What Heaven Looks Like

James Elkins
This piece is composed of excerpts from James Elkins‘ unpublished book What Heaven Looks Like, about an anonymously written, undated, never-published manuscript. Some of the images from this manuscript we are publishing here for the first time.

 

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Preface
A woman sits down to her secret work. She lives alone—her husband has died, and her children have grown and moved away. The church lingers in her thoughts, but she is no longer sure what its stories mean. It is the very end of the Renaissance, and the old certainties are gone. Even the myths and legends seem wrong as they drift in and out of her solitary thoughts.
She goes out the back of her house and walks up a slope to a woodpile. She selects a cut log, and carries it back to her room. She stands it on the floor next to her chair, and she leans over to look at the cut surface. She studies the drops of dew and the damp soft bark. She moves her fingers in gentle circles, following the fine brown rings in the wood. Cracks score the surface like spokes of a wheel. She tests them with her fingernail.
The wood is a lovely picture, made by nature. It means nothing and it says nothing, and yet it is full of faint colors, and, as she looks longer, faintly moving figures. She takes a small sheet of paper and begins to paint.
*
The book I’ve written includes a reproduction of a unique manuscript preserved in Glasgow, Scotland. The original is just pictures—no words, no explanations. No one knows who painted it, or when. I think it was created by a woman who imagined what she saw in the ends of firewood logs. In one picture the wood is fresh and green, in another old and cracked, in a third moldy and peeling. From that I deduce she worked at her project over a long period, perhaps years. I think she lived alone, perhaps high up on a forested hillside—at least that is how I imagine her. I have written this book to try to understand what she may have felt and thought.
Her pictures tell a strange and beautiful story of loss and uncertainty. She was deeply unsure about what she could believe. In her mind—an amazing independent mind, as striking in its wordless way as Spinoza’s, or Milton’s—the culture of community and belief had nearly stopped making sense. She thought hard about the Christian verities, and decided that little is known with any confidence. She was profoundly alienated from the dogmas of her day, and deeply skeptical about some the largest questions: the origin of the universe, the nature of God, and the possibility of heaven. She mused, too, on the loss of meaning in history and in human relations. I think of her as an irremediably lonely person.
In one sense, she was part of her time: the late seventeenth century saw an unprecedented erosion of faith, and a new awareness of inner life. At the end of this book, I have written about the artist’s time, and the crises of religion, history, and representation that were in the air.
But in another sense, she is eerily modern. Her doubt and isolation are modern, and so are her paintings. There are things in this book that were not accomplished in art before surrealism: she plants glassy eyes in dark roots, congeals a patch of air into an amphibious face, turns a ram into a block of ice. Nothing escapes her oddly distorting eye: in one painting God himself is shriveled into a greenish lump.
This is an astonishing, wonderful book. It is mysterious, daring beyond anything else done in its time, and uncannily modern in its diffident, lonely skepticism. It is ravishingly painted, with a sure, free hand and a mind less burdened by the opinions of authorities than any other I know. It is one of the masterpieces of that half-lost, very modern moment between the faded Renaissance and the overconfident Enlightenment.
Berkeley, 1996 – Galway, 1999 – Chicago, 2014

 

 

The Book
It is a small book in a brown binding. It has a title page, and after that there are only pictures—52 of them. They are in watercolor, and they vary in size from 110 to 130 centimeters in diameter.
There is a little secret about the book, which is not hard to discover: each painting is modeled on the cut section of a tree trunk. Sometimes that fact is hidden, as if it were an embarrassment. (After all, how could a true vision begin from a stump?) In other pictures, the tree trunk is perfectly clear, and the artist has lovingly painted the bark peeling at its edges, or the radial fractures that open when a log begins to dry. Wood is a leitmotif, a thought that keeps recurring. Some pictures are about wood—they show trees, or bushes—and others just use the wood as a springboard for the imagination. The artist never quite decides if the wood is important, and it is not entirely clear whether the paintings could have been based on stones or clouds instead of trees. The artist may have made the entire book from one special tree, carefully conserved as it dried and began to rot. (Some trunks seem to be damp with decay; others look like green wood.) Perhaps the artist went into the forest every morning and cut a new tree, like a Greek priest killing a fresh calf for each prophesy. As a romantic poet might say, the wood may even have come from a sacred spot—a churchyard or cemetery. One person who saw this manuscript said the artist used petrified wood, on account of the gleaming colors in some pictures. Wood is almost the only secret the book gives away, and in a sense it keeps that secret too.
That is about all that can be said at first look. The paper was made in Holland, toward the end of the seventeenth century. The artist may have lived in that century, or in the beginning of the next: the style tells us as much. But she (I think of the artist as a woman, for reasons I will explain toward the end) could have lived in Italy, France, Holland, or even England. Usually some telltale sign helps identify an anonymous artist: some stylistic quirk, or some figure or composition borrowed from another painting. At least so far no such clues have broken the manuscript’s silence.

 

 

The Title Page
Here, in clear Latin script, is the only writing in the book. It says:
Work of Natural Magic, in which the Miracles of Pneumo–cosmic Nature are Painted with a Brush. Fully engraved by an Ape of Nature, following Nature’s universal Catholic Prototype, and dedicated to the eternal memory of the king.
This kind of title is common enough in mystical and hermetic writing from the end of the sixteenth century through the middle of the eighteenth. Many writers were overwhelmed with the encompassing unity, divinity, and mystery of nature, and felt compelled to try again and again to capture it in words. “Pneuma” is breath, and so the “pneumo–cosmic” nature breathes with the spirit of divinity. “Catholic” and “universal” almost mean the same—that nature is everywhere brimming with holiness.
It’s a little odd that the writer says the work is painted, and then immediately afterward says it was engraved, or modeled in relief (the word is ectypus). The two don’t go together, and they imply that something other than ordinary art making is involved. I like to read the word for “engraving” as if it meant the same as “transcribing”: that is, I think the artist meant to underscore the truthfulness of her unprecedented visions.
“Ape of nature” is also unexpected. Apes imitate, and they were often compared to artists, but it was never usual to be quite so forthright about the equation. But it was not uncommon for people with a mystical turn of mind to imagine themselves as apes in the larger scheme of the universe.
There are other clues in the title, and more could be drawn out of it. But it is important not to go too far. There is no evidence that the artist wrote the title page, or even knew about it. At least I have a hard time imagining a person thinking of such an unusual experiment (meticulously painting a series of hallucinations in cut tree trunks), one that may never have been repeated up to the present day, and then not wanting to say more than a few vague and evocative words about nature. In particular the flourish at the bottom of the page is careless and clumsy in comparison to the exquisite accomplishment of the painted scenes. How could they be by the same person?

 

 

 

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1
And so we begin. The first scene is a landscape, with a city in the distance. It is seen through an opening—but what kind of opening? Stepping back, it looks like clouds, but looking closer it is apparent that the opening is lined with the roots, leaves, and trunks of trees. Or perhaps we are peering out of a cave.
The artist is expert in suspending judgment. Are we looking through opened clouds to a heavenly city? Or out of a cave—where we may have gone to hide, or to pray in solitude—back to the town from which we came? Or through a forest at a distant village? Or even—in the harsh, literal manner so fashionable in current criticism—through a womb, or into one?
Around the outside things get dark, as if to say we are in a hole within a hole, or peering out of one dream and into another. The artist loved these abysses, in which dreams jerk into waking life, or collapse into nightmares. We rarely know where we are, and when there’s a foothold something on the margins is usually waiting to pull us away, or push us back into the deepest recess of a cave within a cave, within a cloud inside a dream.
The city is small in the distance, but it attracts our attention. There is not much to it: outlines of buildings, perhaps city walls and a gate. In front are a few blocklike forms. The clouds are full, and rain may be falling. When I have shown this to other art historians, they have sometimes recognized Giorgione’s painting called The Tempest, which also has a city in the distance, ruins on the left, a grove of trees at the right, and a threatening storm. It is tempting to link this picture to that famous one, but Giorgione’s painting was almost forgotten until romantic viewers revived it in the nineteenth century. Our artist may well have seen other Venetian landscapes, and felt an affinity with their half–ruined buildings and deserted pastures.

 

 

 

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2
One word is a fragment; two words are a story. With the second picture we have at least the beginning of a narrative. This is clearly heaven, with two figures reigning in the sky. To any Baroque beholder they would have been God and Jesus. The clouds just below the center are infused with little heads: again something a viewer would have recognized, because painters of the time populated their heavens with little bodiless angels. (They could also be the unstained souls of the unborn.)
At this point it looks like this book may turn out to be a story about heaven and earth, or perhaps a journey from earth into heaven. A viewer at the time might well have been comforted by that fact, since it was conventional to depict the creation of the world in a series of round paintings. The first painting could be the creation of the earth, and the second a picture of God in heaven, resting after the creation. It is not exactly what a viewer might have expected (it would be more normal to show the seven days of the creation, one after another) but close enough to look like a familiar story. Domed church ceilings were painted as apparitions of the heavens, glowing in golden light and banked by clouds, and there were especially famous examples by Correggio that resemble the brightness of this painting.
Still, something is not quite right about this heaven. Never before or since has heaven been quite this indistinct. The only way we know which figure is Jesus is that he sits to God’s right. They have no faces, no hands, and no thrones; they are blurry and distant, like mirages. There is no real sunburst, no heavenly blue. Instead everything is bathed in a sweet midsummer haze, as if the artist were slightly dazzled.
The scene is close to a normal one, but it is unsettling. What is God if he is only a faint orange silhouette in the distance?

 

 

 

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3
In the third scene, something is definitely wrong. The sky is whirling, and the angels are gone. God—if that is who he is—holds a bolt of lightning, and other lightning–bolts strike all around. On one side a cloudbank rears up like a wave, and on the other a small tempest is pouring rain.
When god holds a thunderbolt, he is probably Zeus, and there’s a feeling here that we have passed out of the Christian world and into the pagan. But who is the other figure? Zeus reigned alone, or with his wife. The second figure is a surly young man, possibly naked. He almost looks suspicious.
This is the kind of puzzle that delights art historians. It isn’t God the Father and Jesus, because God doesn’t throw lightning. And it isn’t Zeus (even though he has Zeus’s tousled hair), because Zeus didn’t share his throne with a naked man. In other artworks there is usually a solution: either the painting is Christian, or it’s not, or it’s some comprehensible mixture of the two. In the eighteenth century there are paintings of God, and paintings of the gods, but there are no paintings that might be God or the gods, or paintings in which heaven can be occupied by just anyone.
The artist is in a rare frame of mind: she allows her imagination such free rein that it wanders against the rules. First it brought her a hazy, enervated heaven, occupied by a distant Father and Son, and now it’s brought her a strange, possibly heretical heaven, occupied by two vaguely divine men.
The lightning bolts, of course, are radial cracks in the wood. It was customary to paint lightning as straight lines (or as zigzags), and so these lines would have looked like lightning to the artist. But what an interesting decision, to look only at the cracks and hallucinate everything else.

 

 

 

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4
And now comes the pièce de résistance, the seal of strangeness.
At first it looks empty, as if all the divine and semi-divine figures have left. Heaven is overcast, and a silvery ring of thickened clouds frames a diminished golden center. The sky is crisscrossed with parallel hatching, which meant rain before and may mean it again here. A curved line—an echo of the lightning bolts in the previous painting—lies across the exact center, and above it the sky is shaded.
But this is more than a deserted heaven (if it were, it would complement the deserted earth we saw initially). Very faintly but definitely, there are still two figures. In reproduction they are especially hard to make out, but on the original there is no doubt.
They are both outlines, painted in a pale olive green different from any other color in the plate. The left–hand form is large and round, and just left of the center. His head—if that is what it is—trails off to the right, crossing the midline of the plate, and then arcs upward and slightly left, forming the outline of a second figure. The companion is tall and gaunt, and leans over toward his friend. They both have heads, but nothing inside, and their bodies trail and merge. In the shadows at their left, there are other wisps of figures—too faint to count, or clearly see.
There is nothing even remotely like this until the twentieth century. (Kandinsky simplified figures in a similar fashion in the 1910’s.) It is an amazing, almost inconceivable act of imagination to think of painting such distorted and schematic figures, and letting them stand alone without explanation.
Thinking over these first paintings, a viewer might well decide the artist felt alone in the world. Gods seem to mutate into one another, or evaporate altogether, and so far there are no people at all. Centuries earlier, Epicurus had thought along these lines: gods, he said, are paper–thin and can do no one any good or harm. People should be kept at a distance because they cause pain.

 

 

 

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50
This book is like a silent diary. Sometimes the artist spends time thinking seriously about a specific problem: in the opening sequence she explores heaven, and decides it is haunted by flimsy ghosts; later she thinks about how the world was created, and finds it ends in evil (plates 19 through 23). For the most part, and especially in the second half of the book (from plate 24 to the end) there are fewer questions, and the themes come and go like the daily preoccupations in a diary. Most diaries break off when the world becomes more interesting or pressing than the exercise of describing it. I think the artist set out intending to produce a good Aristotelian drama, with a beginning (the creation of the world), middle, and end, but that she let her ambitions go as the flood of images carried them away.
That kind of open–endedness is anathema to scholars. Several art historians who have seen the book thought it must be unfinished, or fallen out of its proper order. Others have said it is the work of an apprentice or a dabbler who lacked the skill to pull a story together. By deep habit, historians search for sequences and dramatic endings. A work without a conclusion is nearly insufferable: years ago I had a teacher who dreamt he found the lost ending to the Faerie Queene, and Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is an elaborate fantasy about the lost part of Aristotle’s Poetics. But what if this manuscript is finished, in exactly the way the artist intended? What if she set out, as it were, to paint an indeterminate number of paintings, and to stop when she lost interest?
I believe that is what happened. This is a diary in the sense that it conforms to a simple rule: it fills every page, and it fills them in order. A diary, in this respect, is just another way to avoid telling a proper story: like a part of life, it goes on for a while and then ends. A diary is not an exercise in randomness or nonsense, or an opportunity to be wholly meaningless. Diaries follow the contours of daily thoughts, from relative clarity to disaster, from the dangerously deranged to the entirely universal. They can loop back on previous thoughts, and even contradict themselves—as when the artist’s almost Epicurean musings on the absence of a Christian God give way to this elegant and entirely acceptable Pietà.

 

 

 

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51
I admire these paintings for all the ways they fail to make sense, and so I also admire the how the series winds down. It must have slowly lost her attention, and I imagine about now her interest began to turn to other things. Of all the brilliant things she does, refusing a proper ending is the most audacious. The pressure to end a story is almost overwhelming: I am caught up in it myself, trying to bring this book to a conclusion. She was more honest and attentive, and followed what she saw.
This penultimate picture is another scene half–assembled from her stock of figures; each is changed but still the same. In the middle is an oriental king; we have also encountered him as an adept of the Hermetic arts. The snowball he once conjured (in plate 38) has become a globe, symbol of worldly knowledge. His sidekick, the paunchy second king, is with him again, this time reeling in surprise. The third figure might make a set of Magi, or he might be one of those young soldiers who run in and out of the paintings.
Notice how gentle the artist is with the people in her imagination: she doesn’t force them to play The Three Magi, or anything else. Nothing is unwelcome, unless she recognizes it. As she made the paintings, the figures would have looked increasingly familiar, and I would like to think she lost interest in her project when she began to feel at home in the contours of her imagination.

 

 

 

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52
This is the wager I have in mind: that these paintings—some of them, the best, certainly not all—will have a grip on the imagination that will not easily be loosened. After living with pictures like these, I wager it will be hard to go back to the Madonnas and Children and Herculeses and Venuses and Adonises who say what they mean and mean what they say. Pictures with titles will seem too easy, too obvious. Pictures with messages will seem misguided.
Clearly, paintings exist, in part, in order not to make sense. This anonymous late seventeenth–century artist is not modern in the sense that she fits with Man Ray or Max Ernst; she is modern in the ways she occludes the clear subjects that she might have painted. If that means making God the Father into a green specter, or stretching a lamb into a dome and pasting on a puppy’s head, she does it. The only limit is what she can bear to see on the page.
We are attracted to paintings before we know what they are supposed to mean, and I think their wordlessness continues to draw us toward them, even though we often forget it in our rush to find their sense and purpose. People who write about art can be uneasy about this: they know they are fascinated by the parts that don’t make sense, but they also feel the pull of meaning. There is a good reason, in the end, why I will lose this wager: every painting has its quotient of wordlessness, and the titles and narratives of major paintings can often be understood as decoys—as the expected tags that ostentatiously fail to explain much of anything. Still, there are certain frames of mind in which it is essential to see that a painter knows pictures are not texts, and this manuscript answers to that temperament as well as any artwork I know.
In this final scene, a naked young woman sits on the familiar garden bench. She has just turned to see something that is outside the picture. A few yards away a young man is sitting quietly, looking up into a cloudy sky. They could have had names, and they could have been looking at each other or at us. They don’t, and there is no reason why they don’t. We might have been told what each of them sees, or what they think. We will never know. That is the pure pleasure of this painting.

 

 

 

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Postscript: Falls from Faith in the Seventeenth Century
The unknown artist was almost alone in her weird distortions, but not quite. Just a few passages of seventeenth-century poetry and prose rise to her level of this radical metamorphosis. Among them my favorite is from Paradise Lost, a book she might well have known if she was—as one historian told me—an English painter:
The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black he stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
This is Milton’s description of Death, and it is very close to this artist’s uncanny combination of formless fantasies and whimsical costume dramas. (Imagine: a deep black cloud with a crown.) Milton is appropriate here, because he has also been read as a poet with a deep loss of faith in hell and Satan. He choreographs his Satan, keeping control of him like a puppet on strings, and that has struck modern readers as evidence that he thought of hell in some measure as a poetic trope, just as his model Dante had done. It may be, as Lucien Lefebvre has argued, that atheism was intellectually impossible in the Renaissance: but deep, nagging skepticism was not, and neither was alienation—and yet those words are too harsh, too modern and confident, to capture what happens in this book. There is a childlike playfulness here, and a dreamy hope that Pagan and Christian deities might inhabit a spectral landscape alongside aristocrats, fuzzy monsters, and fun-house apparitions. It is a delicate frame of mind, not as confident as atheism or as corrosive as pessimism. It is a mood that has a delicacy that only pictures can have.
But we will probably never know what she had in mind. It is part of the world’s richness, which I put against the dull uniformity of the commercialized world, that manuscripts like this still sit, unseen and unread, in so many libraries. And it is especially wonderful that even when her book is seen again, it refuses, in the end, to speak.