Art of the Eternal
Art,  English

Death in Art: A Profound Exploration of the Inevitable

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Art of Death. Myths and Rites (ISBN: 9781783107780), written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

Heaven, according to mankind, has generally been conceived as a definite, exclusive, material place. It is considered to be either some celestial clime on the surface of the earth, a happy island beyond the setting sun, or this whole globe, renovated by fire and peopled with a risen and ransomed race. Heaven seemed to be a calm spot in the sky, curtained with inaccessible splendour and crowded with eternal blessings. It was natural that men should think of heaven as a place where all the evils which they knew were excluded and where all the good they knew were carried to the highest honour with God himself visibly enthroned in entrancing glory amidst throngs of worshippers.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, The Art of Death
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819. Oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

This was unavoidable, because before knowledge and reflection had trained men to practice critical examination and the correction of their instinctive conclusions, all the data which they possessed would naturally lead them to imagine the unknown God in a glorified form and any evidence of the most enviable being their experience had yet revealed to them. The end goal was to paint the unknown future state of perfected souls under the purest aspects of the most desirable boons that they had known in their present state as it was a necessity of their uncritical minds to personify a definite image of God, and to portray heaven as an external place. They could not do anything but work out the results by means of their most intense experiences and the most impressive imagery familiar to them. Their highest notion of man, purified and expanded to the utmost, would be their idea of God. The grandest living conditions in existence within their realm of observation, enhanced by the absence of any illness, would form their visions of heaven. Both would be outward, definite, local, and, as it were, tangible. Royal courts with their pomp of power and luxury, priestly temples, with their exclusive sanctity, their aweinspiring secrets, their processions and anthems would inevitably furnish the prevailing casts and colours to the dogmas and the scenery of early religion.

What were the most vivid of all the experiences men had on earth? The exhibitions of the sultan with his gorgeous ceremonial state, the high priest with the dread sacrifice and homage he paid amidst clouds of incense and rolling waves of song; the admission of the favoured, in glittering robes, to share the privileges; the exclusion of the profane and vulgar in squalid misery and outer darkness. Consequently, except by a miracle, these sights did not fail to constitute the visible proofs for the popular beliefs concerning God and heaven. What should men reflect on as their own personal ideals if not the most coveted ingredients and the most impressive forms known? The best option, supposedly, would be to be to gain the personal favour of the supreme Sovereign by some artifice, flattery, or fortunate compliance with his arbitrary caprice, and to be welcomed into the charmed enclosure of his abode by some special grace, some sort of authoritative pass or magical art.

Catacombs: The Crossing of the Red Sea, The Art of Death
Catacombs: The Crossing of the Red Sea. Fresco. Rome.

Greeks and Romans gradually came to believe in the idea of heaven as an aristocratic doctrine in which a select class of souls were promised an extravagant abode in the sky as their distinguished destination after death; the common masses were still sentenced to the underworld below the grave. Virgil wrote that “the descent into Avernus is easy. The gate of darkness is open day and night. But to rise into the upper world is most arduous. Only a few heroes who are favoured by Jupiter, whose love or shining virtue helps and exalts them can obtain it. Numerous scattered, significant traces of a belief in this change of the destination of souls from the pit of Hades to the hall of heaven are found in many references by the classic authors. Virgil, celebrating the death of someone under the fictitious name of Daphnis, exclaims, “robed in white, he admires the strange court of heaven, and sees the clouds and the stars beneath his feet. He is a god now.” Porphyrios declares to Pythagoras that the souls of departed men are gathered in the zodiac. Plato earnestly describes a region of brightness and unfading realities above this lower world, among the stars, where the gods live. He attests that the virtuous and wise may ascend while the corrupt and ignorant must sink into the Tartarean realm. A similar conception of the attainability of heaven seems to be suggested in old popular myths.

Domenico di Michelino, Nave of the Duomo of Florence: Dante and the Divine Comedy, 1465, The Art of Death
Domenico di Michelino, Nave of the Duomo of Florence: Dante and the Divine Comedy, 1465. Fresco, 232 x 290 cm. Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence.

First, the story of Hercules coming back in triumph from his visit to Pluto’s seat, and, upon dying, rising to the assembly of immortals and taking his equal place among them. Secondly, when Dionysus goes into the underworld and rescues his mother, the hapless Semele, and soars with her to heaven where she henceforth resides, a peeress of the eldest goddesses. Cicero expresses the same mindset when he affirms that “a life of justice and piety is the path to heaven, where patriots, exemplary souls, released from their bodies, enjoy endless happiness amidst the brilliant orbs of the galaxy.” He also speaks of certain philosophers who flourished before his time, “whose opinions encouraged the belief that souls departing from bodies would arrive in heaven as their proper dwelling place.” He then stigmatises the notion that life succeeding death is subterranean as an error, and in his own name addresses his auditor thus: “I see you gazing upward and wishing to migrate into heaven.”

It was the common belief of the Romans for ages that Romulus was taken up into heaven, where he would remain forever, claiming divine honours. The Emperor Julian said, in his Letter on the Duties of a Priest that “God will raise, from darkness of the Tartarus, the souls of all of us who worship him sincerely: to the pious, instead of Tartarus he promises Olympus.” “It is lawful,” writes Plato, “only for the true lover of wisdom to pass into the rank of gods.” “To pass into the rank of the gods” is a phrase which, as it is employed here, means to ascend into heaven and have a seat with the immortals, instead of being banished with the souls of common mortals to the underworld…

Luca Signorelli, The Damned Cast into Hell (detail), c. 1499-1505, The Art of Death
Luca Signorelli, The Damned Cast into Hell (detail), c. 1499-1505. Fresco, Capella San Brizio, Orvieto.

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