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The chronology of the Catacombs painting is very much mixed, but it is quite certain there was degeneracy from the start. The cause was neglect of form, neglect of art as art, mechanical copying instead of nature study, and finally, the predominance of the religious idea over the forms of nature.
I With Constantine Christianity was recognized as the national religion. Christian art came out of the Catacombs and began to show itself in illuminations, mosaics, and church decorations. Notwithstanding it was now free from restraint it did not improve. Church traditions prevailed, sentiment bordered upon sentimentality, and the technic of painting passed from bad to worse.
The decline continued during the sixth and seventh centuries, owing somewhat perhaps to the influence of Byzantium and the introduction into Italy of Eastern types and elements. In the eighth century the Iconoclastic controversy broke out again in fury with the edict of Leo the Isaurian. This controversy was a renewal of the old quarrel in the Church about the use of pictures and images. Some wished them for instruction in the Word ; others decried them as leading to idolatry. It was a long quarrel of over a hundred years' duration, and a deadly one for art. When it ended, the artists were ordered to follow the traditions, not to make any new creations, and not to model any figure in the round. The nature element in art was quite dead at that time, and the order resulted only in diverting the course of painting toward the unrestricted miniatures and manuscripts. The native Italian art was crushed for a time by this new ecclesiastical burden. It did not entirely disappear, but it gave way to the stronger, though equally restricted art that had been encroaching upon it for a long time—the art of Byzantium.
BYZANTINE PAINTING: Constantinople was rebuilt and rechristened by Constantine, a Christian emperor, in the year 328 A.D. It became a stronghold of Christian traditions, manners, customs, art. But it was not quite the same civilization as that of Rome and the West. It was bordered on the south and east by oriental influences, and much of Eastern thought, method, and glamour found its way into the Christian community. The artists fought this influence, stickling a long time for the severer classicism of ancient Greece. For when Rome fell the traditions of the Old World centred around Constantinople. But classic form was ever being encroached upon by oriental richness of material and color. The struggle was a long but hopeless one. As in Italy, form failed century by century. When, in the eighth century, the Iconoclastic controversy cut away the little Greek existing in it, the oriental ornament was about all that remained.
There was no chance for painting to rise under the prevailing conditions. Free artistic creation was denied the artist. An advocate of painting at the Second Nicene Council declared that : " It is not the invention of the painter that creates the picture, but an inviolable law of the Catholic Church. It is not the painter but the holy fathers who have to invent and dictate. To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the execution." Painting was in a straitjacket. It had to follow precedent and copy what had gone before in old Byzantine patterns. Both in Italy and in Byzantium the creative artist had passea away in favor of the skilled artisan — the repeater of time-honored forms or colors. The workmanship was good for the time, and the coloring and ornamental borders made a rich setting, but the real life of art had gone. A long period of heavy, morose, almost formless
art, eloquent of mediaeval darkness and ignorance, followed.
It is strange that such an art should be adopted by foreign nations, and yet it was. Its bloody crucifixions and morbid madonnas were well fitted to the dark view of life held during the Middle Ages, and its influence was wide-spread and of long duration. It affected French and German art, it ruled at the North, and in the East it lives even to this day. That it strongly affected Italy is a very apparent fact. Just when it first began to show its influence there is matter of dispute. It probably gained a foothold at Ravenna in the sixth century, when that province became a part of the empire of Justinian. Later it permeated Rome, Sicily, and Naples at the south, and Venice at the north. With the decline of the early Christian art of Italy this richer, and in many ways more acceptable, Byzantine art came in, and, with Italian modifications, usurped the field—. It did not literally crush out the native Italian art, but practically it superseded it, or held it in check, from the ninth to the twelfth century. After that the corrupted Italian art once more came to the front.
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