Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Tower

I have been standing where everybody has stood, opposite the great
Belfry Tower of Bruges, and thinking, as every one has thought
(though not, perhaps, said), that it is built in defiance of all decencies
of architecture. It is made in deliberate disproportion to achieve
the one startling effect of height. It is a church on stilts.
But this sort of sublime deformity is characteristic of the whole fancy
and energy of these Flemish cities. Flanders has the flattest and most
prosaic landscapes, but the most violent and extravagant of buildings.
Here Nature is tame; it is civilisation that is untamable.
Here the fields are as flat as a paved square; but, on the other hand,
the streets and roofs are as uproarious as a forest in a great wind.
The waters of wood and meadow slide as smoothly and meekly
as if they were in the London water-pipes. But the parish
pump is carved with all the creatures out of the wilderness.
Part of this is true, of course, of all art. We talk of wild animals,
but the wildest animal is man. There are sounds in music that are
more ancient and awful than the cry of the strangest beast at night.
And so also there are buildings that are shapeless in their strength,
seeming to lift themselves slowly like monsters from the primal mire,
and there are spires that seem to fly up suddenly like a startled bird.

. . . . .

This savagery even in stone is the expression of the special spirit
in humanity. All the beasts of the field are respectable; it is only
man who has broken loose. All animals are domestic animals; only man
is ever undomestic. All animals are tame animals; it is only we who
are wild. And doubtless, also, while this queer energy is common to
all human art, it is also generally characteristic of Christian art
among the arts of the world. This is what people really mean when
they say that Christianity is barbaric, and arose in ignorance.
As a matter of historic fact, it didn't; it arose in the most
equably civilised period the world has ever seen.

But it is true that there is something in it that breaks
the outline of perfect and conventional beauty, something that dots
with anger the blind eyes of the Apollo and lashes to a cavalry
charge the horses of the Elgin Marbles. Christianity is savage,
in the sense that it is primeval; there is in it a touch
of the nigger hymn. I remember a debate in which I had praised
militant music in ritual, and some one asked me if I could
imagine Christ walking down the street before a brass band.
I said I could imagine it with the greatest ease; for Christ
definitely approved a natural noisiness at a great moment.
When the street children shouted too loud, certain priggish
disciples did begin to rebuke them in the name of good taste.
He said: "If these were silent the very stones would cry out."
With these words He called up all the wealth of artistic
creation that has been founded on this creed. With those words
He founded Gothic architecture. For in a town like this,
which seems to have grown Gothic as a wood grows leaves,
anywhere and anyhow, any odd brick or moulding may be carved off
into a shouting face. The front of vast buildings is thronged
with open mouths, angels praising God, or devils defying Him.
Rock itself is racked and twisted, until it seems to scream.
The miracle is accomplished; the very stones cry out.

But though this furious fancy is certainly a specialty of men among
creatures, and of Christian art among arts, it is still most notable
in the art of Flanders. All Gothic buildings are full of extravagant
things in detail; but this is an extravagant thing in design. All
Christian temples worth talking about have gargoyles; but Bruges
Belfry is a gargoyle. It is an unnaturally long-necked animal, like
a giraffe. The same impression of exaggeration is forced on the mind
at every corner of a Flemish town. And if any one asks,
"Why did the people of these flat countries instinctively raise
these riotous and towering monuments?" the only answer one can
give is, "Because they were the people of these flat countries."
If any one asks, "Why the men of Bruges sacrificed architecture
and everything to the sense of dizzy and divine heights?"
we can only answer, "Because Nature gave them no encouragement
to do so."

. . . . .

As I stare at the Belfry, I think with a sort of smile of some
of my friends in London who are quite sure of how children will
turn out if you give them what they call "the right environment."
It is a troublesome thing, environment, for it sometimes works
positively and sometimes negatively, and more often between the two.
A beautiful environment may make a child love beauty;
it may make him bored with beauty; most likely the two effects
will mix and neutralise each other. Most likely, that is,
the environment will make hardly any difference at all.
In the scientific style of history (which was recently fashionable,
and is still conventional) we always had a list of countries
that had owed their characteristics to their physical conditions.

The Spaniards (it was said) are passionate because their country
is hot; Scandinavians adventurous because their country is cold;
Englishmen naval because they are islanders; Switzers free
because they are mountaineers. It is all very nice in its way.
Only unfortunately I am quite certain that I could make up quite
as long a list exactly contrary in its argument point-blank
against the influence of their geographical environment.
Thus Spaniards have discovered more continents than Scandinavians
because their hot climate discouraged them from exertion.
Thus Dutchmen have fought for their freedom quite as
bravely as Switzers because the Dutch have no mountains.
Thus Pagan Greece and Rome and many Mediterranean peoples have
specially hated the sea because they had the nicest sea to deal with,
the easiest sea to manage. I could extend the list for ever.
But however long it was, two examples would certainly stand up in it
as pre-eminent and unquestionable. The first is that the Swiss,
who live under staggering precipices and spires of eternal snow,
have produced no art or literature at all, and are by far
the most mundane, sensible, and business-like people in Europe.
The other is that the people of Belgium, who live in a country
like a carpet, have, by an inner energy, desired to exalt their
towers till they struck the stars.

As it is therefore quite doubtful whether a person will go specially
with his environment or specially against his environment,
I cannot comfort myself with the thought that the modern
discussions about environment are of much practical value.
But I think I will not write any more about these modern
theories, but go on looking at the Belfry of Bruges. I would
give them the greater attention if I were not pretty well
convinced that the theories will have disappeared a long time
before the Belfry.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton