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Imaginary portraits, p.7

Imaginary Portraits, page 7


Imaginary Portraits

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vine-leaves, sometimesmuffled in skins against the cold, sometimes in the dress of a monk,but always with a strong impress of real character and incident fromthe veritable streets of Auxerre. What is it? Certainly,notwithstanding its grace, and wealth of graceful accessories, asuffering, tortured figure. With all the regular beauty of a pagangod, he has suffered after a manner of which we must suppose pagan godsincapable. It was as if one of those fair, triumphant beings had castin his lot with the creatures of an age later than his own, people oflarger spiritual capacity and assuredly of a larger capacity formelancholy. With this fancy in my mind, by the help of certain notes,which lay in the priest's curious library, upon the history of theworks at the cathedral during the period of its finishing, and inrepeated examination of the old tapestried designs, the story shapeditself at last.

  Towards the middle of the thirteenth century [55] the cathedral ofSaint Etienne was complete in its main outlines: what remained was thebuilding of the great tower, and all that various labour of finaldecoration which it would take more than one generation to accomplish.Certain circumstances, however, not wholly explained, led to a somewhatrapid finishing, as it were out of hand, yet with a marvellous fulnessat once and grace. Of the result much has perished, or beentransferred elsewhere; a portion is still visible in sumptuous relicsof stained windows, and, above all, in the reliefs which adorn thewestern portals, very delicately carved in a fine, firm stone fromTonnerre, of which time has only browned the surface, and which, forearly mastery in art, may be compared with the contemporary work ofItaly. They come nearer than the art of that age was used to do to theexpression of life; with a feeling for reality, in no ignoble form,caught, it might seem, from the ardent and full-veined existence thencurrent in these actual streets and houses.

  Just then Auxerre had its turn in that political movement which brokeout sympathetically, first in one, then in another of the towns ofFrance, turning their narrow, feudal institutions into a free,communistic life--a movement of which those great centres of populardevotion, the French cathedrals, are in many instances the monument.Closely connected always with the assertion of individual freedom,alike in [56] mind and manners, at Auxerre this political stir wasassociated also, as cause or effect, with the figure and character of aparticular personage, long remembered. He was the very genius, itwould appear, of that new, free, generous manner in art, active andpotent as a living creature.

  As the most skilful of the band of carvers worked there one day, with alabour he could never quite make equal to the vision within him, afinely-sculptured Greek coffin of stone, which had been made to servefor some later Roman funeral, was unearthed by the masons. Here, itmight seem, the thing was indeed done, and art achieved, as far asregards those final graces, and harmonies of execution, which wereprecisely what lay beyond the hand of the medieval workman, who for hispart had largely at command a seriousness of conception lacking in theold Greek. Within the coffin lay an object of a fresh and brilliantclearness among the ashes of the dead--a flask of lively green glass,like a great emerald. It might have been "the wondrous vessel of theGrail." Only, this object seemed to bring back no ineffable purity,but rather the riotous and earthy heat of old paganism itself. Coatedwithin, and, as some were persuaded, still redolent with the tawnysediment of the Roman wine it had held so long ago, it was set asidefor use at the supper which was shortly to celebrate the completion ofthe masons' work.

  [57] Amid much talk of the great age of gold, and some randomexpressions of hope that it might return again, fine old wine ofAuxerre was sipped in small glasses from the precious flask as supperended. And, whether or not the opening of the buried vessel hadanything to do with it, from that time a sort of golden age seemedindeed to be reigning there for a while, and the triumphant completionof the great church was contemporary with a series of remarkable wineseasons. The vintage of those years was long remembered. Fine andabundant wine was to be found stored up even in poor men's cottages;while a new beauty, a gaiety, was abroad, as all the conjoint artsbranched out exuberantly in a reign of quiet, delighted labour, at theprompting, as it seemed, of the singular being who came suddenly andoddly to Auxerre to be the centre of so pleasant a period, though intruth he made but a sad ending.

  A peculiar usage long perpetuated itself at Auxerre. On Easter Day thecanons, in the very centre of the great church, played solemnly atball. Vespers being sung, instead of conducting the bishop to hispalace, they proceeded in order into the nave, the people standing intwo long rows to watch. Girding up their skirts a little way, thewhole body of clerics awaited their turn in silence, while the captainof the singing-boys cast the ball into the air, as [58] high as hemight, along the vaulted roof of the central aisle to be caught by anyboy who could, and tossed again with hand or foot till it passed on tothe portly chanters, the chaplains, the canons themselves, who finallyplayed out the game with all the decorum of an ecclesiastical ceremony.It was just then, just as the canons took the ball to themselves sogravely, that Denys--Denys l'Auxerrois, as he was afterwardscalled--appeared for the first time. Leaping in among the timidchildren, he made the thing really a game. The boys played like boys,the men almost like madmen, and all with a delightful glee which becamecontagious, first in the clerical body, and then among the spectators.The aged Dean of the Chapter, Protonotary of his Holiness, held up hispurple skirt a little higher, and stepping from the ranks with anamazing levity, as if suddenly relieved of his burden of eighty years,tossed the ball with his foot to the venerable capitular Homilist,equal to the occasion. And then, unable to stand inactive any longer,the laity carried on the game among themselves, with shouts of not tooboisterous amusement; the sport continuing till the flight of the ballcould no longer be traced along the dusky aisles.

  Though the home of his childhood was but a humble one--one of thoselittle cliff-houses cut out in the low chalky hillside, such as are[59] still to be found with inhabitants in certain districts ofFrance--there were some who connected his birth with the story of abeautiful country girl, who, about eighteen years before, had beentaken from her own people, not unwillingly, for the pleasure of theCount of Auxerre. She had wished indeed to see the great lord, who hadsought her privately, in the glory of his own house; but, terrified bythe strange splendours of her new abode and manner of life, and theanger of the true wife, she had fled suddenly from the place during theconfusion of a violent storm, and in her flight given birth prematurelyto a child. The child, a singularly fair one, was found alive, but themother dead, by lightning-stroke as it seemed, not far from her lord'schamber-door, under the shelter of a ruined ivy-clad tower.

  Denys himself certainly was a joyous lad enough. At the cliff-sidecottage, nestling actually beneath the vineyards, he came to be anunrivalled gardener, and, grown to manhood, brought his produce tomarket, keeping a stall in the great cathedral square for the sale ofmelons and pomegranates, all manner of seeds and flowers (omniaspeciosa camporum), honey also, wax tapers, sweetmeats hot from thefrying-pan, rough home-made pots and pans from the little pottery inthe wood, loaves baked by the aged woman in whose house he lived. Onthat Easter Day he had entered the [60] great church for the firsttime, for the purpose of seeing the game.

  And from the very first, the women who saw him at his business, orwatering his plants in the cool of the evening, idled for him. The menwho noticed the crowd of women at his stall, and how even fresh younggirls from the country, seeing him for the first time, always loiteredthere, suspected--who could tell what kind of powers? hidden under thewhite veil of that youthful form; and pausing to ponder the matter,found themselves also fallen into the snare. The sight of him made oldpeople feel young again. Even the sage monk Hermes, devoted to studyand experiment, was unable to keep the fruit-seller out of his mind,and would fain have discovered the secret of his charm, partly for thefriendly purpose of explaining to the lad himself his perhaps more thannatural gifts with a view to their profitable cultivation.

  It was a period, as older men took note, of young me
n and theirinfluence. They took fire, no one could quite explain how, as if athis presence, and asserted a wonderful amount of volition, ofinsolence, yet as if with the consent of their elders, who wouldthemselves sometimes lose their balance, a little comically. Thatrevolution in the temper and manner of individuals concurred with themovement then on foot at Auxerre, as in other French towns, [61] forthe liberation of the commune from its old feudal superiors. Denysthey called Frank, among many other nicknames. Young lords pridedthemselves on saying that labour should have its ease, and were almostprepared to take freedom, plebeian freedom (of course duly decorated,at least with wild-flowers) for a bride. For in truth Denys at hisstall was turning the grave, slow movement of politic heads into a wildsocial license, which for a while made life like a stage-play. Hefirst led those long processions, through which by and by "the littlepeople," the discontented, the despairing, would utter
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