Watts - The Coronation Of Life
( Originally Published 1902 )
WATTS has been called the artist of " supernatural hope." Principal Forsythe says : " We have no man among us so masculine as Mr. Watts ; none so Miltonic, none so conversant with the vast and dignified simplicities of form, the grandness of imagination, and the widest sweep of noble thought. He is our Michael Angelo. He has schooled himself severely on the example of Phidias, and he has lived himself into the large spirit of our own time." " He views life on a large scale. He pierces to its broad and central issues. He paints the character rather than the aspect of life in the whole." Few writers have interpreted the messages of some of the modern masters of painting and music with more discernment and appreciation than the accomplished Principal of Hackney College. He has also called Rossetti the interpreter of " the Religion of Natural Passion," Burne-Jones of "the Religion of Preternatural Imagination," and Holman Hunt of the " Religion of Spiritual Faith." A more accurate characterization of this quartette of artists could hardly have been made.
We might, perhaps, with equal accuracy say that Rossetti is the artist of sensuous beauty, Burne-Jones of refined imagination, Holman Hunt of the poetry of religion, and Watts of ethical and spiritual ideals. I recall no suggestion among all the works of the latter which is not noble and true. He views life like one who sits on a mountain-top. He interprets it as it is seen from above and not from below. The character of the man and of the artist is revealed in a letter which he wrote to Dr. Forsythe concerning his picture, "Love and Life ": " It is an idea that can be amplified to any extent, being indeed in-tended for the love that Paul preached ; the sustaining, guiding, and raising power, impersonal, not the love of any one for another, which may be carnal in its nature, and could not have been represented as winged, the love that brings life—tenderly trusting her-self absolutely to him—to a finer atmosphere and gives it its clearest vision of celestial heights." That last phrase is entirely characteristic. He was ever seeking visions from " celestial heights." If Burne-Jones may be called the Tennyson of modern artists, Watts, with equal propriety, may be called their Browning. He has much of Browning's spiritual vision, his optimism, his strong faith, and his forward look.
One of the most beautiful pictures of our time is that of Sir Galahad, the spotless knight of Arthur's Round Table, and the only one of the knights to whom was given the vision of the Holy Grail. In it our artist has represented a youth in a forest standing beside a snow-white charger. The animal is fondly rubbing his nose against the young man's knee, but the youth is looking far into the distance, as if occupied more with the things of the future than of the present. By his side hangs the sword which proves him not a mere dreamer but a stalwart fighter. Tennyson's sketch of Sir Galahad, which no doubt suggested this picture, is in these words :
" And one there was among us, ever moved Among us in white armor, Galahad. ' God make thee good as thou art beautiful,' Said Arthur, when he dubbed him knight; and none, In so young youth, was ever made a knight Till Galahad."
Then came to the members of the Round Table the sudden passion to forsake the common duties, by which the common life is bettered, and to go on the fruitless quest of the Holy Grail.
" Then when he asked us, knight by knight, if any
' Lo now,' said Arthur, ' have ye seen a cloud ?
Then Galahad on the sudden, and in a voice
Ah, Galahad, Galahad,' said the King, ' for such
The scriptural form for expressing the same truth is---" He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death:" and again in the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
This picture has found the most appropriate of possible homes. May it never be moved except to a better location in the same institution. It is hung in the beautiful chapel of Eton College, one of the two or three largest and most influential preparatory schools of Great Britain. Eton College is distant hardly more than a mile from the towers and battlements of Windsor Castle. It has numbered among its students many of the most famous men of English history, and there, for years to come, will be gathered many who will play a large part in the development of the empire and exert a vital influence on the world's civilization. The picture is hung on the side of the chapel where the light is obscure. Its effect would be increased if the light were more favorable, but even where it is, it must be an inspiration to many who, within those walls " are mewing their mighty youth." No better sermon could be preached to the Eton boys than reiterated expositions of that superb representation of the loftiest ideals.
The full interpretation of such a sermon in color and form is a difficult task, and one which I shall hardly presume to undertake.
Dr. Forsythe once received a letter from the wife of Watts, written at her husband's request, which contains a statement worthy of being quoted here. The letter says : "This, roughly speaking, is what he felt about the picture, but he begs me to say he would in no way wish to trammel your thoughts as an interpreter of his works by defining too much." My effort will not be to learn what lessons the artist intended to impress, but rather to state the thoughts which the picture inspires in my own mind, confident, however, that in doing so I shall not be very far removed from the message which he wished to convey.
This painting suggests to me the glory of goodness. That is the message both of Tennyson's poem and Watts' picture, and it is a truth which finds frequent illustration in the Scriptures and in life.
When Moses came down from the Mount his countenance shone with singular splendor. When Stephen was about to suffer martyrdom his face seemed like the face of an angel. On the Mount of Transfiguration the face of Jesus was white and glistening. Is not the significance of the Trans-figuration often misunderstood? Is it not conceivable that there was no real change in the countenance of Jesus, but that, for the moment, the eyes of the disciples were opened so that they saw the Master as He would have appeared all the time to those good enough to discern His essential nature ?
Nothing else is so beautiful as goodness, and it alone brings harmony and peace. Beauty of soul cannot be confined. Character always manifests itself. It is the sum of our thinking, loving, and choosing. I do not say that every thought finds external expression, but I do say that character, which is the totality of our thoughts, feelings, and choices, cannot be concealed. A bad heart sooner or later shows itself in a bestial face. Even the tones of the voice tell whether one is strong and noble, or impure and effeminate. 'What is inside either soaks out like filth, or shines out like light.
One jewel in the crown of goodness is the beauty and harmony of ampler life, which is manifest in the very features of those who love truth and do right. Many faces in hours of supreme trial have shone like the faces of the angels. The features of every man or woman who has fought a brave battle against evil tendency or false tradition, who at cost has conquered a temptation, who has sacrificed pleasure to conscience, who has lost an office rather than give or take a bribe, who would rather be poor than gain by dishonesty, in short, who has been faithful to his own ideals at any cost, shines with a light such as never was on sea or land. Ugly faces become beautiful when this radiance is seen upon them. Whether the sky be clear or cloudy the Muir Glacier always manifests its glory. Even on dark days the colors are of dazzling splendor. In some way the sunlight seems to get into the ice, and it shines out in the gloomiest weather. The roughness and ruggedness of those spires and domes of crystal glow with perpetual beauty because of the light which is within them, but which they cannot imprison. In like manner where there is goodness there is internal harmony which can never be concealed :
" But when the heart is full of din,
Did Watts think about the exceptional vision which goodness possesses when he painted that picture ? I know not, but his work vividly impresses that truth upon my own mind.
" I, Galahad, saw the grail,
This splendid passage contrasts sadly with the following utterance of another knight of the same company :
" Then every evil word I had spoken once,
Evil clouds, but goodness clarifies the vision. The surest way to become blind to the glory of the universe and to the beauty of truth is to think of unhallowed things. Impurity dims even the brightness of the stars. A little wrong will make all the sky look black. A bad man does not often appreciate natural scenery. On the other hand the beauty of friendship, the hope and joy and promise of life, and the very splendor of the heavens are always a delight to the good.
Tennyson never showed finer discernment than in giving the vision of the Grail to Galahad; but in so doing he was only illustrating the beatitude—" Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Mrs. Browning expressed the same truth in these words : " Only the good discerns the good." A certain limited vision is common to all. All know right and wrong, truth and error so far as is necessary to responsibility, but that deeper knowledge by which we come face to face with the verities on which we are ultimately dependent is reserved for the good alone.
They alone see the meaning and fruition of self-sacrifice ; they alone can reach through time to the far-off interest of tears; they alone can catch the whisperings of spirit voices.
" How pure at heart and sound in head,
There is no finer gift than ability to detect the spiritual meaning of things, to see the prophecies of eternity in the midst of our mortality, to discern Fatherhood, sympathy, and undying love as the powers by which we are led, and the goal toward which we are moving.
Victory in the human struggle is another jewel in the crown of life. " He that overcometh, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go out thence no more ; and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and mine own new name."
After describing the vision of the Holy Grail, Galahad said :
"And in the strength of this I rode,
Jesus said: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." The world of the future belongs to the good. In ruder times, when men were more like animals, they fought and devoured one another, but, gradually, they are learning that love is mightier than law, and that sympathy can conquer those before whom force is powerless.
The Caesars led armies, but they live only as names in history; Jesus set an example of perfect goodness, and to this day "millions of men would die for Him."
Hildebrand persecuted, with an empire behind him; Fabiola did nothing but found a hospital ; but the name of Hildebrand is execrated, while each day, almost, sees some new hospital built after the manner of Fabiola. Lord Raglan and General Todleben commanded armies fifty years ago in the Crimean War, and Florence Nightingale only nursed soldiers. Whose fame is brighter to-day 2 Force arouses force. A blow seldom fails to bring a blow in return. They that take the sword shall perish by the sword. When men are brutal, strength may be needed to hold them in check for a time, but, as they become more highly developed, love is the only power that can prevail with them. The empire of the future will be with those who love rather than with those who fight. Galahad was right. Those who are good may go out to the shattering of evil customs everywhere ; but when a corrupt man undertakes such a work he is doomed at the beginning. Some time the age of the quadruped will go, and the sway of the spirit will begin.
Toward what are these far-away eyes of Sir Galahad looking? Toward the future ? Yes, no doubt, and, possibly, only toward an earthly future when in the strength of the Grail he shall be victor over all " the heathen hordes." But to me the forward look suggests the vision of what lies beyond "the forest of this life." Galahad is the impersonation of earthly goodness, but the coronation of goodness is the ampler opportunities of the unseen spheres.
Goodness has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. It has in itself the principle of its own endurance. That which is right never grows old or decays. The growth of righteousness is ever more and more toward the perfect day. The enduring life, which is the reward of fidelity, is assured by "the nature of things." " Death is swallowed up in victory." In other words, some time the victory of life will be complete. Then there will be no longer any place or work for death. It will go out of sight in the universal splendor. Jesus said : " Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." The harmonious, the righteous, the good life is impervious to death.
Two of the most beautiful stories in the Bible are those of Enoch and Elijah. Of the former it is said : " He was not, for God took him;" and of the latter that he simply disappeared from these earth-scenes in a chariot of fire. These stories are not very unreasonable after all. God loves all the good, and pure characters ever shade away into light.
The Martyrs were not altogether wrong when they seemed to see the glorified Saviour waiting for them, with crowns, beyond the wild beasts and the fires to which they were doomed. Even of Jesus Himself it was written " who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross and despised the shame." This is the revelation of an eternal law. Every cross as naturally grows into ampler strength, and more splendid opportunities of service, as an acorn grows into an oak. Wickedness may prosper for a time, but its day is short. Why do so many remember the first truth and forget the second? In Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral a curious fact may be observed. The long processions of sight-seers move listlessly through the aisles of artistic monstrosities which too devoted friends have erected to obscure the vices and crimes of the rich and the great. Not even those hideous marbles can keep the wretches they commemorate from the oblivion they de-serve; but when the throng reaches the graves of Livingstone, of Lady Augusta Stanley, or the monument to General Gordon it grows strangely reverent. Greatness with vileness has its day and ceases to be ; goodness rises ever toward recognition and power.
Fidelity has the sure promise of the eternities. Goodness ever and inevitably grows toward beauty, toward vision, toward victory over all that hinders the spirit. Goodness has in itself the promise of immortality.
We leave those who are careless and wicked in the hands of their Father and our Father, for our faith in Him assures us that no harm will reach any in time or in eternity, but we do not hesitate to speak with confidence concerning those who have hungered and thirsted after righteousness. As flowers turn toward the light, so, day by day, those who have been loyal to truth and virtue will move toward the possibilities and realities of that life in which there is no more pain, no more sin, and no more death ; where God shall wipe away all tears; and where the very light is love.
Whatever may be said or thought about other creeds, there is one which makes its appeal to all who are possessed of culture or moral earnestness, one to which they should give the sanction of verbal confession, and the devotion of consecrated living. Let it be called the Creed of Sir Galahad and be written in these words : I believe in goodness ; that without it human grandeur is in vain, and human life a failure; I believe that goodness has the promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come, and to its realization in my own life and in the world I dedicate aspiration and endeavor in time and eternity.