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