Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Mystery--and Beauty--of Death

Death is a mystery, but it can be a beautiful mystery.

When I first saw this painting by George Frederic Watts (c. 1870), there was something about it that made me stop and take it in for a long while. At first I only noticed the dark tone of the painting and the sad looking people standing before a somber-looking angel, which seemed like a good fit for its title: “The Court of Death.” But I felt compelled to keep looking, and that’s when I noticed the variety of people coming before this dark angel.

Here, a reluctant-looking king lays down his crown, a crippled man looks up hopefully, a knight lays down his sword (I swear the skirt on his chain mail is black and blue), and an elderly man stands off to the side, deep in thought. Although the social and economic status of these individuals couldn’t be more different, in the end they come together as equals. For me, that was a powerful thought that reminded me of life’s transitory nature, and the importance of becoming a good, just, and charitable person. 

However, one of these things was not like the other. Just above the head of the sword-less knight was a woman who was noticeably lighter than the others—an impassive (or is she emotionally drained?) soul, leaning against the angel of death for support. As I thought more about this woman with her white sheet draped over the angel’s leg, my eyes returned to the imposing heavenly figure at the top of the painting, and it was then that I noticed him cradling something in his lap. The painting was small, and the colors so dark that it was hard—almost impossible—to make out such a small shape.

After I left the gallery, I searched for images of this painting and found that Watts had painted something similar, titled “The Angel of Death” (c. 1870). In this much lighter scene, the image in this angel’s lap is easier to see—it was an infant. This realization had every reason to make me sad, but instead I was struck by the beauty of this scene. Of all the ranks of the dead who came before him (or her), there was a special place in this angel’s heart for children who had passed away. 

After spending time with this painting, the idea of death was so longer a fearful mystery for me, but a mystery that was full of beauty. 

And maybe even life.

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