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The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting of a lesser underworld deity by a lesser Spanish master.  In the Greek pantheon, Charon was the ferryman of the dead– he carried departed spirits across the river Styx a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Charon was a self-interested deity who acted only for money (which, in retrospect, makes him one of the more comprehensible Greek deities from a contemporary American perspective).  If a dead Greek person was properly buried/burned, he/she had a small coin for Charon to pole him/her across the dark river to the grim underworld.  If, however, souls died alone or nameless and were not given a funeral, they then had no way to pay the ferryman and were forced to wander for centuries o millennia at the border of death’s realm.  There is no mention of what Charon did with all of his spirit wealth: he certainly seems unhappy, unkempt, and ill-groomed in this painting.  Maybe he hoarded it all or invested it in unwise joint-stock schemes (or had some other perverse vice which we never heard about). José Benlliure y Gil has certainly done a splendid job at portraying the greedy gaunt boatman and his deceased charges.  Perhaps the painting has a particular strength because the First World War and the Spanish flu were such recent memories when the work was finished.  I especially like the dark owl perched on the despairing spirit in the little boat’s stern and the phantasmagoric figures swirling within the stygian haze.

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