Sunday, 14 October 2018

THE INDIAN SAN MARCO - 1

There is outside Florence a Dominican monastery which is famous for the fact that once upon a time Fra Giovanni of Fiesole-better known as Fra Angelico-lived within its walls and covered them with his saints and angels against the gilded background of heven. Later, it was the one undecorated chamber in this monastery that Savanarola took as his own, when he came as a Dominican to San Marco. The old convent remains to this day for Europe one of the trysting-places of righteousness and beauty. We know not which are more real, the angels that still blaze upon the walls, or the lives that once were lived within them.

Something of the same feeling must have clung to Ajanta in the late fifth to the eighth centuries. A great art-tradition had grown up about its name. It is very likely, of course, that such a tradition was commoner in the India of those days than we can now realise. Perhaps many buildings were covered within with emblazoned literature. Gold and scarlet and blue were often, it may be, united together, to sing the heroic dreams of the time to the eyes of all. But it is difficult to imagine that in any country the splendours of Ajanta could seem ordinary. Those wonderful arches and long colonnades stretching along the face of the hillside, with the blue eaves of slate coloured rock overhanging them, and the knowledge of glowing beauty covering every inch of the walls behind them-no array of colleges or cathedrals in the whole world could make such a thing seem ordinary. For it was doubtless as colleges that the great task was carried out in them, and we can see that it took centuries. That is to say, for some hundreds of years Ajanta was thought of in India as one of the great opportunities of the artist, or maybe as a grad visual exposition of the monkish classics.

We can judge of the length of time over which the work spread, the time eduring which the tradition was growing up, by the fact that the paintings in CAve Sixteen, which is older, are stiffer and more purely decorative, such of them as remain, than those in Seventeen. But even those of Sixteen are not the oldest pictures At Ajanta. When we enter Cave Nine for the first time, we find ourselves in the company of a great host of rapt and adoring worshippers. They stand on every fact of the simple octagonal pillars, with their looks turned always to the solemn looking Stupa or Dagoba. They have each one of them a nimbus behind him. They might Bodhisattvas, but hte feeling of worship so fills the little chapel that instinctively one puts them down as the early saits and companions of Buddha, and turns with a feeling of awe to join their adoration of the domelike altar. They are not arhiaic in the sense of crudity. But they have the feeling of an early world about them. They are like the work of Fra Angelico, but may be anything date from the second century onwards, that is to say a thousand years before his time! In the aisle that runs behind the pillars the walls are covered with simple scenes from the Teaching of Buddha. Here we find the mother bringing her dead son, and the Master seated with his disciples about him. Bu we return to the nave, and, again looking at the forms on the pillar-faces, let ourselves dream for a moment, till we seem to hear the deep Adoramus with which they fill the air around us.


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