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Watch Your Step!

May 31, 2012

Did your mother ever tell you not to walk and read at the same time?  Well, that’s where all the trouble starts for poor Christian, hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

It would seem that the poor guy thinks he’s leading a perfectly pleasant life before the story begins.  Sure,  he’s dressed in rags, but he’s got an adorable little white cottage, where he lives with his wife and sons. And although the name of his town–the “City of Destruction”–leaves something to be desired, it nevertheless is a rather snazzy-looking place with its exotic, Vegas-like skyline. And for entertainment, there’s always the nightly golden calf-worshipping spectacle, which seems pretty popular.

But somehow a book–the Book–gets through the City of Destruction censors, and as soon as he opens it up and begins to read he realizes two things: a) that all this time he’s actually been carrying around a gigantic, immensely heavy bundle on his back without knowing it, and b) that the City of Destruction is actually not going to be the best place to live out his golden years, since it’s going to be “burned with a fire from heaven.”  So right from the start, author John Bunyan has set the stage for the central goals of Christian’s journey: he’s got to figure out how to get rid of that burden of sin on his back, and he’s got to get  out of the City of Destruction and into the safe haven of the Celestial City, Bunyan’s metaphor for heaven.

This is a beautiful and disturbing scene by the painters of the panorama.  The figure of Christian, with his burden and his book, head in hand, is closely related to illustrations from earlier editions of the book itself. So viewers of the panorama would have recognized Christian immediately, sensing that the story about to be told was a familiar one. But the strange, dark silhouette of the City of Destruction would have seemed quite unfamiliar. The obelisks, sphynxes, and minarets were unlike anything in mid-19th-century American cities, and their inclusion here is probably a subtle censuring of eastern religious practices. Still, it’s effectively done, with the dark shapes against the glowing sky seeming both forbidding and enticing at the same time. The city’s allure is so powerful that at first one almost doesn’t notice the ritual going on in front of it–crowds of faceless, cultishly-dressed people bowing before a golden idol set in their center. Christian’s nearness to the viewer and the expression in his body and face set him apart from these automatons. Also, the clash of his yellow-orange garment against that purple-blue sky–opposite ends of the color wheel–stresses the idea that Christian is moving away from that sinful place and has become separate.

Unfortunately the same isn’t true for his family–and you can see his wife and one of his sons in front of that sweet little cottage. They’re not in the idol-worshipping horde, but they’re also not yet in Christian’s camp. Their faces are blank and remote, and from his wife’s gesture you can see that she is calling him to return, not to go forward on his pilgrimage, as he clearly must. It’s one of the most troubling scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress, all the more so because it comes right at the beginning of the story.  While his wife and children cry for him not to leave, Christian literally puts his fingers in his ears and runs away, crying “Life, life, eternal life!”

In time, of course, the reader is made to understand the necessity of the journey, and a satisfying resolution comes in Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Christiana ultimately joins her husband in the Celestial City. But this is still a wrenching scene, and the panorama painters stress that by making the cozy home seem like one that must have been difficult, indeed, to leave.  The contrast between the humble, white cottage and the grandiose City of Destruction is pronounced, but the message being delivered is that both are really the same–they are places that are of this world, and Christian’s destination is the next world.  He really has no choice but to leave, though it will be a long and perilous journey.

And doing it all while carrying a burden of sin, reading his book, and plugging his ears won’t make it any easier.

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