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Grots And Groves
by [?]

But with the thirteenth century there dawned an age in Northern Europe which I may boldly call an heroic age–heroic in its virtues and in its crimes; an age of rich passionate youth, or rather of early manhood; full of aspirations of chivalry, of self-sacrifice as strange and terrible as it was beautiful and noble, even when most misguided. The Teutonic nations of Europe–our own forefathers most of all–having absorbed all that heathen Rome could teach them, at least for the time being, began to think for themselves; to have poets, philosophers, historians, architects, of their own. The thirteenth century was especially an age of aspiration; and its architects expressed, in building, quite unlike those of the preceding centuries, the aspirations of the time.

The Pointed Arch had been introduced half a century before. It may be that the Crusaders saw it in the East and brought it home. It may be that it originated from the quadripartite vaulting of the Normans, the segmental groins of which, crossing diagonally, produced to appearance the pointed arch. It may be that it was derived from that mystical figure of a pointed oval form, the vesica piscis. It may be, lastly, that it was suggested simply by the intersection of semicircular arches, so frequently found in ornamental arcades. The last cause may perhaps be the true one; but it matters little whence the pointed arch came. It matters much what it meant to those who introduced it. And at the beginning of the Transition or semi-Norman period, it seems to have meant nothing. It was not till the thirteenth century that it had gradually received, as it were, a soul, and had become the exponent of a great idea. As the Norman architecture and its forms had signified domination, so the Early English, as we call it, signified aspiration–an idea which was perfected, as far as it could be, in what we call the Decorated style.

There is an evident gap, I had almost said a gulf, between the architectural mind of the eleventh and that of the thirteenth century. A vertical tendency, a longing after lightness and freedom appears; and with them a longing to reproduce the graces of nature and art. And here I ask you to look for yourselves at the buildings of this new era–there is a beautiful specimen in yonder arcade {278}–and judge for yourselves whether they, and even more than they the Decorated style into which they developed, do not remind you of the forest shapes?

Footnote{278} An arcade in the King’s School, Chester.

And if they remind you, must they not have reminded those who shaped them? Can it have been otherwise? We know that the men who built were earnest. The carefulness, the reverence, of their work have given a subject for some of Mr. Ruskin’s noblest chapters, a text for some of his noblest sermons. We know that they were students of vegetable form. That is proved by the flowers, the leaves, even the birds, with which they enwreathed their capitals and enriched their mouldings. Look up there, and see.

You cannot look at any good church-work from the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century, with out seeing that leaves and flowers were perpetually in the workman’s mind. Do you fancy that stems and boughs were never in his mind? He kept, doubtless, in remembrance the fundamental idea, that the Christian church should symbolise a grot or cave. He could do no less; while he again and again saw hermits around him dwelling and worshipping in caves, as they had done ages before in Egypt and Syria; while he fixed, again and again, the site of his convent and his minster in some secluded valley guarded by cliffs and rocks, like Vale Crucis in North Wales. But his minster stood often not among rocks only, but amid trees; in some clearing in the primeval forest, as Vale Crucis was then. At least he could not pass from minster to minster, from town to town, without journeying through long miles of forest. Do you think that the awful shapes and shadows of that forest never haunted his imagination as he built? He would have cut down ruthlessly, as his predecessors the early missionaries did, the sacred trees amid which Thor and Odin had been worshipped by the heathen Saxons; amid which still darker deities were still worshipped by the heathen tribes of Eastern Europe. But he was the descendant of men who had worshipped in those groves, and the glamour of them was upon him still. He peopled the wild forest with demons and fairies; but that did not surely prevent his feeling its ennobling grandeur, its chastening loneliness. His ancestors had held the oaks for trees of God, even as the Jews held the cedar, and the Hindoos likewise; for the Deodara pine is not only, botanists tell us, the same as the cedar of Lebanon, but its very name–the Deodara–signifies naught else but “the tree of God.”