Over the course of your ministry, you will hear from many people of who they have had deeply spiritual experiences as they encountered great works of art: Carravagio’s Taking of the Christ in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin or the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, for example. You are already aware of how the spiritual message of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has been misused in promoting Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
Think of how many people visit Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London solely to see William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. For me, this is the first image of Christ that I remember from my childhood, an image first shown to me in a book by my grandmother.
But works of art that are less well-known also have a strong impact on people, and necessarily during the first encounter. Although many of our churches have large east windows, this is the place for great works of art in, for example, the chapels of many colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, or in Lutheran churches throughout Scandinavia and Germany.
People will come to your churches to see the windows, or a painting, or the Telford organ, or the carved pews. Who can deny that these are religious experiences?
This morning, I want to introduce eight great paintings that may help you develop a way of relating art to spirituality.
The first work bridges the gap between Byzantine art and the classical western art; the second, from Raphael, bridges the gap between the mediaeval and the modern in western art; the third provides an interesting challenge to our preconceived ideas about the Continental Reformations; the fourth and fifth are from the Pre-Raphaelites, who had a particular relationship with the development of Victorian Anglicanism; the sixth is by a modern artist whose work cannot be understood without understanding his theology and his spirituality; and the seventh and eighth are from a controversial modern surrealist who, surprisingly, believed he was inspired by revelations.
1, El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588):
El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588)
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588) was painted by El Greco, the Greek painter who is regarded as the architect of the Spanish Renaissance. This painting is widely regarded as one of his finest works. It illustrates a popular local legend. An exceptionally large painting, it is very clearly divided into two sections, with the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, but it gives little impression of duality, and the upper and lower sections are brought together in a unified composition.
The painting is based on a legend from the early 14th century. Don Gonzalo Ruíz of Toledo, lord of the town of Orgaz, who died in 1312, was a pious and charitable man. He left money for the enlargement and adornment of the church of Santo Tomé, which was El Greco’s parish church. According to the legend, when he was being buried, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine came down in person from heaven and buried the good knight with their own hands in front of the dazzled eyes of those present.
El Greco’s painting was commissioned by Father Andrés Núñez, the parish priest of Santo Tomé, for the side-chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Santo Tomé.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz has been admired not only for its art, but also because it was a gallery of portraits of the most eminent social figures of that time in Toledo.
The priest who commissioned El Greco is portrayed in the painting reading, while there is a life-like portrayal of the notable men of Toledo of the time. By including them in this painting, El Greco was paying homage to the aristocracy of the spirit, the clergy, the jurists, the poets and the scholars, who honoured him and his art, which had been spurned some time earlier in Italy.
Theologically, we should note how the painting is clearly divided into two zones: above, heaven is evoked by swirling icy clouds, semi-abstract in their shape, while the saints are tall and spirit-like; below, all is normal in the scale and proportions of the figures.
Can you see how the upper and lower zones are brought together in the composition? This is achieved, for example, by the standing figures, by their varied participation in the earthly and heavenly event, by the torches, by the cross, and so on.
The scene of the miracle is depicted in the lower part of the composition, in the earthly section. In the upper part, the heavenly domain, the clouds have parted to receive this just man. Christ clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
This finds an obvious and immediate inspiration in the Greek Orthodox composition of the Deesis, where the enthroned Christ is guarded on each side by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, an arrangement that is generally seen on the iconostasis of Greek Orthodox churches too.
These three central figures of heavenly glory are surrounded by apostles, martyrs, Biblical kings and the just – including King Philip II of Spain, although he was still alive at the time.
Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine, robed in golden and red vestments, bend reverently over the body of the count, who is clad in armour that reflects the yellow and reds of the other figures.
The young boy at the left is El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel. Written on a handkerchief in his pocket is the artist’s signature and the date 1578, the year the boy was born.
El Greco is also included in the painting: his face is just above of the saint’s golden hat.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, The Dormition of the Virgin, Syros
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is El Greco’s first completely personal work. There are no longer any references to Roman or Venetian formulas or motifs. Yet El Greco remained a Byzantine painter all his life, and this painting should be compared with the composition of the Dormition of the Virgin, an icon found in 1983 in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the Greek island of Syros. It is now accepted that this icon was written by El Greco at the end of his career in his native Crete.
2, Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-1511):
Raphael, The School of Athens (1510-1511)
The School of Athens, or Scuola di Atene, is one of the most famous paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1510 and 1511 as part of Raphael’s commission from Pope Julius II, who wanted Raphael to decorate the rooms now known as the Raphael Rooms or Stanze di Raffaello, in the Vatican Museums in Rome, with frescoes.
The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of the rooms decorated by Raphael, and The School of Athens, the second painting he finished there, after La Disputa on the opposite wall. The work has long been regarded as his masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the High Renaissance.
However, the title, The School of Athens, is not Raphael’s: it comes from a 17th century guidebook, and the title tends to obscure the painting’s immediate context and meaning.
It is actually one of a group on the four walls of the Stanza depicting distinct themes of knowledge. Each theme is identified above by a separate tondo with a majestic female figure seated in the clouds, with putti bearing the phrases: “Seek Knowledge of Causes,” “Divine Inspiration,” “Knowledge of Things Divine” (Disputa), “To Each What Is Due.” The figures on the walls below represent Philosophy, Poetry (including Music), Theology and Law.
The proper name of The School of Athens is therefore “Philosophy,” and its overhead tondo-label, Causarum Cognitio, appears to echo Aristotle’s emphasis on wisdom as knowing why, hence knowing the causes (Metaphysics Book I and Physics Book II).
Aristotle appears to be the central figure in the scene below. Many of the philosophers shown in the fresco lived before Plato and Aristotle, hardly a third were Athenians, and the architecture is Roman, not Greek.
Commentators have suggested that nearly every great Greek philosopher can be found in the painting. But trying to identify who is who is difficult. Raphael left no newspaper-photograph caption for his work, and there are no contemporary documents to explain the painting.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Raphael found he had to invent his own system of iconography to allude to various philosophers for whom there had been no previous or traditional visual types. For example, while the figure of Socrates is immediately recognisable from classical busts, the figure said to be Epicurus is far removed from his standard type.
And yet there is widespread agreement on the identity of certain figures within the painting.
There is a popular notion that the rhetorical gestures of Plato and Aristotle show Plato pointing up to the heavens and Aristotle pointing down to earth. And yet, Plato’s Timaeus – which Raphael places in his hand – was a sophisticated treatment of space, time and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium. For his part, Aristotle, in his theory of four elements, held that all change on Earth was caused by the motions of the heavens. In the painting Aristotle carries his Ethics, which he denied could be a scientific study.
We do not known how much the young Raphael knew of ancient philosophy, what guidance he had from people such as Donato Bramante, or what detailed programme may have been dictated by the Pope.
Raphael orchestrates a beautiful space, continuous with that of the viewers in the Stanza, in which a variety of human figures, each expressing “mental states by physical actions,” interact and are grouped in a “polyphony” unlike anything in earlier art, in the ongoing dialogue of Philosophy.
The identity of some of the philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, the two central figures, is incontrovertible. But scholars disagree on many of the other figures, some of whom have double identities as ancients and as figures contemporary to Raphael. In addition, the extent of double portrayals is uncertain although, for example, it is generally accepted that Michelangelo is portrayed.
A key to understanding Raphael’s School of Athens
Raphael’s figures are usually identified as follows:
1, Zeno of Citium;
3, Federico II of Mantua?
4, Anicius Manilus Sverinus Boethius, or Anaximander, or Empedocles.
7, Alcibiades, or Alexander the Great?
8, Atisthenes, or Xenophon?
9, Hypatia (Francesco Maria della Rovere).
10, Aeschines, or Xenophon?
13, Heraclitus (Michelangelo).
14, Plato (Leonardo da Vinci).
16, Socrates, or Diogenes, or Sinope?
18, Euclid, or Archimedes with students (Bramante)?
19, Strabo or Zoroaster (Pietro Bembo).
R, Appeles (Raphael).
21, Protogenes (Il Sodomoa, Perugio or Timoteo Viti).
In the centre of the fresco, at its architectural central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects – Plato on the left, and his student Aristotle on the right. Both hold copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds Timaeus, Aristotle holds his Nicomachean Ethics. Plato is depicted as old, grey, wise-looking, and barefooted. By contrast Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, handsome, well-shod and dressed, with gold, and the youth about them seem to look his way.
In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upwards along the picture-plane, into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plan at right-angles to the picture-plane, initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, Plato and his theory of forms, Aristotle and his empiricist views, with an emphasis on concrete particulars.
The setting of this work is also important. The building is in the shape of a Greek cross, which some commentators suggest was intended to show a harmony between pagan philosophy and Christian theology. The architecture of the building was inspired by the work of Bramante who is said to have helped Raphael with the architecture in the picture. Some writers suggest that the building itself was intended to be an advance view of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
There are two sculptures in the background. On the left is Apollo, the god of the Sun, archery and music, holding a lyre; on the right is Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in her Roman guise as Minerva.
At the time, the major controversies may have been caused by the inclusion of a woman, Hypatia, who was regarded as the brightest of the students at the School of Athens, and the Spanish philosopher Averroes, a Muslim who has often been described as the founder of western secular thinking.
Does Raphael in this fresco succeed in showing how theologians can reconcile philosophy with theology?
3, Rembrandt, The Nightwatch (1642):
Rembrandt, The Nightwatch (1642):
The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) is the most famous work by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. The painting is best known for three striking elements: its colossal size (363 x 437 cm); the effective use of light and shadow; and the perception of motion in what might have been expected to be a static military portrait.
This painting was completed in 1642, at the peak of the golden age in the history of The Netherlands. It shows the company moving out, led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, dressed in black with a red sash, and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, dressed in yellow with a white sash. Rembrandt’s effective use of sunlight and shade leads the eye to the three most important characters among the crowd, the two gentlemen in the centre, and the small girl in the centre left background. Behind them the company’s colours are carried by the ensign, Jan Visscher Cornelissen.
Rembrandt shows the traditional emblem of the militiamen, the arquebusiers, in a natural way: the girl in yellow dress in the background is carrying the main symbols: the claws of a dead chicken on her belt, the pistol behind the chicken, which refers to the name of the militia, and the militia’s goblet. The man in front of her is wearing a helmet with an oak leaf, a traditional motif of the militia. The dead chicken represents a defeated adversary, while the colour yellow symbolises victory.
The painting was commissioned by the captain and 17 members of the militia, who each paid a large sum for the painting which was to hang in musketeers’ newly-built banquet hall in Amsterdam. Some critics suggest that the occasion for Rembrandt’s commission was the visit of the then French Queen Marie de Medici in 1638. At the time she was escaping from her exile from France by her son, Louis XIII, but her arrival in Amsterdam was an occasion for great pageantry.
For centuries, the Nightwatch was covered with a dark varnish, giving the false impression that it shows a night scene, giving it its popular name. In 1715, the painting was moved cut down on all four sides so could fit between two columns in a new setting. This resulted in the loss of two characters on the left-hand side of the painting, as well as the top of the arch, the balustrade and the edge of the step, even though the balustrade and step were key visual tools used by Rembrandt to give the painting a forward motion.
This varnish was removed only in the 1940s.
Why I have I chosen this painting?
This painting has an important place in European culture. It is the most famous and most popular exhibit in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and is said to be the fourth most famous painting in the Western world, after the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper and Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
It has inspired many musical works, including the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s 7th Symphony, and the front cover of Terry Pratchett’s novel, Night watch, is illustrated with a parody of the painting.
But I also think when we see this painting without the gloomy varnish coat that covered it until the 1940s, we realise that Dutch Calvinist society was not as gloomy and dour as some prejudices might lead us to think. In fact, at is height, Dutch Calvinist society was a bright and interesting culture.
You might like to think too of Rembrandt’s great paintings of Biblical figures. His figures were often based on members of Amsterdam’s thriving Jewish community at the time.
And so Rembrandt’s corpus of work integrates many aspects of religious life as it impacted the secular concerns of 17th century Continental Europe.
4, William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854-1855):
William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat (1854):
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) is best known for his painting The Light of the World [see The Light of the World: art as spirituality]. There are two versions of that painting, one in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a second in the chapel of Keble College, Oxford.
Holman Hunt was a founding figure in the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of English painters and poets who hoped to bring to their art the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. Little did I realise when I was selecting this painting for this morning, that [the Revd Dr] Maurice [Elliott] would select another paonting by Holman Hunt, The Shadow of Death, to illustrate his introduction to Evangelical Spirituality in the chapel on Monday morning.
This painting, The Scapegoat (1854-1855), which hangs in the Lever Gallery in Liverpool, has two Biblical quotations on the original frame: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows/Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53: 4); and “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited” (Leviticus 16: 22).
The Scapegoat was the first major painting by Holman Hunt during his first visit to the Holy Land. He was there in search of scenes to use in planned paintings ofg the life of Christ. But the idea for this picture came while he was studying the Talmud for information on Jewish ritual for his painting, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple.
Hunt learned how on the Day of Atonement, one goat was sacrificed while another was ejected from the Temple with a scarlet piece of woollen cloth on its head. It was goaded and driven, either to death or into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of the community. It was believed that if these sins were forgiven the scarlet cloth would turn white.
In Leviticus, which is quoted on the frame, the goat is said to bear the iniquities of all into a land that was not inhabited. Hunt saw this Old Testament scapegoat as prefiguring Christ whose suffering and death expunged the sins of humanity.
Hunt set his goat in a landscape of quite hideous desolation – the shore of the Dead Sea at Osdoom, with the mountains of Edom in the distance. At the time, he described this setting as “a scene of beautifully arranged horrible wilderness,” and he saw the Dead Sea as a “horrible figure of sin,” believing, as many at the time believed, that it was the original site of Sodom.
In a letter to Dante Rossetti in 1855, Holman Hunt said the extraordinary sight of the Dead Sea for the first time led to his decision to paint this subject. Hunt spent two weeks on the edge of the Dead Sea painting in the landscape and making sketches and notes. Although he took a white goat with him, and tehered it near the shoreline of the Dead Sea, he left blank that part of the picture that the animal occupies and only painted the animal when he returned to his studio in Jerusalem.
Take a look at the foreground. Holman Hunt actually brought back samples of mud and salt from the Dead Sea to help him finish the foreground. In Jerusalem, he also bought or borrowed sheep and goat skulls and a full camel skeleton.
In both versions of this painting, he included the skull of an ibex, though in one version the skull and horns have become separated. The ibex skull was added to oblige a friend who told Holman Hunt that he should have used a goat with curved horns.
Hunt sold the picture for 450 guineas. The Liverpool soap magnate Lever bought the painting in 1923 for £4,950. It was exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in 1923 and it now hangs in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool. A smaller version of this painting, with a black goat and a rainbow symbolising hope and forgiveness of sins, is in the Manchester Art Gallery.
5, Dante Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850):
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Annunciation (1850)
The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites. The son of the exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.
Dante Rossetti studied at the Royal Academy, where he met William Holman Hunt and John Millais, and together they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Rossetti’s first Pre-Raphaelite paintings in oils, based on religious themes and with elements of mystical symbolism, were The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849) and The Annunciation: Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), both in the Tate Gallery, London.
I thought after last night’s Advent Carol Service, and after last week’s Advent Procession in Christ Church Cathedral, when, on both occasions, we sang Sabine Baring-Gould’s Gabriel’s Message, that Rossetti’s The Annunciation might be appropriate to look at this morning.
This painting, which is in the Tate in London, was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, along with works by Millais and Holman Hunt, all with Christian themes. In this painting, white dominates, only relieved by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity. The Archangel Gabriel offers Mary a lily – a flower that always denotes purity when shown alongside the Virgin Mary – as he tells her she is to bear the Christ child.
But what is unusual about this painting?
What was controversial about it?
Did you notice how Mary is shown in a state of fear? How she is cowering against the wall and casting her eyes down? This portrayal of Mary contrasts with many artistic depictions of the annunciation, where she is shown in a state of humble acceptance.
In painting his Annunciation in such a realistic manner, Rossetti was breaking with tradition. Italian Renaissance artists had painted the Virgin Mary as a holy figure, isolated and set aside from ever-day life. But in this work, she is an ordinary Mary, an every-day girl bewildered by the news she has just hear from the Angel Gabriel.
And, as you can image, large sections of the public were enraged.
6, Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927):
Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927):
This painting hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and I have been intrigued by it long before it was used to illustrate a major feature of mine in The Irish Times.
The English artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1956) believed that the divine rested in all creation. His earthy Christian faith and his preoccupation with death and resurrection are reflected in many of his works. His mural for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, dedicated to the dead of World War I, has an altarpiece depicting the Resurrection of the Soldiers.
Stanley Spencer was born in and spent most of his life in the Thames-side village of Cookham in Berkshire, about 30 miles west of London. One of 12 children, he seems to have had an enchanted childhood. Perhaps this explains why he saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise in which everything is invested with mystical significance.
Characters and stories drawn from the daily Bible readings with his father inspired his future work. Much of his greatest work depicts Biblical scenes, from miracles to the Crucifixion. However, they are set not in the Holy Land, but – like this painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1923–1927) – are set in Cookham, which he referred to as “a village in heaven.” Cookham and its familiar figures became the ingredients for most of his paintings, with actual villagers depicted as Biblical characters.
The Resurrection, Cookham is the first of a great series of resurrection paintings. The entire population of the village – including Spencer – is seen popping out of their graves in the churchyard in Cookham, looking as dapper as ever, squinting in the sunlight of bright sunny day.
Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer himself appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone. His fiancée Hilda Carline – whom he married in 1925 while working on this painting – lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, we can see risen souls being transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed along the River Thames.
But do you notice anything odd here?
This is a resurrection without a last judgment. It seems everyone in Cookham is to be forgiven their sins.
7, Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross (1951):
Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross
The Christ of Saint John of the Cross was painted by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) in 1951, and is probably the best-known modern painting of the Crucifixion.
The painting shows Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. The people beside the boat are derived from a picture by Le Nain and from a drawing by Velazquez. But the painting takes its theme, inspiration and title from a drawing by the 16th century Spanish Carmelite mystic Saint John of the Cross, in which Christ is depicted as if seen from above. That work is now in the convent in Avila.
Although this is a depiction of the Crucifixion, did you notice how there are no nails, blood, wounds, or crown of thorns?
Dalí said he was convinced in a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ.
Secondly, take a look at the angle that we are asked to see Christ from.
Once again, Dalí said that in a dream he was revealed the importance of depicting Christ in this extreme angle.
In 1961, the canvas was damaged by a visitor to the museum who threw a brick at it. He later explained his action, saying the viewpoint of the artist was looking down on rather than up at Christ on the Cross.
Thirdly, notice how the composition of Christ is based on a triangle and circle. The triangle is formed by Christ’s arms; the circle is formed by Christ’s head.
What is the artist saying here?
The triangle, since it has three sides, can be seen as a reference to the Trinity. The circle may be an allusion to Platonic thought.
On the bottom of his studies for the painting, Dalí explained its inspiration: “In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!”
This painting was regarded as banal by an important art critic when it was first exhibited in London for the first time at the Lefevre Gallery. It was bought by Glasgow Corporation in the early 1950s for £8,200, which was a very high price high at the time. It now hangs in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and has been voted Scotland’s favourite painting.
8, Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ (1958):
Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ (1958):
Dali said that his inspiration for The Ascension of Christ similarly came from a “cosmic dream” that he had eight years earlier in 1950. In the dream, which was in vivid colour, he said he saw the nucleus of an atom, which we see in the background of the painting.
Dali said he later realised that this nucleus was the true representation of the unifying spirit of Christ. As with most of Dali’s other paintings of Christ, his face is not visible.
Did you notice how the figure of the Christ, from his feet in the foreground to his outstretched arms, forms a triangle?
The feet of Christ point out at me as the viewer, drawing my eye inwards along his body to the centre of the atom behind him. The atom has the same interior structure as the head of a sunflower.
We have just noticed how Dali first used a triangular structure in 1951 in his painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross.
The painting is also formed by the theories of the golden rectangle. A golden rectangle is a rectangle whose side lengths are in the golden ratio, one-to-phi, that is, approximately 1:1.618. A distinctive feature of this shape is that when a square section is removed, the remainder is another golden rectangle, that is, with the same proportions as the first. Square removal can be repeated infinitely, which leads to an approximation of the golden or Fibonacci spiral.
What do you think Dalí is trying to say to us by using the gold rectangle in this work? What is he saying about the Cosmic Christ and eternity?
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for Today, on Thursday, 10 November 2009.