Decorative Initial Now that we have some idea of the tortuous course of Ruskin's beliefs, we may turn away from the dark lands of madness into which they at last guided him and observe the way his religious crisis in 1858 affected his writings. In particular, the effects of Ruskin's loss of belief are to be seen in the markedly different attitudes toward man in the second and fifth volumes of Modern Painters. Amid the theocentric aesthetic of Modern Painters, Volume II, man is considered primarily as a being related to his Maker; and therefore his spiritual aspects, those which ready him for a future existence with God, are most important. On the other hand, the final volume centers upon man and his relation, not to God, but to the needs of life in this world. In 1860 the knowledge most important to man no longer comes from the word of God in the Bible, but rather all knowledge, including that of God' is said to come from man's knowledge of himself. Once Ruskin placed man at the center of his views of the universe, his view of human nature, human needs, and human art underwent great change.

In the second volume where Ruskin is writing about the usefulness of art, he proposes, first, to determine what is most useful to man by examining the nature and needs of mankind. He writes that the role of man in the world is "to be the witness of the glory of God, and to advance that glory by his reasonable obedience and resultant happiness. Whatever enables us to fulfil this function is, in the pure and first sense of the word, useful to us" (4.28-29). In the fifth volume the center of the universe is man, not God: "All the power of nature depends on subjection to the human soul. Man is the sun of the world; more than the real sun. The fire of his wonderful heart is the only light and heat worth gauge or measure. Where he is, are the tropics; where he is not, the ice-world" (7.262). And now that Ruskin has abandoned his earlier belief that scripture is literally true, man becomes the major source of all spiritual truth. All that we know of God, says Ruskin, must come from what we know of man: "for the directest manifestation of Deity to man is in His own image, that is, in man. . . . The soul of man is still a mirror, wherein may be seen, darkly, the image of the mind of God" (7.259-60). Once Ruskin makes man the center of his attentions, the needs of life, physical as well as spiritual, become important, and this is a change from 1846 when Ruskin had felt the first need was to emphasize man's spiritual dimension:

People speak in this working age, when they speak from their hearts, as if houses and lands, and food and raiment were alone useful, and as if Sight, Thought, and Admiration were all profitless, so that men insolently call themselves  Utilitarians, who would turn, if they had their way, themselves and their race into vegetables; men who think . . . that the meat is more than the life, and the raiment than the body, who look to the earth as a stable, and to its fruit as fodder. (4.29)

The polemical tone of this is obvious: obvious and significant, for Ruskin remains a polemicist throughout his career, developing his own ideas to contrast with and defeat points of view, whether of the periodical reviewers or the political economists, which he thinks are harmful or dangerous. Thus in pointed contrast to the Utilitarians, whom Ruskin believes have a debased, animalistic conception of human nature, he emphasizes, in 1846, man's need for "Sight, Thought, and Admiration." On the other hand, in 1860, when he is trying to deal with many of the problems with which the Utilitarians are concerned, his charge in Unto This Last is not that these political philosophers are animalistic for paying attention to the needs of this life, but rather that they are mechanistic for proposing inhuman and ultimately impracticable solutions.

When Ruskin becomes concerned with the needs of this life, he rejects much of his earlier Puritanism. Gone, for example, is the view that "The common consent of men admits that whatever branch of any pursuit ministers to the bodily comforts, and regards material uses, is ignoble, and whatever part is addressed to the mind only is noble" (4.33). In the second volume of Modern Painters Ruskin also writes that pursuits "whose results are desirable or admirable in themselves and for their own sake, and in which no farther end to which their productions or discoveries are referred . . . ought to take rank above all pursuits which have any taint in them of subserviency to life" (4.34-35). He qualifies this in a note added in 1883: " 'Taint' is a false word. The entire system of useful and contemplative knowledge is one; equally pure and holy: its only 'taints' are in pride, and subservience to avarice or destruction" (4.35n). In another 1883 note Ruskin describes the change in his attitude: "As I grew older, I more and more respected vulgar uses" (4.34n)' and we see this new attitude in the final volume of Modern Painters where Ruskin judges art by the view of man which it presents:

All art which involves no reference to man is inferior or nugatory. And all art which involves misconception of man, or base thought of him, is in that degree false and base.

Now the basest thought possible concerning him is, that he has no spiritual nature; and the foolishest misunderstanding of him possible is, that he has or should have, no animal nature. For his nature is nobly animal, nobly spiritual — coherently and irrevocably so; neither part of it may, but at its peril, expel, despise, or defy the other. All great art confesses and worships both. (7.264)

This picture of man is based on a conception of unity that remains central to Ruskin's thought throughout his entire career. Although his interests and emphases change, Ruskin's demand for a coherent wholeness continues to be a theme in his writing. Although Ruskin always stresses the integrality of the human body and spirit, he broadens his outlook as he comes increasingly to see the importance of those aspects of man which are "subservient to life." In the fifth volume of Modern Painters he adds, to his earlier attacks on an animalistic view of man, a criticism of views which are too ascetic, for "every form of asceticism on one side, of sensualism on the other' is an isolation of his soul or of his body" (7.263).

Ruskin's new humanism and its corollary dislike of asceticism is at the heart of his criticism of religious art in the last volume of Modern Painters. There he writes: "The art which, since the writings of Rio and Lord Lindsay, is specially known as 'Christian,' erred by pride in its denial of the animal nature of man; — and . . . by looking always to another world instead of this" (7.264). At this point it would be well to glance at the writings of Lord Lindsay and Alexis François Rio, because Ruskin is here focusing his comments upon their views of art. In Lord Lindsay's Sketches for a History of Christian Art (1847) there is a preface on the character and dignity of Christian painting in which the author describes a hierarchy of body, mind, spirit, and then relates each member of this hierarchy to the arts, respectively, of Egypt, Greece, and Christendom:

For example, the Architecture of Egypt, her pyramids and temples, cumbrous and inelegant but imposing from their vastness and their gloom, express the ideal of Sense or Matter — elevated and purified indeed, and nearly approaching the Intellectual, but Material still....

But the Sculpture of Greece is the voice of Intellect and Thought, communing with itself in solitude, feeding on beauty and yearning after truth: —

While the Painting of Christendom — (and we must remember that the glories of Christianity, in the full extent of the term, are yet to come — is that of an immortal Spirit, conversing with its God. (3 vols., London, 1847, 1, xiii-xiv. The problem of Ruskin's debt to Lindsay calls for a careful investigation. At the very least, Ruskin drew upon him for a great deal of information about iconography.)

Christians have an artistic advantage, says Lindsay, because "we are raised by communion with God to a purer atmosphere, in which we see things in the light of Eternity, not simply as they are, but with their ulterior meanings, as shadows of deeper truths — an atmosphere which invests creation with the glow of love" (xv). This heavenly perspective explains "the depth, intensity, grandeur and sweetness of the emotions at the command of Christian artists, as compared with those elicited by the ancients."

Similarly, Rio's De la Poésie Chretienne (1836), which had an important influence on Ruskin's ideas of art, characterizes Christian art in terms of its concern with immortality. Rio begins his discussion of Christian painting with the art of the catacombs, which is based, he says, on the notions of love, sacrifice, redemption, and eternity. In its earliest days Christian painting readied man for martyrdom by continually asserting the belief in a heavenly reward, and in all truly Christian art there persists a dislike of things transient and of this world: "Il y a quelque chose de sublime et de bien profondément chrétien dans cette répugnance pour ce qui n'est plus et ne doit plus etre: l'instinct de la pérpétuité est inséperable de celui de l'immortalité" (Paris, 1836, 320). Among the many convergences between Rio and Ruskin, one may cite the fact that the Frenchman suggests a theory of painting, like Ruskin's, based on emotion, and he also mentions the history of Venice as a Christian epic, an idea which might have partially inspired The Stones of Venice. In addition, Rio's sympathetic treatment of Savonarola points out that the priest "avait vu que la décadence des beaux-arts tenait principalment à la décadence du culte parmi les chrétiens, et il avit conclu que la régeneration de l'un conduirait nécessairement à celle des autres" (328). This attempt to improve art by improving the society which produces it is also one of Ruskin's principles. Rio continually contrasts mystic and naturalistic arts, criticizing naturalistic ones because they are fascinated by the truths of this world and are led astray by a desire to present these truths accurately. It is not, according to Rio, that there is anything basically wrong in striving for artistic skill, but rather that this striving has almost always distracted men's minds from the more important truths of art.

The truths which were important to Lindsay and Rio are no longer important to Ruskin when he writes the last volume of Modern Painters. Because Giotto, Fra Angelico, and painters like them believed so firmly in the immortality of the soul, they were not concerned enough with the lives of men in this world, says Ruskin, and they consequently ignored the pain and suffering of human life, which they believed could not be of lasting importance; or else they made this pain and suffering a glorious means of rising above man's animal nature. But for Ruskin it seemed wrong, a diminution of man, to honor suffering and pain because of a supposed relevance to a future life in which he no longer believed. The valuation of life in terms of a heavenly existence seemed irrelevant, dangerously so, for men who must eke out an existence in this world. Referring to the childlike faith which engendered medieval Christian art, Ruskin comments that when such firm, trusting faith is encountered, "unfortunately, it appears that the attainment of it is never possible without inducing some form of intellectual weakness" (7.267).

His rejection of medieval attitudes toward pain and death may be seen as early as 1852, when he included a guide to the Tintorettos in the  Scuola San Rocco in the appendix to The Stones of Venice. His praise of the St. Sebastian, one of the minor pictures in the Scuola, would have been out of place in the first two volumes of Modern Painters:

[It is] one of the finest things in the whole room, and assuredly the most majestic St. Sebastian in existence, as far as mere humanity can be majestic, for there is no effort at any expression of angelic or saintly resignation; the effort is simply to realise the fact of the martyrdom, and it seems to me that this is done to an extent not even attempted by any other painter. (11.419)

Although Ruskin admits that this painting only depicts humanity and has nothing of the saintly or angelic expression of faith for which most artists have tried in pictures of martyrdoms, he yet values it more than other versions of St. Sebastian. Similarly, Ruskin's growing doubts of a future life may also be one reason why, in this guide, he always criticizes pictures of the resurrection and of the raising of Lazarus: his own discomfort in this matter seems to have made it difficult for him to accept as satisfactory any presentation of a future life.

Ruskin's loss of belief, particularly in a future life, is related to his humanistic attitudes, which in turn affect his preferences in art. At the same time, Ruskin's new "religion of humanity," as he called it in Fors, concentrates on the problems of an earthly existence, seeking to provide the faith and strength, not to conduct pilgrimages toward a heavenly Jerusalem but to endure and make homes in London and Manchester. Since Ruskin no longer believes that man's purpose is to glorify God and thus gain a heavenly reward, he has to discover — or invent — a purpose. And this purpose is work:

The right faith of man is not intended to give him repose, but to enable him to do his work. It is not intended that he should look away from the place he lives in now, and cheer himself with thoughts of the place he is to live in next, but that he should look stoutly into this world. (7.267)

This statement of a religion of humanity with a gospel of work appears in the last volume of Modern Painters; and although Ruskin gained a new belief in 1875, this credo remained at the center of his ideas about art, society, and life. As he wrote in 1878, "Human work must be done honourably and thoroughly, because we are now Men; — whether we ever expect to be angels, or ever were slugs, being practically no matter. We are now Human creatures, and must, at our peril, do Human — that is to say, affectionate, honest, and earnest work. . . . In resolving to do our work well, is the only sound foundation of any religion whatsoever" (29.88).

Carlyle is here the certain influence. Ruskin gave his copy of Carlyle's Past and Present, now in the British Museum, to Alfred MacFee in 1887, writing to his friend, "I now send you a book which I read no more, because it has become a part of myself — and my old marks in it are now useless because in my heart I mark it all." Ruskin's "old marks" confirm what one would expect from reading his published works. [The letter is bound in the copy Ruskin presented to MacFee. The British Museum number of Ruskin's presentation copy is c61 al4, and although the volume is entirely devoted to Past and Present, it is entitled Carlyle on History and Historians (London, 1844).] He has, for instance, double marked in both margins the following passage:

Work is of a religious nature: — work is of a brave nature; which it is the aim of all religion to be. All work of man is as the swimmer's; a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant, wise defiance of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how loyally it supports him, bears him as its conqueror along. (269)

Work for Ruskin as for Carlyle is occupation, ark, and anodyne all in one. The purposeful action of work keeps man busy, enabling him to use his time rather than waste it, and in so doing it saves him both from the waste ocean of life and from a morbid and paralyzing awareness of his immersion in those perilous waters. The lone swimmer, the castaway who must keep moving or sink beneath the waves, needs action not thought. As Conrad wrote in Nostromo, "Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our action can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates" (New York, 1951, 72). But since to pause long in the manner of Conrad at the Everlasting Nay becomes living death, Carlyle and Ruskin concern themselves less with remarking upon the illusions created by action than with encouraging man to use such action to sustain himself.

Whereas Carlyle sees man in a barren sea, struggling bravely and striving nobly to keep the waters from closing over his head, St. Augustine, who centuries earlier had commented upon the perils of the waste ocean, believed that once man crossed these dangerous waters he would arrive, finally, at the heavenly city. Jorge Luis Borges has suggested that "universal history is the history of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors" ("Pascal's Sphere," Other lnquisitions (New York, 1966, 8). If we compare the intonations which Carlyle and earlier writers such as Augustine give to the ancient metaphor of life's journey, we can observe a history in brief of changing ideas of human existence. Turning back to our distant past, we perceive Odysseus traveling to Ithaca to become fully himself, to become man, husband, father, and king. Aeneas moves across the world toward the unfolding destiny of Rome. Every man, according to Augustine, moves toward heaven and must guard himself against enjoying the distractions of the voyage lest he become stranded in midjourney:

Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed. But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed. (On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr., New York, 1958)

But do what he will Ruskin finds himself stranded in mid-voyage. Since he no longer believes in Augustine's heavenly home, he finds himself with only "the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles" to console him. In short, he replaces the conception of man as pilgrim with that of man as castaway, choosing that image which so attracted artists and writers in the nineteenth century. One recalls, among many other examples, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Turner's shipwrecks, the castaways in Melville, Crane, and Conrad. Sounding like a more bitter version of Carlyle, Stein tells Marlow in Lord Jim, "A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns.... The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up" (New York, 1931, 214).

Ruskin described himself in terms not of the castaway but of the shipwrecked sailor who had reached land. As he wrote to Norton in 1875, a short six weeks before the crucial seance at Broadlands: "It is very strange to me . . . to be now merely like a shipwrecked sailor, picking up the pieces of his ship on the beach" (37.183). He sees himself a shipwrecked mariner, a  Robinson Crusoe of the spirit, trying to sustain present life with the wreckage of the past. This image is convincing, for his career after his loss of faith and even after he returned to Christianity reveals a continuing attempt to salvage fragments of his old religion for use in a new life. He wrote to Norton in this same letter that whatever his own losses he could "gather bits up . . . for other people" (37.183). He had long been engaged in such gathering of bits, for his attempt to center man's life on humane, enriching labor surely exemplifies such reapplication of Evangelical doctrine to sustain man in a time of unbelief. Both Carlyle and Ruskin placed the Puritan emphasis upon work in a new context, making labor not the result of the Fall, or a means to salvation, but salvation itself.

With Ruskin's concentration on labor in the world comes the need to determine the right nature of work and to attack all those forces which prevent men from engaging in this right form of work. In The Stones of Venice Ruskin discusses the need for pleasurable, enriching labor. The problem in his England "is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure" (10.194). Men have been made to do the work of machines and have hence been reduced to machines. But by the time that Ruskin wrote Unto This Last (1860), which he published in periodical form shortly after completing Modern Painters, his conception of the problem had changed: for seeing that, indeed, men are hungry, that they cannot find work, even dehumanizing work, and that men are forced to compete with one another even for a chance to earn enough for food, Ruskin directed his energies toward replacing the economic system which creates such conditions of life and labor. These concerns led him farther and farther from art, and, after 1860, he became primarily interested in the criticism, not of art, but of society. Despite these new interests, Ruskin continued to occupy himself with the problems of painting, architecture, sculpture, and the applied arts; and while he wrote no more major works on these subjects after finishing Modern Painters in 1860, he did produce valuable shorter writings on different aspects of the arts. Yet, when Ruskin lost his religion in 1858, his career took a major change of direction. He turned from the problems of painting to the problems of society; and this central shift of emphasis in Ruskin's thought is anticipated by the replacement of God by man as the focus of his aesthetic theories. Ruskin found his theocentric aesthetic of objective, unchanging order unworkable almost as soon as he proposed it in 1846 — at least to the extent that he allowed room for the emotional elements of sublimity, which in the first volume of Modern Painters he had left out of his theory of beauty. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848) further qualified these early theories, because it placed great importance on the role, in beauty, of human associations — which Ruskin had earlier denied. He defined the picturesque, his most subjective, emotional aesthetic theory, in the fourth volume of Modern Painters, which appeared in 1856, two years before the crisis of faith in Turin. The shift in Ruskin's aesthetic theories, which begins in the late 1840s and continues to occur until the late 1850s first antedates and then plays a role in his loss of faith and his gradual turning away from art.


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Last modified 25 July 2005