Giron - The Grandeur And Glory Of The Mountains
( Originally Published 1902 )
PAINTINGS of the ocean are many, but paintings of great mountains are few. One who has not made a study of the subject will be surprised as he traverses the galleries of Europe, to learn how few pictures of mountains they contain. There are almost limitless processions of voluptuous women, endless attempts, in grotesque forms, to portray the divine agony, even many and glorious paintings of the sea and the gentler phases of landscape beauty, but, apparently, few artists have even tried to reproduce the mountains. I know not how to account for this fact except by supposing that, more than any other natural objects, they inspire awe and humility. " Those who have studied the works produced during the last few years by Swiss landscape and portrait painters cannot have failed to be impressed by one sign, amongst others, full of promise for the future of art in this country, namely, that the Swiss painter, instead of being carried away by the modern impulse for travel and pastures new,' is turning more and more to his own wonderful land and its natural types and customs for the subject-matter and inspiration of his art."
Charles Giron unquestionably occupies a very high place among modern Swiss artists. As a painter of Alpine scenery, he has seldom if ever been surpassed. Two of his works alone are sufficient to give him undying fame, namely, " Chaine de Oberland" and " Les Nuees." The latter is the masterpiece which I have selected for this interpretation. It was exhibited first at the Vevey Exhibition. " It has all the enchantment of an evocation. A part of the higher summits is seen purple with the last rays of the setting sun, while the neighboring peaks are already pale with that death-like whiteness which succeeds the ' alpengluhn.' From the depths of the valley rise the clouds rep-resented as a troop of exquisitely graceful human forms, dancing in the light upper air, into which they will soon dissolve. The fairy, ephemeral appearance of these forms . and their drifting there at that twilight hour against the background of the everlasting mountains is as admirably suggestive in conception as it is delicate and beautiful in execution."
No painting of lofty mountains, that I have ever seen, so perfectly delineates the coldness, the desolation, and yet the majesty and glory of the high altitudes. Snow rests on the peaks which are not too jagged to retain it ; glaciers plough the rocky sides, clouds touch the glaciers, a stream rushes through the valley, and the very firmament seems but a little higher than the loftiest summits. There Nature is found in her grandest moods. There the gods of the snow-peaks seem to be holding serene and awful court. I do not know any painting which so perfectly illustrates the glory and grandeur of the mountains as " Les Nuees," by Charles Giron.
Mountains are the glory of many lands. Legends concerning them form a large part of the literature of the world. The elder gods were supposed to have their dwelling-place among them. They are the back-bone of the continent of America, both north and south ; they constitute nearly all there is of many groups of islands, like the Hawaiian and Philippine. Africa culminates in the almost unknown mountains of its interior ; the Alps are the glory of Europe, and the Himalayas are the crown of Asia and the splendor of the world. The most beautiful parts of Great Britain are the mountainous districts of Cumberland and of Scotland. Japan is an empire of mountains, chief among which, and the pride and joy of all her people, is the sacred peak of Fujiama. New Zealand, beneath the Southern Cross, is another and, in some respects, a grander and more varied Switzerland. The visitor to Norway sails in fiords along the whole coast between mountains from four thousand to eight thousand feet high. Alaska is a grander Norway, with still more majestic fiords and still loftier and more impressive peaks, whose flanks are ploughed by the mightiest glaciers known upon the earth. Those Alaskan giants almost if not quite rival the awful grandeur of Everest and Kin Chinjunga as seen from Dhargeeling. In Europe all other sights are insignificant when compared with the Finsteraarhorn and Monte Rosa, the Matter-horn and Mont Blanc. No man is really well educated who has not spent much time listening to the voices of the mountains. More than any other objects in nature they excite amazement and reverence and lift the soul toward the unseen and eternal. They offer not simply heights to be scaled, but experiences to be found nowhere else. To see the sun sink into the west from a mountain 12,000 feet high, when, to use Tennyson's phrase, the sky is " all one glory like a pearl," and then from the same altitude to see it rise from the " caverns of the night," swift, serene, and splendid, is a vision which few men can behold and longer live on the same low levels as before. All such elevations are places of moral and spiritual as well as of physical vision. The vastness of the universe, the insignificance of man, the majesty of the Creator, have a new significance when seen from the heights. One who has lived in such regions is never long willing to live elsewhere. Unseen attractions draw him toward his native hills wherever else he may wander, and to their shadows he longs to return when the struggle is over and the time for resting has come.
But these giants of the earth are more than objects to admire and revere. They have a distinct and beneficent ministry to perform, a service which is essential to the very existence of human beings upon the earth. That ministry is three-fold : physical, aesthetic, and spiritual. Ruskin divides it so far as it is related to the physical welfare of man into three departments. He says : " The mountains and hills give motion to water so that men can build their cities in the midst of fields which will al-ways be fertile, and establish the lines of their commerce on streams which will not fail." If the earth were a level plain the water would remain where the rains fall, until it disappeared by evaporation. The whole earth would then be damp and unfit for habitation. There would be no rivers, for rivers are made possible by elevations of the land. All the power which results from the natural movement of waters would be lost; Moreover, all the beauty and glory of the earth, so far as they are produced by rivers and waterfalls—Niagara and Schaffhausen, the Hudson, the Amazon, the Nile, and the Columbia, would be impossible, since rivers and waterfalls are but the over-flow of the reservoirs in the hills.
" Mountains maintain a constant change in the currents of the air. They divide the earth not only into districts, but into climates, and cause perpetual currents of air to traverse their passes and ascend or descend their ravines, altering both the temperature and nature of the air in a thousand different ways."
" The third great use of the mountains is to cause perpetual change in the soils of the earth. Without such change the ground under cultivation would in a series of years become exhausted." j Mr. Ruskin gives a simple but vivid illustration of how streams are constantly bearing to the lowlands the strength and vitality of the hills. He says :
At three in the afternoon on a warm day in September, when the torrent had reached its average maximum strength for the day, I filled an ordinary Bordeaux wine-flask with the water when it was least turbid. From this quart of water, I obtained twenty-four grains of sand, more or less fine. I cannot estimate the quantity of water in the stream, but the runlet of it at which I filled the flask was giving about two hundred bottles a minute, or rather more, carrying down, therefore, about three-quarters of a pound of powdered granite every minute. This would be forty-five pounds an hour." After making all necessary qualifications, he continues : "By this insignificant rivulet, therefore, some four inches wide and four inches deep, rather more than two tons of the substance of Mont Blanc are displaced, and carried down a certain distance every week; and, as it is only for three or four months that the flow of the stream is checked by frost, we may certainly allow eighty tons for the mass which it annually moves." He continued his computations and concluded that 8o,000 tons every year, at a very moderate estimate, are carried to the valleys from the Mont Blanc chain alone. This shows how the mountains are used to change and strengthen the soil, out of which grows the food on which the life of man is dependent. The everlasting hills are ever-lasting only in name. They are fleeting like everything else on which our eyes rest, and yet their very evanescence ministers to the welfare of humanity.
The mountains perform an important service as the ministers to the sense of beauty in man. This is illustrated in the painting we are considering. Three natural objects may be said to make the beauty and glory of the earth--the ocean, the mountains, and the sky. There is no beauty quite so exquisite as that of some of the Alpine valleys. He who can look upon Chamouni from the summit of the Col de Balme, or Lauterbrunnen from the path of descent from the Wengern Alp, or, I may add, into the Yosemite from Inspiration Point, and not feel his whole being rise in admiration, is hardly human. From the crest of the Col de Balme, the high pass by which, along a narrow foot-path, it is possible to go from the valley of the Rhone to Chamouni, an unequalled grouping of high peaks around a single valley is presented. On the right, without snow but marvellously sculptured into spires, domes, pinnacles, all sorts of fortifications, rises a line of mountains reaching an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Any one of them elsewhere would be worth a pilgrimage of a thousand miles. On the left, and just behind, is the Glacier du Trient, then follows the Glacier d'Argentier, then the Mer de Glace, then the Glacier du Bossous, and around these glaciers are mountains like the Aguile du Dhru, the Aguile du Midi, and many others, all culminating in the unapproachable splendor of Mont Blanc, which lifts its snow-white dome 15,600 feet toward the blue of the sky. A clear day spent in such surroundings, and in such company, will revolutionize a man's intellectual processes, and do much to clarify his spiritual vision. He will find that his ideals of beauty and majesty are all changed, and it will be easier ever after to think of nature as the garment of the Deity. But it is not necessary to go as far as the Alps. From Mount Washington, from any one of the mountains on Mount Desert, from the Berkshires or Catskills, or from the hills in New Jersey, which by courtesy are called mountains, the statement that the glory of the landscape depends on its elevations is easily verified. Leave Seattle, on Puget Sound, and sail toward Tacoma. At first you will be disappointed. Where is the scenery of which you have heard so much ? But wait a little. The steamer turns around a point of land, a cloud lifts, and you are speechless, as Isaiah was when the glory of God filled the temple. What has happened ? At last you are looking upon the white splendor of Mount Rainier, which rises nearly 1 5,000 feet, apparently from the very waters on which you are sailing. It now almost seems as if there is no other sail like that in the wide world ; but the trip up the Columbia in constant sight of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood is equally grand. Mountains minister to the sense of beauty ; they fill it and satisfy it as hardly any other objects in nature.
Mountains stimulate feelings of reverence and worship. It is not difficult to understand why the Japanese call Fujiama their sacred mountain and revere it like a God. They are but expressing the emotions which the glorious peak has inspired in the breasts of Occidentals as well as Orientals. It is a worthy symbol of the Deity, if any natural object can be. As one stands among the rocks of Inspiration Point in the Yosemite Valley and looks upon El Capitan, the Half-Dome, the Cathedral Rocks, listens to the thunder of the multitudinous waterfalls, where torrents tumble from 500 to more than 4,000 feet, but one thought will adequately express his feelings : "What is man that Thou art mindful of him ? " Few persons are so shallow as not to be moved by the sight of a great mountain. Nothing else so suggests the contrast between the littleness of man and the vastness of nature. The emotion experienced in the presence of the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc is closely akin to that felt in the presence of some preternatural man. We fear force or magnitude ; we reverence only persons. The impression produced by the mountains is more nearly akin to worship than to fear, and in ruder times actually was worship. To me mountains always seem to be per-sons. In almost all the earlier ages they' were regarded as peculiarly the abode of divinities. It was not by accident that the gods of old were thought of as having their palaces on Mount Olympus. The gods be-long among the mountains.
Those who dwell constantly in mountainous districts are often impervious to their glory, but those who visit them occasionally seldom fail to feel the same emotions that are aroused by any other great revelation of the Deity.
What are some of the messages of the mountains? They are many. I select for emphasis two or three which have been impressed upon me.
They always point men upward. Many and clamorous are the voices that speak of things earthly and sensual. The lower levels sometimes have an evil fascination; but the mountains ever say to us, " You should turn your thoughts and affections toward the heavens ; there is your true home." They exalt our minds as they lift our eyes. Above them are the pure sky and the Holy God. In the darkness a man may do a mean and ignoble thing, but up there in the silences and splendor the universe seems built of glass, and strange eyes, both human and divine, appear focused upon him. It is a great blessing, in this world of ours, to have the grandest objects on the earth always pointing heavenward.
The widest and the clearest views are always for those who climb the highest peaks. If one would live in ignorance let him stay down in the valleys; if he would have wide visions let him rise to the heights. When you are shut in by the hills you are conceited and think you know much, but when you have reached the crests you see that you know little and are humble. One must rise to appreciate the fact that clouds which seem dark are only the under side of something bright. In the valley one may think that all is gloom, but from the high altitudes at the same moment the darkness will all be gone. I climbed Mount Hood years ago. When we were about half-way to the summit a wild storm seemed about to break upon the earth ; the clouds were fierce, furious, and black ; but when we had gone higher we looked down on the same clouds, and they shone in the sun like burnished silver, without the slightest suggestion of gloom. The mountains always seem preaching to us, and the burden of their sermons is : rise high enough, and what seems to forebode disaster will shine with the benediction of God. The upper side of trouble is almost always bright with benefit.
There is frequent mention of mountains in the Scriptures. The law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the beatitudes were spoken by Jesus on a mountain in Galilee. Elijah sought rest at Mount Horeb ; Moses was taken into companionship with God on Mount Nebo. The transfiguration was probably on the summit of Mount Tabor. " Mark the significance of the earliest mention of mountains in the Mosaic books. . . . The ark rests upon the mountains of Ararat. Again, from the midst of the first judgment of fire the command of duty to His servant is, `Escape to the mountains.' The third mention in the way of ordinance is a far more solemn one : ' Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.' And the fourth is the delivery of the law on. Sinai."
Jesus spoke His immortal sermon on the mountain; He was transfigured on a mountain; He retired to a mountain when He would spend a whole night in prayer; when He was to be lifted up that He might draw all men unto himself He was crucified on Mount Calvary; and at last from the crest of Olivet He ascended to His glory.
The mountains speak of the greatness of the universe, and therefore of God; they point us heavenward; they help us to realize that the truest visions are for those who are willing to climb—but no word or hint of mercy or salvation is ever suggested by Alp or Himalaya. They speak of righteousness, but not of grace. They seem to say to us : "For him who makes a mistake there is no hope. If one falls here, in the abysses there is only death." Cold, distant, awful, they have their message and perform their ministry, but another voice was needed for encouragement and hope. The mountains say : As a man falls, so must he lie for-ever and forever. They speak of the remorselessness of law. But another voice has sounded over the earth, and, though it was spoken on a mountain, it came from beyond the stars. Mountains, which are the culmination of the natural world, primarily suggest righteousness, high, noble, almost inaccessible; but the voice which came from Cal-vary by way of the highest heavens tells men of pardon, of helpfulness, of One mighty to save. And yet the two messages in reality are the same. The mountains point men toward heaven, and the voice from beyond the stars tells them the way to get there ; and both messages are from the same Spirit of Truth and love who always calls us upward, and never fails to open paths for our feet or to provide a Guide who has himself trodden every step of the way along which He would lead us, as we rise toward the Delectable Mountains and the City Celestial.