At first glance, it appears to be a poetic vision. The full moon hovers over a tranquil bay. We are standing on a rugged coastline, surrounded by romantic ruins. A lone pillar enveloped in ivy marks perhaps the ideal site for a nightly rendezvous of furtive lovers.
It is, however, a dystopia—the fifth of a quintet of paintings by the British-American artist Thomas Cole (1801–48), which expresses the idea of cyclical history, linked to times of the day and weather patterns. The first work in the series shows mist evaporating from the mountainsides around the bay at sunrise, unveiling a society of hunter-gatherers not unlike some of the Native Americans still roaming the North-American plains and forests in freedom at the time the painting was made. In the second painting, a Stonehenge-like complex has been raised by the water, the focal point of a pastoral society in mid-morning. The third canvas reveals high-noon in a glorious empire—a superlative version of ancient Rome with a triumphal parade crossing a monumental bridge amidst countless temples and fora. Disaster strikes in the fourth painting, where violent climate change and hostile invasion combine to wreck the grandeur. Our work, the fifth and last, depicts merely what remains after the population has been extinguished.
Cole painted the series as a warning for an American empire that was still nascent, with the 25th State (Arkansas) joining the Union in the year the series was completed. It is a secularized prophecy, separated from the biblical notion of the end of days evoked in Daniel 7. Yet, at a time when modern Americans, and indeed everyone in the Western world might wonder at which hour of Cole’s day we find ourselves (at bright noon or on the brink of the tea-time collapse?), its message is no less potent than when voiced by the prophet.
Atack, Carol. 2018. ‘The Art of Historical Development: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire’, www.anachronismandantiquity.wordpress.com
7In the first year of Belshazʹzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, and told the sum of the matter. 2Daniel said, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 3And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. 5And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ 6After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. 8I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots; and behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.
15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me, and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever.’
19 “Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrible, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze; and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet; 20and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn which came up and before which three of them fell, the horn which had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and which seemed greater than its fellows. 21As I looked, this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed over them, 22until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the kingdom.
23 “Thus he said: ‘As for the fourth beast,
there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth,
which shall be different from all the kingdoms,
and it shall devour the whole earth,
and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
24As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom
ten kings shall arise,
and another shall arise after them;
he shall be different from the former ones,
and shall put down three kings.
25He shall speak words against the Most High,
and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, two times, and half a time.
26But the court shall sit in judgment,
and his dominion shall be taken away,
to be consumed and destroyed to the end.
27And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’
28 “Here is the end of the matter. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed; but I kept the matter in my mind.”