The Unconscious of Religious Believers (From Obedience to God, to Challenging Him, and to Feeling Love for Him)

I have just painted a religious picture, very badly done but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the Church of Pont Aven. Naturally, they don’t want it. The group of Breton women are praying, their costumes very intense black. The coifs are very luminous, yellow-white. The two coifs to the right are like monstrous helmets… I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing very severe…
Gauguin’s letter to Vincent van Gogh, 22 Sept, 1888


Paul Gauguin, “The Vision after the Sermon”, 1888 in vitalistic tonality

Christianity came to West interwoven with Judaism like leather with suede. Gauguin shows us two divided parts of Judaea-Christian universe from the position of Christian unconscious – one, Judaist, to the right of the canvass, is historically distant, and the other, Christian, to the left, is filled with actual believers in Christ. It looks that Gauguin is telling us here that the pompous Tree of Life is transformed into a symbolic border, which separates the Old Testament sensibility from that of the New Testament.

We see several groups of nuns (signifying several psychological positions of Christian believers) occupied with the topic of Jacob challenging the angel (presupposed topic of the sermon). Gauguin’s classification of these groups is connected to how close they are positioned to the viewers. The less interesting group of nuns is farthest from us (we don’t see in them any religious enthusiasm). They are believers just because what they believe in already socially exist and you can glue to it like mollusk to its shell. The belief of the nuns of this group is characterized by the image of the cow feeding on the tree of life. The second group consisting of three nuns is a bit closer to us – it occupies the middle part of the canvass at its left margin. These nuns appear to be something like fundamentalist believers. They are not comfortably sitting on the ground like the nuns of the farthest group. They are praying, and even seem to be on their knees. One of them looks with suspicious strictness at the young nun with bright lips located closer to viewers, in the low left corner of the painting. This nun with closed eyes who is praying in close up, and the nun right ahead of her (looking at Jacob and the angel), are, it seems, semantically tied – they are located one behind the other. They look as belonging to the same category. But simultaneously the nun right ahead of the one who is praying with closed eyes, belongs to the group of three persons to her right – two faceless nuns whose coifs Gauguin himself characterizes as looking like “monstrous helmets” and a bishop-like male figure in profile. This last group occupies, as if, a transitional space between Christianity and Judaism (with the bishop scandalously located by Gauguin on the “territory” of Judaism). The two nuns who, according to Gauguin, don’t deserve to be seen by the viewers, and the bishop on the Judaist psycho-cultural territory represent, it seems, the conformists of religious belief – their belief is kind of ritualistic (their faces are either absent or depicted only through their profiles), it is oriented by discipline, loyalty (here is the relevance of “monstrous helmets” become apparent). These two nuns with their backs to us are soldiers of their belief. They themselves don’t feel their belief as a sacred experience – for them only dogma is sacred. It is similar situation with the bishop on the right – who while being a representative of the religion of love is placed on the territory of religion of obedience. What is he praying about? Is he trying to pacify, to soften Jacob’s pride? Is this an attempt on his part of Christian correction of Jacob’s spiritual transgression?

The protruding posture of the nun ahead of the one with closed eyes and hands in praying position, expresses an animated involvement with the vision of Jacob and the Angel. She is excited by looking at them. Her face is not erotic at all, but we can feel that she is in a state of stubborn emotional concentration. But what the nun right behind her can pray about? What kind of vision can she have? The erotic ambiguity of her facial expression, trace of a secret smile, the brightness of her lips, and her hands (that Gauguin painted especially elaborately) make her unique presence in this painting. Her soul seems inflamed. She is the main focus of Gauguin’s attention. Why is she not looking at the daring effort of Jacob to be equal to the angelic power like the nun right ahead of her? – And why such a mysterious expression on her face, as if she is hiding something? Something strange is going on in the semantic organism of this painting. Something peculiar is at work inside Gauguin’s intuition and inspiration. The background of the painting – the metaphorical space of Old-Testamental (to the right of the painting) and Christian (to the left) sensitivity are in dark orange (or in second version of the painting, shown at the end of the text, in dark-red). This background represents the human life impregnated by human vitality or even by libidinous excitement (in the second version). At the same time the semi-horizontal trunk of the Tree of Life dividing the two worlds, Judaist and Christian, is aggressively divisive, as if, emphasizing the contradiction, even incompatibility and still some strange connectedness between two sensitivities.

Concentrating our attention on the young nun with a gently closed eyes, as if, she is protecting with her eyelids what she sees hidden behind them (whose internal vision is so soothing and pleasant for her), we start to feel that she, probably, pursuits her own vision in spite of the fact that it’s radically different from that of Jacob challenging the godly power with his human will. What if she has her own reaction on Jacob and the Angel narrative – her own fantasy that would be Christian equivalent of Judaist story? What if here we have the representation of Gauguin’s intuitive feeling of what can be the Christian equivalent of Judaist conception of noble/heroic transgression? What can be the Christian idea of challenging God’s authority in the soul of a young and good looking Catholic nun? What in Christian universe can be as transgressive as Jacob’s attempt to subdue God’s angel? If the Judaist universe is that of obedience/disobedience to God and the Christian universe is that of love for God, then what would be the equivalent of Jacob’s disobedience to God in the Christian belief?

If the bended tree of life (bended by the very cultural and existential mutation from Judaist to Christian sensitivity) is a diagonal (from the low right corner of the painting to the high left one) separating Judaist universe from the Christian, then the diagonal (from the upper right corner to its low left corner) between Jacob/Angel and the two central nuns with opposite reaction on the vision (one with a external, social dream, and the other with an internalized and private one), is more semantically complicated marker of the unity of the two traditions and their incompatibility! While the first diagonal emphasizes just the existence of two different cultural traditions, the second one is Gauguin’s emphasis on the semantic confrontation between these two sensitivities. If the first diagonal is the axis of cultural division, the second is the axis of spiritual transgression.

We see that absence of humility in Jacob’s posture towards the Angel expressed by their location in the right upper corner of the painting (as if the encounter between them takes place in a kind of ardorous heaven) is in radical contrast with the posture of the nun in the left low corner (the one with closed eyes and reclined head) emphasizing humility and consciousness of being a small mortal creature of the god. But this posture of modesty and ontological self-erazing doesn’t take away the human heroism of challenging the world and life. Gauguin makes this nun’s transgression the sin of love, not the courage to challenge the superior power!

The equivalent of the challenging God in Judaist universe is the loving Christ in the Christian one. The sermon on Jacob‘ controversial action and corresponding vision is awakened in our extraordinary nun the dream of loving Christ – not only physically caring about him but physically loving him who became a human being. We see on her face (and on her hands) the trace of innocent and beautiful erotic excitement. Her praying hands become vehicles of erotic fantasy awakened not by strained bodies of two wrestlers but by her and Christ’s human fragile bodies. Her transgression is being ready to innocently make love to Christ. Gauguin puts aside, with contempt, the dogmatic authoritarian accusations of blasphemy and obscenity – our young nun has a rapport with and inspiration from the magnificent blasphemy of Jacob. From her so called “obscene” desire her internal world is born, and it is from here comes all the Western secular culture with its existential spirituality. Under the tree of knowledge there is a place not only for Jacob’s impudent desires and the nuns’ vegetative, fundamentalist and conformist positions, but also for an erotic ardor blended with admiration, care and disinterestedness. The universe is larger when the internal world (imaginary but real) is added to the external one (naturalistic).

The composition of this painting is overwhelmingly complicated and meaningful. The space it organizes is simultaneously physical, inter-cultural and intra-psychical. The representation combines the earthly and spiritual realities both finding a home in human soul’s creative mind, where Gauguin’s genius meets the inflamed imagination of the young Catholic nun.


P. Gauguin, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, 1888, in ardorous tonality