Art That Lifts the Soul by Judith Shaw

judith shaw photoArt that seeks the essence. Such art comes in many forms and styles.

Some art is political, some is decorative. Some art is conceptual, some is commercial. But the art that draws me in, that makes me feel deeply, and that compels me to truly be with it, is art that expresses the mysterious essence of life, the unfathomable depths of infinity, the indescribable nature of existence.

Art which expresses the mystery of life is found across all cultures and times, in all religions and spiritual traditions, created by both anonymous artists and artist who are now icons of mastery.

During my recent trip to Paris and New York I had the opportunity to see some wonderful art, much of Illumination from Musée Marmottan Monetwhich expresses the sublime. My first art stop in Paris was to the Musée Marmottan Monet. Originally a hunting lodge built in the early 1800’s when the 16th arrondissement was still a rural outskirt to Paris it became the Musée Marmottan in 1934. The owners had received bequests of much important German, Flemish and Italian primitives. In 1940 the museum received a collection of Impressionist work. Then in 1966 the museum inherited the world’s largest collection of work by Claude Monet from the painter’s son, Michel, becoming the Musée Marmottan Monet. 

After a beautiful walk through the tree-lined boulevards of the neighborhood we arrived eager to view the art. Among the Impressionist work is a collection of twenty-five paintings and graphic work by Berthe Morisot, the first woman Impressionist. In addition this bequest included works from Morisot’s personal collection by her friends, Corot, Manet, Degas and Renoir.  I was transported to a light-filled world that touches on the soul of domestic life, motherhood, and children – subject matter which in part led to her dismissal as unimportant by her contemporaries. In addition her approach – the use of gentle, gestural brushstrokes nearing abstraction and unfinished edges – is considered to be “female,” another negative in the art world.

painting by Berthe Morisot

One of the pieces in the collection is a portrait of Morisot done by her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet. It is a small jewel which captures Morisot’s essence. See more of Morisot’s work and read about her life here


The main reason for the visit was my love of Monet. I love all of his work but in particular his waterlilies hold me enchanted. I was transfixed in the room which held a number of his large waterlily paintings.  When speaking about these large paintings Monet said the purpose was to supply “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” It is that “illusion of an endless whole” that brings me into contemplation with the interconnectedness of all – the endless whole of existence. Viewing Monet’s water lily paintings has been and continues to be a spiritual experience for me.  By the number of other people held entranced by the paintings, many must share my experience.

Unfortunately I did not understand the need for advance reservations and the only other major museum I visited was the Cluny. Much of the museum is under renovation but luckily their collection of the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry cycle was on display.

The tapestries were created in the 1500’s when tapestries were much more expensive to create than Lady-and-the-unicorn-touch-close-uppaintings thus becoming a status symbol for the wealthy to own. The tapestry cycle of the “Lady and the Unicorn” is a rare surviving example of breathtaking quality.

The intricate, densely packed “millefleur” (thousand flowers) background of many different plants and flowers was most likely not in the original cartoon drawings, probably created by  a leading artist of the day – “the Master of Anne of Britany.” The creation of tapestries was a collaborative affair. This cycle was woven in Flanders, known for its exceptional weaving work at the time. It is thought that the weavers in Flanders, working from the cartoons, insisted on a millefleur background.

Woven with luxurious wool and silk and dyed with precious natural dyes, the tapestries are full of Christian symbolism, reflective of the era. It is generally agreed that they are an allegory of the senses – a contemplation on earthly pleasures and courtly culture.

The tapestries depict the five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. This one and the close ups are of Smell.


The meaning of the sixth tapestry of the cycle is not clear – called “à mon seul désir,” as those words appear in the tapestry. This is translated variably as “my only desire,” “by my will alone,” “love desires only beauty,” and “according to my desire alone.” Some consider it to depict a sixth sense, an understanding, a deeper way of knowing the world. Maybe it is a rejection of the pleasures of the flesh shown in the first five. Is she removing or returning the jewels to their casket? Maybe it is a statement of self-determination and free will. Maybe it depicts common sense or intuition. Perhaps it symbolizes the soul. In the courtly tradition the sixth sense would be considered as the heart and the home of free will, passion and desire.


The unicorn, seen in all six tapestries, has been a common symbol of chastity or purity since the second century.  Considered to be a wild woodland beast, the unicorn was tamed at the sight of a beautiful young maiden – instantly approaching her and laying its head in her lap. It was believed that its horn could purify poisoned water and heal the sick. The lion was often used in heraldry – symbolizing nobility, bravery and restraint – attacking only when in danger or need of food. Typically the rabbit symbolized purity and innocence. The monkey often mimics human actions. 

But the sum of the whole cycle is greater than its symbolic parts. I was not alone in adopting a reverent attitude in the darken room. It speaks to us still today – Christian and non-Christian alike – of love, peace and beauty, both transcendent and earthly.  Across both distance and time art can truly lift our spirits and touch our souls.

Sources: Musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Age, The Vintage News, The Conversation

Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck from Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!

Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. In recent years Judith became very interested in the Goddesses of her own ancestors, the Celts, resulting in her deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle cards. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Spirit Guides. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.


Categories: General

Tags: , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I loved this post – your words speak volumes – I feel the same way.. “When speaking about these large paintings Monet said the purpose was to supply “the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or bank.” It is that “illusion of an endless whole” that brings me into contemplation with the interconnectedness of all – the endless whole of existence.”

    When I saw the unicorn tapestries I was transported to the Cloisters in New York where so many hang. As a child I spent so many hours in this place and was drawn again and again to the details in these tapestries. Thanks for this beautiful memory.

    By the way visiting the Cloisters as an adult didn’t change my original perceptions about those tapestries but it did shift my perception. I understood by then that so many flowers and animals reflected my intense love and relationship with the natural world…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sara,
      What a blessing to have been able to visit the Cloisters in NYC many times as a child. I have been there and it is absolutely more than worth the long trek to get there! The unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters is also very evocative. Part of what drew me in and kept me there was a sadness at man’s need to hunt and capture that which is wild. And yet the female loving energy of the maiden in whose lap the unicorn lays his head is heart warming. And the tapestries themselves are of course magnificent. Part of the reason I love so much Medieval Art is the inclusion of so many sweet little animals, flowers, trees – nature in general – same way you feel.

      I think part of the extraordinary experience felt in viewing the Lady and the Unicorn cycle at the Cluny is the fact that there is no hunt, no violence – only the meditation on the senses and the meaning of life.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the paintings here, thanks Judith Shaw, and the last one, priceless, the little creature seeming to be annoyed by the plants, and as if to say, “Hey, could you please move over a little so I can lay down here and get some rest.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Judith. What a joy to see these works through your artist’s eye.


    • You’re very welcome Elizabeth! I have this on-going fantasy of spending at least 3 months in a city with fantastic museums – like Paris or NYC – and visiting the museums over and over again. Maybe some day…..


  4. Quelles belles oeuvres! I love museums and envy your journeys through all those beautiful artworks. Wonderful post to read first thing in the morning. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: