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The Religion Of Art, Art For Art’s Sake: Dante Gabriel Rossetti And Walter Pater

  • Stephen Cheeke

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  • Stephen Cheeke
    Bristol University, UK

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In all this may be perceived the affinity . . . between religion—whose element is infinitude . . . submitting herself to circumscription, and reconciled to substitutions; and poetry—ethereal and transcendent, yet incapable to sustain her existence without sensuous incarnation.

William Wordsworth, “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” 65

—With an impatience sometimes taken to be essential to Modernism, T.S. Eliot dismissed the idea that art (or literature, or culture) could offer some kind of substitution for, or transformation of religion:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find that you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself, I find, that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name. . . . to ask of poetry that it give religious and philosophic satisfaction, while deprecating philosophy and dogmatic religion, is of course to embrace the shadow of a shade.

“Mathew Arnold” 113-14

“Nothing in this world or the next” betrays a serious irritation with Matthew Arnold’s humanism, the subject of the Harvard lecture, an irritation that had also been evident in the earlier, better known essay “Arnold and Pater” (1930). There, Eliot described the way in which “literature, or Culture, tended with Arnold to usurp the place of religion.” Usurpation may be taken as a form of substitution, though it is one that relies upon the strict opposition of the two entities, and in which the legitimacy of the exchange is contested. Eliot argued that Arnold’s writings on religion reach two “different types of conclusion”: first, “that Religion is Morals”; and second, “that Religion is Art” (“Arnold and Pater” 382). For Eliot, neither was sound. “The effect of Arnold’s religious campaign is to divorce Religion from thought”; this amounted to “a counsel to get all the emotional kick out of Christianity one can, without the bother of believing it” (382). [1] “What fun it would be,” the young Walter Pater is said to have exclaimed, “to be ordained and not to believe a single word of what you’re saying” (qtd. in Bell-Villada 75). [2] For Robert Browning’s Bishop Blougram, “he believed, say, half he spoke (l.980) and what he “spoke” was a theory of half-believing. The Victorian period is one in which the element of “belief” in the larger question of faith is, as everybody knows, under pressure, stretched into the Pascal-wagers of pretending to believe, of “missing full credence,” (l. 170) as Blougram puts it, or believing and not believing at the same time—which is not the same thing as doubting. The Clerical Subscription Act of 1865 made a “general,” rather than an “unfeigned,” assent to the Thirty Nine Articles the condition of ordination for the Anglican clergy (Moore 153-186). “Unbelief” may be a misleading term for the ways in which forms of agnosticism asserted themselves as new beliefs and new creeds (Taylor 374). [3] What exactly was the relationship of the new to the old, and what would a believer in the “religion of art” believe?

The “degradation of philosophy and religion,” initiated by Arnold, was, according to Eliot, “competently continued by Pater”:

The dissolution of thought in that age, the isolation of art, philosophy, religion, ethics and literature, is interrupted by various chimerical attempts to effect imperfect syntheses. Religion became morals, religion became art, religion became science or philosophy; various blundering attempts were made at alliances between various branches of thought. . . . The right practice of “art for art’s sake” was the devotion of Flaubert or Henry James . . . [4]

“Arnold and Pater” 384-5

“Devotion” has the idea of religious calling, of the hieratic or sacerdotal, the self-sacrificing, and draws upon the plausibility of the analogy between religious and artistic practice. Whether “analogy” in this case should be thought of as a type of substitution and exchange (a metonymy), or merely as a form of parallelism (an allegory), depends upon how seriously one is prepared to take the practice of the artist. In a metonymic relation, the two phenomena are said to interpenetrate one another, to each participate in the other’s substance, whilst an allegorical relationship suggests no necessary or consubstantial connection between the two terms. The question often seems to be framed as one of “authentic ownership” or the “capture of terminology”—of the entitlement of art to the language of religion (Blumenberg 64-6). [5] Is the logic of such a relation necessarily one of bathos, a mock-heroic incongruity, the yoking of little things to greater things? The faith of the artist, artistic sacrifice, martyrdom, witness, belief, the false or insincere belief (the hypocrisy) of the artist-pharisee—these are all recognisably Jamesian subjects. But how far could “right practice” in aesthetic matters be taken? The non-religious artist, it would seem, even one as priestly as Henry James, is condemned to use religious language only metaphorically, or in a debased form, however much he (or his characters) sacrifice to Art. James sought to measure and test that apparent diminishing of religious sensibility, which would at the same time imply an expansion of the aesthetic sphere. But the underlying assumption that there would be a point of convergence, a merging in language that would denote a merging in experience, begs the question of the ways in which religious language—whether that of scripture or non-scripture—is itself inherently and indissolubly figurative. In other words, as John Henry Newman and John Keble would often remind their audiences, any sense of the divine would present itself to the human mind in symbolic terms, in the clothing of metaphor: “When the mind is occupied by some vast and awful subject of contemplation,” wrote Newman, “it is prompted to give utterance to its feelings in a figurative style; for ordinary words will not convey the admiration, nor literal words the reverence which possesses it” (Arians 63-4). [6] (The problem is how to imagine language that is not metaphorical, that is “literal”). Blougram, we are told, “said true things, but called them by wrong names” (l.996). Eliot could not persuade himself that he had “in effect the same thing under a different name.” There is semiotic uncertainty of the opposite kind also at issue, the possibility of discerning a different thing under the same name, a new thing under “religion,” “martyrdom,” “calling”—a new thing under “Art.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge had insisted upon the necessary process of desynonimization in our use of language, particularly in philosophical or theological language, which would be to find different words for what would, on discrimination, turn out to be different things: imagination and fancy, understanding and reason, symbol and allegory (Lectures 1818-1819 553-4) The prospectus of the Westminster Review, drawn up by George Eliot in 1852, described the editors’ belief that “the same fundamental truths are apprehended under a variety of forms,” and that religion “will only discard an old form to assume and vitalize one more expressive of its essence” (Haight 33,42). [7] The question of form and figure, of old forms and new figures, lies at the heart of the problem.

Christian restatement or adjustment (the reaction of the Church to developments in scientific knowledge which challenge some orthodox point of doctrine, or which undermine some traditional legend) are hard to separate from Christian reduction, even though the processes may not always be moving in the same direction at once in the nineteenth century. One way of responding to the notion of a “religion of art” is simply to reject the analogy, as Eliot did. This would be to believe that what Nicholas Halmi calls the “reoccupation of a conceptual system” (the aesthetic appropriation of religious language and ideas) has endowed that system “with a new content,” a quite different thing under the same name (Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol 115). [8] Here “reoccupation” is a form of usurpation, or, in the words of Hans Blumenberg:

[A] certain specific content is explained by another one preceding it, and indeed in such a way that the asserted transformation of the one into the other is neither an intensification nor a clarification but rather an alienation from its original meaning and function. [9]


Another response would be to see art-religion not as a symptom of unbelief or agnosticism, but as a form of Christian restatement, an argument from within Christian culture that was as much a part of the survival of that culture as it was of its reduction.

In an essay of 1839 (before his conversion), Newman is writing of substitutions as place changing:

The taste for poetry of a religious kind has in modern times in a certain sense taken the place of the deep contemplative spirit of the early Church . . . as if our character required such an element to counterbalance the firmer and more dominant properties in it. . . . Poetry then is our mysticism; and so far as any two characters of mind tend to penetrate below the surface of things, and to draw men away from the material to the invisible world, so far they may certainly be said to answer the same end; and that too a religious one.

“Prospects” 358

He is careful here not to push the analogy too far. Poetry, he later argued, had become the “refuge” of those who “have not the Catholic Church to flee to and repose upon” (“John Keble 442): a “refuge,” like Matthew Arnold’s “consolation” (“The Study of Poetry,” Complete 7.1), implying the absence of a greater good. [10] Throughout the century, but particularly from the early years of the Oxford movement onwards, the notion of the “poetical” is pressed into an extraordinarily focussed tension with the “religious,” as if each could be hoped to illuminate the other. As the century progressed, the aesthetic widened and the focussing term would more often be “Art” (meaning literature, painting, sculpture, music). For, “poetical” was an adjective applicable to any aspect of the Church. The Church was itself “the most sacred and venerable of poets” (Newman, Dublin Review 452-3). “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry,” (Complete 7.63) wrote Arnold in “The Study of Poetry” (1880). For Newman the poetry was both a conscious and an unconscious matter, drawing upon “feeling . . . which will not bear words,” fulfilling “some dream of childhood” (“John Keble” 442-3).

Much of the real disturbance in the nineteenth century concerns not what the aesthetic and the religious have in common, but on what strictly separates them, and on this subject far less was written. The impulse to conflate the two or to effect a synthesis is evident everywhere. In the Latin vates, as Thomas Carlyle would remind his readers, we have the double function of poetry and prophecy, religion and art, undifferentiated at an etymological root or beginning. Evolutionary theory would posit the same twin birth, the inextricable link between religion and aesthetics, and in Walter Benjamin’s theory of “aura,” the same cultic double function is identified as the phenomenon that is undone during the nineteenth century by mechanical reproducibility (“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” 215). By the end of the century, Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) had arrived at the perfectly circular argument that in freeing itself from religion, poetry had itself become religion: “In attaining this liberty, it accepts a heavier burden; for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemnly, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual” (9). The religiosity of a certain strand of later nineteenth-century aestheticism arises in part from the simple desire to make the most exalted claims possible for art. In this, the analogies with “ritual” or with the “sacred” could be multiplied: religious language borrowed or imitated, as it had always been borrowed and imitated, not in order to debase religion but merely to pay homage to art.

A much-quoted note by William Michael Rossetti to the 1870 edition of his brother’s poems brings some of these problems out into the open:

By “Art” he [DGR] decidedly meant something more than “poetic art”. He meant to suggest that his poems embodied conceptions and a point of view related to pictorial art—also that this art was, in sentiment, though not necessarily in dogma, Catholic—medieval and unmodern. When in 1869 my brother got his poems privately printed, as a convenient preliminary before settling for publication, he put a note to “Ave” thus: “This hymn was written as a prologue to a series of designs. Art still identifies itself with all faiths for her own purposes: and the emotional influence here employed demands above all an inner standing point.”

“Rossetti Archive”

What is difficult to discern from this is whether the “inner standing point” of Rossetti’s poem “Ave” (a prayer to the Virgin) is one in relation to the Church, or a quite separate thing altogether—a kind of intense sympathy or sentimental attachment to Catholicism from an outer standing point, perhaps closest of all to an appreciation of Christian painting. The separation of “sentiment” from “dogma” is exactly the distinction Eliot disallowed, while it could never be clear what “identifying with all faiths” (identifying with any faith) could mean. Although, to an extent, the blurring is a conscious one on Rossetti’s part, it also allows for the possibility that the “inner standing point” is a more inner one than he is able to recognise; that the attempt to put a distance between himself and Christianity, to claim an autonomous space for art, may also create a settlement of belief on a new basis and with a fresh clarity—at least, up to the point where such things are matters of clear pronouncement:

Soul, is it Faith, or Love, or Hope,
That lets me see her standing up
Where the light of the Throne is bright?

“Ave” 98-100

“That lets me see her standing up”: the question is awkwardly put and perhaps awkwardly felt, but it is nevertheless a serious one about the basis of belief. It is also a rhetorical question in which the dramatic, fictive nature of the monologue is acknowledged. As Jerome McGann observes: “‘Ave’ is a special kind of dramatic monologue where an inner-standing point is constructed and then occupied simultaneously by the writing/composing Victorian poet, Rossetti, and his imaginary Catholic antitype from the fourteenth century” (Rossetti, Collected Poetry and Prose xxvi). [11] But this “simultaneous” occupation could never be straightforward, or unproblematic. Are the poet and his antitype merely different names for the same thing, or does one usurp, occupy or reoccupy the conceptual space of the other? It is difficult to judge the exact relationship between the “religion of beauty” cultivated in Rossetti’s poetry and painting, and the poetical Catholicism or “Art-Catholic” to which he is drawn—to which he in some sense belongs, through sympathy—because Rossetti’s art consistently sets up a typological relationship with Catholicism in which the Victorian poet is both united with and divided from a consciousness of devout, impassioned faith.

The attempt to renew religious types of consciousness places Rossetti squarely in the revisionist and re-evaluative tradition of the “Art-Catholic” that took its central stimulus from the writings of Alexis François Rio in France, which would be transmitted into English (and diluted to suit Protestant taste) by figures such as Anna Jameson. [12] This particular aesthetic—primitivist, pre-Raphaelite, revivalist—is significantly different from the nostalgia for Christian forms and Christian anti-materialism that would permeate a later Aestheticism, particularly in its Paterian variety. Even so, the religious revival in art of the 1840s and 50s and the aestheticism, or “religion of art,” in the later decades of the century both sought to clarify the relationship between art and belief. [13] The movement to what Blumenberg calls “the abandonment of encumbrances” (6) could equally serve theological or secular interests. [14] Efforts to disconnect “aspects” of religion from the superstructure of Church dogma and doctrine would themselves take the form of theories of art and the artist. In an early essay on “Coleridge’s Writings” (1866), Pater had argued:

There are aspects of the religious character which have an artistic worth distinct from their religious import. Longing, a chastened temper, spiritual joy, are precious states of mind, not because they are part of man’s duty or because God has commanded them, still less because they are means of obtaining a reward, but because like culture itself they are remote, refined, intense, existing only by the triumph of a few over a dead world of routine in which there is no lifting of the soul at all. If there is no other world, art in its own interest must cherish such characteristics as beautiful spectacles. . . . Religious belief, the craving for objects of belief, may be refined out of our hearts, but they must leave their sacred perfume, their spiritual sweetness, behind. [15]


The possibility that “there is no other world” is the assumption Pater often makes as the first condition for art’s emancipation from religion, and other phrases in this passage (“art in its own interest”) anticipate the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance. But the limiting of the religious “import” of certain “precious states of mind” to the question of duty, obedience, or reward is obviously reductive. The distinction Pater is trying to make is again one between sentiment and dogma, between some kind of triumphant emotional or moral value, or moral-emotion (Eliot’s “kick”), and the dogmatic or doctrinal structure of Christianity which claims these values and this triumph as its own. If it might be argued that it is the moral valuation of these “precious states of mind” in and of themselves that is the substance of doctrine—so that on one level Pater is merely re-affirming the grounds of faith in the simplest, primary sense—what is nevertheless significant, and what makes Pater’s position fundamentally different from Rossetti’s, is his attempt to undo the naming act of Christianity in order to recuperate a supposedly more primitive and therefore more authentic metaphorical condition for religious language. [16] Such an effort relies upon the performative nature of Pater’s own prose, seeming to enact the kinds of processes it describes, here turning “objects of belief,” or the craving for those objects, into their figurative after-shadows, their ‘‘perfume” or “spirit.” The final metaphor—of a perfume left within the heart, is an example of synaesthesia, the beloved trope of Symbolist and Aesthetic poetics, the fascination with which had already been evident in Romantic writing. Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp” had worried about the religiously unorthodox connotations of the figure (“a light in sound, a sound-like power in light” (l. 28)). Its significance increases as the century advances, and its scope expands, first in France and later in England, where Pater would famously theorize the submerged identity of poetry, music and painting. And it is this insistence upon the metaphorical dimension to the object of belief, the possibility of transformative kinds of experience through aesthetics, which is central to the process of capturing or “reoccupying” religious language during the nineteenth century. The types of non or supra-rational experience expressed in and by the figurative nature of religious language were—or at least appeared to be—wrested away from Christianity through reconceptualising them under the sign of the “poetic” or the “aesthetic.” [17]

That process had its roots in German Romanticism, in ideas transmitted into English culture by readers of German such as Coleridge and Carlyle. Coleridge’s theory of the “Symbol” constitutes a pivotal moment, and is well known. It is most closely articulated in The Statesman’s Manual (1816):

[A] Symbol (Ho estin aei tautegorikon) is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative.


The defining characteristic of the symbol was “the grounding of its representational function in a relation of ontological participation” (Halmi, “Coleridge” 347). [18] It was therefore a synecdochical figure, one of a substitution that remained a part of the original whole (pars pro toto). The Greek, “which is always tautegorical,” is one of those Coleridgean neologisms that seem designed to exasperate his critics. “And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,” Byron noted in the dedication to Don Juan, “Explaining metaphysics to the nation. / I wish he would explain his explanation” (“Dedication” 15-16 ). As if to gratify this wish, Coleridge returned to ‘tautegorical’ nine years later, in Aids to Reflection:

tautegorical (i.e. expressing the same subject but with a difference) in contra-distinction from metaphors and similitudes, that are always allegorical (i.e. expressing a different subject but with a resemblance).


For Coleridge this was connected both to Greek and Hebrew philosophical traditions and their influence upon the Christian notion of the Logos as Deus alter et idem[19]

Late Romantic thinking, especially in aestheticism and symbolism, is engrossed in the problem of the secularisation of the “Symbol,” taking traditional ideas of the universe as inherently numinous—or, in Professor Teufelsdröckh’s phrase, “one vast Symbol of God” (Sartor Resartus 166)—and then submitting them to a process of de-Christianisation. [20] This would not necessarily involve denying the existence of the “other world” in Pater’s sense; more often it would mean positing a capitalised Art rather than Christianity as the key mediating term—the essential medium for the translucence of the infinite within the finite. Baudelaire’s “Further Notes on Edgar Poe” in The Painter of Modern Life (1863), reworking ideas from Poe’s own “The Poetic Principle,” phrases it in this way:

It is this admirable and immortal instinct for Beauty that makes us consider the Earth and its shows as a glimpse, a correspondence of Heaven. The unquenchable thirst for all that lies beyond, and which life reveals, is the liveliest proof of our immortality. It is at once by means of and through poetry, by means of and through music, that the soul gets a glimpse of the glories that lie beyond the grave. . . . Thus the Poetic Principle lies, strictly and simply, in human aspiration towards a superior Beauty, and the manifestation of that principle is in an enthusiasm, an excitement of the soul. [21]


Baudelaire’s “correspondence” (of and through) may be directly indebted to Coleridge’s “Symbol,” (and Baudelaire’s own poetry contains some of the most celebrated examples of synaesthesia in European literature), but it is distinctly different from the correspondences of a Renaissance Christian humanism. If this shift of emphasis seemed hostile to Christianity, and it would often present itself in that aspect, it had nevertheless developed out of Christian ways of conceiving the correspondence of the eternal and the temporal, and would not relinquish that sense of “after the tomb.” The question then becomes one about the precise sense of a later conceptual system developing out of an earlier one. (Does out of signal an alienation or an intensification?) For those unsympathetic to the Church, tautegorical modes of apprehending the divine (sacramentalism, typology, analogy) could be closed and suffocating circuits. The formula “art for art’s sake” (in some ways a good old-fashioned tautology) is meant to contradict a Christian typology that asserts that nothing exists wholly for its own sake, since everything is always also in relation to Christ. One of the motivations of the movement would be this desire to be free of the necessary alignment with Christianity, from the drag of the type. [22] At the same time, the “religion of art” refused to let go of the “spiritual sweetness” it perceived as the “perfume” of the type, insisting upon the union of the sensuous with the supersensuous. But just what is supersensuous, exactly, in the correspondences or translucencies of Art? A useful way of focussing that question is to consider a little more closely the provocatively tautologous nature of the phrase “art for art’s sake,” and to consider the ways in which it participates in, and is divided from, a “religion of art.”

—A phrase as booming as “art for art’s sake” is distinctly audible, gathering in the atmosphere, so to speak, before bursting as a thunder-clap in several places at once. Coleridge had written of “beauty for its own sake” in the Biographia Literaria (1817), distinct from “connection or association with some other thing” (236), a paraphrase of Kant, and in the same year Leigh Hunt had described the poetry of Keats as “revelling in real poetry for its own sake,” in The Examiner (qtd in Findlay 246-8). But the phrase is really a French distillation of ideas loosely taken from Kant and Schiller that became hardened and dogmatised in the literary-cultural wars of the 1820s and 30s in Paris. Benjamin Constant’s diary of his sojourn in Germany during the Napoleonic period records a conversation in 1804 with Henry Crabb Robinson, who had read Kant in German. Constant’s précis is Kant-for-beginners, possibly as transmitted by Robinson:

L’art pour l’art, sans but, car tout but denature l’art. Mais l’art atteint un but qu’il n’a pas. [Art for art’s sake, with no purpose, since any purpose will denature art. But art does attain a purpose which it does not have.] [23]

Trans. By Bell-Villada 36

The fully-fledged phrase l’art pour l’art first appears in public in the 1818 Sorbonne lectures of Victor Cousin (who had also half-digested Kant), which were given the title Du Vrai, du Beau et du Bien when published in 1836. [24] The section on the beautiful was translated into English by Jesse Cato Daniel in 1848. Cousin’s French: “Il faut de la religion pour la religion, de la morale pour la morale, comme de l’art pour l’art,” is rendered in Daniel’s translation: “Let religion, morals, and arts exist supremely for themselves” (Prettejohn 282). “Why not let him remain forever content to exist beautifully!” exclaims De Maurier’s Maudle in a famous cartoon of 1881, mocking Wilde. This ideal—or at least this adverbial habit—of existing supremely, beautifully, simply for the sake of existence, was central to the credo of the movement as theorised by Pater and his followers. The phrase “art for art’s sake” has been traced in English criticism of the 1830s (in an 1837 Quarterly Review article on the poetry of Lamartine, for example), emerging through the largely disapproving transmission of ideas associated with French Romanticism and Victor Hugo. [25] There was something about the neatness of the phrase, the fact that it could readily be memorized by that section of the middle-class who concerned themselves with new “ideas,” that leant itself to rapid banalization. Théophile Gautier was complaining as early as 1847 in an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes that the motto could be reduced simplistically to mean “la forme pour la forme, le moyen pour le moyen” (“form for form’s sake, means for means’ sake”) (qtd. In Prettejohn 65). The phrase then appears in relation to English art in the 1868 study, William Blake, by that “demonian youth,” Charles Algernon Swinburne: “Art for art’s sake first of all, and afterward we may suppose the rest may be added to her” (91); it is found in Pater’s essay later the same year on “Poems by William Morris,” in the Westminster Review, and again in the art critic Tom Taylor’s review of the 1868 exhibitions, which began to identify circles and groups of what would later be known as “aesthetic” artists, chiefly around Rossetti and Frederic Leighton—the latter’s pictures being described as “art for art’s sake” by Taylor (Prettejohn 6). [26] It is curious to see how thoroughly and incessantly the phrase is echoed, reworked, rhymed with, throughout the century: beauty for beauty’s sake, paintings for the sake of painting, song for song’s sake. Gerard Manley Hopkins sketched a theory of poetry in 1874 as “in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake” (289) and John Ruskin thought it expedient to look into the meaning of loving a “stone for a stone’s sake” (“Wordsworth,” Works 35.219). [27] The most famous outing came in the “Conclusion” to Pater’s The Renaissance, itself a reworking of passages from the earlier Morris review:

Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake. [28]


Pater had revised the original passage, replacing “art for art’s sake” with “art for its own sake,” and the change is significant because the “love of art for its own sake” would not be restricted to the kind of art (Rossetti’s, Leighton’s) given the label l’art pour l’art. This was the conclusion to a book about the Renaissance that does not shrink from the Christian culture of that period. The final sentence is another version of the “if there is no other world,” the discoupling of the value of life and art from a sense of man as immortal, and it is the sentiment that most offended Eliot, who wrote: “The second half of the sentence is of course demonstrably untrue” (Renaissance art would be one demonstration of this), “or else being true of everything else besides art is meaningless” (Arnold and Pater 387). For Eliot, Pater’s “Conclusion” was not concerned with art at all, but with “life,” and was therefore a “theory of ethics,” a “serious statement of morals” (387). Much energy was spent trying to define exactly what moral statement was being made in the phrase “art for art’s-sake,” and how seriously to take its gesture of sidestepping or rising above the moral question. In British culture, the phrase was immediately associated with a certain notion and privileging of the category of the beautiful and a heightened or finessed attention to form. This stimulated the set of moves and counter-moves made repeatedly throughout the century. An emphasis upon form or beauty to the expressed exclusion of other concerns is taken (or mistaken) as a manifesto for sensualism. In response, sensuous form is posited as a good in itself.

The question of sensuous form is, indeed, the central one. Pater’s essay on Winckelmann in The Renaissance made a distinction between Greek art, “and mystical art of the Christian age, which is always trying to express thoughts beyond itself” (132). Greek art (such as the Venus de Milo) is:

[In] no sense a symbol, a suggestion of anything beyond its own victorious fairness. The mind begins and ends with the finite image, yet loses no part of the spiritual motive. That motive is not lightly and loosely attached to the sensuous form, as the meaning to the allegory, but saturates and is identical with it.


“In no sense a symbol” indicates the desire to get away from Christian modes of interpretation, away from typological or sacramental figures, from the analogical method of biblical exegesis, which distinguishes between, even if it does not divide, form and content, “the meaning [from] the allegory.” At the same time, “loses no part of the spiritual motive,” is determined not to forfeit the idea of the supersensuous. Here, Pater’s idea of saturation might be conceived of as a kind of dense translucence. Like many of his key terms, it is taken from chemistry: “A body is said to be saturated with another, when it is so intimately combined with that other as to lose some peculiar characteristic property which it possesses when free from that other” (OED). So it may also, perhaps, be in tension with the idea of translucence. The more an object becomes saturated, the less translucent it would become. The Coleridgean “Symbol” had already been taken in this direction—from translucence to saturation—within German Romantic Hellenism. Schelling, for example, had adopted the notion of the tautegorical in his theory of the Greek gods, whom he had described as “actually existing beings whose existence is not different from their meaning, for they mean only what they are” (qtd. In Halmi, “Coleridge” 354). [29] The pressure on the word “only” here is intense, and question-begging. After all, who can say what the Greek gods are? Saturation seems to be a kind of deliberate block to translucence, a literalism that seeks to obstruct the notion of mediation.

Behind this seem to be two antithetical notions of incarnation: a Christian version, and one developed within German Romantic Hellenism in relation to the Greek gods. Coleridge’s thinking had always gravitated towards the former. The Statesman’s Manual had described the Imagination as giving birth to “a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors” (29 orginal italics). Consubstantiality is a central theological concept (the Greek homoousios). It had been defined at the Council of Nicea in terms of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity, and the word has clear Christological overtones for Coleridge. For Pater and others, however, what might equally be termed the consubstantial nature of Greek art had no Christian connotation at all: “The mind begins and ends with the finite image, yet loses no part of the spiritual motive.” We might call this de-Christianised consubstantiality, or incarnation as a kind of literalism, or, in a most basic sense, the tautology of the body. Like art “proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass,” there is for Pater an ethical value in this “victorious fairness” that depends upon the freedom from transcendental significance, from the notion of truth being conducted via a medium other than itself (Pater, Renaissance 153). And yet the question remains: what, exactly, is Pater claiming to be the “spiritual motive” of such non-Christian art?

One answer would be the ethical spirit of antiquity before Christianity. The concept of the aesthetic and ethical unity of Greek art had come from Winckelmann, as did the idea that “this immersion in the sensuous was, religiously at least, indifferent” (Renaissance 142), as Pater phrased it. “Indifferent” would suggest “disinterestedness” in a Kantian sense, but it is a word of particular moral elasticity and significance in this period. In the positive sense, it denotes a kind of “blitheness or repose” (Renaissance 142) in Winckelmann and his followers, an Hellenic ideal again with its roots in German Romanticism, and with Schlegel’s notion of the classical Greek world as one in which man “was all things unto himself” (Schlegel 26). It belongs to that series of adjectives Winckelmann yoked to Greek antiquity: tranquillity, grandeur, stillness, calmness, unity, blitheness, repose, indifference—all, we might argue, “spiritual motives”of a sort, if “spiritual motive” is taken to mean a form of hard-won, or difficult value. Elsewhere Pater had praised the quality of “unconcern” in the handling of abstract questions, something he had felt was missing in Coleridge’s writing. [30] There is an analogous repose in the structure of the phrase “art for art’s sake,” describing and exemplifying a similar self-unity in art, a just equipoise, the ideal for which would be discovered in Greek sculpture.

Clearly, however, the notion of “indifference” is open to a quite different set of emphases. In an extreme form, it might be said to yield the disturbingly non-human element in beauty Keats had addressed in the statuary and artefacts of Greece, a cruelty or callousness that emerge in the absence of their opposites. Pater’s The Renaissance is repeatedly discovering the tension “indifference” finds itself in with “passion,” whilst it attempts to resolve that tension into some kind of credible paradox. In the chapter on Winckelmann, Pater writes:

The protracted longing of [Winckelmann’s] youth is not a vague, romantic longing: he knows what he longs for, what he wills. Within its severe limits his enthusiasm burns like lava. “You know”, says Lavater, speaking of Winckelmann’s countenance, “that I consider ardour and indifference by no means incompatible in the same character. If ever there was a striking instance of that union, it is in the countenance before us.” [31]


Is his indifference a passionate ardour, a passion of indifference, or simply the opposite quality co-existing peacefully in the same sensibility? “His enthusiasm burns like lava” anticipates what is, perhaps, the most polished figure of Pater’s “Conclusion”: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame” (152), in which there is the same tension between the notion of something tough and inert, and the “flame” of passion, burning, “always” alive. Taking Goethe’s phrase “Im Ganzen, Guten, Wahren, resolut zu leben,” Pater suggests that “in wholeness” (Im Ganzen) “means the life of one for whom, over and over again, what was once precious was indifferent” (147):

The demand of the intellect is to feel itself alive. It must see into the laws, the operation, the intellectual reward of every divided form of culture; but only that it may measure the relation between itself and them. It struggles with those forms till its secret is won from each, and then lets each fall back into its place, in the supreme, artistic view of life. With a kind of passionate coldness, such natures rejoice to be away from and past their former selves, and above all, they are jealous of that abandonment to one special gift which really limits their capabilities.

Renaissance 147

“Passionate coldness” might suggest the discipline of renunciation found in Christian asceticism, and Pater makes the connection between pagan and Christian types of indifference elsewhere in the chapter. The notion here of being “away from and past their former selves” hints, too, at the terrifying emptiness or alienation from the self, its absolute permeability and inconsistency of outline and body, a dissolution which haunts and countermands the “quickened, multiplied consciousness” (153) of the “Conclusion.” How secure a spiritual motive, then, is indifference? It seems to be at once a kind of hard-won serenity, a form of disciplined enlightenment, a spiritual end-in-itself, and a decline into non-feeling or unconcern, a blankness of affect. Or rather, it seems that it could only be either one or the other.

The positive virtue of indifference (serenity, repose, joyous wisdom) and its connection to an aesthetic of sensuous unity deriving from Romantic Hellenism, is, then, a serious challenge to Christian notions of art in the nineteenth century, even as its negative connotation (cruelty, solipsism) shadows Aestheticism from the beginning. Pater’s review of “Poems by William Morris” in The Westminster Review (1868), where the phrase “art for art’s sake” had been floated, had offered a statement of rationale:

Greek poetry, medieval or modern poetry, projects above the realities of its time a world in which the forms of things are transfigured. Of that world this new poetry takes possession, and sublimates beyond it another still fainter and more spectral, which is literally an artificial or “earthly paradise.” It is a finer ideal, extracted from what in relation to any actual world is already an ideal. Like some strange second flowering after date, it renews on a more delicate type the poetry of a past age, but must not be confounded with it. The secret of the enjoyment of it is that inversion of home-sickness, known to some, that incurable thirst for the sense of escape, which no actual form of life satisfies, no poetry even, if it be merely simple and spontaneous.


Critics lose patience with Aestheticism at the point when it seems unashamedly to connect its own practice with an “incurable thirst for the sense of escape.” But what may seem to be a candid acknowledgment of its own essential non-seriousness belies an oppositional stance that is more robust than at first appears. The desire to “renew on a more delicate type” is in fact a desire to refine the type away, to cancel it out, so that for Pater, Morris’s poetry is hostile to the spirit of medievalism, to Christian asceticism, moving away from and emptying it—evacuating it—of authentic content. The transfiguration of what is already a transfiguration of the “forms of things,” attests to a kind of will towards abstraction, towards the spectral or the phantasmal, in which the “ideal” is no longer ideal but is, in effect, met with indifference or unconcern. Pater’s prose, with its hostility to Wordsworthian lyric simplicity and spontaneity, is thus more brutal and combative than its rhythms or its images would suggest. In its affected languor, its somnambulistic pose, it is in fact a challenge to materialist criticism, since it posits the thirst for escape as the condition of life, and not merely as an obfuscation presented by art. By confessing the relationship between Aestheticism and the will to deny life, and by making the negative impulse the a priori state of consciousness, it disavows any privileged status for art and merely places poetry in relation to what it takes for granted to be the meaninglessness of existence. It thus absorbs and internalises the critique of religion offered by materialist analysis—religion as intoxicating, neutralising, a kind of drug—acknowledging this narcosis as its own condition, and offering this as a virtue for its own sake.

Again, the parallel and contrast with Rossetti is most telling. For Robert Buchanan the image of the stagnant water-mirror presented an irresistible figure for Rossetti’s whole oeuvre:

[The] mind of Mr. Rossetti is like a glassy mere, broken only by the dive of some water-bird or the hum of winged insects, and brooded over by an atmosphere of insufferable closeness, with a light blue sky above it, sultry depths mirrored within it, and a surface so thickly sown with water-lilies that it retains its glassy smoothness even in the strongest wind.


Those words have taken on a bleak irony given the disturbance they helped to inflict upon the mind of Rossetti and for their incorrect assumption that such an art signalled a kind of imperturbability. According to Buchanan, Rossetti’s paintings demonstrated “a deep-seated indifference to all agitating forces and agencies, all tumultuous griefs and sorrows, all the thunderous stress of life, and all the straining storm of speculation” (829). Twenty three years earlier, Rossetti’s prose piece Hand and Soul had appeared in the first issue of The Germ. An autobiographical psychomachia, it is now recognised as a key founding text not just for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but for the wider notion of a religion of art as it manifested itself in the late 1840s and 1850s. The piece frames its aesthetic program in the form of a pseudo-biography of the fictional early Italian painter, Chiaro dell’Erma, at the heart of which occurs a Dantesque vision in which a woman, “clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment,” appears to the painter and announces that she is “an image, Chiaro, of thine own soul within thee” (314). This figure encourages the painter to turn his gaze further inwards, away from hopes of fame or from the pious wish to serve God, in order to begin again. In the final section of the story the narrator brings us back to the present and gives an account of a visit to the Pitti Gallery in Florence, where he stands before the painting Chiaro had made of his vision:

As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe upon me, like water in shadow. I shall not attempt to describe it more than I have already done; for the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality. You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen; yet it was not a thing to be seen of men. This language will appear ridiculous to such as have never looked on the work; and it may be even to some among those who have. On examining it closely, I perceived in one corner of the canvas the words Manus Animam Pinxit, and the date 1239.


“Literality” was a word commonly used in biblical exegesis to distinguish levels of meaning in scriptural figures. Rossetti seems to be using it here to suggest a symbol consubstantial with the truth of which it is the conductor (a translucence), but also in the Paterian sense of a finite image which loses no part of the spiritual motive (a saturation): in other words, as both Christian and non-Christian at once. “This language will appear ridiculous to such as have never looked on the work; and it may be even to some of those who have”: the extreme vulnerability of the word “literality” is guardedly acknowledged, implying as it does the difficulty of resolving the tension between literalism and symbolism. For Buchanan, this would be an example of Rossetti’s work finding “its own religious justification,” a process that, for the critic, would always be factitious. The “literality” of Chiaro’s woman could therefore only represent another form of “fleshliness,” the “inference that the body is greater than the soul” (834, 828). But Rossetti’s anxiety about the notion of literality—whether the figure would mean only itself, or something else as well—is of crucial significance to the notion of a religion of art as it negotiates its way between inner and outer standing points in relation to Christianity. Here is the “absorbing wonder” of a poetics that seeks to renew a conceptual system in the sense both of filling it with new content, and of allowing credence to attach to the old.

In Pater and Rossetti, then, we have two very different examples of the ways in which the “religion of art” came to have meaning in the nineteenth century, two distinct directions in which the phenomenon may be pursued. Rossetti’s “Art-Catholic” seeks to establish itself upon essentially typological grounds; it presents itself as based upon an inner standing-point that draws upon Catholic experience in order to define a role for the modern artist within whose consciousness is absorbed both type and anti-type, with an awareness of the division that is inherent to that process, and of the vulnerability of such claims for the Victorian artist. Behind this is the aesthetic of ontological participation that had been the grounds for the Coleridgean Symbol, and which had developed directly out of Christian modes of describing the divine. It is “Art-Catholic” in a metonymic sense. In other words, it suggests a form of substitution of the kind Eliot denied; it involves an interpenetration of art and religion, an exchange, in which it is simply impossible to extrude Rossetti’s aesthetic from the religious forms through which it manifests itself, even if this manifestation is something short of orthodox belief. Pater’s art-religion, by contrast, is essentially allegorical. It is a story of parallels between religious and artistic practice or states of mind, parallels rather than participations, in which the Logos has been rejected in order to “free” religious language so that it may reclaim a putative origin in metaphor and analogy. This, then, is non-Christian—we might even say that in the forms taken by its nostalgia for Catholic ritual, it is, paradoxically, hostile to Christianity. Pater’s aestheticism in fact has something of the will to abstraction, the vacating of meaning that is part of an anti-sublime, which draws upon Romantic Hellenism and the notion of the unity of form and content theorised therein. The central drive is a relativising one, a desire to refine upon refinement, to dissolve forms into constituent parts in order to have them reconstitute themselves or disappear (hence Pater’s almost obsessive vocabulary of chemical and alchemical transformation). It is the impulse to move out of and away from the type, and one that acknowledges its fundamental condition to be wholly congruous with the modern denial of transcendence. This could equally well take the form of a celebration of sensuous form as it could the assertion of mystical spirit, as the two categories have collapsed into each other. This is the religion of art understood in an Aesthetic sense.