Tessellation is “a collection of shapes [tiles] that fit together without gaps or overlap to cover the infinite mathematical plane” (Fathauer, 2021). Most tilings are “periodic,” in the sense that the pattern repeats itself when “translated” (shifted without rotation). In the 1970s Roger Penrose described several sets of tiles that could cover the plane aperiodically. The search then began for the “einstein” (one stone) – a single tile that could cover the plane aperiodically. In March of 2023, Smith, Myers, Kaplan & Goodman-Strauss described a tile, commonly known as the “hat” that covered the plane aperiodically. However, to do so, this tile had to be occasionally turned over (to make its mirror image). Subsequently in May of 2023, the same authors reported another tile that could cover the plane aperiodically without any need for mirror images. This tile was called the “spectre.” This posting briefly reviews these recent developments in a style more visual than verbal.

Tiling a Surface

Many different patterns can tile a surface (Grünbaum & Shephard, 1987; Fathauer, 2021) Any triangle can completely cover a surface provide one allows the tiles to be rotated 180˚. Regular quadrilaterals and regular hexagons can cover the surface without the need for rotation. Irregular quadrilaterals can cover the surface if rotation is allowed (below left). Regular pentagons cannot cover the surface unless they are combined with tiles of a different shape (below right). Both illustrated tilings are periodic in the horizontal directions. The left pattern is also periodic along an axis at rotated a little clockwise from the vertical. The right pattern is also periodic in the vertical direction. This illustration (and all subsequent illustrations) can be viewed separately and in greater resolution by clicking on it.

Although regular pentagons cannot, some irregular pentagons can cover the surface. The following shows two pentagonal tilings – “Cairo” and “Floret.” In the latter, the pentagons are placed together in a hexagonal rosette.  

Tiles of different shapes can be combined to form beautiful patterns. The following illustration shows a floor pattern from Pompeii with a striking trompe l’oeil effect.

Islamic culture avoids any representation of living forms since only the Divinity can create life. Islamic artists have therefore developed many different types of geometric ornamentation (Bonner, 2017). These patterns are tiled onto floors and ceilings, woven into rugs, carved through screens of wood or stone, and bound around beautiful books, The following are two intricate designs from the Alhambra taken from The Grammar of Ornament (1868) by Owen Carter Jones. 

The Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972) became fascinated by the Islamic designs that he saw in the Alhambra (Escher, 2008; Gelgi, 2010; Behrends, 2022). The following shows some tiling from the Alhambra together with a 1938 sketch by Escher (adapted from Wikipedia):

Escher evolved his own style of tessellation using representations of living things instead of geometric shapes. The following shows two representations of his work: a simple two-bird design from 1938 and a more complicated bird-fish-reptile design with three-fold symmetry from 1948.

Penrose Tilings

Later in his life Escher studied the problems of representing reality in two dimensions, and produced many illustrations of “impossible objects” such as The Waterfall (1961) in the illustration below. In the late 1950s, Roger Penrose, a mathematician whose work on black holes was to win him the Nobel Prize in 2020, and his father devised the “Penrose Triangle” which epitomizes the perceptual impossibilities portrayed Escher’s work   

In the 1970s, Penrose became interested in the possibility of tiling the plane aperiodically (Penrose, 1974, Gardner, 1997). The following illustration shows some of his early ideas about tiling with pentagons (Penrose, 1978) together with a photographic portrait from about that time.

From these ideas he designed a set of tiles – a pentagon, a boat, a diamond and a pentagram – that could cover the plane aperiodically. However, in order for the tiling to succeed there had to be “matching rules” for what could adjoin the edges of the pentagon. These rules could be embodied by making the edges of the shapes notched or curved. In effect, this led to three kinds of pentagon. The following diagram, adapted from Wikipedia, shows the aperiodic pattern, with the three pentagons colored in different shades of red.

Penrose derived other patterns that tiled the plane aperiodically with only two shapes. Illustrated below is a tiling based on kites and dart shapes with the matching rules shown by the shading, and a tiling based on two rhombuses, with the matching rules shown in the colors. The tilings are aesthetically pleasing: like life, the shapes are the same but the pattern always changing.


Tilings explain how planes are covered; crystallography explains how spaces are filled. Only certain shapes can combine together to fill the space. According to classical physics, the crystalline structure of matter can show only 2-, 3-, 4- and 6-fold rotational symmetries on diffraction using x-ray or other radiation beams.

In 1984, Dan Shechtman and his colleagues reported a diffraction pattern of a metal alloy with ten-fold symmetry. From this initial finding came the study of quasicrystals (de Boissieu, 2012). Instead of tetrahedrons, cubes and octahedrons which can fit together to fill the space, decahedrons (ten-sided solids) and icosahedrons (twenty-sided solids) cannot fit together without other intercalating solids to fill the gaps. In effect these structures are the three-dimensional equivalents of Penrose’s pentagonal tilings.  

Quasicrystalline structures have smooth hard surfaces. They are useful in non-stick cookware, non-corroding instruments, and broadband reflectors. Schechtman won the Nobel prize for his work in 2011. The illustration below shows one of the original diffractograms, the surface pattern of a quasicrystal, and a portrait of Schechtman wearing a tie showing the structure of another quasicrystal.

The Einstein Tile

Once Penrose had shown that sets of shapes could cover the plane aperiodically, the question arose as to whether there a single tile – the ein Stein or “one stone” – could do so. In early 2023, David Smith, a retired print technician and amateur mathematician living in Yorkshire, discovered a shape – the “hat” – that apparently tiles the plane aperiodically. The structure of the hat is described in the following illustration:

Smith contacted colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and they proved that this was indeed true (Smith et al, 2023a; Bischoff, 2023). The illustration below (derived from Whipple article in The Times) shows Smith together with his aperiodic tiling:

When the hat tiles the plane aperiodically, the pattern contains recognizable “metatiles.” These are shown in the illustration below left as the blue, white and grey combinations of hats. In order to tile the plane some of the hats have to mirror-inverted (equivalent to turning the hat over). This is shown in the illustration below right. In the real world where ceramic tiles are only finished on one side, this would require the manufacture of two separate tiles.

Soon after their initial report of an aperiodic monotile was published, Smith discovered another tile – the “spectre” – that could tile the plane aperiodically without any mirror-inversions (Smith et al, 2023b). The structure of the spectre tile is illustrated below:

If mirror-inversions are allowed the spectre can tile the plane periodically (lower left); it is only if mirror inversions are forbidden and particular matching rules are in place, that aperiodic tiling is possible (lower right). Both illustrations are the work of Simon Tatham.

The following illustration is taken from the report by Smith and his colleagues. On the left the tiling shows the metatile structure of the tiling pattern and on the right the tiles have curved edges to enforce the matching rules.

One of the repeating combinations that occurs in the spectre tiling is the “buddha” shape illustrated on the right. This combination is shaded in the illustration above, and by the red green combination in the illustration before that.


Aperiodic patterns based on simple elements and uncomplicated rules are beautiful. They can represent a peaceful universe of myriad things.


Behrends, E. (2022). Tilings of the Plane: From Escher Via Möbius to Penrose. Springer.

Bischoff, M. (2023) Newfound mathematical Einstein shape creates a never repeating-pattern. cientific American, April 10, 1023.

Bonner, Jay. (2017). Islamic Geometric Patterns: Their Historical Development and Traditional Methods of Construction. Springer New York.

de Boissieu, M. (2012). Atomic structure of quasicrystals. Structural Chemistry, 23(4), 965–976.

Escher, M. C. (2008). The graphic work. Taschen.

Fathauer, R. W. (2021). Tessellations: mathematics, art, and recreation. CRC Press/Taylor & Francis Group.

Gardner, M. (1997). Penrose tiles to trapdoor ciphers:   ̶  and the return of Dr. Matrix. Mathematical Association of America.

Gelgi, F. (2010). The influence of Islamic art on M. C. Escher. Foutain Magazine (July, 2010).

Grünbaum, B., & Shephard, G. C. (1987). Tilings and patterns. W.H. Freeman.

Penrose, R. (1974) The role of aesthetics in pure and applied mathematical research. Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematics and Its Applications, 10, 266-271.

Penrose, R. (1978). Pentaplexity. Eureka, 39, 16–22.

Shechtman, D.; Blech, I.; Gratias, D.; Cahn, J. (1984). Metallic Phase with Long-Range Orientational Order and No Translational Symmetry. Physical Review Letters, 53(20), 1951–1953.

Smith, D., Myers, J. S., Kaplan, C. S.; Goodman-Strauss, C. (2023a, March). An aperiodic monotile. arXiv:2303.10798

Smith, D., Myers, J. S., Kaplan, C. S.; Goodman-Strauss, C. (2023b, May). A chiral aperiodic monotile. arXiv:2305.17743

Whipple, T. (2023). Retired Yorkshireman solves elusive “Einstein tile” maths problem. The Times, April 3, 2023

Madness and Poetry

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was one of the most important American poets of the mid-20th-Century. He was famous both for his contribution to poetry and for his recurrent attacks of mania. This post reviews his life, comments on some of his poems, and considers the relations between creativity and mood disorders. Madness sometimes goes hand-in-hand with poetry:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact
(Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, 1, 5-9)

Family Background

Robert Traill Spencer Lowell IV, as his full name suggests, was born to a long line of “Boston Brahmins,” a term that Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. coined to describe the an untitled aristocracy with ancestors among the original Protestant colonists who came to New England in the 17th Century.

The following figure shows part of Lowell’s family tree (Jamison, 2017, pp 39-51; also websites by Wikipedia, Geneanet, and Nicholas Jenkins). The diagram begins with John Lowell (1743-1802), a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, remembered for authoring Article I of the United States Bill of Rights:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.

The Lowell family tree is noteworthy for the incidence of published poets (light blue shading) and mental disturbances (red lettering). In 1845, Lowell’s great-great-grandmother Harriett Bracket Spence was institutionalized for incurable madness in the McLean Asylum for the Insane in Somerville. The hospital later moved to Belmont and became known simply as McLean Hospital (Beam, 2003). Lowell was himself committed there for treatment on several occasions between 1958 and 1967.

Charles Russell Lowell was considered one of the “fireside poets,” a group which included Longfellow, Whittier and Bryant. These were poets whose work was read aloud to the family at the fireside. Amy Lowell became fascinated by Chinese poetry, which she attempted to imitate in brief intensely visual poems, a style that came to be known as “Imagism.” Percival Lowell was an astronomer who falsely believed that the markings he observed on the planet Mars represented a network of canals.

Through his mother, Charlotte Winslow, Lowell was a direct descendent of Mary Chilton (1607-1679), who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. On this father’s side, he could trace their ancestry back to a Percival Lowle (1571-1664), who settled just north of Boston some 20 years after the Mayflower arrived.


While attending St Mark’s, an Episcopal preparatory school in Southborough, just south of Boston, Lowell was significantly influenced by a young teacher and poet, Richard Eberhart, and decided that poetry was his calling. He spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 with his friends, Frank Parker and Blair Clark, in a rented cottage on Nantucket Island just south of Cape Cod (see map below). There, under Lowell’s domineering direction, the three engaged in an impassioned study of literature and art. Lowell came to be known as “Cal,” a nickname that derived from both the Roman Emperor Caligula and Shakespeare’s character Caliban (Hamilton, 1982, p 20). 

Lowell attended Harvard University but after two years left to study with the poet Allen Tate, finally graduating from Kenyon College in 1940. After graduation, he married Jean Stafford (McConahay, 1986), started graduate studies in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, converted from his family’s Protestant religion to Roman Catholicism, and began writing the poems for his first book. These were days of decision. 

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Lowell initially registered for the draft. However, he soon became upset with the Allied policy of “strategic” bombing: attacking civilian targets to undermine morale, as opposed to the “tactical” bombing of military targets. After receiving orders for his induction into the armed forces in 1943, he wrote an open letter to President Roosevelt describing his objections:

Our rulers have promised us unlimited bombings of Germany and Japan. Let us be honest: we intend the permanent destruction of Germany and Japan. If this program is carried out, it will demonstrate to the world our Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations; it will destroy any possibility of a European or Asiatic national autonomy; it will leave China and Europe, the two natural power centers of the future, to the mercy of the USSR, a totalitarian tyranny committed to world revolution and total global domination through propaganda and violence.
In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty. (quoted in Hamilton, 1982, p. 89)

Lowell was sentenced as a Conscientious Objector to a year and a day at the Federal Correctional Center in Danbury Connecticut. He was released on parole after 5 months, and spent the rest of his sentence working as a cleaner in the nearby Bridgeport hospital. At the end of this period, his first book, Land of Unlikeness, was published in a limited edition, to encouraging reviews. 

Lord Weary’s Castle

Lowell’s first mainstream book of poetry, Lord Weary’s Castle, was published in 1946 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The title comes from an old ballad about the stonemason Lambkin who built a castle for Lord Weary. After the lord refused to pay for the castle, Lambkin murdered the lord’s wife and child. The frontispiece of the book was an engraving of Cain’s murder of Abel by Lowell’s schoolfriend Frank Parker (right). Title and frontispiece both point to humanity’s long history of violence.


The first poem in the book is The Exile’s Return:

There mounts in squalls a sort of rusty mire,
Not ice, not snow, to leaguer the Hôtel
De Ville, where braced pig-iron dragons grip
The blizzard to their rigor mortis. A bell
Grumbles when the reverberations strip
The thatching from its spire,
The search-guns click and spit and split up timber
And nick the slate roofs on the Holstenwall
Where torn-up tilestones crown the victor. Fall
And winter, spring and summer, guns unlimber
And lumber down the narrow gabled street
Past your gray, sorry and ancestral house
Where the dynamited walnut tree
Shadows a squat, old, wind-torn gate and cows
The Yankee commandant. You will not see
Strutting children or meet
The peg-leg and reproachful chancellor
With a forget-me-not in his button-hole
When the unseasoned liberators roll
Into the Market Square, ground arms before
The Rathaus; but already lily-stands
Burgeon the risen Rhineland, and a rough
Cathedral lifts its eye. Pleasant enough,
Voi ch’entrate, and your life is in your hands.

The poem is elusive. In their notes to the Collected Poems (2003), Bidart and Gewanter remark on the similarity of some of the poem’s lines to passages in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kröger, first published in 1903. It recounts the return of a young poet to Lübeck, where he (like the author) had grown up. In the opening lines of the novella, Mann remarks that “sometimes a kind of soft hail fell, not ice, not snow” (Neugroschel translation, 2998, p 164). He also describes Tonio’s father as the “impeccably dressed gentleman with the wildflower in his buttonhole.” (p 180). So we should likely place the poem in Lübeck, though I am not sure why Lowell uses the French term Hôtel de Ville to describe its historic city hall (later referred to by its German name Rathaus).

In 1942 Lübeck was one of the first German cities to be strategically bombed by the Allies. The following illustration shows the Market Square and City Hall in a 1906 postcard together with a photograph of the destruction after the bombing. The Allied attack focused on the city center, which had no military significance; the docks (in the upper right of the photograph) were completely spared. 

Lowell’s poem imagines the military occupation of the devastated city. Though there may be hope for some sort of salvation – the lilies probably allude to the Virgin Mary and the Annunciation – the general impression is of the Gates of Hell. The last line quotes from Dante’s Inferno: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope, you who enter here).   

The most important poem of the book is the seven-part The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (Axelrod, 2015; Hass, 1977; Remaley, 1976). The poem was written in memory of Lowell’s cousin Warren Winslow, who died in an explosion that sank the destroyer Turner close to Rockaway Point near Coney Island in 1944 (Fender, 1973). The cause of the explosion is not known; it was likely caused by an accident and not by enemy action.   

The full poem is available on the website of the Poetry Foundation. The beginning vividly describes the recovery of the body of a drowned sailor:

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket—
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. 

Madaket is a beach on the Southwestern edge of Nantucket. As noted by Bidart and Gewanter, much of the description of the drowned sailor derives from Thoreau’s The Shipwreck (1864). Warren Winslow’s body was never recovered. Lowell’s poem therefore alludes to all those who died at sea in the war. The poem conveys the violence of such deaths with harsh rhymes, irregular rhythms and the striking enjambment of the fourth line.

The second section of the poem further generalizes the tragedy to all those sailors who have died at sea, like those of the 19th Century whalers in Melville’s Moby Dick or the Quaker seamen buried in the Nantucket graveyard. The third section reveals how the sailors failed to understand their deaths. They thought that God was on their side, but did not realize that God was in the sea that drowned them or the whale they tried to kill. The next two sections further describe the violence of the whale trade, and by extension the violence of the war that had just come to an end.

Where might we find redemption from the ongoing violence? The sixth and penultimate section of the poem – Our Lady of Walsingham – changes dramatically from the previous sections. In 1061, Richeldis de Faverches, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman, received a vision of the Virgin Mary in Walsingham, a small village in Norfolk. Following the Madonna’s request, she built there a replica of Jesus’s home in Nazareth, and placed a statue of the Virgin with the infant Jesus within. This shrine became one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Europe. In 1538, during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the shrine and its associated priory were torn down. (A damaged statue of the virgin in the Victoria and Albert Museum may actually be what remains of the Walsingham statue.) In 1897 a new statue (illustrated on the right) was blessed by the pope and placed in the Slipper Chapel, the last station on the original pilgrimage route to Walsingham. In the 20th Century, Walsingham began to welcome pilgrims again, though now separate Catholic and Anglican sites compete for their visit.      

Lowell looks to find salvation but finds indifference:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.

The face of the Virginis indeed “expressionless.” The Latin “there is nothing special nor beautiful about him” is from Isaiah 53:2, which in the Vulgate reads

Et ascendet sicut virgultum coram eo, et sicut radix de terra sitienti. Non est species ei, neque decor, et vidimus eum, et non erat aspectus, et desideravimus eum:

The King James Version translates this verse (and the succeeding three verses) as

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This is part of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, the man of sorrows who will take away our sins. Looking for redemption, the world comes to Walsingham, but the Virgin pays the world no special attention. Our ideas of God being born in human form at Bethlehem and of our salvation through his death on Calvary are human hopes not divine realities. 

The final section of the poem describes the Atlantic Ocean as seen from Nantucket:

The empty winds are creaking and the oak
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph, 
The boughs are trembling and a gaff 
Bobs on the untimely stroke
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell 
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;  
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, 
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh 
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers, 
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil 
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife 
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill. 
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The poem concludes by remembering how God made man by breathing into his face, and how God later destroyed everyone except Noah and his family in the flood, when huge “combers” (long curling sea waves) covered the earth. The final line likely alludes to the rainbow that God gave as a sign to Noah that he would not flood the Earth again:

And I will establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9: 11-13)

The world wars have shown that humanity’s propensity for violence has not improved.  One assumes that God will keep his promise. But at what cost? God will survive but humanity may perhaps extinguish itself.


After Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell became famous. The following illustrations show photographs of him from youth to maturity:

Lowell published his second book The Mills of the Kavanagh in 1948. In early 1949 he started to become “wound up” (Hamilton, 2003, p 140). While teaching at Yaddo, an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York, he became unjustifiably paranoid about a communist takeover of the center. By the time he arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, to give a talk in March, he was frankly psychotic. He later remembered his state of “pathological enthusiasm:”

The night before I was locked up, I ran about the streets of Bloomington, Indiana, crying out against devils and homosexuals. I believed I could stop cars and paralyze their forces by merely standing in the middle of the highway with my arms outspread. Each car carried a long rod above its taillight, and the rods were adorned with diabolic Indian or voodoo signs. Bloomington stood for Joyce ‘s hero and Christian regeneration. Indiana stood for the evil, unexorcized, aboriginal Indians. I suspected I was a re-incarnation of the Holy Ghost and had become homocidally hallucinated. To have known the glory, violence and banality of such an experience is corrupting. (Memoirs, p 190)

Lowell’s mind was experiencing an overwhelming “flight of ideas.” He suffered from delusions of grandeur. His behavior was irrepressible and reckless. He refused to sleep. Lowell was 6-foot 1-inch tall: when he was psychotic, it was extremely difficult to restrain him (Jamison, 2017, p 83). He was finally subdued by the police, and committed to a psychiatric hospital. This was the first of multiple prolonged hospital stays, most lasting several months, that occurred once every year or two from 1949 to 1968 (Jamison, 2017, pp 112-113). Initially, he was treated with Electro Convulsive Therapy. In the 1960s, when the major tranquilizers became available, his bouts of mania were controlled by chlorpromazine. After 1968, treatment with lithium provided him with some respite from his illness. Yet the mania still occasionally occurred.

Each manic attack was followed by a prolonged period of depression. Lowell attributed his depression to his regret and shame over what had happened when he was psychotic. However, they were likely part and parcel of his bipolar mood disorder. Lowell wrote feverishly during the periods just before he went completely manic, He then revised what he had written during his prolonged periods of depression.

Mania and depression are more common in creative individuals than in normal controls and this association appears most prominent for poets (Andreasen & Canter, 1974; Ludwig, 1995; Andreasen, 2008; Jamison, 2017; Greenwood, 2022). The flight of ideas that characterizes mania can easily lead to novel ways of looking at things. This is especially true during the hypomanic phase that precedes the psychotic break, when some modicum of control remains.

Despite his recurring attacks of mania, Lowell continued to write. In his 1959 book, Life Studies, he examined himself and his family in intimate detail. Rosenthal (1967) used the term “Confessional Poetry” to describe this work. Poets had always tapped into their personal experience to write poetry but until now none had been so unabashedly honest about their failings:

Because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems of Life Studies, the word ‘confessional’ seemed appropriate enough. Sexual guilt, alcoholism, repeated confinement in a mental hospital (and some suggestion that the malady has its violent phase)—these are explicit themes of a number of the poems, usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author himself. … In a larger, more impersonal context, these poems seemed to me one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center of the poem.

During the 1950s and 1960s Lowell became the poetic consciousness of the United States, declaiming against its descent into materialism and its waging of unjustified wars. Lowell was one of the lead speakers at the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Norman Mailer describes him at the March:

Lowell had the most disconcerting mixture of strength and weakness in his presence, a blending so dramatic in its visible sign of conflict that one had to assume he would be sensationally attractive to women. He had something untouchable, all insane in its force: one felt immediately that there were any number of causes for which the man would be ready to die, and for some he would fight, with an axe in his hand and a Cromwellian light in his eye. It was even possible that physically he was very strong—one couldn’t tell at all—he might be fragile, he might have the sort of farm mechanic’s strength which could manhandle the rear axle and differential off a car and into the back of a pickup. But physical strength or no, his nerves were all too apparently delicate. Obviously spoiled by everyone for years, he seemed nonetheless to need the spoiling. These nerves—the nerves of a consummate poet—were not tuned to any battering. (Mailer, 1968, pp 53-54)

Final Poems

Lowell’s last book of poetry, Day by Day, came out just after his death from a sudden heart attack in 1977. The penultimate poem in that book is Thanks-Offering for Recovery:

The airy, going house grows small
tonight, and soft enough to be crumpled up
like a handkerchief in my hand.
Here with you by this hotbed of coals,
I am the homme sensuel, free
to turn my back on the lamp, and work.
Something has been taken off,
a wooden winter shadow—
goodbye nothing. I give thanks, thanks—
thanks too for this small
Brazilian ex voto, this primitive head
sent me across the Atlantic by my friend . . .
a corkweight thing,
to be offered Deo gratias
in church on recovering from head-injury or migraine—
now mercifully delivered in my hands,
though shelved awhile unnoticing and unnoticed.
Free of the unshakable terror that made me write . . .
I pick it up, a head holy and unholy,
tonsured or damaged,
with gross black charcoaled brows and stern eyes
frowning as if they had seen the splendor
times past counting . . . unspoiled,
solemn as a child is serious—
light balsa wood the color of my skin.
It is all childcraft, especially
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
Goodbye nothing. Blockhead,
I would take you to church,
if any church would take you . . .
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.

Lowell is describing a small figurine from the northeastern region of Brazil, a gift from his friend Elizabeth Bishop. This was an ex voto (“from a vow”) offering, called milagré in Portuguese. Such objects, were left at a church as thanks to God after recovery from illness. A tiny leg would be left when the arthritis abated, a miniature head after the migraine had ended. The illustration on the right shows a small (4-inch) head (not the one described by Lowell). The poet wonders whether such an offering might serve as thanks now that the  “unshakable terror that made me write” had finally finished. 



Lowell’s final poem in the book Day by Day serves as an epilogue to a life distinguished by severe madness and by significant poetry: 

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

At the end of the poem Lowell refers to Vermeer’s 1662 painting Woman Reading a Letter in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Lowell’s prayed to be as accurate in his poetry as Vermeer in his painting. On another level, the painting embodied the tranquility that was so often missing in his life.


Andreasen, N. C., & Canter A. (1974). The creative writer: psychiatric symptoms and family history. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 15(2), 123-131.

Andreasen, N. C. (2008). The relationship between creativity and mood disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 10 (2), 251-255.

Axelrod, S. G. (2015). Robert Lowell: Life and art. Princeton University Press. 

Beam, A. (2003). Gracefully insane: the rise and fall of America’s premier mental hospital. PublicAffairs Books.

Fender, S. (1973). What really happened to Warren Winslow? Journal of American Studies, 7(2), 187–190.

Greenwood, T. A. (2020). Creativity and bipolar disorder: a shared genetic vulnerability. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 16(1), 239–264.

Hamilton, I. (1982). Robert Lowell: a biography. Random House

Hass, R. (1977). Lowell’s Graveyard. Salmagundi, 37(37), 56–72.

Jamison, K. R. (2017). Robert Lowell: setting the river on fire: a study of genius, mania, and character. Alfred A. Knopf.

Lowell, R. (1946). Lord Weary’s castle. Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Lowell, R. (1977). Day by day. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lowell, R. (edited by Bidart, F., & Gewanter, D., 2003). Collected poems. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lowell, R. (edited by Axelrod, S. G., & Kość, G., 2022). Memoirs. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Ludwig, A. M. (1995). The price of greatness: resolving the creativity and madness controversy. Guilford Press.

Mailer, N. (1968). The armies of the night; history as a novel, the novel as history. New American Library.

Mann, T. (translated by Neugroschel, J., 1998). Death in Venice and other tales. Viking.

McConahay, M. D. (1986). ‘Heidelberry braids’ and Yankee “politesse”: Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell reconsidered. Virginia Quarterly Review, 62(2), 213-236.

Remaley, P. P. (1976). The quest for grace in Robert Lowell’s “Lord Weary’s Castle.” Renascence, 28(3), 115–122.

Rosenthal, M. L. (1967). Robert Lowell and ‘Confessional’ Poetry. In Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II, Oxford University Press, pp. 25-78.



In 1891, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) left his wife and five children and sailed for Tahiti, where he hoped

to immerse myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thought in mind but to render, the way a child would, the concepts formed in my brain and to do this with the aid of nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true (letter quoted in Eisenman, 1997, p 77).

His decision to desert his family and follow his art has been considered by philosophers as a case study in ethics. Was his hope of artistic success adequate justification for his behavior? As luck would have it, Gauguin did become a famous artist, albeit posthumously. Can this retrospectively vindicate his flight to Tahiti? These issues are complex – both in the abstract and in terms of Gauguin’s actual life.

Life Before Art

Gauguin was born in France but spent much of his childhood in Peru, where his mother’s family had aristocratic connections. His grandmother Flora Tristan (1803-1844), a feminist and socialist, was the niece of Juan Pío Camilo de Tristán y Moscoso, who briefly served as president of South Peru.  

Gauguin returned to France to finish his schooling and then spent three years as a merchant sailor and two years in the French Navy, during which time he travelled throughout the world. When he returned to France in 1871, Gauguin was taken in by a rich relative, Gustave Arosa, an avid collector of realist and impressionist paintings. Arosa got Gauguin a job on the stock exchange, and introduced him to Camille Pissarro.

Gauguin became a very successful broker, and took up painting as a hobby. He married a young Danish woman Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920), and had five children. Having made a fortune on the stock market, Gauguin became an art collector himself, buying paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Manet, Degas, and Sisley (Bretell & Fonsmark, 2005, p 56)   


Gauguin had talent and he quickly learned the new Impressionist style. His paintings were included in the Impressionist Exhibitions beginning with the fifth in 1880. Below is one of his paintings from this time – Vaugirard Market Gardens, 1879 – together with a self-portrait from 1885.

The Stock Market Crash

In 1882 the Union Générale bank collapsed and the Paris Bourse crashed. By 1883 Gauguin was out of work. The family moved to Rouen where life was less expensive than in Paris. Gauguin decided to paint full time. However, he was not able to sell his paintings. Mette moved back to Denmark with most of the family in 1884, and Gauguin reluctantly followed in 1885. For a brief time, he was a salesman for French tarpaulins in Copenhagen, but he did not speak Danish and the endeavor came to nought. Mette supported the family by giving French lessons. Gauguin’s paintings found no market among the Danes. He became depressed, and sometimes was sometimes physically violent with his wife (Mathews, 2001, p 62). Mette’s family insisted that he leave.

In 1985 Gauguin returned alone to Paris. He submitted nineteen paintings to the Eighth and Final Exhibition of the Impressionist in1886, but these were not well received by either critics or buyers. Gauguin fled Paris for Pont-Aven in Brittany, an artists’ colony where living was cheap. There he worked with Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin.   

Vision after the Sermon (1888)

Gauguin was fascinated by the deep religiosity of the Breton peasants. He developed a new style of painting to portray their lives. He began using clearly outlined blocks of flat color in the manner of the Japanese prints that had become popular in Paris. He further decided that colors should be based as much upon the imagination as upon reality. This emphasis on the creative imagination derived from the Symbolist movement in literature. Gauguin named his new style of painting “Synthetism.” This approach was also called “Cloisonnism” after the technique for decorating metalwork, whereby colored enamels are placed within spaces bordered by metal strips. A masterpiece of this approach was Gauguin’s The Vision after the Sermon, which portrays Breton peasants experiencing a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel after a sermon on this episode from Genesis 22: 22-32 (Herban, 1977):

The figure at the lower right is Gauguin. The young peasant at the lower left is likely a portrait of Bernard’s sister Madeleine, with whom Gauguin was infatuated. The following is a description of the painting from Vargas Llosa’s novel The Way to Paradise. Vargas Llosa used the second person narrative as though someone is talking to Gauguin (or Gauguin is talking to himself). “Koké” was the name that the Tahitians called him – their best approximation of his name:  

The true miracle of the painting wasn’t the apparition of biblical characters in real life, Paul, or in the minds of those humble peasants. It was the insolent colors, daringly antinaturalist: the vermillion of the earth, the bottle green of Jacob’s clothing, the ultramarine blue of the angel, the Prussian black of the women’s garments and the pink-, green- and blue-tinted white of the great row of caps and collars interposed between the spectator, the apple tree, and the grappling pair. What was miraculous was the weightlessness reigning at the center of the painting, the space in which the tree, the cow, and the fervent women seemed to levitate under the spell of their faith. The miracle was that you had managed to vanquish prosaic realism by creating a new reality on the canvas, where the objective and the subjective, the real and the supernatural, were mingled, indivisible. Well done, Paul! Your first masterpiece, Koké! (Vargas Llosa, 2003, pp 217-218)

Gauguin also created a striking version of the crucifixion based on his time in Pont-Aven – The Yellow Christ (1889):

The Studio of the South

Back in Paris, Gauguin met the dealer Theo van Gogh and through him his brother Vincent. The two artists exchanged self-portraits. Van Gogh’s saw himself as an austere Japanese monk; Gauguin’s portrait is off-center against a floral wallpaper background includes a portrait of Emile Bernard:

Vincent invited Gauguin to stay with him in Arles in Provence. For nine weeks in late 1888 the two artists lived and worked together (Silverman, 2000; Druick et al, 2001). Although their relations were initially amicable, they disagreed on many things and the tension between them increased. If we are to believe what Gauguin later recalled in his journals (Gauguin, 2009, pp 12-14), one evening van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and Gauguin decamped to stay the night in a hotel. Van Gogh then proceeded to cut off his right ear with the razor and presented the ear to one of the prostitutes in Arles. Gauguin fled to Paris and van Gogh was confined to an asylum.   

Manao Tupapau

Van Gogh and Gauguin had discussed the book Rarahu by Pierre Loti (1880), which described the author’s marriage to a Tahitian girl, and the two artists considered the possibility of painting in the islands of the Pacific. Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Gauguin sailed to Tahiti in 1891.

In Tahiti Gauguin took a Tahitian girl aged thirteen, Tehemana (Tehura), as his mistress. One night when returning home late to his hut, he found her lying frightened on the bed:   

Quickly, I struck a match, and I saw. . . . Tehura, immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear. She looked at me, and seemed not to recognize me. As for myself I stood for some moments strangely uncertain. A contagion emanated from the terror of Tehura. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so beautiful, so tremulously beautiful. And then in this half-light which was surely peopled for her with dangerous apparitions and terrifying suggestions, I was afraid to make any movement which might increase the child’s paroxysm of fright. How could I know what at that moment I might seem to her? Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and specters, one of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights? Did I really know who in truth she was herself? The intensity of fright which had dominated her as the result of the physical and moral power of her superstitions had transformed her into a strange being, entirely different from anything I had known heretofore. (Gauguin, 1919/85, pp 33-34)

In Tahitian legends the Tupapaus were malignant demons. Over the next few days Gauguin painted the scene that he had witnessed, calling it Manao Tupapau, “Spirit of the Dead Watching” (1892):

Vargas Llosa imagines his thoughts about the painting:

Yes, this was truly the painting of a savage. He regarded it with satisfaction when it seemed to him that it was finished. In him, as in the savage mind, the everyday and the fantastic were united in a single reality, somber, forbidding, infused with religiosity and desire, life and death. The lower half of the painting was objective, realist; the upper half subjective and unreal but no less authentic. The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth. But fear didn’t diminish her beauty. It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god. And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, Koké. It bore no resemblance to those demons with claws and dragon teeth that Moerenhout described. It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory, time-less women who, when you lived in Pont-Aven or Le Pouldu, you would meet on the streets of Finistère. They seemed half dead already, ghosts in life. If a statistical analysis were deemed necessary, the items belonging to the objective world were these: the mattress, jet-black like the girl’s hair; the yellow flowers; the greenish sheets of pounded bark; the pale green cushion; and the pink cushion, whose tint seemed to have been transferred to the girl’s upper lip. This order of reality was counterbalanced by the painting’s upper half: there the floating flowers were sparks, gleams, featherlight phosphorescent meteors aloft in a bluish mauve sky in which the colored brushstrokes suggested a cascade of pointed leaves. The ghost, in profile and very quiet, leaned against a cylindrical post, a totem of delicately colored abstract forms, reddish and glassy blue in tone. This upper half was a mutable, shifting, elusive substance, seeming as if it might evaporate at any minute. From up close, the ghost had a straight nose, swollen lips, and the large fixed eye of a parrot. You had managed to give the whole a flawless harmony, Koké. Funereal music emanated from it, and light shone from the greenish-yellow of the sheet and the orange-tinted yellow of the flowers. (Vargas Llosa, 2003, pp 22-23)

The painting is one of the most discussed of Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures. The commentary is ambivalent: 

All this is to put the painting in the best possible light. But there is surely more to it than just a charming anecdote based on local folklore. In blunt terms what we actually see is the interior of a hut at night, with a large couch, covered in a boldly flowered cloth, partially overlaid by a plain white sheet on which lies a naked girl, face down, another of the child-like, yet distinctly erotic figures who have appeared before in Gauguin’s work — pert buttocks offered invitingly to the spectator. There is even something disturbing about the way the face is half-turned towards the viewer, or rather towards the artist, Gauguin, as if he and not the figure in the background is the spirit of which she is afraid. (Sweetman, 1995, pp 326-327).

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

In 1893 Gauguin returned to Paris and arranged to sell some of his Tahitian paintings. He was not happy in Paris and in 1895 he returned to Tahiti. Over the next few years, Gauguin became severely depressed. He had suffered a broken ankle in a brawl in Concarneau near Pont Aven and the fracture had never really healed. He drank excessively – partly to relieve the pain and partly to improve his mood. He had sores on his legs, perhaps related to syphilis or perhaps related to the malnutrition that accompanies alcoholism. In 1897 he attempted to commit suicide with arsenic but failed. After this he worked on his last great painting, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1898):

Gauguin described his work in a letter to Daniel de Monfried:

The canvas is 4.50 meters long and 1.70 meters high. The two upper corners are chrome yellow, with the inscription on the left and my signature on the right, as if it were a fresco, painted on a gold-colored wall whose corners had worn away. In the bottom right, a sleeping baby, then three seated women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to one another; another figure, seated, and deliberately outsized de-spite the perspective, raises one arm in the air and looks with astonishment at these two people who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the middle picks fruit. Two cats near a child. A white she-goat. The idol, both its arms mysteriously and rhythmically uplifted, seems to point to the next world. The seated figure leaning on her right hand seems to be listening to the idol; and finally an old woman close to death seems to accept, to be resigned [to her fate]; . . . at her feet, a strange white bird holding a lizard in its claw represents the futility of vain words. All this takes place by the edge of a stream in the woods. In the background, the sea, then the mountains of the neighboring island. Although there are different shades of color, the landscape constantly has a blue and Veronese green hue from one end to the other. All of the nude figures stand out from it in a bold orangey tone. If the Beaux-Arts pupils competing for the Prix de Rome were told: “The painting you have to do will be on the theme, ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ ” what would they do? I have finished a philosophical treatise comparing that theme with the Gospel. I think it is good. (Gauguin,1990, p. 160; original letter is illustrated in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, 2004, p 168)

The philosophical treatise he mentioned was likely The Catholic Church and Modern Times (Gauguin, 1990, pp 161-173), in which Gauguin decries the hypocrisy of the modern church and urges his readers to return to a more natural theology. His painting is a testament to these ideas.

In a letter to Charles Morrice (Goddard, 2029, p 48) Gauguin describes his painting as proceeding from right to left, with the answer to “Where do we come from?” on the right, the answer to “What are we?” in the center and the answer to “Where are we going?” on the left. Nevertheless, the painting has no simple interpretation (Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, 2004, pp 167-201). The man plucking fruit from a tree in the center perhaps refers to Adam in a modern version of Eden. The two women in purple may refer to the church and its interpretation of our origins. The idol on the left is the Tahitian Goddess Hina (Gauguin, 1953, pp 11-13). Hina represented the sky, moon, air, and spirit. From the union between Hina and Tefatou, God of matter and earth, came forth man. Hina wished that man might be reborn after death much like the moon returns each month. Tefatou insisted that, although that matter lasts forever, man must die.  

The painting stands at the cusp between earlier paintings like that of the neo-classical Between Art and Nature (1895) of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which Gauguin has seen on his visit back to Paris, and the Fauvist La Bonheur de Vivre (1905) of Henri Matisse. Both paintings are smaller than Gauguin’s masterpiece.


La Maison de Jouir

Gauguin decided that Tahiti was too tainted with Western civilization and decided in 1901 to move to the Marquesa Islands, about 1500 km northeast of Tahiti. There he again took a young Polynesian girl for his mistress and built himself a home that he called La Maison de Jouir. This is usually translated as the “House of Pleasure” but more precisely means the “House of Orgasm.” He continued to paint and to write, and he created many striking woodcuts and drawings. One of his paintings from 1902 was the Riders on the Beach. The pink color of the beach is in the imagination of the artist and nowhere near reality.

In these last years, Gauguin was wracked by pain and became more and more depressed. His last Self Portrait (1903) from just before his death shows the ravages of alcohol and morphine. It is presented below together with two earlier portraits, one from 1889 alluding to his time in Pont-Aven, and one from 1893 referring to his first visit to Tahiti:


Gauguin was never recognized in his lifetime as a painter of significance. His death in 1903 warranted only a few lines in the Paris newspapers. It was not until 1906 that his friends arranged a retrospective exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. His fame has grown since then. Art historians now consider Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin as the “guiding lights” (Hook, 2021, p. 21) of the modernist revolution in art that occurred in the first decades of the 20th Century. This assessment is borne out by the high prices that Gauguin’s paintings now command at auction.

Isabelle Cahn (in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, 2004, pp 300-1) writes

He was the one who had dared take all the liberties, sparking the most advanced research, particularly in the domain of color . . .  Gauguin had perceived the decline of the West and revolted against the dictatorship of Greco-Roman culture. In his wake, other artists had tried to surpass the traditional boundaries of thought and, seeking regeneration, had taken an interest in primitive arts, children’s drawings, folk art and outsider art. An interest in the unconscious had also opened new vistas. By giving shape to his internal world, Gauguin exposed the anxiety of the modern soul and its questions about its fate, leading us to edge of our own enigma, but not weighing it down with explanations.

Bretell (1988, p 396) remarks about the effects of Gauguin’s work on later painters:

Picasso was clearly devastated by the power and raw, crude strength of the printed drawings. Matisse was overcome by the color and the apparently casual draftsmanship of the late paintings. Indeed, if one can measure the strength of an artist by that of his most brilliant followers, Gauguin would be among the very greatest from the late nineteenth century.     

Moral Luck

In 1976 Bernard Williams presented a paper on “Moral Luck,” in which he dealt extensively with the

example of the creative artist who turns away from the definite and pressing human claims on him in order to live a life in which, as he supposes, he can pursue his art.

For simplicity he calls the artist Gauguin, but he considers the case abstractly without being limited by historical facts. The main issue is that when Gauguin decided to desert his family, the only justification for his action was his hope that he would fulfil his destiny (and become a great artist), and that his art would contribute significantly to human culture. The concept of moral luck is that we cannot predict the future with any certainty. Gauguin may have died in a shipwreck before he reached Tahiti. In this event, his actions would have no justification. As chance (or “luck”) would have it, Gauguin did live to paint his greatest works in Tahiti, and did contribute significantly to the history of modern art. The problem is whether such an outcome can retrospectively justify the desertion of his family. Certainly not from the point of view of his family; probably not from the point of view of those with little interest in modern art. A secondary issue is whether aesthetic values can be used as justification for behavior that is, in itself, unethical.  

Thomas Nagel commented on Williams’s ideas and discussed moral luck in a more general way. Both authors thereafter updated their papers (Nagel, 1979; Williams, 1981), and there has been much further discussion in the literature (e.g., Lang, 2019; Nelkin 2019). Nagel described moral luck as that which occurs between the intention to act and the outcome of the intended action. Though we might profess, like Kant, that moral guilt or acclaim depends upon the intension (or “will”) rather than the outcome, in actuality, the outcome largely determines our sense of an action’s moral worth. For example, a person who drives while impaired and winds up killing a pedestrian is considered much more blameworthy than one who was similarly impaired but, as luck would have it, did not kill anyone. Moral luck points to the issue that we do not completely control the outcomes of our actions.

The following illustrations shows Williams on the left and Nagel on the right.

The Crimes of a Colonist   

At the time of Gauguin’s sojourn, Tahiti and the Marquesas were French colonies. The administrators of the colonies exploited the native Polynesians; the church taught them that their own culture was worthless and that they must convert to Christianity; whatever was worthwhile in their life was appropriated and made part of European culture. It was impossible for Gauguin not to be part of this process – he was a European and French Polynesia was a colony. However, he did not act in the same way as most of the Europeans. He lived with the natives, and tried to understand their language and their ideas. He was aware of the problems:

Circumstances exposed him to the effects of recent colonization; he saw the depredation and the irrecoverable loss first-hand. He also spoke out about colonization – and thereby earned the animus of the colonial and church authorities who hounded him until the end of his life (Maleuvre, 2018).  

Gauguin called the Polynesians “savages.” However, for him this was a term of praise rather than contempt. As quoted in the opening paragraph of this post, Gauguin aspired to become a savage. 

Sex Tourist

Gauguin’s mistresses in Tahiti and in the Marquesas were young girls of 13 or 14 years. Although it was normal at that time for Polynesian girls of that age to have sexual relations with men, it is impossible not to deplore Gauguin’s taking advantage of them for his own sexual pleasure. Reading about these girls in his book Noa Noa (“Fragrance”) is terribly disconcerting:

Indeed, it is soon clear that he is not just the average Westerner exploring for the sake of broadening his understanding of the world—he is, more than anything, a sexual tourist. Even the title Noa Noa, which means “fragrance,” is used by Gauguin to indicate the aroma of a human body particularly in sexual situations. Although sexual liaisons similar to those described by Gauguin were regularly reported in other contemporary travel accounts, Gauguin makes them central to the story and, in doing so, transforms the normally pedestrian Tahitian sojourn into an erotic holiday. (Mathews, 2001, p 178).

Most historians believe that the sores on Gauguin’s legs and the heart problems that led to his death were caused by advanced syphilis. However, since the discovery of the causative agent (Treponema pallidum) and the definitive Wassermann test did not occur until after his death, we cannot be sure. A recent examination of Gauguin’s teeth did not show evidence that he had taken the mercurial compounds that normally were used to treat the disease at that time (Mueller & Turner, 2018). Nevertheless, the prevalence of syphilis then was high – about 10% in urban populations and likely much more in those who frequented prostitutes. If Gauguin did have syphilis, he almost certainly gave the disease to his young mistresses.

The following is from a poem Guys like Gauguin (2009) by Selina Tusitala Marsh. Louis Antoine de Bougainville was a French naval captain who explored the Pacific Ocean in the late 18th century:

thanks Bougainville
for desiring ’em young
so guys like Gauguin could dream
and dream
then take his syphilitic body
downstream to the tropics
to test his artistic hypothesis
about how the uncivilised
ripen like pawpaw
are best slightly raw
delectably firm
dangling like golden prepubescent buds
seeding nymphomania
for guys like Gauguin

The Artist as Monster

Gauguin as a person was not easy to like. He was concerned only with his own presumed genius. He treated his family and his mistresses egregiously. Does this mean that we should not consider his paintings – that he should be, in our modern idiom, “cancelled” (e.g., Nayeri, 2019)? Many artists have done monstrous things (Dederer, 2003), and it is often difficult to consider their art independently of their immoral lives. We should not shy away from their sins. We should not call Gauguin’s Polysnesian mistresses “young women” but clearly state that they were girls who were seduced by a sexual predator. Nevertheless, we must consider the art for its own sake. Gauguin’s paintings are powerful: they make us experience things differently. 


Brettell, R. R. (1988). The Art of Paul Gauguin. National Gallery of Art.

Brettell, R. R., & Fonsmark, A.-B. (2005). Gauguin and Impressionism. Yale University Press.

Dederer, C. (2023). Monsters: a fan’s dilemma. Alfred A. Knopf.

Druick, D. W., Zegers, P., Salvesen, B., Lister, K. H., & Weaver, M. C. (2001). Van Gogh and Gauguin: the studio of the south. Thames & Hudson.

Eisenman, S. (1997). Gauguin’s skirt. Thames &Hudson.

Gauguin, P. (translated by O. F. Theis, 1919, reprinted 1985). Noa Noa: the Tahitian journal. Dover Publications.

Gauguin, P. (edited and annotated by R. Huyghe, 1951). Ancien culte mahorie. La Palme

Gauguin, P. (translated by E. Levieux and edited by D. Guérin, 1990). The writings of a savage. Paragon House.

Gauguin, P. (edited K. O’Connor, 2009) The intimate journals. Routledge.

Goddard, L. (2019). Savage tales: the writings of Paul Gauguin. Yale University Press.

Herban, M. (1977). The origin of Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888). The Art Bulletin59(3), 415–420.

Hook, P. (2021). Art of the extreme, 1905-1914. Profile Books.

Lang, G. (2019). Gauguin’s lucky escape: Moral luck and the morality system. In S. G. Chappell & M. van Ackeren (Eds.) Ethics Beyond the Limits. (pp. 129–147). Routledge. 

Maleuvre, D. (2018). The trial of Paul Gauguin. Mosaic, 51(1), 197–213.

Marsh, S. T. (2009). Fast talking PI. Auckland University Press.

Mathews, N. M. (2001). Paul Gauguin: an erotic life. Yale University Press.

Mueller, W. A., & Turner, C. B. (2018). Gauguin’s Teeth. Anthropology, 6: 198.

Nagel, T. (1979). Moral Luck. In Mortal Questions. (pp. 24–38) Cambridge University Press.

Nayeri, F. (November 18, 2019). Is it time Gauguin got canceled? New York Times.

Nelkin, D. N. (2019) Moral Luck. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Silverman, D. (2000). Van Gogh and Gauguin: the search for sacred art. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Shackleford, G. T. M., & Frèches-Thory, C. (2004). Gauguin Tahiti: the studio of the South Seas. Thames & Hudson.

Sweetman, D. (1995). Paul Gauguin: a life. Simon & Schuster.

Vargas Llosa, M. (translated by N. Wimmer, 2003). The way to paradise. Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Williams, B. A. O. (1981). Moral Luck. In Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980. (pp. 20–39) Cambridge University Press.

Williams, B. A. O., & Nagel, T. (1976). Moral Luck. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 50(1), 115–151.

Mary Cassatt: the Color Prints

In 1891 Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) exhibited a set of ten color prints at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. These prints had been made using new aquatint procedures that allowed the artist to print solid blocks of color. The colors and patterns owed much to the Japanese woodblock prints which had recently been exhibited at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Another source of the imagery was the work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), with whom Cassatt had previously worked on black and white etchings and aquatints. Though printed in a small edition size of 25, Cassatt’s 1891 prints did not sell well, perhaps because they were too innovative for the market. Now they are appreciated as key contributions to the art of the modern print.  

Biographical Notes

Mary Cassatt was born near Pittsburgh. Her family was well-to-do and she spent time in Europe as a child, becoming fluent in French and German.  From 1861 to 1864 she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia. In 1866 she continued her studies in Paris. Returning to North America she was unable to find patrons. Although her family advised her not to continue with her art, she returned to Paris in 1871. There she became good friends with Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit her work in the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. Thereafter her paintings began to sell, and she continued to live in Paris until her death. Her paintings mainly concerned the day-to-day life of women and children. Cassatt soon met Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), and together they gave the Impressionists a feminist frisson. More details of Cassatt’s life are available in Matthews (1994). The illustration below shows a self portrait of Cassatt made in 1880 using gouache and watercolors over a graphite drawing, and an earlier oil-on-canvas self-portrait of Degas from 1863.  

Early Etchings of Degas and Cassatt

In the late 1870s Degas and Cassatt became interested in etching. They were particularly intrigued by the techniques of aquatinting that had become popular over the past century or so (Lumsden, 1962; Eichenberg, 1976; Leaf, 1984). In simple etchings, differently shaded areas of the image can be created by cross-hatching. Aquatint allowed the artist to produce more homogenous shades of grey (or sepia). The artist scatters rosin granules over the engraved copper plate. The granules are then fused to the plate by heating. This creates a finely irregular surface that its then etched with acid. Regions of the print can be stopped-out by applying varnish or some other smooth coating, thus limiting the extent of the shading. Different levels of greyness can be obtained by multiple printings. Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was the first and greatest master of the aquatint. The following is one of the prints from his 1810 series on The Disasters of War.

In 1879 Edgar Degas made some sketches of Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia at the Louvre. This led to the pastel illustrated below on the left. He then rearranged the figures from the sketches and the pastel and provided a different background – the Etruscan sculptures in the museum – to make the etching and aquatint shown on the right.

Later in 1880, he rearranged the figures once more and made the aquatint-etching shown on the left below. The vertical arrangement of the figures probably derived from the Japanese hashira-e prints designed to adorn the pillars in houses (Ives, 1974, p 37). Many Japanese prints had been exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1878. Several years later in 1885, Degas colored one of these prints using pastels – as shown on the right (Boggs, 1988, p 440). Color was essential to Impressionism. For a truly Impressionist print, one would need a way to add color.

Cassatt also began using the techniques of etching and aquatint. The following illustration shows on the left one of Cassatt’s famous paintings – Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge (1879). The young woman (her sister Lydia) is shown at the opera seated in front of a mirror which reflects her back and the other loge seats at the opera. On the right is an etching-aquatint of a similar image from 1880.

Japanese Woodblock Prints

During the second half of the 19th Century, Japan opened its doors to the world, and Europe became aware of Japanese art. Japonisme became the rage in Paris. Artists were particularly intrigued by the woodblock prints, called ukiyo-e or “pictures of the passing world” (Ives, 1974). Western painters began to experiment with the use of flat colors, clear outlines, and textural patterns characteristic of these Japanese prints. Some painters included the prints in the background of their portraits: Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola (1868), and Van Gogh’s portrait of Pere Tanguy (1887):

In 1890 there was a huge exhibition of Japanese prints at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Cassatt visited with Degas, and then urged Morisot to join her in a second visit:

… we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux Arts. Seriously you must not miss that. You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper. (letter quoted by Matthews & Shapiro, 1989, p 36)

Cassatt was completely entranced by the prints. She was able to purchase many examples, particularly by Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), who portrayed the life of the geisha, or courtesan, in Edo, now known as Tokyo (Davis, 2007). The following prints are examples of his work: Reading a Letter (1802), Using Two Mirrors to Observe her Coiffure (1793) and Mother and Child (1793). Cassatt owned copies of the latter two prints. The print on the right is intricately constructed: a geisha seated behind a screen sticks out her tongue at her child while applying her makeup; the child points to her image in the mirror while being restrained by a maiko (apprentice geisha) who is trying to suppress her laughter.

Cassatt’s Prints

Over the next year Cassatt made ten prints in the style of the ukiyo-e. She described her work as “un essai d’imitation de l’estampe japonaise” (an attempt to imitate Japanese prints, Johnson 1990). Rather than using woodblocks, she combined etching with aquatint. Instead of ink she applied watercolors over the aquatinted areas using a wad of cloth (called a “doll” giving the technique the name à la poupée). Although other artists tended to leave the process in the hands of the printer, Cassatt herself was responsible for the coloring of each print. She described her technique:

My method is very simple. I drew an outline in drypoint and transferred this to two other plates, making in all, three plates, never more for each proof. Then I put on aquatint wherever the color was to be printed; the color was painted on the plate as it was to appear in the proof. (quoted by Johnson 1990)

Cassatt used three colors in her prints. Rather than using primary colors and allowing shades to form by combinations of the basic colors, she chose her own set of three colors for each print. These colors were not as bright as those in a new ukiyo-e print, but were like the colors in the faded prints that were available in Europe at that time (Johnson, 1990).

In the print The Letter, a young woman at her writing desk licks the envelope for mailing a letter. One imagines that this must be a love letter. The print recalls ukiyo-e images of geishas with a towel at their mouth, such as Utamaro’s portrait of Hinazuru of the Kaisetsuro (1795) shown on the right. Cassatt was likely unaware that this gesture alludes to the geisha’s postcoital state (Johnson, 1990). Cassatt renders the patterns of her subject’s dress with the same elegance as the Japanese printmakers crafted the patterns in a geisha’s kimono. Unlike most ukiyo-e prints, in which the figures are shown on a plain background, Cassatt’s print also depicts complementary patterns in the wallpaper behind the letter writer.      

Cassatt’s print of The Fitting shows a woman standing before a mirror while a seamstress adjusts her new dress. The vertical alignment of the figures alludes to Japanese prints portraying a geisha with her attendant maiko, such as the 1795 Utamaro print on the right.

Cassatt colored each print individually and different prints from the same plates sometimes display a wide range of colors. This is shown below in two versions of the print Maternal Caress (from the Art Institute of Chicago and from the Worcester Art Museum).

My favorite print from the 1891 set is Woman Bathing. A woman at her washstand has undone the upper part of her bathrobe letting it fall to her waist. She then proceeds to wash her face and upper body.Her head is partially reflected in the mirror. The vividly patterned carpet and the plain blue wall contrast with the simple stipes of her robe. At the lower left, the simple decoration on the water jug contrasts with the more florid patterns in the carpet. Cassatt’s image is related to some of the Degas pastels of bathing women such as his 1884 painting illustrated on the right.

The other six prints in the 1891 set are shown below: The Bath, The Lamp, In the Omnibus, Mother’s Kiss, Afternoon Tea Party and The Coiffure. More information is provided in the excellent book Mary Cassatt: the Color Prints (1989) by Mathews and Shapiro. A set of the prints can be viewed at the website of the National Gallery of Art


Though Degas and Pissarro were impressed by Cassatt’s 1891 prints, the general response to her exhibition was one of indifference. Only a few prints were purchased and Cassatt was unable to sell out the small edition of 25 during her lifetime. Other artists began to explore different methods of making color prints. Over time lithography became the most popular technique. Nevertheless, Cassatt’s 1891 set of colored aquatints remains as an isolated masterpiece in the history of the modern print:

As a whole, the series is a remarkably successful group based on clarity and elegance of composition, on flat, abstract patterning, and on a powerful economy of line (Johnson, 1990).

The prints portray the life of women, involved in the day-to-day activities of caring for children, writing to friends, travelling on the bus, and taking tea. The women are beautiful, and some of the prints have an erotic charge. Most importantly, the women are viewed sympathetically: they are not the objects of a male gaze.     


Boggs, J. S. (1988). Degas. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Davis, J. N. (2007). Utamaro and the spectacle of beauty. Reaktion Books.

Eichenberg, F. (1976). The art of the print: masterpieces, history, techniques. H. N. Abrams.

Ives, C. F. (1974). The Great Wave: The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Johnson, D. (1990). Cassatt’s color prints of 1891: the unique evolution of a palette. Notes in the History of Art, 9(3), 31-39.

Leaf, R. (1984). Etching, engraving, and other intaglio printmaking techniques. Dover Publications.

Lumsden, E. S. (1962). The art of etching: a complete & fully illustrated description of etching, drypoint, soft-ground etching, aquatint & their allied arts, together with technical notes upon their own work by many of the leading etchers of the present time. Dover Publications.

Mathews, N. M., & Shapiro, B. S. (1989). Mary Cassatt: the color prints. H.N. Abrams.

Mathews, N. M. (1994). Mary Cassatt: a life. Yale University Press.

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) painted the independence and the loneliness of 20th-Century America. He was a realist in the days when most painters tended toward the abstract. Yet his paintings incite the imagination far more than the works of any abstract expressionist. His enigmatic images force the viewer to wonder what is going on:

Hopper was neither an illustrator nor a narrative painter. His paintings don’t tell stories. What they do is suggest—powerfully, irresistibly—that there are stories within them, waiting to be told. He shows us a moment in time, arrayed on a canvas; there’s clearly a past and a future, but it’s our task to find it for ourselves. (Block, 2016, p viii).

More than any other painter, Hopper has inspired writers to find the stories and meanings behind his paintings. This post summarizes his life, describes his working methods, and presents some of his pictures together with the writings they have stimulated. 

Early Life

Hopper was born in Nyack, a town on the Hudson River some 25 km north of the upper end of Manhattan (Levin, 1980a, 2007). He decided early to become an artist and studied at the New York School of Art and Design in Greenwich Village, where he was taught by William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, among others. Hopper considered Thomas Eakins his artistic hero.

The 1903 self-portrait, illustrated on the left below, shows the conscientious young student. The others are from 1930, when he was becoming successful, and from 1945 after he had become famous.

In 1906 Hopper made his first trip to Paris, where he stayed for almost one year, making occasional journeys to other cities in Europe. He returned for two further shorter visits in 1909 and 1910. In Paris, he visited the museums, attended classes, and sketched and painted en plain air. The illustration on the right from the graphic biography by Rossi and Scarduelli (2021) was derived from a 1907 photograph of the young student sketching (Levin, 2007, p 68).

Hopper was influenced by the impressionists, in particular Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas (Kranzfelder, 2002, p 150). His later painting Automat (1927) shows similarities in mood and structure to Manet’s The Plum Brandy (1877) and to Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker (1876):

Another influence was Eugéne Atget who had photographed the empty streets of Paris (Llorens & Ottinger, 2012, p. 263). Since his camera required long exposure-times, Atget chose to photograph early in the morning before there were any people moving around in the streets. His haunting images foreshadow Hopper’s lonely city-scenes. Walter Benjamin in his Little History of Photography (1931) remarked that Atget’s photographs sometimes seem to portray the “scene of a crime.” The same can be said of many of Hopper’s paintings.

The ongoing modernist revolution in Paris had no effect on the young American. Hopper paid little attention to the post-impressionists (Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin), and was apparently unaware of the current work of painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

One of the last paintings from Hopper’s time in Europe was entitled Soir Bleu (1914). Various characters interact on a café terrace:

On the left is a macquereau (French: mackerel, slang for “pimp”). In the center, a garishly made-up prostitute attempts to entice a client from a table where three men are seated: someone who appears from his beret to be an artist, a soldier with epaulettes on his uniform, and a clown in full make-up and costume. On the right a bourgeois man and woman survey the scene. One is tempted to consider Hopper as the clown, out of place and without voice among the French. Three of the figures are smoking: the clown, the pimp and the artist. This may suggest something similar in their livelihoods: they all survive by selling to the rich and powerful: the couple on the right and the soldier. Hopper exhibited the painting when he returned to New York, but it was never sold and stayed in storage at his studio until his death. 

The painting’s title may come from a poem Sensation (1870) by Rimbaud, which in its second verse talks of being mute like the clown.

Par les soirs bleus d’été j’irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue :
Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraicheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas ; je ne penserai rien.
Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme ;
Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la Nature,—heureux comme avec une femme.

Summer’s deep-blue evenings I will go down the lanes,
Tickled by the wheat-berries, trampling the short grass:
Dreaming, I will feel the coolness at my feet.
I will let a northern wind bathe my bare head.

I will not stir my tongue; I will think of nothing.
Yet love infinite shall at once mount in my soul;
And I will go far, very far, like a gypsy,
Through Nature,—enchanted as with a woman.
(translation by Gregory Campeau)

Back in New York, Hopper was unable to sell more than an occasional painting. He therefore supported himself by providing illustrations for magazine stories and advertisements. For a while he learned etching with Martin Lewis. From these studies, he developed a better sense of how light plays on surfaces, especially at night. He also began to define spaces more distinctly than the impressionists that he had hitherto been following.

In 1913, Hopper moved into the top floor of Number 3, Washington Square North, Greenwich Village. This was his studio and residence for the rest of his life. The following illustration shows the building, the roof-top view from the top floor (Levin, 1985) and Hopper’s 1932 painting City Roofs:

Jo Nivison

In the summer of 1923 on a painting trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts, Hopper re-encountered Jo Nivison, who had been a fellow-student at the New York School of Art and Design. They both painted water-colors and on their return to New York, Nivison was instrumental in getting Hopper’s work exhibited. They enjoyed each other’s company and were married in 1924. Both were 41 years old. They were physically and psychologically different: he was 6 ft 5 inches while she was just 5 ft; “she was gregarious, outgoing, sociable and talkative, while he was shy, quiet, solitary, and introspective” (Levin, 2007, p 168). The following illustration shows a 1906 portrait of: The Art Student Miss Josephine Nivison by Robert Henri, a photograph of Jo and Edward (from the 1930s), and a 1936 painting of Jo Painting by Hopper.  

Edward painted and Jo took care of things. She modelled for his figure paintings, and kept meticulous records of his paintings in a set of notebooks. She sometimes rebelled against her help-mate status, and urged her husband to promote her own artistic career. There were arguments, some of which degenerated into physical fights. Nevertheless, their marriage lasted until Edward’s death in 1967. Jo died a year later, leaving all her husband’s unsold paintings to the Whitney Museum of American Art. The museum also accepted her paintings, but many of these were discarded. Jo Hopper was not given the recognition that she deserved (Colleary, 2004; Levin, 1980b, 2007, pp. 717-728; McColl, 2018).   

Working Methods

Although Hopper worked en plein air in France and during his summer excursions to New England, most of his pictures were painted in the studio from sketches made in situ. His images are thus based on reality but tempered by the imagination. The perspectives are altered; the surfaces are simplified and flattened; the colors are changed to what they might have been rather than what they were. His 1946 painting Approaching a City shows the rail lines of the Metro-North Railroad entering the tunnel at 97th Street to travel under Park Avenue to Grand Central Station. The painting provides a heightened representation of what a traveler might experience coming into a city for the first time. The illustration below shows the painting together with contemporary (Conaty,2022, p 13) and more recent (Levin, 1985) views of the scene.

The perspective of the painting would only be possible from the level of the rail-lines. Hopper has tried to see from the point of view of a passenger in a train rather than a pedestrian on Park Avenue. Even if the graffiti were erased, the opposite wall is (and was) not as it appears in the painting. Hopper has flattened its texture and removed the cables. The buildings above the wall are not those on Park Avenue, either now or when the painting was made. Conaty (2022, p 13) remarks

Here. the building types – from the nineteenth century brownstone to the modern industrial structure at the far left – suggest the passage of time in the histories that coexist, pictured as a single mass of forms seen from the train track below.  

The illustration below shows Hopper’s 1954 painting Morning Sun. The preparatory sketches show both the general layout of the room the effects of the bright morning light, and a more accurate representation of the model (Jo) with extensive details about shading and color:   

The Lonely City

Although Hopper painted many different subjects, he is best known for his pictures of lonely urban surroundings. The most recent exhibition of his work at the Whitney Museum focuses on his depiction of New York City (Conaty, 2022). 

The 1930 painting Early Sunday Morning shows a deserted New York Street. Though long considered to represent 7th Avenue in Greenwich Village, recent evidence has pointed to a source on Bleeker Street (Marcum 2022). The painting has a wonderful visual rhythm: the repetition and variation between the different units and their windows reminds me of the stanzas and rhymes of poetry.

John Updike (2005 p 199) describes the painting:

Early Sunday Morning is a literally sunny picture, with even something merry about it: bucolic peace visits a humdrum urban street. We are gladdened by the day that is coming, entering from the right, heralded by the shadows it throws. The glow on the sidewalk is picked up by the yellow window shades. The barber pole is cheerful, the hydrant basks like a sluggish, knobby toad. But the silent windows, especially the darkened big shopwindows, hold behind them an ominous mortuary stillness. The undercurrents of stillness threaten to drag us down, even as the day dawns. The diurnal wheel turns, taking the sun on one of its sides. But the other side, the side where sun is absent, has its presence, too, and Hopper’s apparently noncommittal art excels in making us aware of the elsewhere, the missing, the longed-for. He is, to use a phrase generally reserved for writers, a master of suspense.

The painting takes liberties with the shadows. Neither 7th Avenue nor Bleeker Street run directly east-west, and the morning sun could not cast shadows so long and so parallel to the buildings in either place. As noted by the poet John Hollander (in Levin 1995 p 43), the long shadow on the sidewalk is especially mysterious:

           Long, slant shadows
Cast on the wan concrete
Are of nearby fallen
Verticals not ourselves.
Lying longest, most still,
Along the unsigned blank
Of sidewalk, the narrowed
Finger of shade left by
Something, thicker than trees,
Taller than these streetlamps,
Somewhere off to the right
Perhaps, and unlike an
Intrusion of ourselves,
Unseen, long, is claiming
It all, the scene, the whole.

A striking aspect of the painting is it overwhelming silence: the calm before or after the storm of normal life. Ward (2017, p 169) remarks

Hopper’s paintings are uniquely silent, conveying a sense of unnatural stillness. The silence is more active than passive, mainly because it suggests little of the calmness, tranquility, or placidity commonly associated with it. Hopper’s silences are tense—hushed decorums maintained with terrific strain.

Probably Hopper’s most famous painting is The Nighthawks (1942), wherein a man and a woman sit at the counter of an all-night diner. They are served by a young waiter and observed by a solitary man at the other end of the counter. The diner is brightly lit; outside it is dark. The streets are deserted: it is likely long past midnight. We sense the couple’s anxiety and we are grateful for the light.

Hopper may have based the painting on a restaurant near the intersection of Greenwich Avenue and 7th Avenue (now Mulry Square). More likely it is an amalgam of various diners in the area. The title apparently comes from the beak-like nose of the man sitting with the woman.

The poet Mark Strand (1994, pp. 6-7) described the general effect of the picture:

The dominant feature of the scene is the long window through which we see the diner. It covers two-thirds of the canvas, forming the geometrical shape of an isosceles trapezoid, which establishes the directional pull of the painting, toward a vanishing point that cannot be witnessed, but must be imagined. Our eye travels along the face of the glass, moving from right to left, urged on by the converging sides of the trapezoid, the green tile, the counter, the row of round stools that mimic our footsteps, and the yellow-white neon glare along the top. We are not drawn into the diner but are led alongside it. Like so many scenes we register in passing, its sudden, immediate clarity absorbs us, momentarily isolating us from everything else, and then releases us to continue on our way. In Nighthawks, however, we are not easily released. The long sides of the trapezoid slant toward each other but never join, leaving the viewer midway in their trajectory. The vanishing point, like the end of the viewer’s journey or walk, is in an unreal and unrealizable place, somewhere off the canvas, out of the picture. The diner is an island of light distracting whoever might be walking by—in this case, ourselves—from journey’s end. This distraction might be construed as salvation. For a vanishing point is not just where converging lines meet, it is also where we cease to be, the end of each of our individual journeys. Looking at Nighthawks, we are suspended between contradictory imperatives—one, governed by the trapezoid, that urges us forward, and the other, governed by the image of a light place in a dark city, that urges us to stay.

Night makes us aware of our insignificance. A café can fend off these feelings. The older waiter in Hemingway’s story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place (1933) notes how his café provides an elderly customer with some sense of security in the night:

It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. [nothing and then nothing and then nothing]

Strong (1988) remarks on the similarities between the isolation of Hopper’s images and the loneliness of Robert Frost’s poems. Hopper read and admired Frost’s poems. Jo Nivison painted a picture of him reading Frost in 1955 (Levin, 1980b). Frost’s poem Desert Places (1934) ends:

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

There is something essentially American about the lonely individualism – the internal desert places – of Hopper, Hemingway and Frost.


Ecphrasis (Greek: words about) is the verbal description of a work of art, either real or imagined, expressed in vivid poetic language (Heffernan, 2015; Hollander 1988, 1995; Hollander & Weber, 2001; Panagiolidou, 2013). Ecphrasis is concerned with the effects the art on the viewer whereas “interpretation” deals with the what and how of these efects (Carrier, 1987). 

Perhaps more than any other artist, Hopper has stimulated the imagination of poets and writers. Poems and stories written in response to his paintings have been collected in several anthologies (Block, 2016; Levin, 1995; Lyons et al., 1995), and individual poets have composed whole books inspired by his images (Farrés, 2009; Hoggard, 2009; Strand, 1994). The following are three examples of Hopper’s images and the poetry and prose that they have evoked.

Hopper’s 1921 etching Evening Wind shows a nude woman about to lie down in bed as the wind blows the curtain into the room. The viewer feels that he is in the same room as the woman, and this intimacy recalls Degas’ paintings of women bathing. The Hopper website suggests that the sudden interruption of the wind might be akin to the appearance of a god, like the annunciation to Mary or the shower of gold that fell upon Danae.   

Robert Mezey (Levin, 1995, p 24) describes the etching in a beautifully constructed sonnet:

One foot on the floor, one knee in bed,
Bent forward on both hands as if to leap
Into a heaven of silken cloud, or keep
An old appointment — tryst, one almost said —
Some promise, some entanglement that led
In broad daylight to privacy and sleep,
To dreams of love, the rapture of the deep,
Oh, everything, that must be left unsaid —

Why then does she suddenly look aside
At a white window full of empty space
And curtains swaying inward? Does she sense
In darkening air the vast indifference
That enters in and will not be denied,
To breathe unseen upon her nakedness?

Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie depicts an usherette at one of the grand movie theaters in New York. She is standing beautifully and pensively near the side exit. 

Leonard Michaels (Lyons et al, 1995, p 3) wonders about who she might be:

Of course, she wasn’t going anywhere. I mean only that there was drama in the painting, a kind of personal story, and it was more engaging, more psychologically intense, than the movie on the distant blurry screen, a rectangle near the upper left corner of the painting, like a window in a dark room. The usherette isn’t looking at that movie, isn’t involved with any movie drama, any mechanical story told with cuts and fades while music works on your feelings. Her drama is mythical, the myth of Eurydice doomed to wait at the edge of darkness. The red flashes in the shadows of the painting are streaks of fire and streams and gouts of blood. Eurydice stands at the edge of Hades waiting for Orpheus. This movie theater, like many others in Hopper’s day, is called the Orpheum.

The 1943 painting of Summertime shows a young woman in a thin dress standing at the door of a New York building. She is about to face the day. She feels warm but a cooling breeze blows the dress against her body.

James Hoggard (2009) imagines Hopper talking about his painting:

It’s good you noticed, if you did
A number, I’ll say, have not come close
This one’s a nude, the clothes a guise,
a mask, a witty, illusory stab
at idiot propriety — imagination strips
everything bare, as I’ve done here:
the nipples and heft of breasts in view
and the screaming delight of thighs
rising toward the truth between them,
as suggested by the curtain’s cleft —
all this a celebration of my mood,
and my mood trumps anything that’s yours

This lass, who looks sweetly nubile now,
is Jo, my wife, whose age has been reduced
by the cleverness of my brush and paint
I’ve stripped her nearly bare, but I
have also preserved defiant ghosts
in the willful set of her swelling lips

The tensions and songs here are mine
You can do with your own what you will


Homage in Film and Photography

Hopper’s work has had a large influence on the visual arts as well as on poetry. Many of Hopper’s paintings depict large ornate 19th-Century houses – often standing isolated from other buildings. One such picture is House by the Railroad (1925). According to Levin (1985) this was likely partially based on a house in Haverstraw just north of his home in Nyack (lower left of the illustration below). This house is across the street from the railway: Hopper often compressed the distances between things in his paintings. The Mansard roof and central tower and columned porch were also found in other houses that Hopper painted. These houses defiantly insists on their isolated existence.

Variations on this house have appeared in several movies: most importantly Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). These sets are shown in the illustration above (lower middle and lower right).

Many photographers have been profoundly influenced by Hopper’s pictures. Phillip Lorcia diCorcia photographs isolated people in urban settings: his images suggest what Hopper might have seen he had lived a further fifty years (Llorens & Ottinger 2012, pp. 306-309). Even more recently, the photographer Richard Tuschman has recreated many of Hopper’s paintings in photographs. The illustration below shows Hopper’s 1926 painting Eleven a.m. together with Tuschman’s Woman at a Window, 2013. The chair has changed from blue to pink and the model now wears heels. Most importantly her face is visible.

Empty Rooms

Hopper was always intrigued by the play of light in empty rooms. His 1951 painting Rooms by the Sea, shows an empty room leading through an open door to the sea. The image derives from the Hopper’s studio in Truro on Cape Cod. The door does not directly open onto the sea: Hopper has compressed the space. The main room in the painting is completely bare. On the left, however, another room can be glimpsed with a couch, a chest-of-drawers, and a painting on the wall. Hollander (2001, pp. 72-25) suggests that the two rooms might represent the memories of the past and the presentiments of the future.  

One of Hopper’s late paintings Sun in an Empty Room (1963) is devoid of detail. The room contains nothing but the light. The stark simplicity almost approaches the abstract, though Hopper would insist that the image is still tied to reality. 

Strand (1994, pp. 57-58) remarks:

In the later painting, Sun in an Empty Room, there is nothing calming about the light. It comes in a window and falls twice in the same room—on a wall close to the window and on a slightly recessed wall. That is all the action there is. We do not travel the same distance—actual or metaphorical—that we do in Rooms by the Sea. The light strikes two places at once, and we feel its terminal character instead of anything that hints of continuation. If it suggests a rhythm, it is a rhythm cut short. The room seems cropped, as if the foreground were cut away. What we have is a window wall, with the window framing the highlighted leaves of a nearby tree, and a back wall, a finality against which two tomblike parallelograms of light stand up-right. Done in 1963, it is Hopper’s last great painting, a vision of the world without us; not merely a place that excludes us, but a place emptied of us. The light, now a faded yellow against sepia-toned walls, seems to be enacting the last stages of its transience, its own stark narrative coming to a close.

Last Things

Hopper’s last painting, Two Comedians (1965) portrays two actors taking their bows on a stage raised high above the audience. They actors are the artist and his wife. Representing himself as a comedian refers back to his earlier painting Soir Bleu. The illustration below shows the painting together with Scarduelli’s impression of the elderly couple in their studio (Rossi & Scarduelli, 2021).

The Portuguese poet Ernest Farrés (translated by Lawrence Venuti, 2006) imagines Hopper’s comments on the painting

Perhaps it’s the costume
that lets me laugh,
or smile as it were —
for me they’ve been the same

Perhaps it’s the clown’s disguise
that lets me be
looser than I usually am
strutting cock-proud now,
goofy-eyed at a crowd,
the illusion of a crowd
no one sees but you and me

Clowns, we move toward stage’s edge,
a place I’ve made like a roof’s edge,
with threat or promise of a fall

But the moment seems sweet,
our domestic wars almost done,
and white-clad and foolscapped,
we seem blest as we press
toward the last edge we’ll meet,

our lyrical selves always in France,
our final days just bibelots:
Nous sommes, Jo et moi, les pierrots

Final Words

Hopper painted the real world, but he allowed his imagination to interact with his perception. Conaty (2022, p 14) remarks that he often felt torn between working from the fact and improvising upon what he saw. Hopper argued against abstract expressionism, insisting that art should always have its source in “life.” The following is his 1953 statement on art from the short-lived magazine Reality (quoted in Llorens & Ettinger, 2012, p 275):

Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. The term “life” as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.



Block, L. (Ed.) (2016). In sunlight or in shadow: stories inspired by the paintings of Edward. Pegasus Books.

Carrier, D. (1987). Ekphrasis and interpretation: two modes of art history writing. British Journal of Aesthetics, 27(1), 20–31.

Colleary, E. T. (2004). Josephine Nivison Hopper: some newly discovered works. Woman’s Art Journal, 25(1), 3–11.

Conaty, K. (2022). Edward Hopper’s New York. Yale University Press.

Doss, E. L. (1983). Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, and Film NoirPost Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 2 (2), 14–26

Farrés, E. (translated by L Venuti, 2009). Edward Hopper: Poems. Graywolf Press

Heffernan, J. A. W. (2015). Ekphrasis: Theory. In Rippl, G. (Ed.) Handbook of Intermediality. (pp. 35–49). De Gruyter.

Hoggard, J. (2009). Triangles of light: the Edward Hopper poems. Wings Press.

Hollander, J. (1988). The poetics of ekphrasis. Word & Image, 4(1), 209–219. 

Hollander, J. (1995). The gazer’s spirit: poems speaking to silent works of art. University of Chicago Press.

Hollander, J., & Weber, J. (2001). Words for images: a gallery of poems. Yale University Art Gallery.

Kranzfelder, I. (2002). Edward Hopper: 1882-1967. Taschen.

Levin, G. (1980a). Edward Hopper: the art and the artist. Norton.

Levin, G. (1980b). Josephine Verstille Nivison Hopper. Woman’s Art Journal, 1(1), 28-32.

Levin, G. (1985, revised 1998). Hopper’s places. University of California.

Levin G. (1995). The poetry of solitude: a tribute to Edward Hopper. Universe Publishing.

Levin, G. (1995, revised 2007). Edward Hopper: an intimate biography. Rizzoli.

Llorens, T. & Ottinger, D. (2012). Hopper. Distributed Art Publishers.

Lyons, D., Weinberg, A. D., & Grau, J. (1995). Edward Hopper and the American imagination. Whitney Museum of American Art.

Marcum, A. (2022). Edward Hopper’s village: Early Sunday Morning on Bleecker Street. Village Preservation Blog.  

McColl, S. (2018). Jo Hopper, Woman in the Sun. Paris Review, Feb 26, 2018.

Panagiotidou, M.-E. (2023). The poetics of ekphrasis: a stylistic approach. Springer International 

Rossi, S., & Scarduelli, G. (2021). Edward Hopper: the story of his life. Prestel Verlag

Strand, M. (1994). Hopper. Ecco Press.

Strong, P. (1988). Robert Frost’s “Nighthawks”/Edward Hopper’s “Desert Places.” Colby Library Quarterly, 24(1), 27–35

Updike, J. (2005). Still looking: essays on American art. Knopf.

Ward, J. (2017). American Silences: the realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper. Taylor & Francis.

The Cathars

The Cathars

From the 12th to 15th Centuries groups of people called the Cathars lived quietly in various regions of Western Europe – Northern Italy, the Rhineland and, most especially, Southern France. They followed the moral teachings of Jesus, forsaking worldly goods and loving one another, but they did not believe in the basic theology of Christianity. They considered that the world was evil, that human beings were spirits imprisoned in the flesh, and that the soul could only be set free at death if one had lived a life of purity. The Catholic Church considered these beliefs heretical, and in 1208 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to eradicate the heresy. Named after the inhabitants of the city of Albi which had a flourishing Cathar population, the Albigensian Crusade lasted from 1209 until 1229. After years of terrible violence and cruelty, most of those who professed Cathar beliefs were dead. All that now remains of these peaceful people are the ruins of the hilltop castles in which they sought refuge.      

Heresy and Dissent in the Middle Ages

The increasing secular power and the ostentatious luxury the Catholic Church were far from the life of poverty and compassion taught by Jesus. This contrast triggered dissent in various forms (Moore, 1985). In 1098 a group of monks left the Benedictine monastery and founded the order of the Cistercians. In 1135, Henry of Lausanne, who had taught throughout the South of France that the individual believer was more important than the church, was condemned as heretical. In 1143 and again in 1163, small groups of heretics who denied the authority of the Catholic Church were burned at the stake in Cologne. In 1173 in Lyons, a merchant named Valdes (also known as Waldo) began preaching a life of apostolic poverty as the way to salvation. His followers, who became known as the Waldensians, were initially tolerated but later considered heretics.   

The monk Eberwin of Steinfeld Abbey near Cologne wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux about the heretics of 1143. He was astounded by their fortitude in accepting death rather than disavowing their beliefs, and he tried to understand them:

This is their heresy: They say that the Church exists among them only, since they alone follow closely in the footsteps of Christ, and remain the true followers of the manner of life observed by the Apostles, inasmuch as they possess neither houses, nor fields, nor property of any kind. They declare that, as Christ did not possess any of these Himself, so He did not permit His disciples to possess them. ‘But you,’ they say to us, ‘add house to house, and field to field, and seek the things of this world. So completely is this the case, that even those among you who are considered most perfect, such as the monks and regular canons, possess these things, if not as their private property, yet as belonging to their community.’ Of themselves they say: ‘We are the poor of Christ; we have no settled dwelling-place; we flee from city to city, as sheep in the midst of wolves; we endure persecution, as did the Apostles and the martyrs: yet we lead a holy and austere life in fasting and abstinence, continuing day and night in labours and prayers, and seeking from these only what is necessary to sustain life. We endure all this,’ they say,‘because we are not of this world.’ (Mabillon & Eales, 1896, p 390).

Bernard considered the danger of these apparently innocent heretics, and in his series of sermons on the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), he expounded upon the verse

Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes. (Song of Solomon 2:15)

He proposed that the vines are those of the Church and the little foxes are the heretics. He described the ways of their deceit:

They study, then, to appear good in order to do injury to the good, and shrink from appearing evil that they may thus give their evil designs fuller scope. For they do not care to cultivate virtues, but only to colour their vices with a delusive tinge of virtues. Under the veil of religion, they conceal an impious superstition; they regard the mere refraining from doing wrong openly as innocence, and thus take for themselves an outward appearance of goodness only. For a cloak to their infamy they make a vow of continence. (Mabillon & Eales, 1896, p 390)

In 1145 Bernard journeyed to Toulouse to challenge the teachings of the Henricians and to bring them heretics back to the teachings of the Church. The heretics refused to listen to him.

In 1184, Pope Lucius III, dismayed by the prevalence of heresy, issued the bull Ad abolendam diversam haeresium pravitatem (To abolish diverse malignant heresies). This initiated (or formalized) the Episcopal Inquisition: local bishops were empowered to try suspected heretics. Once convicted, heretics were handed over to secular authorities for appropriate punishment. The church did not wish to sully itself with their death.

Heretics were executed in various ways. However, the most common sentence was burning. The first such sentence to be carried out since ancient times was at Orleans in 1022 under Robert II (also known as the “pious”), King of the Francs. The fire gave the heretics a foretaste of hell “enacting in miniature the fate that awaited all those who failed to take their place within a united Christian society” (Barbezat, 2014; see also Barbezat 2018). An illumination from the Chroniques de France (1487) in the British Library shows the burning of the heretics. Noteworthy is the idyllic landscape in the backgound, and the complacency of the king and his followers.


Many of the heretics, such as those in Cologne and in the South of France, were called “Cathars.” The name perhaps derives from the Greek katharoi (pure ones), but the word may also have described the worship of Satan in the form of a cat. The heretics did not use the term; rather, they considered themselves “good men” (bons omes in the Occitan language of the South of France).

Most of what we know about the Cathars comes from the writings of the Inquisitors. The books and manuals that the heretics may have followed were burned. In recent years there has been much discussion and dispute (e.g., Frassetto, 2006; Sennis, 2016) about whether the Cathars were a linked group of believers (in essence a church) or whether that idea was a paranoid construct of the Inquisition used to establish terror and maintain the power of the established Church. Skeptics thus believe that a Cathar was anyone who disagreed with the teachings of the Catholic Church (Moore, 1987, 2012; Pegg, 2001). The more traditional view, followed in this posting, is that the Cathars were a specific congregation of beleivers linked to other sects such as the Bogomils in Bulgaria (e.g. Hamilton, 2006; Frassetto, 2008).

The Cathars were dualists, both ontologically – spirit and matter were distinct and antithetical – and theologically – one god created the spiritual world and a separate god created the material universe. In these beliefs they followed a long line of Christian heretics. The Gnostics of the 2nd Century CE often considered the world in these terms. In the 3rd Century CE the Parthian prophet Mani taught that the spiritual world of light was separate from the material world of darkness. His followers believed that he was the reincarnation of earlier teachers such as Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) was a Manichaean before he converted to orthodox Christianity. In the 8th and 9th Centuries CE, a group of dualists called the Paulicians flourished in Armenia. In the 10th Century CE, followers of the priest Bogomil (“dear to God” in Slavic) established in Bulgaria a sect of dualist believers that called themselves by the name of their leader (or vice versa). The Bogomils (Frassetto, 2007, Chapter 1) were condemned as heretics by both the Roman and the Eastern Churches but they persisted in their beliefs, and some of them travelled to Italy, Germany and France. A lost manuscript purportedly describes a meeting in 1167 between a Bogomil priest named Nicetas from Constantinople and several Cathar believers in Saint Félix near Toulouse (Frassetto, 2007, p 78). The authenticity of the document has been questioned, but the idea rings true.

The main beliefs of the Cathars were described by the Cistercian monk Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay who was with the army of Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade (Wakefield & Evans, 1991, pp 235-241), and are detailed in the 1245 testimony of Rainerius Sacconi, an Italian Cathar who converted and became a Dominican (Wakefield & Evans, 1991, pp 329-346) and in The Book of Two Principles written by an Italian Cathar, John of Lugio in the mid 13th Century CE (Wakefield & Evans, 1991, pp 522-591). Oldenbourg (1961), Roquebert (1999), O’Shea (2000), Smith (2015) and McDonald (2017) provide modern summaries:

(i) Dualism: The Cathars believed that there were two worlds – spiritual and material – and that each world had its own god. Human beings were spiritual entities imprisoned in the flesh. The spiritual world was the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus described in his beatitudes and parables. In answer to Pilate’s asking him whether he was King of the Jews, Jesus had stated “My kingdom is not of the world.” (John 18:26)

(ii) Reincarnation. At death the soul migrated in another body. Such an idea is widespread in the religions of the East. There is no separate afterlife, no heaven or hell. Although the life of the flesh may itself be considered hell.  

(iii) Consolamentum. If a believer wished to escape the eternal cycle of reincarnation, he or she could decide to live a pure life, abstaining completely from material goods and desires. Such people were called Perfects. The decision to become a Perfect was enacted through the ceremony of consolamentum, wherein one already a Perfect laid hands on the head of a believer who aspired to the life of purity. This was the baptism of fire. The illustration at the right shows an illumination from a 13th Century Bible in the Bibliothèque nationale de France: two Franciscan monks stand aghast at witnessing a ceremony of consolamentum.

If the Perfects maintained their state of purity, at death they would be released from reincarnation and united with the spirit of the good God. However, any lapse from the pure life – eating meat or any of the products of procreation (milk, eggs), indulging in sexual intercourse – would render them (and whomever they had provided consolamentum) no longer Perfect.     

(iv) Apostolic Life: The Cathars followed in the basic teachings of Jesus. They used the Lord’s prayer. They believed a compassionate life dedicated to the benefit of their fellows and in the rejection of all worldly possessions. In the latter they followed the injunctions of Jesus:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6: 19-21)

(v) Denial of Church Dogma: Although they believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus, the Cathars rejected most of the teachings and sacraments of the Catholic Church. They denied the baptism by water, preferring the true baptism by fire. They refused the sacrament of marriage since they thought that procreation only served to maintain the endless cycle of reincarnation. They had no patience with the Trinity, and were uncertain about whether Jesus was God incarnate. Many of the Cathars in the South of France believed that Jesus was human and was married to Mary Magdalene.

(vi) Oaths: The Cathars refused to take oaths. In this they were following the instructions of Jesus

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:
Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5: 34-37)

This was a severe problem in a feudal society, wherein all relations depended upon oaths of fealty.

(vii) Role of women: The Cathars denied that women should be subordinate to men. Many Cathar Perfects were women.  


By the end of the 12th Century the Cathar heresy had become widespread in the South of France. The language spoken in this region was Occitan or the langue d’oc. This Romance language used oc to mean “yes,” unlike French or langue d’oïl which used oïl (later oui) or Spanish which used si. Each region spoke its own dialect of Occitan, the most prominent of these being Provençal in the east and Gascon in the west.

At that time, the Languedoc region, named after the language, was a patchwork of different political entities. The most prominent leader was Raymond VI of the Saint-Gilles family which controlled Toulouse and regions in Provence. Raymond-Roger II Trencavel governed the region of Carcassonne and Bézier. Raymond-Roger of Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees was an important ally of Toulouse. His wife and sister had both become Cathar Perfects. All these leaders had feudal ties to Pedro II, King of Aragon in Northern Spain. The illustration below shows a map of the region:

Languedoc was flourishing. The land produced a bounty of wine, olive oil, and wool. Weavers abounded and cloth merchants became rich. The region was a major trading crossroads linking Spain and the Mediterranean to the North and West of France. Its leaders fostered tolerance. A large Jewish society fostered both trade and new learning. Much of the medieval development of the Kabbalah occurred in Provence and in Northern Spain (Boboc, 2009).

Life was to be enjoyed. Time was available for chivalry and courtly love. The poetry of the troubadours (Chaytor,1912; Paterson, 1993) brought the rhymes and rhythms of Arabic poetry into the literature of romance languages. Dante called the Occitan poet Arnaut Daniel il miglior fabbro (the best [word]smith), and Petrarch called him the gran maestre d’amore. The following are a few lines with translation by Ezra Pound:

Tot quant es gela                              Though all things freeze here
Mas ieu non puesc frezir                   I can naught feel the cold
C’amors novela                                 For new love sees here
Mi fal cor reverdir                              My heart’s new leaf unfold.

Pope Innocent III

In 1198 Lotario dei Conti di Segni became Pope Innocent III. He was aware of the dissension in the church and initially sympathetic to those who criticized priestly affluence. During his reign (1198-1216), he founded two new medicant orders: the Franciscans led by Francis of Assisi in 1209 and the Dominicans led by Domingo Félix de Guzman in 1216. The illustration below shows frescoes of Saint Francis (by a follower of Giotto c. 1300; Innocent III by and anonymous artist, c 1225 and Saint Dominic by Fra Angelico, c. 1440).

In 1202 Innocent III initiated the disastrous Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land. The crusaders, attracted by the hope of plunder and egged on by the Venetians, sacked Constantinople instead of freeing the Holy Land. Only a few crusaders refused to participate in the sack and travelled on to Palestine, among them Simon de Montfort.

Innocent III was particularly concerned by the Cathars in Languedoc and urged Raymond VI of Toulouse to contain their heresy. He sent many priests, among them Saint Dominic, to dispute with the heretics and to urge them to return to the church. Their efforts were to no avail. The following illustration shows two paintings by Pedro Berruguete from about 1495. The left represents a legendary meeting between Dominic and the Cathars. Books of Cathar and Catholic teachings were submitted to trial by fire. Only the teachings of the Catholic Church were miraculously preserved and rose above the assembled disputants. On the right Dominic presides over an auto-da-fé (Portuguese, act of faith) for the burning of heretics. However, there is no evidence that the saint participated in any trials of the heretics: he died in 1221 long before the Papal Inquisition was established in 1231. Berruguete’s paintings were commissioned by the Spanish Inquisition founded in 1475. That institution with its frequent autos-da-fé was sorely in need of a founding saint, and was more concerned with terror than with truth.

In 1207 the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau, excommunicated Raymond VI of Toulouse. In January of 1208 Pierre negotiated with Raymond at Saint-Gilles but refused to absolve him. Pierre was then murdered at the Rhône River as he travelled back to Rome. No one knows who ordered his assassination but Raymond was held responsible. Raymond submitted to being scourged as penance for the death in June of 1209. However, by then the Pope had already called for a Crusade against the Cathars (or Albigensians) and Christian knights from the North of France had rallied to the cause, driven as much in hope for power and plunder as by desire to defend the faith. The Crusaders were led by the knight Simon IV de Montfort and by Arnaud Amaury (or Almaric), the 17th abbot of Cîteaux, mother house of the Cistercians. The following illustration from the Les Grandes chroniques de France (14th Century, folio 374) now in the British Library shows Innocent III excommunicating the Cathars and the subsequent Albigensian Crusade.

Below are shown the coats of arms for the participants in the Albigensian Crusade. The upper line shows the powers of Languedoc and Aragon; the lower line the crusaders. The Pope’s arms would have added a papal tiara and the keys of Saint Peter to the basic arms of the house of Segni. The kings of the Francs were from the house of Capet.


The first engagement of the Crusaders was the siege of Béziers, whose citizens were Catholic Cathar and Jew. The huge army encamped outside the city walls on July 22, 1209, the feast day of Mary Magdalene. The following picture is from the manuscript of the Canso de la Crozada (Shirley 2016). This epic poem was begun by Guillaume de Tudela and completed by another anonymous troubadour. The writing was likely finished by 1219 (the date of the last event it records), but the only extant manuscript comes from 1275. The illustrations were outlined in preparation for painting but, although the decorated initials beginning each section (or laisse) were illuminated, the outlines never were. (The actual illustration is from an engraving based on the drawing – the manuscript drawing is very faint):

The text in Occitan can be translated as:

On the feast of St Mary Magdalen, the abbot of Cîteaux brought his huge army to Béziers and encamped it on the sandy plains around the city. Great, I am sure, was the terror inside the walls, for never in the host of Menelaus, from whom Paris stole Helena, were so many tents set up on the plains below Mycenae (Shirley, 2016, laisse 18)

A minor skirmish between the defenders and the besiegers led to the gates of the city being left open. The camp followers and mercenaries stormed through and began looting the city. The knights followed. The result was a massacre. Various reports numbered the dead as anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people. No distinction was made between Catholic and Cathar. Everyone died.

A Cistercian chronicler later reported that Arnaud Amaury was afraid that the Cathars in the city would falsely claim to be pious Catholics and escape to spread their heresy. When asked how to distinguish between believer and heretic, he is reported to have said Caedite eos. Novit Dominus qui sunt eius (Kill them all. The lord knows those that are his own). This may not be true, but he would have been familiar with the words, which derive from a verse in the New Testament describing how only true believers go to heaven.

Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. (II Timothy 2:19)


The Crusaders then moved on and laid siege to Carcassonne on the banks of the Aude River. The city lacked its own supply of water and could not hold out for long. Under promise of safe conduct Raymond-Roger Trencavel therefore negotiated the surrender of the city. All the citizens of the city were spared but they were forced to leave without taking anything with them. The illustration on the right from Les Grandes chroniques de France shows them leaving the city without even the clothes on their back. Simon de Montfort was granted dominion over Carcassonne and Béziers. Raymond-Roger was imprisoned in his own dungeon in Carcassonne and died there within a few months.   

Mass Burnings

After Carcassonne, the army moved on to besiege other Languedoc towns and cities. After a month of siege in 1210, Simon de Montfort accepted the surrender of Minerve, and agreed to spare its inhabitants. However, Arnaud Amaury insisted that they should all be asked to swear allegiance to the Catholic Church. One hundred and forty Cathar Perfects refused and were burned at the stake outside the town. This was the first of the many mass immolations that would recur throughout the crusade. Among the most heinous of these executions, four hundred Cathar Perfects were burned at Lavaur in 1211.

The Battle of Muret

Simon de Montfort continued to take various towns and cities in Languedoc, but stayed away from Toulouse, which was large and well defended. Raymond VI of Toulouse negotiated support from Pedro II of Aragon and from Raymond-Roger of Foix and in 1213 a large army assembled on the plain outside the city walls of Muret just south of Toulouse, where the forces of Simon de Montfort were garrisoned. The crusaders were vastly outnumbered. Some reported a ratio of 10 to 1 although it was more likely 3 to 1.

Early in the morning of September 12, 1213, Simon de Montfort said his prayers and led his knights out along the Garonne River away from the encampment of the besiegers. After a while he turned and led a ferocious charge against the besiegers (see illustration on the right from Les Grandes chroniques de France). The southerners turned toward them but the knights of the Crusaders hit the besiegers at full speed shattering their defenses and breaking through their lines (O’Shea, 2000, pp 141-149). The result was a complete rout. Among the thousands of Toulousian and Aragonese dead was Pedro II. Less than one hundred Crusaders died.


Toulouse remained unconquered. In 1215, the Pope convened the Fourth Lateran Council to broker disputes within the Christian lands. Raymond VI journeyed to Rome to plead the case for an independent Toulouse, but the council ultimately granted Simon de Montfort dominion over all of Languedoc. The crusaders, recently reinforced by prince Louis of France (later to become King Louis VIII), came to take up residence in Toulouse. In 1216, Raymond VI returned to regain his patrimony. Over the next two years the city changed hands several times.

On June 25, 1218, Simon de Montfort coming to the aid of his brother Guy who had been wounded in an assault on the city walls, was struck by a boulder launched by a catapult from within the city walls (illustration on the right from a 19th-Century engraving):

This was worked by noblewomen, by little girls and men’s wives, and now a stone arrived just where it was needed and struck Count Simon on his steel helmet, shattering his eyes, brains back teeth, forehead and jaw. Bleeding and black the count dropped dead on the ground (Shirley 2016, p 172)

The poet who wrote the latter parts of the Canso de la Crozada (Shirley, 2016) did not grieve the death of Simon. He reported that the crusaders took Simon’s body to Carcassonne for burial, and imagined a fitting epitaph. The original version in Occitan gives a flavor of the rhyming of troubadour poetry:

Tot dreit a Carcassona l’en portan sebelhir
El moster S. Nazari celebrar et ufrir,
E ditz el epictafi, cel quil sab ben legir :
Qu’el es sans ez es martirs, e que deu resperir,
E dins el gaug mirable heretar e florir,
E portar la corona e el regne sezir;
Ez ieu ai auzit dire c’aisis deu avenir:
Si per homes aucirre ni per sanc espandir,
Ni per esperitz perdre ni per mortz cosentir,
E per mals cosselhs creire, e per focs abrandir,
E per baros destruire, e per Paratge aunir,
E per las terras toldre, e per orgolh suffrir,
E per los mals escendre, e pel[s] bes escantir,
E per donas aucirre e per efans delir,
Pot hom en aquest segle Jhesu Crist comquerir,
El deu portar corona e el cel resplandir!

[Straight to Carcassonne they carried it and buried it with masses and offerings in the church of St Nazaire. The epitaph says, for those who can read it, that he is a saint and martyr who shall breathe again and shall in wondrous joy inherit and flourish, shall wear a crown and be seated in the kingdom. And I have heard it said that this must be so – if by killing men and shedding blood, by damning souls and causing deaths, by trusting evil counsels, by setting fires, destroying men, dishonouring paratge, seizing lands and encouraging pride, by kindling evil and quenching good, by killing women and slaughtering children, a man can in this world win Jesus Christ, certainly Count Simon wears a crown and shines in heaven above. (Shirley, 2016, laisse 208)]

The word paratge in Occitan is difficult to translate. It derives from the Latin par (equal) and is thus similar to the English word “peerage.” However, it had come to mean all that was good in Occitan society: equality, honor, chivalry, hospitality, joie de vivre.

The End of the Crusade

After the death of Simon de Montfort, the crusade continued intermittently. Various strongholds in the domain of Toulouse were conquered by the crusaders. Louis VIII of France became the main leader of the crusade. He conquered the city of Marmande in 1219 but was unable to take Toulouse. Many of the Cathars retreated to mountain strongholds. Raymond VI died in 1222; Raymond-Roger of Foix died in 1223. Their heirs lacked their strength and charisma. Most historians date the end of the Crusade to 1229 when the Treaty of Paris was signed in Meaux, granting the Kingdom of France dominion over all the lands previously held by Toulouse.

In order to root out the remaining Cathars in Languedoc, Pope Gregory IX established the Papal Inquisition in 1231. Instead of allowing local bishops investigate heretics, the pope appointed itinerant inquisitors from among the ranks of the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Accompanied by clerks and lawyers, these inquisitors travelled throughout the region of Languedoc, seeking out heretics, bringing them to trial, and handing them over to the secular authorities for burning (Deane, 2011, Chapter 3) For their faithful service the Dominicans became known as the Dogs of God (Domini canes).

One of the last Cathar refuges to fall was Montségur (Occitan for “safe hill”) a castle built on top of a steep and isolated peak known in Occitan as a puog (illustrated below). The castle was 170 m above the plain and the stronghold was virtually impregnable. In 1242 two inquisitors were murdered by Cathars from Montségur. The French forces (now under Louis IX) began the siege of the isolated mountain stronghold in May 1243. Slowly and inexorably the French came closer to city until it was within range of their catapults. The castle finally surrendered in March 1244. About 220 Cathar Perfects were burned to death on the field below the puog. This became known as the Plat dels Cremats (field of the burned).

Saint Peter Martyr

The Inquisition moved on from Languedoc to the Northern Italy. In 1852, Peter of Verona, a Dominican friar, was appointed Inquisitor in Lombardy. When returning from Como to Milan, Peter and his companion Domenic were assassinated by assassins hired by the Milanese Cathars. This is illustrated in a 1507 painting by Giovanni Bellini (see below). Despite the foreground violence one can see in the distance a countryside of peace and beauty. The woodsmen go about their work. The light from the harvest shines through the trees.


In 1282 work was begun on the new Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia in Albi, which was to become the largest brick building in the world. With its narrow windows and huge tower, it dominates the city like a fortress, a true bastion against heresy (see below). Above the high altar a vast fresco of the Last Judgement reminds the people of Languedoc of the torments that await those that do not follow the true teachings.  


The history of the Cathars should not end with the formidable Cathedral of Albi. More fitting is the Cathar castle of Peyrepertuse (from Occitan pèirapertusa, pierced rock). It was finally surrendered to the French in 1240, and later became part of the French border defences.   



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Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) learned to experience nature with the vividness of the Impressionists but evolved his own individual style of painting. How he perceived the world was as important as the way it appeared. For most of his life he lived and painted in Aix-en-Provence. He had no students and his work became recognized only toward the end of his life. Nevertheless, many of the proponents of the modernist movement that began in the first decade of the 20th Century acknowledged Cézanne as their artistic father (Hook, 2021). This post comments on some of his paintings.

Early Life

Cézanne’s father, a successful businessman and banker in Aix-en-Provence, wanted his son to carry on the family’s banking business. However, Cézanne wished to become a painter and his father eventually gave in to his stubbornness. The young man came to Paris in 1861, took lessons in some of the painting studios and spent time studying and drawing in the Louvre (Schapiro, 1952; Danchev, 2010). He was impressed by the emotional force of Delacroix and intrigued by the iconoclasm of Manet. He later made his own versions of Manet’s Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (both exhibited in 1863). He brooded and made paintings of rape and murder. His style was generally dark and heavy.  He seemed destined to be just another angry young man without significant talent.   

Friendship with Pissarro.

However, during his studies in Paris, Cézanne became friends with Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Pissarro was older but both were outsiders: Cézanne was an unsophisticated provincial and Pissarro was a Jew from the island of St Thomas in the Caribbean. Pissarro had taken up the idea of painting directly from nature (en plein air), molding shapes in colors rather than defining them with outlines. He was one of the founding members of the Impressionists and exhibited with them from 1874 to 1886. He was full of enthusiasm for this new movement and loved to discuss its theories with his younger colleague. Despite their different personalities – Pissarro was gentle and congenial, Cézanne rough and unsocial – the two painters became fast friends, exchanging pencil portraits of each other (from around 1874, Pissarro on the left and Cézanne on the right.

In the decade from 1871 to 1881, they often worked together in the environs of Paris (Pissarro, 2005). Pissarro lived in Pontoise, and for a while Cézanne lived in nearby Auvers. Sometimes Cézanne directly copied his colleague’s paintings, sometimes they worked simultaneously, and sometimes Cézanne would revisit a scene that Pissarro had painted before. Under the tutelage of Pissarro, Cézanne lost his youthful darkness and began to paint what he saw rather than what he imagined.

However, the two painters maintained their individual styes. Pissarro worked continuously adding tiny points of color to the canvas. His paintings vividly portray the atmosphere of a landscape, capture the color of its light, and accurately delineate its perspective. Cezanne would often spend a long time contemplating what he saw before adding paint to the canvas. His colors were perhaps brighter than reality and they were put on the canvas in “patches” rather than dots. His perspective never really fit a single point of view. 

The following illustration shows two paintings of The Road at Pontoise. The upper painting by Pissarro was made in 1875 and the lower by Cézanne about a year later. Cézanne’s painting has a more limited field of view, his colors show more contrast and less definition, and his landscape contains no people.

Nancy Locke (2021) recounts the observations of a peasant who once watched the two painters at their easels in the countryside:

“M. Pissarro, en travaillant, piquait (et mon paysan faisait le geste), et M. Cézanne plaquait (autre geste).”
Selon cet observateur contemporain, Pissarro était plus susceptible de travailler avec un pinceau perpendiculaire à la toile, l’approchant avec un mouvement de tamponnage ou de piqûre, alors que Cézanne était plus enclin à se déplacer latéralement avec son pinceau ou son couteau à palette, travaillant ainsi dans le même plan que la toile.

[M. Pissarro, while working, “stung” (and my peasant made the gesture), and M. Cézanne “plastered” (another gesture).
According to this contemporary observer, Pissarro was more likely to work with a brush perpendicular to the canvas, approaching it with a dabbing or stabbing motion, whereas Cézanne was more inclined to move his brush or palette knife laterally, thus working in the same plane as the canvas. (my translation)]

Cézanne later described his method of painting to Joachim Gasquet. However, Gasquet wrote down these conversations long after Cézanne had died and the words are likely as much Gasquet as Cézanne: 

[L]entement les bases géologiques n’apparaissent, des couches s’établissent, les grands plans de ma toile, j’en dessine mentalement le squelette pierreux. Je vois affleurer les roches sous l’eau, peser le ciel. Tout tombe d’aplomb. Une pâle palpitation enveloppe les aspects linéaires. Les terres rouges sortent d’un abîme. Je commence à me séparer du paysage, à le voir. Je m’en dégage avec cette première esquisse, ces lignes géologiques. La géométrie, mesure de la terre. Une tendre émotion me prend. Des racines de cette émotion monte la sève, les couleurs. Une sorte de délivrance. Le rayonnement de l’âme, le regard, le mystère extériorisé, l’échange entre la terre et le soleil, l’idéal et la réalité, les couleurs! Une logique aérienne, colorée,remplace brusquement la sombre, la têtue géométrie. Tout s’organise, les arbres, les champs, les maisons. Je vois. Par taches. L’assise géologique, le travail préparatoire, le monde du dessin s’enfonce, s’est écroulé comme dans une catastrophe. Un cataclysme l’a emporté, régénéré. Une nouvelle période vit. La vraie ! Celle où rien ne m’échappe, où tout est dense et fluide à la fois, naturel. Il n’y a plus que des couleurs, et en elles de la clarté, l’être qui les pense, cette montée de la terre vers le soleil, cette exhalaison des profondeurs vers l’amour. Le génie serait d’immobiliser cette ascension dans une minute d’équilibre, en suggérant quand même son élan. Je veux m’emparer de cette idée, de ce jet d’émotion, de cette fumée d’être au-dessus de l’universel brasier. Ma toile pèse, un poids alourdit mes pinceaux. Tout tombe. Tout retombe sous l’horizon. De mon cerveau sur ma toile, de ma toile vers la terre. Pesamment. Où est l’air, la légèreté dense? Le génie serait de dégager l’amitié de toutes ces choses en plein air, dans la même montée, dans le même désir. Il y a une minute du monde qui passe. La peindre dans sa réalité ! Et tout oublier pour cela. Devenir elle-même. Être alors la plaque sensible. Donner l’image de ce que nous voyons, en oubliant tout ce qui a paru avant nous. (Gasquet, 1921, pp. 136-137)

[S]lowly geographical foundations appear, the layers, the major planes form themselves on my canvas. Mentally I compose the rocky skeleton. I can see the outcropping of stones under the water; the sky weighs on me. Everything falls into place. A pale palpitation envelops the linear elements. The red earths rise from an abyss. I begin to separate myself from the landscape, to see it. With the first sketch, I detach myself from these geological lines. Geometry measures the earth. A feeling of tenderness comes over me. Some roots of this emotion raise the sap, the colors. It’s a kind of deliverance. The soul’s radiance, the gaze, exteriorized mystery are exchanged between earth and sun, ideal and reality, colors! An airborne, colorful logic quickly replaces the somber, stubborn geography. Everything becomes organized: trees, fields, houses. I see. By patches: the geographical strata, the preparatory work, the world of drawing all cave in, collapse as in a catastrophe. A cataclysm has carried it all away, regenerated it. A new era is born. The true one! The one in which nothing escapes me, where everything is dense and fluid at the same time, natural. All that remains is color, and in color, brightness, clarity, the being who imagines them, this ascent from the earth toward the sun, this exhalation from the depths toward love. Genius would be to capture this ascension in a delicate equilibrium while also suggesting its flight. I want to use this idea, this burst of emotion, this smoke of existence above the universal fire. My canvas is heavy, a heaviness weighs down my brushes. Everything drops. Everything falls toward the horizon. From my brain onto my canvas, from my canvas toward the earth. Heavily. Where is the air, the dense lightness? It would take genius to discover the amity of all these things in the open air, in the same ascent, in the same desire. A minute of the world goes by. To paint it in its reality! And to forget every-thing else. To become reality itself. To be the photographic plate. To render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that came before. (Cochran translation in Doran and Cochran, 2001)

Je peins. Par taches. The French word tache most commonly denotes a spot, stain or blemish. In painting it means a patch of color. With these patches Cézanne was able to portray on the canvas what he perceived. Pissarro (2005), the grandson of the painter, remarked about how the French word is close to touche (touch) and that this brings to mind how touch is both a sensation and an action. Cézanne’s painting was an active participation in his experience, not so much a representation as a recreation of reality.

Over the years Cézanne began to distance himself from the Impressionists (Shiff, 1984). Verdi (1992) called him the “reluctant impressionist.” As well as heightening his color contrasts, he portrayed space quite differently. Each part of the painting existed on its own plane, and these planes intersected to form the structure of the scene. Cézanne was more interested in the underlying form of what he saw rather than its immediate appearance. His differentiation from the impressionists is visible below in two paintings made in the gardens of the Hermitage at Pontoise: Pissarro’s from 1867, and Cézanne’s from 1881. After 1881 Cézanne retired to Provence only coming to Paris occasionally.  

Still Lifes

During his association with Pissarro in the 1870s, Cézanne developed his own individual technique for portraying still lifes. French painters had followed the Dutch in their enthusiasm for still life. The illustration below shows paintings by Chardin (1764), Manet (1864), Pissarro (1872) and Cézanne (1874). All contain a paring knife. In Cézanne’s painting, the objects do not simply exist. The space tips upward. The objects seem to move towards the viewer, but are restrained by the rumpled tablecloth.

Multiple points of view were characteristic of Cézanne’s later still lifes. The following figure shows his 1890 painting of The Kitchen Table as analyzed by Erle Loran (1943). The diagram shows that the objects are viewed from two main heights (I and II on the left); the lower point of view is then located either directly in front or on the right (Ia and IIb). Some of the objects tilt as though they are about to fall (D and E) whereas others stand upright (F). The tabletop on the left is lower than on the right (ABC). These problems of perspective are not due to clumsiness. Cézanne considered each section of the painting by itself and then pieced the scene back together. Such an approach to reality was to become the driving force of Cubism.

The following illustration shows two more of Cézanne’s still lifes. In the upper painting – The Basket of Apples (1893) the bottle leans to the left, the biscuits tilt upward, and the table top again has two different heights. This instability becomes even more marked in the lower painting of Still Life with Apples (1895), about which T. J. Clark (2022, p 75)

The whole array … is disturbed and unstable (those spilling red spheres, that tipping plate, that earthquake landscape of blue and white cloth) yet composed and crystalline at the same time. And both the orderliness and the disturbance can strike us as features of seeing and features of manufacture – inventions, impositions, flashes of grim wit. Take the crisp fold at the top of the tablecloth, continuing the dark line of the dado [lower portion of a wall]. Or the whole brilliant hard decisiveness of the made pattern – made by machine and then by Cezanne the re-folder – on the blue-and-black drape. Or the anti-colour of the ice-block wall. </p>

The spatial instability of the paintings can make the viewer uneasy. The uncertainty of the artist is palpable. The critic Gustave Geffroy was perhaps the first to mention this inquiétude in a review of Cézanne’s 1895 exhibition:

L’inquiétude de l’artiste l’a dominé. Cézanne n’en a pas moins raconté sa sensation profonde au spectacle de l’univers. Il importe peu que sa personnalité ait pris, pour s’exprimer, telle forme plutôt que telle autre. Regrettons qu’il n’ait pas doté son pays et son temps de l’oeuvre grandiose qui était en lui. Mais son individu ne subit de ce regret aucune déperdition, puisqu’il est présent, et bien présent, par toutes ces oeuvres où se mêlent, comme on ne l’a jamais vu davantage peut-être, la réflexion et la spontanéité. (Geffroy, 1900, p 218). </p>

[The anxiety (unease, disquiet) of the artist overcame him. Cézanne nevertheless recounted his deep experience of the universe. It matters little that his personality took, in order to express itself, one form rather than another. We are sorry that he did not endow his country and his time with the great work that was in him. But his achievement suffers no loss from this regret, since he is present, and very present, in all these works which mingle, more that we have ever seen before, reflection and spontaneity. (my translation)] </p>

Cézanne’s Apples

At school in Aix, Cézanne had once come to the defence of the young Emile Zola who was being bullied by older students. The next day Zola brought Cézanne a basket of apples (Schapiro, 1968). The two became fast friends and Cézanne’s apples became a recurring motif in his paintings, many of which simply show a group of apples on a surface (Leca, 2014).  As illustrated below, each apple is defined by its colors. There are no outlines, only shadows. They represent things as they exist unto themselves (Armstrong, 2018). In his poem To an Artist, Seamus Heaney (1984) describes “his coercion of the substance from green apples”

Mont Sainte Victoire

After he returned to Provence, Cézanne began a series of paintings depicting the mountain to the east of Aix-en-Provence: Mont Sainte Victoire. The following illustration shows two paintings from the mid 1890s, the upper one now in the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the lower in the Courtauld Collection in London.

As the years went on the depictions of the mountain became more abstract. The color patches expanded and the structure simplified. The following illustration shows a modern photograph of the mountain together with Cézanne’s 1904 painting:

William Wilson commented on the multiplicity of the depiction:

the deep space represented in Cézanne’s paintings is not the space of historical events; he has altered that space, bringing the distant nearer, and pushing the near back. As we look towards Mont Sainte-Victoire it is brought towards us, but Cézanne doesn’t show the cross that had been erected on it. Anything might happen in historical space, but Cézanne did not want that; he wanted painting to be about what was happening, when what was happening was an experience of successive spontaneous visual sensations which include a feeling of earlier and later, of before and after, along with now. Looking at a landscape by Cézanne, it is as though in that space we would go a few yards to the left, some yards back, some more yards upward, and several yards later.  (Wilson, 1988, p 193)

As the years went by, the paintings of Mont Sainte Victoire became more monumental. The following illustration shows two late depictions.

The paintings have become independent of their source, creations in their own right. The following is a statement by Cézanne as reported (much later) by Gasquet. It is likely exaggerated. The comment that le paysage se pense en moi does not ring true as something that Cézanne would have said, but it does depict the way that the critics and painters began to consider his achievement: 

L’art est une harmonie parallèle à la nature. Que penser des imbéciles qui vous disent: le peintre est toujours inférieur à la nature! Il lui est parallèle. S’il n’intervient pas volontairement… entendez-moi bien. Toute sa volonté doit être de silence. Il doit faire taire en lui toutes les voix des préjugés, oublier, oublier, faire silence, être un écho parfait. Alors, sur sa plaque sensible, tout le paysage s’inscrira. Pour le fixer sur la toile, l’extérioriser, le métier interviendra ensuite, mais le métier respectueux qui, lui aussi, n’est prêt qu’à obéir, à traduire inconsciemment, tant il sait bien sa langue, le texte qu’il déchiffre, les deux textes parallèles, la nature vue, la nature sentie, celle qui est là… (il montrait la plaine verte et bleue) celle qui est ici… (il se frappait le front) qui toutes deux doivent s’amalgamer pour durer, pour vivre d’une vie moitié humaine, moitié divine, la vie de l’art, écoutez un peu… la vie de Dieu. Le paysage se reflète, s’humanise, se pense en moi. Je l’objective, le projette, le fixe sur ma toile. (Gasquet, 1921, pp. 131-132)

[Art is a harmony parallel to nature. What would you think of idiots who would tell you, the painter is always inferior to nature! They are parallel, if the artist doesn’t intentionally intervene … hear me well. His entire will must be silent. He must silence all prejudice within himself. He must for-get, forget, be quiet, be a perfect echo. Then the full landscape will inscribe itself on his photographic plate. In order to fix it on his canvas, to exteriorize it, his craft comes into action. But it must be a respectful craft which, itself also, is ready only to obey, to translate unconsciously so long as it knows its language well, the text it deciphers, these two parallel texts: nature seen and nature felt, the nature which is out there … (he indicates the blue and green plain) and the nature which is in here … (he taps himself on the forehead) both of which must unite in order to endure, to live a life half human, half divine, the life of art, listen a little … the life of God. The landscape is reflected, becomes human, and becomes conscious in me. I objectify it, project it, fix it on my canvas. (Cochran translation)

First Recognition

Cézanne bought his paint supplies from Julien Tanguy (the same Père Tanguy that was painted by Vincent Van Gogh) in Paris, and left some paintings with him for possible sale. When Tanguy died in 1894, the dealer Ambroise Vollard obtained some of Cézanne’s paintings from the sale of his estate. He then contacted Cézanne, and arranged for his first solo exhibition in 1895. Cézanne suddenly became a success.

Younger painters found inspiration in the vividness and the uncertainty of Cézanne’s still lifes. In 1900 Maurice Denis painted his Hommage à Cézanne showing Cézanne’s 1880 painting Still Life with Compotier being admired by artists and critics. The persons illustrated are from left to right: Odilon Redon, Edouard Vuillard, André Mellario (in top hat), Ambroise Vollard (behind the easel), Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard (with pipe) and Marthe Denis. 

Several portraits were included in Cézanne’s first exhibition (Elderfield, 2017). Below are shown two 1891 portraits of Madame Cézanne (Marie-Hortense Fiquet, his one-time model and mother of his son). The portraits lack the fine detail that characterized the paintings of classical artists. Yet facial perception depends more on general form than on details, and Cézanne’s paintings grasp this form. The portraits have a monumentality – as if the sitter was as important to the painter as his beloved Mont Sainte Victoire.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was impressed by the portrait on the left:

A red, upholstered low armchair has been placed in front of an earthy-green wall in which a cobalt-blue pattern (a cross with the center left out) is very sparingly repeated; the round bulging back curves and slopes forward and down to the armrests (which are sewn up like the sleeve-stump of an armless man). The left armrest and the tassel that hangs from it full of vermilion no longer have the wall behind them but instead, near the lower edge, a broad stripe of greenish blue, against which they clash in loud contradiction. Seated in this red armchair, which is a personality in its own right, is a woman, her hands in the lap of a dress with broad vertical stripes that are very lightly indicated by small, loosely distributed flecks of green yellows and yellow greens, up to the edge of the blue-gray jacket, which is held together in front by a blue, greenly scintillating silk bow. In the brightness of the face, the proximity of all these colors has been exploited for a simple modeling of form and features: even the brown of the hair roundly pinned up above the temples and the smooth brown in the eyes has to express itself against its surroundings. It’s as if every part were aware of all the others—it participates that much; that much adjustment and rejection is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it: just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium. (Rilke, 1907, translated 1985 pp 70-71)

The following illustration shows Cézanne’s portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy (1896) seated at a desk that expands irrationally toward the reader and the unfinished eyeless portrait of the dealer Ambroise Vollard (1899).

Cézanne produced many self-portraits. Those illustrated below are from 1880, when he had decided on his way of painting, and from 1895, when he had attained success but had begun to doubt his ability to make it significant.

The Bathers

Cézanne’s fondest memoires of childhood were the times he spent swimming with Zola and other friends in the rivers and lakes near Aix-en-Provence. Throughout his life he painted scenes of bathers (Krumrine, 1989; Garb1996)). In the early years of the 20th Century, he worked on several large paintings of bathers which were left unfinished at the time of his death in 1906. He did not use models. His figures were based on drawings he had made as a student in Paris, on photographs and on prints of the old masters (Verdi, 1992, Chapter 6). The following illustration shows a painting of male bathers from 1894, and one of the large paintings of female bathers unfinished at his death:

The very incompleteness of the late works became part of their appeal. Cézanne was attempting to find humanity’s lost innocence. His inability was later interpreted as reflecting the difficulty of perceiving a world that may not be where we wish to live. This conflict between consciousness and reality became a major part of the later philosophy of existentialism – the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Merleau-Ponty remarked in his 1948 essay on Cézanne’s Doubt

The meaning of what the artist is going to say does not exist anywhere— not in things, which as yet have no meaning, nor in the artist himself, in his unformulated life.

The artist must attempt to create this meaning in his work (Alsdorf, 2010; Rutherglen, 2004). The following is from the poem Morning in the Studio: Les Grandes Baigneuses by Maitreyabandhu (2019).

     They were like dinosaurs in the swaggering green,
insecurely sexed with their hands above their heads.
     He wanted earthed Etruscan statuary; he wanted
voluptuaries of the sun, but some were missing limbs
     or had their heads blown off, others had broken wrists
and severed fingers. They were like crippled monkeys
     under cathedral trees: they were the century to come.

The final illustration shows Emile Bernard’s 1904 photograph of Cézanne in front of one of his unfinished paintings of Les Grandes Baigneuses. The detail on the left of the painting (now in the Barnes Collection) was later changed but the painting remained incomplete at the time of his death.

The Creative Artist

Medina (1995, pp 122-125) remarks on how a Cézanne’s painting becomes independent of the experience that led to it. She likens it to The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain, one of the last poems written by Wallace Stevens (1954). 

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

Death of an Artist

Cézanne tried continuously to make his painting meaningful. His art was his life. He painted right up to his death:  

he was caught in a storm while working in the field. Only after having kept at it for two hours under a steady downpour did he start to make for home; but on the way he dropped exhausted. A passing laundry-wagon stopped, and the driver took him home. His old housekeeper came to the door. Seeing her master prostrate and almost lifeless, her first impulse was to run to him and give him every attention. But just as she was about to loosen his clothes, she stopped, seized with alarm. It must be explained that Cezanne could not endure the slightest physical contact. Even his son, whom he cherished above all (“Paul is my horizon,” he used to say), never dared to take his father’s arm without saying, “Permit me, papa.” And Cezanne, notwithstanding the affection he entertained for his son, could never resist shuddering.
Finally, fearing lest he pass away if he did not have proper care, the good woman summoned all her courage and set about to chafe his arms and legs to restore the circulation, with the result that he regained consciousness without making the slightest protest—which was indeed a bad sign. He was feverish all night long.
On the following day he went down into the garden, intending to continue a study of a peasant which was going rather well. In the midst of the sitting he fainted; the model called for help; they put him to bed, and he never left it again. He died a few days later, on October 22, 1906. (Vollard, 1919)


Alsdorf, B. (2010) Interior landscapes: metaphor and meaning in Cézanne’s late still lifes, Word & Image, 26(4), 314-323.

Armstrong, C. M. (2018). Cézanne’s gravity. Yale University Press.

Clark, T. J. (2022). If these apples should fall: Cézanne and the present. Thames & Hudson.

Danchev, A. (2012). Cézanne: a life. Pantheon Books.

Doran, P. M., & Cochran, J. L. (2001). Conversations with Cézanne. University of California Press.

Elderfield, J., Morton, M. G., & Rey, X. (2017). Cézanne portraits. Princeton University Press.

Garb, T. (1996). Visuality and sexuality in Cézanne’s late Bathers. Oxford Art Journal, 19(2), 46–60.

Gasquet, J. (1921). Cézanne. Bernheim-Jeune. Original available at archiv.org Translated by C. Pemberton (1991). Joachim Gasquet’s Cezanne: a memoir with conversations. Thames and Hudson. Portions translated by Julie Cochran in Doran & Cochran (2001)

Geffroy, G. (1900). La Vie Artistique, Sixième Série. M Fleury.

Hook, P. (2021). Art of the extreme, 1905-1914. Profile Books.

Krumrine, M. L. E. (1989). Paul Cézanne: the bathers. H.N. Abrams.

Leca, B. (2014). The world is an apple: the still lifes of Paul Cézanne. Art Gallery of Hamilton 

Locke, N. (2021). Piquer, plaquer: Cézanne, Pissarro, et la peinture au couteau à palette In B. Jouves-Hann & H. Viraben (Eds), Aux limites de l’étude matérielle de la peinture : la reconstitution du geste artistique. (pp 87-99) Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris.

Loran, E. (1943). Cézanne’s Composition. University of California Press.

Maitreyabandhu. (2019). After Cézanne. Bloodaxe Books

Medina, J. (1995). Cézanne and modernism: the poetics of painting. State University of New York Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., (1948, translated by Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, P. A., 1964). Cézanne’s doubt. In Sense and non-sense. (pp. 9-25) Northwestern University Press.

Pissarro, J. (2005). Pioneering modern painting: Cézanne & Pissarro, 1865-1885. Museum of Modern Art.

Rilke, R. M. (translated by J. Agee, 1985). Letters on Cézanne. Fromm International.

Rutherglen, S. (2004). Merleau-Ponty’s doubt: Cézanne and the problem of artistic biography. Word & Image (London. 1985)20(3), 219–227.

Schapiro, M. (1952). Paul Cezanne. H.N. Abrams.

Schapiro, M. (1968) The apples of Cézanne: an essay on the meaning of still life. Art News Annual,34, 34-53.

Shiff, R. (1984). Cézanne and the end of impressionism: a study of the theory, technique, and critical evaluation of modern art. University of Chicago Press.

Verdi, R. (1992). Cézanne. Thames and Hudson.

Vollard, A. (1919) Paul Cézanne. Georges Crès. Original available at archiv.org.  English translation also available

Wilson, W. S. (1988) Cezanne’s rapport. In D. Halpern (Ed) Writers on artists. (pp190-199). North Point Press,

Apostola Apostolorum

Apostola apostolorum

In the gospels of the Christian New Testament, Mary Magdalene was the first person to recognize the risen Christ. He told her to tell the disciples the news of his resurrection, thus honoring her as the “apostle to the apostles.” In the Gnostic Gospels she appears as a visionary disciple of Jesus. In the centuries after her life, her story was conflated with that of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus at a feast in the house of Simon, and Mary thus became a model of repentance. This posting discusses these and other ways in which we conceive of Mary Magdalene.

The Tower

Mary Magdalene’s name likely comes from Magdala, a settlement on the Sea of Galilee during the years 300 BCE to 300 CE. Recent archeological excavations have unearthed evidence there of a synagogue, in which was found the “Magdala Stone,” with carvings showing a Menorah and images of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Aramaic word magdala means “tower.” These may have been related to fortification towers or to towers used for the drying of fish.

Another possible reason for Mary Magdalene’s name is that she was called the “Tower” for the strength of her faith in much the same way as Peter was called the “Rock” for his unwavering devotion (Valerio, 2021, pp 19-20). Saint Jerome (347-420 CE) reported that:

Mary of Magdala received the epithet ‘fortified with towers’ because of her earnestness and strength of faith, and was privileged to see the rising Christ before even the apostles. (quoted in Haskins, 1993, p 58)

Noli me tangere

Mary Magdalene is specifically mentioned in the canonical gospels in connection with three events in the life of Jesus (Haskins, 1993, Chapter 1; Lupieri, 2011; Valerio, 2021, Chapter 1):

(i) During the time when Jesus was preaching and healing the sick near Capernaum, the gospel of Luke describes his entourage as consisting of the twelve disciples

And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils,
And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance. (Luke 8: 2-3)

No one knows for certain what was meant by the casting out of demons in those times. It likely represented a charismatic healing of an emotionally disturbed person. After Mary was cured of her affliction, she followed her healer, and provided him with monetary support.

(ii) Later, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were present at the crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. In the synoptic gospels, no mention is made of any of the disciples being present: they were presumably terrified of being associated with the crucified Jesus. The gospel of John reports that a beloved disciple was also there:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! (John, 19: 25-27)

Though the disciple “whom he loved” is usually considered to be John, it is also possible to interpret this passage as referring to Mary Magdalene.

(iii) The final mention of Mary Magdalene is in the discovery of the empty tomb by the women who came to anoint the dead body of Jesus with spices and ointments. What then occurred is variously described in the different gospels. In most accounts, the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb, but no one understands what has happened. In one account (Matthew), Jesus then appears to all the women. In the clearest account (John), Mary Magdalene alone is the first to recognize the risen Christ:

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,
And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her. (John 20: 11-18)

Jesus’ unusual request that she touch him not (Noli me tangere in the Vulgate) became the subject of multiple paintings and engravings. Christ is often shown with a gardening tool or holding a banner with a red cross, signifying his resurrection. The scene is set in a garden in the soft light of morning. This new garden takes the place of that lost in Eden. Illustrated below are a fresco by Fra Angelico (1442) and a painting by Titian (1520).

By being the first to recognize the resurrected Jesus, Mary Magdalene became the apostola apostolorum, the apostle to the apostles, the person who first proclaimed the news of the resurrection. The Latin title allows the gender to be noted: Mary Magdalene was the female apostle who first told the male apostles about the resurrection. This was the subject of an illustration in the St Alban’s psalter (circe 1140 CE), a masterpiece of English Romanesque painting (Carrasco, 1999):

Though the early church considered the Magdalene as the apostola apostolorum, this recognition was often given grudgingly by male priests who could not understand why such a role was granted to a woman. Mary was often related to Eve: Eve brought sin and death to man in the garden of Eden, Mary Magdalene witnessed man’s salvation from sin in the garden of Arimathea. In the words of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE): per feminam mors, per feminam vita (“death through woman; life through woman” quoted by Jansen, 1998).

The Beloved Companion

Mary Magdalene occurs frequently in other reports of Jesus written soon after his death. Fragments of The Gospel of Mary written in Coptic were discovered in 1896. This likely dates to the mid-1st Century CE, but concerns a tradition in early Christianity going back to a devoted follower of Jesus named Mary who, though not specifically named, was probably Mary Magdalene (King, 2003; Meyer & de Boer, 2004). Other Coptic writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and Pistis Sophia (“Faith and Wisdom”), discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945, also mention Mary, sometimes specifically calling her the Magdalene.

Compared to the canonical gospels, these “Gnostic” gospels are more concerned with the path from illusion to enlightenment than from repentance to salvation. Key to the Gnostic view of life is the need to seek the truth within oneself:

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not now yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty. (Gospel of Thomas, in Meyer, 2008, p 116)

In the Gnostic Gospels, Mary Magdalene is described as the beloved companion of Jesus:

The Saviour loved Mary of Magdala more than all the disciples, and he kissed her often on her mouth. (Gospel of Philip, in Meyer, 2008, p 142).

Several modern novelists have considered the close relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus (reviewed in Valerio, 2021, Chapter 5). Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) describes how Jesus, as he is dying on the cross, had a vision of a future life wherein he and Mary raised a family. Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (1991) describes how the courtesan Mary introduced the young Jesus to physical love, and later left her profession to become his devoted companion. Valerio (2021, p 91) notes that that modern novelistic treatments of Jesus are concerned about the “irreconcilability of sacred and profane love” and “the incomprehension of a God of love who paradoxically is unable to love a woman to the fullest.”   

Many have speculated that Mary might have been married to Jesus. In 2012, this idea was brought into prominence by the discovery of a ancient papyrus fragment containing the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’ ” Unfortunately, this was later determined to be a forgery (Sabar 2020). 

Whatever their relationship, Mary Magdalene was privy to teachings of Jesus of which the other disciples were unaware:

Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you mor than all other women. Tell us the words of the Saviour that you remember, the things you know that we don’t because we have not heard them.’ Mary responded, ‘I will teach you about what is hidden from you.’ (Gospel of Mary, in Meyer 2008, p 640)

In later fragments of the Gospel of Mary, the Magdalene describes the ascent of the soul away from darkness, desire, ignorance and wrath, until it is finally set loose from the world and attains rest (Meyer, 2008, p 642). 

In several of the Gnostic Gospels, the male disciples, Peter in particular, complain about Mary’s special status and dispute her reports of Jesus and his teachings. Over the time that these gospels were written, orthodox beliefs were consolidating around the idea that women were inferior to men and could not serve as Christian priests. And these priests desired that believers should be taught the truth by the church rather than seek it within themselves.

Beata Peccatrix

Mary, deriving from the Hebrew “Miriam,” the sister of Moses, was a common name in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The many women named Mary in the gospels are difficult to distinguish and are often conflated into one person. In 591 CE, Pope Gregory the Great proposed that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were one and the same person (discussed by Haskins, 1993, pp 95-97, and Ehrman 2006, pp. 187-92). This placed Mary Magdalene at the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11) and at the anointing of Jesus:

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. (John 12: 3).

In Matthew and Mark’s version the anointing took place at a dinner in the house of Simon, and in Luke’s version, the unnamed woman who anointed the feet of Jesus was a “sinner.” Since Mary Magdalene had been exorcised of seven devils, Gregory inferred that she had been subject to all the seven deadly sins. His pronouncement led to the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who gave up her life of luxury and indulgence to become a follower of Jesus. Mary is also often conflated with the unnamed “woman taken in adultery” that Jesus saved from the Pharisees who wished to stone her (John 8).

The dramatic moment of her decision to renounce her life of sin is illustrated in the 1858 drawing Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee by Dante Gabriel Rossetti together with its accompanying sonnet:

Why wilt thou cast the roses from thine hair?
Nay, be thou all a rose,—wreath, lips, and cheek.
⁠Nay, not this house,—that banquet-house we seek;
See how they kiss and enter; come thou there.
This delicate day of love we two will share
⁠Till at our ear love’s whispering night shall speak.
⁠What, sweet one,—hold’st thou still the foolish freak?
Nay, when I kiss thy feet they ‘ll leave the stair.”

“Oh loose me! Seest thou not my Bridegroom’s face
⁠That draws me to Him? For His feet my kiss,
⁠⁠My hair, my tears He craves to-day:—and oh!
What words can tell what other day and place
⁠Shall see me clasp those blood-stained feet of His?
⁠⁠He needs me, calls me, loves me: let me go!”

At the center of the drawing Mary (a portrait of the actress Ruth Herbert) sees Jesus and casts the roses from her hair. Despite the protestation of her richly dressed companion (a portrait of the poet Charles Swinburne), she decides to leave the procession of revelers.

After Pope Gregory’s conflation of Mary with the sinful woman who repented of her sins and anointed the feet of Christ, the Magdalene became commonly viewed as the beata peccatrix (“holy sinner”). Numerous paintings have depicted her stunning beauty and her sincere repentance (Haskins,1993, particularly Chapters 5, 6 and 7). Below is Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene (1595).

A beautiful young woman with auburn hair sits in a shadowy room; she has removed her jewelry and is quietly weeping. This was the first realistic portrait of the Magdalene: Caravaggio had used an actual prostitute as his model. In his commentary on the painting Hunt (2012, p 174) remarks   

Caravaggio paints the Magdalene possibly ambiguously, choosing the moment after she has loosened her hair, an act sometimes perceived as a provocative act in which a courtesan would have usually prepared to bed a client-lover, but here more likely an allusion for her preparation to wash Christ’s feet. … the chains on the floor around the Magdalene in the painting may be gold but they could nonetheless be interpreted as having bound the Magdalene to a life of rich material “possession”—even the putative “demonic” possession from which she was exorcised.

Apostolos-Cappadona (2005, p 219) comments on the position of the Magdalene’s head

Leaning toward her left shoulder, her lowered head droops downward and her chin tilts onto her collarbone in a pose empathetic to that of the crucified Christ.

Unfortunately, paintings of the repentant Magdalene often lapse into sentimentality. Indeed, the word “maudlin” derives from her name. Many paintings are extremely disconcerting in the sense that the viewer is invited to enjoy the view of her naked body while thinking holy thoughts about the denial of the flesh.

Misogyny in many forms runs through the history of Christianity and plays forever with our understanding of the Magdalene:  

One can’t help but think that the men who relish this recollection of Mary the penitent sinner are those who are trying to inform their own world with their own vision of what sexual and gendered relationships ought to be, with women not enticing men with the dangers of sex but falling at their feet in humble submission and penitence. (Ehrman, 2006, p 192).

One of the legacies of the concept of the Magdalene as a reformed prostitute was the foundation of institutions to help wayward females. Though some of these may have provided safe asylum for abused women, many simply imprisoned and exploited their charges. The most notorious of these institutions were the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Here unmarried mothers gave birth to children that were taken from them. As penance for their sins, they then worked as slaves in laundries to raise money for the church.


Legends of Mary

Mary Magdalene the Apostle soon inspired some amazing stories. These were collected by Jacobus de Voragine for his book about the saints entitled The Golden Legend (circe 1260). 

According to legend, Mary Magdalene together with Bishop Maximin, Martha and the resurrected Lazarus were cast adrift in the Mediterranean Sea by an anti-Christian mob. Though the boat has neither rudder nor tackle, they were miraculously carried to the West and made landfall in the Camargue near Marseille. There on the steps of a pagan temple, Mary Magdalene preached the gospel of Christ. One of the pagan leaders came to the temple to make offerings to the gods so that his wife might bear him a child. Mary prayed that the Lord might give them a son. When his wife conceived, the leader decided that they should go to Saint Peter in Rome on a pilgrimage of thanks. Unfortunately, during the voyage a storm arose and the wife died in childbirth. Fearful that they had offended the gods, the sailors left her and the newborn son on a rocky island. When the pagan leader reached Rome, Saint Peter consoled him, told him that all would be well, and took him to Jerusalem to see where Jesus had lived and died.

When the pagan leader finally travelled back to Marseille, he came upon the rocky island where his dead wife had been left. There he found his two-year-old son, capering on the rocks and nursing at the breast of his dead mother. Mary Magdalene had miraculously intervened to preserve the body of the mother and the life of the son.

After several years preaching the gospel in the South of France, Mary Magdalene retired to a deserted mountainous region, where she lived for thirty years as a hermit. During this time, she had no need of earthly food. Instead, she was daily transported into the sky to dine with the angels. Ultimately, she received her last communion from Bishop Maximin and died. The Basilicas of Sainte Marie Madeleine in both Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, Provence, and Vézelay, Burgundy, purport to have relics of the saint.

The story of the Magdalene arriving in France and the miracle of the child who was nourished at his dead mother’s breast is depicted in one of the frescos (illustrated below, lower right) by pupils of Giotto in the Magdalen Chapel of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi (Mignozzi, 2019). Other frescos in the cycle illustrate the anointing of Jesus, the raising of Lazaurus, and the Noli me tangere episode. In the Lazarus episode, Christ speaks the words “Lazarus come forth” (Vulgate Lazare veni foras, John 11: 43). In the fresco these words are written in reverse order, to illustrate how they travelled from Jesus to Lazarus:

Jacopo de Voragine also reports the story that Mary Magdalene was married to John the Evangilist, and that John left Mary on their wedding night to follow Jesus. Indignant that she had been deprived of her husband, Mary indulged herself in the pleasures of the flesh. Not willing to let the calling of John be the cause of her damnation, Jesus later convinced her to repent and join his disciples. This version of the story was expanded in Yourcenar’s passionate story of the Madeleine in her collection of prose poems entitled Fires (1935). Though Mary loves Jesus passionately, she realizes that she must give him up to his destiny:

So as not to ruin his career as Saviour, I consented to see him die as a mistress consents to the rich marriage of the man she loves. (p 72).

Ascetic Mary

The Golden Legend also included the story of Mary of Egypt, a prostitute born in the 4th Century CE, who left her profession and became a hermit in the desert. Her clothes wasted away so that her hair was her only covering.

Mary of Egypt was soon conflated with Mary Magdalene. The depiction of the Magdalene covered in her own hair began in Italy with the painting of the Master of the Magdalene (1285) illustrated on the left below (Bradfield, 2002; Huggins, 2016). In the central portrait, Mary holds a banner stating

Ne desp[er]etis vos qui peccare soletis exemploque meo vos reparate Deo (Despair not you who are accustomed to sin, and by my example, return to God.)

On both sides of are episodes from her life: On the left are shown Mary Anointing Christ’s Feet, Noli Me Tangere, Mary Borne to Heaven by Angels, and Bishop Maximin giving Mary her Last Communion. On the right are The Resurrection of Lazarus, Mary Magdalene Preaching, An Angel Feeding Mary in the Desert, and the Funeral of Mary Magdalene

In 1455, Donatello created a wooden sculpture of The Penitent Magdalene, unclothed except for her own hair (illustrated on the right above). In 1492, Riemenschneider carved a series of panels for the altar of Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Münnerstadt, Germany (Chapuis, 1999, Kalden-Rosenfeld, 2004). These show Christ in the House of Simon, Noli me Tangere, Mary Magdalene’s Last Communion, and Mary Magdalene’s Entombment. In the latter two panels (on the right) Mary is clothed only in her hair, although in these examples the hair appears to grow from all her body:


The Visionary

In the Gospel of Mary, Mary asks Jesus about a vision she experienced:

She said, ‘I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, “Lord, I saw you today in a vision.” He answered me, “Blessed are you for not wavering at seeing me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.” I said to him, “So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it with the soul or with the spirit?” The Saviour answered, “A person does not see with the soul or with the spirit. Rather, the mind which exists between these two sees the vision …” ’ (Meyer, 2008,pp 641-2)

This makes a skeptic wonder whether her meeting the resurrected Jesus was a visionary rather than real experience. In his Vie de Jésus (1863) Renan noted that Mary Magdalene had earlier been exorcised of her devils, and therefore questioned the veracity of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden outside the empty tomb.

The life of Jesus, to the historian, ends with his last sigh. But so deep was the trace which he had left in the hearts of his disciples and of a few devoted women, that, for weeks to come, he was to them living and consoling. Had his body been taken away, or did enthusiasm, always credulous, afterwards generate the mass of accounts by which faith in the resurrection was sought to be established? This, for want of peremptory evidence, we shall never know. We may say, however, that the strong imagination of Mary Magdalene here enacted a principal part. Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of a hallucinated woman gives to the world a resurrected God!

The request of Jesus that Mary not touch him was unusual. Was it because he was just a vision and that there was nothing to touch?

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail (old French San Gréal) is a long-lost treasure sought by knights of old. The most common interpretation is that it is the cup (“holy chalice”) used by Jesus at the last supper. The word “grail” might have derived from the Greek krater (a bowl used for mixing wine with water). According to some legends this cup was also used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood dripping from the wounds of the crucified Jesus. Other legends describe how the cup was then brought by Joseph to France or Britain, and kept in some undiscovered Castle of the Holy Grail, where it was guarded by the Grail Maiden. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted this Damsel of the Sanct Gréal in 1874 (illustrated on the right).

In 1982, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln published a reinterpretation of these legends in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Based upon a reading of san gréal as sang réal (royal blood), they conceived the holy grail as representing the bloodline of Jesus. They proposed that Mary Magdalene conceived one or more children by Jesus and raised her family in France. Saint Sarah of Provence was perhaps her daughter (Starbird, 1993). Baigent and his co-authors proposed that, over the years, the descendants of Jesus and Mary were protected by the Cathars, the Knights Templar, and the Priory of Sion against the forces of orthodoxy that tried to destroy them. These speculations are the basis of Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003), in which the last surviving descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is ultimately discovered in modern Paris.  


We can never know the real Mary Magdalene. She has become a legend, and legends have various interpretations. Perhaps her most characteristic trait is her human-ness: she is not tainted with divinity. She enjoyed physical love, repented of her sins, and had one main loving relationship with a man, who was crucified for what he taught. After his death, Mary had visions of his continued presence. She tried to continue his teaching, but was maligned for being a woman. She gave birth to a daughter and fled to France to raise her family. 



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Saramago, J. (1991, translated by Pontiero, G., 1994). The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. Harcourt Brace.

Starbird, M. (1993). The woman with the alabaster jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail, Bear & Company,

Valerio, A. (translated W. Wheatley, 2021). Mary Magdalene. Europa Editions.

Yourcenar, M. (1935, republished 1974, translated by D. Katz, 1981) Fires. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.


Belief and Heresy

Religious belief differs from everyday belief. Since it cannot be tested or independently confirmed, religious belief must be accepted on faith. Religious belief generally starts with a few powerful and attractive ideas. For example: would it not be wonderful if we did not have to die? As time passes these foundational principles are elaborated and bolstered by other equally untestable beliefs to form a relatively coherent set of teachings. These “doctrines” can then organize communities of the faithful, govern the behavior of believers, and attract new converts. Some believers may choose to interpret the foundational ideas of a faith differently from the system of beliefs that are considered “orthodox” (Greek: ortho straight, correct + doxa, opinion). Beliefs that differ from the orthodox are termed heretical (Greek: hairesis, choice). Heresies are usually considered dangerous since they can easily disrupt the accepted doctrine and question the power of those who promote orthodoxy. Heresy occurs in the history of all the world’s religions (Henderson, 1988) This post limits itself to the early Christian beliefs and heresies about the nature of God, particularly those concerning the Trinity. 

Belief and Belief-In

In philosophy and psychology belief is considered the “attitude” we take when we regard something as true (Schwitzgebel, 2021). Beliefs are for the most part unconscious. They come to consciousness when the belief requires action. Simple beliefs are typically expressed using a proposition: I believe that … Most would propose that there are degrees of belief. I am more certain (or confident) that the sun will come up tomorrow than that I shall win the lottery. The confidence I have in a belief comes from how much supporting evidence I have amassed for it. When fully justified, my belief can be considered “knowledge.”

When belief is used with a direct object, it typically means having confidence in the truth or accuracy of someone or something. Thus, I can believe the witness when she describes what happened to her. Or I can believe the newspaper’s account of the event.

Saying that I “believe in” something has various meanings (Price, 1965; Williams, 1992; MacIntosh, 1994). In the simplest case, believing in something just means believing that it exists. When I say that I believe in fairies, I am just asserting that fairies exist. Typically, such statements have little in the way of justification. If the belief were justified, one would not need to state it in this way.

“Believe-in” often implies a positive evaluation. When I state that I believe in my doctor, I am claiming that she not only exists but that she is good at what she does. This evaluative usage extends to more abstract ideas: when assert that I believe in democracy I mean that I consider it better than other types of government.

In the religious sense, the phrase “believe in” includes beliefs in both the existence and the goodness of the object of belief, but also requires belief in a wealth of associated ideas (Luhrman, 2018). One of the foundational ideas of Christianity is expressed in Christ’s comments to Martha just before raising her brother Lazarus from the dead.  

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11: 25-26)

Simply asserting that Christ existed and that he was a force for good is clearly not sufficient for the requirement that a person “believe in” Christ. One must also believe that he is divine, that he died so that those who believe in him do not have to die, that he was resurrected from death, and that he lives forever. Challenging requirements for one of a skeptical disposition. Such beliefs are not easy. However, the reward is invaluable: eternal life.

A Life of Jesus

For many years scholars have sought to determine which of the episodes in the life of Jesus reported in the gospels happened, and which were invented after the fact. This search for the “historical Jesus” (e.g. Schweitzer, 1910; Crossan, 1991; Meier, 1991; Wilson, 1992; Robinson, 2011) is controversial and highly subjective.

Jesus was a Galilean. He was likely born and grew up in Nazareth. There is no historical evidence for a Roman census, and the story of Bethlehem was probably invented to link the birth of Jesus to the line of David. Jesus likely interacted with John the Baptist, whose life and execution are noted in non-scriptural histories.

Jesus then became a preacher. He attracted a small group of disciples and large crowds of followers. He championed the poor and the dispossessed. He proposed that all the commandments could be subsumed in the simple instructions to love God and to love one’s neighbor. He promoted the idea of forgiveness instead of vengeance.

He considered himself a simple human being – a “Son of Man;” yet, he also felt that he had been specially chosen by God to teach or lead his people – a “Son of God.” The Greek word christos (Christ) means the “appointed one,” and is equivalent to the Hebrew word masiah (Messiah). Jesus preached the coming of a “Kingdom of Heaven” but it is not clear what this meant: perhaps an independent Jewish state, or perhaps simply a community of people working together for the common good. 

His simplification of the commandments and his criticism of the temple antagonized the priests; his call for a new Kingdom of Heaven alarmed the Roman powers that occupied the land. He was tried by both the Jews and the Romans. He was found guilty of blasphemy and of sedition. He was crucified and died upon a cross. His disciples were devastated.

Jesus was likely buried in the tomb of one of his followers. Nothing that happened after this is clear. Perhaps the tomb was found empty. This could then have triggered the hope that Jesus had been resurrected.

The preceding paragraphs have presented my personal idea of the historical Jesus. The following is from Ehrman’s 2012 book Did Jesus exist?

Jesus was a Jew who came from northern Palestine (Nazareth) and lived as an adult in the 20s of the Common Era. He was at one point of his life a follower of John the Baptist and then became a preacher and teacher to the Jews in the rural areas of Galilee. He preached a message about the “kingdom of God” and did so by telling parables. He gathered disciples and developed a reputation for being able to heal the sick and cast out demons. At the very end of his life, probably around 30 CE, he made a trip to Jerusalem during a Passover feast and roused opposition among the local Jewish leaders, who arranged to have him put on trial before Pontius Pilate, who ordered him to be crucified for calling himself the king of the Jews. (p 269)


Jesus as God

The empty tomb could have easily led to ideas that Jesus had risen from the dead. Any such resurrection would have entailed supernatural intervention. Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah. Could he perhaps have been even more special? Perhaps Jesus was himself divine. From such thinking came John’s idea of Jesus as the Word (Greek, logos – the order underlying the universe):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)

Yet Jesus had been so terribly human in his suffering. From such thoughts came the idea of the incarnation. Though divine, Jesus was born as a human being:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1: 14)

The first person to recognize the divinity of Jesus was John the Baptist, who noted that as Jesus was being baptized

I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. (John 1:32)

From these ideas of Father, Son and Spirit came the idea of a triune God, and a new religion based on the resurrection of Christ, who died to save us from our sins.

After the crucifixion the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus upon on a mountain in Galilee:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew, 28: 18-20).

This is the only acknowledgement of the Trinity in the gospels. Translations more modern than the King James Version use the name “Holy Spirit” for the third member of the Trinity. These verses may be a later addition to the original gospel (see discussion by Schaberg, 1980; Funk et al, 1996; Thellman, 2019). However, the same baptismal formula is used in the Didache (Teachings of the Apostles: O’Loughlin, 2010; Jefford, 2013), which was written soon after Matthew’s gospel (now dated to about 80 CE). Christians were clearly aware of the Trinity before the end of the 1st Century CE.

Trinitarian Doctrines

Although it occasionally mentions the Trinity, the New Testament does not describe the nature of a three-part God (Wainwright, 2011; Young, 2006). Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity was proposed by theologians during the second and third Centuries CE (Evans, 2003; Dünzl, 2007; Hillar, 2012; Phan, 2011; Tuggy 2020b). Despite twenty centuries of study, it remains an idea impossible to understand: a stumbling block to belief. Buzzard and Hunting (1999) called it “Christianity’s self-inflicted wound.”

Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), an early Christian convert from Palestine, taught in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and was beheaded for his beliefs. He was the first to propose that God the Father and God the Son were of the same substance (Greek: homoousios). However, this idea made no claim as to whether God the Father preceded the Son or were they both coequal and coeternal.

Sabellius (who taught around 200 CE) was North African Christian who came to Rome to preach the gospel. His ideas are only known from those who condemned them as heretical. He appears to have believed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were but three “aspects” or “modes” of the one God. He purportedly used an analogy to the Sun, which has a circular form (Father), gives forth light (Son), and provides warmth (Spirit). 

Tertullian (155-220 CE) from Carthage was the first Christian theologian to use the word “trinity” (Latin trinitas) to describe Godhead. He argued against Christians like Sabellius who proposed that there was only one God – the monarchians (Greek mono, one + arkhia, rule). Tertullian claimed that God is three separate persons each of the same substance: three entities with one essence.

This concept of the Trinity could not easily explain the nature Christ – how could he be human if his essence was divine? This controversy persists to this day, the Western churches considering Christ to be one person with two natures (diaphysitism), and the Eastern churches believing Christ to have only one nature that somehow combines both the human and the divine (miaphysitism).

Tertullian’s version of the Trinity also did not clarify whether all three persons had existed for ever. Arius (256-336 CE), a charismatic Libyan preacher, taught that God was composed of three persons but believed the Father created both the Son and the Spirit when he created the universe. The Father alone was infinite, eternal, and almighty. Before the creation only the Father existed. Arius was vigorously opposed by Athanasius (298-373 CE), the bishop of Alexandria, who taught that all three persons of the Trinity were coequal and coeternal.

These theologians vehemently argued that those who disagreed with them should be condemned as heretics and excommunicated from the Church. Many early Christian thinkers were far more concerned with the nature of a God they could not understand than with the moral teachings of Christ. Compassion and forgiveness were not in their nature.


At the age of 34 years, Constantine (272-337 CE) was initially acclaimed Roman Emperor after the death of his father Constantius in 306 CE. However, the empire was then governed by 5 co-rulers, all of whom desired to be the sole emperor. Over the next 18 years, these co-rulers battled for supremacy.

In the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, Maxentius, who had just proclaimed himself emperor, attempted to prevent Constantine’s entry into Rome. Just before the battle, Constantine saw in the sky a vision of a cross and the words En touto nika (Greek: With this sign you shall conquer). He therefore used as his military standard (Latin, labarum) the Chi-Rho symbol (a combinations of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek χ chi and ρ rho). Illustrated on the right is a 4th Century Roman sculpture with the Chi-rho symbol depicting the resurrection of Christ leaving the Roman soldiers to guard an empty tomb. Constantine was victorious. Thenceforth, Christianity was the religion of his army. Illustrated below is Bernini’s sculptural representation Constantine’s vision:

Ultimately, Constantine become sole emperor in 324 CE. He established his imperial capital at Constantinople, and made Christianity the imperial religion. History is not clear about Constantine’s personal relationship to Christianity. His mother Helena may have been a Christian when she married his father Constantius, and may have influenced her son’s thinking. She certainly was a fervent believer at the time that Constantine became emperor. From 326 to 328 CE, she made a pilgrimage to Palestine. Legend has it that she discovered in Jerusalem the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.

Constantine was not baptized until just before his death in 337 CE. He may have delayed because of personal doubts about the Christian religion, or he may have wished to absolve himself of as much sin as possible before dying. Constantine was baptized by Eusebius (Greek: pious) of Nicomedia, a priest who followed the teachings of Arius. By then, however, the emperor had promoted an orthodoxy that therefore made him a heretic.  

The Nicene Creed

After becoming sole emperor, Constantine quickly realized that, if he wished to unify the empire through one religion, he would have to bring together the many feuding factions of Christianity. In 325 CE, he therefore convened the First Ecumenical (Greek: “concerning the whole inhabited earth”) Council at Nicaea a few miles south of Constantinople (in the modern city of Iznik). Theologians from all the reaches of the empire gathered to decide what it meant to be a Christian. They produced a statement of faith that became known as the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father; God of God; Light of light; very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down, and was incarnate, and was made man; who suffered, and rose again the third day; and ascended into heaven; and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost, etc. (Plaff, 1885)

The “etc” likely means some formula known to all, such as

. . . in one baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, and in one Holy Catholic Church; and in the resurrection of the flesh; and in eternal life

Appended to the creed was a statement specifically condemning the ideas of Arius:

And those who say There was a time when He was not, or that Before He was begotten He was not, or that He was made out of nothing; or who say that The Son of God is of any other substance, or that He is changeable or unstable,—these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.

The Nicene Creed did not unify the Christian believers. Those that believed in Arius’ concept of the Trinity were formally damned as heretics. However, by that time Arianism had become the version of Christianity accepted through much of Northern Europe, and these ideas soon came to Italy with the barbarian invasions. Theodoric the Great, the Arian King of the Ostrogoths, built the great church now called the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna in 504 CE. Mosaics showing the king and his court were later replaced with images of curtains, as Rome later re-exerted the orthodox views of the Trinity. However, the hands of the heretics remain on the columns (illustration on the right)

The Nicene Creed said little about the Holy Spirit. A revised creed, proclaimed by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE, described


the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets.

Christians were then left with the orthodox view of a Trinitarian God composed of three separate but consubstantial persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the early Middle Ages this concept of the Godhead came to be represented by the shield of faith (scutum fidei), illustrated on the right. Three is one and one is three. An incomprehensible doctrine was thus promulgated by theologians at the behest of an emperor in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to unite and prolong his empire. 

The Latin Churches in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire later added the words “and the Son” (filioque) to describe the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. To state that the Spirit proceeded only from the Father alone suggested an Arian heresy, i.e. that the Father was before the Son. The Eastern Church felt that this addition to the creed undervalued the importance of the Holy Spirit and subverted the authority of the Councils that wrote the original creed. The filioque controversy became one of the causes leading to the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054.  

The creeds revised and proposed by the Ecumenical Councils were all focused on the nature of the Trinity. They also included the necessity of baptism, the remission of sins, the foundation of the church, the resurrection of the body and the life eternal. However, they failed to mention the main teachings of Jesus: the necessity to love one’s neighbors and to forgive them their trespasses.

The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics

This post will conclude with a description of a Renaissance fresco by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. The fresco illustrates the early heresies of Christianity. This fresco was also described by Charles Freeman in the introduction to his 2002 book The Closing of the Western Mind. However, he used it not so much to illustrate the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy as to acclaim the ascent of reason, as represented by Aquinas and his Aristotelian logic, over the blind faith that had after the Council of Nicaea impeded rational thought.

In 1280 the Dominicans began building a gothic church on the site of a Roman Temple to Minerva near the Pantheon. The interior of the church Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was finished by 1475, though the façade (designed by Carlo Moderno) was not completed until 1725. Cardinal Oliviero Carafa funded a chapel in the southern transept to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). From 1488 until 1493, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), the illegitimate son of Fra Filippo Lippi and the nun Lucrezia Buti, painted a series of frescos in this chapel. These have been definitively described by Gail Geiger (1986), from whom most of the following comments derive. On the western wall of the chapel is The Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics:

At the top of the fresco, two putti display banners quoting Psalms 119:130 (118:130 in the Vulgate) guaranteeing the truth of the fresco.

Declaratio sermonum tuorum illuminat, et intellectum dat parvulis. [The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.]

In the upper center of the fresco above the seated saint an opened book shows the quotation from Proverbs 8:7 with which Aquinas opened his Summa Contra Gentiles also known as Liber de veritate catholicae fidei contra errores infidelium [The book of the truth of the Catholic faith as against the errors of the infidels.]

Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum, et labia mea detestabuntur impium. [For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.] </p>

Thomas holds in his hands a book that quotes I Corinthians 1:19

Sapientiam sapientum perdam. [I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. (Paul is being ironic: he means to disprove the conclusions of those who foolishly pretend to wisdom, and replace them with the truth.)]

At his feet is an old man who is the personification of evil. He has been subdued by a banner quoting from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom 7:30:

Sapientia vincit malitiam. [Wisdom conquers evil]

Inscribed on the plaque below the saint’s throne are the words

Divo Thomae ob prastratam impietatem [To the divine Thomas for overthrowing heresy.]

Sitting beside Thomas are personifications of his knowledge and ability. On the left are Philosophy holding a book and Theology pointing heavenward. The face of Theology is illuminated with the serenity of her mystic vision. On the right are two of the liberal arts: Logic (Dialectica) controlling a snake as symbol of the syllogism, and Language (Grammatica) holding a pointer and instructing a young child. 

In the distant background on the left side of the fresco is the Statue of Marcus Aurelius. At the time the fresco was painted, this statue was considered to represent the Emperor Constantine the Great, who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325CE to settle the basic tenets of the Christian faith – as expressed in the Nicene Creed. This demonstrates the establishment of Church doctrine

In the background to the right can be seen the Porta di Ripa Grande on the Tiber. The papal fleet under the direction of Cardinal Carafa had left from this port in 1472 to wage war with the Venetians against the Turks, an expedition that briefly freed the city of Smyrna. This detail indicates the ongoing defense of doctrine against the infidels.

In the lower left of the fresco, a severe character identified by Geiger (1986) as Niccoli Orsini, the general of the papal army, brings forth a group of heretics to witness the end of their heresies. The most prominent of these is the bearded Arius. He believed that God the Father preceded God the Son and that there must have been a time then when Christ was not. His heresy is shown in the downcast papers:

Si Filius natus est, erat quando non erat Filius. [If the Son was born there was a time when the son was not.]

In the lower right of the fresco, a friar in black and white, identified by Geiger (1986) as Joachim Torriani, the Master General of the Dominican order, ushers to the front another group of heretics. The first of these is Sabellius, dressed in a red Roman toga, who believed that the three parts of the Trinity were simply modes of one God. The discarded papers show his error:

Pater a Filio non est alius nec spiritu sancto [The father is not different from the Son nor from the Holy Spirit].

Did Aquinas really triumph over heresy? He certainly provided the logical underpinnings for what was considered orthodoxy. But his logic was strained. And sometimes it was completely wrong. Aquinas used Aristotle’s metaphysics to explain the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: that the substance of the bread and the wine were changed during the Eucharist into the actual body and blood of Christ. This ceremony of the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion) derives from Christ’s instructions to his disciples at the Last Supper:

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22: 19-20)

Thomas Aquinas proposed that, since objects have both a “substance” (which defines what they are) and “accidents” or “appearances” (which determines how we perceive them), during the Eucharist, the substances of the bread and wine are changed even though they appear the same (Pruss, 2011). Aristotle’s ideas about substance and accidents have no basis in our modern understanding of nature. Protestants consider the Eucharist to be a symbolic ceremony: the bread and wine does not actually change to the body and blood of Christ.

Concluding Comments

When one does not have evidence for what one believes, one can gain some confidence that one is right if others believe the same way. This is the main force behind proselytism: the drive of the religious to convince others to join them in their belief. Furthermore, those that believe differently must be condemned as heretics or the confidence of the orthodox believers might falter. Religious organizations often propose that spiritual rewards – for example, forgiveness of sins and life everlasting – only come to those who believe in the orthodox doctrines. Priests who determine what is orthodox, reward the believers and excommunicate the heretics have tremendous power. Being human, they may often use this power for selfish reasons. Jesus preached compassion and forgiveness. He argued against the codification of belief and would be saddened by those who endlessly dispute about what they cannot understand, and who condemn those that choose to believe differently.



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The White Monks

In 1098 a small group of monks left the Benedictine monastery of Molesme in Burgundy to live in the forest of Cîteaux (Latin Cistercium) just south of Dijon. They considered their original home too lax and luxurious, and wished to return to the austere life of solitude, chastity, poverty and manual labor that St Benedict had originally proposed in the 6th Century. They distinguished themselves from the Benedictines by wearing undyed white robes rather than black. Over the next hundred and fifty years, the small monastery founded by these “white monks” at Cîteaux became the center of the Cistercian Order, which linked together over 500 abbeys in Europe, extending from Portugal to Estonia and from Sicily to Norway. The Cistercians were noted for the proficiency of their agriculture, the fervor of their scholarship, and the beauty of their buildings. This post comments on their achievements. 

Early Christian Monasticism

The earliest histories of many different cultures record how some individuals renounced the pleasures of the world and lived apart from society (Davis, 2018). In Christian times these were called ascetics (Greek askein exercise) and hermits (Greek eremos desert). However, many of these individuals could not completely reject the society of others, and formed themselves into communities. Then they were called by the contradictory terms “monks” (Greek monos alone) or “cenobites” (Greek koinos community + bios life). The monastery became a place where one could practise a spiritual rather than a worldly life in the limited company of other like-minded individuals.

Pachomius the Great (292-348 CE) is usually considered the founder of Christian monasticism. After years of studying with the hermit Palaemon, he set up a small community of monks in Tabbennisi in Upper Egypt and proposed a set of rules to govern their life. The main rules required a strict scheduling of prayers and psalms throughout the day and night, obedience to the leader of the community, keeping away from members of the opposite sex, following a vegetarian diet, limiting any unnecessary speech, and performing manual labor. Pachomius was called Abba (father) by his disciples: from this came the term “abbot” and “abbey.”

Many other Christians retired to the Egyptian deserts to devote themselves to contemplation and worship. The most famous of these were Anthony the Great (251-356 CE) who lived as a hermit in the Eastern Desert and then organized his disciples into a monastery, and Paul of Thebes (227-341 CE) who lived alone in the desert from age of 16 until his death at the age of 113 years. The illustration below shows a 1640 painting of Paul by Jusepe de Ribera

Pachomius, Anthony, Paul and their colleagues became known as the “Desert Fathers” (Dunn, 2007; Wortley, 2019). Their teachings were collected together as the Apothegmata ton Pateron – the “Sayings of the Fathers” (Merton,1960) of which the following is an example:

Just as bees are driven out by smoke, and their honey taken away from them, so a life of ease drives out the fear of the Lord from a man’s soul and takes away all his good works.

Monasticism was established in Western Europe by Saint Benedict (480-543 CE) who founded several monasteries in central Italy, most famously at Monte Cassino in the mountains south of Rome. The Rule of Saint Benedict updated and extended the general principles of monasticism – poverty, charity, silence, obedience, prayer and labor – that had been proposed by Pachomius.  His followers became the Benedictines, and their monasteries prospered.

As the years passed, however, the monks no longer participated in manual labor, leaving that to the “lay brothers” who joined the monastery in hope of salvation. The abbey churches became richly decorated, the monk’s quarters became palatial, the diet became sumptuous, the communion vessels were made of gold and silver, and the vestments were sewn with silk and jewels. The most luxurious of the Benedictine monasteries was the Abbey of Cluny founded in 910 CE in Burgundy halfway between Dijon and Lyon. The abbots of Cluny established many daughter monasteries from which they derived much of the revenue to support their building.  In its final form (1088-1130 CE) the abbey church at Cluny (illustrated below) was the world’s largest church, with 6 bell towers, a overall length of 555 ft, 5 naves with the central nave 98 ft high, and the dome at the crossing 118 ft high.

The Monastery at Cîteaux

Many monks rebelled against the luxury of the Benedictines. In the period between 1050 and 1250 several new monastic orders were founded, among them: the Carthusians (1084), the Carmelites (1150), and the Order of Saint Augustine (1244). The most successful of these were the Cistercians founded by Robert de Molesme in 1098.

Histories written later described how Robert de Molesme (1028-1111), his prior Alberic and his secretary Stephen Harding, and 21 other monks became disillusioned with the current laxity of the Benedictines and founded a new community at Cîteaux in 1098:

After many labors, therefore, and exceedingly great difficulties … they at length attained their desire and arrived at Cîteaux – at that time a place of horror and of vast solitude. But judging that the harshness of the place was not at variance with the strict purpose they had already conceived in mind, the soldiers of Christ held the place as truly prepared for them by God: a place as agreeable as their purpose was dear. (quoted in Bruun and Jamroziak, 2013)

The “place of horror and of vast solitude” directly quotes the description of Jacob’s inheritance in Deuteronomy 32:10, which in the Vulgate reads in loco horroris, et vastae solitudinis (Bruun and Jamroziak, 2013). Modern historians believe that the site of the new monastery was actually far more congenial to settlement (Berman, 2010).

Robert was soon recalled back to Molesme, and the early success of Cîteaux was largely the work of the English monk Stephen Harding (1060-1134), who set out the governing rules for the order – the Carta Caritatis (Merton & O’Donnell, 2015). He convinced other communities to join with them in their devotion to a strict interpretation of the rule of Saint Benedict concerning poverty, charity, chastity, and obedience as outlined in the Rule of Saint Benedict.

However, the new order was more egalitarian than the Benedictines. Even the abbot could be criticized and punished for transgressing the rule. Lay brothers were integrated into the monastery rather than simply exploited. These brothers lived under same conditions as monks but, because they could not read or write, they did not participate in the singing of psalms or the copying of manuscripts. The Cistercians also founded numerous convents for women, the first being Le Tart Abbey in 1132 only a few miles from Cîteaux.

For clothing, monks were limited to two white robes, one black or brown scapular (over the shoulder) with cowl (hood) to wear over the robe when the monk was working in the fields, and one pair of stockings and shoes. The monks were tonsured – their remaining hair symbolizing Christ’s crown of thorns. Lay brothers were not tonsured. The illustration on the right shows a painting of Cistercian monks from Staffarda Abbey in Northern Italy.

The abbots of the affiliated monasteries reported yearly at the meeting of the Annual General Chapter in Cîteaux, but the individual abbeys were largely autonomous. Since they were not required to pay tribute to the mother abbey, new monasteries preferred to become Cistercian rather than Benedictine. In addition, the Cistercians stipulated an arms-length relationship to donors and benefactors. These were not allowed to enter the cloister, to erect family monuments within the abbey church or to be buried in the monastery grounds.     

As well as being an able administrator, Harding was an important scholar and talented scribe Reilly, 2018). Over the first few years of his tenure as abbot of Cîteaux (1108-1133), he and his monks produced a new illustrated version of the Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome (342-420 CE). The following shows the section of I Samuel 17 dealing with David and Goliath.

Among the many manuscripts produced in the monastery under Harding were a new edition of the Moralia in Job by the 6th-Century pope Gregory I, and a copy of Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah. On the left below is the letter “E” from the beginning of Book XIII of the Moralia. The illumination shows monks at their work harvesting the grapes, just like Gregory is harvesting meaning from the Book of Job. On the right is shown the letter “V” from the beginning of Jerome’s commentary – the initial verse of Isaiah in the Vulgate begins Visio Isaiae (The vision of Isaiah …). In the illumination the prophet carries a banner detailing two of his main prophecies: that the Messiah will be a descendant of the house of Jesse, father of King David (Isaiah 11:1, Et egredietur virga de radice Jesse) and that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Isaiah 7:14, Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium).  

Bernard of Clairvaux

In 1113, Bernard de Fontaine (1090-1153), a scion of the highest Burgundian aristocracy, joined Stephen Harding at the monastery of Cîteaux, bringing with him 30 other young noblemen. Impressed by the young monk, in 1115 Harding sent Bernard to the Champagne region of France to found the monastery of Clairvaux (Latin Clara Vallis, clear valley), where he served as the abbot until his death (Holdsworth, 2013).  

Bernard was eloquent and charismatic. In a 1953 encyclical Pope Pius called him “Doctor Mellifluus” and considered him the last of the “Fathers of the Church” (though these are generally only recognized up to the 8th Century). The following quotations are from his series of sermons on the Song of Songs, which he interprets as describing the marriage between the soul and Christ:

The soul seeks the Word, and consents to receive correction, by which she may be enlightened to recognize him, strengthened to attain virtue, molded to wisdom, conformed to his likeness, made fruitful by him, and enjoy him in bliss. (Thornton & Varenne, 2007, pp 226-227).

For there are some who long to know for the sole purpose of knowing, and that is shameful curiosity; others who long to know in order to become known, and that is shameful vanity. To such as these we may apply the words of the Satirist: “Your knowledge counts for nothing unless your friends know you have it.” There are others still who long for knowledge in order to sell its fruits for money or honors, and this is shameful profiteering; others again who long to know in order to be of service, and this is charity. Finally, there are those who long to know in order to benefit them selves, and this is prudence. (Thornton & Varenne, 2007, p 156)

Bernard derived much of his faith from mystical contemplation. He was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and legends describe how he experienced visions of Mary. He was often called “Mary’s Troubadour.” The illustration below shows Fillipino Lippi’s 1487 altarpiece The Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard now in the Benedictine Abbey (Badia) in Florence. Seated at his writing desk in his white robe, Bernard is suddenly surprised by the Virgin and a group of angels floating before him. In the dark recess in the rocks behind him is the Devil biting on his chains. The quotation on the rock beside him is from Epictetus: Sustine et abstine, urging restraint and abstinence. In the background other monks gather to wonder at the vision, a young monk brings an elderly brother to see what is happening, and a sick patient is carried toward the abbey. In the right foreground is Francesco de Pugliese, the donor of the altarpiece.

Early in their history, the Cistercians decreed that all their monasteries should be dedicated to the Mary, Queen of Heaven, and that all abbey seals should bear her image. The close association between the Cistercians and Mary contributed significantly to the success of the order. This was the age wherein the cult of the Virgin flourished.

Bernard was highly involved in the politics and controversies of his age. Over many years he disputed with the philosopher Pierre Abélard about the nature of the Trinity, with Bernard claiming that this could only be understood by faith and could not be demonstrated by logic. Pope Benedict XVI later called their opposing approaches the “theology of the heart” and the “theology of reason.” Bernard convinced the pope to support the Knights Templar, a militant monastic order founded in 1119 by a group of French knights, one of which was Bernard’s uncle. In a fiery sermon in Vézelay, he urged on the Second Crusade (1147-1150), and was abashed when this came to naught.    

Most importantly he urged his monks to become soldiers of Christ and dispatched them to all the corners of Europe. Through their influence hundreds of monasteries were founded or became affiliated to the Cistercian order. The map below shows the spread of Cistercian abbeys through Europe. Clairvaux was the mother house (or grandmother house) for most of the abbeys in England and Northern France, and for many of the abbeys in Spain and Italy. The greatest Cistercian expansion was in the first fifty years (red and blue dots). Over the next century the expansion continued (purple dots). Then the Black Death laid waste to Europe from 1346 to 1353, and everything slowed down. Although most of the abbeys maintained their power, a few became deserted and fell into ruins. Over the years the abbeys slowly regained their prominence and the number of active Cistercian abbeys crested at around 700 by the time of the Reformation in the early 16th Century.



Cistercian monasteries were typically located in valleys. The stream or river running through the valley provided fresh water for drinking and cooking and took away all the biodegradable waste produced in the abbey. Many of the Cistercian abbeys have variants of “valley” or “fountain” in their name. An anonymous Latin ditty describes the differences between the main Catholic orders:

Bernardus valles                             Bernard loved the valleys
Colles Benedictus amavit,               Benedict the hills
Oppida Franciscus                          Francis the small towns
Magnas Ignatius urbes.                  and Ignatius the great cities

The founding monks either lived in temporary wooden buildings or remained at the mother abbey during the ten to twenty years that it took to build the stone church and monastery buildings. at the site, most of the work was carried on by dedicated stone-masons supervised by master-builders (the first architects). some of these master-builders may have been monks but most were simply professionals who travelled from site to site. since the stone was obtained from local quarries, the texture of the walls differs from abbey to abbey. Fernand Pouillon’s novel Les Pierres Sauvages vividly describes the building of the abbey of Le Theronet in Provence over the years 1160-1176.

The following diagram (modified slightly from Gaud & Leroux-Dhuys, 1998, p 52; see also Tobin, 1995, p 21) shows the typical layout of a Cisterican monastery. The basic plan was adapted to the specific site, but was nevertheless remarkably consistent from abbey to abbey:

The illustration below shows the ruins of Neath Abbey in South Wales as viewed on Google Maps and a plan of the abbey from the Medieval Heritage website. I am partial to his abbey since Neath was my father’s home town, and I visited the abbey as a child. Note that the orientation is rotated 90˚ clockwise from the preceding plan so that North is upward.


Bernard of Clairvaux criticized the luxurious decoration of the Cluniac churches. In an Apologia written in 1128 he remarked

I say nothing of the enormous height, extravagant length and unnecessary width of the churches, of their costly polishings and curious paintings which catch the worshipper’s eye and dry up his devotion … Let these things pass, let us say they are all to the honor of God. Nevertheless, just as the pagan poet Persius inquired of his fellow pagans, so I as a monk ask my fellow monks: … “Tell me, poor men, if you really are poor what is gold doing in the sanctuary?”

… The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.

He also thought that the various figurative sculptures on the capitols of the pillars and on the gargoyles of the roof had no place in a monastery, where they would only serve to distract the monks from their contemplation.

The directives of the early Cistercian Chapters stressed the austerity of the monastery buildings. Everything unnecessary was to be rejected: “towers, ornate pavements, coloured-glass windows , figurative paintings, sculpture, bells, images (except that of Christ ) and ornaments” (Coomans, 2013).

The early Cistercian abbeys built following these directives have a simplicity that appeals strongly to modern sensibilities. The architecture is one where the space is defined by light and where the acoustic is highly reverberant.  The following is from John Pawson’s afterword to Lucien Hervé’s 2001 book on Le Thoronet called The Architecture of Truth:

The abbey offers a sublime example of what happens when gratuitous visual distraction is removed. The intrinsic beauty of materials is revealed; one sees with incredible clarity. Where there is embellishment — an enriched moulding, a carved capital —every detail is graphically registered. Light also finds its perfect context. Great shards of light carve out spaces in the interior, pools spill across tiled floors and finer, but no less dramatic. threads of light catch in mouldings, tracing semicircular arches, making them appear to be carved not out of stone but etched in solid luminescence. This light is more than a beautiful effect. It symbolizes the physical presence of the divine and it directs attention. In the morning, light is introduced into the church so that one’s gaze is drawn always forward, to the curved apse and the altar within it. ‘The soul must seek light,’ observed St Bernard, ‘by following light’. The designer of Le Thoronet (a man of whom, sadly, we know nothing) was shaping more than stones and vaults – he was reinforcing a code of behaviour, confirming a habit of contemplation. Further evidence of this is to be found in the acoustics of the church. A Cistercian monk passes most of each day in silence. The times when he does utter acquire extra significance in consequence. The acoustics at Le Thoronet, with its extraordinarily protracted reverberation, dictates a particular style and discipline of singing. Singers must sing slowly and in perfect unison. Comply, and the effect is ethereally beautiful. Deviate only a little in either respect, and the consequence is acoustic chaos.

And the following illustration shows some of Hervé’s photographs:

The prohibition of unnecessary decoration was not absolute, and the stone masons often provided simple non-figurative carvings on the capitula of the columns, as shown in the cloister of Sénanque, a sister abbey to Le Thoronet:

Central to the life of the monastery is the cloister (Latin claustrum, enclosure), a covered walkway surrounding a quadrangular or trapezoidal central space or “garth,” closed and separated from the external world (Brooke, 2003). Cloisters originated in the 8th Century in Europe when monasteries began to interact with the rest of society and felt the need to separate their monks from the outside world (Horn, 1973). Earlier monasteries, which had been built far from civilization and did not use lay brothers, had covered arcades, but these were not closed off from the world. The following illustration shows the cloister and chapter house at the Abbey of Fontenay in Burgundy. 

In northern abbeys the cloister was typically nestled in the southern wall of the east-facing church so as to give the monks the benefit of the sunshine in winter. In some southern abbeys such as Le Thoronet the cloister is to the north so that the monks could find shade in the summer.

The earliest Cistercian buildings followed the general precepts of Romanesque architecture, with the exception that decoration was minimized. The ideas of Gothic architecture were worked out in the mid 12th-Century, particularly at the Benedictine Abbey Saint Denis just north of Paris. This style of architecture with its ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses, pointed arches and stained-glass windows soon spread across Europe. The Cistercians accepted many of these changes and some of their abbeys are beautiful examples of the Gothic style (as illustrated by the two views of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire shown below: the presbytery from the south, and the flying buttresses on the north side of the presbytery). However, the Cistercians still followed their principles of restraint: the abbey walls remained bare, and the glass windows were geometric and almost monochromatic (as illustrated in the restored window at Fontenay Abbey shown on the right). Designs in shades of light green (verdaille) were characteristic of Cistercian windows.


The Cistercians followed the rule of Saint Benedict which required that all the monks participate in manual labor. The monks divided their time between singing psalms, copy manuscripts and actual work in the abbey holdings. Their labor is illustrated on the tiles painted by Daniel Meyer in 1733 for a stove in Salem Abbey in southern Germany.  

However, the Cistercians soon controlled estates far larger than could be taken care of by monks alone. More than in other monastic orders, Cistercians used lay-brothers to work the land, and over time the monks largely retreated to being managers rather than manual laborers.

In order to manage their extensive agricultural holdings, the Cistercians set up multiple small communities of lay-brothers each centered around a central “grange” or storage barn. The following illustration shows front and side views of the Cistercian Grange de Vaulerent (val de Laurent), which was built in 1220 by the monks at the Abbey of Chaalis in Northeastern France. The grange, which is 72 m long and 25 m wide, is still in use. The large square door on the left of the façade was added in the late 18th Century. The tower at the front contained a circular staircase that ascended to the quarters of the lay brother who managed the grange (Tobin,1995, p 41).

The Cistercians took advantage of the developing medieval technology. Their location on rivers and streams allowed the to use water power for milling grain. They also participated in the growing use of windmills. The illustration below from the frieze in the Rievaulx shows a farmer bringing a donkey laden with grain to a post-mill – one that was able to rotate as the wind changed its direction.  

Most monks operated their own forges for metalwork. By the time of their dissolution by Henry VIII in the 16th Century, the monks at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire apparently also had a functioning blast-furnace for smelting iron – over two centuries before the Industrial Revolution. (McDonnell, 1999).

The monks created their own kilns. These provided them with tiles for the floor, glass for the windows, and tableware for meals.

The following map (derived from information in Lekai, 1977) shows the Cistercian abbeys at the apogee of their European expansion (around 1500) and indicates the various industries in which the monks were involved. The Cistercians began to participate in the production of wine very early in their history – the Abbey of Cîteaux founded Clos de Vougeot, the largest Grand Cru vineyard on the Côtes de Nuits in 1115. The English abbeys became Medieval Europe’s the most important source of wool.

The economy of the Cistercians thus ensured that they were intricately related to the rest of medieval society. Maximilien Sternberg (2013, p 3) points out that their mode of existence was thus paradoxical:

On one hand, they sought salvation through a radical renunciation of the world. On the other hand, they were engaged in a dense web of relations with the very world they ‘renounced’. The white order effectively presented the culmination of this paradox of simultaneous withdrawal from, and engagement with, medieval society.

Bruun and Jamroziak (2013, p 3) also remark on “the tension between withdrawal and engagement, between the wilderness and the world”

In Retrospect

With the reformation of the early 16th Century the cistercian abbeys began their slow decline. In England, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the English monasteries in various directives from 1536 to 1541. His minister Thomas Cromwell had reviewed the abbeys and found them havens of superstition, idleness and undeserved luxury. After the dissolution, some of the English abbeys became parish churches or teaching colleges but most subsided into ruin. In continental europe the decline was for a while less abrupt. Then the French Revolution (1789-1799) ended most of the independent monasteries in France. Saint Bernard’s Abbey of Clairvaux was converted into a high-security prison.

The Cistercian Order persists though its numbers are much less than in the days of its success. At present it has two main divisions: the Cistercians of the Common Observance, and the Cistericans of the Strict Observance. The latter are also known as the Trappists, from their founding Abbey of La Trappe in Northern France.

Why did so many people flock to the Cistercian monasteries during their first three centuries? Monks clearly followed a spiritual calling. But why would a lay-brother join a monastery? Medieval life was hard and the monastic community provided accommodation and fellowship. Stephen Tobin (1995, p 45) suggests

Employment as a lay brother meant a guarantee of a roof over one’s head, a dry if somewhat uncomfortable bed, and two meals a day. In exchange for such otherwise unattainable security, all that was required of the lay brother was to work probably no harder than would have been necessary on his own or his feudal lord’s land, to attend church services perhaps a little more frequently, which can hardly have been much of a sacrifice in an age where belief in God was seldom questioned, and to forgo the company of women, which was possibly a little more taxing.

The main reason for the success of the Cistercians, however, was the promise of salvation. Aristocrats donated lands to the order with the tacit agreement that such donations would guarantee a place in heaven. The literate joined as monks because there was no other easy route to both knowledge and salvation. Peasants joined as lay-brothers so that they would be preferred in any judgement after death.

This link between vocation and salvation has been demonstrated in recent Catholic history. The Second Vatican Council in 1962 proposed that contrary to previous teaching, all Christians were called to holiness simply by being baptized and that those who pursued a religious vocation could no longer aspire to a superior state of holiness. This was followed by an immediate and catastrophic decline in the number of individuals taking religious vows (Stark & Fine, 2000, pp 169-190).

Nevertheless, the achievements of the Cistercians were impressive. They fostered new developments in agriculture and industry, developments that would not have happened so rapidly without the size of the Cistercian community. They built abbeys that are often considered the epitomes of spiritual architecture – places of respite from the suffering of the world, and homes where the search for truth could be followed. They established a style of life that some still long for. Many of us might yearn to grow lavender and tend to the honey-bees at a place like the Abbey of Sénanque (below) Almost everyone desires respite from the world – some for a lifetime and some only for brief periods. One hopes that the abbeys be preserved as places for quiet thought, independent of any dogmatic belief.   


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