When Men & Affairs of Commerce
On the placid waters of this canal in the Belgian city of Ghent (1), the façades of typical buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have been reflected for centuries. Buildings that give a singular impression of architectural balance created by the harmonic contrast between their imposing, serious and solid bulk and the rich, varied and imaginative ornamentation of their façades.
What was their original use, these buildings that appear so recollected and, we could even say, so pensive? Were they residences for patricians? Or perhaps centers of study?
No. They were occupied by entities of the guilds. To the extreme right is the headquarters of the Guild of Free Boatmen; next to it sets the house of Guild of Grain Measurers adjoined by the small Customs Building, where the medieval merchants came to declare their goods. Then, the Granary and, finally, the Bricklayers Guild.
They were, then, buildings of work and business. And history tells us that in these buildings a very intense and productive activity developed.
But economic production was not yet engulfed by today’s materialist influences. For this reason, it was conducted in an ambience of calm, reflection and good taste that contrasts greatly with the feverish, agitated, inconsiderate and vulgar atmosphere that so often marks business in our days. Who today would imagine such nobleness in business structures and such good taste for the works of guilds?
The problem here is more one of mentality than of art. According to a spiritual perspective, the best of the human works is made by the mind. Hence, economic production gives its best – in quality as well as quantity – when it is carried out in an atmosphere of an assiduous calm and meditative recollection.
According to a materialist perspective, quantity is more than quality; the performance of the body is more than that of the mind; feverish activity is more than reflection, and nervous agitation more than authentic reasoning. Hence, from this mentality arises the agitated atmosphere that we find in certain stock markets and large modern city streets.
The over-agitation of ambiences corresponds to man as the effect to the cause. We all know the kind of businessman who chews gum or the tips of his cigars, bites his fingernails or taps the ground with his foot. He is hypertensive, prone to heart attacks and neurotic.
How different this type is from those placid, stable, dignified and prosperous bourgeois with their intelligent gazes, offered to us by Rembrandt in the admirable painting The Syndics of the Textile Merchants.
It was men like these who, despite the still uncertain and slow means of communication, established in all directions the network of their activities and laid the foundation for modern commerce. Their work, however, was carried out in tranquility and, we would almost say, in recollection. Thus, they themselves reflect the peculiar atmosphere of the old buildings that we are analyzing.
It is a fecund lesson for our poor world, increasingly ravaged by neuroses.
- The guild houses are along the Graslei on the Lys (Leie) River, Ghent.
Catolicismo n. 92, August 1958
Posted June 18, 2014