Böcklin, Arnold - Isle of the Dead (1880-1886)
Type of Spiritual Experience
Böcklin is best known for his five versions (painted in 1880-1886) of the Isle of the Dead, painted in response to both the death of his baby daugher Maria and the death of his friend, in January 1880, Anselm Feuerbach.
The painting partly evokes the English Cemetery, Florence, close to his studio and where his baby had been buried.
Brahms chose to memorialize the early death Feuerbach, also a friend, in his Nänie, op. 82 (1881) and we have added a link to this piece here.
The words of Brahms Nänie became for Böcklin, in turn the signature tune for the Isle of the Dead.
Description of the Painting
Between 1880 and 1886 Bocklin produced several versions of his painting 'Isle of the Dead'.
The black and white version had such a profound influence on the Russian composer Sergei Rachnaninoff that he composed 'The Isle of the Dead' after viewing this version in Paris in 1907. The music has been interpreted to represent waves and the steady beat of the oars in the water. Interestingly, Rachnaninoff was disappointed when he saw a colour version of the painting stating that he would probably not have been inspired to compose the piece had he seen it first.
Although Bocklin produced many versions , they all depict a rocky inlet with tall, dark trees in the centre. A row boat is seen approaching the inlet with a mysterious white figure standing upright towards the bow. An object, commonly accepted as being a coffin, is also in the boat. On closer inspection, the trees appear to be Cypress trees and openings have been carved into the rocks.
On death, one symbolically traverses water – hence the expression to pay the ferryman. ‘Gone gone gone to the other shore’ means going to the spiritual realm.
Islands are also a symbolic feature, but this is intended to be a Paradise island. Some islands are not specific to the living soul, but are places of final resting for the disembodied spirit – but only certain spirits. Thus they are perceived as the place where these very specific spirits go when the body dies. And in some cases, more than one spirit may congregate there.
There are any number of such Paradise islands mentioned in myth and legend. Avalon is one, but the Islands of the Blessed, the Fortunate Isles, Utopia and so on are other examples. Paradise islands appear in a number of cultures.
The trees are cedar or cypress trees. Cedars were the 'Tree of the gods' - the name of cedar was derived from the word "deodar" itself derived from the Sanskrit name 'devdar', meaning "timber of the gods".
The Cedar’s symbolism derives from the properties of its wood which is durable – in other words a symbol of immortality and highly scented – perfumed – perfume being itself symbolic of immortal spirits.
One could leave the symbolism here, as Bocklin was clearly attempting to convey the idea that both his baby and Anselm Feuerbach had joined the immortals in Paradise.
But the shape of the island is fascinating as it has twin mountains and the twin mountains are themselves symbolic of the Creator and Created – the twin tunnels. Thus paths beyond also opened up to both the baby and Anselm – the path to the Sun [Creator] and the path to the Moon [Created].
A description of the experience
Nänie by Friedrich Schiller.
Even the beautiful must perish! That which overcomes gods and men
Moves not the armored heart of the Stygian Zeus.
Only once did love come to soften the Lord of the Shadows,
And just at the threshold he sternly took back his gift.
Neither can Aphrodite heal the wounds of the beautiful youth
That the boar had savagely torn in his delicate body.
Nor can the deathless mother rescue the divine hero
When, at the Scaean gate now falling, he fulfills his fate.
But she ascends from the sea with all the daughters of Nereus,
And she raises a plaint here for her glorious son.
Behold! The gods weep, all the goddesses weep,
That the beautiful perishes, that the most perfect passes away.
But a lament on the lips of loved ones is glorious,
For the ignoble goes down to Orcus in silence.