LECTURE RECAP: University Forum: Portraiture and Fear of Death 


Professor Cynthia Freeland, a philosophy professor and Honors College fellow at the University of Houston, gave a talk on Thursday called “Portraiture and the Fear of Death,” as part of the University Forum Lecture Series.

Freeland discussed the ways dead icons and religious figures are portrayed in art. She went over key differences in the imagery of death and the dead in different cultures.

She said that in Western art, depictions of the dead are meant to be descriptive and give information to the viewer. In Eastern art, the goal is to create a mystique around the dead, to make it seem as though they are still alive.

Freeland said many Russian and Chinese rulers’ portraits were treated as vessels for the deceased lord and that these lifelike images were shown similar levels of respect as the people themselves.

She said that rituals that treat an image as a living person demonstrate how devotees seek to enhance the mystique of the deceased.

Freeland described how pharaohs were preserved through mummification, saying that the Egyptians focused on more than just physical preservation in the process. She said the golden heads placed atop these mummies “signified the elevation [of the deceased] into a higher plain of existence” and gave them an idealized face for the afterlife.

This idealization contrasts the way the Romans treated sculpture.

She said that as she walked though the halls of the museum filled with Roman sculpture, she felt she was “meeting all sorts of people.”

Freeland said such art was bluntly realistic, showing every imperfection, whereas the Egyptian art smoothed over human features and enlarged the eyes.

She went on to talk about approaches to death in photography, claiming that death is always more vivid and striking in a photograph because of the undeniable reality of the image.

She explained that the ability of a photograph to picture a subject in a real setting makes a statement that the subject alone could not.

Freeland summarized her thesis in four main parts: Humans create images of the dead to preserve their memory of those lost, these memories preserve emotional links to the beloved or respected person, photographs are often treated as religious icons and are used to maintain emotional contact with the dead, and it is not photography that causes this process but the underlying cultural phenomena that cause religious attitudes toward photographs.