To explain how this misunderstanding came about, we need to go back to the German Hellenists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their aestheticism, humanism and admiration for the Greek rather than the Christian. E. M. Butler (1935) has traced the “exaggeration, the excess which is discernible in the attitude to Greece of one great German after another from Winckelmann onwards”. Reverence was expressed for “masterpieces”—the Laocoön, or the Belvedere Apollo (for Winckelmann, the “highest ideal of art” amongst the surviving works of antiquity)—that were actually Hellenistic works or Roman copies. The calmness and grandeur that the German Hellenists perceived in Greek art, the seeming delight in the naked male body, the purity of the supposedly white statues—all this has been criticised and questioned, not least by those concerned with the “Dionysian” rather than “Apollonian” strain in Greek culture (most famously, by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy). The Hellenist agenda, which included substantial elements of Rousseauism (there was something “natural” and “unspoiled” about the Greeks) and a yearning after sexual and political freedom (projected uncritically onto the ancients), had a great deal to do with the cultural and ideological needs of that time and far less with the ancient Greeks themselves. As Henry Hatfield (1964) puts it, “Winckelmann’s absolute subordination of religious to aesthetic matters… would doubtless have shocked Pericles or Sophocles”. And: Greece was only an idea—none of the great German Hellenists, Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, actually went there, although both Winckelmann and Goethe were offered (and refused) the opportunity.
The Eros-Thanatos confusion started with a squabble among eighteenth-century German scholars. Winckelmann claimed (in Attempt at an Allegory, particularly for Art, 1766) that there were barely any ancient representations of skeletons on funerary monuments, and had already hinted, ten years earlier, at what he felt was a certain euphemising tendency of the Greeks to beautify the unpleasant and to avoid the frightening. He described (in Attempt) a gravestone showing Sleep as a young man with down-turned torch, accompanied by his brother Death. (The source for the idea of Sleep and Death as twin brothers is the scene of the removal of the dead body of Sarpedon in Homer’s Iliad, Book XVI; Virgil confirms their close relationship in Book VI of the Aeneid.)
In his Laokoon, published in the same year as Winckelmann’s Attempt, Lessing asserted that the ancients didn’t represent Death as a skeleton. This statement was criticised by the Halle professor (and pedant) Christian Adolf Klotz, to whom Lessing then replied in How the Ancients represented Death (1769). The skeletons that were occasionally portrayed by the ancients did not have to represent Death, Lessing argued. Why could they not simply be skeletons? Or something else altogether? He claimed that they represented larvae, the ghosts of evil people, and were a reminder of what remains of a human being after death and therefore (as in the famous scene with the skeleton at Trimalchio’s feast in Petronius’s Satyricon) an exhortation to make more of life. However: “Because the ancients were reminded of Death by the sight of a skeleton, did that make a skeleton the accepted representation of Death?” The figure that did stand for Death was that of the beautiful winged youth, the brother of Sleep and “an equally gentle Genius”.
Whereas Winckelmann had been inconsistent in his descriptions of the winged torchbearer, allowing that he might be “L’Amour” or a “Love-god” as a symbol of Death or Mourning—a psychologically difficult concept!—, Lessing for his part was not sympathetic to the idea that this figure could be Eros. He rejected forcefully the interpretation by Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1615-96) of the so-called Prometheus Sarcophagus (third century A.D., in the Capitoline Museum in Rome).
Bellori explains the winged being as Eros extinguishing the torch of the feelings of the deceased on his dead body. (Notice incidentally how the soul, a bee with butterfly wings, slips away.) Lessing disagreed:
And I say: This figure is Death! Not every winged boy, or youth, has to be an Eros, and he and the army of his brothers had this quality in common with many other spirits. How many of the race of the Genii were represented as boys! And was there anything without its Genius? Every place, every human being, every social relationship, every human activity, from the lowest to the highest, yes, I would go so far as to say that every inanimate object whose preservation was of concern to someone had its Genius.
But the figure on the Prometheus Sarcophagus can only be Eros, because on the left side of the sarcophagus the little winged god is shown embracing Psyche.
Lessing may have been wrong, but his immense moral and intellectual authority helped to ensure that the identification of the Eros with down-turned torch with Death became widely accepted. At the time, the controversy could scarcely be resolved satisfactorily on the basis of the evidence that was available. Winckelmann, Klotz and Lessing had access to a limited number of ancient artefacts—often in the form of casts or engravings—that could form the basis for generalisations, though these in their turn could be refuted by the discovery of other items by antiquaries. Yet starting long before and independently of the scholarly debate, artists had in any case been copying the motif from Roman funerary art for their own purposes, here for example in figures from two Roman churches, left, an Eros from the tomb of Cardinal Lunati (c.1500) in the church of S. Maria del Popolo, and, right, a sad little baroque Cupid from the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi.
The little winged figure also appears in such purely Christian contexts as paintings of the Crucifixion—here, portrayed at the base of the Cross, with St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena, in a detail from a work by van Dyck (c.1629).
And here are two of them on an early 16th century brass from Venice showing Christ as the “Man of Sorrows”, holding the sponge soaked in vinegar and the spear that pierced Christ’s side.
None of these representations invite direct identification with “Death”, however. The artists of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque had had recourse to a surprisingly wide range of images representing Death, but these were generally easily recognisable as such—and that brings us to the true significance of the scholarly debate, which was the cultural and ideological context of the Lessing-Klotz controversy. The representation of Death as a skeletal figure or skeleton in Christian art was perceived by the European Enlightenment as ugly, especially in the light of the fact that the ancients had supposedly envisioned Death as the brother of Sleep, and pictured them as attractive twins. Writing in retrospect, Goethe described in Poetry and Truth the effect that Lessing’s Laokoon had had on his generation, and how they had seen “the triumph of beauty” in the ancients’ depiction of the handsome twins, “formed alike [by the Greeks] to the point of mistaking them for each other, as is proper with twins”. It was not the core message of Christianity, as revealed in the teachings of Jesus, which was here under attack so much as the forms that Christianity had taken on in the Middle Ages. From the perspective of his own belief in a rational, enlightened Christianity, Lessing asserted that, since the godly have nothing to fear from death, it is “misunderstood religion” that leads us away from the more beautiful representation:
Even Scripture speaks of an angel of Death; and what artist would not rather mould an angel than a skeleton? Only misunderstood religion can estrange us from beauty, and it is a token that religion is true, and rightly understood, if it everywhere leads us back to the beautiful (transl. Helen Zimmern).
…the youth on the funerary monuments is not a separate being [Death], but ‘lifes’s end, last sleep!’… this Genius was therefore not a god, he was the personified life of the corpse, in the way that everything has its Genius. And, when you think about it clearly, what is Death other than ‘life’s end’!
Death and Sleep are beautiful twins, the former granting a sleep that is permanent—“Can there be a more beautiful conception of dying than this kiss from a gently sad youth, from this peaceful Sleep?”—permanent, at least, until the Day of Judgement, when the Sleep of the Dead will end. Far from being pagan, Herder’s conception of Death is actually thoroughly Christian. (Here, Herder develops a line of thought that Lessing had chosen not to follow.)
Herder goes even further. Not only is Death associated with Sleep, but with Love too. In a poem, Death: A Conversation at Lessing’s Grave (1785), Herder has Love claim that he is called Death by mortals, for it is his duty to free the soul from the body and guide it upwards, and he concludes his principal essay on the subject of the representation of Death by the ancients with references to the story of Eros and Psyche.
Herder was immensely learned, and well aware that there were instances where the youth with reversed torch need not have been intended to represent Death, but should be interpreted in the context of the whole composition. One example that he gives is the description, by the Roman author Philostratus the Younger (c. 300 A.D.), of a painting of the meeting of Jason and Medea in Colchis which includes just such a figure. Philostratus explains it as follows: “Eros is claiming this situation as his own, and he stands leaning on his bow with his legs crossed, turning his torch towards the earth, inasmuch as the work of love is as yet hardly begun” (transl. Arthur Fairbanks).
Equally interesting for our purposes is the description by Philostratus’s grandfather, Philostratus the Elder (early 2nd century A.D.), of a painting showing Evadne throwing herself onto the funeral pyre of her husband Capaneus. In this unmistakably funerary scene, “the Cupids, making this task their own, kindle the pyre with their torches and claim that they do not defile their [own] fire, but that they will find it sweeter and more pure, when they have used it in the burial of those who have dealt so well with love’ (transl. Arthur Fairbanks). Notice how the ancient writer calls them Cupids, not “gods” or “Genii of Death”, and how the fire from their torches is in its essence explicitly linked with Love, not Death.
A Roman painting which has survived and in which Eros must be interpreted in the context of the whole composition is the 1st century A.D. fresco of Narcissus from Pompeii (here in an illustration taken from a Swedish family encyclopaedia, 1904-26).
Although he will eventually die, Narcissus in this picture is far from dead. The lovely youth is gazing in adoration at his own image, a foolish and wasteful activity—and Eros, whose task it is to enflame passion between lovers, not self-love, is understandably disappointed (“This will lead nowhere!”). Another Pompeii fresco from the same period (photo © Stefano Bolognini) shows Narcissus turning away from the nymph Echo (whose love for him is completely in vain) to admire his own reflection, with an agitated Eros (without torch) in the foreground.
Others were less sophisticated than Herder in the way that they approached the little figure with the torch. Goethe, trapped in the “Genius of Death” mindset, saw Philostratus the Younger’s Eros-figure as a harbinger of the dreadful outcome of the story of Jason and Medea. Schiller, in his play Cabal and Love (1784), has Louise more or less echo Lessing by saying: “Only a howling sinner could have called Death a skeleton; it is a fine, pretty lad, in the bloom of life, the way they paint the God of Love, but not so mischievous—a quiet, helpful Genius”, but in his famous poem The Gods of Greece (1788), which contrasts the ugliness of the modern (Christian) world with the beauty of the classical (pagan) past, there is a direct comparison between the skeleton and the “Genius” with a down-turned torch as alternative versions of Death (here, in the somewhat free translation by E. M. Butler):
Then no grisly skeleton to the dying
Hideously appeared. The final breath
Was taken by a kiss from lips scarce sighing,
A torch extinguished by the god of death.
Sure, he looks sweet with his extinguished torch,
But Death—believe me, gentlemen—is not really that aesthetic.
- The poet Novalis in his Fifth Hymn to Night (1800) evokes the figure of Death the handsome extinguisher of the torch of life (“A gentle youth puts out his torch and sleeps”), but returns to the more conventional theme of the Risen Christ as the true salvation of mankind.
- In several poems by Eichendorff the boy with the torch is “christianised”—he turns his torch downwards, offering his companions the chance to come “home” (i.e., to die and go to Heaven).
- Shelley’s poem Queen Mab (1813) begins: “How wonderful is Death, Death, and his brother Sleep!”
- Heinrich Heine’s poem about the twin brothers, Morphine (c.1851), strikes a much harsher note: “Sleep is good, Death better—but best would be never to have been born.”
- In Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865), Isolde signals to her lover to come to her by taking the torch from beside her door and extinguishing it by throwing it to the ground, an action that leads to both love and death.
- The poem The Marble Boy (1882) by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer is an ironic treatment of the Liebestod. An ancient statue is dug up in the vineyard of the Capulets, and little Julia recognises it by its torch and wings as Love, but she is corrected by the learned Master Simon who tells her that, since the torch is being extinguished, the figure must represent Death. The statue thus foretells both the fates that await Julia.
- In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911), the beautiful boy Tadzio becomes “the pale and lovely Summoner” who beckons to the dying Gustav von Aschenbach.
Increasingly, the boy with the torch became a decorative element rather than a powerful symbol. In Gustave Moreau’s The Young Man and Death (1865), there is a little Eros wearily allowing his torch to tilt in one corner of the painting (detail), but Death itself is represented as a sinister female figure. Generally speaking, serious modern taste has now largely abandoned the family of Cupids, except in kitsch.
Despite its popularity post-Lessing, there is no good reason to believe that the “Thanatos” type had the same significance for the ancients or was used in the same way. There is no significant textual or convincing archaeological evidence to support such an assumption. Erotes are actually shown on funerary art of the Roman period doing all kinds of things—playing typical children’s games, hunting, fighting, riding, dancing, harvesting and pressing grapes to make wine, representing aspects of the four seasons, or working in an armoury. Sometimes the motifs can be seen to relate directly to the deceased person—a child, or a Roman centurion—but they obviously cannot all of them represent Death, and if they allude to anything it must be connected with the life and not the death of the deceased. The type of the sad or pensive Eros with down-turned torch, also commonly found on Roman sarcophagi, is surely not Death itself, but rather an expression of sadness for the loss of sensual pleasure, in much the way that Ovid in the Amores portrays Cupid as being distraught at the death of the poet Tibullus:
Tibullus… is but a lifeless corpse that the flames of the pyre will soon consume. See how Venus’ son goes with his quiver reversed, with broken bow and extinguished torch. Look you how sadly he fares, with drooping wings; and how with cruel hand he strikes his naked breast. The tear-drops fall amid his floating hair; his mouth gives forth the sound of broken sobs (transl. J. L. May).
On the coins, the down-turned torch is often still burning, which is hardly appropriate for a symbol of death! Is the torch supposed to be understood as being in the process of being extinguished (which would make the motif a symbol of the act of dying rather than of the condition of death)? Eros’s posture and expression are often taken to suggest sadness or pensiveness, but these feelings may be interpreted as post-coital rather than funerary. Possibly Eros is simply tired, after a hard night’s work.
In one of the paintings discussed by Philostratus the Elder, Comus, the torch-bearing personification of revelry, a figure whose iconography and functions for obvious reasons overlap with those of Eros, is described as being
asleep under the influence of drink. As he sleeps the face falls forward on the breast so that the throat is not visible, and he holds his left hand up to his ear. The hand itself, which has apparently grasped the ear, is relaxed and limp, as is usual at the beginning of slumber, when sleep gently invites us and the mind passes over into forgetfulness of its thoughts; and for the same reason the torch seems to be falling from his right hand as sleep relaxes it. And for fear lest the flames of the torch come too near his leg, Comus bends his lower left leg over towards the right and holds the torch out on his left side, keeping his right hand at a distance by means of the projecting knee in order that he may avoid the breath of the torch (transl. Arthur Fairbanks).
Maybe it is wrong to try to squeeze so much meaning out of what may simply have been a popular sentimental motif and statuary type, akin to the sleeping Erotes used in Roman times as garden decoration, or the figures of tired little slave boys leaning on their lanterns. Be that as it may, the “Thanatos” interpretation of the coins can now safely be put to one side. There are virtually no unequivocal representations of Thanatos on provincial coins (the most likely one that springs to mind being the coin of Elagabalus from Berytus in Phoenicia, posted on FORVM recently and at Aeqvitas.com, with a winged figure with a harpa—Thanatos?—facing what looks like Hermes with a caduceus). There is no good reason for continuing the “Thanatos obsession” of the German Hellenists, and the time has come to reassert that it is Eros who is shown on these coins.