“Art Is a Sacrament in Itself” | Memories of R.S. Thomas

R. S. Thomas told me that you cannot understanding what Jesus meant when he picked up bread and said, “This is my body” (Mark 14:22), unless you understand poetry.

“How,” Thomas asked, rhetorically, as we talked on a dreary November afternoon in 1994, “can this man give me his body to eat?”

“One needs,” he continued, “an understanding of metaphor in order to respond.”

When we use a metaphor, we say one thing is another thing, while all the while knowing that it isn’t. The one I love is a red rose, but she isn’t a flower. My friend is a prune, but he isn’t a dried plum. “Prune” and “red rose” point to qualities that are red-rose-like and prune-like.

In the Christian sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, bread is a metaphor: It is Christ, but it isn’t the physical body of Christ. The bread is pointing to something bread-like that transcends the here-and-now substance that we call bread.

The sacramental bread is a metaphor pointing to the spiritual nourishment found in Christ. Something like that is what Thomas means when he says, “Art is a sacrament / in itself.”

Alyscamps at Arles

Les Alyscamps, Paul Gauguin, Musee d’Orsay

That affirmation comes near the center of Thomas’s impression of Gauguin’s painting “The Alyscamps at Arles.”

In this painting, we see the ruins of the chapel of St-Honorat rising up behind a clump of trees. Many leaves are autumnal yellow-orange. Three black-garbed figures walk along a stream. A bush burns.

All of these painted realities become metaphorical in Thomas’s poem. Three figures? Perhaps the Trinity. The walkers “have the stiffness of candles,” and are passing “the living water, and the leaves // over them have the crispness / of bread.”

For Thomas, an Anglican priest trained in Christian doctrine and liturgy, there is something sacramental, something metaphorical, about the painting.

How do we, Thomas’s readers, read the painting?

Before the chapel was ruined, the doctrines and sacraments of its priests pointed to the transcendent, to the mystery at the heart of matter. Now, the work of art, like a sacrament, is a window through which we catch impressions of what is between the here and now.

“We are,” Thomas suggests,

      art’s mercenaries,
firing our thought’s arrows
at the mystery of things.

Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“Art is a sacrament” – “Gauguin: The Alyscamps at Arles,” Between Here and Now, 59.

“We are art’s mercenaries” – “Paving,” Residues, 62.

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