Heaven and Paradise are concepts rather more peculiar to Christianity, and although there are pre-Christian equivalents in earlier and different European traditions, such as Arcadia and the Elysian Fields (which gave their name to the Champs-Élysées in Paris), Heaven and Paradise are quite distinct. From the earliest modern European paintings, there was confusion between the Paradise of the afterlife, and the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were cast out. In this article, I concentrate on the former, the direct equivalent of Dante’s Paradise.
Carlos Schwabe’s watercolour of Elysian Fields from 1903 is ambiguously titled, in that it could refer to the famous avenue of the Champs Élysées in Paris. A woman looks languidly at the viewer as she strolls over a floral carpet on overgrown steps, which lead up to an avenue of cypress trees, long associated with graveyards and death. She is dressed in black, with a long black mantilla, and carries a classical lyre in her left hand, indicating that she is a poet. In classical Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields were the final resting place of the souls of heroes.
Paradise commonly occurs in cameo views in paintings of events such as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, but Francesco Botticini’s spectacular example painted in about 1475-76 places unusual emphasis on the depiction of Paradise, with its triple tiers of figures rising to those of the Virgin Mary kneeling in front of Christ at its summit.
As a rule, while paintings of the Last Judgement are fairly explicit about Hell, or at least the descent into it, most avoid trying to show Paradise. Bosch’s four panels of Visions of the Hereafter differ in this respect: The Ascent of the Blessed is set among the clouds, which rise in billows behind. Four naked humans are being brought by pairs of winged angels up towards a tunnel at the top of the panel.
Even with his remarkable imagination, Bosch avoids showing anything more of his vision of Paradise than a brilliant white light. Having spent much of his career showing explicit detail of different forms of Hell, he appears to have been constrained by dogma at the last, and just admits that Paradise is beyond human imagination.
One artist who didn’t feel so constrained at the end of his career was Tintoretto. Although seventy years old at the time, and worryingly close to his own death, between 1588-92 he and his workshop painted the grandest Paradise ever, for the room used for meetings of the Grand Council of Venice, in the Doge’s Palace.
This painting, seven metres (almost twenty-three feet) high and twenty-two metres (over seventy feet) across, focusses on the Coronation of the Virgin, inspired by Dante’s Paradise, as shown in the detail below.
At the top, the Virgin Mary, behind whom is her traditional symbol of the white lily, stands with Jesus Christ, in their matching red and blue robes. Between them is the white dove of the Holy Ghost, and all around are cherubic heads of infant angels. To the right are the scales of justice, also for the weighing of souls.
As with Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin above, Tintoretto’s monumental Paradise is less of a location than a heavenly host.
In Frans Francken the Younger’s composite painting of Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma – The Choice Between Virtue and Vice from 1633, the upper section of Paradise sets heroes such as Hercules/Heracles, to the left of centre with his trademark club and lionskin, in an idealised landscape. Above them is an angelic musical ensemble serenading the figures below. This clearly was a Paradise for the artist’s patron, not the common person.
A century later, Daniel Gran’s study of Paradise from about 1736 is a synthesis of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve below, and God floating on a cloud above, as if from an Assumption or similar. Note that the human-headed serpent is still wrapped around the trunk of a tree at the left, though.
Paul Troger’s The Glory of Heaven from 1752 places Paradise among the clouds, with bishops and saints reclining there in perpetual joy and relaxation.
Literary portrayals of Paradise didn’t end with Dante. In 1677, the first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was published, and ended in the Celestial City. This anonymous Plan of the Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Adapted to The Pilgrim’s Progress from 1821 follows Bosch in not even trying to depict Paradise.
One of the few artists who had no qualms about showing his vision of Paradise is Louis Janmot, in the first painting in his epic narrative series The Poem of the Soul, from 1854. This opens in Heaven, with the mystical formation of a human soul, shown in symbolic form as a baby. This takes place under the watch of the Holy Trinity, although the three figures surrounding the newborn soul include a woman who represents love. Around this tight group are seemingly endless ranks of angels. Again, Paradise is less a location than an assembly.
Franz von Stuck’s first success was with this painting of The Guardian of Paradise from 1889. This angel stands firm, looking the viewer in the eye, his great aquiline wings outstretched beyond the realms of the canvas. Behind him is the brilliant light of Paradise, illuminating walls of flowers and foliage. He holds a unique staff-cum-sword,with a wavy shaft or blade of flame, thrust away from his body.
The slow death of Christianity during the late nineteenth century and the secularisation of society changed the concept of Paradise to its modern earthly form. My last two paintings are examples of what Pierre Bonnard referred to as his Earthly Paradise.
This version from about 1915 is a pastoral fantasy of a grand old tree which has grown out like a huge cabbage. Perched on a branch is a brilliant red and green bird, looking as if it has come from the Amazon rather than northern France. Under its canopy are two nudes: one on the left has long golden hair and appears to be Eve. She is about to pick an apple, and a serpent-like creature is watching her. The woman on the right, who more closely resembles Marthe, is lying on her right side, her head propped against her right arm, apparently asleep.
This version from 1916-20 is a spectacular view, closely related to Bonnard’s landscapes painted from garden terraces. Marthe (I think) lies naked at the right, with a male nude stood under a tree at the left. Unlike many of his paintings of terraces, the trees here form a repoussoir around the landscape, rather than filling its centre. At the man’s feet is a small monkey, and the colours of trees, flowers and distant landscape are intense.
Paradise had been rationalised to be no more than an idyllic landscape.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the other choice Hell.