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Sunrise Clouds

Gloria in Excelsis

John Muir

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A thumbnail image showing Christ on the cross in Caspar David Friedrich's painting, Cross in the Mountains.

Nature and Revelation

Caspar David Friedrich’s Cross in the Mountains

Unveiling his painting, Cross in the Mountains, in his Dresden studio, artist Caspar David Friedrich “sparked a controversy that would force contemporaries to rethink not only art criticism, but also the evocation of the divine.”

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After we had seen the unveiling of the majestic peaks and glaciers that evening, and their baptism in the down-pouring sunbeams, it was inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us. Nevertheless, compared with what was coming the next morning, all that was as nothing. As far as we could see, the lovely dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon. Its most impressive features were the frosty clearness of the sky, and a deep, brooding calm, made all the more striking by the intermittent thunder of the bergs.

The sunrise we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadows of the fiord cliffs; but in the midst of our studies we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains. Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire. In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich and deep – not in the least like a garment or mere external flush or bloom through which one might expect to see the rocks or snow, but every mountain apparently glowing from the heart like molten metal fresh from a furnace.

detail from photo of Yosemite National Park, California, by Darvin Atkeson

Yosemite National Park, California (Darvin Atkeson)

Beneath the frosty shadows of the fiord we stood hushed and awe-stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens open and God made manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained. When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine, however glorious, but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself. Then the supernal fire slowly descending, with a sharp line of demarcation separating it from the cold, shaded region beneath, peak after peak, with their spires and ridges and cascading glaciers, caught the heavenly glow, until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed, and thoughtful, as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.

The white, rayless light of the morning, seen when I was alone amid the silent peaks of the Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of the terrestrial manifestations of God. But here the mountains themselves were made divine, and declared his glory in terms still more impressive. How long we gazed I never knew.

From “The Discovery of Glacier Bay,” in The Century 50(2):239.

Photo of the East Side of the Fairweather Mountains by Russell Sipe The east side of the Fairweather Mountains (Russell Sipe.)
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