De Profundis ~ from Georges Rouault’s series, ‘Miserere et Guerre’
In his fifty-eight print series titled Miserere et Guerre, the French Expressionist painter Georges Rouault struggled over a thirty-five year period with issues of faith, the suffering of Christ, and human cruelty.
A retrospective of Rouault’s work, “This Anguished World of Shadows,” was held in 2006 at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. Writing about the exhibit, the Museum says:
The brutal, contemporary images of the series — which are, in part, a reaction to the almost unimaginable destruction in France during World War I — become even more poignant when one realizes that, by the time they were published, the artist had lived through World War II as well, and witnessed the almost total transformation of Europe and of French society.
Their ultimate message is a testament to Rouault’s overriding belief in the redemptive power of suffering.
The title of Plate 47, De Profundis, translates as “from the depths,” a phrase which serves to open Psalm 130, one of fifteen Songs of Ascents contained within the Old Testament. Ascension or pilgrimage songs (in Hebrew, Shirei ha Ma’alot) were sung on the occasion of the great feasts of pilgrimage: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. They first would have been sung on the way to Jerusalem: then, on the steps of the Temple. Today, The Psalm often is included in Christian Good Friday services.
(Psalm 130: A Song of Ascents)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy.
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
Over time, a multitude of more contemporary writers took inspiration from Psalm 130. Christina Rossetti’s “De Profundis” is lighter, more oblique, while the letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, also known as De Profundis, captures in words the same heaviness, despair, and longing that haunt Rouault’s images:
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey.
In East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, the Psalmist’s realities are dressed in new and compelling imagery.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
Being human — which is to say, being imperfect, contingent, and given to foolishness — we’re easily tempted to choose life’s surface over its depths. Unsatisfying fulfillment often appears more attractive than on-going emptiness; obsessive activity seems preferable to stillness; and false comfort offers itself as a reasonable substitute for the searing realities of destruction and death.
Still, as the Psalmist knew and artists affirm, the chaos of the depths also serves as a source of creativity and hope. Daring those depths is our challenge; learning to wait is our task.