Safe Passage: Charon and the Underworld

In Greek mythology Charon was the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the dead to the god Hades over the river Akheron or Styx. Under the tongue of the dead a coin was placed to pay the boatman for their safe journey into the Underworld. Hermes acted as psychopomp guiding the deceased to Charon. In art the oarsman was often depicted as an old man as in Flemish painter Joachim Patinir’s (1480 -1524) Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx. The soul in his boat must decide between the brilliant blue green Heaven on one side and a blackened Hell on the other. By contrast French painter Pierre Subleyras (1699-1749) in his Charon Ferries Shades shows the boatman as a naked virile young man transporting shrouded souls. Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) did five versions of his Isle of the Dead. The painter described the first one as a “dream picture”. Viewers interpreted the series as Charon conducting a soul to the afterlife. The paintings may have been influenced by the deaths of eight of Böcklin’s fourteen children. Ironically Adolf Hitler would eventually purchase the third of the series.