In her new book from Getty Publications, Sister Wendy explores the differences between religious and spiritual art, using examples from the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection that range from a Cézanne still life through medieval manuscripts to El Greco's Christ on the Cross.
In this excerpt, she explains why Cézanne is her favorite artist—and why she finds his art so spiritual.
For me, Cézanne is a great example of an artist whose work is not religious, but is spiritual. When people ask me which artist is my favorite, and I say Cézanne, they often go on to ask—my heart sinks—Why? My usual answer, not untrue, is that he is so ravishingly beautiful. The sheer color in his paintings is almost unbearable in its richness; his modest objects become wonderful images, weighty with contemplation
But the beauty goes deeper than appearance. We are hardly surprised that he took two years in painting Still Life with Apples. He loved creating these still-life tableaux, arranging every element, making sure the fruit was of a long-lived variety, so that he would at least get the essentials drawn before, as was inevitable, the apples and pears began to rot, and he loved taking out from the cupboard his old friends, the blue ginger jar he used so often, the tall rum bottle, the swelling green and cream vase, the napery.
The dark blue cloth with its black arabesques is as familiar as the ceramics, yet his arrangement, his personal interior landscape, is always thrillingly different.
Glass, clay, cloth, the wood of the table, the plaster of the wall, a spilt plate of small apples: from these he has created a world of contrasts and correspondences, where flat depends for its form on billowing, where a complex of heights clusters closely in a dense plane of space, where there is a marvelous sense of a solidity that seems implicitly to offer comfort…
In calling this picture spiritual, then, I am not making the slightest religious claim for it: no secret reference to Eve's apple in Paradise here. There is no narrative, either, as there is in many seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, where we have a palpable sense of the interrupted breakfast.
This is pure image, moving us to our depths with its beauty and integrity, its passion for truth, its sense of wonder. The longer we look at Still Life with Apples, the more profoundly it will reveal to us our own potential for depth, perhaps our own need for integrity. There can be as much painful longing in our response as there is joy.
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Joy Lasts is available in hardback for $12.95 at the Museum Store at the Getty Center. You can also order by phone at (800) 223-3431 or buy this title online. Save 10% on your online order by entering code 1142457636 at checkout.