A Church in the Landscape
Saint Paul wrote that we could see and understand God’s eternal power and divine nature through the things he had made. 1 Through painting, artists can help us uncover such things for ourselves. One example is a picture of the highest mountain in the Grampian ranges, west-north-west of Melbourne, Australia.
The painting Mount William from Mount Dryden, by Eugene von Guerard 2 was first shown in 1857 at a public exhibition in Melbourne. The Argus newspaper wrote at the time:
‘A grand range of mountains, rising abruptly from the plain limits the view; and …the artist has displayed the feeling of a poet and the touch of a master. The soft rich light invests those jagged summits with a palpable glory’. 3
Subsequent reviewers and scholars also recognised glory, divinity and transcendence in this work, and in others of von Guerard’s best. 4
In 1857, just twelve years after the first Europeans settlers came to Victoria, the country around Mount William had become a prized region for sheep-grazing. Some local pastoralists invited the artist, von Guerard, to depict their properties and the surrounding country. Von Guerard arrived in Australia in 1852, hoping to make his fortune as a miner on the Victorian goldfields. Like a great many others with the same dream, he had the same disappointing results. To make a living, he went back to the artistic profession for which he had trained under his father in Vienna and Italy, and then at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany.
Von Guerard’s Australian landscapes show how keenly he studied the natural world he was painting. He travelled extensively, constantly sketching the country. He made friends with scientists and surveyors and went on some of their expeditions. He took pride in being faithful to nature but also to the poetry and inner meaning of what he saw. He seemed to embody the ideal of a landscape artist as an interpreter and guide. This ideal, expressed by a German writer in 1831, went along the following lines. Natural beauty is more divine; artistic beauty is more human. Consequently, the feeling for nature truly emerges only through art. Nature has its own language that we need to learn, but landscape painting helps us understand nature’s language by translating some of its words into the language of art. 5
In Mount William from Mount Dryden, we see Mount William from about 35 kilometres away. The sun’s first rays are sending yellow light up to the clouds and pink-gold light down to the far side of the mountain. Dawn brings us out of the darkness and awakens us to consciousness. The highest places are where we find the highest consciousness. Mountains have long been places to seek God, and the clouds have long sent down voices and visions to the prophets and saints as well as raising Christ up to his heavenly throne. If we wish to be enlightened, we must go up to the summit, and face east, as when we also do when we go up towards the sanctuary of a church. The hike to the mountain is slow and difficult, and the climb is steep and laborious, but we seem to know from the painting that it is worth the time and labour.
Suppose we step into the picture and set off for the mountain. We must first pass through a wilder, outer zone in the foreground. Kangaroos are grazing among drier grasses in a rockier terrain. A fox is slinking about on the right, and blackberry bushes have also been spotted. 6 A little further on, some trees have grown up to catch the light. One of them has even grown above the horizon. The trees do not obstruct us, but show us a way to go further into the scene in front of us.
Trees connect the raw energy and potential in the earth with the light and governing laws of heaven. 7The garden of Eden had a tree of knowledge and a tree of life. On a tree, the Germanic god Odin hanged himself for nine days, wounded by a spear, to acquire wisdom. Perhaps the ancient Germans had heard an earlier story of a Man hung on a wooden tree, pierced by a spear, who connected heaven and earth. Traces of the role of trees in connecting energy with rationality may even be found in the history of the word itself. ‘Tree’ finds a root in an ancient Indo-European word meaning to be firm, solid or steadfast, from which our word ‘truth’ also arises.
Next, the countryside opens out into an expansive plain of lush green vegetation, ponds and streams. We will have to go through the water to get to the mountain, as the first European explorers did. The passage through water brings to mind baptism, the stoup and the font as we enter a church. Making our way forward, the long, darker stretch of the mountain range in front of Mount William begins to shelter and guide us, like a wall.
Look up into the sky and you see a large bird in flight, lit up in white and gold, most likely an eagle, the ‘poignant detail that indelibly touches us’ as a scholar recently remarked. 8 The bird hovers at the meeting point of two invisible lines. The first draws us up into the sky, and the second draws us over the country towards the mountain. The eagle symbolises vision, authority and rationality. According to legend, an eagle could look directly into the sun, and according to Christian tradition the eagle represents Saint John of the Gospel who speaks in such lofty language. The eagle is calling us out of the wilderness and directing us to the mountain. Through this intelligent being, we can celebrate the entire scene.
Those who have seen this picture over the years often sensed that the mountain had been changed into something sacred. The imagery is natural, but it awakens our mind to holier meanings of mountains, trees and water. The landscape is natural, but its arrangement suggests an outer courtyard, an entrance way, a passage through water, and a wall leading up to the ascent and a golden sanctuary. The very landscape has become a church. Through this artistic translation of nature, von Guerard has invited us to share in celebrating God’s power and divinity.
Eugene von Guerard, Mount William from Mount Dryden, 1857, oil on canvas, 61.9 x 91.4 cm, Art Gallery of Western Australia
Friedrich Boser (attrib.), Portrait of Eugene von Guerard, c.1836-40, oil on canvas, 16.6 x 12.8 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
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- Romans 1:20, NRSV
- Now in the Art Gallery of Western Australia
- The Argus, Melbourne, 4 December 1857
- For example, Dr Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guerard: Nature revealed, Melbourne, 2011, p.130; Daniel Thomas in Candice Bruce, Eugen von Guerard, Sydney, 1980, p.12
- C.G.Carus, Nine letters on landscape painting, Getty Institute, 2002, p. 98, at http://d2aohiyo3d3idm.cloudfront.net/publications/virtuallibrary/0892366745.pdf
- Daniel Thomas in Bruce, Eugen von Guerard, p.13
- See Mathieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, 2018
- Richard Read, ‘Continental shift III’, Histories of Emotion, website at: