top of page

The Symbol and the Substance

How does a sacred object become imbued with power?

Sarah Carter-Jenkins 2014

‘For, in truth, an image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone: God, who alone is truly God. And again, when involved in calamities, the superstitious worshippers of stones, though they have learned by the event that senseless matter is not to be worshipped, yet, yielding to the pressure of misfortune, become the victims of their superstition.’

Clement of Alexandria, circa 190 AD

The notion of ‘sacred objects’ is an ancient one; more than a thousand generations of mankind have lived and died since unknown artists carved the tiny talismanic figures we call Paleolithic fertility goddesses, and from them we have inherited not only the objects themselves but what we imagine is the idea inherent within them, retroactively designating them with an assumed significance. I use ‘assumed’ in both senses of the word: ‘to take for granted without proof’, and ‘to be invested or endowed with’. We, in the modern world, have speculated that their makers viewed them through the same prism of magical thinking which has coloured our recorded history since, wherein mankind has fashioned idols and icons, creating consecrated objects imbued with the power to both heal and harm. It is this correlation of ritual and reward, described in the field of psychology as pre-logical associative thinking, which is so pervasive, so ubiquitous in almost every culture, that suggests the question ‘How does a sacred object become imbued with power?’. The answer would seem to be that, like the venerable Jean-Luc Picard, we ‘make it so’. By looking at the work of religious scholars, psychologists, anthropologists and the simply curious, I will be attempting to understand this apparently innate drive to first create an object then invest it with the power to order and influence that which is seemingly chaotic and immutable.

The idea of magical thinking is a simple and seductive one: that the performance of a ritual will result in a desired reward or benefit. The ritual can be as lofty and prescribed as a prayer, as significant as a sacrifice, as tactile as the touch of a talisman, or as simple as the superstitious knee-jerk reaction of ‘knocking on wood’. All of these rituals are firmly rooted in the notion that a thought can bring about an effect in the world. Of course, once we accept that our thoughts can bring us a benefit, the door is opened wide to the darker fears which lurk and burble: the belief that the mere thought of a death or disaster can cause, or at least hasten, that same calamity is one which can take hold with surprising and democratic ease:

Superstition belongs to the essence of mankind and takes refuge, when one thinks one has suppressed it completely, in the strangest nooks and crannies; once it is safely ensconced there, it suddenly reappears.’ (Goethe 1829).

If superstition is innate then the need to control our destinies is also, prompting us to fashion the means to do so, and magical thinking gives us carte blanche to write the rules and design the tools. Looking at the concept of contact or contagious magic and its practitioners’ apparently pragmatic belief in its efficacy, the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard writes (1965, p.p. 26-27):

Where the magician goes wrong is in inferring that because things are alike they have a mystical link between them, thus mistaking an ideal connexion for a real one, a subjective one for an objective one. And if we ask how peoples who exploit nature and organize their social life so well make such mistakes, the answer is that they have very good reasons for not perceiving the futility of their magic.

Evans-Pritchard suggests that those ’very good reasons’ are that ‘nature, or trickery on the part of the magician, often brings about what the magic is supposed to achieve’ and where the ritual, sacrifice or talisman fails to bring about the desired reward, the failure is ‘rationally’ explained by either some detail in the ritual having been neglected, some taboo ignored or that some more dominant malignant force has overpowered the lesser magic. Thus we re-write the rules as and when the need arises: God indeed works in mysterious ways. It should be noted here that Pritchard is writing about cultures he deems ‘primitive’ and he seems to be content to consign this type of magical thinking to a very separate, and apparently more lowly, chamber (the dark unenlightened cellar perhaps) in his bright cathedral of religious belief. For him, there is little correlation between the primitive shaman and the priests of what he, writing in 1965, terms ‘higher religions or historical and positive religions or the religions of revelation, including our own’ (1965, p.2). For the record, Evans-Pritchard was the son of an Anglican clergyman who had converted to Roman Catholicism some twenty years before (Beidelman 1974, introduction).

We see more clearly Evans-Pritchard’s distinction between the ‘primitive’ and the ‘higher’ as he goes on to discuss, amongst others, the work of Sir James Frazer, whose suggestion that ‘mankind everywhere, and sooner or later, passes through three stages of intellectual development, from magic to religion, and from religion to science’, a proposition that leaves Evans-Pritchard in a state of scarcely concealed disdain, describing the theory as being supported by ‘trivial’ arguments which are ‘ethnologically most vulnerable’. For him, these kinds of ‘intellectualist theories’ may have had a ‘logical consistency, but they had no historical value’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965, p.p. 27-29). ‘Intellectualist’, in the sense it was used here by Evans-Pritchard, seems to imply that such theories were a sadly soulless and almost mechanical analysis, disagreeably lacking in any spiritual sophistication, their ‘logical consistency’ notwithstanding.

In this, Evans-Pritchard perhaps owes much to the Augustinian theological tradition where the discussion of icons, idolatry and superstition was often simply a fundamentalist distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’ religions, in bullish contrast to the intellectualist Epicurean and Enlightenment viewpoints, which came both before and after. This Augustinian fideism, where faith is independent of reason, is supported by the biblical notion of ‘exclusivism’: the idea that ‘your gods are false, and mine is true’, taking us neatly to the Judeo-Christian concept of idolatry, the belief that an image of someone else’s god is blasphemous and an inspiration of the demonic, but an image of your own God is sacred. It has its genesis in Exodus 20, 3-6:

You shall have no other gods rival to me. You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, and I punish the parents’ fault in the children’.

The dichotomous distinction between false idols and holy icons both predates and succeeds the Bible, with the writings of Hellenistic Epicureanism leading directly to the eighteenth century Enlightenment view ‘that from a secular perspective the concept of superstition, as the irrational fear of the supernatural, could be potentially extended to include all religion’ (Rubies 2006, p. 573). In the theological aftermath of the Enlightenment modern Christianity has largely discarded the ‘sin’ of idolatry whilst still embracing the popular worship of icons and relics, which from the Church’s earliest years have been intrinsic to its popular spread: ‘as it became politically established, Christianity tended to minimize the general aniconism of the biblical formulation in order to develop its sacred art’ (Rubies 2006, p. 578). It would seem that of the major religions, fundamental Islam is the last splinter still at war with the ‘graven image’, with its radical adherents even today destroying holy sculptures, images and icons from cultures pre-dating their own religion, perhaps driven by a fear of the notion that an ancient power, inimical to their own god, still resides within them.

Ironically, that fear of the unknown is, for psychologists, one of the intrinsic triggers for the creation of ‘sacred objects’. Children rely on what is termed the ‘transitional object’, an inanimate object which takes the place the mother during an infant’s doubtless daunting development towards independence (Winnicott, 1965). The transitional object is endowed by the child with the omnipotent properties of the mother and thus becomes powerful, precious and protecting in its own right, an example of pre-logical associative thinking which is the underpinning of the belief in the power of sacred objects. These ‘consecrated’ objects often rely on the effects of illusory correlation, where a relationship is perceived between behaviours and events where none in reality exists; it is that idea of ritual and reward which is hardwired into the brain. And not just the human brain: researchers into judgmental bias have conducted experiments with, amongst other animals, pigeons and found a propensity for conditioned behaviours which mirrors the human notion of magical thinking. Brett Pelham and Hart Blanton (2013, p. 12) write:

…if a pigeon happened to be standing on one foot prior to the (random) delivery of a food pellet, the pigeon might engage in this behavior several times again. Of course, if the pigeon does this long enough, another pellet will eventually be dropped into the food tray. The exact behavior that is ‘falsely conditioned’ in this way will differ from one pigeon to the next, but conditioning will often occur nonetheless. Skinner (1948) referred to this false conditioning process as superstitious conditioning.

This apparently inescapable hold of superstition on sentient living things (Duncan 2006, introduction) would seem to imply that the drive to make sense of the random, and then control it, is a universal one (George & Sreedar 2006). What then, when our attempts to influence the events of the world around us fail? It seems ‘confirmation bias’ is the mechanism we use to take up the slack and allow us to retain the illusion of control. ‘The tendency to seek or interpret evidence favorable to already existing beliefs (Shermer 2014 p. 16)’, confirmation bias allows us to give weight to the instances where our faith in the power of our chosen ritual has been rewarded, and almost inadvertently slide our attention away from the times when it has not. Much like Evans-Pritchard’s magicians, we tend to see the hand of the divine when our prayers have been answered, and our own shortcomings when a ritual fails to deliver…choosing to stand on one leg until the pellet drops again.

These glimpses of the many faces of the sacred object, as it is surrounded, defended and dissected by the theologian, the anthropologist, the psychologist and the humanist, combine to create a portrait that looks remarkably like ourselves. As an intercessor with the mystical and a shield from the malevolent, our sacred object has been consecrated by us and for us, a consecration that is utterly human in both inception and solution. ‘Like everything in human culture, it is a construct, an answer to the demands of the physical and emotional worlds (Crawley, 1909)’. This worldly explanation for the existence and influence of holy icons may seem antithetical to religious feeling, but it is the book of Wisdom, attributed by some to Solomon but more likely written in the first century before Christ in Jewish Alexandria and eventually absorbed into the Christian Bible that declares:

More damnable are those “who have given the title of gods to human artefacts” and vainly pray to these figures who can do nothing. Not only does Wisdom emphasize the irrationality of idolatry over any devilish intervention, it also declares that this corruption of religion is not inevitable, and offers a political explanation for its origins: idols “did not exist at the beginning, they will not exist forever; human vanity brought them into the world” (Rubies 2006, p. 576).

And while humans and their vanities may indeed not last forever, one imagines that while they do, the same compulsion which caused a Paleolithic sculptor to create an object which has travelled quietly across millennia, mirroring our own concerns and beliefs, will continue to compel us to fashion objects which reflect our own needs, then consecrate them with the power of our own desires.

Image: Reliquary of the Foot of St. Blaise, Tresor d'Oignies, Soeurs de Notre-Dame, Namur

Small Blessings

An object biography

Sarah Carter-Jenkins 2014

"In agony or danger, no nature is atheist. The mind that knows not what to fly to, flies to God."

Hannah More 1745-1833

Talismans, icons, reliquaries, amulets: these sacred objects, ‘ideas made solid’, are the tangible form of the age-old human compulsion to imbue the inanimate with the power to protect from the perilous, the unknown, the malignant and to influence the uncontrollable divine. As palpable manifestations of ‘magical thinking’ these objects are the locus of ritual, taking on the properties of that power which, originally, they merely symbolised. For the possessors of these ritual objects, the artefact acts not only as a conduit for supernatural forces, but indeed become a defacto sanctuary or saviour. It is this conferred authenticity which, for me, connects the concept of the sacred object to that of the ‘transitional object’, the cherished ‘security blanket’ of childhood, which, it is theorised, takes the place of the mother-child bond during the emotional development of an infant. The journey from the notion that there is no distinction between the mother and child: they are ‘one’, to then come to an understanding of an independent place in the world, must be a painful one, soothed by the possession of an object which symbolizes all-encompassing and enduring love, one that is perhaps the most elemental and pure archetype of a sacred object.

This object biography will describe a soldier’s pocket shrine, a tiny sacred object intended to act as a proxy sanctuary, placing the bearer in an intangible place of refuge where an entreaty for protection, divine or otherwise, may be heard when the stark reality of the soldier’s situation offers only peril and the terrifying prospect of death. On the battlefield we hear of the intertwined consolations of both religion and the retreat to the remembered safety of childhood: the trope of the dying soldier calling for his mother has its roots in reality. Staff Sergeant Robert O’Kane (1997) wrote of his own World War II experience:

I have two vivid memories, among many others, which forever impress me about the stupidity, banality, futility and anguish of war. One is about a very young soldier named Jones who died in my arms after a mortar barrage on us on top of "Goon" Mountain in France. He looked so calm slouching there when I went to him...his only words were, "Mom, Mom" - then he died. A few months later some of us were taking out snipers on top of a ridge, in the woods, in Germany. A German soldier rose in front of me with his rifle pointed...I shot him, he fell. I went forward to see what I had the time our own men below, thinking we on the ridge were Germans, began to fire on us with rifles and machine guns...I dropped to the ground and came face to face with the German...I then noticed he was wounded badly in the stomach...and he was very young...we stared at each other, bullets flying over our heads, suddenly brought together in a strange way...he uttered these words over and over..."Mutter, Mutter".

I wonder then if the ritual object, the battlefield pocket shrine, is but another form of the child’s security blanket; a physical token embodying the heartbreaking vulnerability of dependence on both a mother-substitute and the father figure of the deity. The concept of the transitional object, an idea introduced by Donald Winnicott, is one in which an inanimate but treasured possession stands in for the mother during an infant’s development from seeing the world through the egocentric notion of the child and mother as one undifferentiated whole, where all the child’s needs are met, where ‘his desires create satisfaction’ (Winnicott 1965), to the painful, but necessary, realisation that the child must at some point separate from the immediate hold of the mother. The transitional object becomes the bridge between the mother and child when they are physically separated; a symbol which stands in her place but that eventually becomes invested with intangible qualities of its own, ‘intuitively believe(ing) they possess a unique essence or life force…even very young children invest in such objects intangible qualities that cannot be replicated’ (Morris, 2007). This nascent desire to create a symbol which becomes ‘genuine’, which holds within it both power and love, is played out again and again throughout cultures and their religions, in their icons and amulets, their symbols and their saints.

The pocket shrine which is the focal point of this investigation takes the form of a small hinged metal case, set with two red transparent arched windows. Held within is a pair of diminutive metal figures, each nestled into one half of the divided interior. It is a lightweight thing, showing signs of age and use, made to be easily stowed in a pocket, its corners rounded and its surface smooth, with a soothing tactile quality that invites the fingertips to trace the contours, to turn and hold, warming the cool metal almost into a semblance of life. While the case shows evidence of mechanical use, with joints slightly separated, scratches and corrosion on the plated surface, it remains solidly constructed with the hinge intact and cover still closing firmly, keeping its occupants safely enclosed. Those figurines move loosely within their own defined space within the security of the case. The shape of each has worn the plating from the back of the compartments with repeated movement, and grime has worked its way through the tiny gaps in the joints of the case, dimming the red arched windows. It has the air of a thing which has stayed close to its owner over days, months and years; an object which presumably held personal value and was cared for, it still shows the effects of time and use.

This evidence of a past life invests the shrine with a slight thrill of awe; that an object has lived a life with some other unknown person, in another place and at a time long past, gives it an aura of significance which an identical but new facsimile cannot replicate. This idea of ‘genuineness’ holds as true for artefacts of material culture as it does for works of art or objects of historical importance. Carolyn Korsmeyer (2012, p. 365), whose research areas are in aesthetics and emotion theory writes:

Genuineness is an important property of objects that are rare, old or preserved as memorials. Being genuine enhances economic value for objects such as works of art, and it is obviously critical for historical purposes, such as assessing artefacts from a past culture. Here I argue that genuineness is also an aesthetic property that delivers an experience of its own. I contend that the sense of touch covertly operates in such experiences, as this sense conveys the impression of being in contact with the ‘real thing’. Touch seems to operate with a kind of transitivity that conducts the past into the present.

This quality of ‘genuineness’ and the subtle tactile appeal of our object combine to create the immediate emotional signature of the pocket shrine: one of comfort, quietude and an unassuming tone of consequence. It is only when an awareness of the object’s intended purpose is overlaid on these impressions that the soothing nature of the artefact becomes tinted with the colour of sadness: these pocket shrines were mass-produced in Catholic countries during the years of the First and Second World Wars to be issued to the soldiers of their armies, then carried into the uncertainty of battle as a connection to faith and the familiar.

The idea of an object offering protection against danger or facilitating divine intercession is so old as to have its origins in pre-history with some of the earliest extant man-made artefacts presumed by many in the fields of anthropology and archaeology to have been created as talismans or fertility symbols possessing power, prestige and value, (Soffer, Adovasio, & Hyland 2000). Mobiliary art, or small-scale pre-historic sculpture, is one of the earliest known art forms dating to the Paleolithic era (circa 40,000-10,000 BC), with its ‘Venus’ figurines, the most recognizable of these being the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Lespugue, linking unmistakably throughout the history of art and material culture with the religious icons, sacred artefacts and ritual objects common to every culture. The fertile and protective ‘mother’ persists from the Venus of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, through the ‘pfemba’ of the Yombe people, the Demeter of Greek mythology and the Hindu Devi to the cult of the Virgin Mary with its statues weeping blood, worshipped as a literal embodiment of the sainted mother.

The concept of a ritual artefact being imbued with power is not confined to religious objects; we are all familiar with the idea of a lucky charm and even the most sceptical have doubtless felt the tug of superstition whilst intellectually deriding it. As French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1950, p. 43) writes:

Conceptions of the mana (magical) type are so frequent and so widespread that we should ask ourselves if we are not in the presence of a universal and permanent form of thought which, far from being characteristic of only certain civilizations or alleged ‘stages’ of thought…will function in a certain situation of the mind in the face of things, one which must appear each time that situation is given.

That ‘certain situation’ referred to by Levi-Strauss is the reaction to adversity that may be seen across societies and across time. This universal nature of ‘magical thinking’ is demonstrated by the fact that nearly all cultures have created their own class of objects invested with power independent of their maker, which can be invoked to aid or influence. Wyatt MacGaffey (1990 p. 45), writes that:

The BaKongo of Western Zaire and neighboring countries recognize a class of objects called minkisi, usually described in English as fetishes. The problem of the fetish, for the European mind, has been that it confounds the distinction, regarded as basic and natural, between objects and persons….the assumption that things are radically different from people does not hold, in fact, even in European culture. In medieval times, the relics of saints were clearly both objects and persons.

The tiny metal figurines in the pocket shrine are the direct Catholic descendants of the Paleolithic Venus and the minkisi of Zaire; like those ancient and exotic symbols both figurines have been endowed, at the least in the minds of their makers and possessors, with the mystical power to intercede in the universal concerns of life or death. One of the figures is common to many twentieth century pocket shrines: Our Lady Crowned holding the infant Jesus and the three-fold lily scepter denoting virginity and sovereignty. The Lady Crowned is held by Catholic doctrine to be the incarnation of Mary after her assumption and installation as Queen of Heaven, and as such is considered to hold virtually limitless power to intercede on behalf of the faithful, (Spretnak, 2004).

More interesting, at least for the purpose of tracing the history of this particular pocket shrine, is the identity of the second figure. The shrine’s provenance is short: it was bought from the online marketplace Ebay, from a dealer in antique religious articles in Lisbon, Portugal who in turn bought it from a street market in the same city. No more is known about it, but we are able to deduce, or perhaps more accurately ‘assume’, more about its history by looking at similar objects and the associations conjured by its ‘tiny inhabitants’. The second figure resident in the pocket shrine holds a crucifix and a sheaf of roses and is barefoot. The symbolic cues which tell us it is a statuette of St Therese de Lisieux, popularly known as ‘The Little Flower of Jesus’, a French Discalced Carmelite nun who lived a short and obscure life, born in 1873 and dying of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24 (Hallett 2012). She was the author of spiritual journals which, when published posthumously, ‘created a sensation in the Catholic world comparable to that produced in the postwar world by "The Diary of Ann Frank".’ Adopted as a universal "little sister" by the French soldiers of World War I, St. Therese's naive, charming, but profound words were carried next to many an infantryman's heart’ (Martin & Knox 2012, introduction). This widespread popularity led to Pope Pius X beginning the process for her canonization in the tumultuous political landscape of Europe in June 1914: the upheaval and trauma of the Great War may also have contributed to the Vatican dispensing with the usual requirement of a fifty year wait between death and beatification, with her canonisation taking place in 1925, (Bennett 2011).

This extraordinary and swift elevation of an obscure nun was undoubtedly due to her immense popular following, gained through a simple and accessible message which appealed to the layperson through a dismissal of theological complexity. In a letter to a priest with whom she was paired as a ‘spiritual sister’ (Combes & Sheed 1949, p. 332) Therese wrote:

Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises, in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind grows very soon weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul; perfection seems easy; I see that it is enough to realize one’s nothingness, and give ourself wholly, like a child, into the arms of good God.

In the atmosphere of nationalism rampant throughout early twentieth century Europe this uncomplicated message of sublimation to authority must have appealed to the state as well as to the infantryman on the battlefield whose life was in the hands of his commanding officer.

A further connection to the military history of France came with Therese’s elevation to the position of co-patron of France, along with Joan of Arc in 1944, and as the patron saint of aviators, again linking her to the wars which ravaged Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, (Gorres 1959). These connections could place the pocket shrine as having been produced as early as 1914 to be distributed to those devout French infantrymen mentioned by Knox, but it was far more probably made in the years leading up to the Second World War.

While there are no makers marks on the case of this shrine, others identical in design, materials and apparent age, but holding different saint figurines, exist with the word ‘GERMANY’ stamped on the reverse, and are generally listed as having been produced from 1937 onwards. The identical but unmarked case of our shrine suggests the possibility that it too was produced in Germany but was destined for a foreign market and thus, in the politically antagonistic atmosphere of pre-war Western Europe, the country of manufacture was omitted. It is interesting, and sadly ironic, to think of soldiers facing each other from opposing trenches perhaps with identical shrines in the pockets of their uniforms, each trusting to their own particular saints, and the same God, to keep them safe from harm.

On a more prosaic level, another detail of the shrine’s case supports its manufacture after 1930: the material of the two transparent red arched windows remains flexible and unclouded. In the early 1900’s the only plastics materials in common use were shellac, gutta percha, ebonite and celluloid (Brydon 1999), all materials that deteriorate over time (Koestler 2003). But by 1944 most of the world’s plastics in production were ‘thermoplastics’, the type of stable polymers we still use today and the transparent red plastic used in the shrine’s windows would seem to be more consistent with those modern materials (Brydon 1999).

Looking at all these factors, (the deep affection felt for St Therese de Lisieux in France, her canonisation in 1925, then becoming a Patron Saint of France in 1944, the extremely close physical similarity to German World War Two era pocket shrines (except for the stamped country of manufacture) and the relatively modern materials used, we may perhaps assume that the pocket shrine posed for review belonged to a French soldier during the Second World War. Beyond that the transition of the shrine from the battlefields of France to a street stall in Lisbon can only be conjectures: fascinating musings; a fiction ripe with possibility.

What was the personal story behind the man who carried the Queen of Heaven and the Little Flower of Jesus in his pocket? Were the prayers offered in front of this tiny shrine answered, carrying him safe home to his loved ones, or did the God to whom he prayed have other plans for him, as it seems He did for the more than 200,000 French soldiers who perished during the horrors of the Second World War? Or on his return was the shrine placed with other mementoes of war, occasionally held but perhaps thought best forgotten? Was it instead sent home amongst a package of personal effects to be grieved over by those left behind? After that immediate transition from its original owner, was the shrine valued, (or indeed even noticed) by the next generation? Did another carry it in their pocket, either as a remembrance of family history or was it again an item of religious devotion?

To me, it would seem that the qualities which define a transitional object, (an intensely personal creation suffused with, in essence, a mother’s love) would not be ‘transferable’, it could never mean to another what it has meant to the one who created its significance by their own yearning. I suspect the same for our soldier’s pocket shrine. That whatever religious symbolism it may hold in a wider sense…the love and protection of an omnipotent and omnipresent God, this particular shrine may have become suffused with an even more personal significance, not merely a conduit for an external power, but a treasured ‘sacred’ object, held often and loved quietly, which consoled and protected him, and him alone.

Image: Pocket Shrine sketch, Sarah Carter-Jenkins 2014, Pencil 8cm x 8cm

A Radical Romantic

William Morris: design, politics & the roots of the modern conservation movement

Sarah Carter-Jenkins 2015

‘When art is fairly in the clutch of profit-grinding she dies…Socialism is the only hope of the arts…art cannot have real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering’

William Morris, 1884

The term ‘man of contrasts’ is a well-worn one, but it is difficult to find a more apt description of William Morris: a man born into the comfortable middle class of Victorian England, who studied for the clergy, founded and ran one of the most fashionable, commercially successful and enduringly influential design companies in the 

world, but who at the same time eschewed the Victorian values of class structure, individualism and industrial progress, choosing instead to champion the ideals of Marxism, environmentalism, conservation and workers’ rights based on a Utopian ideal of Medieval communal life. Morris was a conflicted social radical: lecturing on street corners, arrested for demonstrations, rejecting the offered post of Poet Laureate as elitist, which, had he accepted the offer, would have seen him technically become a member of the Royal Household, whilst at the same time through his thriving design business he was, in his own words, ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’, (MacCarthy, 1994). Perhaps it was a sense of ‘middle-class guilt’ which prompted his social conscience but, whatever his motivations, the legacy left by Morris is one which has, in no small way, helped to shape the modern activist conservation movement which we tend to think of today as a twentieth century phenomenon, and which still influences the way we act to bring about change in the social and environmental status quo.

Born in 1834, Morris spent all but the first three years of his life in the reign of Victoria, but there could not have been a man less ‘Victorian’ in his world-view. Morris considered himself a man ‘born out of his due time’ (Litzenberg, 1946): from childhood he was fascinated by the Medieval, (given a toy suit of armor and a Shetland pony as a child, he would venture out on ‘quests’ into Epping Forest), and this fascination grew with him into adulthood. During his time as an undergraduate at Oxford and later, as he began publishing his poetry, Morris’s circle of friends included Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Rossetti, two leading artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as a band of poets and historians who, along with Morris, referred to themselves as ‘the Brotherhood’: devotees of the ideals of chivalry and communal life which pervaded romantic Medieval literature, (perhaps somewhat conveniently ignoring the reality of the strongly hierarchical nature of that society). Once exposed in his twenties to the reformist social commentary of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, Morris’s ideal of the Medieval artisan craftsman working in an egalitarian community took on for him an even greater significance when contrasted with the increasingly obvious reality of the Industrial Revolution’s oppressed and exploited factory worker. This was the genesis of his social activism, a political conviction which combined his romantic notion of egalitarian social equality with the redeeming power of Ruskin’s ‘emancipated artistic labour’ (Glendinning, 2013). For Morris, art was the means by which labour, and the labourer, was ennobled: in ‘The Worker’s Share of Art’ he declared:

‘the chief source of art is man’s pleasure in his daily necessary work, which expresses itself and is embodied in that work itself; nothing else can make the common surroundings of life beautiful, and whenever they are beautiful it is a sign that men’s work has pleasure in it, however they may suffer otherwise’. (Briggs, 1962) .

It was during the building of his marital home, Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, that this political and artistic conviction found a means of practical expression; enlisting his friends in the decoration of the house, Morris put into practice his belief that the artist craftsman should control the process of production from inception to completion, with walls and furniture painted with Medieval scenes by Rossetti, stained glass designed by Burne-Jones and tapestries stitched by his new wife and pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Burden. The completed house was an aesthetic sensation, described by Rossetti as ‘more a poem than a house’ (Kingsley, 2010), and Morris was inspired, in 1861, to establish the firm which was to become Morris & Co, supplying wallpapers, murals, carvings, stained glass windows, embroidery, furniture and metalwork: as Burne-Jones put it ‘all things necessary for the decoration of a house’ (Kingsley, 2010). The philosophy with which Morris approached his new venture was one which championed beautiful and practical design, both elements he believed should be accessible to all: In the first of his many public lectures he stated, 'I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few’… Morris defined art as 'man's expression of his joy in labour', and advised, 'have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful', (Parry, 1996).

The immediate success of the company was perhaps the beginning of the conflict between Morris the businessman and Morris the idealist: under the pressures of demand he was forced to break production for some items into the roles of designer and worker, keenly aware that his ideal of the artist craftsman was compromised. He wrote of the possibility of the factory worker creating beauty:

‘If there is to be any pretence of beauty in the work which is to pass through his hands it will have been arranged for him by someone else’s mind, and all his mind will have to do with the execution of it will be to keep before him the fact that he has got to carry out his pattern neatly perhaps, but speedily certainly under the penalty of his livelihood being injured’, (Pearson, 1981).

The fact that the hand-worked craftsmanship of his products made them prohibitively expensive, (few, or perhaps none, of his workers would have been able to afford their own handiwork), was another blow to his egalitarian ideals, with his clientele almost exclusively confined to the wealthy, the State and the Church. ‘As a result of his growing sympathy for the working-classes and poor, Morris felt personally conflicted in serving the interests of these individuals, privately describing it as “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich” ’ (MacCarthy, 1994).

Commissions by the Church were a large part of ‘the Firm’s’ early work, with stained glass, murals, carvings and plasterwork produced for restorations of churches across the country. These restorations nagged at Morris, who believed, along with Ruskin, that the fabric of ancient buildings was part of a ‘living heritage’, that these buildings were cultural monuments which should be conserved as they stood, complete with the patina of time to attest to their authenticity, not restored to an assumption of what they once may have been. ‘For him, the sacred lay not in heaven, but in the environment around us, which was available to everyone. And although Morris’s political outlook was firmly socialist rather than nationalist, the new concept of old buildings as seats of life would powerfully shape nationalist conservation, by allowing almost any kind of built environment to assume a quasi-sacred aura’ (Glendinning, 2013). This belief was inherent in his ideal of communal life: for Morris, the buildings which were part of England’s Medieval heritage were a living reminder of that ‘organic continuity of community’ and thus a protection against what he saw as the modern trend toward societal fragmentation and alienation, the result of urban industrialisation. By the mid-1870s, this belief spurred Morris into action with the foundation of SPAB, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, in 1877. SPAB was amongst the first voluntary action groups, a pragmatic, outcome-oriented group which was central to the Victorian conservation movement and became the template for modern conservation and environmental campaigning societies, with many of the features we would recognise in today’s activist movements: a voluntary membership with a broad popular base, an agenda which appealed across classes, tactics which courted media coverage and a ‘celebrity’ leadership with its early supporters already well known in the arts and politics: Morris, Ruskin, the novelist Thomas Hardy, poet Samuel Butler, and architects Alfred Waterhouse and Phillip Webb, the latter being the architect of Morris’s influential Red House.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings soon became the face of what has been termed the ‘anti-scrape’ movement, so called due to their insistence on the preservation of the accumulated evidence of time and use in the material of buildings, rather than their ‘restoration’, which had become something of a widespread architectural phenomenon in Victorian England and across Europe, with many churches altered to include non-original features. The new Society’s immediate focus was in halting demolitions and restorations of historic buildings, including an impassioned campaign against the demolition of several of Christopher Wren’s classical City of London churches, describing the possibility of their loss as an ‘outrageous and monstrous barbarity’ (Glendinning, 2013). The Victorian concept of ‘restoration’ was one which, for example, involved the rebuilding of damaged Medieval church facades to the design of modern architects, sometimes in a Victorian interpretation of Gothic style disparagingly termed ‘railway station gothic’, and Morris was invariably passionate, and often scathing, in his criticism of the practice of restoration. Many architects who in principle agreed with the aims of SPAB still felt the force of their polemic rhetoric: Gilbert Scott, whose work ‘tried to tread a middle line between the “destructiveness” of indiscriminate restoration and the positive possibility of recreating “features which have been actually destroyed by modern mutilations, where they can be indisputably traced” ’, (Glendinning, 2013), was nonetheless, as far as Morris was concerned, amongst the worst offenders. Scott was a frequent subject of his writings on the question of restoration versus conservation, and even Scott’s death gave Morris no pause, ‘in 1878, Morris referred to him as “a happily dead dog” ’, (Glendinning, 2013). This vitriol was characteristic of the fervent tone adopted by SPAB in their propaganda, a tone which was new in what had been, until then, the fairly ‘gentlemanly’ field of protest rhetoric, and was central to their confrontational style of mobilising popular support against threats to the nation’s communal architectural legacy.

Morris’s preoccupation with architectural heritage was inextricably linked to his concern for the environment which held his beloved buildings; in his 1877 lecture ‘The Lesser Arts’, which marks the beginning of his enduring environmental criticism, Morris speaks of the dangers of industrialisation, and his fears of the unbridled forces of commerce:

Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke or worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein. (Morris, 1877). For Morris, the hubris of newly enriched industrial nation-builders was an imminent threat to his Utopian vision of an egalitarian, sustainable community, leading to the development of both his Socialism and the increasing importance of SPAB in resisting both urban re-development and over-development. The success of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings prompted the formation of a huge number of voluntary social-reformist groups in England at the end of the nineteenth century: among them The National Trust (1895), the Dartmoor (1883) and Lake District’s (1885) Preservation Societies, the Society for Protection of the Birds (1889) and the Coal Abatement Society (1899) which became the current organization Environment Protection UK and was the precursor to the US Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. The legacy of Morris’s passionate drive to effect change where he saw a threat to his vision of a sustainable and equitable community is the model of social and environmental activism which underpins every modern activist group, and the fact that all of the activist societies mentioned here are still in existence in one form or another, and all as relevant in society today, (indeed even more so in the current climate of antagonism between profit-focused global corporations and the urgent warnings of the conservation movement which should concern us all), is testament to the legacy which far outstrips in importance his popular and enduring recognition as an artist. Whilst the general perception of Morris today may be the impressively bearded and venerable designer whose gorgeously ‘vintage’ and very British signature style decorates a plethora of knick knacks, (an internet search for William Morris merchandise throws up an unending sea of tote bags, drink bottles, phone covers, mugs, keyrings, watering cans and much, much more…all mass-produced, and most likely pirated knock-offs: the antithesis of all things ‘Morris’), it is his environmental legacy which has the potential to be the most meaningfully influential of his achievements, in his native Britain and much further afield.

One of the conservation campaigns for which Morris is most remembered was not in England at all: The Society for the Protection of Ancient Building’s insistence on the communal responsibility to protect the legacies of the past was not confined to English monuments, and as Ruskin’s health declined, inspired by his 1853 three-volume treatise on Venetian architecture ‘Stones of Venice’, Morris and SPAB took on Ruskin’s fight to protect the Basilica of St Mark from the ‘restoration’ planned by French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, an attempt which was sadly only partially successful in conserving the original fabric of the Serenissima’s architectural jewel. Morris and SPAB managed to halt the restorations by appealing to the Italian public’s concerns for their heritage, but eventually the works continued under the direction of Pietro Saccardo, and while this second phase of restoration, which was completed in 1886, was less drastic than the initial proposal, (Maguire & Nelson, 2010) it was still a failure which haunted Morris, (Donovan, 2008). It was in the years of his Venetian campaign that Morris became increasingly involved in political activism, publishing ‘A Summary of the Principles of Socialism’ in 1884, and actively supporting demonstrations by radical groups in defence of free speech. At the 1885 trials in the Thames Police Court of eight men arrested at a meeting of a free speech ‘vigilance committee’ Morris was arrested for assaulting a policeman who attempted to restrain him after he shouted ‘Shame!’ during the proceedings, (Donovan, 2008), although he was later discharged without penalty after identifying himself with the statement ‘I am an artist, and a literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe’, (Meyers, 1991).

This fervour in the fight for social justice and the conservation of the material fabric of society’s heritage continued unabated in Morris’s final years. Over the twenty years in which he was honorary secretary, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings dealt with 2862 cases relating to almost two thousand individual buildings, many of which Morris oversaw, with a level of personal involvement which must have been, at times, confronting: on being shown the newly completed work of cathedral stalls he once exclaimed “Why, I could carve them better with my teeth!” (Glendinning, 2013). Morris combined his punishing load of case-work and political activism with continued ventures in the arts: in 1891, he established the Kelmscott Press which produced fifty-two books, most notably the hand-printed Kelmscott Chaucer, published in 1896, the year of his death, and considered the triumph of the press. At his death one of his doctors described the cause: ‘the disease was simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men’, (Kingsley, 2010).

This idea of Morris as a prolific artist, poet and novelist was, and still is, the widely held view of the man, but it was doubtless the vision of Morris as a fiery shame-shouting reactionary that was the inspiration for a modern work of art which references the disparate threads of his political convictions, his commercial success and his dedication to the conservation of precarious beauty. In the British Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, artist Jeremy Deller exhibited a work entitled English Magic, a collection of imagery looking at English heroes, folklore and politics, the culmination of which was a mural of a gargantuan William Morris standing calf-deep in the Venice Lagoon holding a luxury mega-yacht above his head like a toy, in the act of throwing it bow-first into the lagoon. Entitled ‘We sit starving amongst our gold’, the work is an art world in-joke which refers to the much ridiculed docking of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s massive super-yacht ‘Luna’ in St Mark’s Basin during the 2011 Venice Biennale, blocking views of Venice with $600m worth of billionaire’s plaything. Interestingly, the artist augmented the piece by providing large rubber stamps of the image, along with inkpads and paper, with which the audience became participants, creating their own free artworks, a reference to both the ubiquitous nature of his block prints and the Morris ideal of ‘art for all’ (Clayton-Greene, 2014).

The choice of Morris as the outraged guardian of Venice, and by extension, guardian of the threatened heritage of us all against the encroachments of entitlement and excess, is testament to the enduring impact of his lifelong dedication to a Utopian ideal: the privileged child of the Victorian middle-class becoming the fiercely protective custodian of a nation’s architectural and environmental treasures. His foundation of the Society for the Protection Ancient Buildings marked the beginning of a social mindset which embraced the idea that a collective response to a communal threat could result in real and pragmatic change. It is this reconciliation of expectations and achievements which may finally weave together the contrasts of a man who was the most romantic of radicals.


Democratic Federation membership card, designed by William Morris

‘We sit starving amongst our gold’ Venice Biennale 2013, Jeremy Deller

Article Analysis

‘Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture’ by Harry Berger, Jr &

‘Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Mughal Miniatures: Some Observations on the Outward Gazing Figure in Mughal Art’ by Gregory Minissale.

Sarah Carter-Jenkins 2014

The device of the ‘direct gaze’ in 15th - 17th Century art is discussed in ‘Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture’ and ‘Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Mughal Miniatures: Some Observations on the Outward Gazing Figure in Mughal Art’, with the interplay between the artist, the subject and the viewer as the central theme in both works. ‘Fictions of the Pose’ also questions the role of the art historian in interpreting the messages of self-representation intended by the artist and subject, while ‘Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Mughal Miniatures’ focuses on the introduction of the device of the direct gaze to Eastern art following its common use in European painting in the preceding centuries.

In ‘Fictions of the Pose: Facing the Gaze of Early Modern Portraiture’ Berger (1994, p. 87) considers the varying degrees of responsibility taken by both the artist and the sitter in their self-representation: what story does each participant tell, and how have those stories been interpreted by subsequent art historians? In his opening pages Berger displays a slightly caustic opinion of the ‘physiognomic’ genre of art history, which has traditionally interpreted the portraiture of the Early Modern period, (also known as the Renaissance) by analysis of the image in the light of archival information about the sitter. In essence, this genre posits that the face can be read “as the index of the mind” (Berger 1994, p. 87), a claim Berger dismisses, in somewhat uncharacteristic directness, by asking “just how does he know all that?” (Berger 1994, p. 91) when referring to a description by Ronald Lightbown (1986, pp. 81-82) of a portrait, which confidently asserts detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the mind of the sitter. For Berger, this analysis uses a mix of evidence which he considers “quaint, obsolete, bizarre or merely tedious” (Berger 1994, p. 93) and fails to take into account the active role of the portrait’s subject in self-representation.

Berger attempts to reverse this emphasis on physiognomic analysis, which presupposes a passive sitter being ‘read’ by the artist, and instead concentrates on the conscious act of ‘portrayal’ by both the painter and the sitter: not only do we see the subject as the artist saw them but, by use of what Jacques Lacan calls the ‘gaze’, the sitter is empowered “to imagine and represent themselves, to give themselves to be seen” and also that the gaze constitutes us “as beings who are looked at, in the spectacle of the world” (Lacan 1978, as cited in Berger 1994, p. 95). It is by the conscious decision to represent oneself, the desire to ‘pose’ that the sitter sets in motion “the three-way diachronic transaction between painter, sitter and observer” (Berger 1994, p. 99).

That three-way interplay between artist, subject and observer is also the main focus of ‘Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Mughal Miniatures: Some Observations on the Outward Gazing Figure in Mughal Art’. In it, Minissale describes the introduction of the outward gazing figure to art of the Mughal dynasty, in northern and central India, in the latter half of the 16th Century following the increasing exposure during this time of Mughal artists to European art through the medium of engravings brought to the Mughal court by Jesuit missionaries.

This outward gazing figure is based on the ‘festaiuolo’ or ‘compere’ in European historia paintings (complex scenes depicting historical events, often with multiple characters) and was intended “to act as a mediator between….the viewer and the image” (Minissale 2007, p. 41). Minissale contends that the adoption of this device shows a desire on the part of the Mughal artist to create a “psychological interplay” between the observer and the subject that was previously unknown in Eastern art. In paintings where the main protagonists are engrossed in enacting their own narrative, the use of a figure gazing out of the image directly at the viewer creates a reciprocal form of dialogue. As Minissale argues: “the illusion that the painted figure’s gaze penetrates the viewer’s space arrests the process of inspecting a painting, perhaps because of the fleeting illusion, which one has to check, that someone in the picture is looking at us” (Minissale 2007, p. 42).

The placement of the outward gazing figure, often on the threshold of the painting further served to “demarcate outer and inner pictoral space by bringing to the attention of the viewer the idea of the threshold” (Minissale 2007, p. 48), reflecting back the gaze of the viewer so that the observer becomes the observed.

It is the power of the ‘gaze’, as understood by both authors, which involves and challenges the observer to question their role in the dynamic of artist/sitter/viewer. This interplay requires that none of the participants are passive: the artist, through whose lens we must necessarily view the performance of the ‘pose’; the sitter, whose decision to “be seen being seen” (Berger 1994, p. 92) makes possible the portrait itself; and the viewer, who is challenged to identify the subject, or indeed, identify with the subject, Minissale (2007, p.48).

So, in both these articles, we understand that it is the device of ‘direct gaze’ which ultimately provides the connection inherent in the act of painting/posing/observing. Both Berger and Minissale cite Alberti’s contemporary treatise ‘On Painting’ (Leon Alberti 1435) in which he writes “I like there to be someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on, and either beckons them with his hand to look, or with ferocious expression and forbidding glance challenges them not to come near, as if he wished their business to be secret, or points to some danger or remarkable secret, or by his gestures invites you to laugh or to weep with them” (Alberti & Kemp 1991, pp. 77-78).

The commonality of the device of the direct outward gaze in both Early Modern portraiture and the work of Mughal artists a century later serves to underline that it is a very human compulsion to communicate the essential, to ‘tell the story’. It is this desire to involve the observer in the narrative of both the artist and subject that has made eye-to-eye connection an indispensible device in art throughout cultures and time.

Image: Leon Battista Alberti

bottom of page