Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lamentations 1.1-6: The Course of Empire

Was it inevitable? That the great city would one day fall? And by the scriptural description, the city has fallen. (Lamentations 1:1-6) Nineteenth-century American landscape painter Thomas Cole created a series of five paintings he called "The Course of Empire." For Cole, civilization seemed to be a cycle (an inevitable cycle?) of appearing, maturing...and collapsing. The artist chose a line from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" as the motto for the series:
            There is the moral of all human tales;
            'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
            First Freedom, and then Glory -- when that fails,
            Wealth, vice, corruption, -- barbarism at last. (Canto IV, CVIII, line 964ff.)

It isn't especially optimistic. And "Destruction" isn't an especially optimistic image.
Thomas Cole. Destruction of Empire. 1836. New York Historical Society.
"Destruction" is the fourth of the five paintings in the series. The five pictures depict the Savage State, The Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. "Destruction"  shares the same broad perspective as "Consummation," though it looks more to the right side of the city built around this harbor while the third stage looks at the left. A storm appears in the distance, buildings are on fire, and there is a storm of violence throughout the city. A bridge close to the front of the picture space is broken, eliminating one way of fleeing the carnage, though a makeshift assemblage of some kind is shakily holding what appears to be too many people. The statue (reminiscent of this statue) in the foreground is headless.

It's a far cry from the height of civilization, shown below in "Consummation of Empire."
At the height of its glory and power, the city was shining with classical architectural perfection. A procession, seemingly in honor of a scarlet-cloaked man, has brought people onto the bridge that will be ruined by the next stage of empire.

It's not hard to feel the pain and despair in Lamentations because the text puts us in the middle of the destruction. Cole gives us the luxury of being more distant from events than does the writer of Lamentations. Is that a luxury for which we should hope?

For thoughts on Psalm 137, click here.
For thoughts on 2 Timothy 1:1-14, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

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