The Omnipresence of Art in Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop


I wrote the essay adapted below for my 20th Century American novel class at Grove City College. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a book by Willa Cather published in 1927. This novel follows the life of Father Jean Marie Latour and his best friend Joseph Vaillant as they try to bring the Roman Catholic faith back to the region of New Mexico and unite the faltering Catholic churches there. In the essay, I consider how art is used in the novel to enhance the meaning of the text.

Warning! Spoilers ahead!


Art has varying definitions across different contexts, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” While this definition is helpful, a more nuanced view of art is ideal for understanding how art affects literature. This essay will define art’s relationship to literature by examining the pervasive presence of art in Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. There are three ways of regarding art in Death Comes for the Archbishop that are valuable for the interpretation of the text: art as a manmade construct, art in nature as created by God, and the novel itself as a work of art with the author as artist.

While art is not identical to literature, they do employ some of the same goals, and some writing could qualify as both art and literature. Literature often falls into the realm of art. For instance, “It is the function of art to enlarge one’s experiences, to add to [humanity] more tolerance, more forgiveness, to increase one’s hold on all the out-lying spaces which are little realized in the come and go of every day” (qtd. in Murphy 40). Literature often seeks to improve the understanding and tolerance of readers by introducing them to viewpoints and experiences that differ from their own. Art has a similar function, to introduce people to the little-known corners of creation and to complicated concepts worthy of depiction in artwork. According to John J. Murphy, art can also be equated with “rescuing from chaos and expanding humanity”; he also admitted that “great literature has so involved both that they seem inseparable” (40). One of the key elements of art is order, and one of its major goals is to bring order to what seems to be meaningless; in other words, to confront Hemingway’s concept of the nada with a meaningful philosophy of life. Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop meets this deep need as a work of art in itself, but the allusions to artwork found within its pages also do so.

It is worthwhile in any consideration of Cather’s work and how it relates to art to consider what Cather herself had to say about the matter. In another novel by Willa Cather called The Professor’s House, the protagonist Godfrey St. Peter says, “Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he ever had” (qtd. in Murphy 43). This is a provocative and profound statement, that art and religion are equivalent. Death Comes for the Archbishop reveals instead that art is man’s response to the divine in everyday life, and underlines the Christian belief that God’s creation itself is a work of art by a benevolent artist. In a less controversial statement, Cather once wrote that “there is no such thing as sacrificing art for truth. Perfect art is truth” (Jabbur 409). Good art is like a window into what is true and good and beautiful, and that is one of the ways it is similar to religion and literature.

The definitions and statements about art given above can be summed up in this way: art is truth in that it seeks to expand experiences and tolerance in a similar way to how religion and literature shape understanding, and to do so it brings order to what is chaotic. It directs attention to the vital aspects of human nature and retains its relevance against the test of time. This definition of art is far more nuanced and relevant to a discussion Death Comes for the Archbishop than the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, art can be created by either humans or God, and the first type of art that will be discussed here is manmade art.

The first mention of art in Death Comes for the Archbishop is when three Cardinals and a Bishop are discussing a lost work of art by El Greco. One of the cardinals says, “In my family house at Valencia I have a number of pictures by the great Spanish painters,” and this is the beginning of a story that demonstrates through art how hypocritical and corrupt these Catholic officials are (Cather 11). A Franciscan missionary priest had visited this man’s great-grandfather, who in response to the missionary’s request had offered to give any of his prized artworks from his esteemed collection. The missionary chose a version of St. Francis in meditation by El Greco, and the cardinal hopes that any new missionary in the area of New Mexico will be able to acquire this gifted art piece and return it to him.

It is possible to figure out what this art piece must have looked like by considering the appearance of other paintings by El Greco depicting St. Francis in meditation. No doubt Cather had these existing paintings in mind when she mentioned this painting in Death Comes for the Archbishop. José Gudiol described a St. Francis in Meditation painting by El Greco as follows:

The face of St. Francis is thin and ascetic. The hood of the cape, pushed backwards, becomes almost lost in the shadows, leaving the head in full view. The habit and the cloak have a dense tactile feeling. The hands, excellently modeled, are very characteristic with their sensitive phosphorescent lighting. The expression, and even the plastic force, are concentrated in the axis which unites the look of St. Francis and the crucifix. (202)

What this reveals is that the painting is extremely spiritual and Christ-focused. St. Francis’s gaze meets the crucifix as he is engaged in intense meditation. His face is thin from fasting and asceticism, and even though he is focused on spiritual tasks, he is grounded in the physical realm. This is shown by the textured, dense quality of St. Francis’ habit, a purposely physical aspect of the painting. In contrast, the Cardinal’s desire to take back the painting of his great-grandfather is self-focused, materialistic, and greedy. It is ironic that a man whose profession is spiritual could be centered strongly on possessions and taking a gift back from a poor church. The fact that the painting is one of St. Francis in Meditation suggests that Cather intended to highlight this contrast between the deep devotion of previous Christians compared to modern high-ranking officials of the church, and art is the vessel used to display that message.

Merrill M. Skaggs offered another point that is useful to consider about the artwork: “Cather’s novel develops the story of the lost El Greco. That puzzling anecdote becomes essential if it is taken to state a theme: even valuable and beautiful things can be lost forever” (93) The transient nature of beauty is often reflected by and is true of art. The loss of the St. Francis in Meditation painting could be pointing toward the nature of the beautiful to pass away, which may be a nod to the title of the novel and Latour’s eventual death.

This transience is one of the elements of humanity demonstrated by art. Some other aspects of human nature shown in artwork are imperfection and individuality. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Latour’s perusal of the holy images in a house where he is sheltering for the night.

They had been carved by some devout soul, and brightly painted, though the colours had softened with time, and they were dressed in cloth, like dolls. They were much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission church in Ohio…The wooden Virgin was a sorrowing mother indeed…and at her left a fierce little equestrian figure, a saint wearing the costume of a Mexican ranchero, velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero. He was attached to his fat horse by a wooden pivot driven through the saddle. (Cather 28)

Latour is struck by each figure’s uniqueness and how the culture of New Mexico has embraced the Catholic religion and made it their own. These figures are art in the way that factory-made ones are not, because these homemade pieces better reflect the creativity and ingenuity of man. Each one is unique to the household and shows the marks of its creator in its imperfections and impressive detail. Even though the Mexican ranchero figure does not seem like a true saint to Latour, its depiction still reflects truth. There undoubtedly were heroic and saintly men and women in Mexico’s history, even if they were not officially recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic church. This Mexican ranchero seems in a way to stand in for all the unrecognized saints of Catholic countries. It is likely that Latour recognizes and appreciates that.

Another time that Latour’s love for things utterly human, those pieces of art that show imperfect beauty, is demonstrated in the description of the Episcopal residence. Since this section is focused entirely on Latour and his perspective, the reflection on the residence can be considered to be his and not just the narrator’s. “The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand” (Cather 33). The imperfection and individuality of the design of the residence is comforting to Latour and reflects the truth that what is human is worth treasuring.

Another relevant aspect of the manmade art found in Death Comes for the Archbishop is its ability to represent longstanding traditions and culture (or sometimes multiple cultures). One such instance is when Vaillant proffers an onion soup he had made to Latour. Latour reflects that this soup is not just a display of Vaillant’s talent, but that “when one thinks of it, a soup like this is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup” (Cather 38). The soup is valuable not just due to taste and familiarity, but because of its ability to extend and preserve a tradition from the distant past. It is truly a work of art worthy of the Archbishop’s table, since he is a man who can fully appreciate it.

Another work of art that represents tradition and culture is the bell Latour hears one morning playing the Angelus. The bell is Spanish, but according to Latour there is a lot of silver in the bell, “And the silver of the Spaniards was really Moorish, was it not? If not actually of Moorish make, copied from their design. The Spanish knew nothing about working silver except as they learned it from the Moors” (Cather 44). Vaillant believes that it is “belittling,” but Latour recognizes that a mix of cultures can produce phenomenal art, just like a mix of metals in the bell produces phenomenal sound. To Latour, it is the concept of plundering the Egyptians—taking what is “heathen” and putting it to work for holy purposes. According to Murphy,

It is a gathering or unifying instinct, evident when Latour hears the bell of San Miguel, which combines Moslem and Christian, Asian and European traditions in calling the faithful to the Divine Mother in globes of silver sound. The strategic description of this sound suggests the blending of cultures rather than eclipse of one culture by another.” (49)

The merging of cultures is shown again in a church Latour visits: “a small white church, painted above and about the altar with gods of wind and rain and thunder, sun and moon, linked together in a geometrical design of crimson and blue and dark green” (Cather 48). On this, Murphy reflects: Christian and Indian cultures come joined for Latour here, but he makes another connection, perhaps to Islam: the altar wall seemed ‘hung with tapestry’ recalling the ‘interior of a Persian chieftain’s tent he had seen in a textile exhibit at Lyons’” (48). Again, a work of art is shown to demonstrate truths about culture—that a person is better off for respecting and understanding multiple cultures.

Manmade art is one kind of art in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Another kind of art in the novel is art made by God. Cather once said that “nature is just a great artistic creation” (qtd. in Jabbur 403). It is not uncommon for Christians to see nature as revelation, and to view God as an artist or architect can be valuable to Christian understanding. For instance, it emphasizes the creative aspects of God’s personality—and that from the Christian point of view God in fact does have a personality, at least as embodied in Jesus Christ. According to Carol Steinhagen,

The word [landscape] entered the English language in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries as a technical term used by painters. Soon its meaning evolved from a picture depicting natural inland scenery to a view of or prospect on such scenery. Only in the late-nineteenth century did landscape come to mean features of the land itself. (64)

The landscapes in Cather’s work can thus be considered in the context of artwork. This is true of any landscape, whether literary or not, and has been considered as such for a long time. As Pam Fox Kuhlken wrote, “by the time of Leonardo da Vinci, a great development had occurred that transcended mere appreciation: landscape itself had become art” (369). From the Christian perspective, landscape is a work of beauty made by a benevolent creator; it is to be cherished and studied like art. It is from that perspective that Cather writes her novel, delving into Catholic tradition.

The New Mexican land is described in various ways throughout the text, but it is striking that in one place it makes a claim that can be generalized to cover much of nature in the book. On page 95 it says, “the Creator had…gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together…The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.” It is almost as if the New Mexican land is an incomplete art piece, waiting for humanity and formal Christian religion to try its hand at finishing it. The “geometrical nightmare” landscape Latour is traveling through at the beginning of the novel suggests this same unfinished quality—it needs some hand, human or divine, to complete it (Cather 17). Still, it shows some semblance of order, which is essential to artwork, no matter how abstract. Enrique Lima suggests:

On this terrain we have entered time of a different order, even beyond geological time, since this world remains unfinished. The land, as the narrative presents it, belongs to an absolute past, a mythical past of Creators and Creation, in which the historical depth of human society plays no part.” (189)

Lima focuses on the incompleteness, without considering that from a Christian standpoint the artwork may one day be finished, either by humans obeying God’s mandate to have dominion over the earth, or by Christ’s second coming at the end of time.

Yet nature, even if it is unfinished in some way, still resembles an art piece in the way it is described. In the first few pages, light is described in an artistic fashion: “the light was full of action and had a peculiar quality of climax—of splendid finish. It was both intense and soft, with a ruddiness as of much-multiplied candlelight, an aura of red in its flames” (Cather 4). Many artists seek to display that quality of climax in their work, that sense that they are at the peak of their abilities and that their creation is at a moment of distinction. God as an artist has already achieved this level of skill with one of His earliest creations, light, as Cather makes abundantly clear in her detailed description of the phenomenon.

Part of what makes landscape artwork is humanity’s capacity for viewing it as such and for making meaning out of it. Of the cruciform tree introduced early in the book, Latour believed that “Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross” (Cather 18). Elsewhere, nature is described like this: “From the flat red seas of sand rose great rock mesas, generally Gothic in outline, resembling vast cathedrals” (Cather 94). Once again, humans find meaning and structure in unfinished nature. A third instance of this phenomenon is illustrated in this passage, explaining how mountains were like waves, “resembling billows beaten up from a flat sea by a heavy gale” (Cather 21). Humanity sees meaning in the artwork fashioned by God, and they function obliviously as art critics.

In addition to art made by man and God in the text, stepping back to view Death Comes for the Archbishop from the outside offers another vantage point from which to consider how artwork functions for this novel. In other words, it can be helpful to discern that the novel itself is an artwork with Cather as an artist and language as her medium. Patricia Lee Yongue describes the novel as follows:

Truth is available to man, largely through the singular perception and efforts of the artist on d’etre. But Death Comes for the Archbishop is also an allegorical painting (in the Hudson River School tradition, probably), a muted epic, a love song, an impressionistic history. The novel is religion and art… (62)

Just like art, the novel seeks to delve into key truths and profound topics. Cather shows her artistic skill by engaging with truth. She also uses language in the same way an artist would. What is especially notable is her usage of color imagery. In one scene, “The sun was sinking, a red ball which threw a copper glow over the pine-covered ridge of mountains, and edged that inky, ominous cloud with molten silver” (Cather 119). All of those carefully chosen color words—silver, red, copper, inky—paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Cather has created art that the reader can visualize in his or her imagination. Again, Cather uses her artistic words in this scene: “The whole western sky was the colour of golden ashes, with here and there a flush of red on the lip of a little cloud. High above the horizon the evening-star flickered like a lamp just lit” (92). It sounds just like an artist describing his or her work. Elsewhere it is mentioned how “aspen and evergreen, not intermingled but lying in solid areas of light and dark” cover the side of a mountain (Cather 21). This demonstrates that Cather not only uses color in her work, but also contrast, another artistic technique.

Furthermore, in the way that art has a lasting effect on the minds of the viewers, so does Death Comes for the Archbishop. As Yongue explains,

Like the great medieval Cathedrals, of which Latour’ s own Midi Romanesque cathedral in New Mexico is a replica, and like Father Vaillanťs splendid onion soup, Death Comes for the Archbishop is quite pointedly the product of “a thousand years of history.” (62)

It is because the book is the product of such a long and treasured history that it can shape human understanding and tolerance of others. It is steeped in the legends and traditions of Roman Catholicism and thus is authentic to what it was trying to achieve, becoming one of the pivotal American novels of the 20th Century. In addition to being flooded with historical significance, the book itself has stood the test of time. Even though it was written in 1927, it is still being studied and appreciated today as a great work of art, almost a hundred years later.

A last notable way that Cather’s work has become art is due to its inspiration partially stemming from an artwork. According to Cather, “the novel’s title was taken from a woodcut in Hans Holbein the Younger’s collection Dance of Death…” and the “scene depicted in the woodcut parallels one in Book 9 of her work: an archbishop with the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the background and his New World cathedral erected at the peak, golden in the setting sun” (Kuhlken 371). Cather imitates Holbein the Younger by making her own interpretation of his art, an artwork of her own in the form of a novel. Imitation indeed is the sincerest form of flattery.

These three ways of regarding art in Death Comes for the Archbishop—art as a manmade construct, art in nature as created by God, and the novel itself as a work of art with the author as artist—demonstrate that art has been vital to the development of the novel. Art in the way Cather understands it is truth, in that it seeks to expand experiences and tolerance in a similar way to how religion and literature shape understanding. Death Comes from the Archbishop as a work of art brings order to what is chaotic, directs attention to the vital aspects of human nature, and retains its relevance against the test of time. In the absence of discussion on the concept of art, this novel cannot be adequately understood.

Works Cited

  • “Art, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, Accessed 31 March 2021.
  • Bohlke, L. Brent. “Willa Cather’s Nebraska Priests And ‘Death Comes For The Archbishop.’” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 4, 1984, pp. 264–269. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Random House, 1971.
  • Dinn, James M. “A Novelist’s Miracle: Structure and Myth In ‘Death Comes For The Archbishop.’” Western American Literature, vol. 7, no. 1, 1972, pp. 39–46. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Gudiol, José. “Iconography and Chronology in El Greco’s Paintings of St. Francis.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 44, no. 3, 1962, pp. 195–203. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Jabbur, Adam. “Tradition and Individual Talent in Willa Cather’s ‘Death Comes For The Archbishop.’” Studies in the Novel, vol. 42, no. 4, 2010, pp. 395–420. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Kuhlken, Pam Fox. “Hallowed Ground: Landscape as Hagiography in Willa Cather’s ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.’” Christianity and Literature, vol. 52, no. 3, 2003, pp. 367–385. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Lima, Enrique. “Willa Cather’s Rewriting of the Historical Novel in ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 46, no. 2, 2013, pp. 179–192. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Murphy, John J. “Willa Cather and the Literature of Christian Mystery.” Religion & Literature, vol. 24, no. 3, 1992, pp. 39-56. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Skaggs, Merrill M. “Willa Cather’s ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ and William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury.’” Faulkner Journal, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 1997, pp. 89–99. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Steinhagen, Carol. “Dangerous Crossings: Historical Dimensions of Landscape in Willa Cather’s ‘My Ántonia, The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.’” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 6, no. 2, 1999, pp. 63–82. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.
  • Yongue, Patricia Lee. “Willa Cather On Heroes and Hero-Worship.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 79, no. 1, 1978, pp. 59–66. JSTOR, Accessed 2 May 2021.

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