Friday, April 26, 2002

Sargent's Murals

Yesterday I went to see the John Singer Sargent Murals "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public Library. It was one of those things that I'd never gotten around to doing during the better-part-of-a-year stint I spent in Boston. I was amazed with this work. I've spent some time looking at Sargent's work, including multiple visits to the Sargent show at the Clark Art Institute several years ago, and these murals were markedly different than anything I'd seen before.

Sargent's technical competence is just as evident as with his society portraits. The level of detail and brushstrokes are similar to his other work. The major differences, which really came as a surprise to me, are in the subject matter and composition. Reproductions of these murals don't do them justice, considering the shape of the walls, the size, and their unrestored condition. I was transfixed in particular by his images of Old Testament scenes. Sargent's depiction of the confusion that the Israelites fell into when they turned to worship false gods powerfully depicts the words of Psalm 106. He does a great job of suggesting God's sovereignty in a panel showing the Israelites under the oppression of the Egyptians and Assyrians. This panel illustrates the oppressing nations as imposing and seemingly mighty, but held back by the truly powerful arms of the Lord, who is visible above and behind the scene, face screened by the wings of seraphim.

The murals, though breathtaking, were never completed, and as such, feature a large empty space where the "sermon on the mount" panel was planned. Historian Sally Promey says that that part of Sargent's aim was to show the decline of external expressions of religion (the Church) and the rise of a private and personal connection with the divine (though he maintained a personal, Trinitarian view of God) . The images of Christ, Mary, and the Church suggest his views, and I found his treatment of the subject matter there less compelling. He was certainly influenced by the "progressive" school of thought of the early part of the 20th century. I found it unsettling that the tremendous artistry he wielded depicted such ambiguity in the role of the visible church. Only through the commentary did I gain a sense of the depth of the controversies that surrounded this work at its presentation and causing Sargent to abandon the project. Overall, some great work, and I found the Old Testament imagery in particular vivid and strong enough to stand alongside the best works of the Renaissance.


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