The beautiful life in the trees of the dead
“Wow, the island seems to be filled with so many cypresses. The entire island must be a great garden, a garden belonging to an abbey or a royal villa,” I thought, recalling the fascinating trees that frequently appear in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890).
Later I discovered that the beautiful island, San Michele, is actually a garden of the dead. The entire island is used as a cemetery for the city of Venice.
San Michele was designated as a cemetery in the early 19th century. Some say that the designation was given because Venice had fallen short of space for tombs and others say the area was chosen for its location away from the city, which could help prevent the germs of the deceased from spreading following an epidemic.
The cemetery is still in use today, and funeral processions for the people of Venice are held in the waters of the city’s canals. It’s quite a mystic scene to imagine, and it overlaps with the belief common in both Western and Asian cultures that the souls of the dead cross rivers to enter the next world.
The island of San Michele reminds me of the famous painting “Isle of the Dead” by Swiss symbolist artist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). In the painting, against a dark sky, the island’s yellowish rocks and the white surfaces of the buildings situated among them are lit by the slanted rays of the sun, creating a contrast that arouses eerie and uneasy feelings. From out of the black sea, which is as silent as the dead, a small rowboat moves slowly toward a gate on the island’s inner shore.
In the boat is an oarsman and a figure clad entirely in white, just like an Egyptian mummy, who stands upright just behind a coffin that is also painted white. The figure and the coffin shine in the waning sunlight, but will soon be absorbed by the shadows cast by the solemn cypress trees. What dominates this painting is the absolute silence it contains. It is a painting of “such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door,” as Bocklin once said.
Bocklin was living in Florence, Italy, when he painted this. He is said to have been inspired by the “English cemetery” in the city. But I think he could also have been inspired by the island of San Michele.
Bocklin himself did not leave many explanations about the painting, so various interpretations have arisen. Some say that the oarsman is Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead across the river to the underworld in Greek mythology, and that the figure in white is the soul of a person who died recently. There are others who have pointed out that the painting was commissioned by a widow, which means that the figure in white could represent the widow while the white coffin carries her husband’s body. If that is true, the island is a graveyard just like San Michele is, rather than an otherworld. However, I think this painting’s charm is that it looks simultaneously like a graveyard and an otherworld.
The painting eventually became so popular that Bocklin painted four more versions of it. One of these was temporarily held by the notorious German dictator Adolf Hitler. Elsewhere, Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian-American composer, was so impressed by the painting that he composed a symphonic poem with the same title in 1908.
But why do both San Michele and Bocklin’s isle of the dead have Mediterranean cypresses on their grounds? It is said that cypresses were regarded as “mournful trees” by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who planted them in their graveyards. That tradition remains today, so there are many cemeteries in Southern Europe with cypress trees. It sounds somewhat strange that this evergreen tree, which soars toward the sky more powerfully than any other tree, is the one used in graveyards. Maybe the tree is planted near tombs as a prayer for the rebirth or resurrection of the deceased.
The Mediterranean cypress was also loved by the Dutch Post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. The tree appears in his masterpieces “The Road with Cypress and Star” and “The Starry Night,” as well as many other paintings. He wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in June 1889 that: “The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts .?.?. It is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction.”
In this way, Van Gogh’s cypresses are at once the trees of death and the trees of life, linking heaven and earth in a mythological concept of a tree that shows that life and death are one.
by Moon So-young [email@example.com]
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