The “white-bronze” Miller monument of 1887 in the West Pittston Cemetery, Pennsylvania, is mostly nondescript and needn’t be given a full treatment here: I’ll cut to the chase and show you its one stand-out relief panel.
A wasps’ nest obscures a part of the panel, but everything important can be made out nevertheless. This is not sophisticated theology, of course, but rather the embodiment of sentiment, cliché, and perhaps an awareness of Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life series of paintings: this looks like the sequel to the Old Age canvas.
The aged voyager sits in his now-broken boat (figure 2) which has lost its prow and stern. The Miller panel’s artist, if he had Cole’s works in mind, elected not to show the boat symbolically reflecting the effects of time and age. It’s more fitting, therefore, to compare the Miller panel’s boat with the boat in earlier parts of Cole’s series, such as Childhood (figure 3).
An angel guides the boat in both images. Cole’s angel holds to the boat by a rope (or just maybe a rope-form tiller), whereas the Miller angel holds the sail, which is attached by a sheet to the stern. Cole’s hull is far more ornate than the Miller one; yet even so, the Miller artist has attempted to give it ornamentation. The Miller boat has both prow and stern formed from vine-like organic forms that owe their shapes to the acanthus ‘vines’ of classical art. Cole’s prow features an hourglass held high: time is the measure of life, and it is allotted where what is allotted must be. By contrast, time is no longer of essence in the Miller relief, and there is instead a light, presumably of Miller’s faith, that illuminates the boat’s path on its final voyage through the dark. Cross on the sail and diminutive Star of David seem to me to symbolize the Bible, the guarantor of the voyage. Is it possible that the Miller angel is meant to be seen as the (now youthful-looking) soul of the deceased? The hair and nose are somewhat similar.
Could the Miller artist have seen Cole’s paintings? Certainly the paintings were in existence in two versions, one now in the National Gallery and one in Utica, New York, in 1887: they’d been painted in 1842. More to the point, however, the images were widely known because of James Smillie’s engravings of them in 1855. The Miller monument is a run-of-the-mill product of the Monumental Bronze Company in New Haven, Connecticut, which started turning out its wares in 1874.
The idea of a ‘Voyage of Life’ is a cliché. It is pre-Christian and involves funerary imagery of things like lighthouses in ancient Rome. But how shall we choose to envision the voyage of life? That is an open question, and when a talented artist came up with a catchy and original way of depicting the cliché, like a meme, that new image had a life of its own and the power to influence artists that followed. So, while the Miller artist has, perhaps because of his unexpressive medium, not slavishly followed Cole, I nevertheless think that the artist had seen Cole’s paintings or more probably Smillie’s engravings, and they influenced his choices in creating his own image.
What else? Only that the deceased has been rendered in a form that is transposed from, and reminds us of, the death-bed. The Miller artist predates Hollywood by many decades, but his image does put me in mind of the very successful Hollywood meme of the Viking funeral.