2019 is the bicentennial year of John Ruskin’s birth, and he is suddenly all the rage. London’s Two Temple Place is hosting “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing,” and Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery will exhibit “John Ruskin: Art & Wonder” later this year. A new edition of Ruskin’s study of Giotto is in the works. A BBC essay by Daisy Dunn ponders whether Ruskin was “the most important man of the last 200 years.”
Ruskin never completely disappeared from view. I read selections of his art criticism in my college anthology of Victorian literature. His writings on political economy have remained popular on the Left, and his works on architecture fuel new urbanism. John Milbank has been commending Ruskin for decades, and John Hughes included a chapter on Ruskin and William Morris in The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism.
Celebrations of Ruskin’s polymathic genius, however, have usually missed the role of Christianity in his outlook and writing. His personal journey was a crooked one. Ruskin experienced what he described as an “un-conversion” one Sunday in 1858, shelving his severely Protestant upbringing for a stew of Catholicism and aestheticism, spiced with a dash of private mythology. But his childhood evangelicalism stayed with him. He appeals to theology and Scripture at key points in his aesthetic theory, criticism, and musings on political economy. His use of the Bible is more stimulating, expansive, and practical than that of many who remained committed evangelicals.
In the second volume of Modern Painters, for instance, Ruskin elaborates the concept of “typical beauty,” beauty that symbolizes “Divine attributes in matter.” God’s unity isn’t inconsistent with variety, but refers to God’s “inherence in all things that be, without which no creature of any kind could hold existence for a moment.” Creation exhibits divine unity-in-variety, and human art too should aim for the unity that Jesus expressed in his prayer for his disciples: “that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee.”
Ruskin is best known for his defense of Turner’s paintings, which is credited with inspiring a sea change in English taste. In Ruskin’s view, Turner’s gift was color, especially shades of scarlet and purple. Explaining why red is a fundamental color, Ruskin turns instinctively to the Bible: “color generally, but chiefly the scarlet, used with the hyssop, in the Levitical law, is the great sanctifying element of visible beauty inseparably connected with purity and life.”
More generally, he expounds the power of color by exegeting Noah’s rainbow. The “bow, or color, of the cloud, signifies always mercy, the sparing of life; such ministry of the heaven, as shall feed and prolong life.” Undivided sunlight is a “type of the wisdom and righteousness of God.” As it refracts in a cloud, it’s “fitted to every need of man, as to every delight.” Sunlight dispersed in color is “the type of the wisdom of God, becoming sanctification and redemption. Various in work—various in beauty—various in power.” Color is, he concludes, “the type of love.”
Ruskin returns to Leviticus in a discussion of the first “lamp” of architecture, sacrifice. As an architectural value, sacrifice is a desire to honor or please by offering something costly. Having grown up in plain-style churches, Ruskin asks whether or not sacrifice is appropriate to “devotional” architecture: Is God pleased with costly, unnecessary flourishes in church buildings? For Ruskin, the question turns on the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. While he admits there have been changes in worship over time, he insists that anything that pleases God in one epoch will please him always: “God is one and the same, and is pleased or displeased by the same things for ever.” The Lord demanded costly materials and delicate craftsmanship from Israel, and he calls for no less from the church. To say otherwise is to verge toward a Marcionite division within God himself.
Ruskin acknowledges that providing a place for worship takes priority over expensive and time-consuming adornment: “Do the people need place to pray, and calls to hear His word? Then it is no time for smoothing pillars or carving pulpits; let us have enough first of walls and roofs.” But that wasn’t the choice before Victorian Christians. The choice was between embellishing the church and embellishing homes. In Ruskin’s view, Victorian Christians have distorted priorities: “I do not understand the feeling which would arch our own gates and pave our own thresholds, and leave the church with its narrow door and foot-worn sill.” Victorian churches aren’t sacrificial expressions of costly devotion and love: “there is not a building that I know of, lately raised, wherein it is not sufficiently evident that neither architect nor builder has done his best.”
Such passages—and there are many others—give Christians reason to celebrate the year of the un-convert, John Ruskin.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.