John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shows a rather uninteresting scene; your typical British city in the throes of a storm, with a cart and horses in the foreground, and a rainbow arcing through the sky above. Now shown in the Tate Modern alongside several other more light-hearted works of Constable, the meaning behind the painting — which has often been left unclear — has only recently come to life.
Constable was born in East Bergholt in 1776, the son of a wealthy corn merchant and his wife. He showed an interest in art at a young age, and by 1803, aged just 27, he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy. He married his childhood friend Maria in 1816 and they had seven children together, before Maria suddenly died of Tuberculosis in 1828.
It is this life event that is thought to have caused the creation of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, and it is now thought that the painting represents Constable’s hope after the death of his beloved. The painting indicates two key causes and sources of this hope: his religion, and his friendship with John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury.
Note the spire — which stands above the religious ‘centre’ of the Cathedral — and how it juts into the sky, its barely-visible cross resting in front of the lightest part of the storm. The eye of the storm (which this paler area represents) is commonly thought to be an area of peace, where the storm dies down completely for one blissful moment before the weather begins to rage again. Perhaps then Constable is suggesting that his religion gave him some solace and peace amidst the chaos his life must have been thrown into following the death of his wife. The distended oval shape formed by the rainbow, tree, and wagon, which centres on the Church, is a compositional element worth noting. Constable has not only made the Cathedral the centre of the canvas as a whole, but is further stressing this idea of its centrality by placing it within this compositional form. Therefore it is not much of a stretch to assume that religion and the Church in general played a huge part in Constable’s recovery after the death of his wife.
The rainbow that arcs above the Cathedral and descends into the centre of Salisbury is another element of the painting that should be paid attention to. Constable was known for having made meteorologically accurate drawings of rainbows during his artistic career, yet the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is not scientifically correct. Therefore we can assume it must have some other symbolism or use within the image. If we focus on the rainbow’s end (or where it touches earth), we can see that it seems to land on one building in particular; one that was later identified as Leadenhall, the house of John Fisher, Constable’s close friend and confidante. Therefore we can assume that the rainbow — if we consider it as a symbol of hope, as it was to Noah after the great flood (a tale Constable would have been very familiar with) — is directing the viewer to think that John Fisher was in some way of great help to Constable following the death of his wife.
Though a beautiful — albeit melancholy — painting at first glance, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows hides a wealth of further interpretations and ideas to those familiar with Constable’s life and legacy. It has been cemented as one of the key works of Constable’s career since it was painted nearly 200 years ago, and now we can appreciate fully the significance of it — not just to the history of the British Romanticism movement, but to Constable himself.
By Ellen Smithies