Turner and the Orthodox Liturgy

Turner paid a visit to the Schöllenen Gorge in 1802. This gorge is formed by the upper Reuss, a river in Switzerland, and provides access to the St Gotthard Pass. Turner made several drawings of this scene, like the one I would like to talk about, The Devil’s Bridge and Schöllenen Gorge, some of which he later turned into paintings.

Here is the drawing:

The Devil’s Bridge and Schöllenen Gorge by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D04626)

The bridge, called the Devil’s Bridge, had recently been destroyed during fighting between the French and Russians in 1799 (the War of the Second Coalition, part of the French Revolutionary Wars) and had just been rebuilt when Turner visited. The figures in white on the left of the bridge are thought to be Russian soldiers, and on the right can be seen some pack-mules on the track as it leaves the bridge.

This is how far a physical description of this drawing would go, but the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova in her poetry collection Turner and the Uncreated Light offers a spiritual vision of this drawing, as she does of numerous paintings by Turner, so that we, the viewer, might go further than the physical vision and discover something new, something that critics have overlooked (among them John Ruskin, who described this drawing as ‘curiously bad’).

The first thing we note, as I myself noted some fifteen years ago, at the beginning of my spiritual journey, are the faces in the rock. Look at the rock behind the bridge, above the Reuss Falls. These faces are often recumbent, gazing upwards (not at us), as if towards the other world (or something that we cannot see). There is one in the lighter (brown) patch on the right. You can clearly see the hair, the thick eyebrows, the eyes, the nose, the fleshy lips. There is another on the left, where the Falls begin, looking slightly perturbed. I have walked on the mountain near Sofia, where I live, and often come across such faces. They seem frozen in time, as if awaiting reanimation. They do not communicate, they simply look (beyond you). I think Turner here has faithfully drawn the landscape, and this landscape contains faces (as we often find in clouds, for example, or other aspects of nature).

But what the poet pays attention to is the shape of the gorge, which from the top of the mountains down to the arch of the bridge forms a chalice. The Falls would be inside this chalice, and the thin stream of water that falls down in a vertical line would be the stem of the chalice. I think once you see this chalice, it is difficult to look at the drawing without seeing it (this is typical, in my experience, of spiritual vision, it is like a security door at the airport, once you go through it, you cannot go back and unsee what you have seen).

Particularly remarkable is the cliff face on the right, beneath the track with the pack-mules, because here there seem to be two or three figures of saints. The one in the middle is very clear. We see their upper half, the vestments, the darker skin and hair, and a very distinct halo. Anyone who is familiar with an Orthodox church will know that in the altar at the far eastern end of the church, the frescoes in the first row often depict Church Fathers (Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian). These figures are often very tall (in comparison, for example, with the figures in the next row up, which shows the Communion of the Holy Apostles). So Elenkova concludes that we are in a kind of stone church, the centre of which is the chalice (in the Orthodox liturgy people commune from the chalice, the body and blood of Christ are given together directly from the chalice in a spoon).

Elenkova understands the Russian soldiers on the left to be priests (dressed in white). They are bringing the gifts in order to offer them to the people and from the people to God. And we see that the figure or pack next to the mule on the right (it is difficult to make out clearly) has a red cross.

But perhaps most important for the poet is the figure of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes that can be seen inside the chalice (top left). It is as if we have a depiction of the whole life of Christ on this earth, from his nativity to his bloody crucifixion (the red cross). There would be no crucifixion – and resurrection – without the nativity, no less remarkable in itself, that God should become human. As the poet says, in a way it is to be expected that God can resurrect, he is after all eternal, but to take on human form, to contain himself in his mother’s womb and to be born into his creation, is unusual.

From this nativity comes all the teaching, the miracles, and then Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, leading to the celebration of the Orthodox liturgy and the communion of the people.

So again, the poet offers us a spiritual vision of Turner’s paintings and drawings, and this vision is very important for us to begin to see the world we live in. If we don’t see the world we live in, then we are walking in darkness and we are liable to make the wrong decisions. We are, in effect, the blind leading the blind because our spiritual eyes haven’t been opened. The problem with spiritual sight is that we don’t realize we don’t have it. Once our physical eyes are opened when we are babies, we think that we can see – ourselves in a mirror, the world around us (which we generally think has been put there for us to do with what we like). But we are still missing an essential element – the intrinsic worth of things. And this spiritual sight is only given to us when we believe, when we turn our hearts to God and begin to participate in the sacraments of the Church. Christ healed the man born blind in John, chapter 9. We are all the man born blind, in need of having our spiritual eyes opened so that we can see, which is the journey of the mind into the heart, the purpose of all Orthodox asceticism.

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

Turner: The Man and the Angel

Turner’s painting Sun Setting over a Lake is one of a group of paintings, ‘Late Unfinished Sea Pieces’, whose dating and provenance are uncertain. They are generally dated to the period 1830-45, though some people disagree, and there is some suggestion that Turner’s assistant, Francis Sherrell, may have had a hand in them.

Then there is the subject matter. As always, what seems to concern the critics is the visual evidence. What can we see? Except that they always focus on the physical details. So regarding Sun Setting over a Lake, the display caption says, ‘The topographical details of this painting are hazy and indistinct […] passages of white paint may depict snowy Alpine mountains.’ And the catalogue entry ends, ‘Whether the picture shows the sun setting over a lake or the sea is difficult to determine, but the presence of what appear to be mountains on the right suggests the former.’

Which is to say we haven’t the foggiest and must make of the painting what we will. Turner’s impressionistic style (which is contrasted in the catalogue entry with an earlier more substantial, three-dimensional style) puts paid to objects. This is very interesting for me, because I think many of the world’s problems come from our obsession with objects. The fact that you define something as an object suggests that object doesn’t have its own will and you can do what you like with it. Trade is based on this premise, and trade is what drives the economy.

But this is to miss the inner vision of things, their true value. I have already written two articles about the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova’s inner vision of Turner’s paintings, which she has recorded in a book of poems entitled Turner and the Uncreated Light (forthcoming in both Bulgarian and English). These articles can be read here and here.

Let us focus on the painting in question, Sun Setting over a Lake:

Sun Setting over a Lake by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04665)

What can we see? What is the visual evidence?

Well, I can make out a sun on the left, a bright dot, and a splodge of white paint on the right with a bluish patch. There is the suggestion that when a painting of Turner’s is impressionistic like this, it may just be unfinished, but as Elenkova points out in another poem, after Michelangelo the fact that something is unfinished doesn’t make it imperfect.

Impressionism allows us to enter the true value of things. It takes us away from our three-dimensional vision of the world by which we like to control the things around us. This painting is a case in point. Let us start, as we did with the painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, by rotating the painting by ninety degrees:

Now the vision becomes more interesting. There is the figure of a man. Where the sun is is just below the mouth, on the right cheek. Above this is the hazy outline of a nose, two eyes, and a dark patch of hair. Underneath the sun can be seen the man’s neck, and on either side the two shoulders. Not all the torso is visible, but what we can see very clearly is the windpipe. The torso is an upside-down triangle. Above the man’s left shoulder is what looks like the kind of handprint found in primitive cave paintings. This part of the painting relates to this world.

Now rotate the painting by ninety degrees the other way:

What we have now is an angel. Again, the torso is only partially visible, an upside-down triangle. The angel’s neck is stretched upwards, and the angel is in profile. We see a chin, the lips, a nose, a bright patch on the forehead. The angel’s vision is directed heavenwards, and over his right shoulder can be seen the bright patch of a wing.

Where the handprint was in the other half of the painting, above the angel’s left shoulder, there is a dove, which in the poet’s vision would represent the Holy Spirit, whispering words to the angel.

When we return the painting to where it was:

in the foreground, right of centre, we see the figure of an owl on what looks like a branch.

Was Turner aware of all these details in his painting? I’m sure he wasn’t, but they are there, if one chooses to see the spiritual side of things. And it is this spiritual vision that the world has need of, not to see things as bringing us profit (the world of politicians), but as having an intrinsic value in themselves.

Why are we not exposed to this kind of vision? And why do we not pass it on to our children? You can read as many academic books as you like about Turner’s painting, I am quite sure you will not find this kind of vision. They will limit themselves to what has been recorded by contemporaries, to what the author can see, to how one painting relates to another. This is all very interesting, but it doesn’t take us out of the physical world we live in.

And this spiritual vision is also important when it comes to saving the planet. We give great importance to the physical environment, as we should, we live in this environment, but we must also be able to see the essence of things, their inner meaning, otherwise we won’t make good stewards and our decisions may be skewed. It is not just the environment, but also what is behind or inside the environment, what inspires it.

I have no doubt that Elenkova’s poems will have a difficult reception in both the Bulgarian- and the English-language spheres. They may not even find a publisher all too easily. And yet I would say their vision is essential for our well-being.

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

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

J. M. W. Turner and the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova

We are in the habit of seeing the world as being full of objects. We view these objects externally to ourselves and consider that they may or may not come into our possession. If they do come into our possession, we may try to sell them and make a profit. This is more or less the stage our civilization has reached, which is not very far. Politicians, the ones responsible for governing us as a society, only ever talk about the state of the economy, this is the sine qua non of political discourse, they never inquire after our (or their own) spiritual well-being.

If we insist on viewing the world like this, as put there for our satisfaction, for trade, then we are in danger of missing out on a large part of what is before us. The world is not full of objects, it is full of subjects with which we have the opportunity to enter into a relationship of love, but this involves our regarding people and even things as subjects with their own purpose (which is not to satisfy me).

I could say even language fits into this way of seeing things. We consider language as a tool, a succession of words with which to convey our meaning, make ourselves understood, we never consider that the words may have their own meaning that they wish to convey, they may not be ‘ours’, so to speak, but have a deeper purpose. Let me give an example: ‘dogma’ is what the Church believes, but if you look at the word in reverse, if you turn it around, then you will see that the word itself spells ‘am God’. Perhaps this is the dogma that we need. To believe that God exists, to believe in him. I often think this is all Christ wanted – us to believe in him – hence his frustration on the last day of the Festival of Booths, when he cried out, quoting Scripture, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38). Believe = belly + Eve (see my article ‘Word in Language (20): Believe’).

Words have a life of their own, but we are loath to see it, we are much keener to get to the core of the message we are trying to get across, so that we can be understood, so that we can get whatever it is we want. Words are fragments of the Word – that is Christ – they are put there for our benefit, for us to use in a good (read ‘loving’) way. If every word we spoke was spoken in love, placing the other before ourselves, what a different world this would be!

And yet we view the world as being full of objects. This is what happened to a lot of Turner’s paintings. Critics viewed them as objects. Take the example of the painting Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth:

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J. M. W. Turner (reproduced from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00530)

The display caption from the Tate Gallery’s website reads simply, ‘The small ship, being overpowered by water and wind, can be seen as a symbol of human’s efforts to overcome the forces of nature.’ The catalogue entry says, ‘The picture may recall a particularly bad storm in January 1842 though it has not been possible to tie down the exact incident.’ There is then a lot of conjecture as to the name of the ship (possibly Ariel), whether Turner really had himself tied to a mast for four hours in order to be able to depict the storm more faithfully. One critic is not convinced and describes the storm as nothing but a mass of ‘soapsuds and whitewash’. Another seems to think Turner has thrown at the painting whatever he could find in the kitchen cupboard: cream, chocolate, egg yolk, currant jelly… It is possible to focus on the painting as an external object and to discuss its merits and failings, its historical circumstances, more or less endlessly.

But just as the word ‘dogma’ can be turned around to reveal its spiritual meaning, so the painting can be turned around to show another meaning:

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J. M. W. Turner (the same painting rotated anti-clockwise by ninety degrees)

This is the work being carried out by the Bulgarian poet Tsvetanka Elenkova, who is writing a series of poems that look at the spiritual meaning of Turner’s paintings. This meaning is important. It is right in front of our eyes, but more often than not we fail to see it.

So the poet discerns a face in the painting – the two eyes, the arched nose, the furrowed brow. And at the base of the nose, covering the mouth, a figure in black, arms outstretched – Christ on the Cross – with another figure in front, which she takes to be Christ holding a child. On either side of the Cross, the ginger hair of the man whose face we can see (God the Father), and where the white is, at the top, if we zoom in, the profile of a face with an open mouth and a long nose, wearing a cap (the captain who was reluctant to leave his ship).

If you rely on reason, you will not see these things. It is a question of faith, of believing, as Christ indicated to us at the Festival of Booths. Our world is lacking this spiritual vision. We continue to insist on counting what comes in and what goes out in order to make a profit from things we barely see. Even in cultural circles, such as literature and art, this spiritual vision is often not welcome. But it underlies everything before us, it expresses the essence of things. Not for a moment do I suppose that Turner was aware of this face in the painting when positioned vertically, this was the Spirit working through him. But ‘authors’ are translators, you see, they are prone to give meaning.

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