Oppressed and left with little hope were the people of Europe after World War I, frightened and afflicted by acts of mankind. Where was the peace? Where was the hope for something better, something to turn the treacherous world around? Where was God?
Many paintings during the world wars reflected the artists’ perception of the world: dark, disheartening, short and oblique. They offered no hope. They offered no peace. And, they offered no God. The artists transformed reality and displayed their disbeliefs of a greater good or a greater realm beyond the one that we are stuck in for a short period of time.
However, George Rouault, a Parisian man born in 1871, offered the people something better. He offered them optimism and hope. More importantly he offered a remembrance of God and that “Anyone who believes in me, though he were dead, shall live” (John 11:25). His Miserere piece creates a prayer for the people.
“A prayer that, if not always founded in great serenity, is always concluded in a deep-seated resignation for all things in Christ.” (Website)
Within the Miserere, it reflects if affliction man does to each other. The title is taken from Plautus’ Asinaria, concerning the Roman Civil Wars, “Man is a Wolf to Man.” The piece is a conviction for all who gaze up on it. It is a remembrance that righteous death is not death, but rather it is a rebirth. The earthly world is filled with sorrow and death plagues the earth. The Miserere is a reflection of Psalm 51.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to they loving-kindness: according unto the multitude of they tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1)
Plate 45, “La Mort l’a pris comme il sortait du lit d’orties” (“ Death took him as if he rose from his bed of nettles), is somber. It reminds us of the transformation to death. “Death appears as both the victim and the executioner” (Website-Miserere 3). This then makes us realize that we are not only victims to our lives, but we also are our own source of death. We are our source of sin and source of oppression. We plague ourselves with our own unworthy acts and sins with a contorted body signaling problems. His left hand disappears into the portrait indicating his disappearance from this world. To where does he disappear? No one knows. One could only hope the good Lord took him home. But, behold! There is hope. The skeleton holds his right, righteous hand and gazes to the right. The gaze is an idea that that souls tries to draw us back to a Godly presence as the eyes are the windows of the soul. As the series is played in a sequence, when this plate is held up to Plate 44, Mon doux pays, où êtes-vous? (My sweet country, what has become of you), it appears as if the skeleton has a dishearten gaze towards the countryside with death, fire, and smoke.
In plate 44, wounded soldiers cover the terrain. The roof of the tallest building off to the right is in shambles. Smoke rises in the foreground to cover the sky, a sky polluted by the smoke of the burning buildings. Here lies “the ruins of what was once a paradise” (Website-Miserere 3). Rouault reflects the true pain and suffering of war.
Paintings are reflections. They are gateways to the future. Art is a pale reflection of the harmony that reigns over the world because if we do not believe in something more, there is nothing left. Death is always moving while the world is in constant flux. We have to choose wisely the paths we wish to take. We can let ourselves drown in sorrow and horror, or we can ask God to create a clean heart and a renewed spirit within us. As Rouault illustrates in his Miserere collection, it was “inspired by the suffering of human beings, which often can be without any reason for those who have to endure it… but what saves ourselves, if anything can, is Christ and the Virgin Mary.” (Rouault Website)