Brother Daniel, of Taize

A Secret Shared

translated from the French
by Brother Anthony, of Taize

Part One : Palissy's Secret

Someone with a secret is always in an ambiguous position, regarded by others with either respect or irony; yet those are probably in fact only two contrasting manifestations of a single inner attitude. Who, after all, does not long to learn the key to any mystery, and so in turn become an initiate? That is why a secret is always tinged with something of the sacred, even when it concerns a matter in itself of little importance -- merely the secret of a potter's glaze, for example. In any case, the holder of a secret is not so unlike a priest, who is listened to or ignored, depending on whether he speaks out or keeps silent.

There can be very few potters today who have the writings of the sixteenth century writer Bernard Palissy among the books on their shelves. In their initial exploration of the potters' craft, people mainly consult books in quest of technical data; but generally speaking, even in France, if Palissy's name is mentioned at all, he is considered an old-time craftsman who can be of little help to us today. Particularly, once the beginner learns that Palissy refused to reveal the secret of his glazes, the feeling usually grows that there is little or nothing to be gained by reading him. The story of his life is duly laid to rest among the dusty chronicles of days gone by.

I once scanned Alexandre Brogniart's Traite des Arts Ceramiques, for Brogniart was recognized as a supreme technician, the head of the great Sevres potteries in the middle of the nineteenth century; but the only thing his book taught me, as far as our sixteenth-century potter was concerned, was that "Bernard Palissy's book has nothing to teach us about pottery." And that certainly seemed to be that.

Admittedly, if pottery is only a matter of formulae and dry technology, we may reasonably say that Palissy's work is pretty insignificant. But if pottery is a form of self- expression, then perhaps the "inventor of the rustic figures of the King and his mother the Queen" has something to teach us after all.

Although Palissy is not highly esteemed among the professionals of clay and glaze today, there are a few facts about him that have remained alive and stay fixed in the mind, for they are still sometimes taught to children at school. There is a Palissy legend, although the word is perhaps not strong enough. It is the epic story of a craftsman's life, and it cannot fail to move an attentive listener: it tells how, in days long ago, a young man had a vision of a marvelous bowl and resolved then and there to sacrifice everything he had in order to achieve it. But at once malevolent powers laid snares and traps to block the path, so that the bowl seemed to lie farther and farther beyond his reach. Yet he persevered, unfailingly faithful in his quest, accepting utter poverty in a resolute struggle against the elements, until that became an initiation which brought him ultimate success by the sacrifice of all his goods. All the epic story of Palissy's exemplary life is summed up in one phrase: 'Palissy burned even his furniture, even the planks in his floor' (Larousse). We cannot help picturing luxurious furnishings going up in smoke, although in actual fact it must have been a matter of a few poor kitchen stools!

A legend is always hard to forget, for it nourishes our dreams, but I fear that this particular legend has rather helped to obscure Palissy's true identity, by which I mean the personal contribution made by a particular human being to human existence.

Luckily we still have the scientists. While the potters act disdainful and lovers of tales exclaim, scientists recognize in Palissy an exceptional innovator, even if Brogniart felt able to write that "there is little basis to all that he wrote about clays, rocks, marls, salts, and waters."

The most recent edition of Palissy's Complete Works was published by Albert Blanchard, a publisher specializing in scientific and technical titles, and in his Preface the mineralogist Jean Orcel sums up the many ways in which science is indebted to the Renaissance craftsman: "It is certainly possible to consider Palissy as the patron of French ceramics, but some consider that the fame of the potter has veiled the talents of the agriculturalist, the geologist, the chemist, the engineer, and the artist, to say nothing of the writer. For Palissy was all of those things too."

"In paleontology, he went further than Leonardo da Vinci (...) he was able to propose a theory of sedimentation (...) his conclusions on the formation of fossils were far ahead of his times, they represent an important step forward in the evolution of geology (...) You find him proposing completely new ideas about the affinities uniting bodies of varying natures, as well as the attraction he calls 'a supreme matter that attracts things of a common nature'." And I could go on quoting.

Perhaps inevitably, in his masterly rehabilitation Orcel did not attempt to illustrate those attitudes of Master Bernard that seem to me to be indicative of a most remarkable personality.

Many years have passed since Pierre Piganiol, himself a man of science, gave me the chance to read those Works whose very title is enough to prove that Palissy was no secretive and jealous spirit:

I believe that we owe these writings, above all, to Palissy's prodigious ability to feel wonder at the created universe, at living nature considered as something ever at work on itself: "God did not create things with the idea of leaving them idle." Palissy shared the spirit of rediscovery that was so characteristic of his age, and he was endowed with exceptional powers of observation; he found himself confirmed and sustained in this enthusiasm by his readings in the Bible, in particular by the Psalms of praise that the early Reformation had enabled him to discover and sing. Of course, you can read the Hymn to the Creator in Psalm 104 without feeling specially touched by 'the waters that flow among the hills'. But Palissy was no abstract spiritualist and, like Humanity on the very first Day, he set about drawing up a complete inventory of this Nature that so fascinated him, using all the resources of his sensitivity and intelligence.

Bringing a quite fresh mind, one freed of the theories of older tradition, he questioned everything he saw and everything he collected, intent on understanding where they came from and how they worked. He wrote, for example, in his Veritable Recipe, "Several times I have found rocks in which, no matter where you broke them, shells could be found, and those shells were of stone, harder than the rock surrounding them, and that caused me to strive and debate in my mind for several days on end, as I wondered and considered what might be the means and the cause of it." There we have only one example among thousands of those encounters with nature which must have left his brain little time to rest. Here now is a longer passage, which will show better than any commentary the precision of his powers of observation, how they were filled with wonder at everything he saw. It too is taken from that Veritable Recipe, which was first published in 1563 and was probably written the previous year, when Palissy was in prison for the first time on account of his religious convictions. It discusses the making of a hitherto unseen garden into which the Believer can retire "in order to escape from the iniquity and malice of men, and serve God."

Nothing, then, is negligible, everything is fascinating and of value in the work nature accomplishes. The simple observation of a single humble plant's growth may make us alert to a whole vast field of research. Therein lies the driving-force of Palissy's ceaseless activity; basically, his whole philosophy consists in trying to understand nature and then offering it a foot-hold so that it can serve the life of mankind. Therein too lies that wisdom, as Palissy calls it, to which his garden is dedicated; the fantastic, but by no means chimeric, constructions adorning his dream-garden bear mottoes taken from the Wisdom of Solomon, where one may also read this passage which certainly must have inspired him, although he never quoted it directly:

Pallisy, then, gives us the example of someone who knows himself to be part of the created world, and therein lies his humility -- that of a man who ever strives to submit his own activities to the organic processes of a world in constant gestation. Therein lies his praise.

Palissy's exuberant sense of wonder only attains its full dimensions when he is able to share it. He is someone who has to shout out his joy, almost forcing his audience to grasp what he has discovered. That explains all that his works contain. His whole life, in freedom and in captivity, was haunted by what might be called a duty to share: whenever he discovers something that turns out to be of some use, it must become part of the common good. This eagerness too has its origins in the meditation of the Scriptures, for he quotes Saint Paul: "Let each give to others as he has himself received from God." Similarly, the Parable of the Talents is the basic charter of his obedience. Here is how he opens the letter that stands at the beginning of the Veritable Recipe, addressed to the Marshal de Montmorency, who freed him from his first imprison ment:

The second part of Palissy's writings, his Discours Admirables (Admirable Discourses), continues in the same direction. It was written in Paris in 1580, but before publishing it its author was anxious to verify that what he was communicating was well- founded. To that end he established what he called his "Little Academy" and there, standing before his collections of stones, crystals, geodes, shells, and fossils, he explained to the "intelligentsia" of Paris the conclusions of his investigations. As professor Orcel has written, "we are indebted to Palissy for the idea of public lectures (...) It was a quite new idea and Palissy, who was sure of himself and not afraid to challenge received ideas and the theories of learned scholars, taught with enthusiasm." Palissy himself mentions this experience in his chapter on stones:

After all of which, it may seem quite incredible that Palissy refused so categorically to communicate the secret of his glazes!

It might be thought that despite his convictions he could not, as a craftsman, break free from the old corporate traditions that obliged workers to keep their methods of manufacture secret, an obligation that could even sometimes go so far as to threaten those who broke it with death. If that had been the case, I would have thought that from the beginning Palissy would have put forward some such argument in his Art de la Terre (Art of Earth), as a reply to the attacks of his partner in dialogue. Yet the reasons he offers are of a quite different order. Here I find myself obliged to expose the main ideas of that little treatise, in which are found some of our potter's most famous lines.

First, it must be noted that Palissy offers his teaching in the form of dialogues, in which his partner is generally made to look a perfect ass. That seems to have been fairly general among writers of the 16th century. I personally feel that if he chose that genre, it was also a form of charity. Since the reader naturally takes the side of obvious intelligence, the novelty of what is being put forward is better able to pass. Nonetheless, several centuries had still to pass before ordinary geologists recognized the metamorphosis of rocks, or ordinary gardeners admitted the value of liquid manure...

Generally speaking Theoric, for that is the name given to the imaginary partner, refuses stubbornly to understand anything. Still, he does not fail to respond to the potter by powerful arguments. In the Art de Terre, though, Palissy's aim is to ask himself the vital questions. "Do you really believe that a man of sound judgement would be willing to give away the secrets of an art that cost the one who invented it a high price?" To which Theoric replies, "There is no charity in you. If you are resolved to keep your secret hidden in this way, you will take it with you to the grave and none will profit from it, so that your end will be cursed; for it is written that each should distribute to others accordingly as he has received of the gifts of God. Therefore I conclude that if you do not show me what you know of this art, you are abusing the gifts of God."

There can be no possible doubt about it. Palissy begins by using against himself the argument which, as we have seen, is the very basis of his own desire to communi cate; that can only mean that there is a charity hidden within his refusal that goes far beyond the alms of any mere recipe. It is amusing -- and perfectly understandable in a pure technologist -- to see how Brogniart, in his book, took the side of Theoric and in the end adopted as his own the accusation of lack of charity!

Palissy now prepares to defend himself, not without an initial declaration: "I am resolved to do this (give the secrets of my art) only if I know under what title."

Already this first argument is deeply significant. The secrets of his potter's art are not on the same level as those of other disciplines. So the doctor, the agriculturalist, the preacher of the Word of God, are obliged to share the sum total of their sciences, "which are of common service to the whole republic."

On the other hand, once the craftsman reveals his techniques, his works become the objects of unlimited reproduction and nourish the greed of people interested only in money. When they are reproduced in this way, badly in general, by workmen in competition with one another, each scarcely able to earn a living, in the end the works themselves become overly common and are finally despised by all. Palissy gives examples, which he says he could multiply. He quotes objects in glass, Limoges enamels, "histories of Our Lady printed in wood cuts following the model of a German called Albert (Durer), only those stories were made in such great abundance that they fell into low esteem and were sold for two liards a piece, although the drawing was finely done," and even crucifixes hawked down the streets in Toulouse.

His argument concludes, "If I thought that you would keep the secret of my art as preciously as it deserves, I would have no hesitation in teaching it to you." Theoric responds, "If you are so good as to teach it to me, I promise I will keep it as secret as any to whom you might teach it."

Palissy has no illusions as to the quality of this promise. He knows too well that a formula transmitted leads to no valid result, unless the person asking for it is endowed with a solid inclination for research. For it is not possible to make anything of the Art de la Terre unless you are "veuillant, agile, portatif et laborieux (willing, agile, supple, and hard-working)." Besides which you have to have a paid job on the side, in order to be able to weather the disasters that are ever looming. Palissy was well-placed to know, he worked as a surveyor in times of hardship, and tells us that he "learned to do alchemy with teeth."

Theoric, however, thinks that if Practic (Palissy) describes in detail all the difficulties of the craft, he will be spared them himself, and be able to produce beautiful objects without having to make the slightest effort. Palissy, though, believes that the story of his life in the craft will put Theoric off wanting to be a potter for good, for as he says, "You will see that it is never possible to advance, or make any object marked with beauty and perfection, except with great and extreme labour, and not only that, for it is always accompanied by a thousand anxieties."

There would be a lot to say about the pages that follow, and each reader will respond to them differently. The literary scholar will rightly see in them one of the treasures of 16th century French literature. They are the basis for the legends that grew up. There is perhaps no more detailed document in all the history of arts and crafts. The humanist will be able to gauge the full stature of Palissy as a person. Personally, though, I wonder if you don't have to be a potter in order to gain an accurate idea of the full dimensions of a quest that lasted fifteen years in the life of someone who was obstinate, certainly, but who began more or less completely ignorant of everything to do with pottery, "like a man fumbling in the dark."

Brogniart was touched by Palissy's courage, but for him "all that can be learned from this dissertation" is summed up in the lesson that in the kiln the pots should be enclosed in clay boxes (sagars) in order to protect them from the ashes of the burning logs. That is certainly true, as far as precise technical communication is concerned, although an apprentice will equally find a simple method of research and learn the care that it requires. But perhaps a modern potter, pursuing his art outside of any industrial context, will feel as he reads something of the secret of his own vocation.

After listening to what he terms "a long song," terrible rather than instructive, Theoric comes back to the charge with the remark, "You still haven't told me anything about glazes." It seems to me that in the way in which he composes the final portion of his dialogue, Palissy reveals quite clearly the general topic of this Art de Terre: People were not created to put all their skills to sleep; the difficulties encountered along the way give us more chance of being truly ourselves than the exploitation of solutions discovered by others. Palissy's main concern in this text, then, is the future, not of pottery, but of humanity.

Unexpectedly, and without further pressing, Practic decides to reveal a major part of his knowledge: "The glazes I use are made of tin, lead, iron, steel, antimony, saphre (cobalt oxide), salicort (a seaside plant, the ash of which is rich in sodium carbonate), calcined wine sediment, lithargium, Perigord stone."

If Palissy were reporting here a real dialogue, he would have to go on to record his visitor's many questions about the exact nature of each of these ingredients. Even the least initiated visitor to our workshops always asks, for example, how vegetable ashes can be useful in pottery.

Theoric is not at all satisfied, though, or at least he is too interested to linger over what he has just heard, which, he says, tells him "nothing." The only thing he wants is the "dosage," the exact way in which the various components have to be mixed to give the various glazes. What he wants is to be able to produce equally beautiful objects, without learning the craft itself.

To which Practic replies, "The errors I have made in putting together my glazes have taught me more than the things that came out well. Therefore I am resolved that you should work to find the proper dosage, as I have done, for otherwise I fear that you will gain knowledge too cheaply, which may make you despise it..."

In his last reply, Theoric betrays himself completely. Seeing that he will gain nothing more by his questions, he begins to mock, claiming that Practic is really making a lot of fuss about "a mechanic art which can very well be done without."

Palissy puts on the lips of his bothersome interrogator a key word, 'mechanic.' Today we might say 'mechanical, routine'. To consider the art of glazed clay as a 'mechanic art' is to display a complete lack of understanding, and even to put forward a contradictory statement as a truth. Certainly, as Practic remarks in his final discussion, "in this art there are mechanical aspects, such as beating out the clay; and there are some who make pots for the everyday use of cooks, without any particular measure: they might be called mechanics. But as for the control of the fire, that must not be compared to things mechanical. You must realize that for a kiln to succeed, especially when the pieces are glazed, the fire must be controlled by so careful a philosophy that even the finest minds are labored by it, and often disappointed. As for the right method of putting the pieces in the kiln, that demands a most singular geometry."

Today's craftsman potters will at once recognize in this text the various aspects of their craft. Certainly, the beating out and kneading of the clay demands no great effort of the intelligence, at least not once those wearisome tasks have been perfectly learned and have become more or less instinctive. It is also true that the repetition involved in the production of a series of utilitarian objects, often necessary to earn one's daily bread, is not as fascinating as the quest for a new form or glaze, although the importance of routine gestures for any object, even the most utilitarian, should never be underestimated.

His last reply also shows us what 'art' means for Palissy, who does not make the modern distinction between 'artisan' and 'artist.' 'Art' is for him the decisive attitude of any person engaged in any undertaking, whose faculties of intelligence and sensitivity, far from ceasing to function, are ready to intervene every time that their activity is required.

Art is the style each person gives to their existence in order to attain the full dimensions of their own unique being. As for the motivation and the end of this art, it is love, more explicitly the love of life, which in Palissy's believing mind is one with the love of God. This becomes clear in the Veritable Recipe, when the author explains the reasons behind that fabulous work of art which would have been his life's crowning glory:

We can feel how much respect, intelligent observation of nature, and hard work, Palissy implies by this 'pleasure': so it becomes the gateway to a wondering contemplation.

What now can be said of Palissy's art, in the more limited sense of the term? His art disconcerts us today because we find it too heavy, too naturalistic, too academic. I imagine first that by the time he was about thirty, Palissy, who was a born craftsman, had perfectly mastered the art of stained glass, and I am quite prepared to believe that it was the full-scale exercise of that craft that brought about his passionate interest in geology, agriculture, and imagery.

One knows from personal experience how, once you begin to create your own glazes using vegetable ashes and various rocks, there is no longer a single plant, pebble, or natural phenomenon that leaves you indifferent. In crucibles exposed to the highest temperatures then available, Palissy saw glass manufactured, or may himself have manufactured glass, by the fusion of powdered silicon mixed with ashes (salicorne, fern, or beech), and he must have known equally the various methods of coloring it, using cobalt, iron, copper or manganese. I am therefore inclined to believe that he is exaggerating somewhat when he says that he knew nothing at all about the composition of glazes when he first undertook his research in ceramics! Besides, figurative stained glass had given him a training in drawing -- he had a natural talent for it -- and sharpened his natural observation of everything he saw.

Once back in Saintes after a wide-reaching tour of France, Palissy quickly realized that stained glass and images were no longer in fashion; this more or less coincided with his discovery of a new kind of ceramics: "Some twenty-five years ago, I was shown a clay cup, turned and glazed, of such beauty that I at once began to debate with myself, recalling how people had laughed at me when I was painting images. Seeing that in my native region people were beginning to loose all interest in them, and that there was no great demand for stained glass, either, it struck me that if I could find the method of making glazes, I would be able to make clay vessels and other things of fine form, because God had given me a certain skill in portraiture..."

It is difficult, perhaps useless, to try to analyze an emotion, but I cannot help wondering what may have been the deep reason for his choice? Why didn't Palissy opt for agriculture, as his co-religionist of the next generation, Olivier de Serres, did? I can well imagine that with the broad range of his knowledge, that he mentions all through his writings, the art of glazed clay must have seemed to offer a way of bringing together in a single activity all his various centers of interest. Deeper still, ornamental polychrome pottery would offer him a way of communicating more directly, more materially, his love of nature. Then, a few years later, after his discovery of the Holy Scriptures, that love was to blend with a possible way of praising God the Creator.

Palissy's art is, then, an art in imitation of nature; and since nothing is more beautiful than nature, and "the works of the Sovereign and first Edifier must be held in greater honor than those of human edifiers," he sets out to reproduce what he sees with a precision that verges on devotion. Here, for example, is his description of how he imagines the exterior of one of the eight pavilions to be build in his famous garden: "This first rock... will be made of terra cotta, carved and glazed like a twisted, lumpy rock in several strange colors. (...) Note that at the foot of the rock there will be a natural ditch or water cistern, as long as the rock itself. So I shall make several outcrops where I shall put various frogs, turtles, crabs, crayfish, and a great number of every kind of shell, the better to imitate a rock. And there will be several branches of coral with their roots right at the foot of the rock, so that they look as if they had grown in the said ditch. Likewise, a little higher up on the rock, there will be a number of holes and concavities above which there will be various snakes, aspics and vipers, lying twisted around the afore- mentioned lumps (...) and all these beasts will be carved and glazed so close to nature that real lizards and snakes will often come to inspect them, just as you know I have a pottery dog in my workshop that several dogs have been known to growl at, thinking it was real."

So we see that it is impossible to separate Palissy's works from his vision of the created world. For him, the making of a beautiful object is always the result of having penetrated this world, of having felt a sympathy with the first Beauty.

Now, living nature renews its beauty by unceasing work, and insofar as each human being recognizes a belonging to this nature and feels a solidarity with the Creator God's design of life, it is right for them to enter into this work. Now that can only be done by loving, and "Love cannot be lived by recipes." That is what I would gladly call Palissy's real secret!

The Art de Terre has a special place among Bernard Palissy's works. In all his other writings the aim is to transmit the results of observations "out of a concern for the common good," but here he proposes a way of living, a 'humanistic' attitude to things, without which we find ourselves drained of our natural sap, instead of its being able to help in the production of fruit.

In this text, Palissy's charity appears severe: it is scarcely possible, he says, to produce fruit without suffering, and easy methods do not help maturation. That too was something he had read in the book of nature. In the Veritable Recipe he had written:

Imprisoned for his Evangelical faith, Palissy died in the Bastille in 1589. He was due to be "cut in pieces and thrown into the fire" like a fruitless tree. But a protector with some influence was able to save him from that torture, at least.

I cannot help believing that Bernard Palissy, constantly pruned by suffering, and heavy with fruit, must have been a happy man, happy to have lived, happy in the end to have been "laden to death."

opens eyes
of periwinkle.

Low and heavy the earth,
yet between my hands
see it rise!

Early spring hangs
like strands of wool
snagged in the hedgerows.

My pots are born
all pure
between my muddy hands.

Prodigal springtime!
Even the rubbish-dump
is fringed with anemones!

My clay bird
needs no fire
before it can whistle!

In the window
a broken pane.
Chaffinch song.

I, the primrose,
am your streetlight,
busy ant!

she turns her pots
with her eyes closed.

The blackbird
with his yellow beak
lights up his night.

Talented or no,
who cares?
I turn my pots.

In the salad-bed
one dandelion:
what beauty!

My fingers play,
a bow aginst the clay.
Music of forms.

the robin's song
at dew-fall!

In the fresh-born ocarina
I find an age-old

Sparrows squabble.
The flowering plum tree
weeps petals.

The iris dips its bud
in purple ink
and paints its own flower.

Back to Index | Go Home