In his conversation and writings, Gauguin presented himself as fiercely opposed to the Christian Church. Nonetheless, his art was pervaded by religious themes and imagery, frequently drawing upon the Old and New Testaments for source material as well as the myths and belief systems of other cultures.

Gauguin began to address sacred themes when he was working in Brittany. Among the distinctive qualities of the region that he wanted to capture was its deeply ingrained religious faith, in which Catholicism was entwined with the surviving traces of ancient Celtic beliefs. The powerful spirituality of Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888 emerges from the naïve faith of the women experiencing the vision. Indeed, the image could be presented as a quasi-anthropological study as much as a religious painting. It was also a breakthrough for Gauguin’s painting style, with clearly defined outlines and bold colouring that resembles stained glass – an approach known as ‘Cloisonism’ after a medieval technique for decorative enamel work.

Paul Gauguin Yellow Christ 1889

Paul Gauguin
Yellow Christ 1889

Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo

When Gauguin first embarked for Tahiti in 1891, one of his stated aims was ‘to study the customs and landscapes of the country’. He anticipated immersing himself in a pagan culture in a luxuriant tropical setting. On arrival, however, he was bitterly disappointed to discover that missionaries had been successfully converting the islanders to Christianity for more than a century, leaving little trace of the old traditions. His only thorough source of information was Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s >Voyage aux îles du grand ocean 1837, a study of the history and culture of the region based on interviews with a handful of elderly Tahitians. Using Moerenhout’s not wholly reliable account, Gauguin set about reconstructing the lost myths in his art, devising imaginative references to deities such as Hina, the goddess of the moon, and Tefatu, the god of the earth. He carved his own wooden idols and included them in his paintings, in which they resemble time-worn artefacts. In Gauguin’s art, at least, ancient myth becomes part of everyday Tahitian life.

Many of Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings continued to explore traditional Christian themes, and he placed subjects such as the Nativity and the Madonna and Child in a Tahitian setting. But his fondness for drawing on an eclectic range of sources meant that details could be borrowed from Egyptian wall paintings, Buddhist carvings or the pose of a Javanese dancer, as if creating a visual equivalent to his growing interest in the comparative study of global religions.