Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).
Monet’s Water‐Lilies, in its sheer expansiveness, is an experiment. It is meant for immersive reflection, but it is not an altarpiece like the Winifred Knights painting of the Life of Saint Martin of Tours, the saint who turned so profoundly from a military life towards a monastic one. Monet’s series, and this painting within it, could be seen as sacred, however. Water‐Lilies provides an opportunity to contemplate the temporal and the eternal simultaneously. A small pond provided the starting point, but Monet’s approach created something far more spacious.
A group of young women from a local school visited the National Gallery in April 2022 and sat with this painting, gazing at it and pondering. After a while, they noticed that it was, for some of them, a way of engaging with instability, anxiety and even a sense of vulnerable bruising. They were moved by the purple and yellow patches throughout the canvas, and the pink petals which could be little wounds as well as little touches of bright beauty. They wondered about seeing as a kind of inner perception as well as physical sight. The water‐lily is a classic symbol, especially in Buddhism, of the potential for beauty and new life to emerge from murky and troubled depths beneath. In May 2022, this painting was also the focus of a breathing meditation exercise for Mental Health Awareness Week during a lunchtime talk I gave at the National Gallery.1 Names of colours were said slowly, with space for silence between the words, leading a large group of people into a rhythm of slow and gentle breathing, releasing tension in their necks and gently bringing awareness to their feet on the floor and the presence of their bodies on chairs.
Shortly before he died, Monet wrote to the author Evan Charteris, ‘I have always had a horror of theories … My only virtue is to have painted directly in front of nature, while trying to render the impressions made on me by the most fleeting effects.’2 Monet’s Water‐Lilies series is a creative response to colour and light. The swirls of colour are paradoxically peaceful yet restless, hovering on the borderlands of abstraction. The artist described them as ‘sheer madness’.3
As John House describes it, ‘hand and eye come together on a vast scale; scumbled veils of colour and calligraphic gestures fuse to produce an ensemble’.4 Monet’s perception of the world was changing, as his eyes deteriorated with cataracts. He searched for peace in his tranquil garden, while knowing it could be elusive. Chaos was close to home, with the raging war and his own family’s experience of its violent power. Monet wrote to Gustave Geffroy, ‘I was extremely worried about my son Michel who had three terrible weeks at Verdun; he came out of it at last and came here on a six‐day leave; how long‐drawn‐out and painful it is!’5 Monet offered his series of water‐lily ‘decorative panels’ to the French State in 1918. He explained, ‘It’s little enough, but it’s the only way I have of taking part in the victory.’6 The same day the First World War ended, the prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, remarked to one of his generals, ‘We have won the war, now we have to win the peace, and it may be more difficult.’7
This painting goes beyond Monet’s specific purpose for the Water‐Lilies series as a ‘monument to peace’, offering the vast expanse of shapes and colours as an invitation to meditation within a wide space suffused not just with green, blue, orange, white, purple and pink, but with light itself. Water‐Lilies encourages viewers to be open, and when one is open, one is vulnerable and necessarily peace‐seeking and peace‐building, whether internally or externally. Monet wrote, ‘I feel a little embarrassed about making investigations into shape and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.’8 The painting is huge, embracing and suggestive of an immersive experience that could expand infinitely in any direction. It is a meditation on endless peace, even amid what may feel like endless suffering, using finite caresses of paint.
All world religions focus on the importance of peace in the individual, the community and the globe. Indeed, the word ‘Islam’ in Arabic is very closely related to the word for ‘peace’. In his book on contemplative prayer, Martin Laird wrote, ‘We have heard all sorts of talk about contemplation delivering inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace … The peace will indeed come, but it will be the fruit, not of pushing away distractions, but of meeting thoughts and feelings with stillness instead of commentary. This is the skill we must learn.’9
The contemporary British artist Bridget Riley also explores abstraction and contemplation in her National Gallery mural Messengers. She wrote:At the end of his life, Monet painted his largest, grandest and in many ways greatest paintings about virtually nothing; about looking into a huge expanse of water set with a few lilies in which unexpected colours appear in the depths, or elusively in reflections. It is a most mysterious, extraordinary subject in which he invests all his experience and power. In the end there seems to be hardly any subject matter left – only content.10
In a time when our world is again shattered and traumatised by deep conflict, with consequences for so many innocent lives from so many diverse backgrounds, the need for peace is urgent. As the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote, ‘What lies ahead? Reimagining the world. Only that.’11 Monet’s painting explores what each of can us do to be a peace‐builder, to be one who heals and does not hurt, to be a person who is in solidarity with the most vulnerable, even while we seek our own inner peace. The quest for peace inspires hope in dark times, and it is, like Monet’s canvas seems to suggest, an endless search.
Winifred Knights was a sensitive, gifted painter who spent her life in search of peace. Her friend, the painter David Young Cameron, described her life as one where ‘beauty is the chief desire and peace essential for the accomplishment of any work’.12 But, with her life poised between two world wars, she could not escape violence. It was at the cusp of the First World War that she began her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art. Soon zeppelin airships began raining bombs and terror upon the British capital, provoking in Knights a lifelong terror of death: ‘I have got to this state that I can’t let an aeroplane pass over my head without feeling terribly ill and shaky.’13 The loss of her cherished cousin, Ted Murby, in the trenches at Passchendaele completed her journey from innocence to despair.
Joining the crowds at Trafalgar Square to celebrate the Armistice on 11 November 1918, Knights wrote, ‘I must do a Futurist picture.’14 At this time of tangled, personal catastrophe, she documented the brutality of war for the first and only time. Entering – and becoming the first woman to win – the Rome Scholarship competition, she painted the biblical Deluge (Tate) as a personal, emotional response to the memory of war. The painting is all Futurist jagged edges, explosive planes, terrified staring eyes. Men, women, children – and a priest – are all victims, along with the artist herself, who, as the central figure, anchors the composition. The painting is about Knights’s private pain. But it is also about communal suffering. The viewer is not spared; we are all caught up in this terrifying denunciation of violence.
Knights hated war all her life. But it is through her evocations of peace that she shows us what the alternative is. After The Deluge, she travelled to Italy to begin her scholarship and discovered a lotus land. If the spirit of peace dwelled anywhere, she believed, it was here. Among the hills of the Abruzzi, Umbria and Tuscany, wild and ancient and open, the beauty of the world revealed itself, suggesting an encounter with the spirit of God. ‘I am’, she declared, ‘in love with mountains’.15 The colours enchanted her. Gold, mixed gently with luminescent purples, fuchsias and light aquamarines, burned in the bright sunlight like the beat of a rapturous heart. In Italy she experienced the celestial perfection of the Italian Renaissance as a revelation. The Italian masters, ‘my beloved Masaccio and Giotto and all the rest of the blessed company’, whispered their exquisite, impeccable harmonies in her ear.16 How could Futurism, with its vocabulary of breaking the world, still be fit for purpose? Knights now retreated to a peaceful, Quattrocento‐inspired call‐to‐order, a quiet classicism that gave her the vocabulary to capture the world in all its harmony.
When her Italian sojourn came to an end, the newly married Knights returned to England to a life where the peaceful tranquillity of Italy evaporated into a sea of domesticity and drudgery. An unexpected commission to paint a reredos for the St Martin Chapel in the north transept of Canterbury Cathedral came not a moment too soon: ‘It is lovely to [be] allowed to have a painting in that perfect cathedral.’ The St Martin Chapel, which had lain empty since the Restoration, had recently been restored in memory of Alfred, 1st Viscount Milner, then a revered colonial administrator who achieved prominence as David Lloyd George’s Minister of War. The commission was intended to underscore associations between the fourth‐century soldier Saint Martin of Tours and Milner’s work as a leading statesman of the Great War. Knights showed little interest in honouring Milner. It was in Saint Martin – pastor of souls, missioner, monk and worker of miracles – who laid down his sword to become ‘a soldier of Christ’, that she found a kindred spirit. His peaceful way of life, emblematic of generosity and sensitive concern for others, deeply moved her.
Knights’s vision was gently to weave across her canvas three episodes from Saint Martin’s life: to the left, Saint Martin’s gift of half of his cloak to a freezing beggar; to the right Saint Martin’s vision of Christ wearing the cloak and, in the middle, the miraculous resurrection of a dead child. This last scene had deep resonance for Knights, who had just given birth to a still‐born son. ‘I haven’t felt spring at all this year,’ she wrote despairingly; ‘it is beastly, somehow, not having a baby’.17 Transposing Saint Martin’s life and miracles from France to Italy, Knights set her scene in the hills and lakes of her beloved Umbria. Central to her vision of sacred imagery, this landscape provided a continuous, harmonious backdrop to the composition. The translucent, evanescent tones – sober whites, robin’s egg blues and Umbrian pinks – bind figures and landscape into a single unity. A walnut tree, its bare branches like veins against the clear blue sky, and a scattering of delicate white snowdrops, symbolise the power of nature in its continuous and eternal cycle of renewal. Saint Martin wears a steel brodie helmet (the composition’s sole contemporary reference), framed by a wafer‐thin gold halo that struggles to be seen. Setting death against life, war against peace, growth against decay, Knights has created a scene in which, ultimately, compassion and regeneration triumph.
To look at the altarpiece is to feel you are witnessing a world of seamless tranquillity and harmony in every unfolding moment. It is at once secular and sacred, real and imagined. Every detail whispers of stillness. Of silence. Of solitude. The spirit of Piero della Francesca, who believed that the blending of perspective with poetic expression was the gateway to the divine, is ever present. As in the Renaissance master’s idealised realms, there is never a broken line, unbalanced space or careless application of paint. It was in homage to these qualities that the Earl of Crawford praised the altarpiece’s ‘degree of finish and refinement’ with every detail ‘drawn in the finest and most tender and sensitive way imaginable’.18
That Armistice Day fell on the feast day of Saint Martin was a potent symbol. Thirty‐two warring nations laid down their arms, much as Saint Martin himself renounced his participation in warfare centuries before. Claude Monet’s gift to France of twenty‐two of his water‐lily paintings as a symbol of peace, on the day that followed the Armistice, chimes faultlessly with the sentiment behind Winifred Knights’ impassioned plea for a better – and more peaceful – world.
This exploration of the theme of ‘Peace’ is a powerful reflection on the theme in relation to life as a child refugee. Rishan’s story makes connections between Canterbury Cathedral’s altarpiece of Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights, and her own experiences of faith and empowerment. Rishan writes:
I go to the Egyptian Coptic St Michael and St Bishoy Church in Margate and for me, Peace is when I have that connection with God. It’s been two weeks since I was able to attend church and in that time I can feel the build‐up of stress as I deal with my university course and other things I have going on. The stress makes me forget what is happening within me until I realise that I need to go back and have that time of peace with God. When I get that time, I don’t just feel peace within myself, but also with others and how I share that peace and love that goes from within me outwards towards my friends, my foster family and my family back home too, when I’m able to talk to them. The peace isn’t just about what I give, it’s also about the connection we share. That’s the peace that I find when I have even five or ten minutes with myself and with God.
In the bigger picture, I would say that peace, for me, means the love I get from my foster family, from the people at Kent Refugee Action Network and from the people I know here in Canterbury. It’s peace that comes from people from different backgrounds and cultures. It’s still a love between people. That love comes especially from my foster family.
I appreciate it when people realise that, as refugees, people like me may have had an upsetting or traumatising time on our journeys to where we are today. I know not everyone sees our situation like that, but it’s good to be able to dig inside ourselves and share peace with others. It is much better to live like that. Sometimes when we face prejudice or negativity, it can feel more of a challenge than the journey to get here in the first place.
When I share my story with others, I sometimes think, ‘Did I really go through all of that?’ But now that I live here with the support and love of other people, I don’t look back on those difficulties, I just continue forward. I think we all need that kind of support to be able to move on from suffering.
When I look at Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights, I am touched by the idea that religious artwork is a way to praise the Lord through its beauty. In our Coptic tradition, we pray to icons, which is different from connecting with images like this painting. It is not the image that we worship, it is the feeling that the image takes us to or the meaning behind it.
With this painting, the colour gives you an image and feeling of Heaven and the way these spaces are imagined. The painting is also connected to where it has been placed in the Cathedral. It’s positioned above an altar in the Milner Memorial Chapel where the Eucharist is celebrated, a sacred space where people will pray in front of it.
In the painting, the mother is waiting for Saint Martin to bring the child back to life, I see the pain there. It’s a very specific moment between pain and joy, between death and life. The unknown moment for the mother as she doesn’t know if her child will survive, and the unknown emotions that we are trying to feel from her too.
When I look at Christ and the angel figures in the painting, I feel like Knights has made them relatable. I can see them on our level. They don’t float above the scene. They are standing on the ground like I am now.
The scenes depicting Saint Martin’s life have different emotions too. He is experiencing joy and happiness when he sees an angel. Then in the middle scene people are looking down in their grief and sadness because of the child. They seem powerless. There is nothing they can do. Thinking of my story, it makes me think of the grief I suffered during my journey to the UK. I lost one of my friends in Libya. As refugees we often carry grief with us in a way that isn’t visible.
There are moments when it is visible and acknowledged, such as in the 2015 image of the two‐year‐old Syrian child who drowned when his boat capsized trying to reach Greece. That image awakened the whole world to a new understanding of what it means to be a refugee. In this painting we can see the grief for the child on the faces of the five people in the background who watch as Saint Martin and the mother kneel next to the dead child.
As a refugee the powerlessness to change our situation is often what forces us to leave our home countries and journey to wherever we can find the safety we need to make a new home. We don’t have the choice to stay where we are, we must leave. Then on our journey we don’t have the option to stand and wait, we must keep moving towards our destination and we can’t go home. We can’t stand still and hope for a miracle. Once we get there, we need to find a new peace within ourselves.
The reason a person becomes a refugee is often because we have peace taken from us. Because of conflict and other situations, we lose the peace of family, the home; we are moved away from where we grew up to places where we are unable to understand the language and live with other people whose cultures we don’t understand.
Initially, I found positivity through the support of my foster family. I decided to do things like get myself educated so I could become a nurse and help others in the country which is now my home. I also use my experiences to stand up and use my voice for Kent Refugee Action Network. So, joy has come from my troubles.
If I were there with the mother in the painting who is grieving, I would try to offer her some comfort. I would want her to feel my love. That’s what my foster mother gave to me. She gave me simple words of comfort and advice. Her love brought me back to life. That’s what I try to pass on to the young refugees I meet too. I tell them that it’s okay and that they can move on to do what they want to do.
Knowing the story of Saint Martin, we know Knights has chosen to focus on the uncertain moment before the good news that the child in the painting will come back to life. So, there is good news ahead. But even if it were bad news for them, I would talk to those people in the painting and say, ‘Don’t hold tight on to pain if you can’t change it and it’s bringing you down. Instead, try to find the positive in your world. Find the positive in yourself and what you can bring to others too.’
For Knights, I hope the beauty of the painting, the colours in the landscape and the snowdrops, all symbolise her coming back to life too. The child in the painting may be grey, but hopefully Knights knew that there was a wider world out there, and that painting this helped her find her way back to it.
1. The National Gallery’s YouTube channel also features five‐minute mindfulness films. (Back to text.)
12. Private Collection, Letter from David Young Cameron to Winifred Knights, 12 December 1940. (Back to text.)
18. Private Collection, The Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, Diary Entry, 23 December 1932. (Back to text.)
List of abbreviations
|UCLLS:||University College London Library Services|
List of archive references cited
- Private Collection, Letter from David Young Cameron to Winifred Knights, 12 December 1940
- Private Collection, The Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, Diary Entry, 23 December 1932
- UCLLS, Special Collections, Letter from Winifred Knights to Awdry Clarke, 1 February 1918
- UCLLS, Special Collections, Letter from Winifred Knights to Millicent Murby, 18 November 1918
- UCLLS, Special Collections, Letter from Winifred Knights to Millicent Murby, 29 September 1920
- UCLLS, Special Collections, Letter from Winifred Knights to Millicent Murby, 14 January 1925
- UCLLS, Special Collections, Letter from Winifred Knights to Millicent Murby, March 1928
List of references cited
- House 1986
House, John, Monet: Nature into Art, London 1986
- House 1998
House, John, ‘Monet: The Last Impressionist?’ in Monet in the 20th Century (exh. cat. Boston, MFA, London, Royal Academy) Boston 1998
- Kendall 1989
Kendall, Richard, ed., Monet by Himself: Paintings, Drawings, Pastels, Letters, London 1989
- King 2017
King, Ross, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, London 2017
- Kudielka 2019a
The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley, ed. Robert Kudielka, London 2019
- Laird 2006
Laird, Martin, Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation, London 2006
- Roy 2020
Roy, Arundhati, ‘What Lies Ahead?’, The Paris Review, 15 September 2020, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/09/15/what‐lies‐ahead/, accessed 10 April 2022
- Watson 2008
Watson, David, Clemenceau: The Peace Conferences and Their Aftermath, London 2008
About this catalogue
This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.
The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.
The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.
Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.
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