Ivan Meštrović


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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983, – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.

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I think that scarcely any artist who is capable of understanding Michelangelo can be satisfied with any of the biographies devoted to him. Despite all the respect shown to him by all who have written about him, we artists always have the feeling that his work is not displayed in its real greatness: he is greater and more complicated than any of these books would suggest. We have however no idea of depreciating the admirable work of many who have written studies of the great Italian. But just as with all great work there is much pain and effort in the process of creation, so it is to a somewhat lesser degree in the case of great men, when their work comes to be interpreted. It certainly seems to me that I shall not go wrong in doubting whether a complete work can ever be written on Michelangelo by a savant without the help of an artist, or by an artist without the help of a savant.


The former holds all too much to the external facts and "realities" and events which have to be recorded, while the latter relies in the main upon his imagination and attempts a subjective reconstruction. Hence men of the pen are seldom capable of seeing what is behind and above the works, or that which lies on the other side of them, and to which the artist has more or less succeeded in imparting a material form. They simply lack the sense which would enable them to feel this: they lack the torch of fantasy by which, through the work before them, they might kindle in it that original something which was before its author as he worked. And the artist, on the other hand, lacks so many other necessary elements, above all, the time and patience for an exhaustive study, and the habit of expressing his meaning by the written word. Thus a middle way must be found, and the savant must consult the artist: for it can be said of the artist, if of anybody, that he has an inward hidden world of his own, which is much more important than the world outside, at least so far as his creative power is concerned.


Even though there is no doubt that the artist, like every other man, is influenced by the material and moral circumstances of his milieu, and by his own personal circumstances, and that these affect his outlook on the world and his imagination, yet this influence, in substance, does not play the decisive role, and certain figures, at least in their main activities, stand outside the direct influence of the age and circumstances in which they live. This might be said to be truer of Michelangelo than of any other man.


These few words make no pretence of being an infallible guide to Michelangelo's work: they are merely intended as a warning to those specially interested in it, not to accept as final what is written in the standard books on Michelangelo: but to endeavour to understand, appreciate and feel him for themselves. If they should find in this essay anything which will facilitate their comprehension of the great master, I shall be amply satisfied. Personally I have so high an opinion of Michelangelo that I hardly dare to write about him. If I none the less do so, it is only to salve my conscience for great and frequent enjoyment as I stood before his works. Hence in reality it is not so much about him that I venture to write, as about my own feelings and observations, as called forth by his works.


Besides, I am writing this, not so much for men of the pen as for our younger generation of artists, as a short study on one of the greatest plastic artists since the Golden Age of Greece. I feel the more bound to do this because the worm of decadence, which has so long gnawed at the ancient tree of Western culture, has also begun to attack the roots of our own young school of artists. In directing the eyes of our healthy youth towards this gigantic figure, I could wish that it should not merely shine out before them by its power and its skill, but that they should convince themselves how mistaken they are, how they are guilty of desecrating the innermost shrine of culture, when in their perversity they imitate later sculptors of almost negro savagery in the same sort of way as their contemporaries who enjoy "negro" music after Beethoven.


Personally, I should be the last to impose barriers or to confuse the minds of our younger artists by a nationalist or even Chauvinist outlook (though I have sometimes been accused of this). On the contrary, however small we may be, I could have wished to give wings to their inspiration, to bid them stretch out beyond our frontiers, since all humanity is but a single world. The healthy, young and active (taking no thought for "what they shall put on") must replace the old, tired and ill - that is their duty. But they must not outstep the goal. They must begin from themselves, and out of themselves.


Everyone holds to what he has, and he must do so, so long as it is good and healthy. We have our heroism-a heroism hitherto in the primitive and narrow sense of the word, but which still means audacity and strength. I believe that our race too will one day produce types of heroes such as were St. Francis, Galileo, Michelangelo and others, and that our nation will understand that they too were heroes and indeed heroes of a higher type. We are not cutting ourselves off from the rest of mankind, when we believe in ourselves, but continue to believe in mankind as a whole: and in the same way, humanity, however much its individual parts may be worn out, remains as a whole full of power and capacity for renewal, and the active must step into the places of the tired.


This carrying on must begin at the point where the best, not the most inferior, have left off: though even the inferior are not always a proof of exhaustion or weariness, but are often the consequence of satiety, of affectation, of production en gros, with artificial digging through strata that are not yet ripe beneath the surface. Our civilisation is to native barbarism as a ship to the ocean, whose surface it merely skims. Let us consider and learn who and whence are those who bring monstrosity into "hallowed centres", and for what reasons they are tolerated and accepted there! When all that is clear, we shall quickly come to ourselves and turn to the true path. The new democracy is a flooding of the world with barbarism, which easily accepts material civilisation, but kills spiritual culture-which levels instead of lifting. But it is not my present purpose to discuss the reasons for the decadence of to-day nor to consider how far it reaches. I merely wished to say that in the field of pictorial art we are in a state of great decadence, but that that is not a reason for despairing or losing faith in recovery.


What we do here upon earth is but a first trial of the wings of our soul, which though not eternal, bears traces of immortal being. The wings of Michelangelo's soul were stronger, their beat was more powerful, and therefore his works were greater and more enduring. This thought immediately recalls to our mind the Vatican Torso, and bids us compare it with Michelangelo himself, who was so full of affection for it. As this torso, defying the ravages of time, lost legs and arms and yet remained beautiful and strong, so it will be with the works of Michelangelo. Of the greater of these there will remain a torso to the most distant ages, while of the lesser nothing is left even within measurable time: the former first lose their fingers, then their arms and legs, but the torso is indestructible, while with the latter it is the torso that is broken first. That is just the difference between one kind of work and another. One must be in love with eternity, before one can produce a work that is even a shadow of that eternity. Immortality is confined within us as in a prison, we must give it to the light and bring it into harmony with what is immortal around us and above us. That is inspiration, the Muse, revelation.


Love for eternity is sacrifice, and sacrifice is the search for the eternal. Evil passes, and good passes, but bliss is eternal, and eternity is God. To struggle against evil is the best prayer to God: but to struggle for the beautiful is to sing to His glory. It is written that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was of God, but it is not said whether this word was first spoken or engraved. Certainly Art dates from a time when the word had not yet been separated from the work, or prayer, from wisdom and song. True artistic effort must be at once a song and a prayer, and its contents should stand outside dimensions or time. It should reveal what others do not know or see, and not merely imitate what others see and know superficially. It should reveal the truth as it really is, not merely as it appears.


Before we actually turn to Michelangelo's work, I feel it is necessary to throw out certain general observations on the art of Sculpture, its manner of execution and the chief elements which contribute to it. I feel this to be all the more necessary, since it is chiefly from this angle that I propose to treat his work, both because it seems to me important and because it has not yet been adequately attempted.


What we call "the Fine Arts" -architecture, sculpture and painting- consist of two elements, the material and the spiritual. The one is visible, the other invisible, and they consequently present a strong contrast to each other. But an object of this kind only exists for us when these two elements combine; for matter, however real it may be, does not exist in the form of a building or a statue until it is grafted on, and fructified by, that opposite element: just as a work of the spirit exists inside the brain which has given it birth, but does not exist in the eyes of others until it has assumed material form. When we say that a work of arts is harmonious, perfect, or some similar phrase, this is another way of saying that it consists of two elements intimately depended on each other, and thus giving us a precise idea of what this plastic object represents. What else could these elements be save the two already mentioned, namely the spiritual and the material? In academic language this is called "harmony of line" and "of form", as though the line itself meant something, or as though it were something other than the contour of form, or again as if form meant something in itself, apart from life or spiritual expression. I repeat, then, that in every object it is harmony or discord -between the spiritual and the material in the first instance, which in plastic art means, between light and shade- that form the language of expression in this branch of art.


If that is really the language, it will be said, how can we learn it, and by what measure can we determine the light and the shade, so that the one may balance the other? Is it to be measured by the size of area of the one or the other? Are they to be in equal proportions or not? And what rule are we to apply? Painting is the best proof that the language of figurative art is light and shade, but while in this art the proportion of light and shade remains unchanged, with architecture and sculpture as real plastic art, that is not so. In their case the proportion and position of light and shade change according to the intensity of light and the movement of the sun, and also according to whether the particular object is moveable or not, and in the former case according to the light at a given moment.


This then is only part of the truth, that in experiment and labour lies the just proportion between the two elements, and hence the harmony of the work itself: but the major part of the truth lies in the idea which was in embryo before the work was taken in hand. Indeed it might be said that the idea itself carries within it both elements from a previous state, and that with the idea we are already too much in the concrete, and losing consciousness of its origin. The work, then, in its first germ-before the creative impulse appears in its author, and before he is conscious of the need for creating-already has a tendency which is the decisive factor at the moment both of conception and of realisation. It would therefore pass through three stages-the first, nebulous, in the germ; the second in the idea (which would correspond to the embryo); and the third in the actual achievement, which would correspond to birth. It has then its period of inward growth, which may be short or may last for several years. In the first stage it is anticipated, in the second it is felt and seen with the inward eye, in the third it is realised and reveals itself to the material senses.


Those other eyes -whose home we know not and which may be called the eyes of the soul- are far more important and play a greater role than our seeing eyes, both in the immaterial act of creation and in the material act of achievement. To the reader this last assertion will perhaps seem impossible, but I will try briefly to make it clear, by instancing a few facts from the period of achievement.


Those other eyes, which in this case are called the imagination, have the final work continually before them, even though it is invisible to these eyes of ours, because it still has no form. For instance, the sculptor has in front of him his block of stone or wood, or whatever it may be, and sees in it the figure which he wants to carve, even before he has touched the block with his chisel and before it bears the faintest resemblance to the future work.


And he sees it not only in its main lines, but quite clear-cut: he sees it not only on the side from which he is looking at the block, but from the back also. This means logically, that the act of creation has already taken place, in all its harmony, without participation of hand or eye, and that it is now merely a question of the statue throwing off its veil of matter and standing exposed to the light. Let us take yet another example to show that those other eyes are the real directive force, and these eyes of ours merely its apprentices. While one chisels or carves, the instrument really has to cut through a thick untransparent material before these eyes of ours are able to see: it is those other eyes -in this case a feeling for the plastic- that are the directive force.


Consequently, those other eyes determine both light and shade, before either of these elements really forces itself through the material shell. Our human eyes take note of this and communicate with those other eyes -in this case one might say, with the intellect- which make sure whether everything corresponds with what they see.


From what has been said it seems to me clear that for the true artist there can be no rule, and that what is really essential in art cannot be learnt. Each individual must ask himself whether he has those other eyes. Meanwhile pit is true that our human eyes serve as assistants to the others, in so far as their powers of observation help the others to give concrete form to the idea: but without invisible eyes there can, we are convinced, be illustration but no real art, such as presents a picture of the spiritual life. Those eyes of the soul perhaps penetrate beyond our ken, into the sphere of an earlier ancestral existence, in which by a natural law two currents are constantly meeting at a single point and once more separating, thus making an unbroken chain. Neither our knowledge nor our experience nor our fantasy are personal acquisitions, won by us in our own lifetime, but are inherited. This heritage may be called unconscious memory, the recalling of what we already knew, the feeling of what we had already felt.


Thus far we have been trying to give a brief explanation of how the work develops and grows, from its first embryo onwards: but of the cause of that embryo we have as yet said nothing, nor of its quality and influence. As to the embryo itself we can only surmise, for it is beyond the reach both of our thought and of our senses. Perhaps the quality of the work has been affected (in the stage which lies outside the senses) by thoughts, wishes and feelings of which we are entirely unconscious, and which come to us from our ancestors -their merits and their defects alike.


In what manner, and how much of the one or of the other, we do not know. While it has not as yet assumed concrete shape (we say, while it is still in the process of thought), it is nebulous even to the author himself, and he is only half conscious of it. When it is formed -though still in an immaterial form- the main concern of its author is to endow it with a visible form. That is as it were an instinct. And when it has assumed visible form, its author is perhaps less able than anyone to explain all the threads which go to make up the cause.


It goes without saying that it is still more difficult to explain the cause-just as it would be difficult to explain the cause of our existence and "coming" into the world, that is, our assumption of physical forms. By observation and thought we can convince ourselves that spirit and matter are indissoluble, so that by following the spiritual train of thought we could reach the conclusion that matter, or again, that spirit, does not exist. Either view is a sacrilegious error. The idea is a form of divine nature, and the visible form its portrait. Form and idea, lofty thought and the visible manifestation of nature in God are two aspects of the same thing. Consequently the true artistic conception, in its essence, most resembles the natural conception. Its cause is a mystery, as is our life, and its source is the same. This means that side by side with the need for affirming this human life of ours there goes a spiritual affirmation also. This is the voice, the poem, of spiritual life, and at the same time of physical life; and it, like life itself, assumes a form, so as to become comprehensible to our physical being. It bears witness to the fact that humanity as a whole is eternal, however transient the individual may be.


Meanwhile, the development of the idea is clearer to us after it has taken corporal shape. Its source of being, in which it took shape before it ever began to live for our mind and senses, consists of the earliest personal memories which come to us from those senses, and especially from the three most important, sight, hearing and touch, which bring us into harmony with nature. Our sense of sight is influenced by such things as climate, scenery, the changes of colour, the aspect of men and animals, of trees and flowers, and in the same way our sense of hearing by the wind, the crash of thunder, the sound of water, the melody of song, the tone of the voice and human speech. There also comes into account the configuration of the earth, which gives acoustic properties to the voice and to the winds.


These fundamental matters are in our opinion common to every kind of art; for their content, so long as it is only spiritual, is not specially bound up with one sense, but equally with all. As soon as the idea assumes a specific form,[1] it at once requires its own special nourishment. In the case of the musician this form at once connects with the sound of the wind, with the murmur of the river: in that of the painter, with the colour of the landscape or the sky: in hat of the sculptor and architect, with mountains, trees, people and so on. And then when the musician is not listening but merely has his eyes open, everything produces melody and rhythm: while to the painter, the sculptor and the architect even what they hear produces colour, form and constructive shape. When the musician stands before a painting or statue or building, in so far as he analyses his impression, it is in the main a sensation of melody. With artists of other branches there is a similar impression when they listen to music. For the profane, these branches of art are entirely distinct, owing to their different manner of expression, whereas for those who are in a position to penetrate into their spiritual affinities it is clear that they have a common origin. Each branch of art, if it is on a high level, has elements drawn from the others: in music there is the constructive element of the architect, the plastic element of the sculptor, the colours of the painter: and in exactly the same way plastic art has rhythm and melody. Real poetry has elements from them all, and is indeed nothing less than a combination of them all in one.


It is not necessary to emphasise that painting contains constructive and plastic qualities borrowed from architecture and sculpture, and conversely in sculpture and architecture may be found, above their material forms, the fantasy of the painter. But none the less, in every branch of art special stress must be laid on its own specific form, for when that is not the case, it is unstable, colourless, mute, lacking in character. This does not occur where art is spontaneous, instinctive and intuitive, but most frequently in the case of works which are created by the intellect, without real inspiration: their author has, so to speak, chosen the wrong language, and so in him and in his struggle for expression the specific form is not sufficiently stressed.


In ancient Greece beauty in art was the same as goodness and perfection in the moral sense. This principle must, in our opinion, be the foundation in any discussion of Michelangelo's work, for it was undoubtedly the starting point of his own belief, as with the Greeks. As art degenerated, so too did the conception of beauty. And if we were to come with academic measures of beauty, then we should not find very much beauty in Michelangelo's works: at least not in his principal works, even though they are instinct with true beauty, permeated with the strength of this world and the thirst for heavenly things. That is to say, his works, judged by their strength of form, are essentially affirmative of the present, and yet are full of yearnings for the future --of yearnings for God, in the fierce struggle between good and evil, between what we are here and what we would fain be in the unknown, between what is in our blood and what is in our soul. He is the most wholehearted warrior of the hidden Godhead and the most enthusiastic lover of the light.


Man cannot attain to God, but he can strive after Him, and that this is possible means that there is something divine within him and in what he creates. The sphinx is a symbol: no one ought deliberately to indulge in symbols, but he whose spiritual powers are of this kind, has it within him and in all that he creates. Man can say: "I am what I have been, and shall be what I am"; but he cannot say: "I have been what I wished to be" nor "I am it now", even though he wishes to believe that be will be. God is always that. And therefore Christ says in His Revelation to John: "The First and the Last". We would fain believe that He says this not as Son of Man, but as God, and that we too shall be so in the future: and that we may be so, we strain our spiritual forces to the utmost.


We see that we cannot appear before the Father, either as we have been or as we are; and so we strive to become such that we may be allowed to appear before Him. The Redeemer has only pointed out the way of salvation: each individual must purchase his own. But we do not attempt all at once to separate light from darkness-nor indeed is it in our power-but we work with both, because the wings of our soul are riveted to the body, at least for our earthly attempts at flight. And our Redeemer, and all redeemers, have redeemed both soul and body. At the Last judgment both must come forth again together, because it is so ordained. Michelangelo desires both: when he takes a step, he steps into the darkness, but when he sighs, he sighs in the light.


In Christianity those four parts of a single symbol have become simply four blazons of the Eternal Judge: good and evil, light and darkness, are transferred to Satan and the Archangel. Michelangelo portrays these two conceptions in "Day" and "Night". Day and Night may be called Good and Evil, and it is assuredly as such that he thought of them: they are the father and mother of our experience, they direct and tyrannise over all our undertakings. But those two conceptions also stand in contrast every day and every night: nor is day absolute day, nor night absolute night. "Satan" passes from day into night, and "Dawn" from night into day.


The age in which Michelangelo lived is well known from history and can be read of in many monographs: hence we need not deal with it here. Whether he was conscious of his role, we do not know, but it is probable that he was, though it was not always apparent, so that some have thought that he was only conscious from time to time. There is in the Dialogues of Francisco d'Olanda[2] a characteristic passage, on Michelangelo's attitude to the functions of the Artist. "In art, the intelligence which only understands beauty, of whatever degree, never gets any further than good resolves ... It is not enough for the true painter, that he should partially imitate the nature of our Lord, and should thus have become a master full of knowledge and penetration. For my part I think it is necessary for him to lead a very Christian life, even the life of a Saint, if it be possible that the Holy Spirit should breathe through him. In the Old Testament, God the Father willed that those entrusted with the task of beautifying and adorning the Ark of the Faith, should not only be excellent craftsmen, but should also share in His love and His wisdom". It will be seen, then, that Michelangelo was conscious of saying to his compatriots and contemporaries what the Hebrew prophets said of old to theirs. Does it not then seem to you that as he climbs the mountains of Carrara, to hew those blocks of marble within which still slumber his titanic figures, there is in his aspect and in his gestures something of the expression of Moses, when he climbed Mount Sinai to fetch the tablets of stone on which were cut the Commandments of God!


Expect that here Michelangelo was a mediator, and so to speak anonymous: for all this was presumably in accordance with the higher will and conception of the Roman Pharaoh on St. Peters Chair, who wished, like those old Egyptian Kings, to immortalise himself. Michelangelo is the forerunner of the modern man who rebels against everything and seeks to bring everything into harmony, because it is his mission to build and raise and harmonise. His greatest conflict is with himself, and his tragedy lies in his mission, lies within him. This has been his ruin-but it has also given birth to his creations. The conflict with his fellow-men is the consequence of this mission. It has been a kind of physical exercise, now severe now easier, but nothing more than this.


I do not agree with the view that Michelangelo's art was injured by the fact that it was impossible for him to complete in peace any single work in its entirety. Or at least I cannot agree that the fragments which he has left do not reveal him to us in all his greatness, as would have been the case if he had remained undisturbed to complete the vast design. His works are torn apart and in pieces, but certainly not his work as a whole, nor he himself as an artistic figure. On the contrary it seems to me that if Michelangelo had not had to stop working at the Tomb of Pope Julius in order to paint the Sistine Chapel, he would not have stood revealed to us in all his greatness.


Had he devoted to work in stone alone the many years which such work-demands, he would have come down to us as a great and finished sculptor, but not also as a living witness to the fact that the creative spirit is not merely above mere craftsmanship, but above and beyond any one variety of expression. It is exactly the same with his "unfinished" sculpture: for that very reason he stands revealed to us as the most complete artist that has ever lived. He has left to us every phase alike of artistic creation and of artistic method (but it would have been dangerous if others had wished to imitate him in this, without due necessity). In his "unfinished" works he has left to us all the greatness of his creative power, which is far greater than all his perfection of craft. Those unfinished Titans of his ("The Slaves")-still half wrapt in matter-stand before us as strong and great as he saw them with those other eyes, before ever he began to draw them out of their material shell. It is the moment when the spirit is strongest and most concentrated in action: in these unfinished figures Michelangelo has put that moment into stone for us, for all time.


So great was the disproportion between his spiritual and physical strength, that it was hard for his hands to achieve what his spirit would have wished. In the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel a far wider field was offered to him than he could have found in planning the Tomb of Pope Julius. On the tomb he was able to place Moses, but Jehovah he never could have placed there. Great as were his love and ardent service for Mother Church, and mighty as were the wings of his soul, by which he would fain have lifted into higher spheres his friend and patron, it would have been physically impossible for him to surround the figure of Julius with such creations as the Ezekiel and Zacharias beside his Jehovah in the Sistine Chapel.


Of the successor of Peter he could make a patriarch, but not the Lord of the Sabbath. In other words, he could not by plastic effort have created another Old Testament or become its interpreter. The Creation of the World was a still greater task, and was more in keeping with the Creator of Michelangelo's fantasy, and its figures a hundred times greater than was Pope Julius II. And then, though Michelangelo even in his frescoes remained the sculptor, he could not have spoken in sculpture, in stone, as he did in fresco. At least not on certain problems.


His God the Father, when in the fury of His strength and power He divides the light from the darkness, is the best symbol of the Old Testament and of all that life in which spirit and matter are at odds. This work, even though it be not his best as a finished expression, may serve as the interpreter of all Michelangelo's works, and as it were, the guide through his dominions-his enduring portrait through all three periods of his life. He is in this rôle when he lifts the veil of matter from his marble figures: he in this rôle when he removes his scaffolding from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, and reveals a whole Biblical world to our gaze. His hands and his spirit are always in this rôle, in all his works, whenever he unveils to our sight that world of his that others cannot see. Michelangelo, in his power and in his simplicity, in the form and fierce intensity of temperament, is completely the artist of the Old Testament, its greatest plastic interpreter: he figures forth the greatness and the gloom of the Hebrew prophets, full of light and spirit, full of strength and goodness.


If the history of art is divided into its chief component parts, then Michelangelo may be taken as a continuation of that Greek period which attained its height in Phidias: when the gods assumed full human form, and when men, side by side with their physical nature, rose above the personal to the superhuman, the divine. This period may be regarded as that in which the white (Nordic) race by marriage with the East affirmed its manly character, forgetting neither the milk nor the tenderness of its Eastern mother, without whom the white man would have remained a mere barbarian, a primitive, a worker in the fields, before the gates of the ancient mysteries, with their taste and sense of refinement.


Though sculpture by its nature is more enslaved to details than architecture, yet that of Phidias can be treated as Doric sculpture, with which it forms a single whole. Certainly less tender, less mysterious, but with more determination, it is bent upon bringing man with all his being to God. Just as Doric architecture, with all its massiveness, betrays much more than Ionic, its origin from wood, so too in sculpture we see more of the human element, even though on a larger and more massive scale. Logical objectivity would seem to be a quality of the white race, but is often its weakness, when it is faced with mystery and poetry. Coming into contact with eastern races and cultures, which were unquestionably superior and among which Art had attained to its highest success, the Dorians remained spellbound: but in their strength, and in the flight of a strong and intelligent race, they at first began to imitate, and very quickly became conscious of their rôle as vanquished conquerors.


They were eager to learn everything and to see things as they are both the divine symbols and the rules of artistic procedure, and one cannot say that they were unsuccessful. But it also cannot be maintained that by their passion for "precision" they in any way diminished the mysteries of eastern divinity. No sooner had they attained the same level as the Ionians and in certain respects surpassed them, than there is already with Praxiteles a tendency to decadence: the gods are only playing with man, and as if in joke assume human form, in order to teach man to read. But while man would fain chain them to his shape and find a definition for them, they vanish, and man is left naked, mortal and puny, even though he may exaggerate his triumphs a hundredfold.


He who really understands art cannot maintain that Phidias had surpassed the Egyptians or Greek art about the end of the fifth century. This much is certain, that he had brought the form of the human body to a degree of perfection such as no one before him, so far as we know, had equalled and such as hardly anyone has equalled since. The Egyptians took from the mountain, from its every stone, a divinity cast in the image of man: while the Greeks of the fourth century deprived God of His mysterious veil, and transformed Him into human likeness.


This does not detract from their greatness, for it is in the struggle to attain Him, to become one with Him, that the divine element in man consists. And however often he might burn his wings .in the sunlight, because he could not scale the divine heights, yet the creative spark in him urged him to storm them anew, and through countless years of sacrifice and effort to pay the price of his redemption. In that too is to be found his noblest sacrifice and prayer to the Creator. But no sooner had the Greek genius reached its height in Phidias, than by a higher law of progress and decline its wings were broken, and an age began when barbarian Kings hewed off the heads of the gods and replaced them with their own, thus degrading the symbols of pure and lofty Godhead to the level of conquerors and tyrants.


From the beginning of time Art has embodied all that is most beautiful in man, and has gone hand in hand with his loftiest aims, both in their ideal and moral aspect: and this, in common with religion-man's greatest spiritual achievement-was now to suffer shipwreck. Since, then, faith is the mother of every loftier human thought and achievement, and since in accordance with a higher will the human race cannot live without faith, the Redeemer appeared and after a short period Art too began to experience a new birth, on the wings of its mother, Religion.


By the strength of faith and under the shelter of the Church, the barbarian nations created a great Christian art, which indeed in its formal and aesthetic conceptions is less finished than classic art, but in its expression does not for a moment remain behind it. Its horizons are narrower, and classic art has not the same technical knowledge and finish as Eastern art, nor has it the same breadth of vision: it only knows human suffering as the suffering of a group, and has no idea that the whole universe suffers and that its very being consists in suffering. But yet it has links with the universe, just as the words of the Gospel; for all true religions are equal, merely expressing in different words one and the same belief, and having the same goal, the same effort after God, who is the supreme wisdom and the supreme harmony.


From the first centuries of Christianity right down to the 14th century, Christian civilisation produced countless splendid and lasting monuments. But while on the one hand it acquired great merit -in an age when belief in Christ was cutting for itself a path among the ignorant and godless, and often even among evildoers- on the other hand it was not without its faults. While waging war against the false faiths which were its rivals, it also effaced the traces of the true faith, casting into the dust and breaking to pieces the statues of tyrant Caesars: and it thus destroyed numerous monuments erected to the memory of the one true God.


The ignorant masses naturally could not understand that the Redeemer did not come so much to deliver them from temptation and to redeem not only the just, but still more the sinners; but rather that He came not to destroy, but to build and that every creation of the human intellect, faith and spirit, serves one and the same God, who is immeasurable, as are immeasurable and incomprehensible the ways that lead to Him. Enlightened and intelligent Popes, Cardinals, and men of birth, not only began to protect this pagan world of stone from the destructive and fanatical mob, but also extended to it a notable hospitality in their houses and palaces. They began to admire it, and through it to read and to feel that its authors had also been inspired, and had perhaps stood nearer to God, as the Idea of perfection, than they themselves or than what might be the mere fanaticism of the convert. The first who attempted to mediate between this rediscovered antique world and the leaders of his day in Church and state were the poets and artists, as high priests of thought and beauty. Thus many works of the Greek genius were rescued for humanity, to the benefit of art and later civilisation.


It is, moreover, to the enlightenment and second sight of many Roman Pontiffs and high church dignitaries that we owe all the chief monuments of later Christian art: for it was the antique works collected by them that provided the necessary means of study and inspiration. The first among these artists, Brunelleschi and Donatello, who went as pilgrims to the ancient monuments of Rome, retain all the charm of Christian art, but deepen and broaden its outlook. They are at the same time forerunners of Michelangelo, to whose level he in certain aspects never attained, much less outdistanced them.


A restless and powerful spirit, Michelangelo Buonarotti goes on his way, and he is the greatest representative of Christian art, coupling in his own person the ancient Hellenic with the Christian spirit. He is really the link between the two arts, the Greek and the Christian, even though he does not entirely belong to either. While Donatello for instance-in his spiritual and noble sense for line-links up the Etruscan and the Christian spirit, Michelangelo is the intermediary between the Doric spirit and Christian art. Besides the Greeks he had two other great teachers, the Old Testament and Nature: and he was also noticeably influenced by Dante, in whom are blended Homer and the Bible, and in whom he could find more contrasts of light and shade than in Giotto, or in any painter after him who corresponded to his temperament and to his critical and reflective nature.


The greatest influence of all upon his spiritual nature, however, was the Old Testament. As a spiritual type, Michelangelo resembles the Prophets of the Bible, and hence is their greatest interpreter in plastic form. As Phidias found in the Greek mythology a medium for plastic expression, so did Michelangelo find it in the Old Testament. Such works of plastic art as had been produced from the Old Testament before him, were mere pale shadows of the forerunners of the New. Only Michelangelo had really studied the Old Testament and given to it its full plastic form: he clothed it with Greek plastic expression and made of it a great and powerful pedestal of Christian Art, just as the Old Testament is the pedestal upon which rests the New. Nay more, it is through the Old that he looks upon the New Testament, in which he is not so much at home. His Christ in the Last judgment is not One who forgives, but rather the true Son of the terrible Jehovah, who judges and does not forgive: he seems to believe that goodness lies in power, and not power in goodness.


If too Michelangelo did not attain to the perfection of Phidias in the matter of form or to the sovereign calm of the Greeks, he surpassed them in temperament, in zest of life, in musical feeling. Greek music is primitive, and only knows a few strings, whereas Michelangelo is a master of the many voices of modern instrumental music. I shall deal with this point in fuller detail after I have analysed one by one the works of this great plastic musician: in this introductory essay I am merely touching upon those aspects which seem to me the most important and on which it is necessary to lay special stress, if one wishes to penetrate the soul of Michelangelo as artist and as man.


In concluding this introductory study by a comparison of Michelangelo with Greek art at its height, I might briefly sum up my thought in this way. Had Michelangelo seen, let us say, the statues of Phidias, he would have been far more likely to fall prostrate before them than before any of the Hebrew prophets: but it is none the less certain that had they both lived in the same age, and had Prometheus been given to them as a subject, Michelangelo would have gained the victory. He is one of the typical fathers of the modern man, who fought with his whole organism -with bones and flesh and nerves, with doubting and with faith- in order that he might attain to God and thus convince himself that Man is but a fragment of Eternity.


(Translated by R.W.S.W.)



* This article has been published in The Slavonic Review, vol. 5, no. 14, December, 1926, p. 225-241 with the following footnote: "This article is the introduction to a short monograph, in which the greatest of Slav sculptors proposes to interpret to his fellow-countrymen the supreme artist of Italian Renaissance. But it is also something in the nature of a confession of faith, which deserves to be known to Meštrović´s many admirers in the West. It was published in Croat in the Nova Evropa of 11 November, and has, we believe, also been published in Italian, in a version of Signor Giovanni Papini. - Ed."


There is a note at the end of the article: "Translated by R.W.S.W." These initials stand for Robert William Seton-Watson, British historian and publicist (1879-1951).


The editors of the Journal of Croatian Studies gratefully acknowledge permission granted by The Slavonic & East European Studies to reprint the article.

[1] Here and in two subsequent passages on page 15 the word translated as "specific form" is really "sex" (spol).-Ed.

[2] Rome, 1924.