The Works of Modernism and Religion


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Modernism is defined as a philosophical movement that arose from a host of cultural changes in western culture between the 19th and 20th century. Standards were changing, and art and literature had to adapt to the changing times. Modernism gave us multiple movements where art and literature changed significantly. Notable periods are the Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Romanticist. By looking at the views expressed by artists and poets of that era, we can learn what people were experiencing in that time period. Beginning in the late 19th century, Modernism was a movement where all forms of media were going through a transformation period of thinking. Robert Delaunay painted Portrait of Madame Heim in 1927, and T.S Eliot wrote the poem “Ash Wednesday” three years later in 1930. Robert Delaunay’s “Portrait of Madame Heim”, written in 1927 and T.S Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”, written in 1930 both reveal the burdens of modesty and religion in the modern world. T.S Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” act as a commentary on the burden on religion on the common man, and Robert Delaunay’s painting “Portrait of Madame Heim” using light colors and an emphasis on modest sensibilities.

T.S Eliot was a prominent Modernist poet in the early 20th century. His poem “Ash Wednesday” is about his conversion to Christianity after dealing with many struggles as a man. When this poem was written, modernists claimed the writers of both the Old and New Testaments were trained on the time they lived and that biblical religion evolved with the times. The poem begins with the lines “Because I do not hope to turn again. Because I do not hope.” Those lines provide the symbolism that the speaker is dealing with an inner struggle and how his life has no hope. The poet’s style ranges from short and sparsely worded, to long and verbose throughout the poem. Examples of this occurring are in the lines “And what is actual is actual only for one time. And only for one place”. T.S Eliot’s constant switching of sentence structure provides the extra meaning of the speaker’s plead of religion. The theme of religion can be seen in the lines “And pray to God to have mercy upon us.” At this point in the poem, the speaker is pleading to God that he should be spared for his sins in his past. In stanza four, Eliot brings up the phrase “sovegna vos”, which means “be mindful.” Here we see the speaker cite his conversation with God as him pleading that God should “be mindful of his sins”.

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Continuing with the theme of modest sensibilities, Robert Delaunay painted “Portrait of Madame Heim” in 1927. The painting highlights a woman in a dress sitting on the stairs in a modest posture. On her shoulder is a scarf, which acts as the counter to the centerpiece of this portrait. If we look at the woman in the photo, we can see the photo represents a common viewpoint of women during the 1920s, which is the man does the work and women were basically relegated to doing work around the house and being told to look modest, however women began to rebel by showing more skin, as seen on the bottom of her white dress. We can also see a prominent mix of light and dark colors on the scarf the woman is wearing. The artist did this because he wanted to draw the focus on the woman in the photo. Contrary to other modernist artists, “Portrait of Madame Heim” does not come to life. The painting is highlighted by subdued colors and simplistic design, with minor emphasis on the background and more focus on the woman in the portrait.

When we take the painting and pair it side by side with T.S Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”, we can see two major prominent themes between the two works of art: the burden of religion and modesty. If we look at stanza two, the narrator talks about Marian veneration: “Because of the goodness of this Lady, and because of her loveliness, and because she honors the Virgin in meditation, we shine with brightness”. What T.S Eliot is saying is because the Virgin Mary honors the lovelier things in life, which Eliot takes advantage of and moves on in his life. Further down in the second stanza, Eliot then continues to glorify the Virgin Mary, with lines such as “The Lady is withdrawn In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown. Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness. There is no life in them.” What Eliot is saying here is as the Virgin Mary leaves, she has no purpose. If we compare those lines to “Portrait of Madame Heim”, we see a similar theme of modesty and purity. Further down in stanza two, the theme of torture returns, with the lines “As I am forgotten and would be forgotten, so I would forget, Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose.” This line is talking about his conversion and isolating himself from the rest of the world, so Eliot can be ‘concentrated in purpose’. When we look at the painting, we see the woman is also isolating herself from the rest of the world. This is relating to the Modernist condition because through out the poem, T.S Eliot commonly brings up the theme of God. “And God said ‘Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only The wind will listen.’” Towards the end of stanza two, Eliot begins to glorify the Virgin Mary by saying “Lady of silences, Calm and distressed, Torn and most whole, Rose of memory, Rose of forgetfulness, Exhausted and life-giving”. Eliot is describing various attributes of the Virgin Mary by using short phrases such as ‘calm and distressed’, ‘rose of memory’, and ‘Exhausted and life-giving’. The significance of the length of the phrases is important between the modernist condition because in the poem, T.S Eliot is trying to convey a major characteristic of the modernist condition, which is the absence of reason. T.S Eliot is confused over his religion, so he decides to lose his faith in God.

If we look at “Portrait of Madame Heim”, that painting exhibits the modernist condition because when Robert Delaunay painted the portrait, it was a celebration of inner strength because at the time this painting was made, women were viewed as more of a fit in the domestic scene. However, certain jobs began to open up for women. Delaunay wanted to convey this through painting the woman in the photo in an almost angelic-like presentation. Features of this are the dress the woman is wearing, and how she sits in a modest posture on the steps.

The modernist time period was a tumultuous time for everyone involved. It was a confusing time for people because of World War 1 and the toll of death involved. Art also changed significantly as well to mimic the changing times around the world. Prominent Modernist artist Robert Delaunay painted “Portrait of Madame Heim” to show the burden of sensibilities on the common man, and T.S Eliot wrote “Ash Wednesday”, to show the strong emphasis on religion in the 1900s, almost to the point where it becomes a major burden on the common man. Overall, both works show Modernist sensibilities because they both emphasize the burden of religion and the confusion of traditional roles.

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