Five Artists Inspired by the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)

Glencairn Museum News | Number 6, 2017

 

“Deliver Us from Evil,” John Flaxman (1755-1826)
Plaster study for marble relief in the parish church in Micheldever, England
(c. 1805-1813; 08.SP.01)

 

Glencairn Museum’s art collection includes examples of works created by artists who were influenced by the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Born in Sweden, Swedenborg was the son of a prominent Lutheran bishop. After spending most of his life as an influential scientist and philosopher, at the age of 55 Swedenborg experienced a series of religious visions, and went on to write twenty-five volumes of systematic theology. A number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers and poets, as well as painters and sculptors, used his theological writings as a source of inspiration for their artistic creations. Swedenborgian themes, such as heaven and hell, the spiritual relationship of married couples, and the nature of the human soul, have become the subject matter of many of their paintings and sculptures.

Swedenborg’s concept of “correspondences” was especially influential with some artists, leading to a variety of new artistic theories and techniques. According to Swedenborg, everything in the natural world originates from and is sustained by the spiritual world. Therefore, images of people and things on earth, and even individual colors, correspond to spiritual realities. To these artists, it is not the natural world that is of primary importance, but the spiritual truths revealed in the way they use these images and colors.

Glencairn’s New Church (Swedenborgian) art collection includes works produced by some of the most prominent artists known to have been influenced by Swedenborg, and many others by lesser-known artists. Nineteenth-century artists include John Flaxman (1755-1826), William Blake (1757-1827), Hiram Powers (1805-1873), and George Inness (1825-1894). The work of Dennis Duckworth (1911-2003), a New Church minister in England, is an example of the twentieth-century continuation of this artistic tradition.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the British sculptor John Flaxman initiated a new tradition in funerary sculpture by portraying the human soul as a full-bodied adult. This idea, which subsequently became common in European cemeteries, was derived directly from the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Flaxman, a devoted reader of Swedenborg, accepted the New Church idea that the body, as the garment of the soul, mirrors its shape. As such, the form of a person’s soul, both while living on earth and after going to heaven, is entirely human. “Deliver Us from Evil” (see photo above) depicts a male figure struggling upwards, with four spirits—two good and two evil—fighting for his soul. In New Church belief, the soul is continuously kept in a state of spiritual freedom; here Flaxman depicts a crucial moment of choice between good and evil, experienced by all humans.

 

“The Pulpit—The Tedium of Perpetual Worship,” Dennis Duckworth (1911-2003)
Conté crayon on paper
(c. 1940; 07.DR.1037)

 

Dennis Duckworth was born in Accrington, Lancashire, England in 1911, where he studied at the Accrington School of Art. He declined an invitation to study at the Royal College of Art in order to attend the New Church College in Essex. Duckworth was ordained as a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister of the General Conference in 1939, and served in the ministry for over fifty years. Some of Duckworth’s works were inspired by the descriptions of the spiritual world found in Emanuel Swedenborg’s writings. “The Pulpit—The Tedium of Perpetual Worship” illustrates what happened to certain people after they died who believed that heavenly joy and eternal happiness consist in continually listening to sermons and “perpetually glorifying God in a celebration that would go on forever.” According to Swedenborg, after just a few days of this, these same people said, "Our ears are going deaf. Stop preaching!” Angels then appeared and explained that glorifying God is not endless worship, but “bearing the fruits of love—that is, performing our work faithfully, honestly, and diligently. Doing this is loving God; doing this is also loving our neighbor . . . God is glorified by our doing this, and then also by our having worship at particular times” (True Christian Religion, 738).

 

“Proserpine,” Hiram Powers (1805-1873)
Marble
(c. 1845; 09.SP.1639)

 

Hiram Powers has been called the foremost American neoclassical sculptor of the nineteenth century. He was also a confirmed Swedenborgian: “I am a ‘New Churchman,’ a ‘Swedenborgian’ - a ‘New Jerusalemite,’ without any reservation whatever; and I wish it to be known” (H. Powers to J. Spurgin, August 10, 1865). Swedenborg wrote that the natural body is merely an earthly veil that covers the soul, or spiritual body. In a letter to the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was also a reader of Swedenborg, Powers proposed that “the legitimate aim of art should be spiritual and not animal. A nude statue should be an unveiled soul” (H. Powers to E.B. Browning, August 7, 1853). In his sculpture of Proserpine (the Roman name for the Greek goddess Persephone), as in his other ideal sculptures, Powers was attempting to reproduce a tangible image of the human soul; each “unveiled soul” is a representation of heaven as seen through the human form.

 

Illustrations of the Book of Job (plate 7), William Blake (1757-1827)
Engraving
(1825; 07.PR.721)

 

William Blake, the British poet and artist, was a friend of the artist John Flaxman. Scholars agree that, like Flaxman, Blake was influenced by Swedenborg’s writings, although the exact nature of this influence on his poetry and illustrations is a matter of lively debate. Like his other works, Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job seem to combine his own symbolic imagery with the Swedenborgian system of “correspondences.” Some of these influences were described by the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine in her book, The Human Face of God: William Blake and the Book of Job (1982), where she notes the correspondence between the background landscape in Blake’s engravings and Job’s inner spiritual journey. However, Raine’s interpretation has not been universally accepted.

 

North Conway, New Hampshire, George Inness (1825-1894)
Oil on canvas
(c. 1875; on loan from Gerald and Emily Jane Lemole)

 

George Inness, one of the most influential American artists of the nineteenth century, is sometimes called the “Father of American Landscape Painting.” The significance of colors in the Swedenborgian system of “correspondences” was well known to Inness, who published an article in an 1867 New Church journal titled, “Colors and their Correspondences.” In 1868 he was baptized into the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem by the Reverend Dr. John Curtis Ager. Many years later, in a eulogy for Inness (1894), Ager said, “In Swedenborg George Inness found the basis for his theories of art. He found there the true solution for all the problems of expression. To him all nature was symbolic—full of spiritual meaning. He prized nothing in nature that did not stand for something.”

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