Monk by the Sea

Casper David Friedrich's  'Monk by the Sea' in its still, melancholy greatness is a favourite painting. No reproduction can capture its sense of space, subtlety of colour and movement and that sense, as Kleist noted, of stepping within it, of being rendered boundless.

It offers a particular view of 'contemplation' as being held over and against a tremendous mystery that makes one's own self transient and that the response to this is a sense of quiet sadness. It is both Romantic and Protestant to the last intimate stroke. It was criticised for offering no sense of consolation.

However, I wonder.

Undoubtedly the consolation that it offers is neither easy nor cheaply obtained. For Friedrich I sense it only comes out of a realistic and humble sense of oneself as held in being wholly as gift. Nothing that one is belongs to one's self except the stubborn and misplaced believing that you are important, a centre at the heart of things, surrender that and consolation is possible and even in this, possible his starkest painting, the clouds have a behind and a beyond that hint at lightening, a sky that is translucent to the light of the sun that draws the monk to the shore.

I expect I love it so both because it carries a heightened melancholy and because my abiding image of the repeating nature of attention in prayer, the repeated 'mantra' of prayer is a wave breaking on the shore - powerful yet usually oddly gentle (as I have either the Baltic or the Mediterranean and their low tidal ranges in mind). The water can do nothing but lay itself down, the prayer can do nothing but be gently repeated and in both there is a dynamic stillness at their heart which waits to be revealed through all the clouding distraction of one's mind and ego.


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