“WHAT IS NOW PROVED WAS ONCE ONLY IMAGINED”
(WILLIAM BLAKE, THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL 1790-93)
“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand not their language”
(Heraclitus of Ephesus, b.circa 565 BCE quoted Bertrand Russel 1960)
“O Love, O pure deep love, be here, be now
Be all; worlds dissolve into your stainless endless radiance,
Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold stars:
Make me your servant, your breath, your core.”
“The stained glass windows of the Gothic … are structurally and aesthetically not openings in the wall to admit light, but transparent walls… the stained-glass window seemingly denies the impenetrable nature of matter, receiving its visual existence from an energy that transcends it.”
As a painting and stained glass student in the early 1960s, and a frequent user of the Hornsey Art School library, I came across this statement from Otto Von Simson’s “The Gothic Cathedral” (1956 Bollingen Foundation) quoted in an essay on English stained glass by Herbert Read. Von Simson continues:
“According to the Platonising metaphysics of the Middle Ages, light is the most noble of natural phenomena, the least material, the closest approximation to pure form. For a thinker like Grosseteste, light is actually the mediator between bodiless and bodily substances, a spiritual body, an embodied spirit, as he calls it. Light, moreover, is the creative principal in all things, most active in the heavenly sphere, where it causes all organic growth here on earth….”
Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 – 1253, English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian and Bishop of Lincoln) was influenced by a passage in Plato’s, Republic:
‘I think you’ll agree that the ability to be seen is not the only gift the sunlight gives to the things we see. It is also the source of their generation, growth, and nourishment…’
My early (and only surviving) stained glass piece, (illustrated) filters light through an interplay of abstract or symbolic forms and prosaic architectural fragments. When I later abandoned stained glass to concentrate on painting, my canvasses continued in a symbolist style inspired by William Blake, Richard Wagner, Carl Gustav Jung and, perhaps most of all, Heraclitus.
These all seemed to epitomise a notion that the human psyche has a direct, innate access to wisdom and truth. I was at that dangerous stage of hormonal transition, characterised by youthful wisdom and folly, in which one is confronted with the reality of the psyche.
My tutors at Hornsey also influenced me. Among them, Bridget Riley – not yet the ‘Op’ artist and 60s icon she was to become – opened my eyes to the vibrant energy of complimentary opposites in colour combinations, an energy which could be controlled as well as unleashed.
In 1962 my 4’x6′ canvas ‘The Expulsion From The Garden’ was hung in the Young Contemporaries exhibition at the RBA galleries in Suffolk Street, London. It represented a culmination of these many influences, and the all-important notion of ‘polarity’; what I felt to be a necessary play of opposites. Its symbolist style contrasted with large canvases by David Hockney and other emerging British Pop artists in the same exhibition and perhaps anticipated the psychedelic trend in youth culture which emerged later in the 60s.
My painting was undergoing a transient ‘visionary’ episode which has nevertheless left its mark. With hindsight I would suggest that “The Expulsion From The Garden” depicted a cataclysmic psychic fracture: separation, opposition, and the dawn of humanitiy’s self-consciousness with its attendant guilt and anxiety. The ‘tree of knowledge’ appears as a convoluted cerebral cortex, or possibly a nuclear mushroom cloud. (1962 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.) The disobedient protoplasts are barely visible, engulfed in the physical and visual world. An oddly anachronistic feature is a telegraph pole almost invisible on the left edge of the picture, perhaps implying the transmission of hidden meanings and messages.
As often happens, in this painting the two forbidden trees of the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, are represented as one and the same. The Book of Genesis, however, distinguishes the two, and recounts that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge ‘their eyes were opened’, and as punishment they were then denied access to the tree of life, the fruit of which ensured immortality.
Adam and Eve’s newfound perception, combined with immortality obtainable from the tree of life, would have constituted an unacceptable challenge to The Deity, and it seems to have been this as much as their disobedience that earned their expulsion, exile, and forfeiture of immortality, just as, in Greek myth, Prometheus was punished by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and sharing it with humans. While the tree of knowledge conferred ‘the ability to see’, the tree of life would have given them unbounded access to ‘the source of generation, growth and nourishment’, as Plato puts it, and thus to immortality.
The different powers, bestowed by the two trees in the Garden of Eden, happen to correspond to the two main rôles that light plays in nature – giving not only the intelligibility of a visibile world, but also the hidden power-source of nature, the beginning of the ‘food-chain’, which we now understand as the moment a photon of light meets a chloroplast in the beginning of photosynthesis.
For Grosseteste too, light both informs and causes everything. In making the world of time and space intelligible, it is intimately related to geometry and mathematics, knowing which was to know God better. He distinguished ‘intellectus’ – study and knowledge through experience – and ‘intelligentia’ – divine illumination only available from God – though the two were interrelated. Scientific and mathematical study through sensory experience, part of one’s fallen condition, is not in itself as ‘good’ as divine ‘illumination’, but all knowledge is good to a degree, leading ultimately to ‘deification’ in Paradise. For Grosseteste fact and truth are distinct but interdependent, and the tree of knowledge represents an essential part of the journey of return to the tree of life.
Whether or not that is an accurate summary of Grosseteste’s philosophy, it is certainly the motif of Hebrew Kabbalism, as elaborated both in Israel, notably by Rabbis Moses Cordovero (1522–1570) and particularly Isaac Luria (1534-1572), and in Renaissance Italy in a Neoplatonic Christianised version (‘Cabbala’). The famous diagram called Otz ha Chiim (עץ החיים) ‘The Tree of Life’, which is well known among western occultists, appears to synthesise both trees of Eden into one geometric design.
However, two slightly different forms of ‘The Tree’ came to exist in that tradition, one representing the stages of emanation and fall of the world (or worlds) from the primordial light, and the second elucidating a future path of restitution: the conscious and enlightened reunion of a fallen creation with its divine origin. Jewish mysticism embodies a philosophical world-view in terms of of exile and return. Looked at this way, it could be that in Genesis the ‘Tree of Knowledge’, which was the agent of downfall, becomes the ‘Tree of Life’ as the path of consciousness and return. The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15; 11-32, illustrated in my 1960 12″x8″ Lino-cut) is a version of the same cosmological myth.
It seems to be quite natural and human to feel that contact with gardens, woods, or the plant world in general, is not only good for physical and mental health, but evokes a different timescale from that of the everyday human world, and an inner calm. Though I learned about photosynthesis at school, and studied zoology and botany in some depth, I came to a fuller appreciation over many years painting ‘plantscapes’ from life, often in urban gardens. Particular moments of realisation occurred with paintings such as ‘Chipps Orchard’ (1974), ‘Clement’s Garden’ (1986) or ‘Brambles’ (2001), in which the ubiquitous interplay of light with foliage, and its immediacy, became a central fascination. I was recording the visible aspect of the unseen process of solar-synthesis happening within each leaf, upon which everyone’s conscious existence in the world depends, including my presence in the garden with the vision and energy to paint.
Scientific writers have tried to convey what Primo Levi called ‘the solemn poetry known only by chemists, of chlorophyll photosynthesis’ (‘The Periodic Table’ 1975), and its seemingly miraculous appeal. Although it is a physical chemical process and can be recreated in the laboratory, it cannot be taken for granted. Nick Lane, in his book ‘Oxygen’ points out: “..it is worth remembering that, unlike flight or vision, which evolved independently many times, oxygenic photosynthesis only ever evolved once. All algae, all plants, the entire green planet, use exactly the same system. All of them inherited it from the cyanobacteria, which invented it once, perhaps 3.5 billion years ago”.
At the time of writing, our 21st C scientific community largely agrees that in the last couple of hundred years the industrialised West has burned fossil fuels representing aeons of stored daylight, and of carbon photosynthetically extracted from the atmosphere, and that this partial reversal of millions of years of carbon fixation affects the composition of the atmosphere, causing unnaturally rapid change in climate and disruptive weather patterns. There continue to be powerful forces of short-term vested interest, implacably and dishonestly opposed to acknowledging or acting upon what is now an existential human problem.** To me, the solution lies not only in scientific understanding and the honesty to accept facts, but a more profound feeling for the human and spiritual significance of light and of photosynthesis:
‘When the light shone on the greenness, the greenness welcomed it and comprehended it and put it to use…..’ (Oliver Morton 2007)
Light is invisible unless it interacts with a material which reflects, deflects or refracts it. We see a sunbeam when it illuminates airborne dust. We see a light source when a ray directly strikes our retina. We do not see light beams transiting space, which therefore appears black despite being filled with light.
According to the antiquarian William Stukeley (1687 – 1765), whose ideas influenced William Blake, the interiors of Gothic cathedrals, with their columns, interwoven ribbed vaulting and ‘the darksome glimmer of their painted windows’ deliberately recreate the conditions of a light-filtering forest interior. He argued that, in antiquity, temples constructed on an arboreal pattern honoured the presence of the invisible deity which formerly dwelt in an oak grove. In a modern context, one might reinterpret the crepuscular mystique of medieval stained glass as embodying the idea of the life-giving transformation and interchangeability of energy and matter through the mediation of light and foliage. Mystical and Biblical statements about the significance of light, such as ‘the life was the light‘ and ‘all flesh is grass’ could then be seen as making a spiritual meaning identical with a scientific and ecological understanding of the human condition.
The painters Turner (1775 – 1851) and Constable (1776 – 1837) can also be seen as asserting a dimension of human significance in the context of Britain’s industrial revolution and of the discovery of Photosynthesis. Key experiments by their contemporaries Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804) and Jan Ingenhousz (1730 – 1799) had begun to clarify how green plants interact chemically with light and the atmosphere.
The 19th C development of an English school of landscape painting was partly due to Europe’s wars rendering the continent less attractive to tourists. Though Constable, like Turner, admired Claude Lorraine, he forsook the latter’s golden-brown haze for a distinctly English depiction of landscape that was sometimes too green for his academic peers. He drew and painted from direct observation, often completing studies in the open air, and saw it as an activity related to science. But he also saw ‘a spiritual connection between the truth of light in nature and the passing of human life’….‘Physical and spiritual light were united.*
In science, the importance of the green pigment chlorophyll in photosynthesis was recognised (by Henri Dutrochet) in 1837, the year of Constable’s death. Meanwhile, Turner showed wild nature in the context of ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ and the Great Western Railway, or HMS Temeraire (famous for her role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805) being towed to her final berth by a steam-tug belching smoke and sparks, and we glimpse the impact of burning fossil fuels.
However uneasy Blake’s protégé Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881) may have been with the scientific progress of his epoch, his observational sense was modern, alive and intense, as when lying among meadow grasses he notes ‘…the sun shines through each blade making masses of the most splendid green; inimitably green and yet inimitably warm so warm we can only liken it to yellow & yet the most vivid green’. (A.H. Palmer The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer – London 1892).
This is reminiscent of another ahead of his time, the 11th C Sufi poet Rumi writing of ‘frail living leaves’ burning with radiance ‘brighter than cold stars’
Palmer’s early paintings combine a feeling for twilight and shadow with the intense glimmer of stained glass. Rachell Campbell-Johnston writes that three of Palmer’s sepia drawings of 1825 ‘describe the delicate clarity of daybreak’, and three more ‘the gentle closing in of the dusk’. ‘Palmer captures the glimmering magic of these transitional moments to perfection’. For her, Palmer’s ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ of 1830 (in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) ‘glows like a great autumn bonfire’.
Any such autumn bonfire is testimony to the light harvested in photosynthesis, as are the glowing apples on Palmer’s ‘magic’ tree.
Everything depends now, as always, on how we use that light, which in turn depends upon how we see it.
John N.Pearce 2014
*13th Feb 2022 I have added this quote from Anne Lyles’ essay on the RA’s exhibition ‘LATE CONSTABLE’ at Somerset House in Picadilly, London 30th Oct 2021 – 13th Feb 2022
** 3rd May 2022 Since writing this, opposition to any reduction in carbon emissions has only increased, despite scientific warnings. What is lacking – on the part of peer groups with the most money and power – is respect, not only for scientific evidence but for basic humanity, the planet, and a sense of truth.
THE GOTHIC CATHEDRAL Otto Von Simson Bollingen Foundation 1956
ENGLISH STAINED GLASS (Introduction by Herbert Read)
John Baker/Alfred Lammer Thames and Hudson 1960
THE PERIODIC TABLE Primo Levi Einaudi 1975 (Inspired writing in its final chapter ‘Carbon’, though Levi misrepresents photosynthesis as splitting oxygen from carbon dioxide instead of from water.)
OXYGEN The Molecule that made the World Nick Lane Oxford University Press 2002
THE VITAL QUESTION Nick Lane Profile Books 2015
EATING THE SUN The everyday Miracle of How Plants Power the Planet Oliver Morton Fourth Estate 2007
MYSTERIOUS WISDOM The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer Rachel Campbell-Johnston Bloomsbury 2011
WILLIAM STUKELEY AND THE ORIGINS OF ARCHITECTURE Tessa Morrison University of Newcastle Australia 2010
UNLOCKING REALITY Universal Kabbalah Keys Michael Grevis KC Books 2017
THE UNIVERSAL KABBALAH Leonora Leet Inner Traditions 2004
BBC ‘In Our Time’ Photosynthesis https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0435jyv