It appears to me, however, that in all the active imaginative efforts which the mind is capable of exerting, that on which we mainly depend for success of the highest kind, is the right use and application of what may be most correctly termed the supernatural; by which I mean those scenes, and objects, and actions, which are entirely out of, and utterly beyond the ordinary and common sphere and course of nature, and which exist only in the regions of fancy, being already there created, and not by any efforts of our own minds.
The use of the supernatural, although it is doubtless one of the most powerful and important efforts which can be exerted in artistical representation, is nevertheless but seldom to be resorted to; and in all cases the availing of it is to be regulated by the general rules for artistical design, and also by the principles which I have laid down with regard to the combination of ideas.
It consists essentially in the adding to natural common objects such as we see actually existent, qualities and attributes beyond those with which we perceive them to be ever really endowed, and of a new and original kind, such as are supposed to confer upon them a nature different to that which belongs to any beings of the same order with which we are acquainted. Its end is only to bestow fresh characteristics on certain objects, while the objects themselves remain the same.
Although deformity and disproportion in any objects are, as a general rule, to be avoided, yet by a skilful and judicious management of the design as regards the proportion of particular figures, or the relative proportion one with another of the limbs or other parts of any individual form, as has been admirably done by some of the ancient painters and sculptors, much effect and dignity may be given to the composition, and the imagination greatly raised by it.
Nevertheless, the most exciting even of imaginative scenes and representations, should never be extravagant; nor ought those which are the most astonishing to do violence to probability. In the highest flights of the supernatural, nature should still be the directing principle. Indeed, when she is absent from the supernatural, it will be found to be also deprived of life; the body will be without the spirit. The utmost limits of the supernatural should never, moreover, reach to the improbable; and in no case should its efforts strike us as impossible. In fact, although varying from, the supernatural should not be at variance with nature ; although different from, it should never be contrary to it. The former is supernatural; the latter is simply unnatural.
Therefore, however high we take our flight into the obscure regions of the supernatural, we ought not to lose sight of nature. We must still consider our real condition. On the other hand, common ordinary nature and the supernatural ought never to be represented together. The grand principle to be observed is that the two must be neither disregarded nor confounded.
Supernatural beings and descriptions when introduced into a composition, should nevertheless be uniformly treated in a supernatural manner. They should never be dealt with as are the common objects of nature; and the atmosphere which surrounds them should, as it were, partake somewhat of their mystery. The supernatural is, however, applicable to expression and character, as well as to description in design.
And in the painting by Guido of ‘The Assumption of the Virgin,’ contained in the Bridgewater Gallery, we have a sub-lime illustration of this principle in the supernaturally celestial expression of her countenance, which appears to be beaming with the radiance of heaven.
The celestial, which is but another, the highest type of the supernatural, in expression, is also finely, and indeed perfectly attained in Raphael’s exquisite painting of ‘St. Cecilia Enchanted by Celestial Music,’ which adorns the gallery of the Academy of Arts at Bologna. The countenance of St. Cecilia, illumined by a rapturous smile, and glowing with heavenly radiance, is truly and thoroughly divine, and seems to be not only enchanted by the strains to which she is listening, but her soul, exalted into heaven, reflects some of the ecstasy by which it is affected on the features of the saint.
In Raphael’s noble and beautiful painting of ‘ The Trans-figuration,’ the floating posture of our Lord in the air, as also the forms of Moses and Elias suspended, like airy clouds, by his side, are highly imaginative, and extensively endowed with the supernatural; while the divine expression in the countenance of the Saviour, contributes greatly to the celestial, and consequently supernatural character of the whole work.
On the other hand, Guido’s much lauded painting of ‘Aurora,’ contained in the Rospigliosi Palace at Rome, I must confess myself unable to admire as, possibly, it deserves. The drawing and grouping and colouring are undoubtedly fine; but the expression seems not equal to the general design. The celestial females appear destitute of refinement and dignity, and rather to resemble dairymaids than divinities. Moreover, they are not over-modest in their appearance, although possibly this may not detract from their claims to be associated with some of the ancient exalted beings of this rank. The whole seems utterly wanting in the air of the supernatural suitable to such a subject, and also in becoming elevation to render it worthy of the representation here attempted.
Both the supernatural and the celestial in countenance and expression, as well as in form, may be represented; and the two should be ever contemporaneous and united, the one aiding and giving force and effect to the other, corresponding with what we see attained in this respect in the exhibition of character and emotion. And alike in the faces and in the figures of angels, and other supernatural beings, the colouring, and the shading also, should aid the effect of the supernatural. These latter elements are what indeed mainly serve to depict the essence of the being represented; from which, moreover, its supernatural or celestial character is derived quite as much as from its form.
The supernatural in landscape scenery may be said to exist in, and is constituted by those objects and appearances, and that general character and arrangement of the landscape, which strike us as quite different to what we ordinarily observe, although they may not be actually different to what are witnessed in certain natural phenomena, and still less at variance with the real order of nature. Three classes of natural scenery appear to be peculiarly allied to the supernatural. These are-1. Moonlight scenes, when light of a different kind to what we ordinarily experience is diffused over the landscape, and so changes entirely its common aspect and character. 2. Sunsets, when tints quite different to those generally witnessed are spread over the face of nature. Landscape scenes of this character are indeed celestial as well as supernatural, their super-natural appearance being directly derived from celestial influences. 3. The third kind of scenery of a supernatural order is that which is presented when snow or frost changes the whole appearance of the landscape, and renders it quite different to anything that we ordinarily observe.
As already remarked, there is some landscape scenery that is not only supernatural, but celestial also, which is indeed the most exalted kind of the supernatural; although in order to be completely effective, it should be highly supernatural as well, which is not often the case. Scenes by moonlight, as also certain sunset scenes, are highly celestial, although not highly supernatural, but are both pleasing and imaginative to a large extent. A charm and a glory belong, indeed, to celestiality in scenery, to which no other class of scenery can lay claim.
The aerial indistinct appearance which the light of the moon affords to many objects, especially to buildings of a certain character, as arso to some landscape views, particularly that which is diversified by water, is another feature which deserves to be remarked in scenery of this class. Not only is this kind of light very different in its colour from that of the sun, but the main outlines only of many forms are exhibited by this means, omitting the lesser details, and which often changes the character of the whole. A mystical air is thus diffused over the entire prospect.
Reflections in the water, whether of buildings or landscape scenery, and whether of trees or mountains, as also of the planets, will indeed frequently produce very picturesque effects, occasionally even approaching the supernatural. This is more especially the case by moonlight, when the dim tremulous light casts over every object an air of mystery, and serves to set the imagination vigorously at work, conjuring up shapes and images of different kinds to supply the vacancies that occur in the reality. A ripple on the water may conduce still further to vary or to mystify the scene, by acting the part of a kaleidoscope in changing the position of different objects.
So also a sunset by the peculiar and supernatural light which it throws over a landscape, occasionally so entirely changes its character as to make it approach the celestial. From the glory reflected upon the plains of earth by the heavenly bodies, we may surely form some conjecture respecting the splendour of that radiance, and the enchanting beauty of those scenes whose regions are beyond the skies.
Hence, it appears obvious that the supernatural may exist in colour as well as in form, especially in landscape scenery. Indeed, the colour equally with the form and shading, should be made to give effect to, and to heighten the appearance of the supernatural, whether in landscape or epic composition. While in each of these ingredients in the work there should be nature enough to render the description real, there must not be too much nature,of common, every day, ordinary nature,to prevent it from being supernatural. We have experience indeed of the supernatural effect of colour, not only in the hues produced by the rays of the moon and by sunsets, but occasionally during the full glare of the sun, as in the case of the dark purple hues in which the mountains are sometimes wrapped, and the exquisite blue and azure tints which are occasionally visible on the surface of the Italian and Swiss lakes, which are so glorious in their radiance as to be not merely supernatural, but well-nigh celestial. The effect of moonlight, especially upon large buildings, such as cathedrals and castles, is often very striking and highly romantic, conferring upon them a sort of supernatural air. The lights and shades falling in dense masses, and the prominent outline of the whole only appearing, considerably vary their character and aspect from what they appeared during daylight.
A thunderstorm at night also occasionally displays a scene in landscape composition, in which the supernatural, and indeed the celestial also, to a large extent prevails. The radiance of the lightning throws a hue over the whole face of nature, entirely differing from any ordinary appearance that she ever assumes, the sudden and transient visitations of this rendering it the more effective and the more supernatural; while the roaring of the thunder, and the profound obscurity which succeeds the vivid bursts of light, add greatly to the supernatural and the celestial character of the prospect.
Occasionally, too, clouds and mists serve to confer upon mountains an apparently supernatural character, obscuring all but the mere outline by the density with which they enshroud them ; or clothing them in a thin white veil, which exhibits only their general form, likening them to giant spectres, the manes of mountains which have passed away, and left merely their shadows to occupy the space they once so nobly filled. Thus also when clouds and snowcapped mountains become, as it were, intermixed, so that we are unable to discern what objects belong to earth and what to heaven,the mountains nearly resembling and being mistaken for clouds, and the clouds closely resembling and appearing as though they were transformed into mountains,both the supernatural and the celestial in mountain scenery may be surely said to prevail.
The dim purple shadowy outlines of distant mountains are frequently endowed with the air of the supernatural, and seem also to belong as much to sky into whose regions they soar, as to earth from whose province they have receded, and might be claimed alike by both. This is also the case with those lofty ranges whose summits rear themselves above the clouds, as though they reached to realms beyond, while their bases are obscured by the dense vapours which rise from the plains below.
I have sometimes found, as I have already remarked when speaking of the emotions excited by objects of grandeur, that a second visit to scenery of a very sublime and imaginative, and indeed supernatural character, has not moved me so much as did the first, although I had calculated that the more attentively such glories were contemplated, the more deeply would they impress the mind. I conclude, however, that they fail in their striking effect on the second view mainly from the absence of that astonishment which so excites and elevates any one on obtaining the first sight of them, which was mainly owing to the novel unexpected and supernatural quality of their appearance, but which would not of course be produced again when he was already aware of and prepared for the stupendous spectacle. On the other hand, I do not find that beautiful, or even necessarily that grand objects fade on repetition in a corresponding manner with those which are of the supernatural class; which is, no doubt, owing to the circumstance of the latter depending so much for support upon the excitement of a feeling of surprise. Besides this, it should be borne in mind that the pleasure which grand and beautiful objects call forth in our minds, may be excited over and over again indefinitely, while astonishment cannot well be caused more than once by the same occurrence or object.
The ghost scene in ` Macbeth’ t is a fine display of the power, and of the right use of the supernatural, as is also the interview with the witches in the same tragedy. + Indeed, hardly any more successful attempts, and more perfect descriptions of the supernatural are anywhere to be met with.
One of the most daring and effective efforts at the application of the supernatural, is that which is accomplished by Dante* in his description of the fusion of the forms of the sacrilegious Fucci into that of the flying serpent :-
” Ivy ne’er clasp’d A dodder’d oak, as round the other’s limbs The hideous monster intertwined his own. Then, as they both had been of burning wax Each melted into other, mingling hues, That which was either now was seen no more. …. The two heads now became One, and two figures blended in one form Appear’d, where both were lost. Of the four lengths Two arms were made ; the belly and the chest, The thighs and legs into such members changed As never eye hath seen. Of former shape All trace was vanish’d. Two, yet neither seem’d That image miscreate, and so pass’d on With tardy steps.”
The introduction and application of the supernatural are also admirably contrived in the following highly imaginative description by the same great poet, t of the ghosts in the second chasm, in whom their sound and appearance and action alike conduce to add to the effect, as does also the excitement of the emotions which the scene is calculated to call forth :
” Hence in the second chasm we heard the ghosts, Who gibber in low melancholy sounds, With wide stretch’d nostrils snort, and on themselves Smite with their palms. Upon the banks a surf, From the foul steam condensed, encrusting hung, That held sharp combat with the sight and smell.”
The following representation of the spiritual shadowy forms of another world, and of their action as well, is also very imaginative, and the use of the supernatural is availed of with great skill :
That seem’d things dead and dead again, drew in At their deep-delved orbs rare wonder of me, Perceiving I had life.”
The account which is afforded of the angel coming over the waves with spirits to Purgatory is very sublime and imaginative.* The varied and mystical appearance of the light, and of the approach of the form, changing at intervals, is extremely fine, and strikingly effective :—
” When lo ! as near upon the hour of dawn, Through the thick vapours Mars with fiery beam Glares down in west, over the ocean floor ; So seem’d, what once again I hope to view, A light, so swiftly coming through the sea, No winged course might equal its career. From which when for a space I had withdrawn Mine eyes, to make enquiry of my guide, Again I look’d, and saw it grow in size And brightness : then on either side appear’d Something, but what I knew not, of bright hue, And by degrees from underneath it came Another. My preceptor silent yet Stood, while the brightness, that we first discern’d, Open’d the form of wings; then when he knew The pilot, cried aloud, ‘ Down, down, bend low Thy knees; behold God’s angel : fold thy bands : Now shalt thou see true ministers indeed. Lo ! how all human means he sets at nought ; So that nor oar he needs, nor other sail Except his wings, between such distant shores. Lo ! how straight up to heaven be holds them rear’d, Winnowing the air with those eternal plumes, That not like mortal hairs fall off or change.’ As more and more toward us came, more bright Appear’d the bird of God, nor could the eye Endure his splendour near : I mine bent down. He drove ashore in a small bark so swift And light, that in its course no wave it drank. The heavenly steersman at the prow was seen, Visibly written Blessed in his looks. Within, a hundred spirits and more there sat.”
Of all the arts, however, dramatic acting probably affords the most favourable opportunities for, and is the most effectually aided by resort to the supernatural, while sculpture appears to be the least so ; although even in some sculptural forms the representation of the supernatural has been very success-fully attained. In the scenery of the theatre, as also in the performance itself, the use of the supernatural may be occasionally availed of with great effect, and with considerable success; and perhaps more completely in acting than in any other of the arts, where, moreover, science can afford the most extensive aid.
In music, the supernatural is available to a large extent, where representations of this character are aimed at, and as an aid to efforts of an imaginative kind. In architecture, costume, and gardening, it can be resorted to only indirectly, and to suggest or typify certain ideas.