Mount Olympus: How We Portray Paradise In Art
The word paradise conjures up different images for different people. For some, it may be the Garden of Eden, while for others it may be the white sand beaches of a tropical island. At its origin, however, paradise referred to the mystical Mount Olympus— home to Zeus, king of the gods. With the coming of Christianity, Mount Olympus and the legends of Greek mythology were left behind, and paradise acquired a new meaning. A new formula for portraying paradise in art was consequently created in the Renaissance. Our portrayals of heaven have been shaped by our response to this formula ever since. Whatever your own idea of paradise is, let Artsper guide you, as we explore changing portrayals of utopia through the centuries.
What was the point of religious art?
Religious art was originally used as a tool. In the 13th and 14th centuries the Church was a huge patron of the arts. It sought to render the bible more accessible and more relatable to the masses. By depicting humanistic subjects in naturalistic settings, painters of the early Renaissance sought to make religious allegories more relevant to everyday life. Detailed figurative portrayals of biblical scenes were therefore rife. Where this was less so the case, however, was in artistic depictions of heaven, or paradise. Whereas Mount Olympus was considered to be both a physical and metaphorical place, heaven was very much regarded as beyond human imagination. The overall formula of religious art seemed, therefore, to include detailed, figurative portrayals of biblical scenes, and conversely non-figurative portrayals of heaven. Compare, for example, the detail of Hieronymus Bosch’s hell-scapes with his vague depiction of heaven.
The influence of Dante on portrayals of paradise in art
At the same time as this mass production of ecclesiastical art, Dante was writing his masterpiece: the Divine Comedy (1320). This follows an imaginative account of the afterlife and consequently casts vital insights into our understanding of heaven. In his poem, paradise is depicted as a series of nine concentric circles leading to the Empyrean: the home of God. This was considered to be a place beyond physical existence. However, the concentric circles representing the nine celestial spheres of heaven were, incidentally, based on the standard medieval geocentric model of cosmology.
You don’t need to put in much effort to find echoes of Dante’s paradisiac vision across the Renaissance. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin. This panel painting portrays the disciples gathering around Mary’s lily-filled tomb, watching in amazement at the nine tiers of angels bearing witness to Jesus’ blessing of Mary.
A later example of this is Tintoretto’s Coronation of the Virgin (c.1580). This similarly depicts his grand vision of paradise in neat, concentric circles. In each case, heaven is illustrated as a distant light in the sky, surrounded by the celestial spheres of angels and saints. Both artists therefore adhere to the formula of religious art in their deliberately elusive portrayals of heaven.
The Garden of Eden: Another way of understanding paradise
Artistic depictions of the Garden of Eden differ vastly to portrayals of heaven. Although both are considered paradise in the Christian faith, the Garden of Eden was not bound to non-figurative representation in the same way as heaven. It was actually figurative representations during the Renaissance which succeeded in propagating the creation myth. One of the most famous examples of this is Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of Adam and Eve (1504). Many people who saw this print would have believed they were witnessing a true rendering of the first man and woman. Bosch similarly explores this in his naturalist triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights— a panel work beginning with Adam and Eve in paradise. Dürer and Bosch took different approaches to depicting Eden to those artists depicting heaven. However, they still remained within the formula of religious art. In these cases, working to make scripture more accessible through figurative representation.
When did portrayals of paradise break with tradition?
In many ways, our portrayals of paradise in art have been reflective of society at that time. Just as Mount Olympus shifted from view, modern visions of paradise have similarly transformed since the Renaissance. No longer are they dominated by angels and Dantean circles. Society of the 19th century underwent a secularization. As a result, the concept of paradise changed to its modern earthly form. This is reflected in various works of the period, for example, John Martin’s Plains of Heaven. Though inspired by St John the Divine’s account of the Last Judgment, Martin moved away from celestial depictions of heaven. He instead chose to depict nature in all its glory, Olympus-esque mountain included!
This trend persisted in the 20th century with Pierre Bonnard’s Earthly Paradise. Amidst his playful exploration of color and luminosity, Bonnard illustrates an array of animals, including an almost indistinguishable garden snake. This almost parodies the biblical serpent of Eden. Painted in the context of the First World War, Bonnard’s Arcadian vision is decidedly less edenic than works preceding it. This therefore testifies to the transient nature of our understanding of paradise.
What does paradise mean today?
Artists are still continuing to explore what paradise means to them today. In her Lost in Paradise series, German artist Claudia Rogge explores age-old themes such as mortality, beauty and decay. However, as she depicts scenes of celestial paradise, integrating Olympian imagery with her innovative photo collage techniques, she adds a distinctly contemporary twist on century old iconography. Other artists including Dadodu, Mara Toledo and Isabelle Hirtzig similarly explore paradise in their art. Contemporary artists no longer limit themselves to biblical influences in their conceptions of paradise. From warm seas, to luscious forests, to the people you spend your time with, artists today are redefining what it means to be in paradise.
Paradise: A journey through art
Our portrayals of paradise have strayed far from our original understanding of Mount Olympus as a kind of heaven on earth. Artistic conventions have similarly moved on from Dante’s groundbreaking celestial planes. However, the topic of paradise will continue to fascinate artist and viewer alike just as it has done for centuries, even millennia previously. In the meanwhile, however, we’ll leave you to think about what your own paradise would be…
If you want to find more contemporary portrayals of paradise, explore our utopia collection!
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