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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > E > Ecclesiastical Art

Ecclesiastical Art

Before speaking in detail of the developments of Christian art from the beginning down to the present day, it seems natural to say something in regard to the vexed question as to the source of its inspiration. It would not be possible here to treat adequately all the various theories which have been propounded, but the essentials of the controversy may be given in a few words. Afterwards there will be some mention of the principal works which Christian antiquity has left to us and a setting forth of the influence of the Catholic Church in stimulating and directing that artistic spirit which for so many centuries it alone was destined to keep alive.

Origin of Christian art

There has been much discussion of late years as to the influences which were predominant in the development of early Christian art. Professor Wickhoff in a striking essay (Roman Art, tr., 1900) has contended that in the first century after Christ a distinctively Roman style was evolved both in painting and sculpture, the salient features of which he characterizes as impressionist or "illusionist". He marks several stages in the growth of this style, and claims for it especially the creation of what he calls the continuous method of composition, i.e. a method by which several successive stages of the same history are depicted together in a single painting. Further, he contends that this Roman style was adopted by the first Christian artists and that, though obscured and weakened, it persuaded the Roman world and maintained its identity throughout the Middle Ages until eventually it quickened again into fuller life under the stimulus of the Renaissance.

This view, an exaggeration of the Romanist hypothesis which long held the field has been severely criticized by many competent authorities and notably by Strzygowski ("Orient oder Rom", 1901, and "Kleinasien", 1903), who attributes the predominantly influence in the development of Christian art to the recrudescence of purely Oriental feeling. This, as he maintained, had always survived at Byzantium, Antioch and Alexandria, and it became operative once more when the Graeco-Roman artistic tradition at Rome had exhausted itself after the effort of a few centuries. Though Strzygowski may go too far when he claims that even the art of the Romanized provinces like Gaul came from the East direct and not through Rome, it seems highly probable that his contention is in substance accurate enough.

To Rome no doubt must be assigned the prevalence of the basilica type of church and the first effective conception of the possibilities of stone vaulting. But the transference of the seat of government by Honorius in 404 from Rome to Ravenna and the confusion that arose in the Western Roman Empire, had far-reaching consequences upon the development of art. If Rome was at all times the seat of the papacy, the vicars of Christ had not at this early date acquired any preponderating influence in the social and civil affairs of the Western world, while more than a hundred years after this beginning with the seventh century, no less than thirteen pontiffs who occupied in succession the chair of St. Peter were of Greek or Syrian origin. But what is perhaps most important of all, the Latin stock who occupied what was once the great city, but what now became only a provincial town, were morally and intellectually effete. The motive power for a new development was to come from outside. The impetuous energy of the Teutonic tribes of the North was full of latent possibilities for the arts of peace, when that energy was once diverted from the strenuous occupations of a time of war. Once again "Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit", but it was Greece enriched this time with the inheritance of Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, while the culture that now travelled west. and north found ultimately a more responsive soil than it had ever met with in Latium. In its adoption by Goths, Franks, and Saxons the art of Byzantium lost its rigidity, and something of its formalism. It was a living germ which soon developed an independent growth, and long before the Renaissance once more directed the minds of men to classic models, not only architecture and sculpture, but the arts of the painter, the iron-worker, the goldsmith. and the glass founder were full of vigorous life and promise throughout all Western Europe. The earliest specimens of decorations employed for a Christian purpose are found in the Roman catacombs. In the most ancient examples of all the private chambers used for Christian interment in the first and second centuries, there is decoration indeed, but it is only in a negative sense that it can be called Christian art, for while the abundant frescoes seen in the cemetery of Domitilla and notably in the cubiculum of Ampliatus exclude such pagan elements as would be unseemly, the character of the painting is in every respect the counterpart of the ornamentation of the contemporary private houses buried at Pompeii. There is nothing distinctively Christian. Perhaps the frequent recurrence of the vine as a principal element in the scheme of decoration may have been meant to suggest the thought of Christ, the true vine, but even this is doubtful. Symbolism occurs early, but it can only be recognized with confidence in the more public cemeteries of the second century, e.g. that of St. Callistus; here, under the influence of the "Discipline of the Secret", it is hardly wrong to recognize the true beginnings of a distinctively Christian art. No doubt this art in a most marked degree was imitative of the more decent forms of pagan decoration familiar at the period. It seems constantly to be forgotten by those who discuss this subject that it was the deliberate object of the early Christians, during the ages of suspicion and persecution to exclude from their places of sepulture all that would by its conspicuousness or strangeness attract the notice of the casual pagan intruder. No wonder that the theme of the Good Shepherd in introduced again and again in the fresco decorations of the early catacombs. This is no indication as rationalist critics have sometimes pretended, of the survival of an idolatrous mythology, but the very likeness of the beardless Good Shepherd to the type of the pagan Hermes Kriophorus — a likeness, however, which is never so exact as to lead to real confusion — constituted its recommendation to those who wished to hide their distinctive practices from the prying eyes of the people around them. In the same way the Orante, or praying figure, symbolical of the Church or the individual soul, bore a general resemblance to the statues of Pietas, familiar enough to the ordinary Roman citizen, while the dove, which was to the Christian eloquent of the grace of the Holy Spirit, would not have been distinguished by his pagan neighbour from the birds consecrated to Venus. The deeper mysteries of the Eucharist and of the other sacraments were still more artfully veiled in the frescoes of those early centuries. No doubt the fish was an object familiar enough in all kinds of pagan decoration, but that very fact rendered it most suitable for the purpose of the Christian when he wished to symbolize the marvellous workings of Christ (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter = ICHTHYS, the fish) in the waters of baptism. What again was more common in decoration than some form of banqueting scene — a theme also often utilized by the worshippers of Mithra-- but these feasts depicted upon the walls of a sepulchral chamber had a far other and deeper significance for the Christian, who by some minute sign, the little cross, it may be, impressed upon the loaves, or the fishes which decked the frugal board, was quick to discern the reference to the life-giving mystery of the Blessed Eucharist. There are also human figures and Biblical scenes, especially those connected with the liturgy for the departed — for example the miraculous restorations of Jonah and Daniel and Lazarus — and in one or two isolated instances we may perhaps recognize a presentment of the Madonna, but the reference is always cryptic and only interpretable by the initiated. It was under these circumstances that the instinct of religious symbolism was developed when the art of the Church was yet in its infancy but the tradition thus created has never departed from true religious art throughout the ages. With the triumph of the Church under Constantine the necessity for the sedulous hiding of the mysteries of the Faith in large measure disappeared. From A.D. 313 to the end of the fifth century was a period of transformation and development in Christian art, and it may be conspicuously recognized upon the walls of the Roman catacombs. Biblical scenes abound, and the figure of Christ, no longer so frequently as the beardless Good Shepherd, but crowned with a nimbus and sitting or standing in the attitude of authority, is fearlessly introduced. The nimbus is also extended to others beside Christ, for example to Our Lady and some of the saints. Sculpture again, though in the catacombs the traces it has left are relatively few now for the first time becomes the helpmate of painting in the service of the Church. This is the age of the great Christian sarcophagi so wonderfully decorated with the figures of Christ and His Apostles and with biblical scenes still full of symbolic meaning. The old ways of the period of persecution had, it is plain, become not only familiar but dear to the body of the faithful. The allegorical method of representing the mysteries of the Faith did not disappear at once. But though with the triumph of Constantine the outline of the "chrisme" (chi-rho), or the Greek monogram of Christ, was universally held in honour and introduced into all Christian monuments and even into the coinage, the crucifix as a Christian emblem was as yet practically unknown. For more than a century the memory of the Sacrifice of Calvary was recalled to the minds of the faithful only by some such device as that of a plain cross impressed with the figure of a lamb. The first representations of the figure of the Saviour nailed upon the Rood, as we see it upon the carved doors of Sta. Sabina in Rome and in the British Museum ivory, belong probably to the fifth century, but for a long period after that this subject is very rarely found, and its occurrence in frescoes or mosaics is hardly recorded anywhere before the time of Justinian (527 - 565).

Mosaics and other early Christian arts

To find the beginning of the use of colour in the Roman Empire to anything like an important extent, we must look at the Roman pavements composed of myriads of tesserae, and representing in a flat and somewhat uninteresting manner mystic beings, extraordinary animals, fruits, flowers, and designs. Between these Roman pavements and one branch of the earliest Christian art, that of mosaic, there is a very close connexion.

It seems also possible that some of the early efforts of the art of the Christian Church are to be found in the decorations of gold on glass which have been discovered in the catacombs. Upon these glasses dating from the third to the fifth century, are found representations of Christ and of the Apostles, as well as drawings in gold-leaf, partly symbolic and partly realistic, referring to the miracles of Christ, the emblems of the Seven Spirits, a future life, and the events narrated in the New Testament. Simple and archaic as these are, yet many of them show considerable beauty. The primitive Church included within itself, not only the poor and humble, but persons of distinction, rank, and attainment, and it is clear from an examination of these drawings that some were executed by those who were in possession of considerable artistic skill, and who had been trained in a knowledge of Greek and Roman art.

Contemporaneous with these, and earlier, are frescoes painted upon the walls of the catacombs, including portraits of the Apostles and of Christ, representations of the martyrs, naive pictures of the scenes from the Holy Bible, and simple illuminatory symbolism.

Then, between the fourth and tenth centuries there is a long series of mosaics, in which for the first time strong evidence appears of a sense of colour. A few specimens of these mosaics adorned the catacombs, afterwards they are found in the oratories and places of worship of the primitive Church. It was speedily recognized that mosaic decoration possessed certain strong claims to attention, such as other methods of decoration lacked. While the artist himself must be responsible for fresco work, very much of the labour in mosaic decoration could be left to persons of subordinate position, and once the artist had drawn out the pattern and scheme which was to cover, for instance, the apse of the church, the actual manual labour of fitting in the tesserae could be done by workmen. Then, again, there was the quality of imperishability; the mosaic was as permanent, an actual part of the structure which it decorated; it did not vary in colour by reason of light or atmosphere, and could be cleansed from time to time. It was also capable of strong, broad effects, rendering it peculiarly suitable to positions at the end of a building, somewhat above the line of sight, and its colour could be made so emphatic and so brilliant that the darkest of curves or hollows could be lit up by its luminous beauty.

It is small wonder, therefore, that from the very earliest period the Church drew to itself the skilful workers in mosaic, and employed them, as can be seen by the wonderful remains at Ravenna, in Sicily, on Mount Athos, near Constantinople, and notably at Rome, to decorate the interiors of the basilicas, and to portray upon their walls the emblems of the Divine tragedy, of the Sufferings of Christ and of His saints, or to represent in hieratic magnificence the figures of Christ in his glory, or in benediction, so that the scenes might be well in sight of all the worshippers within the little churches. From the representation of single figures at the end of the church, the work speedily spread to more elaborate adornment of the walls and from the simplicity of a single emblem, a single figure, the artistic spirit grew until it represented in pictorial effect the parables and miracles of Christ, or spread long triumphant processions of virgins, Apostles, martyrs, along the walls of the aisles and transepts of the larger churches.

There is no city in Europe in which this earliest Christian art can be so well studied as at Ravenna. The difficult of approaching the place in its out-of-the-way position has enabled it to retain and preserve the monument which it is so rich, and which relate so exclusively to its early history. The baptistery dates back to the last years of the fourth century and was later ornamented in mosaic. There is in it a representation of the Baptism of Christ, and a circle of the Twelve Apostles; the figures, of surpassing dignity, appear to move round the dome with a swing and grace very remarkable in effect. Another circle of mosaic decorations in the same building represents the four Books of the Gospels open upon four altars, and between them four thrones of dominion with crosses; these mosaics have never been restored, and are in the condition in which their makers left them. The huge font intended for baptism by immersion, which stands below them, is proof of their antiquity, but the actual inscription of dedication with its date still exists on the metal cross surmounting the building. In the chapel of the archbishop in the archiepiscopal palace are mosaics of the fifth century made during the reign of archbishop St. Peter Chrysologus, while in the tomb of the Empress Galla Placidia are mosaic decorations of her period; unfortunately, many of these latter works have been restored. The very finest mosaics in Ravenna, however relate to the great heresy of Arianism. In the time of Theodoric, the old heresy was beginning once more to make itself felt. Arius had long been dead, Athanasius had fought his courageous battle against the Arian heresy, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople had been held, and had pronounced against it, and the Nicene doctrine had been confirmed, so that within the Church the heresy could no longer exist, but outside the Catholic Church there were still those who practiced it. When Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, came into power, Arianism became once more a force to be reckoned with, and the emperor erected a cathedral and a baptistery at Ravenna for his Arian bishops. It is in the church now called Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, which was new more than a thousand years ago, that the great rhythmic array of saints and virgins alluded to above exists, the greater part of it as it was when Theodoric erected the church fourteen centuries ago. In the baptistery of the Arians, near by, the mosaics upon the roof were put in place practically after the baptistery became Catholic, and therefore date from about 550.

It is not only, however, in mosaics, that Ravenna illustrates the early art of the Church; one of its great treasures, the ivory chair of St. Maximianus (546-556), made in the first half of the sixth century, has been in the city since it was first carved with the exception of a very short time when it was carried to Venice in 1001. It is perhaps the finest example in existence of such ivory carving, and was the work of Oriental craftsmen who entered into the service of the Church and carved this chair with its delicate and beautiful illustrations of the miracles of Christ and the history of Joseph.

The same city can illustrate other branches of applied art for the orphreys and textile fabrics made for San Giovanni in the fifth century, the sixth-century altar-cross of the archbishop, St. Agnellus (556-659), his processional cross of silver, and portions of his cathedral choir are still preserved in the cathedral, while the art of carving in marble of the same period is exceedingly well exemplified by the splendid stone sarcophagi existing in various churches of the city. Following the time of Theodoric came the rule of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), and the episcopate of St. Ecclesius (521-34), while the mosaic decoration in the church of San Vitale, done in the early and middle part of the sixth century, illustrate the change from Arian heresy to Catholic truth, and the exquisite beauty of the mosaic work the Church was able to make use of at that time.

A little journey outside Ravenna to the church of Sant' Apollinare in Classe will enable the student to bring his study of early mosaic work and earlier sculpture down to a still later period, as in that church there is the great mosaic erected by Archbishop Reparatus c. 671, the curved throne of St. Damianus (668-705), and the sarcophagi of various archbishops, extending in date to the end of the seventh century, and bearing religious emblems of very considerable importance. Attention should also be drawn to the pictures on unprepared linen cloth, executed in a material similar to transparent watercolour, ascribed to a period antecedent to the third century, they chiefly purport to be representations of the features of Christ. The most notable of course is the one known as the Handkerchief of St. Veronica, preserved in the Vatican, and which none but an ecclesiastic of very high rank is allowed to examine closely. Although the most important, it is by no means the only example of such a picture. There is another in Genoa, a third in the church of San Silvestro in Rome, and others in various European shrines.

The metal work executed during the Ostrogothic occupation of Italy was often work commissioned by the Church for use in the ceremonials of the service, and figures of Christ and of the saints, ornaments for copes, chasses in which to put relics, and vessels for use at the altar, belonging to this period of primitive art are the direct result of the teaching of the Church. As, however, the religious feeling, spread more and more, the desire arose among Christians to have artistic representations of the great events of the Faith in their houses, and it is possible that the beginnings of what we may term portable pictorial work arose in this way. The very early tempera paintings on wood of Eastern and Byzantine character, some of which are actually ascribed to the hand of the Apostle St. Luke himself, may very likely have been executed, not entirely as decorations for the Church, but that the wealthier members of the community, at least, might have in their homes, in the privacy of their own oratories, some cherished representation of the Man of Sorrows himself, or of some Apostle or saint from whom the owner was named, or towards whom he had some particular affection. In this way may perhaps be traced the beginning of the history of the icons which are so important a feature in the life of the Eastern Church, and which adorn every house, in many cases being found in all the rooms occupied by the various members of the family.

Ecclesiastical art in the Middle Ages

Leaving primitive times, the period of the Middle Ages is one of enormous artistic importance, and it is an era in which the influence of the Church is practically paramount.

To this period there does not belong any very long series of artistic objects relating exclusively to domestic life. There were, of course, articles of domestic interest marked by artistic skill, there were objects of personal decoration and appliances for use in the home; but the choicest talent and the efforts of the most supreme genius were almost invariably given to the work of the Church, and even where the commissions related to domestic ornamentation, there was generally a religious element in the decorations and the use of religious symbolisms.

Enamels

To this period belong the magnificent work in enamels executed for church work. There are the tall pricket candlesticks, superb chasses and reliquaries, altar-crosses, crosiers, shrines, censers and incense boats, crucifixes, morses for copes and medallions for sacred vessels, triptychs and polyptychs for use on the altar, plaques for book-covers, especially for the adornment of the Book of the Gospels, cruets, basins, chalices, and book-binding in metal encrusted with jewels.

The very first British enamels were merely a kind of coarse decoration, applied to the adornment of shields and helmets, but later on to cups, vases, and drinking-vessels, but, when mention is made of the Ardagh Chalice and the Alfred Jewel, it will be realized that a period in enamel work has been reached when the Church laid its hand upon the craft. Concerning the use of the Alfred Jewel, it may be broadly stated that the most probable theory is that it was the ornament applied to the head of an ivory pointer used by the deacon when reading the Book of the Gospels, and that therefore this exquisite object now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford is one of the earliest examples of ecclesiastical enamel work. The Ardagh Chalice, of translucent enamels on silver and gold, is only one of a group of Irish shrines, reliquaries, missal-covers, crosiers, and crosses, similarly decorated, and it would appear likely that these Irish or Celtic enamels, of which half a dozen adorn the altar of Sant' Ambrogio in Milan, are perhaps among the earliest existing examples of the art in connexion with ecclesiastical possessions.

In the first part of the eleventh century, Byzantium appears to have been the headquarters of the work of ecclesiastical enameling, and the pectoral cross in the South Kensington Museum maybe taken as an example of early Byzantine work. The art of the enameller was also in existence in Germany at an early date, and here also was applied exclusively to ecclesiastical objects. Towards the middle of the twelfth century the workers of Limoges came into prominence, and from that time down to the end of the thirteenth Limoges was the centre of production. In Italian enameling, the wonderful translucent reliquary, dated 1338, the work of Ugolino of Siena, in which is preserved the great relic of the Holy Corporal at Orvieto, is a masterpiece of the craft. The altar-frontal at Pistoja belongs to about the same period, and a little later comes the reliquary made by the brothers Arezzo, while during the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the enamellers were kept hard at work in Italy producing objects intended for Church work in two or three distinct processes, either that called champleve, or another method, that of floating transparent enamels, known by the name of bassetaille, or still another process called encrusting. At the end of the fifteenth century, and the beginning of the sixteenth, in the era of the Renaissance, the art left Italy, and, taking a new form, that of painted enamels, or more strictly, painting in enamels, had a recrudescence in France in the very same place, Limoges, in which the old enamels had been produced.

Embroidery

In another division of applied arts are the remarkable embroideries which adorned all the sacred vestments, representing in the most wonderful pictorial effect, groups of saints, sacred scenes, and religious symbols. On the chasubles, copes, albs, stoles, maniples, burses, veils, mitres, frontals, super-frontals, and altar-covers, palls, bags, and panels of that period, are to be seen triumphs of artistic excellence, worked with exceeding beauty, and with a glorious richness of colour, by the hands of the faithful women of the day and designed by the men of supreme genius whom the Church had attracted to her side.

Some of the very finest of this embroidery work was English, and references are found to the dignity of English embroidery before the end of the seventh century, as, St. Aldhelm Bishop of Sherborne, celebrated in verse the skilful work of the Anglo-Saxon embroideresses. Indeed, at one time, rather too much attention in the convents for women seems to have been given to this fascinating needlework, for a council held in 747 recommended that the reading of books and psalm-singing by the nuns should receive greater attention, and that not quite so many hours should be spent in needlework. As early as 855 the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelwulf when journeying to Rome took with him as presents silken vestments richly embroidered in gold, executed in his own country, and there are vestments of a stole and maniple, found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert (d. 687) which were produced under the auspices of the wife of Edward the Elder in 916 and placed in the saint's coffin. From that time down to the middle of the sixteenth century there was a constant demand for the work of the skilled embroideresses, and this section of art, so particularly suitable to ecclesiastical purposes, was one of perennial richness. It is well that some stress should be laid upon the question of embroidery, inasmuch as in the Middle Ages it was almost exclusively a branch of ecclesiastical art, and nearly everything that can be termed of importance in fine embroidery, especially in fine English embroidery previous to the fifteenth century, was executed for the Church. Enormous labour was given to the production of these beautiful vestments, and as an example it may be mentioned that a frontal presented to the Abbey of Westminster in 1271 took the whole labour of four women for three years and three-quarters. Lincoln Cathedral in the fourteenth century possessed over six hundred vestments in its sacristy, while the Abbey of Westminster had very nearly double as many, and even the English churches were far behind those of Spain in the sumptuous manner in which they were supplied with vestments.

There was therefore every possible necessity for the work, and no branch of art has a greater importance between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries than has this one of embroidery. Fortunately, a sufficient number of the old vestments have come down to the present day to give a satisfactory idea of their importance and beauty and the records and inventories of church goods prior to the sixteenth century afford still further information concerning this branch of art.

Motivating spirit

The spirit of devotion which has ever given the instinct to decorate the house of God with the very finest works of which man is capable led to this lavish display of artistic genius in the service of the Catholic Church, but it must also be borne in mind that there were other, subordinate causes to account for the work. The Church, following its Divine Master, has always inculcated the importance of good works and it has ever encouraged the faithful to give to its service of their best. If their skill was in metal-work, in embroidery, in carving wooden figures or wonderful choir-stalls, in stained glass, in jewelry, in fresco or in mosaic such skill was to be devoted to God's service as the choicest gift the artist had to lay upon the altar symbolic of his devotion to his faith.

Even beyond that, there came the occasions in which the penance for sin took the form of the devotion of artistic gifts to the work of the Church, and the other and very numerous cases in which this artistic labour was the constant employment of those persons who had devoted their entire life to the religious career, in the various monastic houses belonging to the different orders. One further cause must not be overlooked, the fact that it was the Crown, the clergy, and the nobility who alone could command, by reason of their means, the splendid productions of the men of genius of the time, and that while the commissions given by the clergy would most certainly be for church purposes almost exclusively, those given by the Crown and the higher nobility were in almost all instances for exactly the same purposes, and this for a double reason.

First, the desire to render the home beautiful had not yet arisen to any considerable extent, and secondly, there was every wish to make the private chapel or oratory, the public church or royal sanctuary, as beautiful as possible, both to carry out the instincts of the religious feeling and please those who held control of spiritual things, as well as to heap up a reward for good deeds which would have a corresponding equivalent in the future life and might serve as retribution for the deeds of violence that formed so integral a part of the life of these centuries. The period under consideration was not so much one of portable pictures as of applied art, devoted to the interior decoration of the sacred buildings and to every object having connexion with the service of the altar.

Monastic anonymity

One section of ecclesiastical art deserving special mention concerns almost exclusively the monastic orders, namely, that of illumination and transcription. All over Europe the monks of the pre-Renaissance time were engaged in preparing the books of the day and these books were almost exclusively religious ones. The number of those concerning domestic matters, agriculture, or the classics, transcribed by these diligent students, is relatively small, but the series of religious works from their diligent pens is an exceedingly long one. Their time was fully occupied in preparing manuscripts for use within the cloisters and for the service of the altar, as well as for the great patrons of the monasteries who desired to have books of devotion for their own use, or for gifts to other sovereigns or noblemen. These manuscripts are of incomparable beauty, being transcribed with extraordinary skill upon the finest of vellum, and adorned with initial letters, calendars, and illustrations, that are triumphs of artistic skill, and marvels of ingenuity.

The Books of Hours, Missals, Breviaries, and Psalters having their origin in the monastic houses of England, France, Germany, and Italy during the Middle Ages are now among the greatest artistic treasures of the world and with regard to them there is one very striking fact which must never be overlooked. This does not relate exclusively to books of devotion, it belongs nearly as much to every work of art produced during this period, and it is the fact that these triumphs of skill are for the most part anonymous. In the period hardly any great names are recorded in connexion with such work. There is a wonderful series of artistic treasures, but signatures scarcely ever exist. Here and there the name of an enameller is known or perchance the name of the place where he worked, occasionally the name of a wood-carver or a worker in stained glass has been preserved and there are just a few cases in which the name of the zealous monk who toiled over the manuscript is known, but the instances are exceedingly few, and they occur, one might say, by accident rather than by intention.

With respect to illuminations in books of devotion, one monk took up the task where the other had left it. Death caused no cessation of the self-imposed labour. The orders could never die, and as in the present day great literary works are undertaken by the leading orders, in the full knowledge that to carry them out will extend far beyond the life of the writer who begins the undertaking, but that his successor will be equally able to continue the task. So in the earlier days the monks laboured in their cloisters, each at his own work; each generation of monks in the footsteps of the former, hiding the individual identity in the name of the order and content, as the work was done for the greater glory of God, that while the work should remain, the monks themselves should be forgotten.

Few things are more striking in considering this period than the singleness of aim and devotion to duty which characterized these artists and led them to have no desire to perpetuate their own names, but simply to carry out to the best of their abilities, the allotted task for the glory of God and His Church. Partly, of course, the reason was that the dignity of personal labour was not fully realized, but the reason for this anonymity lies mainly in the facts already stated, that the work was religious work that the aim was a religious aim, and that the identity of the person did not matter, so long as the Church was properly served by her faithful.

Desire for perfection

There is one other aspect of the artistic work of the pre-Renaissance time to be alluded to. It is by no means confined to the pre-Renaissance period, but extends through the succeeding centuries, and it should extend to all the artistic labour of the present day, but it is more especially a feature of the period under discussion. It is that determination which is nearer satisfied with the work which has been done, but which is always straining forward for finer and better work. It is that element of untiring energy and ever-quickening desire for perfection which has always characterized the greatest art-workers of the world, and it finds its earliest and perhaps its strongest development in this period.

Early Italian painters

The early Italian painters fall into two groups: the first, that which may be called the group of the miniaturists or illuminators, as, for example, Enrico, Berlinghieri, and Oderico; the second, the very primitive painters, such as, Margaritone, Spinello, Uccello, Cimabue, Duccio, Memmi, Lorenzetti, and the various early masters of the schools of Siena, Padua, and Verona. The predecessors of these artists for the most part, worked without any reference to nature, under Byzantine influence, copying slavishly the methods fixed by the Greek Church. Their pictures, whether they illustrated scenes from the Sacred Writings, the legends of the Church, or the lives of the saints, were designed and painted according to fixed rules. Their work was inferior to that of the Byzantine workers in mosaic, but followed the same conceptions of art; in every way, in attitudes, compositions, types of face, folds of drapery, and even as regards colour, it was guided by the definite rules of tradition, so that the painter was little more than a mechanic. Still, despite what may be termed the ugliness of this particular school, there was a strong spirit of devotion exercising the minds of the artists, and they were able to put a certain amount of sympathy into their hard, angular productions, thus showing that their works were painted with religious sentiment, and with a desire to evoke that sentiment in others. Margaritone was one of the first to break through the hard crust of rules, and although his work does not show any very striking advance upon that of his predecessors, yet in his pictures and in those of the earliest painters of Siena, we begin to find the desire to paint a Mother of God bearing some living semblance to a Mother of Man. There is a struggling towards tenderness and sweetness of countenance, a desire to represent raiment gently floating in easy curves, and a greater command of sentiment, together with a simplicity in story-telling, which mark this primitive school, and prepare the way for the forerunner of natural treatment, Giotto himself.

Period of the Renaissance

The great era of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times which is called the Renaissance may be divided into the three periods of the Early Renaissance, Full Renaissance, and Late Renaissance. Here again the influence of the Church is found just as strong and as defined as in the past. The growing desire to have magnificent churches created the necessity for other workers in art.

The first years of this period give in Italy the earliest workers known by name in fresco, and in portable pictures, Cimabue, Orcagna, Giotto, and others. In their "frescoed theology", decorating the churches of Assisi, Siena, Pisa and other parts of Italy, is seen the beginning of the long list of painters whom the Church enlisted in her service.

In bronze work Ghiberti produced the gates of the baptistery of Florence and with the appearance of Brunelleschi a new school of architecture for ecclesiastical buildings arose.

In this period belongs also the introduction of printing and here again, just as emphatically, the Church took the lead. The earliest printers mere Churchmen belonging to a religious order; the earliest books those of religion — the first actual printed sheet being the Indulgence of Pope Nicholas V — followed by a long list of religious and liturgical works, Sacred Scriptures, and patristic literature.

In the Low Countries the Van Eycks developed the methods of oil-painting and there arose a great school of artists, among whom were Van der Goes, Van der Weyden, Bouts, Cristus, Memling, and others who formed the transition from the Gothic school. Their most important works were altarpieces, and in some cases all their paintings were of a religious character, while in others the paintings not religious were portraits of the various patrons who had commissioned the altar-pieces, or who had their own private chapels decorated by these artists, therefore the intimate connexion between art and the Church was just as close as ever.

Towards the close of the Early Renaissance period is found the work in sculpture of Donatello and those of his school, Desiderio da Settignano, the Rossellini, Duccio, Verrochio, and Mino da Fiesole almost all the fine work of these men was for ecclesiastical purposes. Here and there are single detached statues, as for example the one of St. George by Donatello, but then it must be remembered that these were figures of saints, and intended for buildings more or less of a religious character, or for those erected by guilds distinctly religious, while some of the sculptors named, as for example Duccio of Perugia, were only known by the work they executed for the decoration of churches.

During this period among the workers in Germany were Adam Kraft, Veit Stoss, and the Vischers, who are associated with the superb tabernacle, the series of Stations of the Cross and the great bronze shrine in Nuremberg, all objects intimately connected with religious work. In England, the tomb of Henry VI and that of Henry VII by Torrigiano, both at Westminster must not be overlooked.

Every branch of artistic craftsmanship was at this time employed for the benefit of the Church. Finiguerra, Ghiberti, and others were at work at the great silver altar of the Florentine baptistery. The jewelers, Ghirlandajo, Verrochio and Francia were making jewels for altar vestments, medals for the great ecclesiastics, and pictures for the churches; Luca della Robbia was preparing his vitrified enamel medallions, that he might present the Blessed Virgin and her Child in attitudes of the most perfect tenderness on the exteriors of the churches and on the corners of the streets, while other potters were marking the sacred emblems on their finest productions, or painting religious scenes upon their vases and majolica plates.

The Arras tapestries of France, the English tapestries of Coventry, and the Van Eyck tapestries of Flanders, were being woven for the hangings of the churches, while Benedetto da Maiano was bringing his intarsia work to perfection that he might apply it to the decoration of the choir-stalls in the great churches of Italy. It was at this time that the great monastic painter Fra Angelico decorated the cells of San Marco with his perfect representations of the great events in the Divine Tragedy, while Gozzoli, Lippi, and Ghirlandajo adorned the churches, and Perugino, Pinturicchio, Francia, Albertinelli and Fra Bartolomeo, almost exclusively religious painters, prepared those masterpieces of religious art to set upon the altars of the private chapels and great churches of the day, that are now among the treasured masterpieces of all time.

This era was also the period of Humanism, of the return to the love of the classics. It may be difficult in this complex period to mark the boundary line between religion and that strange paganism which was an emblem of the classical revival, but the Certosa of Pavia and the work of the early German painters, represented by such men as Schongauer and the elder Holbein, mark that side by side with the Humanistic movement there was a strong religious one. In this religious movement art had its full share, and engaged in its tasks, not perhaps with the austere simplicity and singleness of aim which belonged to an earlier period, but still with a definite determination that the best products of artistic craftsmanship should be devoted to the service of God.

There was, however, a growing desire that the home should be more beautiful and more luxurious. The decoration of churches was ceasing to be the sole aim of the art-worker, and he was finding other fields, but the chief encouragement of art still came from the Church and for the Church, and even upon domestic work the Church set her hand and seal.

The period of the Full Renaissance may be taken as lasting from 1450 to 1550, and here must be noticed the advent of a new movement in art, or at least a stronger development of what had undoubtedly begun to arise in the previous century. Hitherto, in pictorial art, notably in that of Italy the aims had been form drawing, composition, devotion and the expression of spiritual conceptions rather than colour; but in the Venetian School, that took its rise in the earlier century with the first Bellini, Carpaccio and Crivelli, and that was to see its development at this time in the later Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Tintoretto, the claims of colour gain a supremacy over the kindred branches of pictorial art. The Venetian School is the one in which brilliant colour attains to its apotheosis; and everything else is subservient to it.

The simplicity of aim which characterized such a man as Fra Angelico passed away, the devotional feeling that marked the works of Albertinelli and Fra Bartolomeo gave place to an overpowering desire for decoration as such, and in Venice, although the Church commissioned the great altar-pieces and the schemes of interior ornamentation for which these noble artists were responsible, it had to be content to accept Venetian tradition and to see religious scenes treated as gorgeous pieces of sumptuously coloured decoration.

Although there might not be the simplicity of a past generation, yet there still existed in the artists the same desire to offer to the Church the greatest works of their genius. In this period of the Full Renaissance are found the work of Raphael and of Michelangelo; of Clouet, Mabuse, and Scorel; of Dürer, Holbein, and Cranach; of Leonardo da Vinci and of Correggio, while in applied arts there was immense industry and great development. The German metal-workers and goldsmiths prepared church vessels innumerable; Cellini and Caradosso produced ornaments for church vestments; the screen and the woodwork for King's College Chapel, Cambridge, typified the ecclesiastical wood-carving of the time in England; while the stained-glass windows at King's College Chapel, in other chapels, and in great churches show ecclesiastical art.

The fall of Florence marked the close of the period of great art in that city while the paintings and tapestry executed for Francis I at Fontainebleau, for Lewis at Tours, and some sculpture done by Michelangelo for the Medici Chapel, all point out the enhanced power of the Humanistic movement and the destruction of that devotion to faith which had been so marked a feature of the earlier centuries.

The epoch of the Late Renaissance, extending from 1500 to 1600, and overlapping that of the Full Renaissance was still, however, distinguished by a considerable amount of earnest religious fervour in art.

The paintings of Luini, Gaudenzio Ferrari, Andra del Sarto, Sodoma, Bronzino, and Peruzzi, are strongly religious, full of right feeling, and almost exclusively done for churches, religious houses, guild chapels, and private oratories, but outside of Italy the connexion between the Church and art is by no means so apparent.

Spanish supremacy in Northern Europe had been destroyed, and 1576 was marked by the rapid decline of Spain. The Iberian goldsmiths and iron-workers still certainly produced their famous grilles, jewels, morses, chalices, and crucifixes while in needle-work the finest workers of Castile were elaborating some of the most perfect examples of church vestments that have ever been produced. In bronze, the smiths of Aragon were casting superb church candelabra, and some of the weavers in France and England were producing tapestry decoration for churches; but the greater part of the Gobelin, Brussels, and Mortlake tapestry-weaving; was for domestic use, the greatest architects were working on domestic architecture, the potters on domestic pottery, and the printers and engravers upon work which cannot be termed religious.

The names of certain men stand out, however, as representing persons of deep personal religion, who brought their own devotion to duty to bear upon the work they executed. Such men were Giulio Romano, Palladio, and the Behaims, but the period of that supreme hold which the Church had retained upon the art of the world, which she had initiated, developed, and encouraged, was passing away, never more to appear in its full fruition.

Some reference should be made to the system under which during this time many of the great decorative schemes of Italian painting were executed. The encouragement which the Church gave to the Italian painters took various forms. It was permissible for an influential or a wealthy family to have allotted to it a small chapel in the large parish or town church, and the decoration of the chapel was left to the care of the family whose name it received. In some cases, these chapels were built onto the church, and in such instances an architect, a builder, a decorator, and an artist were all employed. and the Church gladly gave permission for such additions to the church structure, in order that the family might have a meeting-place and an opportunity to make an endowment for perpetual Masses for its deceased members.

In cases where a new structure was not erected, a portion of the existing church was enclosed as a private chapel, perhaps in memory of a father, a mother, or some children and a painter of repute was called in to devise a scheme of decoration for its walls, in which would be introduced the figures of saints to whom the deceased persons had been dedicated, or scenes from the lives of such saints; in many cases life-size figures of the saints were represented with their hands upon the kneeling figures of the donors of the chapel. There was no thought of an anachronism; it was considered perfectly right that representations of persons who had died but a few weeks or months before should be introduced into the scenes in which the saints of early church history were depicted. It then became the ambition of later members to add to the beauty of the family chapel as means allowed. The walls having been decorated, an altar-piece would be painted by another artist, while perhaps, following him, yet a third would ornament the front of the altar, or craftsmen would be called in to supply objects used in the sacred service or vestments and books for the priests. In this way these little chapels became shrines for artistic work, the productions of many hands, representing the desires of many persons to place the best of work at the service of the Church, to act dutifully towards the family itself, and to make a suitable offering in recompense for crimes committed.

Another course sometimes adopted was to call in two painters, rivals in their profession, to decorate different walls of a church, or the two sides of an altar-piece, or again, when some great addition was made to the fabric on account of an important event, such as the canonization of a local saint, or a marked interposition of Providence on behalf of the town, different influential persons in the place would undertake to be responsible for portions of the building, each calling in his own favourite painter and in this way the work would be completed. Or it might be that an order desired to decorate a church dedicated to its patron saint, and the commission would be given to some notable artist, who perhaps was unable to complete the task or who died before its completion. In such cases, others were called in to complete it, and in this way the fabric was beautified by various successive hands.

The number of definitely personal commissions which the sixteenth-century artist had was small, as even in the instances where a patron ordered a picture, it was generally an altar-piece for the family chapel, or else the decoration of some building belonging to the trade guild to which he was attached, and this trade guild being nearly always a religious association, the commission came under the category of religious work.

It is all this which marks the great distinction between art and craftsmanship previous to the sixteenth century and after it. In the period from the triumph of Christianity to about 1260 in Italy, and about 1460 in Northern Europe, the dominant art is architecture, chiefly employed in the service of the Church, and the arts of painting and carving were only applied subordinated for its enrichment. During the Renaissance period the imitative arts, sculpture, painting, and the various art-crafts began to develop and detach themselves, to exist and strive after perfection on their own account, and while architecture still held an important position, it was no longer dominant; the arts which supplied the interior decoration of the building, and the objects needed in the service of the Church ceased to be considered as subordinate, but were taking each its own high position under the guidance of workers of supreme genius.

From the period, however, of the Full Renaissance the great dignity of architecture begins to diminish, especially as regards ecclesiastical buildings, and architects devoted themselves almost exclusively to domestic and civic work. Architecture ceased to be personal, democratic, local, and became professional and more or less uniform throughout the whole of Europe, while it suffered severely because the designing of detail became in many, cases the work of others than the executant workmen. The same sort of difficulty was befalling the pictorial art and the arts of the craftsmen. The personal element was no longer the main strength of an art. The ecclesiastical side of the work was almost non-existent, and the crafts suffered by reason of the fact that the commercial element had entered into art and the adornment of the house, the palace, and the person was considered of far greater importance than the adornment of the church, and the sacrifice of the life of the worker for the greater glory of God.

Post-Renaissance period

There are certain political explanations of this great change between the art of the sixteenth and the art of the seventeenth century. There were several forces at work which were hostile or indifferent to artistic development, such as the religious, dynastic and commercial wars, the difficulties of the Reformation, and constitutional problems, while the grouping together of small towns into larger provinces and countries was doing away with the rivalry of the craftsmen in the smaller places, and permitting a spirit of greater uniformity in style to spread throughout a large section of Europe. Add to all these colonial expansion, huge enterprise, and great commercial prosperity, constantly broken into by ravaging wars, and the causes for the decay of that spirit of religious activity in art characterizing earlier periods are apparent. Spain and Italy were, in the seventeenth century, almost the only two countries in which any close connection between art and the Church was kept up. England was troubled with the religious question, and struggling with great constitutional problems, while it had given itself over to the faith of the Reformers, and such art as it was producing was the great architectural triumph of Sir Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of the churches of London, and the various sections of craftsmanship concerned with the adornment of the house and the person. In Spain there were still some great goldsmiths at work, and some even greater workers in wrought iron, preparing the rejas for the Spanish cathedrals, while pictorial art was at its very highest in that country, and its masterpieces, with the exception of those of the very greatest artist of all, Velazquez, were devoted to subjects suggested by the Church. Yet there had been no country in which the painter had been so trammelled by traditional restrictions as in Spain. The very manner in which each saint was to be represented, the method in which his or her clothing was to be painted, and the colouring which was to be applied to each garment, had been a matter of stern decree. It had needed the profound genius of a Velazquez to break through the traditional rules, and to open for his successors, and especially for Murillo, a period of greater freedom. Commencing with such painters as Pantoja della Cruz and Vicente Carducci, the great Spanish School had produced the Ribaltas and Ribera, and then the majestic Velazquez. In Spain the only great painter to follow Velazquez was Murillo, but there were many whose works were marked by distinction, excellence, and beauty, especially Zurburan, Iriarte, Juan de Valdes, Alonso Cano, and Orrente. The seventeenth century was, in various countries of Europe, one of the important periods of artistic production, and although the Italian schools, the Realists, and the painters of the Second Revival were men whose productions at the present time are out of favour, yet they deserve more than a passing notice, while contemporary with them are others who rank among the veritable giants of the artistic craft. The late Italian artists, the Carracci, Caravaggio, Sasso Ferrato, Carlo Dolci, Domenichino, Luca Giordano, Carlo Maratta, Guido Reni, Salvator Rosa, and others, show in their work melodramatic style, love of magnificent colouring, and intense shades. The draughtsmanship of these artists should cause their works to be more highly esteemed than they are at present, for they certainly represent an important epoch in the art history of the world, and one which must never be overlooked. Many of their works were altar-pieces painted for churches, or were intended for church decoration, but at the same time they were greatly influenced by the Humanistic movement, and by the eager desire to represent the stories of classical writers in pictorial effect. The commercial prosperity of Holland, at a time when other nations were lacking in material wealth, was one of the reasons for the existence of a veritable crowd of artists just at this time. The Church had ceased to commission pictures in Holland, and very seldom were stories, either from the Bible, or from the lives of the saints, represented by this school of artists.

In dealing with the arts and crafts of the eighteenth century, a new and destructive factor which had arisen must be taken into consideration. "The genius of handicraft," as has been well said, "passes now into invention," and the commencement of a system now appears that was eventually to strike at the very roots of the manner in which supreme works of genius had been produced in the preceding centuries. It must also be noticed that, in painting especially, the artistic centre of gravity had shifted from Italy to England, and to a lesser extent to France, and that Italy Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands took but a very small share in the artistic development of the eighteenth century, instead of, as in preceding periods being the great centres of development themselves. The triumph of the home, however, in contradistinction to that of the Church, was now complete, and portraiture, whether concerning itself with the great decorative single figures or family groups of Reynolds and Gainsborough, or with the productions of the leading miniature painters, Cosway, Engleheart, Plimer, Smart, Hone, Wood, and their numerous followers, was exclusively applied to the multiplication of portraits of those persons who were able to afford to employ the artist, and who desired to possess and distribute to others such delightful representations as would adorn the home and the person. Ecclesiastical art, or art for the decoration of the church, had hardly any existence.

In England towards the middle of the nineteenth century a new movement having in it some of the instincts of earlier Italian art began to arise. The foremost artist of this new school was Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In the wonderful succession of poetic visions which he presented, marked by a play of fancy, a fertility of inventiveness, tender witchery of inspiration exquisite colour, and grace and harmony of line and grouping, he was able to develop the spirit of religious emotion to a far fuller extent than he himself had intended, and to vivify the old legends of primitive times which had formed part of his inheritance from Celtic ancestors. His appearance on the horizon of art was to a great extent coincident with the blossoming forth of what has been termed the Oxford Movement in religion, a growing desire for a deeper and fuller devotion, an eager determination to return to earlier and purer lines of thought in religion to set faith free from the regulations of statecraft, and to rise from the dreary monotony of a Genevan theology to something approaching closer to the fiery enthusiasm and the sumptuous ceremonial of the passionate faith of earlier days. The progress of this movement within the Protestant Church led to a considerable number of accessions to the Catholic Faith, but in the Church of its origin it worked a complete revolution. Once more there arose the determination that the house of God should be beautiful, and once again art with all the various crafts closely connected therewith entered into the service of religion, very much in the manner they had done in preceding centuries. Tapestry-workers, under the influence of William Morris and Burne-Jones, were set to work to prepare panels of glowing colour for the decoration of churches. The stained-glass painters, under the influence of these craftsmen, sought out old designs, originated new schemes of colour, and worked hard to discover old secrets of technic. The earlier schools of embroidery were studied, and all over the country women set to work to make vestments and to execute needlework of rare distinction and great beauty. A revival took place in the art of the metal-worker and in that of the stone-mason. Many fine wrought- iron grilles were made, and the claim of the artist to prepare the design and to superintend the carrying out of its execution was once more considered and gladly entertained. Quite apart from the religious aspect of the movement there was in this Oxford revival the origin of the effort towards greater refinement, greater beauty, and more attention to handicraft which, commencing in the middle of the nineteenth century, has by no means reached its culmination till the early years of the twentieth.

One of the first and most important of the movements which aimed to break away from the artistic traditions of the eighteenth century took place in the early part of the nineteenth century in Germany, and was led by Overbeck. The Academy of Vienna, at the time that he entered it, was under the direction of Füger, a talented miniature painter, but a follower of the pseudo classical school of David, and a firm believer in the tenets of these opinions, too conservative to vary from them in the least degree. Overbeck felt that he was among commonplace painters, that every noble thought was suppressed within the academy, and that Christian art had been diverted and corrupted until nothing Christian remained in it. The differences between him and his followers and their fellow-students were so serious that the upholders of Overbeck and their leader were expelled from the academy. Leaving Vienna Overbeck journeyed to Rome, reaching it in 1810, and remaining there for fifty-nine years. Here he was joined by such men as Veit, Cornelius, Schadow, with others of less importance — together they formed a school which was known as the Nazarites, or the Church-Romantic painters. They built up a severe revival on simple nature and the serious art of the Umbrian and Bolognese painters, and although for a long time they laboured under great difficulties yet, after a while, they were able to exert considerable influence, and their success led to memorable revivals throughout Europe. Overbeck was a Catholic, as were several of his friends. He was a man of high purity of motive, of deep insight, and abounding knowledge, a very saintly person, and a perfect treasury of art and poetry, insomuch that his influence helped very largely to purify the art of his time. The secessions from the conservative line adopted by the Royal Academy in England late in the nineteenth century were not marked by the particular element of religious fervour distinguishing Overbeck, but were the result of a similar determination to return to nature, and understand the art of painting in the open air, with not only a strict adherence to realism in choice and treatment of subject, but also the subordination of colour to tone gradation. These secessions in England were, however, very much the result of the movement in France which had preceded them, and which was connected with the name of Millet.

In Catholic countries there are arising some signs that the old practice of enlisting the services of art for the purposes of religion may be developed, but the signals of an approaching movement are not very strong as yet, and the Church has a good deal to learn with regard to decoration, to design, and to craftsmanship from the earlier periods of its history. Foremost among the signs of the new spirit must be placed the erection of the Westminster Cathedral at London, one of the most perfect buildings in England, erected after the truest and most careful study of the past and with every desire to give full play to the spirit of the present and to the original talent of its designer, while avoiding anything that could be called a slavish copying of the past. This building affords an example of the revived use of mosaic properly applied, in method following the work of Ravenna, and planned by a great artist, Bentley. It affords the most perfect scheme of interior decoration that could well be conceived. In other countries of Europe the signs of progress are not quite so clear, but the Church which fostered and encouraged art from its very birth has so many glorious examples in its midst of the great achievements of profound genius that it can only be a matter of time before its ancient use of the fine arts is revived. A close study of the past would enable the Church to once more set about the task of employing the craftsmen of the world to produce their finest work in the domain of ecclesiastical art.

Illustrations explanatory of the different branches of ecclesiastical art will be found under the special articles: IVORIES; ILLUMINATION OF MANUSCRIPTS; METAL-WORK; PAINTING; RELIQUARIES; SCULPTURE; WOOD-CARVING.

About this page

APA citation. Williamson, G. (1909). Ecclesiastical Art. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05248a.htm

MLA citation. Williamson, George. "Ecclesiastical Art." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05248a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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