The Pass at Faido, St Gotthard by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Pass at Faido, St Gotthard, 19th century, Watercolour, point of brush, scratching out, over traces of pencil, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Thaw Collection, 2006.52, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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‘All Great Art is Praise’

In his treatise The Laws of Fésole artist and influential art critic John Ruskin coined the aphorism ‘All great art is praise’ (1877: 351). While for Ruskin all elements of nature, large and small, were a manifestation of God, mountains and clouds held a particular place in his heart and mind. For him the greatest artist was Joseph Mallord William Turner, in whose landscapes and seascapes he saw the sacredness and inexhaustibility of nature better captured than by any other artist (1844: 36).

‘Mountains’, Ruskin wrote, ‘have always possessed the power, first, of exciting religious enthusiasm; secondly, of purifying religious faith’ (1856: 427). Like the vastness of the heavens and the firmament invoked in Psalm 19, the sublimity and aloofness of mountains inspire awe and respect. It is these elements we see captured by Turner in his The Pass at Faido, St Gotthard. Ruskin commissioned the watercolour and later praised it as ‘the greatest work he produced in the last period of his art’.

What made this sheet, and Turner’s work in general, so special to Ruskin was the artist’s ability to communicate a ‘higher truth of mental vision’ that could convey to the viewer ‘the impression which the reality would have produced’ and that would put ‘his heart into the same state in which it would have been’ in front of nature itself (1856: 35–36). The staggered mountain ranges in the background, the deep gorge accentuating the middle right of the picture, and the boulders formed by the elements in the foreground speak of the force of a nature that is far greater than humankind. Like ‘the heavens’ in Psalm 19, they seem to be ‘telling the glory of God’ (v.1).

The tiny carriage adumbrated to the right and the faint traces of the man-made bridge in the middle ground increase the perception of what human beings are in comparison to the Creator. The artist rendered both the topography and the spirit of the place allowing the beholder to admire and experience this breath-taking scene in its proclamation of the greatness of God’s creation.

 

References

Nichols, Aidan. 2016. All Great Art is Praise: Art in Religion in John Ruskin (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press)

Ruskin, John. 1844. ‘Modern Painters. Volume I. Preface to the Second Edition’, in [1903] Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin, Vol III, ed. by E.T. Cook, and A. Wedderburn (George Allen: London)

———. 1856. ‘Modern Painters. Volume IV containing Part V Of Mountain Beauty’, in [1904] Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin, Vol VI, ed. by E.T. Cook, and A. Wedderburn (George Allen: London)

———. 1877. ‘The Elements of Drawing. The Elements of Perspective and The Laws of Fésole’ in [1904] Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin, Vol XV, ed. by E.T. Cook, and A. Wedderburn (George Allen: London)