MoboReader> Literature > True Words for Brave Men

   Chapter 27 A PORTRAIT IN THE NATIONAL GALLERY.

True Words for Brave Men By Charles Kingsley Characters: 10411

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Any one who goes to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, may see two large and beautiful pictures-the nearer of the two labelled 'Titian,' representing Bacchus leaping from a car drawn by leopards. The other, labelled 'Francia,' representing the Holy Family seated on a sort of throne, with several figures arranged below-one of them a man pierced with arrows. Between these two, low down, hangs a small picture, about two feet square, containing only the portrait of an old man, in a white cap and robe, and labelled on the picture itself, 'Joannes Bellinus.' Now this old man is a very ancient friend of mine, and has comforted my heart, and preached me a sharp sermon, too, many a time. I never enter that gallery without having five minutes' converse with him; and yet he has been dead at least three hundred years, and, what is more, I don't even know his name. But what more do I know of a man by knowing his name? Whether the man's name be Brown, or whether he has as many names and titles as a Spanish grandee, what does that tell me about the man?-the spirit and character of the man-what the man will say when he is asked-what the man will do when he is stirred up to action? The man's name is part of his clothes; his shell; his husk. Change his name and all his titles, you don't change him-'a man's a man for a' that,' as Burns says; and a goose a goose. Other men gave him his name; but his heart and his spirit-his love and his hatred-his wisdom and his folly-his power to do well and ill; those God and himself gave him. I must know those, and then I know the man. Let us see what we can make out from the picture itself about the man whom it represents. In the first place, we may see by his dress that he was in his day the Doge (or chief magistrate) of Venice-the island city, the queen of the seas. So we may guess that he had many a stirring time of it, and many a delicate game to play among those tyrannous and covetous old merchant-princes who had elected him; who were keeping up their own power at the expense of everyone's liberty, by spies and nameless accusers, and secret councils, tortures, and prisons, whose horrors no one ever returned to describe. Nay, we may guess just the very men with whom he had to deal-the very battles he may have seen fought.

"But all these are circumstances-things which stand round the man (as the word means), and not the whole man himself-not the character and heart of the man: that we must get from the portrait; and if the portrait is a truly noble portrait we shall get it. If it is a merely vulgar picture, we shall get the man's dress and shape of his face, but little or no expression: if it is a pathetic portrait, or picture of passion, we shall get one particular temporary expression of his face-perhaps joy, sorrow, anger, disgust-but still one which may have passed any moment, and left his face quite different; but if the picture is one of the noblest kind, we shall read the man's whole character there; just all his strength and weakness, his kindliness or his sternness, his thoughtfulness or his carelessness, written there once and for ever;-what he would be, though all the world passed away; what his immortal and eternal soul will be, unless God or the devil changed his heart, to all eternity.

"We may see at once that this man has been very handsome; but it is a peculiar sort of beauty. How delicate and graceful all the lines in his face are!-he is a gentleman of God's own making, and not of the tailor's making. He is such a gentleman as I have seen among working men and nine-shilling-a-week labourers, often and often; his nobleness is in his heart-it is God's gift, therefore it shows in his noble looking face. No matter whether he were poor or rich; all the rags in the world, all the finery in the world, could not have made him look like a snob or a swell. He was a thoughtful man, too; no one with such a forehead could have been a trifler: a kindly man, too, and honest-one that may have played merrily enough with his grandchildren, and put his hand in his purse for many a widow and orphan. Look what a bright, clear, straightforward, gentle look he has, almost a smile; but he has gone through too many sad hours to smile much: he is a man of many sorrows, like all true and noble rulers; and, like a high mountain-side, his face bears the furrows of many storms. He has had a stern life of it, with the cares of a great nation on his shoulders. He has seen that in this world there is no rest for those who live like true men: you may see it by the wrinkles in his brow, and the sharp-cut furrows in his cheeks, and those firm-set, determined lips. His eyes almost show the marks of many noble tears,-tears such as good men shed over their nation's sins; but that, too, is past now. He has found out his path, and he will keep it; and he has no misgiving now about what God would have him do, or about the reward which God has laid up for the brave and just; and that is what makes his forehead so clear and bright, while his very teeth are clenched with calm determination. And by the look of those high cheek bones, and that large square jaw, he is a strong-willed man enough, and not o

ne to be easily turned aside from his purpose by any man alive, or by any woman either, or by his own passions and tempers. One fault of character, I think, he may perhaps have had much trouble with-I mean bitterness and contemptuousness. His lips are very thin; he may have sneered many a time, when he was younger, at the follies of the world which that great, lofty, thoughtful brain and clear eye of his told him were follies; but he seems to have got past that too. Such is the man's character: a noble, simple, commanding old man, who has conquered many hard things, and, hardest of all, has conquered himself, and now is waiting calm for his everlasting rest. God send us all the same.

"Now consider the deep insight of old John Bellini, who could see all this, and put it down there for us with pencil and paint. No doubt there was something in Bellini's own character which made him especially best able to paint such a man; for we always understand those who are most like ourselves; and therefore you may tell pretty nearly a painter's own character by seeing what sort of subjects he paints, and what his style of painting is. And a noble, simple, brave, godly man was old John Bellini, who never lost his head, though princes were flattering him and snobs following him with shouts and blessings for his noble pictures of the Venetian victories, as if he had been a man sent from God Himself, as indeed he was-all great painters are; for who but God makes beauty? Who gives the loving heart, and the clear eye, and the graceful taste to see beauty and to copy it, and to set forth on canvas, or in stone, the noble deeds of patriots dying for their country? To paint truly patriotic pictures well, a man must have his heart in his work-he must be a true patriot himself, as John Bellini was (if I mistake not, he had fought for his country himself in more than one shrewd fight). And what makes men patriots, or artists, or anything noble at all, but the spirit of the living God? Those great pictures of Bellini's are no more; they were burnt a few years afterwards, with the magnificent national hall in which they hung; but the spirit of them is not passed away. Even now, Venice, Bellini's beloved mother-land, is rising, new-born, from long weary years of Austrian slavery, and trying to be free and great once more; and young Italian hearts are lighting up with the thoughts of her old fleets and her old victories, her merchants and her statesmen, whom John Bellini drew. Venice sinned, and fell; and sorely has she paid for her sins, through two hundred years of shame, and profligacy, and slavery. And she has broken the oppressor's yoke. God send her a new life! May she learn by her ancient sins! May she learn by her ancient glories!

"You will forgive me for forgetting my picture to talk of such things. But we must return. Look back at what I said about the old portrait-the clear, calm, victorious character of the old man's face, and see how all the rest of the picture agrees with it, in a complete harmony. The dress, the scenery, the light and shade, the general 'tone' of colour should all agree with the character of the face-all help to bring our minds into that state in which we may best feel and sympathise with the human beings painted. Now here, because the face is calm and grand, the colour and the outlines are quiet and grand likewise. How different these colours are from that glorious 'Holy Family' of Francia's, next to it on the right; or from that equally glorious 'Bacchus and Ariadne' of Titian's, on the left! Yet all three are right, each for its own subject. Here you have no brilliant reds, no rich warm browns; no luscious greens. The white robe and cap give us the thought of purity and simplicity; the very golden embroidery on them, which marks his rank, is carefully kept back from being too gaudy. Everything is sober here; and the lines of the dress, how simple they all are-no rich curves, no fluttering drapery. They would be quite stiff if it were not for that waving line of round tassels in front, which break the extreme straightness and heaviness of the splendid robe; and all pointing upwards towards that solemn, thin, calm face, with its high white cap, rising like the peak of a snow mountain against the dark, deep, boundless blue sky beyond. That is a grand thought of Bellini's. You do not see the man's hands; he does not want them now, his work is done. You see no landscape behind-no buildings. All earth's ways and sights are nothing to him now; there is nothing but the old man and the sky-nothing between him and the heaven now, and he knows it and is glad. A few months more, and those way-worn features shall have crumbled to their dust, and that strong, meek spirit shall be in the abyss of eternity, before the God from whence it came.

"So says John Bellini, with art more cunning than words. And if this paper shall make one of you look at that little picture with fresh interest, and raise one strong and solemn longing in you to die the death of the righteous, and let your last end be like his who is painted there-then I shall rejoice in the only payment I desire to get, for this my afternoon's writing."

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares