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Allegory and Art: Thomas Cole 1801-1848

The Allegory paintings of Thomas Cole serve to underline the points I’m reading in Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live. In his series of paintings, The Voyage of Life, Cole shows the various stages of life’s journey as a journey through a wild and American landscape in a boat. In the journey of childhood, the child is seen emerging from a cave with an angelic figure on the prow and an angel standing behind the baby sitting on straw in the boat, almost strangely pointing to the Nativity.

Journey of Life: Childhood

The child is emerging from the cave into an idealized, bright with morning sunshine landscape, future ahead of him as the light in front suggests.

By Youth, the child is leaving the angel on shore, pointing to the daylight and ephemeral castle in the sky. The darkest of all is the painting Manhood, in which the man pleads for divine help, the angel high above him, and the sky overcast with demonic spirits. The helm is gone, and the boat is rushing towards rapids, sky dark with storm clouds. The hope in the painting is in the prayers of the man in the boat, and the watchful eye of the angel above. By the time the boat is heading home, in Old Age, the angel is once more guiding the man, now sitting in this aging boat, the sky opening above him.

The same sequence, according to Gene Edward Veith, is played out in his allegory paintings on the rise and fall of civilization, and here it is that the story is mirrored by the story of the civilizations of our world, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and seeming diminishment of Christendom in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the chaos of our own age…..all of the rise and fall of empires described in Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Should We Then Live. Empires rise and fall, from The Savage State, to Arcadia, to Consummation, to Destruction, to Desolation.

So how should we then live? In the allegory of life’s journey the answer lies in the darkest hour, the cry to Heaven, and the trust in God’s divine orchestration of our life’s salvation in the atonement of Jesus on the Cross. Only here do we have ultimate meaning.

The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey, Thomas Cole

And Christ who holds the world in the palm of His Hand. JESUS IS RISEN, ALLELUIA!

My look at these paintings comes from Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America by Gene Edward Veith, published by Regnery Publishing in 2001.

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