Symbolism and Fantasy in Paul Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon”

Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888, oil on canvas, 72.2 x 91 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.

As one of the most recognizable works in Paul Gauguin’s oeuvre, this wildly experimental painting depicting Breton women as they imagine the biblical figure Jacob wrestling an angel after a particularly stirring homily about Genesis (32:22–32), “Vision After the Sermon” presents a daring, highly subjective fantasy that served as inspiration for the Modernists and Surrealists to come.

Wanting to escape his Impressionist roots as well as the hustle and bustle of Parisian life, Gauguin sought inspiration in Brittany in the late 1880s. Stirred by what he considered to be an exotic and purer way of life, he soon traded his muted tones for bright, bold shades and simplified forms.

Here, the picture plane is flattened down to its most basic parts and features deep symbolic resonance. The tree diagonally cutting the middle ground of the painting represents the Tree of Knowledge, full of fruit and redemption. The cow also acts as a symbol of redemption and Christ’s sacrifice as ancient Bretons made bovine sacrifices to the sun god. We also see twelve Breton women depicted here, symbolizing the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes is Israel. The main focus of the painting—Jacob’s fight with the angel is a more complex symbol. It could point to man’s struggle with others, its own conscience, or the divine. The vibrant vermilion shade dominating the canvas illustrates the heightened passion of this struggle as well as the religious fervor common in the Breton culture.


Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912) “Chiyoda Great Interior Flower Viewing,” 1894.  

By ignoring the traditional rules of perspective, Gauguin created an indelible image of reverie and reality fused together as one, similar to El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz” and shaped generations of painters in the process.The painting’s aforementioned tree trunk was greatly inspired by Japanese woodcuts which had recently been introduced to European audiences thanks to trade expansion. Also borrowed from Japanese art were Gauguin’s flat blocks of color and stark divisions of the picture plane. These influences and the artist’s vivid dreamscape sparked a radical, new aesthetic which served as the basis for both Surrealism and Abstraction.


Sir John Leighton, Director-General. “100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland Paperback Collection Book.” Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland Publishing. May 2015. 6 June 2017. <>.



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