It’s hard to imagine what the dandyish 19th-century painter Eugene Delacroix and the action-film paladin Mel Gibson might have in common.
Yet both famously scandalized audiences with violent imagery, both were ostracized by their contemporary artistic institutions, and both drew inspiration from Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Emmerich, a German nun beatified by St. Pope John Paul II, recounted her ecstatic experiences in “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” published in 1833.
Her book not only inspired Gibson’s 2003 “Passion of the Christ,” but also caught the attention of Delacroix, at the time a rock star painter known for his raucous personal life and a family history that was none-too-friendly with the Catholic Church.
Their biographies would suggest that both men were distant from spiritual matters, yet each, albeit a century apart, was deeply affected by religion. Gibson’s conversion is well-known, but Delacroix’s faith remains hidden behind the patina of secularist art history.
Delacroix was born in 1798 during the French Revolution to Charles Delacroix, who had voted to execute King Louis XVI and for the destruction of Versailles. Persistent rumors, however, suggested his true paternity was Maurice Talleyrand, an excommunicated bishop-turned-revolutionary. Either way, not an environment to foster faith in a young boy.
As one of the fathers of the Romantic Movement, Delacroix is touted today as a man without religion, a spiritual disciple of Diderot or Rousseau, and his most famous work, “Liberty Leading the People,” celebrating the revolution of 1830, would suggest that Eugene had followed in his father’s footsteps.
Nonetheless, Delacroix turned out an astonishing amount of religious art, more than 120 works, most of them executed in his later years. These tell a different story.
Delacroix’s life, like that of all of human beings, was a journey. A talented rake in Restoration Paris, the young painter sought glory and sated his desires with numerous affairs. A lover of drama, literature, and music, his first salon work in 1822, the “Barque of Dante,” brought together all his passions.
The languid bodies undulating in the churning sea and the juxtaposition of raging fire with obfuscating fog evoked epic poetry or operatic prowess.
While not a biblical scene, the metaphor of ships on troubled seas would accompany him for the rest of his life. He would return to this theme in 1840, painting “The Shipwreck of the Don Juan,” inspired by Lord Byron’s poem, until he found the most congenial outlet for his fascination with frightened sailors and dangerous waters.
After shocking the Academy for years with paintings like the “Death of Sardanapalus” (also from Byron) and the pseudo-political “Massacre at Chios,” Delacroix, rejected seven times by that august institution, became the father of romantic painting.
His exotic animal hunts and odalisques captured primal fire and fury through color and brushstroke, until ill health began to slow him down in the 1840s.
Perhaps, however, as one flame waned, another ignited. On Feb. 28, 1847, Delacroix noted in his journal plans to read an “exceedingly interesting” book by Sister Emmerich containing “extraordinary details about the Passion, that were revealed to this young girl.”
He had just completed an image of the “Crucifixion” and was working on “The Entombment.” These were followed by a “Lamentation” and an “Incredulity of Thomas,” to become what art historian Joyce Polistena describes as a “quartet of images of the passion of Christ that, taken together, come closer to portraying Christological theology than nearly any other 19th-century contemporary artist.”
Polistena explains that they “illustrate the sacred body as anointed, adored, caressed, carried, lanced and probed, wrapped and mourned over.”
Delacroix embarked on a remarkably fertile period of religious subjects, including his “Good Samaritan” (inspirational for Van Gogh) and two beautiful murals in the Parisian church of St. Sulpice.
But one image captivated him so deeply that he painted it six times from 1841 to 1854 — “Christ Asleep during the Tempest.” Although he made slight variations on poses and colors, for more than 13 years he kept the same central composition.
Delacroix’s earlier boats had lain flat along the horizon line, while his biblical depictions showed a boat tilted at an angle and pitched toward the viewer, ready to hurl the occupants into the sea. The charcoal-green waves rise ominously around the little figures in the rickety vessel.
The apostles react in different ways, so that panic tosses the boat as violently as the waves. Only Jesus sleeps peacefully in the stern. In one version he is swathed in red; in most of the others he wears blue.
The compelling 1853 painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a teal sea lit by pale, churning froth as the waves overwhelm the low-lying boat.
One shadowy figure huddles in the prow, clutching a beam. Two disciples next to him try to row, but their oars flail ineffectively. Another clasps his mantle as it flies away, while his companion loses his paddle. The compositional axis is given to the frenzy of two distraught apostles throwing their arms in the air.
The russet tones hinted at through the composition find their full expression in the scarlet sleeves of the aghast apostle. Then one figure, nestled quietly next to Jesus, leads the eye to the sleeping Christ. He must be John, at peace as long as he is near the Lord.
Jesus, his head resting on his fist, sleeps. His mantle and halo seem to shield him from the madness around him. Oblivious to the man trying to master the rudder, Jesus appears uninterested in the imminent threat.
Delacroix came of age during Napoleon’s final stand, and he lived through two more revolutions, as well as the Crimean War. France had restored the monarchy and the Catholic faith, yet between insurrections, revolts, and war, Delacroix’s world seemed contradictory and crazy.
In the midst of overwhelming uncertainty and violence, Delacroix’s insistence on this artistic theme appears to echo Christ’s rebuke: “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).
In the modern age, where political, existential, and physical tempests threaten to engulf our little barque of faith, Delacroix illustrates that our strength is not in how we row, cry, or complain, it is in our trust in Christ — though at times he appears to be asleep.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is holding the first exhibition on Delacroix in the United States, including several of his tempest paintings and other religious works, through Jan. 6, 2019.
Elizabeth Lev is an American art historian, author, and speaker living in Rome.
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