Richard Hoover: Engraving evokes ironies, questions

Richard W. Hoover

This colorful engraving from 1791 - “The Arrival of Emperor Joseph II in Elysium” — may not be a missing page from the history of art, but it speaks volumes about a culture long gone, and conjures up some interesting ironies and questions. To fathom it best, we must perform a little historical surgery on the past.

Our print dates to near the end of that 500-year era when European court culture revived and then venerated ancient Greek and Roman models of character, virtue and artistic form. Emulation of the ancients, so it went, produced the finest results, whether in governance, public life, the pursuit of arms or in literature and the fine arts.

As such, our picture celebrates the Greek ideal of a triumphant after-life, the reward reserved for only the noblest among us. See how the pestiferous ferryman, Charon, conveys the deceased Holy Roman Emperor Joseph (1739-1790) from the world of the living over the River Styx and to the most beautiful realm of Hades — the Elysian Fields, equipped even with its own sun burning high in the distance.

While Charon steadies the boat (note the Hapsburg double-headed eagle flying from the stern), Joseph steps ashore into the welcoming arms of his sisters and two wives. To the left are his parents, Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. They present his only child, the Archduchess Maria Theresa, dead at age 8. Habsburg generals and courtiers abound. Also waiting for him are Rousseau and Montesquieu, Joseph’s mentors on rational living and the pitfalls of formal religious belief. At the far left, Emperors Charles V and Peter the Great look on, together with Julius Caesar himself — three strongmen whose autocratic style foreshadowed that of Joseph’s.

The River Styx drama was decidedly an early and popular theme in the era of classical revival. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rendition curls the hair with a truly hideous Charon poling his groaning cargo over the Styx to a far less happy spot in Hades!

The Styx drama also was decidedly pagan; lovely as it is, Elysium is no depiction of a Christian holy place with crosses, saints and swirling angels! And no matter how great the Christian piety of those who championed ancient values, territorial struggles existed between Christianity and classical culture, with one sometimes giving into the other, as in the Sistine Chapel example. Although intellectual constructs existed to keep them apart, the line could be crossed: sailing on a horrific storm-tossed sea, for example, merchant and Christian humanist Cyril of Ancona (1391-1455) suddenly found himself praying for deliverance, not to the heavenly father and his saints, but to Mercury and other pagan gods.

Similarly, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph looks remarkably at home in this pagan setting. A child of enlightenment rationalism, of a rigorous classical education, he dedicated himself to sweeping away the cobwebs, to enacting sweeping reforms across the board. These included “rationalizing” religion by diminishing Rome’s influence in Hapsburg lands, extending tolerance to all non-Catholics (including the Jews) and by disbanding religious orders and seizing their property — notably the 1788 “rationalization” of Vienna’s Saint Dorothy’s Cloister into the world-famous Dorotheum Auction House (where, by the way, I knocked down this very picture!).

But wait, there in the rear, just above Joseph and slightly to the left, is Pope Clement XIV (1705-1774). Might a pontiff’s presence gainsay any pagan, rationalist, enlightened, secular and, even, anti-Christian interpretation of this picture? Not at all; finding himself embroiled with Joseph and other Catholic monarchs, Clement made stunning territorial and political concessions — principally, the suppression of the powerful Jesuit order in 1773. That was Joseph’s dream come true, and enough for the artist to put Clement in the welcoming assemblage, hardly as a religious figure, but as a political one.

The great irony: not long after Joseph’s death in 1790, those European aristocrats – Protestants included – who had cavorted with ancient deities had marginalized formal religion, had played at revolution and otherwise contributed to the secular and classical spirit that would fuel the terrors of the French Revolution and Napoleon. These same aristocrats suddenly looked to the church to make Europe right again.

If Joseph could have envisaged his sister, the queen of France, mounting the scaffold, and have foreseen the blood it would take to reverse over 20 years of secular revolution run amuck, what fundamental cultural changes might he have introduced, what religious policies might he have kept in place to head it all off? How different might have been the picture of Joseph’s arrival in Elysium!

Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warre n County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.