Essays on Life, Art and Science
by Samuel Butler

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Public Domain Books

Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902)
English composer, novelist, and satiric author

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.


Introduction  •  Quis Desiderio . . . ? {1}  •  Ramblings in Cheapside {2}  •  The Aunt, the Nieces, and the Dog {3}  •  How to Make the Best of Life {4}  •  The Sanctuary of Montrigone {6}  •  A Medieval Girl School {8}  •  Art in the Valley of Saas {11}  •  Thought and Language {16}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part I  •  The Deadlock in Dawrinism—Part II {29}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part III  •  Footnotes:

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