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Navigating the Underworld: Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s Charon, the Ferryman of Hades

Felix R. Hidalgo, Study: La Barca de Aqueronte, oil on canvas, 1887, Lopez Museum, Manila

Charon, classical mythology’s ferryman of the dead in Hades, figures prominently in Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s 1887 academic masterpiece, La Barca de Aqueronte (Charon’s Boat), a work inspired by his reading of Dante’s Inferno during his sojourn in Italy. This god of the Underworld, a son of Erebus (Darkness) (The Genealogy of Greek Mythology by Vanessa James), is represented in archaic and classical Greek art as an ugly old man with a short beard and conical cap, who maneuvers his boat with a pole. He is frequently seen in a series of Attic funerary vases from the end of the fifth century B.C., where he is accompanied by Hermes (Mercury), who brings him the dead. In Etruscan iconography, Charon (Charun) is more frightening and resembles a winged, hook-nosed demon wielding a hammer (Tarquinia, Tomba dell’Orco) (Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Flammarion Iconographic Guides) by I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne).
In the charcoal studies of Hidalgo, Charon is represented in the mold of Renaissance interpreted Greco-Roman divine and heroic nude types. In The Pagan Dream of The Renaissance, Joscelyn Godwin writes, “the nudity of pagan gods and goddesses is one of their essential qualities. In metaphysical terms it symbolizes perfection. Being free of mortal dross, the gods have nothing to be ashamed of, and no need for man-made garments. In the biblical context would have escaped no one at the time, the nudity of the gods is like that of Adam and Eve before the Fall, before they knew that they were naked, and hid themselves (Genesis 3:10).” And in The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art, Malcolm Bull writes, “Nobody really knew what the gods looked like. Renaissance artists could base their representation of the gods on the example of antique sculpture. But how had the Greeks known what they looked like in the first place? In the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus tackles the question head on. Had artists like Phidias and Praxiteles gone up to heaven and drawn the gods from life? No, “Imagination [phantasia] wrought these works, a wiser and subtler artist by far than imitation [mimesis]; for imitation can only create as its handiwork what it has seen, but imagination equally what it has not seen.”
Most accounts, including Pausanias and later Dante’s Inferno, associate Charon with the swamps of the river Acheron. Ancient Greek literary sources — such as Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, and Callimachus — also place Charon on the Acheron. Roman poets, including Propertius, Ovid, and Statius, name the river as the Styx, perhaps following the geography of Virgil’s underworld in the Aeneid, where Charon is associated with both rivers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charon_(mythology))
In the same year that Dr. Jose Rizal published his subversive novel, Noli Me Tangere, Hidalgo at age 34 completed his allegorical masterpiece, La Barca de Aqueronte (Charon’s Boat). A stream of nude figures, representing condemned souls, cascades in agony down Charon’s boat to be ferried across the River Acheron and into Hades. A hight contrast of light and dark areas heightens the drama. The turbulent scene is made dynamic by its diagonal composition set out by dark areas. There is a hint of Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) in its portrayal of helpless victims in a fragile craft tossed by the sea and also Eugene Delacroix’s Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822) also known as the Barque of Dante. Evident too, is the fact that during his year in Rome, Hidalgo had viewed the subject rendered on the bottom right-hand corner of Michelangelo’s famous Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. (Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo & The Generation of 1872 by Alfredo Roces).

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, Oil on canvas, 1818–1819, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, Oil on canvas, 1822, Musée du Louvre, Paris
In Pierre Subleyra’s academic painting, Charon Transporting the Shadows, the god is nude, and is shown from behind as he turns toward human forms draped in white cloth (eighteenth century, Paris, Louvre). (Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Flammarion Iconographic Guides) by I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne).

Pierre Subleyra, Charon Transporting the Shadows, Musée du Louvre, Paris
In Encyclopedia of Hell by Miriam Van Scott, Charon on the River Styx, Joachim Patinir’s painting (1524, Madrid, Prado), exemplifies the lasting influence of ancient Greek myths on the art world. Created more than two millennia after the demise of Hellenic civilization, Patinir’s composition employs underworld images and icons that have endured through the centuries. The work is a brilliant blaze of blues and greens illuminating paradise, a stark contrast to the dark and sinister colors of the land of the damned. Patinir offers a naked, gaunt Charon perched in a tiny rowboat ferrying souls across the river Styx to grim fortress of torture. The underworld looms in the background, a burning city choked with black smoke. The gates of Hades await on the opposite bank, guarded by the three-headed beast Cerberus. Broken bodies dangle limply over the walls, still being tormented by demons. Farther on, souls are thrown into a raging fire by gleeful fiends. The faces of the damned are upturned in agony, longing for relief that will never come.

Joachim Patinir, Charon on the River Styx, oil on wood, 1524, Prado, Madrid
Juxtaposing Hidalgo’s allegorical Romantic painting, La Barca de Aqueronte with Rizal’s political novel, Noli Me Tangere would find resonance in the 20th century’s authoritative mythographical studies of Joseph Campbell. Rizal’s archetypal hero, Crisostomo Ibarra, we could say, also echoed the initiation trials in Campbell’s A Hero with A Thousand Faces. “Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiosity fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world of literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. Voyage to the underworld is but one of innumerable such adventures undertaken by the heroes of fairy tale and myth.” Crisostomo Ibarra’s trials in the Noli novel could be analyzed as a “hero’s journey to the underworld”; the same with Dante’s perilous journey into Hades with the poet Virgil.
Submitted to the Exposicion General de las Filipinas in Madrid, La Barca de Aqueronte was awarded a Gold Medal. Two years later it is shown at the Paris Exposition of 1889 (Paris World’s Fair of 1889). An International Jury bestows a Silver Medal. No other Filipino Artist reaches this distinction in the major arena of art that is Paris. Art critic Andre Michel writes in the Journal des Debats: “On the other hand not enough attention, as it deserves, has been paid to ‘Dante’s Inferno’ by Felix R. Hidalgo. There is nothing banal [but on the contrary] much in that group of nude bodies that clash and twist under the oar of the mournful boatman; between the bloody sky and the green water, in a landscape fantastic and cold despite its reflections of fire, where one discovers the perpetual nostalgia of solar rays. In the factura [manner of doing] specially, although somewhat subtle and with little relief, appear outstanding qualities of modeling, an agile and skillful handling of the brush and a lyricism of a good kind that separate us completely from vulgarity.”
Over the next few years, La Barca de Aqueronte will do triumphant rounds of the Expositions: taking a Diploma of Honor at the Exposicion General de Bellas Artes in Barcelona in 1891, then a Gold Medal at the Madrid Exposicion International de Bellas Artes in 1893 (the 400th Anniversary of the Discovery of America) where through a Royal Decree dated 7March 1893, it is purchased for 7,500 pesetas. First hung at the Museo-Biblioteca de Ultramar, it soon finds a permanent home at the Museo Nacional de Pintura de Madrid. (Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo & The Generation of 1872 by Alfredo Roces).
Robert Rosenblum and H.W. Janson wrote in their book, 19th-Century Art, “Yet looked at from its past rather from its future, the 1890s can also be thought of as a last and summary chapter of the nineteenth century, in which the Romantics’ legacy of introspection and imaginative wanderings in the domain of of remote myth and history attains perhaps its last gasp, and in which the century’s recurrent efforts to make grand, public statements of mural proportions that might synthesize questions of religion, of philosophy, or society reached a climax. And it was no less a time of art-historical retrospection and the swelling of national pride.”
Charon has hardly been represented in modern time because competing Christian figures of death received more attention. (Gods and Heroes of Classical Antiquity (Flammarion Iconographic Guides) by I. Aghion, C. Barbillon, F. Lissarragne).
Finally, The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology gives us this overview of the Underworld:
In Greek mythology the Infernal Regions were the mournful abode where, separated from their bodies, the souls of those who has finished their earthly existence took refuge. There were two successive conceptions of where the afterworld was situated. “The Afterworld,” says Circe to Odysseus, “lies at the extremity of the earth, beyond the vast Ocean.” The earth was thought of as a flat surface limited by an immense encircling river Ocean. One must cross this river in order to reach the desolate and uncultivated shore of the infernal regions. There few things grew, the soil was barren and no living being could survive, for the sun’s rays could not penetrate so far. Black poplars were found there, and willows which never bore fruit. The ground supported asphodel, a funerary plant of ruins and cemeteries.
This was the tradition of the epic poems. It was altered with the progress of geography when navigators discovered that very far to the west – where the infernal regions were supposed to be – there existed lands which were in fact inhabited. Popular belief then placed the kingdom of Shadows elsewhere: from then on it was situated in the center of the earth. It continued to remain a place of shadows and mystery, of Erebus. Its approaches were no longer the Ocean. The Underworld communicated with the earth by direct channels. These were caverns whose depths were unplumbed, like that of Acherusia in Epirus, or Heraclea Pontica. Near Cape Taenarum there was one of these entrance gates and also at Colonus in a place dedicated to the Eumenides.
In the same way certain rivers whose course was partly underground were through to lead to the infernal regions. Such was the Acheron in Thesprotia into which flowed the Cocytus. It must be remarked, moreover, that the names of these rivers were given to them because they were believed to flow into the underworld. Acheron derives from the word which means “affliction”. It was the river of sadness and Cocytus was the river of lamentation.
Though the ancients carefully described the exterior appearance and approaches of the underworld, they were vaguer about its interior. On the aspect of the Infernal Regions we have little information. According to what we have, the actual Underworld was preceded by a vestibule called the Grove of Persephone. Here the black poplars and sterile willows were again found. It had to be crossed before reaching the gate of the Kingdom of Hades. At the gate was posted Cerberus, the monstrous watch-dog with fifty heads and a voice of bronze. He was born of the love of Typhoeus for Echidna. Cerberus was variously represented. Sometimes he had only three heads, sometimes he bristled with serpents and his mouth dribbled black venom. He was always to be feared. When entering the underworld, to be sure, the terrible beast would appear prepossessing, wagging its tail and ears. But never again could one come out. Cerberus, however, could be appeased by tossing to him cakes of flour and honey. Hermes could calm him down with his caduceus and Orpheus charmed him with his lyre. Only Hercules dared measure his strength with Cerberus and, vanquishing him, carried him for a moment up to earth. Cerberus infected certain herbs with his venom which were afterwards gathered by magicians and used in the preparation of baleful philters.
Within the Underworld flowed subterranean rivers: Acheron with its affluent the Cocytus swelled by the Phlegethon, Lethe and, finally the Styx. Acheron was the son of Gaea. He had quenched the thirst of the Titans during their war with Zeus and been thrown into the Underworld where he was changed into a river. To cross Acheron it was necessary to apply to old Charon, the official ferryman of the Underworld. He was a hard old man, difficult to deal with. Unless before embarking the shade of the deceased newcomer presented Charon with his obolus, he would mercilessly drive away an intruder so ignorant of local usage. The shade was then condemned to wander the deserted shore and never find the refuge. The Greeks therefore carefully put an obolus into the mouths of the dead.
The Styx surrounded the Underworld with its nine loops. The Styx was personified as a nymph, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. She was loved, as it was said, by the Titan Pallas and by him had Zelos (Jealousy); Nike (Victory); Kratos (Force); and Bia (Violence). As a reward for the help she rendered the Olympians during the revolt of the Titans it was decided that the Immortals should swear by her name and such vows were irrevocable.
Those who drank of the waters of Lethe forgot the past. Lethe flowed, according to some, at the extremity of the Elysian fields; according to others at the edge of Tartarus. The Elysian fields and Tartaus were the two great regions of the Underworld.
Tartaus with its gates of bronze was the somber gaol of those who had committed crimes against the gods. It was surrounded by a triple wall and bathed by the waters of the Phlegethon. The avenue which led to Tartarus was closed by a diamond gate. Here the most notorious prisoners were the Titans and the giant Tityus on whom two vultures fed because he had attempted to violate Leto. Tantalus could also be seen, eternally tortured by hunger and thirst; Sisyphus, who without respite rolled his rock up a steep cliff; Ixion, bound to his flaming wheel spinning in the air; and the Danaids, condemned eternally to fill a bottomless barrel.
In Elysium, on the contrary, snow and rain and tempests were unknown. Soft breezes forever refreshed this abode of happiness which was at first reserved for the children of the gods, but later opened to the favourites of the Olympians and the souls of the just.