It was Wordsworth who pointed out that a poor man is just as capable of enjoying beauty, and putting it high in his scale of values, as a rich man. The poor of West Africa, who have little but their native pride, may well be happy to observe that their small country is capable of creating a cathedral on the scale of Europe’s largest, and that the black African can pay his or her tribute to Almighty God just as munificently as the white Westerner.
The 8,000 medieval parish churches which we still possess in England — the greatest single item in our national dowry of art – were built and paid for by a society most of whose members had few material possessions. They now constitute a monument to their generosity and magnanimity, which we will continue to use and enjoy so long as we have the sense to preserve them. They give us as much satisfaction as they give to God, for whose glory they were erected. And do not the souls of those medieval men and women, now in Heaven, rejoice that their churches, created with so much sacrifice, still sound forth God’s praises?
Early in the century, both the Protestant and the Catholic communities of Liverpool, a city then famous for its religious fervor, decided to build new cathedrals. Paradoxically, the Protestants chose a gifted young Catholic architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and he produced for them the design of a masterpiece in Edwardian Gothic. With prodigies of effort, the work was financed and built, and finally completed in the 1980s, long after sponsors and architect were in their graves — as usually happens in the case of cathedrals.
But this marvelous building, the finest erected in Europe this century, survives to do them honor, and to honor too the resolution and faith of the Anglican Church in Liverpool. The Catholics of the Edwardian age also chose a fine architect: the great Sir Edwin Lutyens, an Anglican by conviction but a Catholic by artistic sentiment. He designed a glorious church, on the scale of St Peter’s, in the most sumptuous Baroque, to be built of marble. This was an even greater labor and expense than the Anglican cathedral, but the immense crypt was in due course completed. Then came the war, which halted construction.
Some time after the war, Archbishop Heenan — later cardinal — estimating that the cost of completing the project was more than the Catholics of Liverpool could bear, decided not to complete it. Instead he commissioned and built a much cheaper thing, by a meretricious Modern Movement architect, with a peculiar tent-like roof, which has led the jeering Protestants of the city to christen it ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’.
The Catholics, who were barely consulted by Heenan in making his decision, now hang their heads in shame that they must worship in such a hovel, already showing signs of decay. They are indeed poor, but they would have found the money for Lutyens’ magnificent basilica. I reproached Heenan at the time, as being a man of little faith.
I told him about the church which our parish priest had insisted on building, against much advice, when I was a child, and how the money had been found to complete it. He expressed contrition, and maybe it is still not too late to resurrect Lutyens’ ambitious scheme, for the glory of God in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall see.
In the meantime, there can be little doubt that among the most privileged of human beings are those who have the honor to erect a great church to God. They must be considered the most fortunate of artists, and dearest to their maker. Most, as I say, do not live to see their work finished, Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being among their number. But there are exceptions. Sir Christopher Wren designed the new St Paul’s, supervised its main construction, and lived to see it completed.
This immense work brought him little material reward, caused him endless heartache and anxiety, brought him opprobrium and eventually dismissal, and received surprisingly little recognition in his lifetime. But at least he saw it finished, and thereafter he came once a year, to sit under its dome, to pray, to meditate and to rejoice. Those must have been cherished moments – both to him and to God.
However, no good purpose is served by designating a hierarchy of God’s favor for creative geniuses. All artists endear themselves to him by depicting his creations to the best of their ability. Painters are often genuinely pious men and women, despite their wild notions about the Deity. It is common among them to kneel down and pray in dedication before beginning a canvas, and kneel down in gratitude when they have completed it. Sometimes they have misgivings about their failure to use their talents exclusively to praise and explain God’s works – thus Botticelli, one of the purest and most gifted of them all, came bitterly to regret his secular works, with their voluptuousness and riot. He is even said to have destroyed some.
But that was foolish – as foolish as the iconoclasts who, in most faiths, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, have gone around destroying works of art in churches, as vain, idolatrous and blasphemous. It is not for any one or any group of us to decide that people have been wrong to worship God in their chosen fashion.
Far more likely it is that God takes particular pleasure in seeing our attempts to use our skills to replicate the beauty he has created. God is the greatest of all connoisseurs. All my life I have been a landscape painter, after a fashion, as my father was before me. I now regret not having painted more, but I chose to earn my living by writing and the demands of that trade are exigent and for many years I painted little. During the last decade I have tried to make up for lost opportunities by painting what I see wherever I go in the world, even if I only have a few snatched minutes for a quick sketch. The results have been rewarding far in excess of my expectations.
Not only have I accumulated a large stock of sketches and finished paintings, from all continents, but the quality of the rendering has improved. I feel, increasingly, that I am painting for God, as much as for myself and my friends. God gave me this certain, limited talent, and I am serving him by seeking to improve it while making a record of what he has created in the world. To me at any rate, painting is prayerful. It is also one of the most innocent of enjoyments. And it instructs. There is no doubt that painting forces us to look very closely at what God has done and so to grasp the design of nature, just as painting a building gives us a marvelous insight into the intentions of the architect.
Hills and mountains, rivers and waterfalls and lakes do not just come into existence haphazardly. They are formed over long periods by powerful natural forces, and studying them closely while painting enables one to understand these processes and so paint better. No one who spends long hours and days painting landscapes can be without considerable knowledge of the way God has made the world, and of the relationships between beauty and purpose in natural forms.
For a long time I was singularly inept in drawing, and still more painting, trees, so that I almost despaired of them. But they are among the finest of God’s creations – noble things, so full of majesty and honor, and so varied. So I persevered and made a special, painstaking study of their structure, and at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art. So I improved and now take enormous pleasure in painting trees, albeit with occasional failures still.
What I have undoubtedly neglected is the human form. I like to put figures in my landscapes, as my father taught me, just to indicate scale, and I am often ashamed at how poor they are. So I often tell myself that I must go back to life-class and really master the human form by drawing it patiently and industriously. So far this has not happened, and the months and years go by, and I realize yet again the importance of resolution and persistence and will-power in all schemes of human improvement. I say to myself now: ‘I will find time to carry out this resolve, as soon as I have finished this book.’ For who can deny that the human form is in many ways the finest of God’s works of art?
The scriptures tell us that God created man in his own image. We do not know exactly what this means, and it certainly cannot mean that God looks like a man in an ordinary visual sense. We are left with a mystery, but perhaps we can begin to solve it by studying and painting the human form with the diligence its radiant beauties merit. There is, indeed, a certain holiness about the body, in both its male and its female varieties, and it is with some reverence that we should approach it — there is a connection with the divine.
That was the spirit in which William Etty, an artist I much admire, approached the nude. He worked on it all his life and, though he attained remarkable proficiency in both drawing and painting human flesh — no English artist ever did it better — he was never content. He continued to attend life-classes at the Royal Academy right to the end of his life, sitting among the students and not too proud to receive their critical comments on his work, or to listen to the presiding master. I possess some of the results of his dedicated industry and value them as evidence not just of his skill, but of his determination to improve it. There is no better way to serve God.
Studying the works of God and trying to reproduce them visually brings us close to our creator. It is one way to know him. But it may be that the musician gets even closer. The universe is an exercise in harmony as much as in shape and colour and texture, and none can doubt that there are celestial sounds as well as visions. Then again, all creation is a series of abstractions as muchas a series of material realities, and these abstractions can be expressed musically as well as mathematically and algebraically.
Composing, reproducing and hearing sounds of exquisite beauty and profundity can give us extraordinary insights not just into beauty, but into goodness itself. After hearing a great symphony, telling us, but entirely in abstract terms, of truth and justice and heroism, we arise better men and women. The musicians in the orchestra feel it, the conductor feels it, the listeners feel it. The mood may not last, but it is much to have felt it at all. It is akin to the lifting of the heart and spirit we experience at a religious ceremony when we have concentrated our thoughts well and meditated deeply. So music works on our minds, and God listens too.
It must be a fine thing to have composed the music which has so held players and audience and so raised their minds to God. That is why, I think, Jean Sibelius told me, in the summer of 1949, ‘to compose is often an agony but it is the quintessence of privilege too’. Many composers have been deeply religious people, humbly rejoicing in this privilege — none more so than Joseph Haydn, whose long, industrious and painstaking life, so modestly conducted amid so many difficulties and setbacks, is a model of artistic integrity in God’s service.
Or there is the case of Anton Bruckner, childlike and wholly innocent in his devotion to God, who spent so many hours seated at the organ, alone with his music and his maker, and then poured forth his prayers in vast symphonies, few of which he ever heard performed. His ninth, last and greatest he dedicated, quite simply: ‘To Almighty God’.
In contrast to architects, painters and composers, writers have a mixed record in God’s service. They are so numerous and varied that it is risky to generalize in any way, but it is remarkable how many writers, in all civilisations, have tended to take a critical view of established order and sought to subvert it. It is probably the single most striking characteristic of the mind which wishes to express itself through the written word.
Now, of course, in subverting order they may be carrying out God’s purpose, and there are plenty of instances in the Old Testament where that is exactly what its more passionate writers are doing. But I have spent my entire working life among writers and I know very well that the cast of mind which they habitually possess, and which harbors huge resentments of the world as it exists, is not necessarily motivated by selfless altruism. To praise God is not usually the writer’s intention in picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a word-processor. More likely it is to express a grievance or work off a resentment or articulate a personal longing or simply to rage — in addition to making money, of course. Writers are sinful and fallen and unsatisfactory man writ large.
It will be, for me at least, one of the great points of interest of the next world to see how God, in his justice, sorts out all the giants and pygmies of the pen. How will Voltaire fare? Some Christian polemicists write as if he were already in Hell, but I am not so sure. A man’s writings have to be judged in their effects, if any, over many generations, and these may be contradictory and, in aggregate, difficult to assess. We may be sure God will do them justice, however, and this may often in the end surprise us.
Where will he place Tolstoy, that astonishing combination of humility and arrogance, wisdom and madness, piety and destruction? He will have difficulty with Milton, too, who sought — so he said — to justify the ways of God to men and ended by writing a masterpiece whose hero was Satan. I do not know how Shelley will fare, he who professed atheism and practised a kind of exalted pantheism, who preached socialism and was a monster of personal selfishness. The fact is, nevertheless, that men and women have been uplifted and inspired by Shelley’s poetry and become better people in consequence.
How will God reward or punish, sanctify or damn the immense mass of gifted men and women who have given contradictory messages to the modern world? All will come up for judgment – the Baudelaires and the Hugos, the Hemingways and the Joyces, a mad genius like Ezra Pound and a calculating operator like Zola, the reckless like Rimbaud and the thoughtful like Emerson, the sinners like Byron and the saints like Chesterton.
I cannot imagine how God will arrange Sartre and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Rilke, Yeats and Lorca in any order of sanctification or devilry which makes sense. But it will undoubtedly be carried out: therein lie the fascinating things to come. What evil have their writings done — then and since? What good — in their lifetimes and thereafter? The heavenly computers will whirr and deliver and the notices of judgment will be posted, and the writers, disheveled, apprehensive, ashamed or defiant, struggling or abject, will be brought out to be given their laurels or punished, in front of all the watching world.
But there are also those writers who have not sought to tell the world what to do, to create Utopias out of their own unaided intellects and incited people into trying to bring them about, but instead have simply set themselves to portray God’s universe and his people in loving words. They will have a smooth passage through the storms of that tremendous judgment day. There are writers who, by their modest genius, or even merely by their carefully husbanded and honed talents, have sought chiefly to enable their readers to see God’s creation with fresh eyes — have taught us to look, again and again, at the world around us and the way humans behave.
To teach us about the universe, to encourage us to explore and value and treat tenderly all its manifestations and inhabitants, is a salient work of art in itself and an act of worship. Such writers are dear to God, and they are valuable to us too: for the understanding and reverence we bring to the world around us is a salient part of our duty, as we are beginning to discover.