In the era of scientific advancement, contemplating the sublime, both in nature and art, remains more necessary than ever. Works of art that build a sub-creation on scripture, exploiting the fullness of natural realism inherent in it, attain a very rare sublimity and draw the mind toward God.
These waters must be troubled before they can exert their virtues. —Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
Art illuminates truth through the riches of the imagination. Starting from the copying or imitation of nature, art carries us beyond the physical realm to the world of spiritual values. Through image and symbol, the arts communicate what lies beyond the world of the senses. One might argue that the Bible is the ultimate artwork, in which the divine plan is conveyed in human language with the tools of storytelling, rhetoric, and imagery. The Bible is, moreover, an artwork which thousands upon thousands of other artworks have sought to interpret and illuminate. For much of its history, Western art was largely a gloss on the history of salvation.
Just before shutting down in March, the National Gallery of Art in Washington presented an exhibit dedicated to nature and art. Although I didn’t get a chance to attend the show, video resources on the NGA’s website proved useful and illuminating—especially a lecture by a curator about the ways in which weather has been portrayed in painting and its connection to biblical themes. As it turns out, the evolving attitude of the artist toward the natural world has had a strong bearing on the depiction of sacred subjects.
While the imitation of nature (mimesis) was the stated aim of Western art from classical times, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the landscape became a stand-alone genre of painting. Why is not hard to see. Art in the Christian Middle Ages had one purpose: to depict the history of salvation and teach sacred truths through images. With hieratic simplicity, Byzantine icons present Christ and the saints against solid gold backgrounds, eschewing external trappings in favor of the spiritual essence.
With the arrival of the Renaissance and humanism, the impulse to observe and record nature in all its myriad forms became ever stronger, and artists began to surround Christ and the saints with increasingly detailed landscapes containing varied terrain, trees, and vegetation. Eventually, in the late Renaissance, landscape broke free from sacred subject matter and became a genre in its own right.
We see then an evolution from the Middle Ages, when the biblical story and personages were the sole focus, to early modernity, when artists began to consider all of creation worthy of representation. Far from weakening the religious purpose and significance of the artwork, this contributed to a greater fullness of realism, an enhancement of the sacred history. The quest for scientific accuracy in depiction served Christian faith by increasing the sense of the Gospel as an incarnated reality in time and space. Of particular significance was the depiction of storms and their symbolic possibilities.
Of all the natural symbolism in the Bible, perhaps most familiar is the storm as theophany or self-manifestation of God. In the Old Testament, storms and whirlwinds are symbols of God’s overwhelming power and presence, a purging or cleansing of evil like the great flood of Genesis, or an opportunity for God to show his mercy and providence. The New Testament added the concept of the storm as a test of faith. The Gospels record two storms at sea that became precisely this for Christ’s disciples, as well as proving grounds for Christ’s divinity. Jesus Calms the Storm (e.g., Mk 4:35-41) and Jesus Walks on the Water (Mt 14:22-33) have both captured the Christian imagination, as can be seen in portrayals from the Baroque era by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Lambert Sustris (1515-1568).
It is saddening to realize that Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee is missing, having been stolen in 1990 in an incredible art heist. The picture is stirring in the upheaval of the boat, in the mast, an image of the Cross at an oblique angle, and in the hidden figure of the sleeping Christ, which the eye must seek out in the stern of the boat. Ocean spray is already invading the left side of the vessel, and we are left suspended in air as we expect either disaster or salvation.
A moody example of Mannerism, Sustris’ Christ at the Sea of Galilee surely depicts the Walking on Water, not the post-Resurrection episode on the Sea of Tiberias as sometimes claimed. Note that Jesus clearly stands on the water and not on the shoreline. He is a sort of beacon, gesturing to Peter to follow him into the water with confident faith.
Paintings like these were an inspiration to artists of the Romantic era, who saw storms and mountains as symbols of the Sublime, of God’s majesty and infinity that effectively “put man in his place” and give rise to feelings of piety and awe. Like Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry, these artists saw terror and danger as salutary, indeed provoking delight, and nature as the primary locus of these emotions. Thomas Cole, the American Romantic painter and founder of the Hudson River circle of artists, spoke of the contemplation of nature as a source of “delight and improvement” in human life.
Nature for these thinkers was a form of revelation, prior and complementary to scripture. Even as science was encouraging an ever more painstaking observation of natural phenomena, the landscape painting was, in effect, re-sacralized, made the vehicle for profound religious sentiments—witness the stupefying panoramas of the Hudson River School, depicting sites like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. (The English painter John Constable heightened realism by taking his easel and paints outdoors to capture precise changes in the light and weather.) Many Romantic nature paintings were implicitly religious and spiritual in content, even if not sacred in subject. They conveyed a palpable sense of God presiding over and acting through Creation. For Romantic thinkers, one of the ultimate examples of sublimity was the passage in the Book of Job where God addresses Job through the whirlwind, declaring His supremacy over nature.
Of all the natural phenomena the sea, with its limitless vastness, was for Romantics the very image of the sublime. The “storm-tossed ship” became an oft-used metaphor, and shipwrecks a source of sublime imagery. The French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix created two versions of Christ on the Sea of Galilee, with swirling turbulence coursing through the billows of the waves, the billows of the sails of the boat and in the bodies of the disciples. Cole’s own series of paintings The Voyage of Life depicted the progression from childhood to old age in the guise of a passenger making his way down a river in a small boat, tossed by tempests and guided by a presiding angel. In shipwreck and storm-at-sea paintings, stark contrasts of light and dark and objects and people in physical upheaval expressed pain and danger and the struggle for survival.
Of course, in the Gospel stories of Christ at sea there is no shipwreck and no death. These are stories of salvation and faith, reassurance and consolation. Peter, having faltered and on the verge of sinking because of his sudden doubt, is rescued by the strong arm of Christ. “I believe; help my unbelief,” to quote a different Gospel passage. Present at Creation, Christ is now commanding it. He is indeed the calm in the midst of the storm, both for the original disciples and for all future followers of Christ. The disciples learn to trust, for “my Father is always working,” even when he appears to be asleep. To arrive at this insight, however, the disciples must undergo a trial and a tempest that rocks them to their core. In setting the scene of this revelation, the setting and atmosphere were perfectly chosen; the stage was set with precise natural conditions that constitute the particularity of the event.
Analyzing the various parts of the natural landscape, Cole spoke of water as being a bearer of tranquility on the one hand, and turbulence on the other. Yet in the end he emphasized the “pleasure and consolation” the contemplation of nature brings.
Poetry and painting sublime and purify thought, by grasping the past, the present, and the future—they give the mind a foretaste of its immortality, and thus prepare it for performing an exalted part amid the realities of life. [*]
In an era in which we “have Nature whacked,” in C.S. Lewis’ memorable phrase, can we still experience sublimity? Has our mastery over our natural environment rendered the Sublime irrelevant? It seems to me that contemplating the sublime, both in nature and art, remains more necessary than ever. Nature elevates the mind beyond the petty and servile, drawing it toward God, and is indeed a sign or message from Him. Art builds upon nature, adding the imagination and personal vision of the artist to yield a “sub-creation.” Works of art that build a sub-creation on scripture, exploiting the fullness of natural realism inherent in it, attain a very rare sublimity.
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* Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery.”
The in-text images are The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) by Rembrandt (1606–1669), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and Christ at the Sea of Galilee (c. 1570s) by Lambert Sustris (1515–1568), courtesy of National Gallery of Art. Both are in the public domain and have been brightened slightly for clarity.