Four Paintings That Teach Powerful Lessons About Life

In 1842, American artist Thomas Cole created a series of allegorical paintings entitled: The Voyage of Life. These symbolic images are, without a doubt, my favorite paintings—for they have taught me some of the most valuable lessons about life.

But before I get into that, please watch the video below. It gives an excellent overview of the four paintings.

The first painting, Childhood, represents the warmth and innocence of our early years. Emerging from a mysterious cave is a boat, guided by an angel. Sitting in the boat is an infant, overjoyed to begin his voyage through life. At first glance, it would appear as though this infant’s life is to be nothing but smooth sailing in paradise.

The second painting, Youth, represents the romantic and naive ambition of our adolescence. Imagining himself an expert, the young man takes control of the tiller and sails forward, eager to chase his dreams (depicted as a castle in the clouds). His pose suggests confidence in his ability to secure everything he wants out of life. But life has a different plan for him…

"The Voyage of Life: Manhood," by Thomas Cole
“The Voyage of Life: Manhood,” by Thomas Cole

The third painting, Manhood, represents the harsh and painful realities of growing up. The young man, now an adult, has lost control and is shown praying to God as his boat rushes towards dangerous rocks, and ominous, white rapids. Hovering above him in the clouds are three demonic forms. Thomas Cole stated that these figures “are Suicide, Intemperance and Murder, which are the temptations that beset men in their direst trouble.”

The last painting, Old Age, represents death. Having survived the pains and trials of life, the aged voyager has reached the end of his journey. Met by his guardian angel, the old man is once again overjoyed (as in the first painting, Childhood). The angels in the distance symbolize his embraced into eternity.

Perhaps it’s because of where I am in life right now, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these paintings. I’ve come to realize that I’ve had a lot of romantic, unrealistic ideas about life. Life is beautiful and amazing, to be sure, but it’s filled with heartache and struggle. Indeed, life is filled with a great deal of suffering—and that suffering often makes me wonder about the goodness of God.

“God loves you,” is a popular slogan for many religions. But in times of trouble, I often find that statement to be particularly irksome. Yeah, well if God loves us so much, why does He allow so much suffering? If God loves us, why does He never seem to be there when the voyage of life gets dark and terrifying?

And herein is lies the most important lesson from Thomas Cole’s paintings: God is with us in our darkest moments.

The Guardian Angel, the Voyager, and the Three Demons
The Guardian Angel, the Voyager, and the Three Demons

In the corner of the third painting, you can easily see that the man is being watched by his guardian angel. However, if you look closely at the man you’ll notice that his back is to the angel—naturally, his gaze is fixed on the troubles before him, not on the guidance above him.

I find that illustration both telling and comforting. So often, we’re tempted to think that we are alone in our struggles—that the heavens are closed to our problems and pains. And yet, when we reach the end of our voyage (or the end of our particular struggle), we can look back and see the guidance of God in our lives.

As Thomas Cole said of his third painting: “The upward and imploring look of the Voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power; and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.” If you feel like you’re losing control of your life, then do as these paintings suggest: pray for unseen guidance, keep the faith, and keep moving forward. The reward at the end of the of the journey stretches on for eternity.

Source for Thomas Cole’s writings: Explore Thomas Cole

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