171: The Cathedrals of the Earth


Perhaps no one has ever loved mountains more than John Ruskin. Before him, with few exceptions, they were generally ignored in literature (Dante, for example, says almost nothing about them; his “Paradiso” exists in some unspecified “up there”), or regarded as places of terror, to be avoided at all cost (recall Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” and its chilling visual rendition in Disney’s “Fantasia”? I do! I must’ve been less than ten when I first saw it and I was spooked about mountains and woods for the next decades and more!).

There could not be a worse understanding of nature, Ruskin said. Rightly seen, mountains are the most blessed places on earth. From his first sight of them, he was overwhelmed by their power and enraptured with their beauty–see, for the first, Post 64: The Office of the Mountains, for the second, Post 121: The Old Road. Knowing the truth of these sensations, for the rest of his writing life he tried to make us see and feel what he saw and felt.

Consider, as a prime example, some comments entered in his diary on a summer evening in 1849. Ruskin is at his writing desk in The Old Union Inn in Chamouni in the (then Swiss, now French) Alps, the place he had come to love more than any other. Less than a half hour before he was at his rock, a great glacial erratic about halfway up the Brevant, the mountain which forms the northern side of the valley. He discovered this incredible place during one of  his tramps about the valley some years earlier when he had been here with his parents. The view from the pine grove where the rock rests is unparalleled. On this night, he watched the sun set, and what he saw was so breathtaking he has determined to set it down while the images are still fresh. After a  glance out his window at Mont Blanc high above on which there still lingers a bit of sunset rose, his pen starts to record his memories…

I never saw the valley look so lovely as it did tonight! With its noble, quiet slopes of deep, deep green and grey, and, above them, the rich orange of the Aiguilles [literally “needles,” sharp pointed peaks nearby, but lower than, Mont Blanc]. I know nowhere else [where one sees such] green and orange united by purple, as they are at the time when the sun has left the pines and stays on the [mountain] granite. The great waterfall [on the Mont Blanc side of the valley] was bounding [with ever] wilder crashes…as the wind brought its roar to me across the fields. The sweet level fields! [The scene had all] the tenderness of the forest lowland with the calm and freshness of the mountain, not the hillocky wilderness of Zermatt [the Matterhorn] nor the ruined desolation of Courmayeur [on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Range], but all full of peace and joy and power. I was almost in tears as I watched the light declining behind the great pines’ sweep and rugged crest of the noble Brévant once more.

Or consider another second example, a short passage from the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1854) inspired by the same Brevant view. It is worthy of our notice not only as another instance of his love of mountains, but as an instance of one of the arguments he made time and again: namely, that what he wrote was never a matter of personal opinion; it was a truthful recording of what was actually there to be seen, the veracity of which anyone could test if they were but willing to go and look for themselves, 

The best image which the world can give of Paradise [pace Dante] is in the slope of the meadows, orchards, and cornfields on the side of a great Alp, with its purple rocks and eternal snows above. This excellence not being in any wise referable to feeling or individual preferences, but demonstrable by calm enumeration of lovely colors on the rocks, the varied groups of the trees, and quantity of noble incidents in stream, crag, or cloud, presented to the eye at any given moment.

Our third example comes from another section in Modern Painters IV“To myself,”he wrote there, 

mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenes… They are the cathedrals of the earth. The real majesty of the appearance of [a] thing to us depends upon the degree to which we ourselves possess the power of understanding it–that penetrating, possession-taking power of the imagination, the very life of man considered as a seeing creature…

Examine [as an instance] the nature of your own emotion (if you feel it) at the sight of the Alp, and you will find all the brightness of that emotion hanging, like dew on gossamer, on a curious web of subtle fancy and imperfect knowledge.

First, you have a vague idea of its size, coupled with wonder at the work of The Great Builder of its walls and foundations. Then an apprehension of its eternity, a pathetic sense of its perpetualness, and your own transientness, as of the grass on its sides. Then, and in this very sadness, a sense of strange companionship with past generations in seeing what they saw. They did not see the clouds that are floating over your head, nor the cottage wall on the other side of the field, nor the road by which you are traveling. But they saw that! The wall of granite in the heavens was the same to them as to you. They have ceased to look upon it; you will soon cease to look also, and the granite wall will be for others. 

Then, mingled with these more solemn imaginations, come the understandings of the gifts and glories of the Alps, the fancying forth of all the mountains that well from its rocky walls, and strong rivers that are born out of its ice, and of all the pleasant valleys that wind between its cliffs, and all the chalets that gleam among its clouds, and happy farmsteads couched upon its pastures–while together with the thoughts of these, rise strange sympathies with all the unknown of human life, and happiness, and death, signified by that narrow white flame of the ever-lasting snow, seen so far [away] in the morning sky. These images, and far more than these, lie at the root of the emotion which you feel at the sight of the Alp.

About all these elevated things, I suggest that Mr. Ruskin, more than a century and a half ago, as he always said he did, spoke truth–as a few images of just some of the wonderful Cathedrals of the Earth (most taken last September) will surely prove.

Until next time!

Be well out there! (Plan your trip soon!)


The Mont Blanc Range of the French Alps from The Plateau d'Assy

Mont Blanc Range from The Plateau d’Assy


Mont Blanc du Tacul and Glacier des Bossons


The Aiguille du Midi 


Les Grandes Jorasses


The Aiguilles of Mont Blanc at Sunset


Mont Blanc, Sunset

By the way, our dear friend, the late Suzanne Varady, always called the fellow above, “Monsieur Blanc”–as in, as we arrived at one view or another, something like, “Monsieur Blanc is looking very fine today….,” a remark always delivered with that lovely characteristic twinkle in her eye. God bless Suzanne Varady and the chance Fors gave us to be her friend!

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1 Response to 171: The Cathedrals of the Earth

  1. James G. Hanink says:


    It’s a poor comparison, but here in LA, after a windy night, we can easily see the nearby mountains that are usually obscured.

    Another thought: it’s been remarked, hasn’t it, that much of what Ruskin saw of the Alps from Venice, has, because of increasing pollution, hidden them from Venetians for many, many decades?

    Jim replies: absolutely correct. I’ve been to Venice many times and believe that I’ve seen the Alps only once or twice and, even then, never with crystal clarity! Alas!

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