Turner and the Uncreated Light

The Uncreated Light is a very important doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy that was first formulated by St Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century, but is intimately connected with the writings of earlier figures such as Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses) and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (The Celestial Hierarchy). It is defined on Wikipedia as ‘the light revealed on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Jesus, identified with the light seen by Paul at his conversion’. The Wikipedia article goes on, ‘a completely purified saint who has attained divine union experiences the vision of divine radiance that is the same “light” that was manifested to Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration’.

So Orthodox theology has it that, through a process of purification, a person can experience this light of God in this present life. There was a controversy about this in the fourteenth century, involving Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. The latter contended that it was not possible to know God in this way, God is unknowable, but Gregory Palamas made an important distinction between the essence and the energies of God. That is, the essence of God cannot be known by his creatures, even in the next life, but we can participate in his energies, he is communicable to us through his energies, which we can experience in this life.

To experience this divine light, we have to leave behind the world of concepts. We tend to view the world as being full of objects – that is, we rely on our physical sight – and we rely also on our powers of reasoning. We observe and draw conclusions. But at some point we must leave the world of concepts behind in order to progress on our spiritual journey. The website The Ascetic Experience explains it like this: ‘When the intellect has transcended intelligible realities and the concepts mixed with images that pertain to them, and in a godly and devout manner has rejected all things, then it will stand before God deaf and speechless.’ The website goes on to describe the intellect’s proper state in very beautiful terms:

The intellect’s proper state is a noetic height, somewhat resembling the sky’s hue, which is filled with the light of the Holy Trinity during the time of prayer. If you wish to see the intellect’s proper state, rid yourself of all concepts, and then you will see it like sapphire or the sky’s hue. But you cannot do this unless you have attained a state of dispassion, for God has to cooperate with you and to imbue you with His own-natural light.

What exactly is dispassion? I always understand it as not giving in to our natural impulse to, say, get angry or lust after someone or covet property (which is a strange concept, anyway, since in the long run nothing belongs to us but the destiny of our soul). For me, it is as simple as curbing the impulses that cause unhappiness and arguments and disintegration, fragmentation of families and societies. But we cannot do this on our own. We need God’s help and simultaneously we must purify ourselves of the passions by participation in the Sacraments of the Church.

Some people (see the site Sacramental Living) connect the Uncreated Light with the light revealed at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the light that made Day (as opposed to the sun, the moon and the stars that were not created until the fourth day). Others connect it with the light in the Burning Bush, when God met Moses in the Book of Exodus (the fire that burns, but doesn’t scorch). A similar light is said to descend on the Holy Sepulchre on the night before Easter, from which Orthodox faithful light their Easter candles (known as ‘Holy Fire’). This is the light by which we will see in the heavenly Jerusalem, described in the Book of Revelation (21:23, 22:5).

The Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, whose work I have described in a previous article, connects the Uncreated Light with the bright white light so often found in J. M. W. Turner’s paintings. I would like to look in particular at the painting Undine Giving the Ring to Masaniello, Fisherman of Naples. The display caption for this painting says that Undine is a character in German fairytale written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and published in 1811. Masaniello (real name Tommaso Aniello) was an Italian fisherman who led a revolt against the rule of Habsburg Spain in Naples in 1647. So the caption – and, needless to say, all critics – focus on this background to the painting and how Turner might have got the idea from an opera, La Muette de Portici, or a ballet, Ondine, he had seen in London before carrying out the painting.

What both the display caption and the catalogue entry emphasize, however, is the ‘otherworldly light’, ‘that favourite white light of Turner’s’. Elenkova goes further and decides to give all her attention to the spiritual content of the painting rather than its historical context (which we are so prone to focus on and to pass on to our children). Let us look at the painting:

Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello, Fisherman of Naples by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00549)

In the middle of the painting, we see a ball of light. In her poem on the painting, Elenkova connects this ball of light with the Uncreated Light that was revealed to Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor, and the figure of Undine to the right she connects with the Virgin Mary. Beneath the ball of light can be seen a hand reaching up out of the sea (we see very clearly the tops of two fingers with their nails), to the right of which (said to be a fish Turner added later on) is what looks like a face (the fish would be the left eye, above it there is some hair, below it the nose and lips), which the poet links to the hand of God and the first Adam respectively. This part of the painting would refer to the creation of the world, and we all know how Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and got expelled from Paradise, becoming subject to death and corruption.

On the other side of the ball of light, in the top left-hand corner, against a background of darkness, can be seen the figure of Christ on the Cross, arms outstretched, head slumped. Christ is the second Adam, the one who came to redeem us from our sins, to show us the way back to eternity, but this will be an eternity with knowledge, not a naive eternity in which we are prone to make the same mistake. We will have learned something from the experience of living on this earth for three score years and ten. That is why I always say you cannot go back to the Garden of Eden, to a state of blissful ignorance – our progress must be onwards.

So the ball of light in the middle of the painting is the fruit that the Virgin Mary accepts not out of disobedience, as in the Garden of Eden, but out of obedience, the seed that is implanted in her womb when she is overshadowed by the power of the Most High (Luke 1:35), the fruit that will repair the damage that was done and reopen the way to heaven.

On the left of the ball of light, we see what looks like a meteorite crashing into the earth (said by scientists to be one possible way that life arrived on earth), but look at the reflection of the meteorite in the black waters. It makes what looks like a cross.

Turner, as so often, was lampooned for this painting. Perhaps the critics even thought they could see the signs of approaching senility, since this painting, exhibited in 1846, is one of the last that Turner will paint. There is the suggestion that Turner’s choice of Undine and Masaniello as a subject may have embodied an attack on the Reverend John Eagles, one of Turner’s sharpest critics. Masaniello may have been chosen because of his rumoured friendship with the poet-painter Salvator Rosa. Masaniello’s real name being Tommaso Aniello, Turner may have been playing with the association of his own name with ‘ring’, of which ‘aniello’ is the Italian translation. Finley suggests that there is also an allusion to the French king Louis Philippe I, the object of a number of assassination attempts, while Wallace sees a parallel between Masaniello and Christ with the painting a reflection of Turner’s pessimism over the possibility of Christian salvation.

But what the painting contains is precisely a depiction of Christian salvation, from the first to the second Adam, from creation to redemption! It also provides a link between a scientific explanation of the arrival of life on earth and the Cross. When we focus only on external things, on the historical context, we are in grave danger of missing the point. Elenkova in her poems attempts to correct this physical vision, to offer a more spiritual vision of the paintings and their depth.

The most remarkable part comes at the end of the catalogue entry associated with this painting. When paintings were displayed at the Royal Academy in London, the artists were in the habit of spending a couple of days adding the final touches. The painter W. P. Frith describes how Turner and his neighbour, David Roberts, continued work on their paintings:

Both he and Roberts stood upon boxes, and worked silently at their respective pictures… ‘Masaniello’ was rapidly undergoing a treatment which was very damaging to its neighbour without a compensating improvement to itself. The gray sky had become an intense blue, and was every instant becoming so blue that even Italy could scarcely be credited with it. To this hour ‘Masaniello’ remains… with the bluest sky ever seen in a picture, and never seen out of one [my italics, note the heavy irony].

Could Frith unwittingly have cottoned on to the very essence of the painting, that it contained a depiction of the Uncreated Light (remember the description of the intellect’s proper state as being ‘like sapphire or the sky’s hue’)? If we want to go through this life without being spiritually blind, it is imperative that we open our eyes to the kind of spiritual vision being offered by the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova in her forthcoming book Turner and the Uncreated Light and at least entertain such possibilities.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com


We have been placed on this earth, we’re not really sure how, except to say that we emerged from our mother’s womb after a gestation period of nine months. When we emerged, having survived in water, we took a breath of fresh air and thus became suitable for the environment we now inhabit. Once we had breathed in, we could breathe out and we joined all the other creatures in translating the environment around us.

It is important that we understand this concept of translating the environment around us. We generally look down on translation. It is second best to the original. It contains mistakes and isn’t as good as reading the original text. The translator’s name is hidden, eclipsed. When we need a translator, that person is essential, but we soon forget about them afterwards. Perhaps because the translator takes control away from us, we cannot access the original language ourselves and so we must rely on the other.

But translation goes further than this. The person who sits down and writes the original text is also translating – translating their experiences, the stories they have heard, the knowledge they have acquired, the words they have learned, their understanding of conversations. And they translate all of that on to a piece of paper. The way they write it one day will not be the same if they write it on another day, so the text is susceptible to their mood on that day and the environment around them (any disturbances). Creativity is a fragile thing.

And while they are doing this, they are translating the air by breathing, translating the food they had for breakfast that morning, translating (making sense of) any conversations they may overhear. Everything in this world is translation because nothing begins or ends with us.

The same might be said of our thoughts. Do they truly originate with us? Or are they placed in our minds to see what we will make of them, how we will react? I believe that the only thing that is ours, strictly speaking, is our reaction, how we choose to react – whether we choose in a given moment to show love or hatred. This also is translation because our reaction, our choice of words or deeds, is like choosing the words with which to represent a text in another language. Again, it will not be exactly the same on one day as the next.

Air passes through us. Food passes through us. Even life passes through us – the life we receive from our parents and pass on to our children, precisely because we are not the authors of life. Even trade, the desire to make money, involves things passing through our hands. They do not begin with us, we do not come up with the raw materials, more often than not it is the earth that does that. We change them in some way (a process that normally involves packaging) and pass them on, fixing a price as we do so.

But we would prefer to think of ourselves as authors. We lay claim. We say this piece of land, this object, this product is mine – because I paid for it, because I got here first. Once we draw the line and say something is mine, we open ourselves to conflict, because it is a false assumption. We don’t own the land we live on, someone else made it, and it wasn’t us. We don’t own what the earth produces, we certainly didn’t invent the seed that gave rise to the crop.

If you fail to recognize the other, then what the world contains, even other people, are fair game, you might think, a potential source of profit. But this is a corrupted way of thinking. We should use what is placed at our disposal for the good of others, not to make a profit.

This claiming ownership is really making ourselves out to be the source of what is around us, and only God can do that, the same God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus, chapter 3, and sent him to free the Israelites from bondage to the Egyptians. When Moses asks, naturally enough, on whose authority he is to do this, who he is to say has sent him, God replies, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is the name of the one who sent you.

In Greek, this phrase is translated ‘ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν’, literally ‘I am the being’, and the last part of this phrase – ‘ὁ ὤν’, ‘the being’ – is included in icons of Christ Pantocrator, since in Orthodox tradition it is the pre-incarnate Christ who appears in the Old Testament. The letters are written in capitals: O WN.

Not only do these three letters spell three words in English – own, won and now – not only do they spell a number if we rotate one of the letters – ONE – they make clear, as all of language does, who the author is, who is the one that can lay claim to ownership. The rest of us are just passing through.

Jonathan Dunne, http://www.stonesofithaca.com