Spires and Cathedrals

Artistic and Poetic Renderings of Yosemite’s Divine Features

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In the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially between 1859 and 1872, Union officers and enlisted men, scientists and explorers, artists and writers traveled westward. Surveyors appraised and mapped; expeditionary members explored and then wrote, hoping to convey the wonders they had witnessed. The western wilderness was an enormous expanse, one that as easily represented commercial possibilities as it did a new ideal. Nevertheless, the western wilderness also mesmerized and inspired, provoking a type of awe and wonderment in its languorous canyons, exploding fumaroles, bubbling hot springs, and soaring granite spires. From the Rockies to the Sawtooths, from the Cascades to the Tetons, the mountains of the American West mystified and hypnotized those who saw them. The Sierra Nevadas, in particular, became the locus for artists and writers. Their paintings and publications, in turn, inspired entire groups to travel to the Yosemite Valley in order to ponder the sublime beauties of Nature found there. Through the paintings and sketches of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, and through the meticulous journal entries and travel narratives of Clarence King and John Muir—whose work as a Naturalist eventually helped establish the Valley as a National Park—Yosemite captured the imagination of the American people, as its spires, cliffs, and waterfalls had been artistically transformed from mere tourist destinations into sites of divine revelation.


In the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially between 1859 and 1872, Union officers and enlisted men, scientists and explorers, artists and writers traveled westward. Surveyors appraised and mapped; expeditionary members explored and then wrote, hoping to convey the wonders they had witnessed. The western wilderness was an enormous expanse, one that as easily represented commercial possibilities as it did a new ideal. Nevertheless, the western wilderness also mesmerized and inspired, provoking a type of awe and wonderment in its languorous canyons, exploding fumaroles, bubbling hot springs, and soaring granite spires. From the Rockies to the Sawtooths, from the Cascades to the Tetons, the mountains of the American West mystified and hypnotized those who saw them. The Sierra Nevadas, in particular, became the locus for artists and writers. Their paintings and publications, in turn, inspired entire groups to travel to the Yosemite Valley in order to ponder the sublime beauties of Nature found there. Through the paintings and sketches of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, and through the meticulous journal entries and travel narratives of Clarence King and John Muir—whose work as a Naturalist eventually helped establish the Valley as a National Park—Yosemite captured the imagination of the American people, as its spires, cliffs, and waterfalls had been artistically transformed from mere tourist destinations into sites of divine revelation.

[T]he artist ought to tell his portion of … history as well as the writer; a combination of both will assuredly render it more complete.

Albert Bierstadt

[W]ild parks [are] Nature’s cathedrals, where all may gain inspiration and strength and get nearer to God.

John Muir

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the American West was an ideal space where postbellum citizens, facing the political and economic upheavals caused by the Civil War, could rebuild themselves both commercially and spiritually. An expansive wilderness, a seemingly unbounded geography, and emerging markets not only represented possibilities of economic growth, sustainability, and a place for national reunification, but those nearly boundless expanses—especially those landscapes interrupted with precipitous mountain peaks—symbolized a new place where the Divine presence could be both felt and contemplated. An author in the January 1873 edition of Littell’s Living Age, a weekly publication that included writings from both American and English newspapers and magazines, wrote: “Any one under the habitual influence of religious feeling surrendering himself to the impressions of natural scenery [in the West] will not only find its beauty and grandeur wonderfully heightened, but his own soul calmed and heightened” (16). And, as Lynn Ross-Bryant maintains in her article, “Sacred Sites: Nature and Nation in the U.S. National Parks,” the “European aesthetic experience of the sublime that connected nature and culture had transformed in the United States into religious experience of God in nature, as creation and revelation were merged,” especially in mid-nineteenth century America (36). God’s revealed presence was particularly evident in the West’s abundant mountain ranges; mountains, especially, became sacred places for individuals to contemplate nature’s wonders, and to wander about, awestruck by their majesty. This splendor is evident not only in paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, but also exemplified by writers like John Muir and Clarence King. Muir and King rendered magnificent vistas and commanding mountainscapes using pen and paper, an observant eye, and a sensitivity to the rhythm and beauty of land; artists like Moran and Bierstadt captured the mystique and vastness of the American wilderness through exquisite artistry and meticulous renditions of landscape space. These artistic and poetic renditions of wilderness space helped embolden pilgrims traveling west—especially those who were searching for spiritual regeneration and a new beginning.

Albert Bierstadt undertook his first journey out west in 1859 as a member of the Lander Expedition. With a letter of introduction from Secretary of War John B. Floyd, as Alan and Jourdan Houston carefully detail in their article, “The 1859 Lander Expedition Revisited,” Bierstadt traveled alongside several other artists, carefully documenting the scenery through a series of sketches and paintings as the expedition moved westward (57). Once he returned home, Bierstadt began work on his painting, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. Finishing it in 1863, he created the work that “contributed most to his emerging reputation as an American landscapist” (69).

Able to travel west again in 1863, and after he had successfully exhibited Lander’s Peak, Bierstadt was this time accompanied by Fritz Hugh Ludlow, a travel writer. Ludlow, as Eleanor Harvey argues in her work, The Civil War and American Art, did for Bierstadt what “Louis LeGrand Noble had done for Frederic Church”: he regularly whetted the “public’s appetite for scenic paintings” (62). Once he arrived in Yosemite, Bierstadt wrote: “We are now in the Garden of Eden I call it. The most magnificent place I was ever in, and I employ every moment painting from nature” (qtd. in Harvey 62). Using similar language in his own travel narrative, Ludlow wrote in 1864: “If report was true, we were going to the original site of the Garden of Eden” (The Atlantic Monthly 740). His choice of phrasing, “Garden of Eden,” is precisely the same as that of Bierstadt and rather striking: both men view, and then write about, the Yosemite Valley as edenic, a near paradisical scene that is sacred and sublime.

One of Bierstadt’s depictions of this sublime view is Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865), a marvelous depiction of an edenic scene, and one that exudes a certain profundity within the Valley’s stillness (fig. 1). And though Harvey contends that the “valley [is] baptized with light,” the baptism is only partial, as half the valley is darkened by twilight shadows (62). Thus the partial subduing bespeaks the sacred: the partly lit east face of El Capitan, the light-hued glacial grays contrasted with the rich, dark browns of the cathedral-like spires, and the verdant plant and tree life whose colors are slightly muted by dusk. Notably, Bierstadt’s shady scene places artist and viewer alike east of this new Eden: whether prelapsarian or not is ambiguous, since all human and animal life is absent from the canvas. The lack of living creatures, either animal or human, creates a complicated tension. Is the Creator at rest, silently glorying in and contemplating His own creation? Are humans waiting to enter the paradisical scene or only permitted to study its beauty from afar?


Figure 1

Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865. Oil on canvas, 64½″ × 96½″. Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham AB.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005


Figure 2

Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, 1868. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼″ × 52 ¼″. The Haggin Museum, Stockton CA.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005

Similar to Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865), Bierstadt’s also stunning Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1869) depicts an unpeopled space, providing what Kate Ogden contends in her essay, “California as Kingdom Come,” is a “timeless, simultaneously wild and pastoral” wilderness space (24) (fig. 2). Ogden also suggests that the Yosemite Valley was attractive not just as a place of respite, but “for a spiritual experience in the equivalent of a mountain cathedral” (24). The language Ogden uses should not be surprising, especially since, throughout his article, Ludlow refers to himself and Bierstadt as “pilgrims to the Yo-semite.” And where else do pilgrims travel, except to visit holy sites? Ludlow—using language from St. John’s book of Revelation—further insists the valley is sacred when he writes of his view at Inspiration Point: the scene is as a “new heaven and new earth,” his words “beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature” (746). Though both Nature and Bierstadt’s art are silent, Ludlow’s travel writer’s voice noisily echoes across the Valley’s floor and against the polished glacial rock of domes and spires. His prose is replete with religious language, references, and allusions, enticing readers to come witness the beatific Yosemite Valley.

Bierstadt spent seven weeks in Yosemite, as Ludlow documents, painting, sketching, and refining his artistic renditions of Yosemite’s splendors. Ludlow recounts how Bierstadt, along with other artists, notably Seth Frost and Henry Hitchings (who, like Bierstadt, were both from Massachusetts near Boston, and had accompanied Lander on his 1859 expedition) sat in a “divine workshop,” studying the various colors as the light and shadow shifted, and scrutinizing the “living landscape” (749). Ludlow further claims that the artists learned more in their seven-week stay in the valley than if they had studied at the “feet of the greatest masters” (749). Rather than learning by imitation, an artist studying the American landscape—especially Yosemite, a site replete with lofty granite walls, soaring waterfalls, and geology formed by cataclysmic events—was more emboldened to create his own unique style.

Bierstadt’s style of depicting mountains in his early work, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863), and later work, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), was clearly more fanciful than what either the Sierra or the Rocky Mountains actually looked like. In fact, the mountains in both these paintings look like those one would encounter in the French or Austrian Alps. Additionally, nature seems to be so grandiose as to be overwhelming, diminishing the importance of subjects in the foreground. What makes Bierstadt’s painting, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865), noticeably different is its accuracy, especially when compared to some of Carleton Watkins’s early photographs of the Valley. One of the most salient features is Bierstadt’s lack of aggrandized mountainscape and diminished subjects in the foreground (Looking Down Yosemite Valley has no foregrounded subjects).

Perhaps Yosemite compelled Bierstadt to sketch and paint differently, or perhaps working alongside his colleagues tempered his desire to bring European features to American mountainscapes. Ludlow may have been correct that the “divine workshop” and “living landscape” could transform an artist’s style (749). Clearly, Bierstadt’s painting of the Yosemite Valley is different. Yet his painting depicts one of the Valley’s more powerful features: its ability to represent a “return to the transcendental vision that had anchored American landscape painting” in the years leading up to the war (Harvey 60). In postbellum America, art would help Americans find not only a place of renewal and spiritual healing, but of religious contemplation in cathedrals not made by human hands—a masterpiece designed and displayed by the great architect of the universe (60). America’s wilderness was a new sanctuary; God’s divine presence could be sought both indoors and out.

Like Bierstadt, artist Thomas Moran also found his way outside and out west. Though most famous for the art he produced as a member of the 1871 Hayden survey (a scientific and geological expedition of the Yellowstone region led by US Geological Survey leader Ferdinand V. Hayden), particularly his sketches, water colors, and oil painting of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Moran also traveled to the Yosemite Valley. Of note is the fact that neither Bierstadt nor Sanford Gifford, well-known artists of the time, were able to travel with Hayden’s survey, as Thurman Wilkins recounts in his 1998 biography of Moran, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains (80). In Wilkins’s estimation, their absence amounted to “one of the luckiest breaks in Moran’s career” (80). In an introductory letter written by General Nettleton, Moran’s art was expected to “surpass Bierstadt’s Yosemite” (qtd. in Wilkins 80).

Though his artistic renderings of Yellowstone certainly helped launch his career as an artist, after Bierstadt, “Thomas Moran was the most illustrious Eastern painter to visit Yosemite in the early 1870s,” as Ogden recounts (46). In fact, after his successful trip to Yellowstone, Moran had been hired to “illustrate an article on Yosemite Valley for the January 1872 issue of Scribner’s Monthly,” a popular illustrated publication for the cultured elite that included art, American novelists, and nonfiction writers (46). Moran sketched scenes, as Thurman Wilkins recounts, like “El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, the several domes, waterfalls, and other spectacles” that were well known in the valley (112). In 1872 Moran found Yosemite to be disappointing, feeling it lacked the “riot of warm color that characterized Yellowstone”—at least according to his friend (and later official of the National Academy of Design), Eliot Clark (113). What the valley may have lacked in vivid color it certainly made up for in precipitous cliffs, geological (though not geothermal) wonders, and vertiginous panoramas. Moran not only depicted Yosemite’s beauties in Scribner’s Monthly, but he also illustrated the frontispiece for John Muir’s Picturesque California (1888). Moran’s view of Half Dome was later renamed in his honor (Ogden 47). The view from Moran Point is foregrounded by little vegetation, a rocky tower, and a tooth-like, dark outcropping (fig 3). There is also the inclusion of an awkwardly rendered bird, one that had, perhaps, soared across the valley in the Pleistocene Age—though much smaller. Importantly, though, the view expertly presents the splendor of the Yosemite Valley, and the viewer certainly senses the contrast between the outcropping’s sloping edge and the valley floor. Additionally, the shading is most intense in the foreground, growing slightly lighter in the middle ground and lightest in the background, a minor exception being the clouds that rest beyond the edges of the distant mountains. The sketch, like Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865), is unpeopled, but the colorless sketch lacks the vividness the color conveys. However, what the sketch does convey is grandeur and scope; the cloudy background seems to push the mountains into the middle ground, accentuating the beauty of Half Dome and celebrating the valley’s majesty. The majestic is felt in the aerial perspective Moran provides; the observer feels like she is floating above the earth, enraptured by the sublime view, Nature’s power, and a divine presence.


Figure 3

Thomas Moran, The Half-Dome—View from Moran Point, 1877. Etching, 12 ¾″ × 9″. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville VA.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005


Figure 4

Thomas Moran, Bridal Veil Falls, 1904. Oil on canvas, 30.25″ × 20″. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond VA. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Huntington Harris.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005

The transcendent is also keenly felt in Moran’s Bridal Veil Falls (1904) (fig. 4). This painting presents a striking portrait of the falls that requires the viewer to look upwards from the cliff’s base rather than near its edge. Ensconced between lush vegetation and slightly behind lichen-covered rock, the observer beholds the cascading falls that eventually dissipate into a vapory mist, one that coats the rocks below. No rainbow is evident between piercing sunlight rays, but instead the sun seems to dapple the water droplets before they descend into the misty vale, eventually combining with the river below. Ogden contends that waterfalls, particularly Yosemite Falls, “reinforced the Christian symbolism of … place and conveyed an iconic power” (31). Iconically, the water, a regenerative font, baptizes the rocks below—but without a colorful arc. The more pragmatic view is, without religious iconography, that the lush vegetation at the base of the falls supplies itself from a constant flow of water, as does nearby wildlife. And humans, too, can drink at the water’s edge. Since “water was frequently in short supply” in the West, Yosemite’s powerful water flow—melting glaciers, storms, waterfalls, converging streams—was a promise that the New Eden was located in the West, not the East (31).

Moran left the East for the West, settling permanently in California, Yosemite being more accessible from Santa Barbara than from his home in Long Island (Ogden 47). In 1904, decades after his first trip, Moran once again traveled to the valley to paint its exquisite wonders (Wilkins 113). It was then that Moran abandoned “his inhibitions about Yosemite … mak[ing] it a fruitful source of later works” (113). Indeed, Moran was, as critic Frederick Morton wrote of him in Brush and Pencil, a magazine of art published from 1897 to 1907 that included artwork and critical essays of artists and their works, a lover of “mountain and crag … forests, sunsets, and cloud effects” (4). There is little surprise that he found the wonders of the Yosemite, a valley replete with airy spires and lofty peaks, a worthy subject to be painted. The aptly named Cathedral Rocks, rising 2600 feet above the valley floor, were, as Thomas Murphy recounts in his 1912 travelogue Three Wonderlands of the American West, “seemingly laughing to scorn the efforts of any mortal architect” (66). How apt that Moran’s paintings and illustrations, tributes that Murphy might argue were to an immortal architect, graced Murphy’s travelogue. Moran’s art was not just well suited to accompany travel writing, but, like Bierstadt’s before him, to reveal the sublime and grandiose scenes of the Valley, beckoning travelers and fellow citizens ever westward.

In addition to travel books, other visual artists penned odes to mountaintops, soaring rock towers, and precipitous cliffs in the rugged West. Twenty-one year old Clarence King was also fascinated by the possibilities far from his native New York, and initially rode west in 1863, a year after graduating from Yale’s Sheffield School. He took James Gardiner as a companion—Gardiner was a close friend and fellow geologist—as Martha Sandweiss recounts in her 2009 book, Passing Strange (32). Their journey took them all the way to Sacramento, where, after boarding a southbound boat for San Francisco, King and Gardiner happened to bump into the man they had planned to meet: William Brewer (34). Eventually, King convinced Josiah Whitney, who had led California’s state geological survey in 1860, to let him accompany the survey as a volunteer geologist for the California State Geological Survey. The chief assistant on the survey was, opportunely, William Brewer. King, as Robert Wilson notes in his work, Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax, was one of the first individuals to view Yosemite’s “stupendous sites of natural beauty” (9). King initially wrote about his western adventures for the Atlantic Monthly, eventually publishing the collection of essays into book form, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, in 1872.

King was no stranger to the mountains of the American West. In fact, while still living in New York in 1860, and after purchasing a “season’s pass to the National Academy of Design,” he was able to admire Albert Bierstadt’s Base of the Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak (1876), a work which was grand in scale (Sandweiss 22). Whether the painting was responsible for enticing King to the West is unknown; nevertheless, King did end up in California three years later, one of the newest members of Whitney’s geological expedition. And as Peter Wild recounts in his 2001 book, Clarence King, the “young geologist loved nothing more than to rest atop a peak after a hard climb and gaze off with transcendental ecstasy on desert sweeps,” contrasting its aridity and bareness to the cold, purple-gray mountains (13–14). It is no surprise that King later wrote, in a letter to John Hay—former private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and King’s close friend—in 1893: “Nature is the greatest medicine for my soul” (qtd. in Sandweiss 21).

King’s interest in nature and its poetic qualities did not begin in his travels across California. While living in New York, King became a disciple of John Ruskin, the nineteenth century English art critic, writer, and lecturer. King not only adopted a similar aesthetic view of mountains, but formed “a group called the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art” with close friend James Gardiner and a “handful of other disciples” of Ruskin (30). King’s Romantic view of Nature—and inspired poetic renderings of alpenglow-lit mountains—was not mitigated by his geologic knowledge. In fact, King had a talent for being both scientist and poet, geologist and word-artist—although there was tension between the various roles. In a letter to James Gardiner in the winter of 1861, King, while still a student at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, admitted he did not “love the practical minutiae of the lower details of science,” but worked at them for the discipline (qtd. in Wilson 45). What inspired King was the “lofty laws of creation, the connection of the material with the human, the esthetic, and the eternal, and the cosmic relations of God’s earthly planes …” (qtd. in Wilson 45). Though his scientific work was merely at the beginning stages—he had yet to travel to the West on any expeditions or participate in any geological surveys—a close comparison between his later works, Systematic Geology (1878) and Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), provides ample evidence that he retained the disciplined voice of the scientist and the inspired voice of the poet. Clearly, King did not allow himself to be limited professionally or artistically. In a very real sense, he defied categories, and could as easily relish the splendor of a Sierra sunset as readily as he could methodically unearth a fossilized sea creature from the Sierra Nevada’s many geological strata (as he recounts in Chapter IX, “Merced Ramblings,” in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada).

Exploring the various gradations of the earth’s layers satisfied King’s scientific mind while intensive gazing at nature’s beauties contented his aesthetic side. In David Finney’s description of King, included in Early American Nature Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Finney explains that the “contrast between King the scientist and aesthete … creates a narrative tension that runs through all King’s work” (Patterson et al. 222). Yet, “tension” seems unfair, as King’s works attest to his awareness of how to balance his role as geologist and disciple of Ruskin.

Perhaps, then, not narrative tension, but a type of narrative bifurcation. For example, while looking down and into the Yosemite Valley, King writes:

That splendid afternoon shadow which divides the face of El Capitan was projected far up and across the valley … one a mosaic of russets and yellows[,] with dark pine[,] a glimpse of white river; the other a cobalt-blue zone in which the familiar groves and meadows were suffused with shadow tones …. [Y]ou look upon emerald freshness of green …. [A]long pearly cliffs … tumbles white silver dust of cataracts.


In this instance, the poet speaks, describing the scene in rich, detailed colors; the salubrious water “tumbles,” its gentle fall over the cliff a faerie “white silver dust of cataracts” (124). Even the sound of the falls is conveyed through the sibilating “s” sounds King sprinkles among the final words of the sentence. But as King’s view, and subsequent description, intensifies, his poetic voice becomes more geologic, and his view narrows: the autumnal view becomes a “stern sublimity”—its “geological terribleness … veiled away behind magic curtains of cloud-shadow and broken light” (124). Contrasting this view of the same scene to one experienced during June, King writes: “The shattered fronts of walls stand out sharp and terrible, sweeping down in broken crag and cliff to a valley whereon the shadow of autumnal death has left its solemnity” (125). The “geological terribleness” is emphasized by the hard “c” sounds in “crag” and “cliff,” and what was once bucolic is now cataclysmic. As a geologist, King is keenly aware of what is “veiled behind [the] cloud-shadow” of October: the impending heft of gigantic glaciers, Sierra snowstorms, and the surge of rising rivers. The shaping of the edenic valley was and is violent; the terrific boulders tumbling from cliffsides, propelled by immense hydrological power, is not arcadian, but terrifying. King’s vision is that of the poetic-sublime, not the pastoral-edenic.

Yet King shifts easily from his geo-apocalyptic survey to a matter-of-fact recounting of his journey: “we hurried to descend the trail,” trying to make camp before the encroaching darkness overtakes him and his party (125). Two mornings later, after hiking up the back side of El Capitan and stretching out on an “overhanging block of granite,” King muses: the valley’s “sunlit surface [was] invaded by the shadow of the south wall; its spires of pine, open expanses of buff and drab meadow, and families of umber oaks rising as background for the vivid green river-margin and flaming orange masses of frosted cottonwood foliage” (128). Directly across the valley “rose the great mass of Cathedral Rocks,—a group quite suggestive of the Florence Duomo” (128) (fig. 5). King’s choice of analogies is curious. His rich description of the morning’s sunrise suggests a religiously inspired view, much like that of Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865). Yet Bierstadt’s artistic expression renders the light of sunset while King’s poetic introspections renders the light of the sunrise. Importantly, though, the liminal time—dusk—is what bathes the valley in an ethereal light. Thus the aptly named Cathedral Rocks represent a type of new church, a symbolic locus where surveyor-explorers, visitor-wanderers, and pilgrim-seekers may ponder the beauties of the created world.


Figure 5

Carleton Watkins, Cathedral Rock, 1865–1866. Photograph. Library of Congress, American Memory Project.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005

King vacillates between meditating on the exquisite features of Yosemite’s beauty and exploring “every ravine and climb[ing] each eminence” (140). A week after surveying and climbing, King returned to the same “dizzy[ing] brink” on El Capitan, but this time at sunset. In this instance, his description uncannily resembles Bierstadt’s painting. King recounts:

At this hour there is no more splendid contrast of light and shade than one sees upon the western gateway itself,—dark shadowed Capitan on one side profiled against the sunset sky, and the yellow low mass of Cathedral Rocks rising opposite in full light, while the valley is divided equally between sunshine and shade. Pine groves and oaks, almost black in the shadow, are brightened up to clear red-browns where they pass out upon the lighted plain.


The repetition of “light” and “shade,” or word images that convey the same, is important, as the words emphasize the powerful visual effect contrast between effusive light and subduing shade, a stark contrast that reiterates the valley’s transcendent qualities.

In fact, at the summit of Mt. Huffman, and once again looking “down upon that lovely valley,” King, though he has already viewed the valley numerous times, remarks that the “adamantine sculpture threw over the landscape … a strange unreality, a soft aerial depth of purple tone quite new to me” (137). Enraptured by his view, King writes: “it was beautiful beyond description” (137). Later, farther away to the north and looking at the toothy Sierra ridges from Bear Valley, King chides himself for being a “mere nature-lover,” one who has “forgotten his devotion to science” (167). In a strange narrative turn, King believes the Sierras’ “every thin sharp outcrop” rises to “preach a sermon,” but whether the message he hears reminds him of his role as geologist or poet goes unaddressed. Instead he is soon overcome by the “rolling gold and red cloud” summits, and “fervid crimson light,” promptly conceding the scene is “as gloriously above words as beyond art”—a wonderful paradox and lovely tension that is a constant presence in King’s geologic sensibilities as well as in his written accounts of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas (167).

If King believed that the Sierras could preach sermons, then John Muir would become a rapt congregant, an admiring devotee. That he had no plans to visit California is an ironic and interesting fact, one noted by Muir biographer, Daniel Worster, in his work, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (144–148). Muir had initially planned, as he recounts in his A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916), to visit South America’s Amazon River instead, inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (1814). But, unable to find a ship sailing to South America from Cuba, in 1868 Muir decided California was worth visiting, at least in the meantime. And though Muir eventually traveled to South America in 1911, what he is remembered for is his eloquent prose so often inspired by the lofty peaks in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In one of his earliest published works, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), Muir carefully recounts his journey as a sheep hand, leaving from “the south side of the Tuolumne River near French Bar,” eventually making his way up and into the Yosemite Valley (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 155). As he travels, the “colors and lines and expression of [a] divine landscape-countenance” burn themselves into his “mind and heart,” and he is pleased—how fitting he should be a shepherd!—to be a “servant of servants in so holy a wilderness” (161; italics added). Jeffrey Bilbro argues in his essay, “Preserving ‘God’s Wildness’ for Redemptive Baptism,” that Muir’s sacerdotal view was inspired by the Sierra wilds, where, “by immersing himself in the Sierra[,] he could partake in its divinely natural redemption,” ably participating in “God’s love … [which was] most clearly revealed in wilderness” (588).

As Muir continues traveling toward Yosemite, and farther away from civilization, his writing reflects his growing awareness of the divine. Traveling upwards through the foothills, Muir describes each tree as being “harmoniously related to every other,” the pines now “definite symbols, divine hieroglyphics written with sunbeams” (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 164). Muir’s language is reminiscent of Emerson, specifically in his essay “Nature,” wherein he carefully delineates how “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (20). Thus, the trees are not simply trees, but “divine hieroglyphics” bespeaking a connection between the earthy and the ethereal. As Muir climbs higher, the more his sense of “true freedom” increases (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 164). And as mortal man grows closer to the divine presence, as Muir’s contends, he can more clearly sense “a good sort of immortality” (175).

Muir could endlessly ponder God’s hand writ large in swaying trees, silent rocks, murmuring streams, and soaring cliffs. It was in the Sierras, Bilbro suggests, where Muir “fully realized the potential nature had to function as God’s palimpsest” (595). One layer of this divine text was an eight-foot-high “cubical mass of granite” that Muir discovered and then climbed up and over; within that landscape space Muir expounds: “Th[is] place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God” (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 180). Later, under the “clouds of noon on the High Sierra,” Muir writes: “Everything rejoicing” (196). The biblical allusion is obvious, and Muir’s odes to nature are often close parallels to King David’s Psalms. In the Psalter the poetic king affirms: “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice … The plains shall be joyful … all the trees of the earth rejoice at the presence of the Lord” (Psalm 95; italics added). Both David and Muir are “thus assisted by natural objects in the expression of particular meanings” (Emerson 20). Nature is not mute, but symphonic; with a close reading of his text, the poet glories in the beauty of the natural world, the “grand page of mountain manuscript” (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 211).

The composition of Yosemite Valley, Muir proclaims, is “finished like the finest work of art”—an important analogy considering that many of the valley’s early visitors were artists (223). The valley, then, is a portrait already painted—but awaiting artistic (re)articulation—a gathering place for congregants to bathe themselves in supernal light, and to sing “with the stars the eternal song of creation” (226). Muir’s prose extolls the valley’s poetic sublimity, and the entire dale becomes sacred space, a divinized harmony. As Muir recounts in his unpublished journals, when the “rocks seem to rise to their full stature … [and] the thin cloud garments [are] half pulled apart … [the] whole temple throughout its cells and halls is filled smoothly full of uniform cloud” (qtd. in Wolfe 42). The valley becomes not only a place of worship, but the locus of spiritual power. The clouds, floating veil-like along the valley walls, allow the worshipper to gaze upon the temple of rock. And when the trees toss “their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship,” and every “fibre thrill[s] like harp strings,” after the sanctum sanctorum is filled with “incense [that] is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves,” the respondent can only behold in mute admiration (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 237; italics added). The iconic valley, now temple, now church, unites the heavens and the earth. It reharmonizes mortal and immortal, and pulsates with a celestial wonderment and beauty.

In this sublime scene, Muir’s “blessed mountains” are not just resplendently highlighted by flaming “gold and purple,” but divine manifestations “filled with God’s beauty” (228). Overcome by their grandeur, he lies “humbly prostrate before the vast display of God’s power,” and through his self-abasement eagerly searches to “learn any lesson in the divine manuscript” (228). His place of learning and worship is concomitant within the “Yosemite temple”—a valley that is both a “terrestrial eternity” and a “gift of God”—a sacerdotal landscape imbued with “a massy sublimity” (228–234). Clearly, Muir’s language—replete with religious terms and analogies—celebrates Yosemite’s beauteous mountains, soaring spires, and exquisite and bedazzling combination of visual perspectives and contrasting colors. Whether Muir was perched aloft a ridge of polished glacial granite, or supine on the valley floor, his wonderment is harmonized with each blade of grass, lily and daisy, earth and sky and cosmos.


Figure 6

Carleton Watkins, Stream and Trees with Half Dome in Background, Yosemite Valley, California, 1865–1866. Photograph. Library of Congress, American Memory Project.

Citation: Religion and the Arts 22, 1-2 (2018) ; 10.1163/15685292-02201005

In pondering the vastness of the universe—amplified by the Yosemite Valley’s beauties—Muir, in “worshipping admiration,” also senses the timelessness of place, that in “God’s calendar difference of duration is nothing” (237). Continuity between nature and time, as Alexander von Humboldt recounts in Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (1858), acts as a catalyst for Muir. Through it Muir can sense the “feeling of the sublime, so far as it arises from the contemplation of the distance of the stars,” of the towering heights of El Capitan or Half Dome (40) (fig. 6). Muir also recognizes it in the soaring spires of Cathedral Rocks, and the “feeling of the infinite which belongs to another sphere of ideas included in the mind” (40). Whether Muir were to “float on the surface of the great deep [or] stand on some lonely mountain summit enveloped in the half-transparent vapory vail of the atmosphere” (Humboldt 40), were he to scale the summits of even higher mountains, or skip across boulder-strewn, glacial-fed rivers, his quest for “learning the meaning of … [nature’s] divine symbols” would be equally known and felt (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 241). The Yosemite Valley served as a tutor to sensitive souls. It found Muir to be a willing and apt pupil, an ardent acolyte. The valley church was spiritualized space for those willing and patient enough to study those “divine symbols crowded together on [a] wondrous page” (qtd. in Muir: Nature Writings 240).

Yosemite was suffused with spiritual meanings or possibilities: religious symbol, divine manuscript, new Eden, wilderness church, granite cathedral. Painted and poeticized throughout the latter half of the nineteenth-century, Yosemite had few places on the American continent that could compete with its appeal. Whether artist or scientist, sheepherder or botanist, mountaineer or traveler, the Yosemite Valley represented something to Americans that was both awe-inspiring and hope-inducing. Bierstadt’s art depicted a hopeful power that mesmerized both eastern and western audiences while Moran showcased the valley’s already sublime features and beauties through his extraordinary artistic renditions. King’s scientific-poet contributions were rhapsodies—sometimes lyrical, oftentimes romantic—about the glorious colors and views and geological formations in the valley; Muir studied glacial sermons and celebrated the splendors of God’s post-edenic creation. In this landscape space, surveyor and mapmaker, scientist and glaciologist, artist and poet were inspired by the manifest power of the Divine Hand that had so meticulously sculpted such spectacular wonders and delightful beauties. Paradise was heavenward, but its glories were reflected in an earthen carving, a beatific valley draped in divine sublimity.

Works Cited

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