Dust to dust: Paintings of funerals 1

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), oil on canvas, 315 x 668 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Western paintings are never shy of showing death, but with the notable exception of the rites which followed Christ’s crucifixion, seldom intrude on funerals, at least until recently. Wherever you have spent the last few months, there’s been no shortage of funerals, although for so many attendance was strictly limited or forbidden altogether – one of the most distressing consequences of this pandemic.

Today and tomorrow, I invite you to attend some of the most moving paintings of funerals and other death rites over the last four centuries. Now’s the time to reach for that box of tissues.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici (Marie de’ Medici Cycle) (c 1622-25), oil on canvas, 394 x 727 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

All the best people, like King Henry IV, didn’t die but were whisked off for a quick apotheosis and became gods – in classical myth and legend. For Rubens, the same rule applied long after Olympus was struck down in favour of the Christian God. After Henry’s assassination came this elaborate allegory of The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici, painted in about 1622-25 as part of the Marie de’ Medici Cycle.

The left side of the painting shows the assassinated king being welcomed into heaven as a victor by the gods Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter, as king of the Olympian gods, is Henry’s divine counterpart; Saturn, holding a sickle in his right hand, marks the end of Henry’s earthly existence. Below them is Bellona, an ancient Roman goddess of war, who is stripped of her armour and appears tormented.

On the right side, Marie is seated on her throne as Regent, wearing black widow’s weeds, as the personification of France kneels in homage and presents her with an orb of office. Behind the Regent, at the far right, is Minerva bearing her Aegis, the shield emblazoned with the image of Medusa’s head. Also present are Prudence and Divine Providence, and her court are paying tribute from below.

For lesser mortals, the funeral itself is a part of a series of rites which start with extreme unction.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Extreme Unction (Seven Sacraments I) (c 1636-40), oil on canvas, 95.5 x 121 cm, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin’s first series of the Seven Sacraments is completed by Extreme Unction, which shows the sacrament being administered to a cadaveric man as his family are gathered around his deathbed.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion (1648), oil on canvas, 114 x 175 cm, National Museum of Wales / Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

Poussin also painted one of the most distressing funerals of ancient times, in this Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion from 1648. Phocion was falsely denounced as a traitor, and the order given for him to be seized, tortured, and put to death. With his friends, he was taken back to Athens ostensibly to be tried, but his sentence had already been determined.

He was given no opportunity to defend himself when tried in front of a rabble. He asked the crowd whether they wished to put him to death unjustly or justly. They replied “Justly”, to which he asked how they would determine that without hearing him first. He wasn’t allowed to make himself heard again, until he admitted his guilt but denied that of his friends. The crowd insisted that they too would be put to death, merely because they were his friends, and voted to put them to death. They were then given hemlock to drink by the executioner. However, there was insufficient left for Phocion, who had to arrange for a friend to pay for more poison so that he too could be executed.

Phocion’s enemies even got a decree passed that his body had to be carried beyond the boundary of Athens, and that no Athenian could light a fire for his cremation. A man was hired to carry Phocion’s body beyond Eleusis, where it was cremated. Phocion’s wife was present, and built a small memorial at the spot. She then carried his remains by night to her house, where she buried them in her hearth.

It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that funerals became popular as a theme for paintings, and that was an accomplishment of Gustave Courbet in one of the most innovative images of the whole century.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), oil on canvas, 315 x 668 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Courbet’s monumental Burial at Ornans (1849-50) shows in remarkably unemotional and objective terms the funeral of the artist’s great uncle in the small provincial town of Ornans. The event had taken place in September 1848, but the painting gives the impression that it is a faithful and contemporary record.

Courbet actually painted this huge work entirely in the studio, using those who were present as models. It shows a moment which could only have existed in the artist’s memory: like Géricault’s earlier Raft of the Medusa, it doesn’t necessarily represent an image which ever existed in reality. But it has been carefully researched, imagined, composed, and painted to give the impression of accuracy and objectivity, rather than being another Romantic fantasy.

For complex historical reasons, response in art to Courbet’s momentous painting was delayed. Other painters avoided its immediate challenge.

Giuseppe Sciuti (1834–1911), The Funeral of Timoleon (1874), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly before Renoir painted his famous crowds enjoying life in Montmartre, Giuseppe Sciuti completed his impressive Funeral of Timoleon (1874). Timoleon was a great Greek general, who was formative in the history of the Greek colonies in Sicily, particularly the city of Syracuse. His funeral pyre burns in the right foreground, ready to cremate his body when it has been carried from the other side of the forum.

Clearly Sciuti had little idea of what the original scene, in 337 BCE, might have looked like, and could only express this painting in terms of his own experience. So what he shows is probably an anachronistic composite of what he thought Syracuse looked like at the time, and more contemporary ideas of such urban crowds.

Teodor Axentowicz (1859–1938), Pogrzeb huculski (Hutsul Funeral) (1882), oil on canvas, 86 x 115 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This was also a time when artists were documenting peoples in the east of Europe and other parts which had retaining their traditional culture and rites. At the end of his training in Munich, Teodor Axentowicz paid his first visit to the lands of the Hutsul people, in the Carpathian Mountains of the Ukraine. Now numbering only about 25,000, they form a substantial proportion of Ukrainian highlanders, and have their own distinctive culture.

His oil painting of a Hutsul Funeral from 1882 shows the Hutsul in the rigours of winter, the coffin being towed on a sledge behind a cart, and the mourners clutching candles as they make their way through the snow to the stave church in the distance.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices (date not known), oil on canvas, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s possibly Marie Spartali Stillman’s only oil painting, of Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices, was probably completed around 1883-84.

Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, quarrelled over which should rule Thebes, leading to their deaths. King Creon, who succeeded them, decreed that Polynices was neither to be mourned nor buried, on pain of death by stoning. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, defied the order and was caught. Here Stillman shows Antigone (centre) attending to the burial of her brother, her companion fearfully trying to draw her away. They are greeted by carrion crows, and at the far right is the headstone of a grave.

Tomorrow I’ll show some responses to Courbet’s masterpiece, and some more recent paintings of funeral rites.