Sacred Sites, Forgotten Places

A mountain west-north-west of Melbourne inspired the first European who climbed it to name it after his Sovereign. This outstanding feature in a tract of land was singled out for a mark of honour. Twenty years later, it became the subject of a painting, a measure of its beauty, which brought to life a sense that the mountain was a special place, set apart from others.

On 30 June 1836, Major Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, looked southwards from the top of a small hill:

The view was exceedingly beautiful over the surrounding plains, shining fresh and green in the light of a fine morning. The scene was different from anything I had ever before witnessed… As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains as yet untouched by flocks or herds, I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty change[1].

Mitchell named the countryside ‘Australia Felix’, Australia the happy, fortunate or blessed. He surveyed the region, made notes and drew sketches. Eleven days later, he saw a mountain range which he named the Grampians, after his native Scotland, and spotted the highest mountain, some 1,167 metres above sea level. He decided to climb up to the summit, hoping for a commanding view south towards the sea and east towards forested hills. A few days later Mitchell and some of his companions arrived at the foot of the mountain:

The first part of our ascent, on foot, was extremely steep and laborious. [Next] we found winter and desolation under drizzling clouds which afforded but partial and transient glimpses of the world below. It was by no means a pleasant part of our journey to travel nearly half a mile upwards, either on the slippery rock or between fissures among wet bushes. At length however we reached the highest point and found that it consisted of naked sandstone. The top block was encrusted with icicles, and had become hoary under the beating of innumerable storms.

The climbers spent a miserable night in wet and freezing conditions, hoping the dawn would bring a clear sky. The next morning, Mitchell could make observations to the north, but fog and mist obscured much of the view to the south.

Mitchell generally preferred to use local Aboriginal or descriptive names for landmarks, however he named this mountain after his sovereign, King William IV, as ‘Mount William’. When the reports of his expedition were published later in Sydney and London, squatters rushed to take up land in what became known as the Western District of Victoria, fulfilling Mitchell’s prophecy that the natural advantages of ‘this Eden’ were certain to become ‘of vast importance to a new people’.

In 1857, just eleven years later, the country around Mt William had become a prized region for sheep-grazing. Some local pastoralists invited an artist, Eugene von Guerard (left) , to depict their properties and the surrounding country. Von Guerard had arrived in Australia in 1852, hoping to make his fortune as a miner on the Victorian goldfields. The colony already had more than 100,000 people, a great many of them with the same dream, and then the same disappointing results. He went back to the artistic profession for which he had trained under his father in Vienna and Italy, and then at the Düsseldorf Academy. By1857 Victoria’s population had tripled to nearly 300,000 people, the largest of any of the Australian colonies, and the wealthy pastoralists of Australia Felix were becoming von Guerard’s most important clients.

Everyone who looked at his paintings noticed how keenly von Guerard had observed the mountains and the trees, and even the bushes and the grass. He constantly studied the country and the natural world he was painting. He joined the Victorian Royal Society, a scientific body, and made friends with scholars, surveyors and explorers. He travelled extensively, sketching the country along the way. Before he painted Mt William, he had worked on the Ballarat goldfields, ventured into the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne, sailed south to Tasmania and journeyed to South Australia. Later, in 1862, he accompanied the German scientist and explorer Georg von Neumayer (right) into wild and rugged country, with few comforts, surveying and drawing the High Country of Victoria and New South Wales, including Mt Kosciusko, Australia’s highest peak.

Von Guerard seemed to personify the ideal landscape painter described in a short book, Nine letters on landscape painting, published in 1831 by Carl Gustav Carus, an eminent German professor of medicine and surgery at Dresden, and a physician to the King of Saxony. Carus was an accomplished writer, a skilled illustrator and capable painter. A number of his works are held in major galleries to this day. He was a close friend of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. The King made him a guide on royal visits to Rome and the United Kingdom, that included meeting artists, looking at collections and touring picturesque sites.

Carus argued that land and nature merited serious artistic effort, and could tell us important truths. At the time, it was not self-evident that land, water and vegetation, especially in the absence of human figures, were proper subjects for serious painters. Landscapes arrived in European art only after a much longer tradition of religious, portrait and history painting. Founders of landscape art like Claude Lorrain (1600-82) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1629-82) were admired in Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom but only much later in France and Germany.

Carus believed that an artist with a deep knowledge of nature could reveal the history, the life and the meaning of clouds, mountains, rivers, trees and even the humblest plants. Landscape deserved a place equal to science, as a companion and guide in understanding the universe:

Natural beauty is more divine; artistic beauty is more human. And this explains why the feeling for nature truly emerges only through art. It is as if the infinite wealth of nature were written in a language that man needed to learn, and as if he could learn it only by receiving some of the words of that language translated into his mother tongue[2].

A scientific text describes nature through facts about the origin, situation and form of natural features. A landscape painting can unite these different elements into a coherent whole and show us the meaning within them:

Surely an artist will speak … powerfully to us through his work …so that the viewer may understand that the motion of clouds and the forms of mountains, the outlines of trees and the waves of the sea, are not random, chance events, but have a higher, indwelling purpose and an eternal meaning. With what eloquence and power the history of the mountains speaks to us; how sublimely it makes of man a thing divine, in direct relation to God, by sweeping away all the vanities of his transient, earthly existence[3].

The vanities of earthly existence refers directly to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes who saw all human striving, even for wisdom, as vain, a ‘pursuit of wind’ as the original Hebrew text has it. From that standpoint, our relation to God would inspire awe but might remain impersonal and remote.

At its best, perhaps a landscape painting could do even more than Carus envisaged. Perhaps it could find an image that would show a living and personal relationship between the human and the divine. It might reveal something of God’s glory and love as found in the Psalms:

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy[4].

Von Guerard always insisted that his paintings sought

…to glimpse now and then divine poetical feelings [in] the greatness of [my] subject…and to feel inspired to the highest extent, as [I] had the good fortune to look from the high summits of the Grampians[5].

The glimpse of divinity and greatness was clear in his painting Mt William from Mt Dryden, first shown in 1857 at a public exhibition in Melbourne and reproduced atop this page. A reviewer from the Melbourne Argus wrote:

A grand range of mountains, rising abruptly from the plain limits the view; and it is in the treatment of these that the artist has displayed the feeling of a poet and the touch of a master. The soft rich light invests those jagged summits with a palpable glory[6].

Subsequent reviewers and scholars also discerned glory, divinity, transcendence and sacredness in in this work, and in numerous others of von Guerard’s best[7].

The view is from Mt Dryden, about 380 metres high, and some 35 km from Mt William. In the sky, the sunrise casts a yellow light upwards onto the clouds and a pink-gold hue on to the far side of Mt William. The night sky is fading away but a hint of darkness still remains. The summit of Mt William is the highest point of the terrain, shielded by the dark rampart of a lower mountain range. Yet higher still, a large, single bird in flight is lit up in white and gold, most likely an eagle. Art scholar Professor Richard Read observed that it:

…provides a sightline that moves the eye into the distance at a speed far greater than its own, over terrain that would be excruciatingly difficult and slow to hike through… But suddenly the creature transmogrifies and we realise that the illumination of the underside of its furtherest wing by the morning light confirms a quite different flight path. It is absolutely certain that it is flying downwards in our direction towards the left foreground… Yet the other sightline remains. From this apex we vicariously share its scrutiny of everything in all directions below[8].

At ground level, the country opens out into an expansive plain of lush green trees, ponds and streams that call to mind Mitchell’s Australia Felix. When we arrive at the darker foreground, kangaroos are grazing among drier grasses in a rockier terrain. A fox and blackberry bushes have also been spotted — like Mitchell, two European ‘intruders’[9]. To understand more about the painting, let us return to Carus:

…it as if the infinite wealth of nature were written in a language that man needed to learn, and as if he could learn it only by receiving some of the words of that language translated into his mother tongue[10].

The mother tongue in this context is landscape painting. It speaks through images which bear meanings going back into the roots of our culture. These meanings enter the painting, by virtue of the images, even if we do not know whether the artist consciously planned to express them. For example, look at the tree in the foreground on the right. Despite the rocky, drier ground, it has grown above the horizon and catches the dawn light. In antiquity and mediaeval times, trees were understood as a connection between the raw energy and potential in the earth and the governing rationality of heaven[11]. The garden of Eden had a tree of knowledge and a tree of life. On a tree, the Germanic god Odin hanged himself for nine days, wounded by a spear, to acquire wisdom. Traces of the role of trees in connecting energy and rationality may even be found in the history of the word itself. ‘Tree’ finds a root in the proto Indo-European ‘deru’ or ‘dreu’, to be firm, solid or steadfast, from which the word ‘truth’ branches out. The Greek word for the shaft of a spear, ‘doru’, has the same root[12]. The tree in this painting might have grown in the spot where it appears in the picture, or von Guerard may have put it there on purpose. In any case, its presence so close to us, as viewers, entices us into the picture to share in the connection between earth and heaven and to enjoy the sunrise.

Dawn over Mt William is bringing light into the sky to make reality visible. The mountain is the first earthly form to emerge from the darkness because it is the closest to the heavens. If we wish to be lit up, we should be on the summit. From out of the clouds we might hear a voice, or perceive God’s power or see a man transfigured in light and later drawn up out of our sight. Clouds and mountains have often been the place for such stories. The hike to the mountain is slow and difficult. Major Mitchell told us that the ascent to the top is steep and laborious, but we seem to know from the painting that it is worth the time and labour. We already have reached the vantage point from which the goal is clear.

The eagle, the ‘poignant detail that indelibly touches us’[13], has caught our eye and through the bird’s line of sight we are connected to Mount William. The eagle is a noble bird, a symbol of authority, vision and rationality. According to legend, an eagle could look directly into the sun, and according to Christian tradition an eagle represents St John the Evangelist for the loftiness of his account of the Gospel. The eagle is both bringing down the spirit of the mountain to us, and taking us up from the ground to the mountain top. Through a living being, an intelligence, the entire scene can be understood. The eagle calls us personally, who stand outside the frame, to step into the picture and go up the mountain.

Mt William inspired Major Mitchell to set it apart from other mountains by naming it after the King. It inspired von Guerard to go further by making it a place of encounter with a radiant, living intelligence. He showed Mt William in a new light. Setting things apart from the ordinary is the straightforward meaning of a Hebrew word in the Old Testament — qadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) often translated as ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’.

Today, we respect and readily set apart the holy or sacred sites of local Aboriginal cultures, but we seem reluctant or embarrassed to use the word ‘sacred’ about other sites in our countryside. Eugene von Guerard’s Mt William from Mt Dryden reveals to us what a sacred landscape looks like and what it means. There are places whose locations, names and histories honour, and make tangible, the people who arrived here from 1788 onwards, bringing their great traditions, culture and knowledge. Let us not forget them.

Michael Dunn is a Sydney writer


[1]  T.L. Mitchell, Three expeditions into the interior of eastern Australia, London, 1839, vol. 2,  at

[2]  C.G.Carus, Nine letters on landscape painting, Getty Institute, 2002, p. 98, at

[3] C.G.Carus, Nine letters on landscape painting, Getty Institute, 2002, p. 98, at

[4] Psalm19:4-5, New Revised Standard Version

[5] E. von Guerard, ‘Reply on the critic..’, unpublished letter, cited in Bruce, Eugen von Guerard, p.135

[6] The Argus, Melbourne, 4 December 1857

[7] For example, Dr Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guerard: Nature revealed, Melbourne, 2011, p.130; Daniel Thomas in Bruce, Eugen von Guerard, p.12

[8] Richard Read, ‘Continental shift III’, Histories of Emotion, website at:

[9] Daniel Thomas in Bruce, Eugen von Guerard, p.13

[10] Carus, Letters, p.98

[11] See Mathieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis, 2018

[12] Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, see ‘tree’ and for ‘deru’ see*deru-

[13] Read, in ‘Continental Shift’, cited above

  • DG

    Let’s not forget that Aboriginal ‘sacred’ sites, while important to Aboriginals for religious reasons: the religion being animism, are not important to us for that reason. We are free (from animism) to enjoy the huge variety of natural splendour this land has. While I reject their animism, I wouldn’t go around ‘desececrating’ Aboriginal sacred sites willy nilly. Out of respect for the people, not the sites. Early painters help us to appreciate the wonder of a land so new to European eyes and that too is something to be treasured.

  • Michael

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife

    In England the sites of the heart made ‘sacred’ in the nineteenth century paintings of John Constable are now protected vistas. In Australia only one group of people can lay claim to any sacredness in the landscape.. yet sacredness in vistas can and should be shared so that other interpretations may also be included. Naming rights too should be shared. Our early explorers named many significant landscape features: some should be renamed by strong aboriginal tradition, but others should remain to signify the part played by the people whose lives were spent exploring and building this Australian nation we all share, people who also had their dreamings of this land.

    And while I am at it, can we please have back some of the vistas of our childhood, when you could go to lookouts and see vistas of rolling coastal farmlands and seas to delight the senses? Now lookouts are grown out by tree plantings and pastures have been turned into overgrown bushland ready for the next conflagration. All thanks to the demands of Green zealots.

  • lhackett01

    Unfortunately, the use of the word ‘sacred’, meaning ‘of religious significance’, is being used by the Aborigine largely to exert control. For example, much rock art was merely class room drawings to educate children and others about animals and spiritual beings, or merely to tell stories. Aboriginal guides at Uluru, for example, say so. Most sites have nothing like the meaning of cathedrals or holy texts and burial places. Certainly some sites might be truly sacred, but usually not.

    Sites like rivers, mountains, etc, that Aborigines believe were created by a serpent or other mythical creature and tend to declare sacred are not, in the usually accepted meaning of the word. Many non-aboriginal people believe the Earth was created by God, including all its rivers and mountains. However, such features are not declared sacred.

    For too long, ‘progressives’ have allowed Aboriginal issues to be elevated and manipulated to the overall disadvantage of Aborigines and other Australians.

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