The Noble Death in Western Visual Art

Part I

by Donald Kuspit

With what sort of terrible things, then, is the brave man concerned? Surely with the greatest; for no one is more likely than he to stand his ground against what is awe-inspiring. Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead. But the brave man would not seem to be concerned even with death in all circumstances, e.g., at sea or in disease. In what circumstances, then? Surely in the noblest. Now such deaths are those in battle; for these take place in the greatest and noblest danger. And these are correspondingly honored in city-states and at the courts of monarchs. Properly, then, he will be called brave who is fearless in face of a noble death. 

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, III, 6:24–331

What a noble thing is the soul ready for its release from the body, if now must be the time, and prepared for whatever follows—extinction, dispersal, or survival! But this readiness must come from a specific decision: not in mere revolt, like theChristians, but thoughtful, dignified, and—if others are to believe it—undramatic.             

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.32


Paolo Uccello, Battle of San Romano, c. 1445, National Gallery, London

If Aristotle is right, if the noblest deaths are those in battle, then it seems that death in modern warfare has become ignoble, in contrast to traditional warfare, where, if we believe its representation in traditional art, it was a noble affair. This was not only because it was a battle between noblemen, as it clearly is in Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c. 1445)—the knights in shining armor, in the version in the National Gallery in London, are led by a monarch holding a white baton and riding a white horse as grand and brave as he is—but because it was a battle between men who had what Thomas Mann called “nobility of spirit.”3 They were not simply noble by birth. The best of them had noble ideals, that is, they were noble not because of their place in society but because they had a noble attitude to life.

They thought that it was possible to be noble despite the fact that, as Marcus Aurelius put it, “every part of life and every object in it” is “disgusting” (8.24), not only the body but society, for people are often at war with each other emotionally—“hate” each other with all their soul. It often leads them to attempt to violently destroy each other body and soul, rather than peacefully come together in “a whole community,” where they would “complement” each other, to everyone’s benefit (11.8). “Men are born for the sake of each other” (8.59), but they rarely realize it.

Nonetheless, for all the “murk and dirt” in life and society, Aurelius believed it was possible to be noble. One had to realize that “nothing will happen to me that is not in accordance with the nature of the Whole” and that “it is in my control to do nothing contrary to my god and the divinity within me—no one can force me to this offense” (5.10). That is, one has to know that one is part of the Whole, and subject to its laws, even as one has to have strength of character or, as Freud would put it, ego strength. It is the paradox of nobility: the realization that one has no control of one’s destiny but can have self-control. One can refuse to betray the sacred in oneself even as it is decreed that the self will perish. One can have dignity and integrity despite the inevitability of death.

“Nature’s aim for everything includes its cessation just as much as its beginning and its duration” (8.20). “Not all are attuned to each other, or even an individual to himself” (8.21). But by accepting Nature’s aim, which is to attune to it as a Whole, one becomes aware of one’s own Nature, and the Nature in others, and thus becomes Whole, and accepts one’s place in the social Whole. To be noble is to know the Whole and with that oneself and others—to realize that the self is a microcosmic reflection of macrocosmic Nature, and must reconcile itself to its natural fate and its social place.

For Aurelius, one begins to attune to others when one realizes that they have the same fate as one does. We are all subject to the same laws of nature: we are all born, we all live for some period of time, and we all die. It is reasonable to think this, for it is the logic of nature. To be reasonable is to begin to be noble; the end of nobility is to give no offense to the divinity within one. Many do offend it—  act contrary to it, betray it, ignore its advice and wisdom— while a few heed and obey it. While we are all more alike than different, creatures of nature, Aurelius realized that we have different characters, that is, respond differently to the divinity within us. And because we have different characters we believe we are naturally different—for Aurelius, an irrational illusion, that is, contrary to Nature, and the cause of much warfare, as though arguing that our character was superior to the enemy’s character, stubbornly privileging our difference, defending it to the death. As Aurelius realized, every victory is inevitably Pyrrhic: “life is warfare’’ (17.1)—constant warfare. “There is great need for the common good” (3.3) and “the kinship of all rational beings” (3.4), those who serve “the rational and social good” (3.6), but the need is rarely satisfied. He tried to satisfy it by rulingRomerationally, but he was also a warrior. He thought our common nature should lead us to make common cause, but he realized that only rational beings—noble human beings— do, which is why irrational, ignoble war is commonplace.  

 Clearly, the opposing warriors in Uccello’s painting are not attuned to each other, however much the central heroic figure—the leader of one side— seems to be attuned to or at one with himself, implying that he has nobility of spirit. That is, he is “high-minded” and also “high-spirited”—his high-spirited horse suggests as much— in contrast to the warriors who blindly follow him into battle, as their masks suggest. Their masks also suggest that they are too “low-minded,” too dumb, to understand why they must do battle. They are oddly passive, compared to him. They are simply doing their duty. It is striking that the leader on the white horse—its rearing forelegs are higher than those of the horse opposite it (its mirror image, except that it is shadowy rather than luminous), as though heralding his victory— wears no battle mask, unlike the other warriors, including the opposing leader doing battle with a warrior on a black horse. The maskless—seemingly defenseless— leader is, in effect, face to face with his own death: he sees it with open eyes, with nothing between him and it. Is he foolhardy? He is certainly brave, even fearless—for some, that is to be foolhardy (if caution is the better part of valor).

The other warriors are also fearless, as their rush to do battle suggests. But I am suggesting that his fearlessness has a different quality: he is conscious of the situation and its existential risks—he doesn’t need to hide from it behind a mask— while they have muted their consciousness of it, by masking their faces. They are prepared to die, but they will die in ignorance and darkness, as it were. The leader has “seen the light”—it shines clearly on his face—which is why he is the leader. He has reason on his side, as well as force; the other warriors have only brute power. He has the self-possession that comes with self-knowledge—knowledge of his place and the place of death in the Whole scheme of things—while they are completely possessed by war. He is taking a reasonable risk—risking all, but he hopes for good reason—while they risk all without knowing the larger reason why. They are pure, irrational violence; he is violence tempered by reasoning, by insight into the logic of war, grounded on the cosmic logic symbolized by the chessboard pattern. Irrational war takes place on it, confirming that war has a certain logic, as the orderly straight lines in which the opposing forces rationally move suggest.

If the chessboard of truncated orthogonals on which the opposing warriors confront each other represents this cosmic scheme, then its logic is decreed by fate, and as such is fixed forever, along with the logic of war. Even the ruler must follow the rules of the war game. It has been said that Uccello’s warriors resemble chess pieces; chess is a game of war. War is a game of fate, with a foreordained outcome: death. One side wins, one side loses, but both are defeated by death. For Aurelius, war ends in peace, sooner or later. But always, as Velázquez’s Surrender at Breda (1634–35) shows, once one side or the other wins, there is no reason to make war. Even if Velázquez’s is only the peace of a truce, it signals the return to reason and goodness, however temporary. It is always reasonable to end war, or any fight to the death, for it always saves lives. It restores the social contract—the best of all consequences for the community-minded emperor. Peace is the paradoxical triumph of the “rational and social good” over the irrational and social bad. With peace comes the realization that without reason there is no good life, and that irrationality always leads to war and death. But, of course, peace does not last long, for men are not consistently reasonable, as Aurelius recognized. Irrationality is pervasive, as he says in his Meditations; reason can never be taken for granted. He hopes men will be reasonable, but he never expects them to be. As he learned from experience, they are always ready to make war. He had to be a warrior, but he was a reasonable warrior, for he made war for the sake of peace.

Except for their clear-eyed leader, Uccello’s warriors are blind to fate, even though they follow its rules, moving straight towards their death—an unwittingly noble sacrifice, for whether they know it or not, the sooner they die the sooner there will be peace. (And they will be at peace.) They obey the rules of war, symbolized by the ruled lines of the chessboard grid—the infinite geometrical cosmos brought down to earth in a finite perspective construction as orderly and peaceful as it is—on which they stand. Their deaths are symbolized by their lances. They play by the cosmic rules of the perspective game, giving their war a transpersonal foundation they intuitively understand, as their rational arrangement in military formation implies. They move with the inevitability of fate, showing that war is fated, the way death is fated, and, paradoxically, peace. Aurelius made war to preserve the Pax Romana, not because he enjoyed violence. The Pax Romana brought reason and good to the world he ruled; maintaining it was a noble reason to make war. The melancholy—the sense of tragedy—that permeates the Meditations suggests its effect on him. 

Comparing Uccello’s Battle of San Romano with Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814) and The Disasters of War (1810), along with Otto Dix’s The Trench (1920–23), War etchings (1924), War (1932) and Flanders (1934–36), which are to me even more horrific than Goya’s scenes, it becomes clear that the nobility has gone out of war. It is the insane Hobbesian war of all against all, rather than the paradoxically sane war made to preserve world peace. They show human beings at their most offensive and destructive, which is why they offend and provoke us, however undoubtedly artistically original they are. Their stark realism is unprecedented, just as modern total war is unprecedented. The war zone is a desolate wasteland in Dix’s images and a sadistic torture chamber in Goya’s images. Suffering is rampant in their works; they are irrationally composed, confirming the irrationality of war. They betray the divinity that Aurelius thought existed within every human being. The god in man is not so much dead, to play on Nietzsche’s remark, as it has abandoned his body, leaving it to rot. The point is made clear by comparing the heroic bodies of the naked warriors in Leonardo’s Battle Studies (c. 1503) and in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina (1504–06)—they carry their nobility in their rationally constructed, well-proportioned bodies, their inherent dignity suggestive of the classical ideal of a sound mind in a sound body— with the collapsed, decaying, ugly bodies in Goya and Dix. Lacking a noble purpose, war has become futile and death has become meaningless, even as it has become triumphant, all-powerful.

The point is unwittingly made by Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (1849). There is no dead body to be seen; presumably, it is already in the grave, which is the real subject of the picture.  Later, in Dix’s A Beautiful Grave (1916), it is the only subject; the work is an ironical drawing of a little grave, marked by a little cross, at the bottom of a deep crater, implicitly an abyss, made by a bomb. The cross, symbolizing the presence of God, that looms over the grim scene looks out of place and small, not to say trivial, compared to the grave. The cross is a nominal presence, a conventional relic of tradition. It has lost its mystery, unlike the grave. The men of God who carry it are at odds with the citizens of Ornans—they stand on opposite sides of the picture— who have lost one of their own. Class conflict—a fight to the social death, in repudiation of the social contract that binds all in a common community, whatever their differences—is the implicit subject of the painting.

The high priest, reading from his Bible and standing upright, and the secular figure next to him, respectfully kneeling as social convention decrees, but gazing fiercely, even defiantly, at the priest, make the point decisively. He is proud, however much he humbles himself before the priest. The priest is lost in his book, a symbol of an institution, while the kneeling figure is an individual mourning a loss. He is kneeling over the grave, as though about to look into it, as well as before the priest, whom he looks at directly. The priest is unconscious of the kneeling figure—he’s just one more worshipper, whether a true believer or not (all that matters to the priest is that he humbles himself by kneeling, acknowledging the power of the Church over him, whatever he is thinking). In contrast, the kneeling figure turns his full attention to the priest, as though penetrating him with his consciousness. The priest plays a role; the kneeling figure, while also playing a socially prescribed role, challenges it with his consciousness. It is as though he is about to stand upright and rebelliously confront the priest. It is as though he is the leader of an uprising. They are two extraordinarily realistic presences, each vital in his own way, with the absence that the grave implies between them.

War is ready to break out between the priests—a spiritual aristocracy because they represent a higher power, signified by the fact that their black robes are trimmed with white (sometimes all white, as though confirming that they have seen the light; sometimes all red, as though dyed in the blood of the lamb)—and the mourners, wearing black clothing, in homage to death, and in acknowledgment that they too will die. The pious priests and the common people are implicitly at war, and the open grave is waiting for both of them.          

On the one side, the plain folk of Ornans form a sort of commune. Recall that Courbet was a social revolutionary and that the Burial at Ornans was painted one year after the unsuccessful 1848 Revolution, which led Marx to write the Communist Manifesto and gave birth to the Communist Party, in response to the slaughter in the Paris Commune. On the other side are the representatives of the Church, which supported the State that put down the revolution, and was as authoritarian as it was. Courbet’s People are at war with the Church and State. The question is who will fall into the grave first. Perhaps both will fall to their deaths at the same time, their war giving them a certain unity of purpose.

Delacroix shows us Liberty Leading the People (1830), with dead bodies at her feet—ordinary citizens who died for a higher social cause. The cause may be noble, but they are not noble in death—certainly not noble the way the Fallen Warrior (c. 490 b.c.e.) is. His noble body conveys his nobility, his awareness of his place in the Whole, and thus his fate, as well as his self-control while confronting it in battle. Man is the measure of the cosmos, which is why his body has cosmic import, the cosmic import Leonardo spelled out in his image of a naked man in a square within a circle. His arms reach to the limits of the geometrical cosmos; he fits into it. His body is proof of its logic: it has a geometrical soul. From Leonardo to Dürer, Renaissance artists studied the eternal geometry in the mortal body while doing its flesh observational justice. To be noble is to be geometrically well-formed, however vulnerable to sickness and death. The well-formed body of Leonardo’s naked man suggests his ego strength: informed by the eternal, he has no fear of the contingent—of such circumstantial events as war.

The Fallen Warrior was part of a disciplined army, and his body reflects his military training, which includes mental training: learning self-control in the face of danger, learning to never panic, whatever the odds against one, learning to stay in formation, however threatened one feels—understanding that it is the community of warriors that will win the battle, not any individual warrior, however brave and strong he may be. The ancient warrior has fallen, but it is not clear that the war has been lost. He accepts death even as he resists it; he has not completely fallen. He is partially upright, suggesting that he maintains his dignity even in death. He knows that it is part of the inescapable logic of the cosmos. His death is as orderly as the cosmos. In contrast, Delacroix’s People are a motley, disorganized crew, which is not to deny them their higher social purpose, but to suggest that they lack the discipline and self-control—and strategy— necessary to achieve victory. They are a ragtag army, even an uncontrolled crowd, rather than a disciplined military machine. They are fearless, but their fearlessness is foolhardy; they take unnecessary risks. They fight as individuals, not as an army. Perhaps that is why they were defeated.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading People, 1830, Louvre, Paris

They rush headlong to their death without understanding their place in the Whole. The half-naked Liberty, however much a symbol, suggests their vulnerability and defenselessness. She is an easy target, and so are they. Their deaths cannot be noble; they are circumstantial rather than fated, casual rather than “deliberate.” They died because of the situation in which they found themselves, not because they were ready to die in a situation they chose to be in. The People are not warriors bravely facing death in glorious battle, but killed by chance in a society that has fallen apart. The world has gone mad, and they are part of the madness.

Their deaths are illogical, as it were, in contrast to the deaths of the fallen warriors in Uccello’s battle scene. Delacroix’s People do not die in vain—their deaths are not entirely meaningless, for the Libertythey died for gives them meaning, but they are incompletely meaningful. Laocoön’s death, as depicted in a Hellenistic sculpture (early first century b.c.e), was meaningful because he understood fate. He could read the future, the prerogative of the gods, who killed him in revenge and anger. The People who died for Libertywere killed by a despotic system that didn’t want them to be free of its control. They broke free of the old oppressive system of government in uncontrolled revolution, but their revolution could only succeed if they came up with a liberal new system of government: their “unsystematic” behavior in Delacroix’s painting suggests (no doubt unwittingly) that they had none to offer. They wanted a new social contract, but every social contract involves social controls. Anarchy reigns in Delacroix’s picture, suggesting that the revolution is out of control. Is mob rule in the offing? But it seems that Delacroix, with his usual interest in explosive, Romantic moments, has found another one. It was the drama that mattered to him, not the sociopolitical problems the revolution creates, although it is hard to imagine he was unaware of them. It is the same anarchistic, death-driven scene that we see in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus (1826), only in a different setting.

One might say that Laocoön fulfilled his fate in his death throes and thus died nobly, as his heroic body confirms, while the People did not find Liberty in death and thus died miserably—not heroically suffering but stopped dead by a chance bullet—as their anonymous bodies, randomly tossed together (in effect in a mass grave), confirm. They are part of the “murk and dirt” of war, rather than cosmically consequential. The Laocoön, the Fallen Warrior and the Dying Gaul (c. 240 b.c.e.) all depict those who heroically resist death, rather than instantly succumb to it. The upper half of the warrior’s and the Gaul’s bodies is raised off the ground, suggesting their will to live, while the lower half of their bodies is flat on the ground, suggesting that they are half-dead. In contrast, the bodies in Delacroix’s pictures are completely dead—leveled by death, as the two foreground figures show. They are realistically banal, while the bodies of Laocoön, the Fallen Warrior and the Dying Gaul are idealized into nobility. The Triumph of Liberty is a Triumph of Death, while the ancient death scenes show the Triumph of Nobility over Death.

The difference between a traditional, noble death and a modern, ignoble death is epitomized by the difference between David’s Death of Socrates (1787) and his Death of Marat (1793). Marat’s death was circumstantial and political—a leading Jacobin, he was murdered by Charlotte Corday, a supporter of the opposing Girondists. He was surprised by Corday while sitting in his bathtub, where he often worked while seeking relief from a skin disease. In other words, he died by chance. He was a helpless victim of chance, like the dead citizens in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. He was a victim of war, as they were. He was knifed to death, they were shot to death. It was not the noblest way to die; both look undignified in death. In both cases, death came quickly, suggesting that it, not revolution orLiberty, is the real subject of the paintings. It is not clear whereLiberty is leading, but the dead are very clear. The revolution has just begun, but it has already ended for many.

Marat did not expect to die, and was not prepared to die, unlike Socrates. Philosophical to the end, Socrates was surrounded by his disciples, while Marat died alone and, it seems, friendless. As his body suggests, Socrates was mentally as well as physically vigorous to the end—let us recall that he was a warrior as well as philosopher, like Marcus Aurelius. Marat’s body is sickly and frail, suggesting that there was something unhealthy about his revolutionary ideas, or at least with what Robert Rosenblum called his “obsessive commitment” to them. Socrates’ arm is raised in discourse, as though emphasizing the conviction with which he speaks to his disciples. He was condemned to death by the community in which he lived, and could have chosen exile instead of death, but he deliberately chose death, as though to show that he meant what he said, and out of respect for the community, however much it may not have done him justice. Socrates was not afraid of death; he understood its cosmic place and inevitability. He died with his wits intact, drinking the hemlock in full consciousness of its fatal effect. He was dignified—upright and draped—to the end, while the naked Marat looks vulnerable, and died without dignity. Marat had no consciousness of death; he just suddenly died—not of his own free will but because he was caught up in a situation out of his control. It is not clear that he died for a higher cause; he died because he belonged to the wrong party, at least from Corday’s point of view. Socrates is completely in control of himself, and died for the higher cause of philosophy—for the love of knowledge, not for any partisan political cause. Marat had a “position,” which he maintained with tyrannical fury; Socrates had no “position,” only a questioning mind. His death was the death of a noble mind, not of an ideologue.

The State criticized Socrates’ ideas and condemned him to death for them, but they have outlived the State he lived in, and their importance is universally recognized. The nobility with which he faced death confirmed that he was a great human being, which is the way David shows him. Marat has become a symbol of the radical politics of the Jacobins, who instituted the Reign of Terror, showing the inhumanity revolution can lead to, which seems reason enough for Corday to have murdered him. David wanted to show him as a martyr, but he looks pathetic rather than great, futile rather than firm, unconvincing rather than charged with conviction.

In Part II of this essay, we will explore why there are no images of noble death in modern art.


1. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, ed. and trans., Ingram Bywater, 1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).

2. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, ed. and trans., Martin Hammond (New York: Penguin, 2006).

3. Quoted in Rob Riemen, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008) p. 26.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3