Renan’s Vie de Jésus. It is Christian art in the worst sense of the term—the art of the wax image
|November 17, 2011||Posted by webmaster under All text of Schweitzer Quest Jesus, chapter thirteen||
Like Strauss, Renan designed his Life of Jesus to form part of a complete account of the history and dogma of the early Church. His purpose, however, was purely historical; it was no part of his project to set up, on the basis of the history, a new system of dogma, as Strauss had desired to do. This plan was not only conceived, but carried out. Les Apôtres appeared in 1866; St. Paul in 1869; L’Anté-Christ in 1873; Les Évangiles in 1877; L’Église chrétienne in 1879; Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique in 1881. Several of these works were more valuable than the one which opened the series, but for the world Renan continued to be the author of the Vie de Jésus, and of that alone.
He planned the work at Gaza, and he dedicated it to his sister Henriette, who died soon after, in Syria, and lies buried at Byblus.
This was the first Life of Jesus for the Catholic world, which had scarcely been touched—the Latin peoples least of all—by the two and a half generations of critical study which had been devoted to the subject. It is true, Strauss’s work had been translated into French, but it had made only a passing stir, and that only among a little circle of intellectuals. Now came a writer with the characteristic French mental accent, who gave to the Latin world in a single book the result of the whole process of German criticism.
But Renan’s work marked an epoch, not for the Catholic world only, but for general literature. He laid the problem which had hitherto occupied only theologians before the whole cultured world. And not as a problem, but as a question of which he, by means of his historical science and aesthetic power of reviving the past, could provide a solution. He offered his readers a Jesus who was alive, whom he, with his artistic imagination, had met under the blue heaven of Galilee, and whose lineaments his inspired pencil had seized. Men’s attention was arrested, and they thought to see Jesus, because Renan had the skill to make them see blue skies, seas of waving corn, distant mountains, gleaming lilies, in a landscape with the Lake of Gennesareth for its centre, and to hear with him in the whispering of the reeds the eternal melody of the Sermon on the Mount.
Yet the aesthetic feeling for nature which gave birth to this Life of Jesus was, it must be confessed, neither pure nor profound. It is a standing enigma why French art, which in painting grasps nature with a directness and vigour, with an objectivity in the best sense of the word, such as is scarcely to be found in the art of any other nation, has in poetry treated it in a fashion which scarcely ever goes beyond the lyrical and sentimental, the artificial, the subjective, in the worst sense of the word. Renan is no exception to this rule, any more than Lamartine or Pierre Loti. He looks at the landscape with the eye of a decorative painter seeking a motif for a lyrical composition upon which he is engaged. But that was not noticed by the many, because they, after all, were accustomed to have nature dressed up for them, and had had their taste so corrupted by a certain kind of lyricism that they had lost the power of distinguishing between truth and artificiality. Even those who might have noticed it were so astonished and delighted at being shown Jesus in the Galilaean landscape that they were content to yield to the enchantment.
Along with this artificial feeling for nature a good many other things were accepted without question. There is scarcely any other work on the subject which so abounds in lapses of taste—and those of the most distressing kind—as Renan’s Vie de Jésus. It is Christian art in the worst sense of the term—the art of the wax image. The gentle Jesus, the beautiful Mary, the fair Galilaeans who formed the retinue of the “amiable carpenter,” might have been taken over in a body from the shop-window of an ecclesiastical art emporium in the Place St. Sulpice. Nevertheless, there is something magical about the work. It offends and yet it attracts. It will never be quite forgotten, nor is it ever likely to be surpassed in its own line, for nature is not prodigal of masters of style, and rarely is a book so directly born of enthusiasm as that which Renan planned among the Galilaean hills.
 La Vie de Jésus de D. Fr. Strauss. Traduite par M. Littré, 1840.
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