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Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


We cannot then say how this linking together of mind and matter takes place, but we know that it is present with us in every act of consciousness. And so we may, in some sort, understand that if the outward world is the creation of One, and the laws of Nature the eternal modes of His opera­tion, all the visible universe must indeed be a reflection, as it were, of His mind; and as we look upon it, if there is any­thing of divinity within us, it must leap forth to embrace that which it recognises as the manifestation of a kindred spirit. Nature in her fulness is God's art. Man is in a different position; he cannot (as far as we know at present) create his materials, but must make use of what Nature gives him, imitating and studying her till he is in some sort master of those outward things, and then using them to reflect again some little ray of the divine light which has found a home within him.

If then there is any truth in all this, we may well believe that Nature, in her splendour and her humility, in her labour and her repose, in her widefelt sympathy and her awe-inspiring changelessness, does indeed tell us something of the attributes of Him who fills her with life, and may truly excite in us emotions akin to the deepest religion. And what Nature does in her bounty, man's Art may follow out in lesser completeness.  All men feel the desire to express that which is in them. Some appreciate and seize with a sudden inspi­ration the fitness of the visible world for that expression. These are the world's artists; they have the divine power (which all perhaps have in some degree) of giving light to the hidden thoughts within them by the symbolism of Nature. On the other hand, more men can appreciate the import of this symbolism without being able so readily to bend it to their own use; they are the great audience of Nature and of Art. Often they feel more deeply and rejoice more in the message than those whose tongues are not bound, but they cannot impart it so readily to others. Yet if their feelings are true they cannot resist the wish somehow or other to express that which has found a home in their hearts; and if not with chisel or pencil, yet in word and life to strive to picture forth that beauty which has been revealed to them. So true art, at any time, ought to imply both 'being and doing,' reception of the beautiful, and the endeavour to express it, to pass it on again to all the world.

Man's art must not, therefore, be thought to be a mere useless imitation of Nature. For though it may be said to be burdened with the same messages, yet to many it speaks with clearer tones than Nature does; for Nature is so ex­uberant, so overpowering in her fulness, that we are often bewildered by her, and cannot carry away anything but a vague astonishment at her greatness; but the artist can take some part of her message and, omitting the mass of her detailed beauty, convey a smaller meaning, it is true, but one more easily understood. Nor is it necessary that a fuller development of our receptive powers should cause us to discard all human art in favour of Nature. There is a pleasure in the sympathetic communication of ideas among fellow men, which can never perish; and may we not also add that in all men there is an originality, ever new in itself and ever of varying interest in its expression, which will always render his highest works valuable, even in the presence of Nature's transcendent teaching?

In the attempt of the spirit to mould the external world into some kind of expression of itself, there ensues a struggle, as it were, between the spiritual and the material, between the active and the inert throughout all Nature, between that which tends to life and that which tends to death. In this struggle, the triumph of the spiritual gives rise to what we term perfect beauty or felicitous expression. The material is moulded into perfect consonance with the hidden idea, and the beholder is filled with the most unbounded delight as that perfect fitness flashes upon him too as it flashed upon the forming mind.

When the struggle is on the side of the material, and the spirit is in danger of suffering defeat, there arises in  beholder, according to the importance of the occasion, either an unavoidable sadness or a resistless sense of the ludicrous, a sense of the tragic or of the comic.

But when the spirit dies, when the active falls into the inert, when Life is swallowed up in Death, there results the most perfect ugliness.

In the great whole of Nature we have all these vividly presented to us amongst her details.

The latest researches of Science tend to represent all the phenomena of Nature as the results of a struggle between the moving forces of attraction or repulsion and the inertia resi­dent in matter itself. The consequent motions of the particles of matter excite the various impressions in our minds. Na­ture is reduced to a duality; an active principle, if we choose so to name it, and a passive principle. We return, in fact, to the (vovy) and the (v\j) of the Neoplatonists.

Now it is to be observed that, in Nature, the more we discern the action of these energetic forces symbolised in matter-the more delicate in fact the equilibrium in which the material particles are held-the greater is the beauty presented to us; while, in proportion as the atoms lie in an inert state, fettered by mutual friction, or even by the over-intensity of some one force, such as gravity; the more stable, in short, the equilibrium, the more dull and uninteresting is the result. If we take, for instance, a crystal of some salt and pound it into a powdery mass, all the little particles of the mass are no doubt exercising forces upon one another whose tendency is, firstly to produce motion, and ultimately to bind the whole into closer unity; yet the particles do not move, because the counteracting effects of friction, and the superabundant attraction of gravity are too strong for the moving forces. But if now we dissolve this powder in water, then it is in such a condition that the mutual attractions of the particles can take effect, and the result is that the particles aggregate into a definite shape-a crystal. There is no great beauty in the comparatively inert mass of powder, but the crystal is a definite exponent, as it were, of the forces that have been acting, and its shape to some extent symbolises the nature of those forces. The crystal is therefore an artistic production. Again, consider a mass of soil; in it the com­ponent matters are thrown together at random; there they remain, and the more formlessly they are arranged, the less do they represent the action of any force, and the more dull and flat does the whole appear. How different this from the beautiful flower that springs from it! All the little subtle forces, provoked to action by placing the seed in the ground, have drawn, each in its proper place, the tiny particles from the earth, building up the leaves, and the stalk, and the flower, with its colours grouped in brighter array than Solomon. Yet in the tissues of the plant exactly the same particles are ranged as were formerly in the earth and air, but now their various forces have found a sphere of action; and the graceful form of the leaves, and the delicate bend of the stalk, and the quick, happy opening of the flower are now due to the mutual balance of powers which were before imprisoned in the dull 'dead' earth. If we assume any unknown vital principle as moulding the forms of leaf and tree, the argument is still the same. The beauty arises in the gradual overcoming of the unwillingness of matter to bend itself to the unseen forces. However, to those who study Nature the unvarying physical laws seem marvellous enough; and it is only because they are more complicated in their action in the case of plants and animals, that we seek refuge from the difficulty by supposing them superseded by something else. The more complicated they are, however, the more advanced is the beauty arising from their action, and thus it happens that the beauty of the human form is of a higher order than the beauty of shrub or tree, just as the beauty of waving grass than that of the crystal, or the beauty of the varying cloudlines than that of the arched waterfall.