“Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage”: Art and the Sacred in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain – by Emma Mason

Emma Mason on Kathryn Barush’s Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain

Kathryn R. Barush, Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850, Routledge, 2016, 278pp., $149.95
Kathryn R. Barush, Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850, Routledge, 2016, 278pp., $149.95
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In a short blog, “The Story of Brexit, in the style of Mideast reporting,” Adam Kotsko imagines the current state of the European Union through the eyes of a non-Western observer, one who perceives its split through religion. Post-Brexit, the Union appears to the reporter to have been “rocked” by “radical Protestant separatists” who voted “to leave the Federation that had tenuously unified Christians belonging to opposed sects.” Britain is described as a country “which adheres to its own idiosyncratic version of the Protestant sect,” that “only recently reached an uneasy truce” with Ireland, and that now hopes “to join a group of other Protestant countries in Northern Europe who have negotiated trading privileges while keeping their distance from the Catholic-dominated group.” A sharp and timely commentary, it is founded on the supposition that the relationship between religion and politics in Britain still suffers from its Reformation break with the Roman Catholic Church. While Kotsko’s blog is deliberately provocative and not a little wry, it also reveals a common (mis)reading of Britain’s religious history as one shaped by its reaction against Roman Catholicism. For during the thousand years leading up to Henry VIII’s reign and “idiosyncratic” reforms, the English Church adhered to a Roman Catholicism introduced by Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD. Many British Christians remained faithful to such primitive Catholicism, not least those persuaded by the nineteenth-century Catholic Revival and its portrayal in devotional literature and art. For Kathryn Barush, the focus of these portraits on sacred journeys and pilgrimage practices maps a religious, as well as aesthetic, embrace of Catholic culture through contemporary obsessions with medievalism and antiquarianism. As she argues in her exceptionally erudite book, Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850, the period’s enthusiasm for all things medieval helped restore the use of images for contemplation, devotion, and aesthetic pleasure as artists and antiquarians alike “had to reconcile the fact that their newly embraced medieval Britain was, in fact, also a Catholic Britain.”

The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 lies in the middle of the period Barush’s book covers. While the act smoothed the way for the rehabilitation of images as “sites where spiritual renewal, miracles, visions, and healing were known to occur,” Art and the Sacred Journey shows that medieval pilgrimage, Catholic revivalism, and a Christianized Romanticism were already current at the end of the eighteenth century. This is in part because of the cultural embeddedness of pilgrimage narratives in the period: Langland’s Piers Plowman, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress each served as deep wells of source material for a religious art free from associations of idolatry and superstition. Literary and visual representations of pilgrimage, as much as physical visits to holy places, became sites of contemplation and devotion as they had been in the Middle Ages, renewing interest in printed text and images disseminated by rare book collectors as much as the artists themselves. Barush explores these antiquarians, in particular Francis Douce, a collector fascinated by literary manuscripts by writers including Langland, Chaucer, and William Blake, as well as the “traditions” and objects of “the common people,” such as pilgrimage badges, rosaries, tarot cards, and prints. A generous correspondent with other antiquarians, Douce’s secular fascination with Catholic piety and sacred art introduced both collectors and readers to an idea of pilgrimage defined through Catholic saints and a reclaimed heritage based on the myths and legends of a chivalric British past. While national locations like Norwich, Glastonbury, and Canterbury took on a newly spiritual, historical, and antiquarian significance, European sites like Rome and Spain attracted pilgrims of all denominations keen to explore the religious artistic legacies of places that had not destroyed their religious art in times of reform.

The Reformation loomed large over late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture and society. While the Oxford Movement pressed for the reinstatement of a pre-Reformation model of worship, commentators like William Cobbett argued that the destruction of “shrines and folk pilgrimage sites” was yet another example of the disenfranchisement of the poor. Barush explores writers—James Barry, David Wilkie, and Ann Agnes Trail—keen to mediate these debates by making the case for the relationship between art and religion. The Catholic Barry, for example, a member of the Royal Academy much celebrated by his friend Blake, wrote eloquently of the “energies” art transmits in the service of worship to provoke a sense of contemplation—claims with which the non-Catholic British artist Wilkie concurred. It is Wilkie’s traveling companion in Rome, however, Ann Agnes Trail (later Agnes Xavier), who stands out in Art and the Sacred Journey as an artist and Catholic convert previous critics have overlooked. The way in which Barush connects Trail to Wilkie, Wilkie to Barry, and Barry to Blake, is an example of the thoughtful networks that thread through her narrative, interrelations that have the effect of captivating the reader. A Presbyterian artist who became a Catholic nun to fund the first post-Reformation convent in Scotland, Trail is presented as a convert moved to Catholicism, not only by her pilgrimage-like travels in Rome, but by acts of copying and viewing religious art there, her “pencil” and “painting,” she wrote, inseparable from “meditation,” “prayer,” and devotion. The centrality of art to her religious order is also apparent from Barush’s account, the building for Trail’s convent, St Margaret’s, contributed to by another Catholic convert, A. W. N. Pugin, who believed that “outer” architecture manifested from the prayerful “inner” conditions of its construction. But it was not only Catholics like Trail and Pugin who created the conditions in which Anglicans began to soften to Catholic art. As Barush reveals, writers like Anna Jameson, whose several publications on symbolic representation argued for the necessity of outward expressions of human piety, reclaimed the sacred status of art as a channel both to God and a national past interwoven with European saints, shrines, and relics.

More than any other artist in Barush’s volume, Blake stands out as an embodiment of the faithful pilgrim-artist, illustrated by his apparent self-portrait as the Plowman in the panoramic fresco, Sir Jeffrey Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on their Journey to Canterbury (1808). Blake’s statement that “Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage” emphasizes the continual importance of the sacred journey, one that Barush deftly reads in his art and poetry as the route to the forgiveness of sins. As his friend, Samuel Palmer, wrote, Blake “quite held forth one day to me, on the Roman Catholic Church being the only one that taught the forgiveness of sins; and he repeatedly expressed his belief that there was more civil liberty under the Papal government, than any other sovereignty.” While Barush side-steps the endless critical commotion over Blake’s Christianity (he has been branded a Dissenter, Swedenborgian, Methodist, and Moravian in the last ten years alone, often in ways that eclipse his lived Christianity), her attention to Blake’s sympathy for medieval Catholicism—in his statement to Palmer, friendship with Barry, and work on Chaucer and Dante—is a welcome reply to those who seek to simplify his faith or politics. Like many of Barush’s examples of those open to Catholicism in the period, Blake’s unease with a papal rule symbolized by the Inquisition did not negate his enchantment with the mystic visionaries of its pilgrimage tradition, especially St. Teresa of Avila, from whom he learned the value of “interior pilgrimage” and “emblematic imagery.” It is fitting, then, that Palmer and his fellow “Ancients,” an artistic brotherhood founded on a shared reverence for Blake, would refer to him as the “Interpreter” from Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as a “sort of modern saint.”  Barush’s exposition of the Ancients’ spiritualization of natural forms through a visionary contemplation is followed by a final discussion of physical relics and ruins as sites of pilgrimage, which Catholics sought to reclaim from those eager to associate them with ghost stories and superstitions. Likewise, Barush abandons reductive accounts of relics and ruins as aesthetic fodder to remind us of their theological significance as Catholic “containers of the divine” that theologians sought to “make intelligible to the public, along with Eucharistic adoration, saintly intercession, and transubstantiation.” The priest and antiquarian, Daniel Rock, for example, sought to historicize and explicate relics, saints, liturgies, and church decoration to counter their fetishization in a culture “enamoured with medievalism.”

The wealth of archival manuscript and printed material is evident in Barush’s richly illustrated study, one that restores religious pilgrimage to the heart of the nineteenth-century visual imagination, and institutional Catholicism to a scholarly picture in which it is too often neglected. As an art historian, Barush bypasses literary critics, like Michael Tomko, who do accommodate Catholicism in the period, but there is no question that critics are, in general, all too willing to neglect the cultural and theological relevance of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Catholic practice and belief, translating its meaning into politics, aesthetics, or philosophy. As her readings of Blake, Palmer, and Mary Shelley illustrate, Catholic devotion signified to some Romantic writers, not only through Italian poetry and art, but as an “aura” that found form in doctrine and liturgical practice. It also materialized in optical entertainments like dioramas, panoramas, and even stage sets, as ancient pilgrimage grounds became a way of imaginatively entering into sacred sites (like Rome) or narratives (such as the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s journey to England). The ecclesiastical as well as Gothic subjects of set designer Clarkson Stanfield’s panoramas, engravings, and oils were popular, Barush explains, precisely because they captured both a realist and sacred topography, informed as much by his artistic abilities as his friendships with High Anglicans as well as Catholics like Cardinals Wiseman and Manning. Stanfield, like all of Barush’s compelling case studies, confirms that the experience of encountering the sacred through relics, ruins, shrines, paintings, and codices crossed religious boundaries even as it was inspired by Catholic teachings. Her focus on the early years of the century instead of the more widely discussed decades of the Oxford Movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is invaluable, although both groups would surely benefit from Barush’s ability to navigate their Catholic bearings. An illuminating and carefully researched study, Barush’s book elevates the idea of painting as pilgrimage both in this period and, as Blake might suggest, in “every age,” not least those like our own so conscious of religious revivals and change.

Emma Mason is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research and teaching are focused on poetry from 1750 to the present; religion, ecology, and affect theory. She is currently writing Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.