How a single painting by Turner reignites my understanding and practice of humility. Kneeling alongside St Gotthard

After a couple of days of restless turmoil and frustration, with a smattering of misunderstanding and argument, I feel a little restless.

When you get to the point of staring at nothing and waiting for something to happen, whether it be a word to appear or the first mark on the page… there is nothing more acutely designed to demoralise.

So what do I do?

I am a great believer in the nurturing nature of good company; not friends that like to drink and party or family that constantly reminisce about the good old days … but wisdom and rich inspiration.

I require nourishment and motivation and my usual 'go-to' accomplishes many things

  • Gets me out of the house
  • Engage with public transport
  • Forces me to rub shoulders with real people
  • And finally settles me into a peaceful revelry with the masters of my own language

I go to my local Art Gallery – in my current situation, that is Birmingham.

Turner - Birmingham Art Gallery

A bus, the throngs of people visiting the Frankfurt Christmas Market (oddly situated in Birmingham town centre), the rain, the smells, the constant architectural change and finally the oasis of stillness that is the Gallery.

Old friends telling new stories

It is strange how much I consider this place a tranquil resting place. There are old friends that are always pleased to see me; Gentileschi's 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt', Botticelli's beautiful 'The Descent of the Holy Ghost', Burne-Jones epic commission 'The Star of Bethlehem'… we nod politely to each other and they tell stories to me; both new and familiar.

My favourite, however, is Turner's 'The Pass of Saint Gotthard, Switzerland'. A small oil painting, unfortunately now glazed, which portrays Turner's usual style with a delivery that is confident and sure. But it is the subject itself that reveals more to me than Turner's masterful technique. He is well known for his grandness of view accentuated by his abbreviated style. He challenged traditional methods of technique, composition and use of medium at almost every point. I would suggest his challenges were met with bravery and gusto and his accomplishments merited applause and congratulation.

But here, in this piece, I prefer to believe we meet Turner the soul, the journeyman to morality and a quest for divine understanding.

Turner - The Pass of St Gotthard, Switzerland

Mountains, yes – hard unyielding masses of rock wearing frozen ice and snow. The pass itself, in Switzerland, was known to be treacherous and had claimed many lives. The portrayal of its majesty its undeniable worldliness and age are exquisite… one must feel bowed beneath the sight.

But hold on, they are not as 'awesome' as some of Turner's larger oils, not as expressive or creative and probably not as worthy of such artistic notice.

Humility is the new Black

It is simply, that, when I look closely I am kneeling right next to St Gotthard himself, prostrate before a cross. Tiny … a speck of a thing before the magnificence of hard nature.

turner humility

Turner invites the inquisitive viewer to share in this humility. To take a place in this unreachable, cold and hard place and lay yourself before the divine.

There is no showing off, no grand canvases of dazzling landscapes.

Simply the hard truth of it.

And I kneel, and I feel it too.