Posted by: davidbowerkingwood | May 10, 2021

The Painted Veil That Hides Reality, by David Bower

(I have observed, with great interest, the continuing popularity of this essay. It was first published in May of 2014 and has been sought out by readers almost every week that goes by. For some reason, of the 486 essays I have published on “Life from a Christian Perspective,” this one comes closest to having a life of its own according to WordPress statistics.) 

 The Sonnet, the Novel, and the Movie

The Painted Veil Poster Resized

A few days ago we had the opportunity to watch a fascinating movie, an epic movie experience filled with intense drama, “The Painted Veil” which led me to the discovery of a book, and a sonnet which all addressed, to some degree, a subject on which I had written in the past.

To start at the beginning of this line of thought, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a sonnet whose first line is “Lift not the painted veil which those who live Call Life.” This sonnet was a source of inspiration to W. Somerset Maugham as he wrote a novel in 1925 named, “The Painted Veil.”

This novel was later made into three different movies, “The Painted Veil” 1934, “The Seventh Sin,” 1957, and the most recent, again named “The Painted Veil,” which was released in January of 2007. It was this last version which stirred my spirit of inquiry into researching the background of the movie and the novel on which it was based which, in turn, led me to the discovery of Shelley’s sonnet.

The heart of the movie can possibly be reduced to one line spoken by Dr. Walter Fane to his wife Kitty, “It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had.” To some degree, each had come into their marriage with preconceived notions of how it would be and how the other would respond. This, of course, is the never ending challenge to young couples entering into marriage; separating fantasy from reality.

The Sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s sonnet has been declared a mystery by some and aggressively analyzed by others; here is the sonnet:

“Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,–behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it–he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

What is Reality?

Those of you who have followed my blog may recall the essay I wrote called “What is Reality?” In this essay, which I published in September of 2011, I questioned the identity of true reality which was defined as, “the quality or state of being real: something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily.” Using that dictionary definition I determined that only the Triune Godhead was real, all else was derived and dependent on the will of the Creator.

I went on to write, “I suggest to you that this is not true reality at all but little more than a facade, more similar to a stage setting one would find on a movie set. It is admittedly a complex and involved stage setting and has the appearance of permanence; permanence, however, from a finite point of view. The tragedy is that most people devote their entire lives to responding to the stage setting and ignore the true realities of life.”

Effectively then, what we call life is the painted veil that is described by Shelley as unreal shapes with colours idly spread.

Mankind’s Desire for a Deliverer

I found it fascinating that Shelley would describe a hopeful figure “who had lifted it–he sought, For his lost heart was tender, things to love, But found them not, alas!” Here was Shelley’s redeemer, but a redeemer who was doomed to failure and he, like the Preacher, found it not.

The identity of the Preacher has also been an object of debate, but in the context of the sonnet, I thought of the first two verses of Ecclesiastes, also known as The Preacher; “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Here we find a similar longing for that which is not found.

I have long noted the need for a messianic figure in literature; the example that immediately occurred to me was Ayn Rand’s John Galt. In her novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” Ms. Rand creates an intellectual super hero named John Galt who is able and willing to take the necessary steps to deliver society from its many ills. I find these futile hopes for a messiah, as devised by the mind of man, to be pathetic and sad.

Lifting the Painted Veil

It is only in the Bible that the painted veil is lifted and the true nature of reality is fully exposed. It is only in the Bible that we learn the true nature of our existence and the fact that we are created beings living in and sustained, from moment to moment, by our creator as a part of that creation.

It is only in the Bible that we discover the identity of our true Messiah our very own, “splendour among shadows” and then discover that He has come to redeem us and that His work of redemption has been successfully begun. It is only in the Bible that we learn that this process of redemption will be fully completed at a time determined in eternity past by our Creator; that our Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, will lift the painted veil forever.

It is the Bible that reveals what the painted veil conceals and it is infinitely more than the scene painted by Shelley’s words “behind, lurk Fear And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.”

Behind the painted veil we call life lies an eternal plan of which we can be a part by simply receiving Christ as our Savior. There is also a terrible place called the Lake of Fire which is reserved for those who reject the salvation available to all who will receive Christ as Savior.

The veil has been lifted; we have a Redeemer and a Messiah, one who is still seeking things to love, and ignore Him at our own peril; receive His love and love Him in return!

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”


  1. […] my reflections on marriage, I though back on an essay I had written “The Painted Veil That Hides Reality” In the fourth paragraph I […]


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