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Turner - The Mystery And Ministry Of The Sky

( Originally Published 1902 )



THE OLD TEMERAIRE

AS Turner a really great artist? or was he only a pretentious and bombastic worker in colors who achieved greatness by means of the extravagant adulation of John Ruskin ? There will probably always be many who will answer this question by affirming that Turner was essentially a genius and, perhaps, quite as many who will see no true art in his strangely colored canvases. I must confess myself an admirer, although not by any means a worshipper, of the painter who owes so much of his fame to the picturesque and enthusiastic pen of Ruskin. One of the finest examples of Turner, in his saner and more pleasing moods, is "The Old Temeraire," Nelson's famous war-ship, being towed to her resting-place after all her battles with storm and in war are ended. The waters are smooth, the shipping is languidly resting in the harbor, the huge ship is slowly moving toward her final home, but, after all, the real subject of the painting is neither the ship, nor the sea, but rather the sky. And what a sky is there painted! The sun, near the horizon's rim, is filling the west with splendor. Well up toward the zenith the moon gleams faintly through the clouds, waiting for the sunlight to go in order that it may shine more distinctly. In the coloring of the clouds appears that deep crimson which the artist always used when he was treating any subject which suggested death. In speaking of the three paintings, " The Old Temeraire," " Juliet and Her Nurse," and " The Slave Ship," Ruskin says:

" I believe myself that these works are at the time of their first appearing as perfect as those of Phidias or Leonardo; that is to say, incapable in their way of any improvement conceivable by human mind." The thinly veiled sun sinking in the west, the moon throwing almost perpendicular reflections on the water, the clouds drawn as no artist but Turner ever drew them, the blue heavens between the deep masses of shadow, the stars peering faintly through the haze, and, most of all, the strange sense of distance, excite the attention and compel the admiration of all who love the beauty and glory of the sky. No other painter would have thought of attempting to portray such a scene. The far-away forest of masts and sails, the smoky city half revealed and half concealed in the evening light, the stillness of the waters, the noisy tug, the silent ship, all covered by that wondrous canopy in which variegated clouds, masses of vivid light, intense coloring, sun, moon, and stars are all blended into perfect harmony—this is the astonishing achievement of this picture.

Let us leave all other thoughts that the artist has tried to convey, and focus our attention on that sky, for that, after all, is the real glory of the painting. What are the ministry and the message of the sky to those who listen for the voices which are uttered in its silences? More even than the sea, the sky speaks of the mystery by which we are environed. The ocean is vast, but it has its metes and bounds; the mountains are great, yet their outlines are clearly defined; but the sky is without limitation and surpasses definition. Its atmosphere of infinity and mystery makes " The Old Temeraire" unique among modern paintings. It is the kind of a work that would have caused a Parsee to fall on his knees in worship. Because of the appeal which it makes to the sense of mystery, the sky has a large place in the religions of the world. The early home of religion was probably in those regions where the heavens seem singularly near and the sun, moon, and stars have indescribable brilliancy.

Our Scriptures have numerous and significant references to the heavens. Among them none is more striking than that in the nineteenth Psalm : " The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork." But many other references are almost equally vivid and splendid.

" And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night ; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and for years."

To Job the heavens were near, and full of voices. " Canst thou bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? " " Knowest thou the ordinances of the heavens ? Canst thou establish the dominion thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee? Canst thou send forth lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" " Where is the way to the dwelling of light? And as for darkness, where is the place thereof?"

In the Mohammedan and Zoroastrian religions there is probably more frequent mention of the heavens and the heavenly bodies than in any other. The following is a typical passage from the Koran :

By the brightness of the sun when he shineth,
By the moon when she followeth him :
By the day when it revealeth his glory,
By the night when it enshroudeth him !
By the heaven and him who builded it,
By the earth and him who spread it forth !
By a soul and him who balanced it,
And breathed into it the evil and the good,
Blessed now is he who bath kept it pure,
And undone is he who bath corrupted it."

Here is a passage from a Persian poet :

The temple I frequent is the turkis-vaulted dome of the sky. I sell my rosary and all the holy names around it for that wine which fills creation's cup. I have turned the prayers of the pious to happy songs. The earth is all enchanted ground. Thine it is, Wisdom Supreme, with its light and shadow, its ebb and flow ! Whither leads the path of destiny ? He knows it—he knows it—he knows it ! "

Here are some passages from the Bible of the Parsees, or Fire-worshippers :

" We sacrifice unto the bright, undying, shining, swift-horsed sun."
" We sacrifice unto the moon," etc.
" We sacrifice unto Tistrya, the bright and glorious star. . . .
We sacrifice unto all the stars that have in them the seed of the waters ;
we sacrifice unto all the stars that have in them the seed of the earth ;
we sacrifice unto all the stars that have in them the seed of the plants," etc., etc.

These extracts illustrate the place which the heavens have in the forms of faith which have their home in those parts of the earth where the sky seems nearer and the stars more splendid than elsewhere. It was al-most inevitable that the grandest objects in an unscientific age should be regarded as divine. Men have ever been inclined to deify that which most impressed them. The sun, the moon, the stars, which the darkness could cover but which it could never obliterate, as they rose brilliant from the caverns of the night, simply because they were the most worshipful objects in nature, were worshipped.

The period of superstition has given place to one of careful scientific observation. We no longer bow before material objects, but we must still be impressed and humbled as we look upon sunsets and sunrises, the endless processions of the heavenly bodies, and all the inexhaustible glories of the sky.

What is the ministry of the sky? Its spaces make a home for the clouds which keep the earth fruitful and beautiful. The clouds are an endless study. They are divided into three departments : the higher, or cirrus; the middle, or stratus ; and the lower or the rain clouds. The highest are those aerial trails of whiteness that shine against the blue at an altitude of 15,000 feet, and more, above the earth; the clouds of the middle region, which are dull and monotonous, but which were favorite subjects with the Dutch painters, are found filling the space of 10,000 feet between an altitude of 5,000 and 15,000 feet above the earth ; lower still are the rain clouds.

Clouds are the ceaseless servants of man. They soften the intensity of the sun's rays ; they pour their treasures of moisture upon the parched earth ; they are more beautiful, more impressive, more various, and more awful in their grandeur even than the mountains. Indeed they seem like gorgeous snow-peaks lifted bodily into the air.

If there were no clouds there would be no beauty in the sky, but the firmament would be a burning dome of awful heat in summer and of remorseless ice in the winter. And must we not believe that what adds most to the beauty of the world in some way is a revelation from God 2 It will help us much, in rightly interpreting the world, if we re-member that all things truly beautiful have a divine origin, and were intended for beneficent service. Beauty is a mode of revelation by the King who dwells in the midst of beauty. The sky, as God's minister of the beautiful, has many phases. I shall intro-duce here a few illustrations of the most wonderful sights that I have ever seen be-cause all have to do with the 'sky.

It was evening. The altitude was about 8,000 feet ; the place, the side of Mount Hood, in Oregon, just above the snow-line. Clouds had completely filled the horizon until a few minutes before sunset, when, suddenly, the darkness broke. Then we, too, had a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The sky toward the zenith was deep blue, and beneath it multitudinous masses of splendor rolled in waves of many-colored light away toward the west and poured their floods on mountain, river, and forest. The whole surface of the earth and the depths of the spaces seemed on fire and yet neither to blaze nor to burn. Only God could have painted such a picture, and no human hand could reproduce it on canvas.

The next scene was on the crest of Green Mountain, on the island of Mount Desert. The hour was not far from four in the morning. Behind was the mainland, covered with almost unbroken forests stretching away to mountains far in the distance. In front was the expanse of the ocean, as smooth as the sea of glass which John saw in the apocalyptic vision. The darkness had just gone—a foregleam had been shot over the waters, when, suddenly, a blazing disk rose out of the eastern ocean. In a moment the beauty was almost insufferable. Earth, air, waters, were enveloped in a blaze of pure light, and the beholders seemed alone with God. It was a moment like that in which Isaiah saw the Lord—when His glory filled the temple.

Once again it was evening. The place was the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gigantic masses of clouds were piled here and there around the horizon. The sky seemed like an aerial "Garden of the Gods." Around the west thunder-heads glowed like " looming bastions fringed with fire." The solemn silence and awful desolation of the sea, the spaces filled with cloud-islands floating in an ocean of light, the red orb of the slowly sinking sun, and the utter helplessness of the beholder tossed on what seemed a tiny craft, made an hour such as words are impotent to describe. Music possibly might convey the impressions of such a sight, but human language is too weak.

I have selected these illustrations as the most wonderful visions of beauty and grandeur on which my eyes have ever looked. Each of them was a part of the changing phenomena of the sky. All pure beauty is from God for the welfare of man. Such scenes as those I have mentioned always up-lift thought and ennoble character. They humble, they exalt, they inspire, they reveal, they transform. Happy those who discern in dawns and sunsets the presence of God shining into the life of man.

But the noblest ministry of the sky is the cultivation of a spirit of worship. All per-sons are not equally sensitive to such influences, but those who have ears to hear constantly catch the accents of still voices calling them upward. Two friends were crossing the river between New York and New Jersey just at sunset of a June day. Both were silent, for words in the midst of such beauty seemed profane. In the west were masses of blue, gold, purple, crimson, soft mother-of-pearl, and a thousand other hues all gorgeously blended. At length one of the men, in a tone and manner of profound reverence, said : "I cannot think that the God who painted that sunset can be tucked away in any of the articles of our puny creeds." Such scenes teach the folly of at-tempting to define God. The heaven of heavens cannot contain Him, and all the glories of nature are but the shadows of His beauty. Most of us have very unworthy ideas of the Deity. We study our Bibles in the light of our limited experiences, and then imagine that from the letter of the Scriptures alone we can get an adequate conception of the Infinite and Eternal. We forget that words are only symbols, and that other symbols may be more expressive even than words. One man reads his Bible, and another looks up into the great wide sky; neither finds the full revelation. That in the spaces thickset with stars is quite as essential and vital as the one written in the Book. In the one case the sentences are in words of human language; in the other the sentences are composed of flaming worlds. He who meditates much upon the sky, its silent depths, its infinity of stars, will be sure to feel stealing over his spirit a reverent awe which is quite akin to worship.

'What though in solemn silence all
Move round this dark terrestrial ball:
What though no real voice nor sound
Amidst their radiant orbs be found—
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine :
The hand that made us is divine.' "

What are some of the messages of the sky ? The sky speaks of purity. Nothing in the universe is a more fitting symbol of perfect holiness. In a memorable passage Tennyson writes of " The memory like the cloudless air." A life whose horizon is unflecked by a single cloud of sin or remorse is a holy life. This is the first great message that thrills from the upper air. It says: "Live so that your memory will be white and clear as a fair day. There is darkness in sorrow, but the sun may shine through that. The only gloom which nothing can dissipate is caused by sin. Happy the person whose life is serene and clean ; who can look down the years and see nothing that mars their beauty. Memory should be ` like the cloud-less air.'

The second message from the heavens is : Let your conception of God be worthy of the sky—that is, as large, as holy, as majestic. The sky is the condemnation of much popular teaching concerning the Deity. How utterly unlike its broadness and purity is the idea of a being who needs to be placated because of the ignorance of men. We have read of One who, without any merit or de-merit of their own, chooses some to everlasting felicity and others to unending suffering. I know that great and good men have tear-fully confessed this terrible creed. But when I look up into the vast, clear depths of the heavens I am sure that a very different being from what some have supposed dwells in those serene splendors. The Deity whom many worship is a sublimated human ruler. Suppose they change the point of view and, instead of beginning with the idea of an earthly sovereign, first look up into the spaces, and try to think of the number and vastness of the stars, and of God as the creator of them all. How quickly the conception will change ! The laws in accordance with which the planetary systems move, and the cosmic forces are controlled, must be different from the statutes of an earthly state. You may read in your Bible about Jehovah, about the Lord, about the Heavenly Father, but before you try to understand the meaning of those words go out into the night, look up into the stellar deeps, and in the light which falls from above learn to interpret the meaning of the Bible. One hour beneath the stars will tell us more of God than all the sages can. No teaching about God can be true which does not harmonize with the sky. Its stainless purity, its serene majesty, and its awful infinity ought all to be reflected in our conception of the being whom we worship. Our ideas of God should be worthy of the sky.

Another message of the sky concerns the broadness of our mental and spiritual horizons. The horizon of nature is wide enough to include mountains, meadows, oceans, islands, continents, deserts, and gardens. He is foolish who always lives in a cave when he might often stand on the mountain-tops. The horizon of our thought should be like that beneath which we dwell. We should take broad views, and never be afraid to look to any quarter for light and knowledge. Everything beneath the sky has some ministry and message, and there is no thought, no teacher, no phase of religious life or human experience which has not some truth worthy of the attention of every sane man. In what little worlds most of us pass our days ! What was good enough for our fathers to believe we say is good enough for us. But our fathers lived before the discoveries and inventions of the modern world, Because the horizon of an earlier time was narrow shall we make ours equally so? How inspiring and full of hope history appears to those who dwell beneath broad and open heavens ! They see that in this world there is room for all phases of faith and all varieties of experience. They have risen high enough to see that those who once appeared to be going in an opposite direction are in reality only moving in a vaster circle. The Deity is no longer sup-posed to be the especial possession of one nation or one time, but is seen to belong to all people and all ages. Beneath the stars we understand that the vehicles of revelation are many and various ; that the heavenly bodies, the mountains, the ocean, all have voices and speak a common language.

Life is broadening day by day, and vain and foolish are those who imagine that they can shut themselves within the limits of the ignorance of two hundred and fifty years ago. As the horizon expands, human creeds will also expand—unless those who make them refuse to look up into the great, wide sky. The sky exhorts us to make our lives as generous, and also as beneficent, as its silent and luminous spaces.

The ocean speaks of the mystery by which we are surrounded. As the surface of the waters hide in voiceless depths myriads of forms of life, each with its own history, more or less intense and tragic, so the mystery which surrounds humanity shuts us from the light and knowledge which we so eagerly but uselessly covet.

The mountains point those who are bewildered by the experiences of life upward toward heaven and God—out of the mystery toward the light.

The sky speaks of the holiness and the infinity of God. Pitifully ignorant are those who find no hint of love and grace in the book of nature. Job heard God in the whirlwind, and the Psalmist sang : " The heavens declare the glory of God." John heard a voice like the sound of many waters, and the Psalmist again sang :

" Thy righteousness is like the great mountains :
Thy judgments are a great deep."

The creation is aflame with Deity. The bush which Moses saw in the wilderness was but a symbol of what the universe is to those who look down from higher spheres. When we sail upon the ocean we may well think of the mystery of our mortality. When we look at the great mountains they should lift our eyes upward out of the mystery. When we turn toward the sunrise, the sunset, or the noonday heavens, they should direct our thought toward the holiness and the infinity of God, in whose presence we should reverently bow with adoring wonder and in unceasing prayer.



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