On a Picture

On a Picture

This article was first published in the Inspire issue of Common Place Quarterly.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo entered the world in 1617, and he came with talent, as if equipped for the journey. His family noticed early on that his drawings were not the scribbles or sketches of an ordinary child, so they directed him towards art. Rather than learn the trade of his father, a barber and a surgeon, Murillo was to study under his maternal uncle, a noteworthy art instructor in Murillo’s hometown of Seville. The young man thrived under the instruction, and at the age of 26 he travelled to Madrid to further develop his craft. And then the commissions began coming in.

Although he painted various portraits and scenes from everyday life, his primary aim was to portray the sacred. He was a devout Catholic, and his faith informed every aspect of his work. According to J. H. Worman, this combination of talent and devotion resulted in a style that remains in a category by itself:

His pictures of the Virgin, saints, Magdalens, and of Christ, are all so characteristically beautiful and refined, so pure and chaste, that he can be said to have followed no given style, though the coloring of Titian is perceptible in his works.

And while he painted many saints, his greatest devotion was to Mary. Again, this devotion informed his art in a way that Worman describes as unique:

It is a curious fact that in all Murillo’s pictures of the Virgin he has never displayed her feet, which in every instance are covered with almost faultless drapery, as if the charms of the holy Mother were too sacred to be made the subject of illustration. This can be said of no other religious painter, and evinces a proof of the purity with which Murillo looked upon his art.

And even in his contemplation of Mary, Murillo maintained a primary focus: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived without taint of original sin. The doctrine would not become official Catholic dogma until 1854. However, when Murillo established his own school of art in Seville, he nevertheless required that all prospective students assert their belief in the Immaculate Conception.

In fact, Murillo is known as the painter of the Immaculate Conception. He produced no less than 25 portrayals of this doctrine that was so integral to his personal devotion and faith. The paintings were distributed beyond the borders of Spain, two went to France and several crossed the Channel to England. And, we are told, no two of these paintings are the same. Each time Murillo approached the canvas, his talent and faith found a new vantage point to express his devotion to his beloved Virgin.

Two centuries later, an orphan woman was making her way in her native England. She had no famous uncle to instruct her; she had to earn her schooling on her own, first as a pupil-teacher, and then on a scholarship. Her God-given talent was not painting; it was teaching. For many years, she taught at the Davison school in Worthing, Sussex.

A devout Anglican, she looked at the world around her through the eyes of faith. Year after year she would hear these words from the liturgy: “Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son, to take our nature upon him, and … to be born of a pure Virgin…” This prayer, first arranged by Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, became part of the fabric of her thought, quoted by her without citation.

Her name was Charlotte Mason. At some point in her twenties, this teacher at the Davison Infantine School saw a painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. We don’t know where she saw it. We don’t know exactly which painting it was. But we do know it was one of twenty-five, for it was called The Immaculate Conception. She gazed at the painting. She contemplated the painting. She read the painting.

As a faithful Anglican she could not, and never would, embrace the doctrine so dear to the Spanish master. If she had tried to join his school two centuries earlier, she would have been rejected. But now she was in a different kind of school. As she gazed at the image, she contemplated the words of her own prayer book: “born of a pure Virgin.” This was the work not of a teacher but of a messenger. She would explain many years later:

There are always those present with us whom God whispers in the ear, through whom He sends a direct message to the rest. Among these messengers are the great painters who interpret to us some of the meanings of life.

The Immaculate Conception, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

She received a message as if it had been sent from God. But as she would later declare, “knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced.” She had to reproduce what she saw. But how to reproduce a message of devotion and admiration? Art begets art. Mason responded with her own art: not with the implement of a brush, but with the implement of a pen. She wrote a poem. “Lines on Murillo’s Picture” appears in a notebook examined by her biographer Essex Cholmondeley and assigned a date of 1871.

It was a poem on a picture.

By 1880, Charlotte Mason had left Davison School, and she had also left the Bishop Otter Memorial College where she had held her second major teaching post. As Moses had spent years in the wilderness before receiving his call, Mason was wandering the counties of England. Her call was coming soon. She would see her own bush that burned without being consumed: a living idea for education that would not be quenched.

An avid reader, somehow she got her hands on a startling new book by Dr. William B. Carpenter. Published in 1875, it was entitled Principles of Mental Physiology. The ideas in the book struck her to the core. Here, she believed, was the answer to the question that had plagued her for so many years:

It was to my mind a great thing to be a teacher; it was impossible but that the teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own was the fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it. There was no degree of responsibility to which youthful ardour was not equal. But, all this zeal notwithstanding, the disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ‘’twas their nature to.’ The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing.

Dr. Carpenter pointed to a new and better way: habit. Habit that has a physical substance in the brain. A way for education to “stick.” A way for the fire to not burn out.

In 1885, Mason decided to share her findings with the world. She delivered a series of lectures as a fundraiser for St. Mark’s Church. She explained her inspiration:

In proposing these lectures, my original notion was to popularize and amplify the valuable educational hints contained in some two or three chapters of Dr. Carpenter’s “Mental Physiology;” but the subject is a wide one, and I have found it necessary to cover much ground untouched in that work.

Much ground indeed. She would later form the Parents’ National Education Union, based on two pillars:

It is not too much to say that the Parents’ Union exists to advance, with more or less method and with more or less steadfastness, a definite school of educational thought of which the two main principles are—the recognition of the physical basis of habit, i.e. of the material side of education; and of the inspiring and formative power of the Idea, i.e. of the immaterial, or spiritual, side of education.

Habit is nothing, Mason argued, without inspiring ideas. And all life-giving ideas have their origin in Christ. So to advance her educational mission, it was necessary for her to provide a resource by which parents and teachers could approach the fountain of ideas: Jesus Christ, Himself.

This resource was not to be an analytical or an exegetical work. Can the highest truths be fully expressed that way? She would turn to the medium that served her in 1871. She would turn to poetry. And so her six volume The Saviour of the World was born. In her preface, she explained the method and structure of the books:

The scope of this work, The Saviour of the World, is to cover each incident and each saying in a single poem, blank verse or rhymed stanza, according to the subject. The poems follow one another in a time sequence, but each is distinct and separable.

The poems generally follow this scheme. Gospel verses are provided; then the scene or teaching is evoked and contemplated by Charlotte Mason’s poetry. Her aim was to accelerate the advent of “that era of passionate Christianity which will probably be the world’s next great experience, when ‘the shout of a King’ shall be in our midst.”

But poetry is not the sum total of the volumes. She also decided to include paintings; plates of the great masters, the works of those “whom God whispers in the ear, through whom He sends a direct message to the rest.” And so each volume contains a dozen or so reproductions, presented in black and white, but still having a form of their power.

And yet not every poem follows this pattern. Scattered infrequently among the Scripture-based reflections, we find topical poems. We learn from Cholmondeley that these poems are often taken from her personal notebook, poems composed perhaps decades before. Early on in Volume 1, one such poem appears. It is a poem that Mason wrote on a picture.

Here is something singular indeed. Six volumes of poetry, including prints of some sixty paintings, and yet only one poem dedicated to the contemplation of a picture. And that picture is not included. We don’t know which painting it is. We don’t know when Mason saw it. We don’t know where Mason found it. We just know it is one of twenty-five.

Murillo dedicated the highest expression of his devotion to the Virgin Mary. The image penetrated Mason’s heart. It resulted in the only poem in Mason’s published volumes that contemplates a single work of art. Its uniqueness is evidenced even by the title given. It is no longer “Lines on Murillo’s Picture.” Now it is simply, “On a Picture.”

Mason established her Parents’ Union on two principles: habits and ideas. Perhaps in those early days when she first read Dr. Carpenter’s work, she paused to linger on these words:

That even the least cultivated, however, may have real appreciation for Pictures which express a high ideal of Humanity, appears from the marked preference shown for the best works of this class in the collection of Sir Richard Wallace, during its exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum.—“Who would not try to be a good woman, who had such a child as that?” was the spontaneous utterance of a female of the artizan class, who had been gazing intently at one of the beautiful representations by Murillo of the Infant Jesus in the arms of his Mother.

Habit is nothing, Mason argued, without inspiring ideas. And yet in his own way, perhaps even Dr. Carpenter, the apostle of habit himself, gently conceded this truth. Mason believed that all children of all classes were born persons with the ability to consume sans intermédiaire the greatest works of art and literature. Carpenter heard about the power of Murillo’s paintings second-hand. But Mason experienced it for herself. The power of a painting to touch a heart. The power of a painting to change a life.

What can one do when touched in that way? There are only a few options. Mason perhaps chose the best path. She wrote a poem, on a picture.


Carpenter, W. (1875). Principles of Mental Physiology. London: Henry S. King & Co.

Catholic Publication Society. (1877). Seville. In The Catholic World (Vol. 24). New York: The Catholic Publication House.

Cholmondeley, E. (1960). The Story of Charlotte Mason. Charlotte Mason Foundation.

Mason, C. (1886). Home Education. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd.

Mason, C. (1897). Parents and Children. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd.

Mason, C. (1905). Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd.

Mason, C. (1908). The Saviour of the World (Vol. 1). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd.

Mason, C. (1910). “The Nativity.” In The Parents’ Review, vol. 21. London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Worman, J. H. (1894). Murillo, Bartoloé Estéban. In Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 6). New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.


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