A New Sense of Spirituality in the Sculpture of Rodin
Auguste Rodin’s The Hand of God and The Cathedral both display the fragmentation of space and the human form in a way that demonstrates his revolutionary form and content in sculpture. Both sculptures portray larger-than-life hands in dramatic and impossible forms that invite the viewer to contemplate spirituality through materiality. As a man who once thought of becoming a priest, Rodin embraces the wonders of imperfect man against the Neoclassical art historical context of an idealized individual to challenge the way spirituality is portrayed in art and to achieve an intimate knowledge of human life and creation (“Early Life”).
The Hand of God, completed in 1898, is the sculpture of a giant hand that emerges from a base of rough matter and sprawls its fingers to hold a fragment of marble. Both surrounded by and hanging off the fragmented marble, a pair of lovers fits into the palm of God’s hand as they embrace in sweet contortion. Their faces are defined just well enough so that the smooth piece of marble composing their faces seems continuous; the arm of the woman extends into God’s thumb and reappears, only to disappear into the rough cloud again. Through the shared smoothness of the lovers’ bodies fitting together into the same smooth surface of God’s hand, one identifies the lovers as a unity that is of the same flesh as God himself. This graceful balance is contrasted with the rough matter, which Rodin has left clearly chiseled. The rough matter seems like an eruption of raw energy from which God’s hand emerges and from which the lovers move. In fact, it is unclear as to where the raw matter ends, for there is an odd shape around the negative space above the lovers’ heads that is neither fully formed nor chiseled raw. Yet God’s hand cradles the sexual act of creation amidst the chaos; therefore, the sculpture is both graceful and explosive.
Rodin’s formal choices to represent fragments of form and space signify his break with the Neoclassical movement of a balanced, whole, idealistic figure. By representing only the hand of God, Rodin invites the spectator to imagine the entirety of God beyond what the sculpture presents. On the other hand, Rodin’s choice to keep the rough, chiseled space in a sculptural form eliminates the need for imagination. For instance, the fragments of the lovers’ bodies disappear into the rough matter, into the marble material that is the artist’s medium. The forms gain their identity through the sculptor. Just as the Hand of God allows for the physical creation of man, the sculptor allows for the physical creation of the sculpture. Therefore, Rodin is paralleling his act of sculptural creation to God’s act of Biblical creation. Unlike the Neoclassical presentation of religious subjects in a recognizable Biblical setting, Rodin presents an anonymous physical, immediate, erotic love that is entwined with the spiritual. Instead of mere narration, Rodin’s sculpture presents the act of becoming that erases the distinction between the physical and the spiritual.
In contrast to The Hand of God’s sculptural presentation of positive space, Rodin sculpts negative space in The Cathedral. Made in 1908, The Cathedral is the gentle juxtaposition of two copies of a right hand. Though from the same cast, the hands are not formed in exact mirror images. Therefore, Rodin thought carefully about the ways in which the “hands” (which actually extend a little beyond the wrist) would mold the inner space. There are two main bodies of inner space: the upper cavity, which is more slender when viewed from outside the fingers, and the lower cavity made up of the wrist to the palm. These spaces change drastically when the spectator walks around the sculpture, which is approachable from all angles. Only sometimes can the spectator see both the upper and lower cavity. Therefore, the sculpture invites the spectator to an intimate experience of the inner space. In addition to the close examination of the piece, the spectator is also invited to raise his or her hands to imitate the gesture of prayer. Unlike The Hand of God, in which the spiritual action of procreation is not immediately accessible, the spectator may immediately respond to The Cathedral through a tactile act of imitation. The Hand of God’s composition also confuses and invites reflection on its mysterious formal balance and religious content, whereas The Cathedral seems to hold no mysteries about its composition. In all, the spectator has more familiarity with the simplicity of the action as well as the elements of the sculpture.
This simplicity, however, is deceptive, for Rodin’s presentation of modern spirituality goes further than the physical act of prayer. Unlike The Hand of God, The Cathedral’s medium in the Musée Rodin is of plaster, and no part of the sculpture is completely smooth. The plaster is covered in fingerprints, chisel marks, and circular cuts made by Rodin. Therefore, the sculpture totally presents the rough mark of the artist. While this obvious tactile element makes the spectator more familiar with the source of the sculpture, the less conspicuous act of creation is the use of a duplicate cast. Without knowing that Rodin used the same cast, the gesture of prayer looks more or less natural. Therefore, Rodin puts the spiritual into the modern, unnatural act of creation, into the technological advancements that may be used in a spiritual context. Breaking with the academic tradition of sketching, sculpting, and casting brings sculpture up to speed with modern painting by emphasizing the material as it is without reference to an idealized vision of nature. In the context of the dawn of modern mass production, Rodin’s use of multiple identical sculptures in the same work foreshadows modern movements like Pop Art and Ready-mades almost a century later. The modern reproduction aspect in which Rodin realized the hands integrates art into society, just as the gesture of prayer integrates the physical into the spiritual.
Rodin’s complete integration of matter and spirit through The Cathedral is also evident by his title. Fascinated by the gothic cathedral in Rheims on a trip in 1876, French medieval architecture becomes a source of inspiration for the rest of his career (Vincent). The gothic cathedral in Rheims engulfs a spectator with multiple layers of gothic sculpture that seems infinitely extending, even organically growing off of the front walls. The rose window also evokes the sense of an organic blossoming of a crystalized light. Perhaps the lively characteristics of Rodin’s sculpture, as seen in The Hand of God, stems from his fascination with the animated spiritual life of architecture. Although The Cathedral presents a more still image of grace in contrast with The Hand of God’s explosive vibrancy, the architectural balance is reminiscent of a cathedral. Yet again, Rodin wishes to draw a parallel between artistic creation and spiritual creation. The hands of The Cathedral are man-made and reproduced by modern technology, just as a gothic cathedral was produced by the medieval inventions of flying buttresses and arches. Sculpture, like architecture, is a material construction by man that creates a new spiritual space, and Rodin brings the grandest of spiritual works of the world into daily, modern life, of prayer and mass production.
In conclusion, both The Hand of God and The Cathedral manifest the spiritual through the physical as well as foreshadow modern sculpture. The Hand of God symbolizes God’s agency as the driving force behind the mystery of life. Just as God cradles mankind’s creation, an artist cradles his sculpture. There is both mystery and immediate presence concerning the rough matter from which these forms erupt. Rodin has marked the sculptured nothingness to indicate the mark of the artist and the materiality of form. In contrast, form takes on the negative space encompassing and within the sculpture through The Cathedral. By using a duplicate hand to create an intimate and tactile space, Rodin parallels mankind’s ability to create material wonders like gothic cathedrals with the modern industrialization that characterizes daily life in the late 19th century. As one of the first artists to embrace modern methods of artistic production, Rodin becomes a key figure in modern sculpture as well as modern painters who think about space and materials in a realistic manner. Rodin brings the spiritual to the intimate, physical levels of sexuality and prayer through his own intimate mark of the sculptor.
“Early Life.” The Canter Foundation. 28 June 2011. Web. <www.canterfoundation.org/Rodin/rbioe.html>
Vincent, Clare. “Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 28 June 2011. Web. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rodn/hd_rodn.htm>