Monday, November 15, 2010

Death on a Pale Horse

One of the things I enjoy about "the arts" is the ability to continually stimulate more art. Art imitates life, life imitates art, and art even imitates art.

The theme of this post centers on a piece I saw recently at the Art Institute of Chicago. Delving in to find out some background I found a convoluted web of paintings, poems, and etchings inspired from one another.

The story starts not at the beginning as in the Bible's first words, "In the Beginning..." but actually in the final book of the Bible; Revelations. This symbolic and often macabre portrayal of the apocalypse has a chapter in which some seals are opened and four horsemen ride out.

One of the four is Death riding a Pale horse being followed by Hell. The specific verse reads, "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! It's rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him." (Rev. 6:8 NIV)

While the images of Revelation had been depicted in distilled illustrations as seen in the upper right(taken from a manuscript done in the 11th century) it was Albrecht Durer's "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" (1497-98) to the left, that first put some macabre drama into the idea. With sudden motion and danger, Death, Famine, War, and Plague come riding across the page.

It is widely believed that it is from Durer's image that artist John Hamilton Mortimer got his inspiration for his drawing "Death on a Pale Horse"(1775). He embellished the image further, pulling the horseman away from the group and adding an even more frightening tone.

While Mortimer's original image is lost, his apprentice John Haynes did an exact etching from the drawing of the same name, which was published in 1784 by Mortimer's widow, and is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Image to left)

From here the path splits. First is artist William Blake(1757-1827) an ardent admirer of Mortimer, whose version "Death on a Pale Horse" (1800) is felt to share similar composition styles with Haynes/Mortimer, though undoubtedly less grim. (Image to right)

Haynes etching on Mortimer's drawing also inspired the poet Charles Baudelaire who wrote "Une Gravure Fantastique" (A Fantastic Engraving) (1861) specifically about the art work. It is translated below by Jacques LeClercq and printed in Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil:

This eerie specter wears no clothes at all./A dreadful crown, reeking of carnival,/sits weirdly on his naked skull. Without/Or spurs or whip, he wears his charger out/ (A ghostly and apocalyptic nag,/ Nose foaming like an epileptic hag)./ The hideous pair plunge ruthlessly through space,/ Trampling infinity at breakneck pace./ The horseman's flaming sword, as on they rush,/ Fells victims that his steed has failed to crush,/ And, like a prince inspecting his domain,/ He scans the graveyard's limitless chill plain/ Where, in a dull white suns's exhausted light,/ Lies every race since man emerged from night.

The other famous poet, seemingly inspired by the Haynes/Mortimer image is Percy Bysshe Shelley. One of the most famous of Shelley's works is "The Masque of Anarchy" written in 1819 following the Peterloo Massacre, and claimed by some to be one of the greatest political poems ever written in English. In the midst of the poem we find the reference to the etching:

...Last came Anarchy: he rode/On a white horse, splashed with blood;/He was pale even to the lips,/Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;/And in his grasp a sceptre shone;/On his brow this mark I saw-/'I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!'

With a pace stately and fast,/Over English land he passed,/Trampling to a mire of blood/ The adoring multitude....

There are certainly other artists inspired by the original Revelation verse, such as Benjamin West's "Death on a Pale Horse" (1796) and J.M.W. Turner's "Death on a Pale Horse" (1825-1830). However, I found it more interesting to trace the inspiration from one landmark piece of work that in turn inspired so many others.

I suppose the lesson learned is that you just never know what things in your life will wind up inspiring generations that follow! 

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