Study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage by Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole

Study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage, 1846–48, Oil on canvas, Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Witchita State University ; Gift of Sam and Rie Bloomfield, 1954.1.2, Photo courtesy of the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art

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The Cross and the World

Commentary by
Read by Jennifer Sliwka

I chose you out of the world. (John 15:19)

In John 15, Jesus presents a stark contrast between the way of following him and the way of the ‘world’. That contrast has been allegorized in this painting.

Thomas Cole (1801–48) was an English-born American painter, who is particularly known for his landscape art. Originally born in Lancashire in northwest England, Cole emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. There, he developed his artistic skill and discovered the beauty of the Catskill Mountains in New York, where he would make his home and studio at Cedar Grove. Cole is generally recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School, a nineteenth-century artistic movement that reflected a Romantic vision of the American landscape and was concerned about the spread of industrial growth.

Cole completed several series of paintings, including The Course of Empire (1833–36), which depicts the rise and fall of an imagined city, and The Voyage of Life (1842), which allegorizes four stages of human life. In 1846, he began another series of paintings that were to be called The Cross and the World, which follows two people on opposing life journeys. Unfortunately, Cole died before completing this series, though several studies have survived.

In the study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage, Cole depicted the beginning of the respective journeys against the backdrop of a vast landscape. An evangelist stands between the two youths. They have to make a choice—provoked by the evangelist’s challenge to them, just as the hearers of Jesus’s original message were provoked by his words. Like these youths, those first listeners also came to a parting of the ways. They could no longer be neutral: ‘If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.’ (v.22).

In Cole’s painting, one of the young men takes the path of the world, which appears beautiful and easy. Encouraged by the evangelist, the other youth takes the path to the cross, which looks difficult and dangerous. However, as we know from other studies by Cole for the series, by the end of their journeys, the pilgrim of the world will find only a barren wasteland, while the pilgrim of the cross will find a glorious light and eternal salvation.



Millhouse, Barbara Babcock. 2007. American Wilderness: The Story of the Hudson River School of Painting (New York: Black Dome Press Corp.)

Truettner, William H. and Alan Wallach (eds.). 1994. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History (New Haven: Yale University Press)

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