In Love and Death (above) we see Death as a fully clothed adult whose face we cannot see. Love is depicted as a nude boy, vulnerable and exposed. When this painting was first exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, it was reviewed by Oscar Wilde:
‘a large painting, representing a marble doorway, all overgrown with white-starred jasmine and sweet briar rose. Death a giant form, veiled in grey draperies, is passing in with inevitable and mysterious power, breaking through all the flowers. One foot is already on the threshold, and one relentless hand is “tended, while Love, a beautiful boy with lithe brown limbs and rainbow coloured wings, all shrinking like a crumpled leaf, is trying, with vain hands, to bar the entrance. A little dove, undisturbed by the agony of the terrible conflict, waits patiently at the foot of the steps for her playmate, but will wait in vain, for though the face of death is hidden from us, yet we can see from the terror in the boy’s eyes and quivering lips, that Medusa-like, this grey phantom turns all it looks upon to stone; and the wings of love are rent and crushed.’ (Source)
In The Angel of Death (above) Watts shows Death as the great equalizer that comes to us all. A wide variety of people appear before the stoic Angel of Death, including an infant, a knight, a king removing the crown he shall no longer need. This is an incredibly sad work that captures our human frailty in a beautiful and poignant way.
Pondering artistic representations of death may come across as morbid, but I believe that there is power in exploring our own mortality, our fragile existence. All too often life has chaos to which we can bring no order. Death rarely comes when we expect it. I’ve lost friends due to tragic situations on more than one occasion, unfortunately. As I’ve said before on this site, art is a mirror and images such as these give me a moment to reflect in a respectful way. In the midst of the chaos brought by tragedy and loss, art and literature can give us a structure through which to create some sort of order.
The Victorian era birthed Industrialism and scientific discovery, yet people held firmly to superstition and folklore. Death closely hovered around every family, regardless of wealth or class. Mourning was so common that there were societal rules about it that were to be strictly observed. When death is an almost palpable part of a culture, it is inevitable that it would be reflected in their literature and art. Ghost stories and images of death were embedded in the fabric of Victorian life and neither science nor rational thought could inhibit the lure of a supernatural tale. Today our own cultural experience with death may be vastly different, yet perhaps in moments of grief, there is still solace to be found in Victorian imagery.
To die, to sleep–No more–and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come… –Hamlet, William Shakespeare