We know by his sword and a glimpse of grey steel armour that this is a knight who is being borne heavenward. His dark shroud billows around his bier, which is carried by four of the heavenly host. All around are soft cumulus lit by the rosy light of an evening sun, and the whole mood of the painting suggests that this is a noble hero going to his rest.
How did this knight die? We cannot know, although we might presume that death came in battle, or as the unexpected climax of some adventure or undertaking. Our imagination might reach to the idea of a betrayal, or even an unexpected but peaceful death whose cause lay far from the field of battle. But the knight died, and his deeds in life have assured him a place among fallen heroes.
But who are these heroes? In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, the events in the village of the novel’s title weave and swirl around a character whose deeds of common humanity go largely unnoticed by her fellow villagers, but whose mere presence among them constitutes a state of grace. Her simple existence represents something ineffable, something beyond the worldly, as she moves through the distractions of the everyday chatter and gossip around her. Our own humanity recognises this character as a good person. The author gives her readers the space to draw their own conclusion about this character: that in her own way this pure soul is also a heroine, although her own deeds are far distant from, and more subtle than, the more obvious heroic gestures of our knight.
What we respond to, what we recognise, is a sense of ‘doing the right thing’. Many who do good work, or perform some selfless act to help others, are noticed and acknowledged for their actions by those others. Perhaps such recognition might even happen through mere chance: that their actions were witnessed by the media, or for some other reason of circumstances. But we also realise that for every individual who might receive recognition – perhaps even a civic award – there are many more who remain unsung, never receiving acknowledgment for their selfless humanity.
We might wish to think that their reward lies along the way to heaven. But this is a matter of belief, not certainty, and death remains an unknown, even for those who might believe passionately in an afterlife. It is here while we live that we must seek to find that state of grace, whatever our personal beliefs or non-beliefs might be. To move through the world in grace, neither looking to right nor left, with all their distractions along the way, is the way to heaven, whether such a way ultimately exists or not.
Painting: Avatar, by Henry John Lintott, 1916.