In nothing does the decadence of modern art so plainly betray itself as in its insolent disdain of "subject." To the old masters subject was everything. But ask some modern painter what is the subject of his picture and he will probably tell you, "Oh! never mind the subject; anything will do for a subject; the picture is the thing." As much as to say, "My subject, or rather object, is to give aesthetic pleasure: I am not a schoolmaster, much less a preacher." Has not such a man gravely mistaken his vocation? Often, in looking at some of those strong earnest presentments of the invisible things of the higher life, as for example, those of our veteran painter, Mr. G. F. Watts, the thought has occurred to me; If only the painter of such wonderfully beautiful pictures would write a simple statement in simple words of the meaning he intended to convey by each picture and the special lesson he intended us to learn from it, thousands of ordinary men and women who cannot rise to the lofty standpoint of the painter, and therefore see only the outside beauty of his work, would be devoutly thankful to have these visions interpreted to them in plain everyday language. All good art is didactic and its highest function is to teach spiritual truths. Pictures, whether in painting literature, or any other art, are the means by which the artist can convey spiritual truth from his own mind to the minds of others. We can only conceive spiritual things by thinking from time and space outside of time and space, and that is exactly what a true picture or a true book does for us, or, better still, helps us to do for ourselves. It represents things in time and space in such a manner as to convey to our minds the idea of spiritual things, that is to say, things without time and space. In other words, it represents the spiritual world in terms of the natural world. Surely, then, the object of every book, every picture, every work of art, whether sacred or secular, should be not merely to amuse, or only to give aesthetic pleasure, but to instruct. Without this as its motive, art, however brilliant, has no raison d'être. And, alas! we have too many "accomplished painters of bad pictures" and too many accomplished writers of useless books.
But to apply these reflections to our "Picture-Puzzle" let us examine "The Key" which shows the picture in its finished state. What is its Subject? It is this: namely, Life in Love and Love in Life. Now, if we look back (1) upon the art of the world as a whole, (2) at all the heroic actions of the world as a whole, and (3) at all the religions of the world as a whole, and try to find out what more than anything else is the one predominant motive which lies at the root of all and each of these three departments of human activity, we shall have no hesitation in saying: It is Love—that is to say, Love in Life and Life in Love, for Love and Life are one. (Compare the German Leben and Lieben.) And if we search in all the picture galleries of the world for the pictorial elements, or symbols, which have been universally chosen as most directly representative and suggestive of the purest Love and Life in combination, we shall find them in those many pictures of two figures so familiar to everybody, and of such pictures the favorite one of all is that of a Mother holding her Infant Child in her arms. We have all seen both the picture and the reality a thousand times. Nothing can be more familiar, and yet we never tire of seeing it, though ofttimes the sight brings tears to our eyes. Indeed, so attractive to the aesthetic sense is the mere outward Beauty of Holiness—that indwelling Power of Love and Life which constitutes true Religion—that the mere art-symbol of it has degenerated into an object of blind worship by thousands of unreflecting men and women all the world over. This fact, however far from detracting from the spiritual value of the symbol, is the strongest possible argument in its favor, for if the mere outward visible form is so attractive what must be the inmost spiritual essence? "Is not the life more than raiment?" Let us, then, try to see in this symbol not only the shibboleth of a particular church but the Universal Christ-Spirit of the one all-comprehensive Church of Humanity. Let us, if we can, for a moment lay aside all our preconceived notions, all our old prejudices, theological, philosophical, and scientific, and contemplate this simple picture from a purely human and rational point of view, for it is a picture which all the world agrees in accepting as a common possession worthy to be highly prized and admired as a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Love and Life are essentially synonymous. We cannot define either, but we can feel and know and experience both as unmistakable realities—as, in fact, the most real and absolute of all the many experiences of our being. Love is the spring of all human action. Its phases are inexhaustible. In all the arts it forms the theme of never-ending story. It has furnished in its endless aspects the motive of all the romances, tragedies, and dramatic plots that human ingenuity has ever devised—a theme of such surpassing interest to all men and women alike that it is quite inconceivable that it can ever become threadbare or be displaced by any other. And as the Divine Love is the consummation of absolute Being and Existing, so is human love, as represented in Maternity as the mediate source of life, the very being and existence of the Children of Men. Mother and Child are inseparably connected as one idea. The one contains the other: each is an essential part of the other. Again, in the Child-form we are reminded of the declaration that "of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" and of the condition of entrance thereto, namely, Innocence, Obedience, and Humility, the essentials of true Wisdom. Who, in looking at this oft-painted picture can fail to be struck by the unlimited scope of its suggestiveness compared with the apparent inadequacy of the technical means employed in its production? Is it not wonderful that on that small square of canvas a Raphael can suggest to the world a revelation of Truth acknowledged to be Divine by the Wise Men—the Magi of all times and nations? How simple and familiar the design, and yet how completely it covers the whole ground of Existence, Divine and Human, linking Heaven and Earth together and, as it were, focusing the Universal Love into one bright spot of Light! And how charitable it ought to make us feel towards all nations, religions, and creeds outside the narrow pale of our own little sect! How absolutely one we are in intention and in nature, and yet how we dare to set up our little walls of separation, putting asunder things that are intended to be joined together and introducing endless discord into the Divine Harmony!
And out of this combination of the two closely related ideas of Love and Life, like motive and end, there naturally springs a third or intermediate idea which, like a clasp, binds the two together, namely, the idea of Self-sacrifice. On these three foundations—Love, Self-sacrifice, and resultant Life—rests the whole fabric of Religion, Philosophy, Art, Science and all things relating to human life, spiritual, intellectual, and physical. The purpose of human life is the attainment of perfection, and this is to be accomplished by subordinating the animal nature to the spiritual and both of these to the life of others by sacrificing the individual for the common weal, and thereby reproducing and perpetuating the one life of the individual in the many lives of the community. In the physical world Nature is the All-Mother, whose one sole object is to reproduce and perfect her offspring by the operation of beneficent laws that fail not to provide for the needs of the very least. Thus Nature, "a mother kind alike to all," sacrifices herself for her children, and this not once for all but perpetually. And here, in passing, let us not overlook the gracious compensation and after-bliss for all the pain and suffering, namely, the mother's joy that "Man has been born into the world." And human life differs from mere animal life only in its rational consciousness of its Divine Source and its Divine Destiny, and until a man knows this and acts up to his knowledge he is not yet risen from the mere animal stage of his existence. Directly he finds out that his life is one with that of the general life of the world as one great family, and, in accordance with that consciousness, begins to live a life of self-sacrifice, then he becomes not only a son of man but a son of God, for the life he is now living is the life of the Son of God. Self-sacrifice is not, as some would have us believe, an after-fruit or graft upon the stock of humanity, but is inherent in Man's nature from the beginning, and only awaits his own sense of duty and responsibility for its recognition, development and final perfection; and therefore man, being a Child of God, has to live—because his very existence depends upon his so living—not for himself but for others. He is to lay down his own life for the Brethren, because thus only can the Brethren live in him and for him, and he in them and for them. Nor is this law of self-sacrifice confined to humanity. It is the dominating principle of universal nature from the lowest step of the material world up to the highest step of the spiritual world so far as human thought can reach. Christ's own illustration of the hen gathering her chickens under her wing expresses exactly the same idea on the animal plane. Nothing exists for itself. And, to descend one step lower in the scale of Nature, Maeterlinck, in his wonderful book on bees, tells us how for the sake of one single mother of a whole hive, the queen bee—or, rather, for the welfare of her progeny for whom alone she exists—-the lives of multitudes of competing consorts are sacrificed for that one who has proved himself to be "the fittest," and how even he, after a momentary existence of nuptial happiness, perishes utterly in the general "struggle for existence." And thus, universally and without exception, Self-sacrifice is the one sole condition of true Life.
In this broad universal view of Being, and laying aside all petty distinctions of race, religion, philosophy, there is no reason why that magnificent prophecy of Isaiah, "Unto us a Child is born," should be appropriated exclusively by any one particular nation. On the contrary, may it remain forever a grand generalization of Divine Truth—the Central Idea of that universal religion to which the world is gradually tending—a religion acknowledging one supreme and all-irradiating "Light of the World!" And may we not place side by side with that prophecy, as at once its acknowledgment and fulfillment, the beloved Disciples profound dictum—a dictum directly based on the personal teaching of the Master—"In the beginning was The Word, and The Word was with God, and The Word was God"; and with it that other saying: "God so loved the World that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting Life"—thus connecting, as with a golden chain, the ancient prophecy with the latest fulfillment of it in the more advanced thought of our own day? Religion is not a narrow thing of time and space, but broad and infinite as the expanse of Heaven; and necessarily so, for is it not One and the same Lord that reigneth over all? If so, there cannot be one Law or one standard of Life for this nation, and another for that, and for the simple reason that all acknowledge, although from different points of view, the same Love, the same Light, the same Life.
To anyone who may object that all this is pure Mysticism or pure Fancy it may well be replied: That is so if by Mysticism is meant Spiritual perception, and if by Fancy is meant true Imagination and not false. But our symbolical picture appeals also to man's reason as well as to his aesthetic nature, and thus manifests itself in all three planes of his being. It is, in fact, the perfect expression of Beauty and Truth combined in a Form that appeals strongly to minds of every conceivable type, and it is significant that even the "Positive " system of Comte includes in its ritual this very emblem in common with the practice of the Western Churches.
To condense the foregoing thoughts into one short paragraph: If we want a definition of Human Life in its perfection, that is to say, Man "in the Image of God," we get it in the formula (1) Love in Being, (2) Love in Form, and (3) Love in Operation. And if we want in the simplest possible terms a pictorial expression, or emblem, of this complete Idea, we get it in that representation so familiar to the whole world—the Babe of Bethlehem. This is the "Key" to God's Picture-Puzzle. It is the ideal, or type, of Universal Life projecting itself downwards, below the Human level of Creation, and upwards, above it, into the Celestial level—an Ideal infinitely expansive in its application both downwards and upwards—a central point in the infinite Scale of Being.
Thus speaks to us the Divine Wisdom by means of God's Picture-Puzzle—the sampler which at the outset of our earthly probation is given to us as the Problem of Life to be worked out by each for himself. The details of the picture will necessarily vary according to the capacity and advancement of each individual learner in God's School, but the motive of the picture and its teaching are one and the same for all, and in its perfect simplicity and absolute unity of design is to be found the proof of its Divine Origin.
(To be continued)