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The Tempest of a Crumbling Empire: ‘Destruction’

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During the 18th century, empires and its ruins were known for being displayed through mediums of arts such as paintings, which contributed to our understanding and interpretation of the stages of an empire, at its high and its low. A recurring and popular depiction of ruins often seen in such historical art shows an empire at the brink of its collapse. Thomas Cole illustrated his own version of such through his painting Destruction, a prime example of how chaos due to nature and the immoral actions of mankind lead to an empire’s fall.

In Cole’s series of paintings known as The Course of Empire, Cole introduced a cyclical perspective of history in which a civilization appears, matures, and collapses. In particular, Destruction embodies the fourth stage of what Cole interprets to be representative of an empire: the demolition of a once magnificent civilization caused by the brutal bloodshed between battling armies and the erratic forces of nature, which include ominous clouds, a storm-cursed sea, and violent flames. At first blush, the most obvious detail is, of course, the destruction of the city, amidst the brewing tempest striking out in the distance. It appears that a convoy of soldiers has taken control of the city’s defenses, and has sailed to the port of the city, as their ships, though in the process of sinking, make an appearance in the illustration. The depiction of these sinking ships could very well be ships that sailed to the city as a vehicle of transportation for trade at the time, as empires thrived off of commerce at the time. The nature in which these ships are shown suggest that these ships that once fostered prosperous trade and exploration now perish and sink in the turmoil of war.

Adjacent to the ships stands a woman who appears to be running away from a soldier who is grasping her clothes in what seems to be an attempt to capture her. Depending on one’s interpretation, it may look as if she is committing suicide or being pushed over the edge by her pursuer and into the ocean. This serves as an indication of the collapse of civilization into sexual abuse, which further supports the notion that immoral acts lead to chaos. It is notable to observe that amidst the faceless and unknown swarms of warriors blanketed by a smoky, dark-filled sky, this woman in white is strikingly different from the others, and stands out as an individual.

One of the most outstanding details of the painting is the irate statue on the right, armed with a massive iron shield. This faceless, headless statue appears to be trekking into battle as the precursor of the war occurring below it, but also ironically striding towards a murky future, as observable through the scenes of the image. If one were to observe the painting in greater depth, though, we can see that there are peasants at the foot of the structure that seem to be almost begging with this statue. They are crouched on their knees and looking towards the statue as if it would protect them from the sinister destruction occurring around them, so long as they worship the object. It is quite ironic that the said people would plead to the statue for a sense of security, as their fate is sealed by the multitude of disasters, including nature itself, happening before their eyes.

Just like how no individual is capable of escaping the cycle of life, Destruction implies that there ceases to exist a civilization that escapes the judgment and facts of what ultimately becomes of an empire, especially one that foregoes democracy and peace for the sake of power. Like depicted in this picture, merciless slaughter and the blood of the fallen taint the streets that were once meant for people to walk freely on, and the temples and grand mansions that were the peaks of its time soon disintegrated into nothingness. The biggest indicator of the fall of Cole’s “empire”, arguably, is the fact that the dead corpses in the image lie where they were killed, in fountains and on top of monuments built to celebrate the affluence and prosperity of the now fallen civilization.  

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