Welcome back to our final instalment of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s poem, A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! As always, the previous three parts can be found on this very site, and I highly recommend at least reading Part 1 first to provide some of the context behind my analysis. Otherwise, you might find some of the more violent imagery in the poem a little off-putting. Today, we’ll be listening to Saint Luke, the Patron Saint of Painters, as he teaches us the virtue of Prudence.
So why is Saint Luke the Patron of Painters? Wasn’t he a doctor? Well, Christian tradition has him as the first painter of religious icons, with various holy images attributed to his hand. In fact, in the medieval era, it was common for Painter’s Guilds to be known as Guilds of Saint Luke. Chesterton portrays Luke’s message as a warning to painters and those involved in the arts, exhorting them to be careful about what exactly they’re painting.
So for the final time, let’s begin our analysis!
‘St. Luke unto the painters on Christmas Day he said:
“See that the robes are white you dare to dip in gold and red;
For only gold the kings can give, and only blood the saints;
And his high task grows perilous that mixes them in paints.’
I don’t think I ever began with a huge chunk of four lines all at once like this before. But I think these four lines contain within them the crux of Saint Luke’s message. The second and third line are interesting, as depending on how you interpret the stylized phrasing, you can get two different interpretations of the passage.
For example, the third line can be read as either Luke commanding the Painters to dip white robes in red and gold paint. Or more likely, it is a warning to make sure that the robes are white before painting them. White symbolizes purity, and in this light Saint Luke is saying that before even beginning the act of painting, one must start from pure motives. The reasons for this are given in the next few lines.
Similarly, the third line can be read as saying that kings and saints can only give gold and blood, respectively. However, I think that in a stilted olde English kind of way, it actually means that you can only get gold from kings, and blood from saints. In other words, the material that we make art from is precious and sacred. This is why the painter has a ‘high task’ and a ‘perilous’ one – to do justice to life in all its glory.
‘Keep you the ancient order; follow the men that knew
The labyrinth of black and whits, the maze of green and blue;
Paint mighty things, paint paltry things, paint silly things or sweet.’
These few lines describe art and the act of creation itself. I use ‘art’ here to mean any creative endeavour – be it writing, drawing, painting, dance, the list goes on and on. In the modern day, we’ve seen quite a bit of a phenomenon called ‘Postmodernism’. Postmodernism’s underlying principle is that everything that can be achieved in art has already been achieved, and therefore it chooses to deconstruct art – to take art apart and comment on what makes it so successful instead.
Chesterton himself studied to be an art critic, and while he lived before the onset of the postmodern phenomenon, he was not that far removed from it. Through St. Luke, Chesterton is saying that beauty should still be celebrated in all its forms, and that there is virtue in following the ‘ancient order’ and the ‘men that knew’. It doesn’t matter whether the end result is ‘mighty’ or ‘paltry’ – these things do glorify God when undertaken in a manner that glorifies Him.
‘But if men break the Charter, you may slay them in the street.
And if you paint one post for them, then … but you know it well,
You paint a harlot’s face to drag all heroes down to hell.”’
By this time I’m starting to feel a little repetitive when I get to this point, namely the turn towards action, which Chesterton always couches in violent terms. However, this turn comes across as more of a warning than a call to action. I think this is because Prudence as a virtue is pretty active by its definition alone.
These last three lines are cautionary words on the responsibility of the artist. We have already seen that the previous verses expound on the responsibility of the artist – to glorify God by what we create. But we also need to be mindful of the fact that our gifts and talents come from God and should be used to glorify Him. I think this pertains especially to those in the entertainment industry. For better or for worse, ideas and messages have a tendency to influence the world at large – as humans, we’re pretty easily moulded like that.
I believe that as Christians, whatever we do should edify and uplift man, and be vehicles by which we appreciate the glory of God. I don’t mean to say that everything has to be nice and sanitized – God can speak through horror and tragedy just as much as comedy and happy endings. But if we truly allow God to work with us and through us in creating art, He will aid us in creating works that will not lead viewers astray, but rather appeal to their better natures.
That rounds up my analysis of this little poem. I hope that whether you read the whole thing or just one or two parts, you found it enjoyable and found the poem a little easier to understand. Have a blessed Christmas and may God help us all to become fully alive!
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng