Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), ‘The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob wrestling with the Angel’,Oil on canvas, 1888.
In my attempt to reinvigorate this series on ‘Religious Art’ I thought I would return to themes of the first post. Jacob wrestling the Angel.
Gauguin’s painting captures a number of the tensions within religious experience (or of ecstasy) and it therefore has parallels with the (earlier) Zurburan painting I reviewed previously. Gauguin is well known for his dynamic colours and ‘primitive’ style and rich red is certainly one of the prominent features of this painting. With this red, Gauguin simultaneously flattens the image whilst also re-using a motif for imagination and fantasy.
We, as viewers, are situated amongst the other observers and yet this ‘flatness’ perpetually reminds the viewer that we are seeing an image (a vision). This tension between being present witness and the unreal qualities of this vision are reinforced by the contrast between the exagerrated red and the black-and-white clothing of the women. The traditional dress of these Breton women also serves to invoke the possibility that these two wrestlers are (merely) two local boys; a practice common in this time and place. Moreover, such a scene had been one of Gauguin’s earlier works and there is the possibility that he is re-visiting that theme but with a religious gloss.
This tension between the visionaries and the vision is reinforced via the branch. It becomes a veil separating the two sides of the painting and yet these two are bound together through framing them within a single picture. Perhaps Gauguin is trying to articulate the sense of uncertainty (whether in the body or out of the body) that is sometimes a feature of religious experience.
Most significant in this painting is how the visionary world interrupts the lives of these women following a sermon. Collectively they sense the contemporary significance of the scripture (and the sermon which brought it to life). Surely this is the purpose of a sermon; to bring a congregation to see and experience together the struggle with God (and his Angels).