Reaching for the Divine: ‘Souls on the Banks of Acheron’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
July 11, 2020 Updated: July 11, 2020

As an artist, I mostly post art-related content on my social media outlets. Lately, I’ve been reading the content posted by the people I follow, and there’s a lot of discord: Everyone is pointing the finger at everyone else. 

Appreciating the value of a good question, I asked myself, “Is there any way we can regain and maintain harmony?” This question led me to consider our relationship to judgment, and I thought of Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl’s painting “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron.”

Hiremy-Hirschl and His ‘Souls on the Banks of Acheron’

Hiremy-Hirschl was a Hungarian artist who was active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His paintings focused on allegorical subject matter, calling to mind ancient Rome and its mythologies. His paintings fell out of favor with the advent of the avant-garde movement of the late 19th century.

Recently, however, with the resurgence of traditional artists and their methodologies, Hiremy-Hirschl’s paintings are regaining popularity. Many of his paintings are now lost, but “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron” is one of his paintings that I’ve seen repeatedly discussed in representational art circles.

In “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron,” Hiremy-Hirschl presents a scene from Roman mythology. The focal point of the painting is a standing figure to the right in the composition. This figure is dressed in a dark-blue robe, holds a staff in his right hand, dons a hat with wings, and has a halo of soft light around his head, all of which identify him as the Olympian god Mercury.

Mercury in a detail from Souls on the Banks of the Acheron
The Roman god Mercury delivering the newly dead to the underworld, in a detail from “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron.” (Public Domain)

Mercury is considered a messenger god and often crosses the boundary between the world of the gods and the world of humans. He is also the god who guides the dead to the underworld. Here, Mercury is shown at the banks of Acheron, the place where departed souls await their ferry ride into the underworld. 

A multitude of grayish figures—the recently deceased—reach for Mercury, who stands stoically and looks out in the distance. Some of the deceased weep, and others seem to have resigned themselves to their fate. 

At the left of the composition, two figures awkwardly stand with their backs to Mercury. Their heads swing back, and their bodies seem to sway as if something is compelling them to move. And to where might they be compelled to move? 

two figures in Souls on the Banks of Acheron
Two figures seemingly compelled toward the Charon, the ferryman who will take them to the underworld, in “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron.” (Public Domain)

Are they compelled to board Charon’s ferry (or Kharon), which can be seen to the far left of the composition? Charon was the ferryman who transported souls across the Acheron to be judged before beginning their afterlife. The righteous would be blessed to dwell in a paradise called Elysium, and the evil were condemned to stay in a torturous place called Tartarus.   

detail from Souls on the Banks of the Acherson
Charon’s ferry, coming to transport the dead to their final judgment, in a detail from the painting “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron.” (Public Domain)

Too Late to Reach for the Divine?

In “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron,” it seems clear that Mercury has transported a group of souls to begin their journey into the afterlife. These souls don’t seem excited about this journey. They reach for Mercury as if they’re pleading with him to take them back among the living.

I see this and think to myself: “How glorious the colorful, glowing god must look among the dark grays of death.” To me, all of these souls are not merely reaching for Mercury to return them among the living, but they are reaching for what Mercury is innately: divinity.

Unfortunately, it is too late for these recently deceased. They waited too long to reach for the divine, and now they reach in vain. Their future—sowed by the summation of their character—will reveal itself on the other side of the Acheron, and few, if any, seem excited.

Hiremy-Hirschl’s painting tells me a lot about our own deep desires. We wish to be godlike, and the act of self-judging is how we can reach out to divinity. If we judge our own actions appropriately, we can gain favor from God, and when we don’t act appropriately, we fear God’s judgment. Self-judgment, earnest self-assessment irrespective of culture, seems to me to have its origins in the divine. 

Even those who profess themselves as nonbelievers are guilty of elevating themselves through the act of judging others, and yet, they, like most of us, fear judgment itself. Because we’re insecure, we are quick both to judge and condemn and yet wish to avoid judgment and condemnation.  

I imagine us now on the banks of the Acheron. What determines our fate? Did we waste our lives judging others whom we never met or judging a history or culture with which we have no experience? Did we vainly judge others to elevate ourselves? Did we, believing absolutely in our own superiority, judge and condemn all that is different from us? 

Or did we spend our lives questioning and judging our own actions so that they might be worthy of the divine? Did we judge on the basis of building harmony instead of sowing discord? 

On these banks, can we rest assured that peace will be in our hearts, or will it be too late to reach for the divine?

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).