An Advent lesson hidden in Thomas Cole’s ‘Voyage of Life’

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Voyage of Life
The Voyage of Life: Youth. Thomas Cole | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

“How I have walked … day after day, and all alone, to see if there was not something among the old things which was new!” wrote the American painter Thomas Cole. Advent is a kind of walking, like an artist, looking for what has not been seen before. As we begin a new liturgical year, we eagerly scan the horizon, looking for the new graces God will send. We walk familiar terrain, hoping to see what is new. And the lesson is that in Advent, there is always something new to see.

I was thinking of Thomas Cole at the start of Advent because during a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., I was able to view one of my favorite series of paintings in the gallery, Cole’s “The Voyage of Life.” In a series of four allegorical paintings, Cole masterfully uses the canvas as a conduit for moral and religious contemplation, a vessel to carry the word of God. In the artist’s pursuit of sharing a deeper message, weaving a narrative transcends the depiction of American scenery.

There, gazing at his masterpiece, it struck me: Cole’s allegory is not just the voyage of life but also the journey of Advent. The liturgical season of Advent beckons us to navigate the mysterious currents of the soul, moving from the innocence of anticipation to the profound fulfillment of the work of our redemption.

The Voyage of Life: Childhood. Thomas Cole | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

From innocence to the trials of life

Our meditation begins in “Childhood,” a stage of innocence and wonder. A golden boat emerges from a mysterious cave, symbolizing our earthly origins. An infant, with joy and naivete, reaches out to the world under the guidance of an angelic figure. The scene bathed in rose light portrays the fertile beauty of the world as we first encounter it. This image resonates with the anticipation and joy of Advent in which we await the arrival of the Christ Child.

The Voyage of Life: Youth. Thomas Cole | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

In the next canvas, “Youth,” the voyager assumes control at the helm, boldly striving toward an aerial castle — a symbol of adolescent ambition for fame and glory. Yet, as Advent unfolds, we, too, must acknowledge the unexpected twists and turns of our spiritual journey. Like the pilgrim in “Youth,” we may be oblivious to the challenges that lie ahead, yet we press on in hope, expecting the coming glory of Christmas.

The Voyage of Life: Manhood. Thomas Cole | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Yet, in “Manhood,” the tempest of nature, the specters of evil, and the whispers of self-doubt assail us. The helm is lost, and we are tossed toward violent rapids and fractured rocks. Cole’s assertion that only divine intervention can save the voyager from a tragic fate resonates with the Advent message of salvation through the coming of Christ. The whole world awaits the coming of a savior because the world cannot save itself.

The Voyage of Life: Old Age. Thomas Cole | Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Finally, as we progress to “Old Age,” we find ourselves at the confluence of the stream of life and the ocean of eternity. Our vessel, weathered and broken, symbolizes the trials and tribulations endured. Nature and corporeal existence are cast aside as the guardian angel, now revealed, directs our gaze toward a soft light emerging from parting clouds — the vision of eternal life. As we approach the culmination of Advent, we, too, fix our gaze on our ultimate destination made possible because of the coming of Christ.

From the innocence of anticipation to the flush of youthful hope, through the trials of repentance and reliance, Cole’s beloved series of paintings guides us through the season of Advent. Advent invites us to navigate the river of life with faith, hope and the assurance that Divine Providence will guide us to encounter once again the living Christ.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."