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The Pass at Faido, St Gotthard by Joseph Mallord William Turner
Brother Francis and Brother Sun (Frate Francesco e Frate Sole) by Giovanni Costa
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer) by Casper David Friedrich

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

Giovanni Costa

Brother Francis and Brother Sun (Frate Francesco e Frate Sole), 1878–85, Oil on canvas, Castle Howard Collection, York, Reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family

Caspar David Friedrich

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), c.1817, Oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, HK-5161, bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY

God in Nature

Comparative Commentary by

In Psalm 19, the Psalmist (traditionally understood to be King David) expresses his amazement in the face of the infinite expanse of the heavens, and what it says about the Creator. By starting with praise of what we can see and experience in the visible world, David establishes a palpable basis for his reflections on the benefits of meditating on God’s word in Scripture and how it guides human beings to find their way in this world.

The idea of God manifesting himself in nature as a tangible proof of his existence is reiterated throughout the Bible—in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, for instance:

Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (1:20)

The interpretation of nature as God’s language, understandable by all humankind, was also prevalent in theories promoted by German Romantics. Indeed, the Psalm’s link between an intense aesthetic experience and ‘the law of the LORD’ (Psalm 19:7–14) seems to chime with the even earlier ideas of Immanuel Kant who equated sublimity with the moral law. Both the aesthetic sublime and the moral law are ‘absolute’ and both awaken human beings to a sense of their highest rational powers (Guyer 2000: §27, 257).

Prepared for by the Enlightenment and further developed during the age of Romanticism, the notion of nature as the revelation of God was an important step towards the rise of landscape painting within the hierarchy of genres at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Liebenwein-Krämer 1977: 9). In some cases landscapes were even elevated to the level of religious art and understood as a new way of engaging the viewer in thoughts about God (Carus 1831: 38).

While none of the paintings chosen for this exhibition is a direct illustration of a passage in the Bible, when considered in light of Psalm 19 each of them may be read as nonverbal praise of God’s awe-inspiring creation, and hence as having a profound affinity with David’s words.

Both Caspar David Friedrich and Giovanni Costa introduce figures viewed from the rear into their landscapes. These figures invite the viewer to witness the breath-taking, symbolic moment when nature awakes at the break of dawn. Costa shows St Francis emphatically reciting his praise poem Canticle of the Sun at the sight of sunrise over Mount Subasio in his native Umbria. Like David in Psalm 19, Francis singled out the sun as the protagonist of the cycle of life. Costa portrays the spreading of light in warm hues typical of Italy.

The cooler tones of a northern sunrise characterize the setting of Friedrich’s worldly wanderer. Arrested by the beauty of the landscape and in awe of the mountains—which to Friedrich were symbols of God—he has been interpreted as contemplating the future, life and death, God and the visual world, and many different aspects that resonate with Friedrich’s claim that a work of art must elevate the mind and preferably trigger religious thought (Hinz 1974: 124).

Mountains and clouds held a particular fascination for both Friedrich and the English writer and artist John Ruskin, especially in relation to their being the purest manifestation of the Creator (Nichols 2016: 377). It is through Ruskin’s words that the spiritual potential of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s art is best revealed. The latter’s The Pass at Faido, St Gotthard portrays a mountainscape formed by the force of nature at the sight of which humanity feels small and powerless. In the spirit of the beginning of Psalm 19, the human being can only stand in awe in face of this spectacle. 

Turner, Friedrich, and Costa had all worked from nature in the places portrayed in their paintings, abstracting, combining and condensing elements according to their personal experience of their respective sites. It is hence through their eyes and their feelings that the viewer is presented with these ‘passages’ from the Book of Nature. They offer us landscapes whose beauty has the power to turn our awe into praise—a praise like the Psalmist’s.   

 

References

Carus, Carl Gustav. 1831. Neun Briefe über Landschaftsmalerei: geschrieben in den Jahren 1815–1824 (Leipzig: Fleischer)

Guyer, Paul (ed.). 2000. Critique of the Power of Judgment, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, trans. by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hinz, Sigrid (ed.). 1974. Caspar David Friedrich in Briefen und Bekenntnissen (Munich: Rogner & Bernhard)

Liebenwein-Krämer, Renate. 1977. Säkularisierung und Sakralisierung. Studien zum Bedeutungswandel christlicher Bildformen in der Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts (PhD diss. Frankfurt am Main)

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