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C. S. Lewis & Art


A few years ago, I contributed an essay to the book pictured above entitle C. S. Lewis and the Arts. It is an intriguing topic in one way because Lewis never said much about the visual arts. 

For some time, I have been interested in learning as much as I can about Lewis' physical environment. I have visited many of the places where Lewis lived and worked and even where he went on holiday. I have led tours to Lewis' Ireland and England. I even had a photo book of Lewis' Ireland and England published last year.


Thus, I was intrigued a while back when I came across this photo of Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, taken in the 1950s and published in Vogue magazine....


The main reason I was intrigued by this photo was because I wondered what the artwork was hanging over Lewis' mantle. 

I knew that Lewis had a reproduction of this well-known painting in his rooms....


But that was obviously not the painting hanging over the mantle.

I tried enlarging the Vogue photo of Lewis, but it was still no use because all I could see was part of the painting. I figured the painting was from the Renaissance period and that it dealt with a mythological subject. But that was as far as my guesswork could take me. No matter how hard I searched the Internet I just wasn't coming up with the right painting.

I remembered that there were other famous photos of Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen. The one immediately below even reveals another corner of the painting....



Still, the photo above does not reveal enough of the painting to figure out what it is.

Then, just the other day, I came across the photo below of Lewis for the umpteenth time and I realized that the photo revealed a bit more of the painting....


I enlarged the photo and cropped the painting to produce this:


I posted the image on my Facebook page, and my nephew, Jacob Vaus, who is studying film, was able to identify the painting having seen a reproduction in one of his art classes. The painting is by Tintoretto and is entitled Mercury and the Three Graces. Here it is in living color....


I did a search for "C. S. Lewis & Tintoretto" on Google and came up with this quote from one of Lewis' former students, Peter Bayley....

Surely the choice of picture was significant? Was it perhaps even deeply significant? It was a reproduction of the National Gallery picture The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto. I think it was the only picture in Lewis's rooms in the eighteenth-century New Buildings at Magdalen, but memory may play me false and indeed is now suggesting to me that there was at least one other Tintoretto reproduction. It doesn't matter greatly. The point is that in a dull, soulless, unaesthetic, college room which was of noble proportions and could have been beautiful, the only beautiful or cheering object, except for a coal fire, was this alluringly erotic picture. (C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table)
The painting to which Peter Bayley refers is this one by Tintoretto:


And Bayley was correct in thinking that his memory betrayed him. For Lewis did have another Tintoretto, the one I have identified above, in addition to that reproduction of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam.

Then, to top it all off, another friend, Doug Beyer, reminded me of this passage from Lewis' book, Experiment in Criticism....
If this is how the many use pictures, we must reject at once the haughty notion that their use is always and necessarily a vulgar and silly one. It may or may not be. The subjective activities of which they make pictures the occasion may be on all sorts of levels. To one such spectator Tintoretto's Three Graces may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography. To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth which, in its own right, is of value. It might conceivably, in its own different way, lead to something as good as the picture itself. This may be what happened when Keats looked at a Grecian urn. If so, his use of the vase was admirable. But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art. The corresponding uses of pictures are extremely various and there is much to be said for many of them. There is only one thing we can say with confidence against all of them without exception: they are not essentially appreciations of pictures.

It was a satisfying conclusion to an intellectual and artistic query.

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