Ruins and rebirth | Chicago Institute of the Arts

Always evocative, the ruins as a subject have been explored by writers, poets and artists for centuries.


The remains of past civilizations have a lot in common with natural wonders; they inspire soaring thoughts and depths of feelings. It is no wonder that European artists have been drawn to it for centuries, creating pastoral, symbolic and poetically rich settings for their works.

The characters in these works of art, whether religious figures or ordinary citizens, look at ease, blending into the surroundings as if these ruins are a natural part of the landscape or the least a familiar part of their current world. Sometimes, as in Hubert Robert’s paintings, the structures are so large and the people so insignificant that the ruins appear to have been made by giants.

Robert, who had studied in Rome from 1754 to 1765, was the first French painter of ruins at a time when interest in the practice had reached its peak. Despite this scale, these buildings are in a state of disrepair, a reminder that no matter how great a civilization, the greatness of their creations, they always end up declining and collapsing. As Hubert’s paintings suggest, there is a solemn beauty in a civilization’s return to nature; it is an organic and inevitable process.

Everything vanishes, everything dies, only time lasts.

Denis Diderot, French philosopher and encyclopedist

The ruins play an important role in Christian art, especially in the representation of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus Christ. Whether commissioned by the Catholic Church or by a wealthy family in need of devotional artwork for a private chapel, this sacred event was a popular topic. The image illustrated the biblical story of the holy family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – who were on the road and could only find refuge in a stable or barn, surrounded by domestic animals. The newly arrived baby, often depicted bathed in ethereal light or wearing nothing other than a halo, lies in a manger, a wooden waterer that would otherwise contain food for the cattle.

Nicoletto from Modena

Although the miraculous birth of this child to the Virgin Mary is the true subject of the artwork, artists have often placed this intimate scene amidst dramatic ruins in a fantastic landscape. The ruins provide a symbolic context, signifying the decadence and decline of civilizations preceding the birth of Christianity.

Although realistic, the goal was not verisimilitude. These were painted more than a thousand years after the birth of Jesus and are the product of an artistic and religious tradition that dates back several centuries. The goal was to illustrate, time and again, the birth and triumph of a new religion. So what better setting than inside with the remnants of the civilization that worshiped the older and now pagan gods?

One of these ancient gods features prominently in the museum’s 18th-century nativity scene, a nativity scene that also appears to represent the entire population of Naples. To the right of the Holy Family and the Magi, and protected by the remains of a ruined arch that would be comfortable in any of the works of art above, stands the old god Hercules.


Zoom into the ruined arch in the upper left.

Perhaps demigod is a better word to describe Hercules (originally known as Heracles) as he was born to a mortal mother and the god Zeus (whose behavior towards mortal women might be considered less than divine). This depiction of Hercules is a copy of a copy: it is a replica of a famous Roman version of the Greek statue called Hercules Farnese, who resided in Naples, one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. By the time this manger was created, gods such as Hercules had been relegated to ancient mythology and hero tales. The divine significance of the birth of this new religion is signaled – and celebrated – by the presence of heavenly angels and cherubim.

Unlike the setting in which they appear, these celestial figures are ephemeral presences. They have wings. The arches, walls and towers depicted, whether real or imagined, belong to the earth. In fact, the landscape of the world is rich with such vestiges of the past. They continue to submit to nature and time.

Crumbling is not an instantaneous act …

—Emily Dickinson

When we walk among them, we may watch with wonder and awe or lament that something great has happened. Whether we take care of them or let them fall back to earth, ruins are not just creations of the past. They are living symbols in the evolving human imagination.

—Paul Jones, Associate Director, Communications


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