The ancient concept of the four elements—earth, wind, water and fire—are, coincidentally, also the four elements of landscape painting. Fire appears in the form of the sun, earth and water show up pretty much as themselves, and wind appears as the sky and its clouds. The only variation that is ever added is tangential: man and his impact on the world.
We think of the four elements as Greek but they are actually far older and more universal. They originated with the Babylonians and are first found in a text called the Enûma Eliš, which dates to the 18th to 16th centuries BCE. It describes four gods who are personifications of the cosmic elements. The idea resurfaced in Egypt, India and China in one form or another. It came forward to us through the Greeks, who added a fifth substance—ether—and called these ‘elements’.
The four elements were not a religious concept but a way of understanding matter. They still work today to describe the four states of matter: earth (solid), water (liquid), air (gas) and fire (plasma).
The tide rising on a mudflat could be considered an image of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. From the shore, mudflats are pretty flat; you can’t easily discern the path that water will take to fill them. It starts with tiny trickles growing into rivulets that connect disconnected parts into streams—much as faith connects disparate people in the world. Ultimately, the mudflats are swamped and part of a universal whole.
The Holy Spirit moved from a breath-based image to that of water pretty early in Scripture: “For I will pour out water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants.” (Isaiah 44:3)
The Spirit was not a concept coined by early Christians. It first appears in Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.”
There are remarkable similarities between the opening of the Enûma Eliš and that of Genesis:
When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being…
No surprise there, really, when you consider that Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldeans, which was a satellite of Babylon. Moses was redacting the knowledge of his ancestors in Genesis. Both stories are from the same root, although with vastly different emphasis. They both describe the primeval shift from chaos to order. That’s pretty sophisticated work for so-called primitive people.
Can I paint these ideas? Well, the first one, I already have, in Rising Tide at Wadsworth Cove. I particularly like it as a metaphor because the modest little sailboat can represent the vessel of human existence. I may approach it again, in a more deliberate manner. As for the Four Elements, all landscape painters paint them all the time. In fact, we often say, “this painting is about the sky,” or “I am mostly interested in the rocks in the foreground,” a way of noting which element has captured our interest.