even those few that were cut by Tabachetti himself were not meant to have attention concentrated on themselves alone. As mere wood-carving the Saas-Fee chapels will not stand comparison, for example, with the triptych of unknown authorship in the Church of St. Anne at Gliss, close to Brieg. But, in the first place, the work at Gliss is worthy of Holbein himself: I know no wood-carving that can so rivet the attention; moreover it is coloured with water-colour and not oil, so that it is tinted, not painted; and, in the second place, the Gliss triptych belongs to a date (1519) when artists held neither time nor impressionism as objects, and hence, though greatly better than the Saas-Fee chapels as regards a certain Japanese curiousness of finish and naivete of literal transcription, it cannot even enter the lists with the Saas work as regards elan and dramatic effectiveness. The difference between the two classes of work is much that between, say, John Van Eyck or Memling and Rubens or Rembrandt, or, again, between Giovanni Bellini and Tintoretto; the aims of the one class of work are incompatible with those of the other. Moreover, in the Gliss triptych the intention of the designer is carried out (whether by himself or no) with admirable skill; whereas at Saas the wisdom of the workman is rather of Ober-Ammergau than of the Egyptians, and the voice of the poet is not a little drowned in that of his mouthpiece. If, however, the reader will bear in mind these somewhat obvious considerations, and will also remember the pathetic circumstances under which the chapels were designed—for Tabachetti when he reached Saas was no doubt shattered in body and mind by his four years' imprisonment—he will probably be not less attracted to them than I observed were many of the visitors both at Saas-Grund and Saas-Fee with whom I had the pleasure of examining them.

I will now run briefly through the other principal works in the neighbourhood to which I think the reader would be glad to have his attention directed.

At Saas-Fee itself the main altar-piece is without interest, as also one with a figure of St. Sebastian. The Virgin and Child above the remaining altar are, so far as I remember them, very good, and greatly superior to the smaller figures of the same altar-piece.

At Almagel, an hour's walk or so above Saas-Grund—a village, the name of which, like those of the Alphubel, the Monte Moro, and more than one other neighbouring site, is supposed to be of Saracenic origin—the main altar-piece represents a female saint with folded arms being beheaded by a vigorous man to the left. These two figures are very good. There are two somewhat inferior elders to the right, and the composition is crowned by the Assumption of the Virgin. I like the work, but have no idea who did it. Two bishops flanking the composition are not so good. There are two other altars in the church: the right-hand one has some pleasing figures, not so the left-hand.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse