Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko

On a recent trip to England we stayed in Southwark, London, at the Premier Inn, which I do recommend, just around the corner from the Globe Theater and the Tate Modern Museum.   We were able to spend time with my sister Jane and her family, and to contemplate the paintings at the Tate by Mark Rothko known as the Seagram murals.  They were originally commissioned by the Seagram Company for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City, but in the end Rothko decided he did not want them to be displayed in a commercialized
setting, but gave them to the Tate on condition they be displayed in one large room.  The room had for me the atmosphere of a sanctuary or temple.  At the first exhibition of Rothko’s paintings in Whitechapel, London, 1961, he was very pleased when a Muslim gentleman came into the gallery, rolled out a mat and began to pray.   “These are objects for contemplation”, he said about his art.   Usually I see Rothko’s paintings as spiritual windows and I love to gaze through them, to experience whatever is in that moment.  Rothko’s cloudy blend of color, light and shade reminds me of the 14th century English mystical guidebook, The Cloud of Unknowing.  You never know what you will see when you gaze into one of these paintings.

A few days before, we had visited the Neolithic Stone Circle at Avebury, Wiltshire (built around 2600 BCE). It was awe-inspiring to touch the huge stones and feel a connection with over 4000 years of spiritual practice in that place.  In many ways I was more impressed with Avebury than with nearby Stonehenge.  The image of the Avebury giant portal stones came to mind as I looked at Rothko’s Red on Maroon Mural, 1959.  Instead of looking through a window I felt that I was stepping through a portal, a gateway.  The word that comes to mind to describe the moment is “numinous”, a holy moment on the threshold of God.

Laura Cumming (The Observer, September 10, 2011) described the reactions of the public when Rothko’s work was first shown in London:  “This emptiness is – and remains – the central phenomenon. Nobody has seen anything like it. The resonance, the radiance, the way that the paintings continue to arrive anew on the retina every time one blinks: none of this has been experienced before. These oblongs and bands in glowing colours that blend and merge have appeared out of nowhere, numinous and strange. But most of all, the works are transcendently empty”. The paintings do indeed seem to represent a mystical emptiness and spaciousness,inviting us to enter and be open to whatever comes.

Even though it was a busy Sunday afternoon at the Tate, the Rothko gallery remained quiet.  But I wished for more time with the paintings than was available.  I made a mental note to find out the least busy time of the week and to plan my next trip to London around that time.  You can view the Seagram murals on line at

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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