The Song of Songs 1853
Oil on canvas
118 x 125 1/2 inches (300 x 319 cm)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, Bourgogne, France
Gustave Moreau (April 6, 1826 – April 18, 1898) was a French Symbolist painter
He was an illustrator of biblical and mythological figures.
Moreau is regarded as one of the early Symbolist French painters.
In painting, Symbolism was a continuation of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition. Some have seen Symbolism in painting as an outgrowth of the darker, Gothic, side of Romanticism
The Symbolist painters mined mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul, seeking evocative paintings that brought to mind a static world of silence.
To try to understand what the modern Symbolists were trying to do, it is perhaps instructive to look back 700 years earlier to the Gothic Age when the medieval art of the time was dominated by symbols.
The following extract from Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art of the Thirteenth Century in France - A Study in Mediaeval Iconography and its Sources of Inspiration (3rd edition, publ. 1913) (translated by Dora Nussey) (1958), pages 22 and 29 may be helpful:
"From what has been said it is evident that mediaeval art was before all things a symbolic art, in which form is used merely as the vehicle of spiritual meaning.
Such are the general characteristics of the iconography of the Middle Ages. Art was at once a script, a calculus and a symbolic code. The result was a deep and perfect harmony. ...
Some attempt must be made to understand the mediaeval view of the world and of nature. What is the visible world ? What is the meaning of the myriad forms of life ? What did the monk dreaming in his cell, or the doctor meditating in the cathedral cloister before the hour of his lecture think of it all ? Is it merely appearance or is it reality ?
The Middle Ages were unanimous in their reply: the world is a symbol.
As the idea of his work is in the mind of the artist, so the universe was in the thought of God from the beginning. God created, but He created through His Word, that is, through His Son.
The thought of the Father was realised in the Son through whom it passed from potentiality to act, and thus the Son is the true creator. The artists of the Middle Ages, imbued with this doctrine, almost invariably represent the Creator in the likeness of Jesus Christ. The absence in the churches of any likeness of God the Father filled Didron with needless amazement and Michelet with mistaken indignation.
For, according to the theologians, God the Father created in principle, which is to say in verbo, that is by His Son.
Jesus Christ is at once Creator and Redeemer.
The world therefore may be defined as " a thought of God realised through the Word." If this be so then in each being is hidden a divine thought ; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning.
The ignorant see the forms the mysterious letters understanding nothing of their meaning, but the wise pass from the visible to the invisible, and in reading nature read the thoughts of God.
True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves the outward forms but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, "every creature is a shadow of truth and life."
All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.
The material and the spiritual worlds are one."