(Art) The Old Gods

There’s a trend in contemporary fantastic art so pervasive that I feel it needs it’s own genre: the casual hierophany, or passing encounter with a god.

A hierophany is a manifestation of the divine other. The name implies more than a mere appearance or vision. A hierophany is an eruption of the divine in our world that brings both awe and terror.

In classic art and literature, hierophanies were often conversions, an appearance of the divine intended to bring about a change in man. The classic case is the Biblical story of Saul on the road to Damascus, painted many times but most famously by Caravaggio in 1600.


Caravaggio’s manipulation of light and shadow makes this a masterpiece. The divine force which knocks Saul from his horse and blinds him is not depicted in the painting, but seems to pervade it nonetheless.

And yet, the focus is clearly on the man, both in the composition and in the story. Saul fills the painting from side to side. Not only is God absent, His only reason for “appearing” is Saul, whose outstretched arms catch the divine light as well as the viewer’s gaze like a funnel, focusing them on him, on his face and breast. (The stooped gaze of both attendant and mount do the same.)

This preoccupation with ourselves continued even into less explicitly religious eras. Take Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” one of the defining works of the Romantic movement.

Caspar David Friedrich - wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Once again, man is the focus of the image, which was nominally supposed to be about nature. The standing figure is the largest element of the composition save for the precipice and the sky, whose slopes focus our attention back on the human being at the very center of everything. Even as our eye wanders, we are constantly brought back to the man, who stands noble above it all almost as if in command of the world (which is the reason this image was used for the cover of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra).

Now compare those two images with the infamous cover of the classic D&D box set, with art by Larry Elmore.

Elmore orange Dragon

Once again, the human figure is in the foreground and stands in sharpest relief. The dragon, although larger, blends into the wall and treasure. In the very center is the shield and glowing sword, whose stroke we can almost see moving. In conjunction with the brilliant use of white space (which creates a 3D-like effect, where the dragon practically reaches out from the box to embrace you), the weapons serve as a promise: inside lies adventure. We are invited to identify with the faceless barbarian, whose features are completely obscured. “He” could be anyone, even — conceivably — a woman.

This image, besides being wonderful fun, is an utterly brilliant bit of marketing. It’s also the archetypal fantasy art, replicated many times over. There may be a basilisk instead of a dragon, a mage instead of a warrior, or perhaps even multiple figures battling multiple foes, but the fundamental themes are set. The magical Other is larger than life, but its attention — as with God in the Caravaggio — is on the players, who are human (even if the literal representation is of, say, elves or dwarves). The humans are the true focus of the action, the symbolic center.

And there is quite a lot of action. Those humans are not passive recipients of grace nor stoic observers of nature but are in active resistance against the Other, which has come to devour them. As players, we both are and make the world.

Now, contrast that image with this one by Bjarke Pedersen.


Or these of encounters with dragons by Mateusz Lenart and others. (Click for larger image.)

Or even this.


This morning, I collected nearly 80 images like this, all with the same fundamental features, and yet, I only seemed to scratch the surface. Indeed, I had to force myself to stop looking because it seemed as if there were no end to this kind of thing!

Not all were explicitly fantastic. Some, for example, were whimsical.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to fantastic art, although it clearly flourishes there. The work below is by fine artist Dawid Planeta, who has a whole series like this:

Dawid Planeta

The significant features, as I’m sure you can tell, are fundamentally identical to each other and different from what’s come before. First and foremost, the human figures are very small. They still occupy the foreground and may often be “centered,” but they are tiny. They are not the focus. The god is the focus — or rather the encounter itself, which is nuanced rather than combative.

Even more important than their change in relative size, however, is how the people in these images are no longer active. They are typically standing in silence or otherwise going about their day. Occasionally, a weapon is drawn, but it seems fundamentally defensive. And also somewhat useless. There is no sense, as with the Elmore painting, that we could do the god any harm. Nor is it clear the god, dragon, monster, alien, or robot has any interest in the puny mortals before it.



In the image below, the summoned god doesn’t even seem to care about the sacrifice its supplicants have prepared for it. Whatever it’s after, it’s indifferent to our pleas.


That’s not to suggest these beings are harmless. Indeed, they could wipe us away with the swoosh of their pant leg. Rather, it’s that we are no longer the raiders of their treasure. We are not their foes, nor are they the object of our worship. They are, if anything, mere novelties whose movements have no real effect on our lives, save for accidental catastrophe.


To be clear: for an image to qualify in the genre, I propose three essential features. First, it must depict an encounter. In other words, humans (or humanlike entities) must be present, otherwise it’s just a picture of a big monster.

Second, the god or monster or demon or whatever must be epic in scale and not, for example, an orc warily passing a man on a mountain road.

Third, the encounter between the two must be more or less incidental. It needs to depict a fundamental disconnect between the participants. These are not images of worship, where people supplicate themselves before the deity. These are not images of attack, such as Godzilla destroying Tokyo. There can be (and often is) a sense of awe or terror, but there doesn’t have to be. The encounter must be unexpected and both parties must remain fundamentally unchanged by it.

The last point is tricky, for as I indicated, the god may sweep us aside, may step on our buildings, may burn us all to a cinder, but if so, it is in pursuit of some other aim. That is, mankind is not the focus of its rage, as in eras past. Indeed, the god may already be dead.


But if so, the observer is not devastated by the discovery, nor is the god revived by his prayers.

The examples are legion and expand almost infinitely to include symbolic “gods,” such as in this now famous work by Yuri Schwedoff:


Or this work by Beeple:


–where the “gods” are alien, are our creations, or are ourselves as we used to be (our lost potency).

Examples abound. Note in all of the images below the three fundamental features: the tiny, passive figures; the towering elemental force; the relative indifference between the two.

As I mentioned, at some point I simply had to stop collecting for it seemed there was no end to this kind of thing, which of course raises the question: Why?

Do we no longer fear nature? Do we not care whether it is living or dead? Do we not fear the past or the future? Do we not fear anything? Do we not feel anything? Has the world itself become a mere novelty? Do we no longer crave salvation?

I suspect the rise of this genre speaks to our unconscious awareness that the world has shifted since the end of the Cold War. We are surrounded by powerful forces. We know this. In fact, we are aware as never before: climate change, the economy, global mobs on Facebook and Twitter, celebrities and mavens, history itself.

Unlike God, who is a mystery, we know (or have a good idea) from whence they came. They are dissected every day into living parts–interest rates, mean GDP, average surface temp, trending hashtags, box office receipts. They are measured and plotted and projected to the future. They are awesome, powerful, they can sweep us away. But there is no mystery.

And they can die. Old gods are killed and replaced by new gods, and none of them care about us. They are indifferent entirely, as we are to them. Comfortably ensconced in our material well-being, we do not (except rarely) feel threatened by their movements.

That’s not to say we don’t wish for more. We simply no longer worship at the feet of these beings. Because they are measured and known, because there is no mystery, because they don’t care about us, we know it to be as useless as bargaining with the weather. It will do what it will.