And so Winckelmann, before his intended step, seemed anxious, fearful, sorrowful and swayed by deep emotion when he thought of its probable effect, especially upon his first patron, Count Buenau. How beautiful, sincere and upright are his confidential expressions upon this point!
For every man who changes his religion is marked by a certain stigma from which it seems impossible to free him. From this it is evident that men cherish a steadfast purpose above all else, all the more so because they, divided into factions, constantly have their own safety and stability in mind. This is not a matter of feeling or conviction. We should be steadfast precisely there where fate rather than choice places us. To remain faithful to one people, one city, one Prince, one friend, one woman; to trace back everything to them; to labor, want and suffer everything for their sake—this is estimable. To desert them is hateful; inconstancy is contemptible.
Thus is indeed the harsh, the very serious side of the question, but it may also be viewed from another point of view from which it has a more pleasing and less serious aspect. Certain conditions of society, which we in no sense approve of, certain moral blemishes in others, have an especial charm for the imagination. If the comparison be permitted, we might say that it is in this matter as it is with game which, to the cultivated palate, tastes far better slightly tainted than when fresh. A divorced woman or a renegade make an especially interesting impression. Persons who would otherwise appear to be merely interesting and agreeable, now appear admirable. It cannot be denied that Winckelmann’s change of religion considerably heightens in our imagination the romantic side of his life and being.
But to Winckelmann himself the Catholic religion presented nothing attractive. He saw in it only the masquerade dress which he threw around him, and expressed himself bitterly enough about it. Even at a later period he does not seem to have sufficiently observed its usages, and by loose speech he perhaps made himself suspicious to devout believers—here and there at least a slight fear of the Inquisition is perceptible.
The transition from literature, even from the highest things that have been expressed in word and language, from poetry and rhetoric, to the plastic and graphic arts is difficult, indeed almost impossible. For there lies between the two a tremendous chasm, over which only a specially adapted nature can help us. We have now a sufficiently large number of documents lying before us to enable us to judge how far Winckelmann succeeded in doing this.
Through the joy of appreciation he was first attracted to the treasures of art; but in order to use and judge them, he required artists as intermediaries, whose more or less authoritative opinions he was able to comprehend, revise, and express. In this manner originated his treatise Concerning the Imitation of Greek Masterpieces in Painting and Sculpture, with two appendices, published while he was still in Dresden.