The Dream of Gerontius
The Dream of Gerontius was written by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1865. It is a dramatic poem which portrays the death of an old man and what happens to his soul as he enters into eternity and the state of Purgatory. Newman discovered much about the teaching of Purgatory from the Fathers of the Catholic Church when he was writing his "Essay on development of Doctrine".
The musician and composer Edward Elgar began work on the "Dream of Gerontius" in 1900.
The painting of the Dream of Gerontius was commissioned by the Pitt-Payne family from Alesbury in 2003, and is painted on wood with acrylic and gold leaf. The visual presentation of the painting is broken up into 8 parts which is just as much part of the symbolic language of the painting as the rich colour, the gold leaf for the Heavenly realm the unborn child in baptismal shawl surrounded by a dove symbolizing the soul, the cool blue green waters of Purgatory and the swooshing circular motion of the Angel on its way from earth to eternity. The early church Baptisteries had 8 sides, 6 sides for creation 7 for the day of rest and 8 for the new creation, the Resurrection day.
In contemporary society, even when there is an holistic apporach to life, with mind body and soul considered, it seems to go from birth through middled age to-wards old age and stops at the blood pressure pills. The greatest and most exciting journey of all os blanked out. So here is Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman's vision of that journey to-wards the super-sensuous where, "this gaudy world has grown pale before the beauty of God's grace," enhanced by Elgar's choral piece and the painted image.
From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who posses the first-fruits of the spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free.
Saint Paul. Romans 8: 22 - 24
The bottom left of the painting shows an old man on his deathbed surrounded by his friends and a priest, the choral piece is part where the priest sings “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
The second part further up the left of the painting shows the Angel holding the old man’s soul firmly in its hand. the soul is symbolised by an unborn child in a baptismal garment within the shape of a dove. Off they go, the Guardian Angel with its soul of the old man. The choral piece at this point is the Angel singing of the old man’s soul, “And saved is he”.
At the top left of the painting can be seen the Angel with its charge flying and swooshing round to-wards the heavenly realm and passing a howling mob of demons who are however powerless to hurt them.
The choral part here is characterised by the distinctive and terrible sound of the mocking “Ha! Ha!” of the demons.
The Angel with the soul of the old man carries on past the demons and moves nearer to the presence of the Judge. As they draw closer choirs of angels are heard around the throne singing “Praise to the Holiest in the height.” These angels can be seen at the very top and centre of the painting. The choral part at this point starts with the soul proclaiming. “I have no fear”, and goes onto the choir of angels singing “Praise to the Holiest in the height.”
Finally as they get nearer still to the Throne the soul says “I go before my Judge” and darts from his Guardian Angel’s hold and flies before the Throne. There follows a dramatic and awful moment as the soul is left dazed and shrivelled at the foot of the Throne as it realises its need for purification before it can see God face to face. At the bottom middle of the painting lie the soul and dove. The choral piece at this point echoes this terrible and awful moment.
The soul then sings “Take me away,” and returns to his Guardian Angel and up they go and round to-wards Purgatory. Here the choral piece sings “Take me away”.
As the Angel gently places the soul of the old man in the cooling waters of Purgatory he can hear the hopeful singing of the souls in Purgatory.
As the Angels leaves his charge in Purgatory it sings “Farewell, but not forever! Brother dear,” and the painting shows the soul within the dove in Purgatory preparing to be born into the Eternity of Heaven. The choral piece finishes with “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.
Audio extracts are from Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius which was performed by Antony Rolfe Johnson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Michael George and the Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra. The painting is ‘The dream of Gerontius’ by artist Michael Felix Gilfedder, 2003 and was commissioned by the Pitt-Payne family from Alesbury.