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Spiritual Themes

In the following chapters we present a few spiritual themes taken up by painters in the past centuries. The themes do not represent scenes of the lives of Jesus, the apostles or saints, even though these holy figures may be shown in the images. The scenes of spiritual themes are symbols. They represent ideas and concepts of the mind in a visual way through the medium of painting, as static images on a flat frame of limited dimensions. This is a difficult challenge and we will see how the painters coped with a difficult task. A picture of the concept of suffering humanity may show the tortured, sad, abandoned Jesus and thus be a religious theme too, but primarily that picture represents a mind-concept. There are of course many such themes illustrated by painters. We can show just a few.

The artists translate the spiritual themes into images and bring their personal view of the concepts in the pictures. The scenes are not narrative, nor decorative, but the direct expressions of the thoughts, feelings, reflections, experiences and states of mind that occupied the artist at the particular moment that the pictures were made. Therefore a more thorough understanding of the motives that drove the painters to make the works of art of this kind are far more important for these scenes than for narrative depictions or portraits. In order to understand the paintings we must understand the painters. We must understand the mood of the artist, the motives and situations or events that led to the work of art. For paintings of spiritual themes thus more than for other visual works the viewer needs to widen his knowledge of the artist and the artist’s work. The viewer needs to know the painter’s life in order to be able to understand fully the meaning, interest and beauty of the painting. By the depth and scope of their artistic communication, paintings of spiritual themes are thus among the most interesting but also most demanding works of art since the process of communication includes far more needed elements than the usual work of art.

Let us illustrate this with an example. A lesser-known painter from Lyon in France, Louis Janmot, made a series of paintings called ‘The Poem of the Soul’. Janmot painted a eulogy on the concept of the soul. Each picture of the series is well painted. One can analyse the painting and admire its structure, lines, forms and colour. But the epic grandeur of each picture and thus its interest for the viewer lies in other elements. It lies in each picture being part of a larger series that narrates the states that a human soul traverses. The series tries to engage the viewer to believe in the existence of such a concept by the aesthetics of the art of Janmot. The series take on a further dimension and interest when the viewer learns that Janmot used the paintings and drawings to illustrate a long poem. In his whole life Janmot made only this one series, this one long poem, and he reacted to a society that had become hostile to his religious beliefs. The interest of the viewer ultimately lies more in elements of the work of art that cannot be seen at all on the canvases themselves.

We will show paintings on themes like the soul, suffering humanity, the Apocalypse, vanity, the exaltations inspired by a Gothic cathedral, tolerance, love and remorse. We will end – of course – by the Last Judgement. While showing these paintings we will be interested in the reasons, the emotions or events that led artists to visualise such scenes. These spiritual works of art are among the most interesting art because so rich in communication of the way the artists understood and reacted to their society. But we will also explain why the paintings are of the greatest aesthetic of the past centuries.

The chapters of the book 'Spiritual Themes 'are:

Christ the Redeemer
The trinity
The Adoration of the Lamb
The Soul
The Procession
The Guardian Angel
Ascetism and the Joy of living
The Cathedral
The Jesus of a Jew
Christ's Presence
The Last Judgement

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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