I suppose that this is the ultimate dream of every rabbi and preacher. At the conclusion of the service, the congregants emerge from the sanctuary with nothing in their minds but the images of the scriptural reading and the sermon that they have just heard. So lasting and vivid was that spiritual experience that they actually believe that they are seeing it reenacted before their eyes as they walk outside.
Precisely such a scene was the subject of a famous painting by Paul Gauguin in 1888 titled “Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.” The picture portrays a group of peasant women who are standing outside a church observing the scene of Jacob struggling with the angel, as described in the book of Genesis.
The creation of this work marked a turning point in Gauguin’s artistic development—and apparently in his spiritual evolution as well.
Now the main outlines of the artist’s life are well-known. Product of a respectable bourgeois upbringing, he was educated in prestigious Catholic schools and pursued careers in the merchant marine and navy and in finance. His success as a stockbroker was abruptly cut short in 1882 with the crash of the Paris stock market, and he found that he now had nothing to lose by devoting himself to his true passion for art. He joined the circles of the Impressionists, sharing some of their interest in the techniques of portraying light and in landscape painting. Eventually, however, his fascination with the “primitive” impelled him to travel to the West Indies and, more significantly, to Tahiti where his most memorable works were produced.
But in 1888, Gauguin and many of his fellow painters were gravitating toward the lovely rural vistas of northern France which offered them unparalleled opportunities to study nature and the effects of natural light. Gauguin’s “Vision after the Sermon” was created at Pont-Aven in Brittany; however, it is glaringly clear that it bears little resemblance to the kind of output that we expect from the Impressionists. If anything, it is reminiscent of a panel from a comic-strip, rendered in two-dimensional shapes in unrealistic primary colours. As it happens, this style, known as “Cloisonnism,” was inspired by the techniques exemplified by the Japanese artists Hiroshige and Hokusai that were enjoying popularity in France at the time.
More significant, to my mind, was Gauguin’s selection of subject matter. Apparently he chose to paint these ladies as they were stirred by their experience at prayer because they provided him with the best available instance of vital religious life within the range of localities accessible to him. Like many educated post-enlightenment Frenchmen, and in spite of (or as some have suggested: because of) his lackluster Catholic schooling, Gauguin had little personal sympathy for things religious, and he tended to associate faith with primitive, pre-modern culture. The nearest remnant he found to old-time religious faith was among the simple peasantry of the Brétagne countryside.
This premise is one that was solidly entrenched in the academic study of religions. It was common for scholars to seek after an “essence” of religion which they often equated with the original, primordial spirituality from which all the subsequent manifestations of faith and ritual had evolved (a concept that had some kinship with the notion of the “noble savage”). This hypothetical essence could supposedly be reconstructed from the features common to the developed religions, but remnants of it were also to be found in the “savage” cultures that continue to exist outside the bounds of western civilization.
It might have been the quest for these undiluted vestiges of human spirituality that eventually drew Gauguin to the pristine Eden of the South Seas—but at this point in his life he felt that the most approachable version of primitive religion was to be discerned among the peasantry of northern France. In one of his letters, the artist expressed his personal pride that he had “painted a religious picture, very clumsily but it interested me and I like it.” He boasted of his achievement in evoking a mood of severity and the characters’ “great rustic and superstitious simplicity.”
In the picture, the visual area assigned to the Breton women (which he referred to as the “natural” area) is separated from the (“non-natural”) scene of the biblical drama by a diagonal tree-trunk which Gauguin (in a letter to his friend Vincent van Gogh) identified as an apple tree. It is widely assumed that this symbolized the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the garden of Eden which in European translations is usually identified as an apple tree, and which somehow functions here as the border line between day-to-day existence and spiritual vision.
Of all the biblical scenarios and sermon topics that Gauguin might have selected for his painting, why did he choose the particular episode of Jacob’s wrestling match? Judaism has generally read that story in connection with Israel’s struggle over the inheritance of the divine blessing. However, interpreters who are trying to grasp its significance for Gauguin’s inner life point out correctly that in Christian tradition the contest is usually read as a metaphor for people’s internal struggles with our consciences or our sinful natures.
In the painting, the group of those who behold Jacob’s struggle consists of twelve peasant women all of them wearing the traditional helmet-like white bonnets. There is also a sole tonsured priest or monk who might be intended as a self-portrait of the artist. Of course the number twelve is a meaningful one for Jacob, as it represents the number of his sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel. However, it is more likely that the allusion here is to Jesus’ twelve apostles who were charged with spreading his “good news” to the world.
One puzzling component of the picture is a cow that is situated in the space between the ladies and the tree. Although its placement in the physical zone (rather than in the segment assigned to the biblical vision) would suggest that it is to be perceived as part of the physical landscape rather than a symbol, this fact has not discouraged art critics from speculations about its supposed spiritual meaning, particularly through its association with redemptive sacrifice, a theme that likely dated back to the region’s pre-Christian Celtic heritage that was later endowed with Christian overtones.
At any rate, the primary factor that most probably impelled Gauguin to portray the scene of Jacob and the angel was because it happened to be the actual “parashah” that formed the theme of the sermon, as part of the church service on the particular days in August when he painted his masterpiece. This was in accordance with the venerable local practice of the Celtic Church (which diverged from the mainstream Roman Catholic liturgical calendar).
More specifically, a nearby chapel in the village of Pluméliau was dedicated to St. Nicodème who was revered locally as a protector of flocks, herds and horned animals. A special rite of blessing the animals was part of his celebration (known as a “Pardon”) in August, as were Sunday-afternoon wrestling competitions in which young men vied to impress prospective brides. After all, a successful sermon should serve as a conduit between the ancient scriptural texts and the specific realities of the congregation.
It is a telling indication of Gauguin’s genius that more than a century later spectators are still striving to grapple with the significance of his artistic vision. This kind of creative achievement provides sublime gratification for teachers, authors—and preachers—when their students and readers persist in wrestling with their ideas and values.