The idea of heaven on earth haunts the human imagination. The day will come, say believers, when the pain and confusion of mortal life will give way to a transfigured community. Such a vision of the world seems indelible. Even politics, some reckon, has not escaped from the realm of the sacred: its dreams of the future still borrow their imagery from the prophets. In Heaven on Earth, T. J. Clark sets out to investigate the very different ways painting has given form to the dream of God’s kingdom come. He goes back to the late Middle Ages and Renaissance – to Giotto in Padua, Bruegel facing the horrors of religious war, Poussin painting the Sacraments, Veronese unfolding the human comedy. Was it to painting’s advantage, is Clark’s question, that in an age of enforced orthodoxy (threats of hellfire, burnings at the stake) artists could reflect on the powers and limitations of religion without putting their thoughts into words?
At the heart of the book stands Bruegel’s ironic but tender picture of The Land of Cockaigne, but also Veronese’s inscrutable Allegory of Love. The story ends with Picasso’s Fall of Icarus, made for UNESCO in 1958, which already seems to signal – perhaps to prescribe – an age when all futures are dead.
'Utopian modernism has been Clark’s lifetime study, to which this book is an imaginative, heartfelt coda … gracefully skims a tightrope between attentive looking and political thinking'
Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times
'A tour de force that happily marries art with literature … [Clark] is always lively and engaging … this is art criticism at its best'
'A more novel and compelling book about art's version of the afterlife, and how it is inflected by worldly politics and reality, can hardly be imagined'
Laura Cumming, Observer Books of the Year
'The pleasure of this book lies in the quality of these observations – Clark’s relentlessly keen attention to the small details that ought not mean a great deal but often send you reeling. He makes you want to squint close to the original, seeing it suddenly aslant'