In the days when it was verging on a question whether a man could be at the same time a good Christian and an artist the chosen subjects of painting were significant of the approaching crisis—those glaring moral contrasts in history which, for want of a happier term, we call dramatic. Why this was so, whether Art took a hint from Politics, or had withdrawn her more intimate manifestations to await likelier times, is a question it were long to answer. The subjects, at any rate, were such as the Greeks, with their surer instincts and saving grace of sanity in matters of this kind, either forbore to meddle with or treated as decoratively as they treated acanthus-wreaths. To-day we call them "effective" subjects; we find they produce shocks and tremors; we think it braces us to shudder, and we think that Art is a kind of emotional pill; we measure it quantitatively, and say that we "know what we like." And doubtless there is something piquant in the quivering produced, for example, by the sight of white innocence fluttering helpless in a grey shadow of lust. So long as the Bible remained a god that piquancy was found in a Massacre of the Innocents; in our own time we find it in a Faust and Gretchen, in the Doré Gallery, or in the RoyalAcademy. It was a like appreciation of the certain effect of vivid contrasts as powerful didactic agents (coupled with, or drowning, a something purer and more devout) which had inspired those most beautiful and distinctive of all the symbols of Catholicism, the Adoration of the Kings, the Christ-child cycle, and which raised the Holy Child and Maid-Mother to their place above the mystic tapers and the Cross. Naturally the Old Testament, that garner of grim tales, proved a sick wine: David and Golias, Susanna and the Elders, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jethro's Daughter. But the story of Judith did not come to be painted in Tuscan sanctuaries until Donatello of Florence had first cast her in bronze at the prayer of Cosimo pater patriæ. Her entry was dramatic enough at least: Dame Fortune may well have sniggered as she spun round the city on her ball. Cosimo the patriot and his splendid grandson were no sooner dead and their brood sent flying, than Donatello's Judith was set up in the Piazza as a fit emblem of rescue from tyranny, with the vigorous motto, to make assurance double, "exemplvm salvtis pvblicae cives posvere." Savonarola, who knew his Bible, saw here a keener application of Judith's pious sin. A few years later that same Judith saw him burn. Thus, as an incarnate cynicism, she will pass; as a work of art she is admittedly one of her great creator's failures. Her neighbour Perseus of the Loggia makes this only too plain! For Cellini has seized the right moment in a deed of horror, and Donatello, with all his downrightness and grip of the fact, has hit upon the wrong. It is fatal to freeze a moment of time into an eternity of writing. His Judith will never strike: her arm is palsied where it swings. The Damoclean sword is a fine incident for poetry; but Holofernes was no Damocles, and if he had been, it were intolerable to cast his experience in bronze. Donatello has essayed that thing impossible for sculpture, to arrest a moment instead of denote a permanent attribute. Art is adjectival, is it not, O Donatello? Her business is to qualify facts, to say what things are, not to state them, to affirm that they are. A sculptured Judith was done not long afterwards, carved, as we shall see, with a burin on a plate; and the man who so carved her was a painter.

JUDITH. Botticelli.


Meantime, pari passu, almost, a painter who was a poet was trying his hand; a man who knew his Bible and his mythology and was equally at home with either. Perhaps it is not extravagant to say that you cannot be an artist unless you are at home with mythology, unless mythology is the swiftest and most direct expression of your being, so that you can be measured by it as a man is known by his books, or a woman by her clothes, her way of bowing, her amusements, or her charities. For mythopœia is just this, the incarnating the spirit of natural fact; and the generic name of that power is Art. A kind of creation, a clothing of essence in matter, an hypostatizing (if you will have it) of an object of intuition within the folds of an object of sense. Lessing did not dig so deep as his Greek Voltaire (whose "dazzling antithesis," after all, touches the root of the matter), for he did not see that rhythmic extension in time or space, as the case may be, with all that that implies—colour, value, proportion, all the convincing incidents of form—is simply the mode of all arts, the thing with which Art's substance must be interpenetrated, until the two form a whole, lovely, golden, irresistible, and inevitable as Nature's pieces are. This substance, as I have said, is the spirit of natural fact. And so mythology is Art at its simplest and barest (where the bodily medium is neither word, nor texture of stone, nor dye), the parent art from which all the others were, so to speak, begotten by man's need. This much of explanation, I am sorry to say, is necessary, before we turn to our mytho-poet of Florence, to see what he made out of the story of Judith.

First of all, though, what has the story of Judith to do with mythology? It is a legend, one of the finest of Semitic legends; and between legend and myth there is as great a gulf as between Jew and Greek. I believe there are no myths proper to Israel—I do not see how such magnificent egoists could contract to the necessary state of awe—and I do not know that there are any legends proper to Greece which are divorced from real myths. For where a myth is the incarnation of the spirit of natural fact, a legend is the embellishment of an historical event: a very different thing. A natural fact is permanent and elemental, an historical event is transient and superficial. Take one instance out of a score. The rainbow links heaven and earth. Iris, then, to the myth-making Greek, was Jove's messenger, intermediary between God and Man. That is to incarnate a constant, natural fact. Plato afterwards, making her a daughter of Thaumas, incarnated a fact, psychological, but none the less constant, none the less natural. But, to say, as the legend-loving Jew said, that Noah floated his ark over a drowning world and secured for his posterity a standing covenant with God, who then and once for all set his bow in the heavens; that is to indicate, somewhere, in the dim backward and abysm of time, an historical event. The rainbow is suffered as the skirt of the robe of Noah, who was an ancestor of Israel. So the Judith poem may be a decorated event, or it may be the barest history in a splendid epical setting: the point to remember is that it cannot be, as legend, a subject for creative art. The artist, in the language of Neo-Platonism, is a demiurge; he only of men can convert dead things into life. And now we will go into the Uffizi.

Mr. Ruskin, in his petulant-playful way, has touched upon the feeling of amaze most people have who look for the first time at Botticelli's Judith tripping smoothly and lightly over the hill-country, her steadfast maid dogging with intent patient eyes every step she takes. You say it is flippant, affected, pedantic. For answer, I refer you to the sage himself, who, from his point of view—that painting may fairly deal with a chapter of history—is perfectly right. The prevailing strain of the story is the strength of weakness—ex dulci fortitudo, to invert the old enigma. "O God, O my God, hear me also, a widow. Break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman!" It is the refrain that runs through the whole history of Israel, that reasonable complacency of a little people in their God-fraught destiny. And, withal, a streak of savage spite: that the audacious oppressor shall be done scornfully to death. There is the motive of Jael and Sisera too. So "she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him, and tumbled his body down from the bed." Ho! what a fate for the emissary of the Great King. Wherefore, once more, the jubilant paradox, "The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman!" That is it: the amazing, thrilling antithesis insisted on over and over again by the old Hebrew bard. "Her sandals ravished his eyes, her beauty took his mind prisoner, and the fauchion passed through his neck." That is theleit-motif: Sandro the poet knew it perfectly well and taught it to the no small comfort of Mr. Ruskin and his men. Giuditta, dainty, blue-eyed, a girl still and three years a widow, flits homeward through a spring landscape of grey and green and the smile of a milky sky, being herself the dominant of the chord, with her bough of slipt olive and her jagged scimitar, with her pretty blue fal-lals smocked and puffed, and her yellow curls floating over her shoulders. On her slim feet are the sandals that ravished his eyes; all her maiden bravery is dancing and fluttering like harebells in the wind. Behind her plods the slave girl folded in an orange scarf, bearing that shapeless, nameless burden of hers, the head of the grim Lord Holofernes. Oh, for that, it is the legend itself! For look at the girl's eyes. What does their dreamy solemnity mean if not, "the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman"? One other delicate bit of symbolizing he has allowed himself, which I may not omit. You are to see by whom this deed was done: by a woman who has unsexed herself. Judith is absorbed in her awful service; her robe trails on the ground and clings about her knees; she is unconscious of the hindrance. The gates of Bethulia are in sight; the Chaldean horsemen are abroad, but she has no anxiety to escape. She is swift because her life just now courses swiftly; but there is no haste. The maid, you shall mark, picks up her skirts with careful hand, and steps out the more lustily for it.

So far Botticelli the poet, and so far also Mr. Ruskin, reader of pictures. What says Botticelli the painter? Had he no instincts to tell him that his art could have little to say to a legend? Or that a legend might be the subject of an epic (here, indeed, was an epic ready made), might, under conditions, be the subject of a drama; but could not, under any conditions, be alone the subject of a picture? I don't for a moment suggest that he had, or that any artist ever goes to work in this double-entry, methodical way, but are we entitled to say that he was not influenced by his predilections, his determinations as a draughtsman, when he squared himself to illustrate the Bible? We say that the subject of a picture is the spirit of natural fact. If Botticelli was a painter, that is what he must have looked for, and must have found, in every picture he painted. Where, then, was he to get his natural facts in the story of Judith? What is, in that story, the natural, essential (as opposed to the historical, fleeting) fact? It is murder. Judith's deed was what the old Scots law incisively calls slauchter. It may be glossed over as assassination or even execution—in fact, in Florence, where Giuliano was soon to be taken off, it did not fail to be so called: it remains, however, just murder. Botticelli, not shirking the position at all, judged murder to be a natural fact, and its spirit or essence swiftness and stealth. Chaucer, let us note, had been of the same mind:

"The smyler with the knyf under his cloke,"

and so on, in lines not be matched for hasty and dreadful suggestion. Swiftness and stealth, the ambush, the averted face and the sudden stab, are the standing elements of murder: pare off all the rest, you come down to that. Your staring looks, your blood, your "chirking," are accidentals. They may be there (for each of us carries a carcase), but the horror of sudden death is above them: a man may strangle with his thoughts cleaner than with his pair of hands. And as "matter" is but the stuff wherewith Nature works, and she is only insulted, not defied, when we flout or mangle it, so it is against the high dignity of Art to insist upon the carrion she must use. She will press, here the terror, there the radiance, of essential fact; she will leave to us, seeing it in her face, to add mentally the poor stage properties we have grown to trust. No blood, if you please. Therefore, in Botticelli's Judith, nothing but the essentials are insisted on; the rest we instantly imagine, but it is not there to be sensed. The panel is in a tremor. So swift and secret is Judith, so furtive the maid, we need no hurrying horsemen to remind us of her oath,—"Hear me, and I will do a thing which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation." Sudden death in the air; nature has been outraged. But there is no drop of blood—the thin scarlet line along the sword-edge is a symbol if you will—the pale head in the cloth is a mere "thing:" yet we all know what has been done.

Earthwork out of Tuscany (London, 1895).