Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Depiction of Christ

"The figure of Christ has been painted — as I feel it — only by Delacroix and by Rembrandt........ "

Letter of Vincent Van Gogh to Emile Bernard. Arles, Tuesday, 26 June 1888.

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) the French Romantic artist was the leader of the French Romantic school.

Generations of Symbolists and Impressionists were inspired by Delacroix's work. The emphasis is on colour and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modelled form

It has often been noted that Delacroix lacked faith. However in his religious paintings there is a fervour. His religious works can not be readily dismissed.

He painted fourteen variations of Christ Asleep during the Tempest, a lesson in faith.

The incident is described in Matthew 8, verses 23-28

Christ is asleep at sea when a great tempest arose. His Disciples, frightened, woke him up. He responded: “‘What do you fear, ye of little faith!” He then commanded the winds and the sea to cease: and, so ceasing, the sea became calm. The men wondered, saying: “‘Who is this whom the wind and the sea obey?’”

His version in The Metropolitan Museum in New York is particularly famous. It depicts the revolt of Nature while Christ sleeps and the disciples panic. Nature appears to be on the point of overwhelming man and destroying him. (see below)

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Christ Asleep during the Tempestca. 1853
Oil on canvas
20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo saw this painting at the beginning of June 1886 at the sale exhibition of John Saulnier’s collection at the Drouot auction house

Van Gogh referred to the painting on a number of occasions in his letters:

"When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, Christ’s boat, at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysées, he turned away from it and cried out in his article, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green’ "

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 8 September 1888.

"Ah — E. Delacroix’s beautiful painting — Christ’s boat on the sea of Gennesaret, he — with his pale lemon halo — sleeping, luminous — within the dramatic violet, dark blue, blood-red patch of the group of stunned disciples. On the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame. Ah — the brilliant sketch"

To Emile Bernard. Arles, Tuesday, 26 June 1888.

Another major religious work by Delacroix is Christ in the Garden of Olives. The work was commissioned from Delacroix for the Church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1827

Many artists have found inspiration in it for their own version of Christ in the Garden of Olives

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Le Christ au jardin des oliviers/ Christ in the Garden of Olives 1824 - 1827
Oil on canvas
294 x 362 cm
Eglise Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, Paris

We can see how Delacroix`s idea for the painting evolved through the following Study and Esquisse

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Study for the Le Christ au jardin des oliviers 1824
Aquarelle, Lead pencil
25.2 x 20.5 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
Esquisse for Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers 1826
Oil on canvas
32 x 40 cm
Musée National Eugène Delacroix, Paris

Van Gogh despite his religious sensibility only painted one picture of Christ which was a copy of Delacroix`s Pietà

However it would appear that for some reason Van Gogh could not or did not want to deal with the subject. For some reason the subject appears to be too painful.

In July 1888 he wrote to his brother telling that he had scraped a «large painted study, a garden with olive trees, with a figure of Christ...».

But the theme remained locked in his head and and in his heart.

In the month of November he painted five canvases of the olive groves that surrounded the clinic in Saint-Rémy. He said he was seeking for a correspondence with his own painful personal experience, precisely a year after his first crisis.

«The first tree is an enormous trunk but stricken by lightning and fallen», he wrote to Bernard in a letter of 20 November. «Nevertheless a side branch launches itself toward another and falls back in a cascade of dark green needles».

However in a letter to Theo the day after he wrote:

«This month I have been working among the olive groves, because Gauguin and Bernard have outraged me with their Christ in the garden of olives, where there was nothing real. Of course, I have no intention of doing anything drawn from the Bible – and I have also written to Bernard and Gauguin also that I believed it our task to think and not to dream».

But perhaps the problem was more fundamental and went to why his great hero Delacroix succeeded in religious art and in depicting Christ but Van Gogh did not.

Perhaps the issues were set out in an interview with the Jesuit artist Father Marko Ivan Rupnik (b.1954), Director of the Atelier of Spiritual Art of the Aletti Center in Rome published in 30 Days as "An art that stirs veneration"

"With that situation in mind, can you outline for us, on the basis of your experience at the Aletti Center, the ideal profile of an artist operating in the liturgical sphere? How should he behave, to what should he pay heed?

RUPNIK: Naturally there is no fixed rule. Undoubtedly there is always an attraction at work in the life of every artist. There is a beauty that attracts. The theologian Pavel Florenskij used to say: “Truth revealed is the Love and Love achieved is Beauty”. That’s it, the artist is attracted by Beauty, which is Love achieved, that is Easter. He can have by grace the humility to let the Mystery fertilise him. Those who work with this Mystery can’t do other than welcome it, give it space in their lives and let it go to work.

Other important features?

RUPNIK: First of all humility, but not understood in the psychological sense, that is as an attitude to adopt, as if it were the fruit of one’s own intelligence or diligence. Humility is the gift of the Holy Spirit, that bloweth where it listeth and may grip non-Christian artists also. It is a matter precisely of theological humility. The more mature the artist is in the knowledge of receiving this gift the more he will be dispossessed of his work and its production will not be the sphere of his self-affirmation, but of his humble service. Only in that way can the work be handed over to the many and the many will recognize themselves in it. With art it’s like with love: one demands humility and action. The more humble one is the more one is veined with love. The more one involves oneself personally the more one is universal.

And then?

RUPNIK: One needs to be very familiar with the Word of God – because, as Nicene II says, art is a translation of the Word of God – and with the memory of the Church: the Fathers, the saints, Christian art. One also needs to be inward with the debate of the century in which one lives, that is to be familiar with the contemporary artistic idiom, and to be inserted in the life of the Church. One must have a spiritual life, live the same difficulties as our contemporaries so as to be able to share with them the steps in the redemption bestowed to us. For us at the Aletti Center, working in chorus is fundamental. Working together, constantly engaging in mutual charity and fruitful dialogue. Out of the Church one creates for the Church. "
Towards the end of his life, Van Gogh attempted a Christ in the garden of olives. He got involved in a quarrel with Gauguin and Bernard over the notion of producing a series of works devoted to the Gospel subject.