Thomas Cole was more than a nineteenth century landscape painter. There is always more than meets the eye in his works. He used his beautiful landscape paintings, especially in his later life, to depict something sublime.
Particularly apropos for the Christian life is Cole’s series The Cross and the World. This series of paintings depicts two pilgrims—one who takes the way of the cross and one who takes the way of the world. This image echoes the biblical description of followers of Jesus as sojourners on our way to a better land. But in this case only one pilgrim makes it to that land.
Cole’s paintings follow the two pilgrims on their respective paths. The Pilgrim of the World, whose way looks promising at first, makes his way to a place of dark squalor in the end. Meanwhile, the Pilgrim of the Cross finds something profound at the end of his journey. Cole depicts this pilgrim with an angelic host coming to meet him while his gaze never leaves the cross of Christ in front of him.
Cole’s depiction of the way of the cross compels us to put our hopes in the things that will last forever rather than in the brevity of human creations.
Watch part 6 in a teaching series based on the themes of Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life. These four paintings depict the cyclical dynamics of human life, as signified by the artwork’s titles: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age. You can view these paintings in person at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.