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The Angel and the Voyager
Thomas Cole: The Moralist and Autodidact
Thomas Cole was a British-American painter born in Bolton le Moors, Lancashire, England, in 1801, and raised in Steubenville, Ohio. Largely self-tutored, Cole represents the archetypal American figure of the autodidact. In his twenties, he moved to Philadelphia and then to Catskill, New York. The latter remained his home with the exception of a few years spent abroad until his death at age forty-seven. Although he is best known for his landscape art, he began his career in the early 1820s as a portrait painter.
Cole is widely regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School art movement, an informal group comprising landscape painters influenced by European Romanticism and American expansionism in their idyllic depictions of the American landscape. Cole’s significant impact is seen in the work of fellow painters Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand. Their artwork “aimed to depict nature in a peaceful, realistic, and also idealized way. Ruggedness existed alongside portrayals of ‘sublimity’ (that quality of unquantifiable greatness inspiring feelings of wonder, awe, and even terror). Such absorption in nature was in many ways a response to the increasing industrialization of the time.”
In his art, there is an immediate interplay between the pristine beauty of the breathtaking landscapes and the foreboding destruction brought on by civilization. Marked by a distinctive melancholy and religious undertones, Cole’s paintings are imbued with moralistic motifs that expose his own complex, evolving feelings about what he saw as the cyclical nature of life. industrialization of the time.”
Memento Mori and the Cycles of Life
Equipped with a richer understanding of our focal paintings within the context of Cole’s whole career, we now turn to a brief study of some significant ways in which art illuminates and wrestles with the dilemma of mortality. Cole joins a long line of artists whose work addresses the cycles of life from birth through death. From the beginning of time, death has been considered the great unifier. Yet, for Christians, death is not the end.
Visual Memento Mori
Dance of Death, a fifteenth-century fresco, depicts men of different social rankings, lofty and laborers alike, being led to the grave, hand in hand. This work is emblematic of memento mori—reminders that we are all going to die natural deaths. Monk and Death is a French ivory pendant from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, revealing the underlying skull on one side of a near-dead monk’s face.
The straightforward display of Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (1671) depicts life, death, and time. These works along with Thomas Smith’s Self-Portrait (1680) may strike us as morbid, but they were not unusual for their time. Smith, like his contemporaries, uses a skull to put into perspective other symbols representing key moments in his life journey.
The exterior panels of Rogier van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (c. 1452), which show the skull of the patron, serve a similar function as the skull in Smith’s Self-Portrait. Triptychs were typically displayed opened, but the imagery of a skull resting on a broken brick (a possible representation of the patron’s profession) when the frame is closed serves as a visual reminder of what awaits each of us at the end of our lives in this world.
For another example of a work replete with memento mori, consider Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors (1533). This extraordinary painting illustrates two young men who have achieved worldly success and are at the height of their prowess. Numerous symbols are present, but chief among them is the distorted skull in the foreground. An anamorphic painting, this piece reveals different imagery when viewed from different angles. The painting was probably intended to hang on the wall of a staircase so that, as one descended and looked down at the painting from the upper right, the skull would be clearly visible. The skull, coupled with the small crucifix in the top left corner, serves as a reminder of the viewer’s mortality and the need to turn to faith as the path to resurrection.
Another image of the universal awareness of human mortality is the Celtic cross, a religious symbol dating back to the early Middle Ages that offers a visual representation of the connectedness between earthly time and heavenly time. This symbol was often manifested in intricately decorated, freestanding stone structures called high crosses. One example, Muiredach’s High Cross, is pictured below.
Commissioned by King Muiredach (not much is known about him) and completed by an anonymous artist in the ninth or tenth century, Muiredach’s High Cross can be found at the monastic site of Monasterboice in County Louth, Ireland. Its design, like that of all Celtic crosses, emerged from the sun crosses of pre-Christian paganism.
History professor Dr. Glenn Sunshine describes how the design of the sun cross represented not only the sun but all of space and time:
The cross pointed to four cardinal directions, with east on the left, south on top, west on the right, and north on the bottom. The vertical line represented the “world tree” (Yggdrasil in Norse mythology), which tied the worlds together. The bottom was anchored in the underworld, the realm of the dead, and the top reached to heaven, the realm of the gods. The horizontal line represented this world, or “middle earth” between the lower and upper worlds. All that exists was thus symbolically represented in the diagram.
When the sun cross was combined with the cross of Jesus Christ to form the Celtic cross, the circular design took on new symbolism, now representing God’s sovereignty over all of creation. Thus, the Celtic cross embodies both general revelation (knowledge of God through nature) and special revelation (knowledge of God through Scripture). At the same time, the Celtic cross continues to represent the cyclical nature of life, on a daily level (in which days replace days), on an annual level (in which years replace years), and in a life cycle (in which one generation follows another).
We see this circularity reflected on multiple levels in our everyday lives. Each year, spring is the season of birth (and, not coincidentally, when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection); summer is the season of growth; fall is a season of decay; and winter is the season of death. As The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire depict, a person’s life and a civilization’s rise and fall also follow the same trajectory of birth, growth, decay, and death. Cole’s work intimates that this circular motion also has a linearity—a telos (an end), a consummation. Life may be full of cycles, but the cycles are moving forward in an ultimate direction.
Memento Mori in Music
We have focused on visual art in our study of memento mori thus far, but other forms of creative expression have served similarly as conduits to explore the human condition of being embedded in this transient world. For example, music is a medium through which people have long wrestled with the dilemma of mortality. The following compositions, like the artwork we surveyed, call us to understand the essentials of life. We invite you to listen to and reflect on each of them.
- Gregorio Allegri, “Miserere mei, Deus” (1630s)
- Johann Sebastian Bach, “Come, Sweet Death” (1736)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Introitus,” from his Requiem (1791)
- Johannes Brahms, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” from his Requiem (1865–1868)
- Giuseppe Verdi, “Dies Irae,” from his Requiem (1874)
- Gabriel Fauré, “In Paradisum,” from his Requiem (1887–1890)
- Henryk Górecki, “Lento—Contabile Semplice,” from Symphony No. 3 (1976)
- Max Richter, “Dona Nobis Pacem 1,” from The Leftovers (2014)
- Karl Jenkins, “Lament for the Valley,” from Cantata Memoria—For the Children (2016)
One musical selection has a particularly powerful backstory. “Lament for the Valley” is a poignant piece in the album Cantata Memoria, composed by Karl Jenkins on the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. This devastating event killed 116 children and 29 adults when a colliery spoil tip collapsed upon the village below in South Wales. “Lament for the Valley” was written in two parts; the first describes the tragedy itself, and the second offers hope amidst lament. As such, Jenkins takes the listener on a journey from dark to light.
Memento Mori in Poetry
Three Approaches to the Dilemma of Mortality
Given the inevitability of death, how are we to spend our remaining days? Across history, people have taken one of three primary approaches to answering this question: resigning to futility; achieving “immortality” through art and achievement; or exchanging futility for hope in eternity. We can use poetry as a lens through which to better understand these approaches.
The third approach to the dilemma of mortality defines our life’s purpose not by the pain of our bounded past but by the joy of our unbounded future. In alignment with the biblical narrative of salvation, this approach teaches that neither hedonism nor achievement can secure immortality. Our time on earth is purposeful in that it prepares us for eternity. As Scripture teaches, we are sojourners “who desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Those who believe in God live in faith and in anticipation of an assured future in heaven. John Donne and George Herbert convey as much in their poetry.
By John Webster
All the flowers of the spring
Meet to perfume our burying:
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time.
Survey our progress from our birth;
We are set, we grow, we turn to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath, and clearest eye,
Like perfumes, go out and die;
And consequently this is done,
As shadows wait upon the sun.
Vain the ambition of kings,
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.
Cycles of LifeAs artists through the ages have attempted to express, our lives are inextricably entwined in a natural cycle characterized by birth, growth, decay, and death. Indeed, this recurring sequence of events is all around us, manifested in different ways and arenas. These cycles of life can be applied on a smaller scale, such as a day or a year; they can also be applied on a larger scale, such as the life of a nation or civilization. If we consider each day a miniature life, we see the four elements of the life cycle in the progression of a twenty-four-hour period. We are “born” daily when we wake up (dawn), and then we “grow” (noon). Some of us require more time than others to reach the point of our maximal energy. As the day progresses, our bodies “decay”— we begin losing energy (sunset). We may get a second wind in the afternoon, but, inevitably, time catches up to us. At night comes our “death” (midnight or thereabouts): We enter our “burial chambers” (bedrooms), put on “grave clothes” (pajamas), and pull our “shrouds” (sheets) up to our heads. Then we enter a death-like state called sleep. Indeed, the Bible uses sleep as a euphemism for death when describing the resurrection of believers:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life.
Understanding our daily life cycle in this manner gives us perspective on the Bible’s principle of living each day without anxiety about the next day, free of the burden of a week’s—or year’s—worth of concerns.
So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Followers of God are to live as though there are only two days in the calendar: today and that day—the day of Christ’s return. The goal is to always connect today with that day, thus living each day in anticipation of eternity.
Focal Paintings: The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire
Painted over a ten-year span, the Voyage of Life and Course of Empire series share similar themes. Broadly speaking, both series record the passage of time and its effect on mankind and his natural surroundings. More specifically, we can observe parallels between the individual paintings by considering the works as corresponding pairings.
The first painting in The Voyage of Life series, Childhood, corresponds to the first two paintings of The Course of Empire series, The Savage State and The Arcadian or Pastoral State, in that all three depict nascency in a land that is largely untamed and untainted. Next, The Voyage of Life: Youth and The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire capture the lure of worldly success and ambition. The Voyage of Life: Manhood and The Course of Empire: Destruction show the collapse of earthly structures (literal and figurative) and the subsequent need for something more. Finally, The Voyage of Life: Old Age and The Course of Empire: Desolation close out their respective series with scenes of unexpected peace in the aftermath of destruction.
Childhood, The Savage State, and The Arcadian or Pastoral State
The Voyage of Life: Childhood
This magisterial series opens to a scene that contrasts the dark, mysterious unknown from whence we came with the rosy, blooming sunrise of new life. Although Cole was the first to take on the monumental task of creating coherent visual images on the allegorical subject of journeying through the river of life, notable literary pieces have done so as well, including John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
To guide the viewer, Cole provided a written explanation for each painting in this series. About Childhood, he wrote:
A stream is seen issuing from a deep cavern, in the side of a craggy and precipitous mountain, whose summit is hidden in clouds. From out the cave glides a boat, whose golden prow and sides are sculptured into figures of the Hours: steered by an Angelic Form, and laden with buds and flowers…
The dark cavern is emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past. The Boat, composed of Figures of the Hours, images the thought that we are borne on the hours down the Stream of Life. The Boat identifies the subject in each picture. The rosy light of the morning, the luxuriant flowers and plants, are emblems of the joyousness of early life. The close banks and the limited scope of the scene indicate the narrow experience of Childhood, and the nature of its pleasures and desires. The Egyptian Lotus in the foreground of the picture is symbolical of Human Life. Joyousness and wonder are the characteristic emotions of childhood.
Thomas Cole, 1840
Cole calls our attention to key symbolic elements in this painting. First, the fullness of the mountain’s summit is unseen, just as our entrance into this world is shrouded in mystery. Second, there is an hourglass at the front of the boat, representing the passage of time. Third, the child is oblivious to the presence of the angel who is guiding him at the tiller. Indeed, it isn’t until the final painting in the set, Old Age, that the voyager recognizes the guiding force in his life. Finally, this scene is abounding with natural beauty, evidenced in the blooms cascading from atop both boat and riverbank. A full and fertile world welcomes the child from a cave of chaos.
The Course of Empire: The Savage State
The Course of Empire begins with The Savage State, a vision of raw, untouched wilderness. Centered in the background is the mountain with the boulder balanced atop, visible in all five paintings. Looking closely, we observe a hunter on the bottom left; he has just shot an arrow at his prey, a deer leaping in the foreground. In the middle on the right, we see an encampment in a scene essentially borrowed from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, of which Cole was a great admirer. On the water’s edge is a canoe, representing transportation and exploration. Dark storm clouds frame the painting, symbolizing the wildness of nature. Despite the signs of nascent civilization, nature dominates this stage.