Vision after the Sermon is one of the most important works the artist painted in Brittany. Breton peasants, which Gauguin viewed as exotic, are here plain types treated as flat silhouettes and painted in bright colours and simplified shapes.
The painting is divided into two parts by a large diagonal tree-trunk, which reminds us of the Japanese woodcuts. The foreground is filled with a group of women dressed in traditional Breton costumes (the caps!), returning from the mass. In the background we see two characters fighting. The ground is red – bloody red.
In the Vision, which is also known as Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Breton women observe an episode described in Genesis 32: 22-31 in which Jacob wrestles with a stranger who turns out to be an angel. Gauguin suggests thereby that the faith of these pious women (and a priest) enabled them to see miraculous events of the past.
The red ground is, in fact, the river Jabbok. In this biblical context, the red field is significant, dividing the lands of struggle and the land of peace. Traditionally, the message of the biblical story shows Jacob struggling with his conscience, and with other men, while God represented by the angel stands for, sometimes difficult to obtain, truth and redemption. After the struggle and the angel’s blessing, Jacob was able to continue his journey, crossing the river into the Promised Land – seen in the distant background of the painting.
The painting is full of symbols. The apple tree (tree of knowledge from Eden?) in the painting symbolizes man’s decision to distinguish between good and evil (remember Adam and Eve?). Its green foliage symbolizes also the promise of man’s redemption and his return to Paradise. 12 Breton women and a priest watch the event – 12 is an important number in itself, representing Jacob’s offspring which founded the 12 tribes of Israel.
The cow we see on the left is the symbol that reveals the means of man’s redemption – only through toil and work one can achieve salvation. In addition, it is also the symbol of four Breton saints venerated as protectors of horned beasts – Saints Cornley, Nicodeme, Herbot, and Theogonnie.
Gauguin wrote about this work in an 1888 letter to Van Gogh (then a friend):
Grouped Breton women, praying, very intense black dress — very luminous yellow white hats. The two hats on the right are like freakish helmets — an apple tree traverses the canvas, dark purple, and the foliage is drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with sunny yellow-green interstices. Ground pure vermilion. At the church it declines and becomes red brown. The angel is dressed in strong ultramarine and Jacob in bottle green. Angel wings pure chrome yellow no. 1 — Angel’s hair chrom no. 2 and feet orange flesh — in the figures I think I’ve attained great simplicity, rustic and superstitious — all very severe — The cow underneath the tree, tiny compared to reality, is bucking — For me, the landscape and wrestling match in this picture exist only in the minds of the people praying after the sermon, that’s why there’s a contrast between the natural people and the wrestling match in a non-natural, disproportionate landscape.
Cited in Rodolphe Rapetti, Symbolism, Deke Dusinberre, trans. (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), pp. 108–9.
This painting caused a breakthrough in Gauguin’s career as an artist. He became the leader of the Pont-Aven School which included the painters Paul Sérusier, Émile Bernard, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, Armand Seguin, Jacob Meyer de Haan. The style developed in Pont-Aven by Gauguin and Bernard was known as Synthetism because it synthesised or combined images, producing a new result which was quite different from Impressionism. It relied on a number of principles including the abandonment of faithful representation, the creation of a work based on the artist’s memory of the subject and his feelings, bold application of pure colour, the absence of perspective and shading. Everything mentioned here can be seen in Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon.
Gauguin tried to present this painting as a gift to two local churches but it was rejected on the notion that it was not serious or that it would scare the parishioners. Now it belongs to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. It’s hard to tell if it scares any visitors.