Pseudo-Longinus’s concept of the sublime constantly referred to humans reaching up to be as near to the divine as possible. The ancient idea of apotheosis, or deification, was that the souls of monarchs and great humans could traverse up to heaven and actually become gods. This was explored through myths about mortals, such as Hercules, as well as real-life heroes who were deified, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. In Baroque Europe the ‘apotheosis’ once again became prevalent in political allegory, but also in art as it was visualised in many ceiling paintings. Peter Paul Rubens depicted the Apotheosis of James I
in the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall in London. The final painting is still in its original location today. A sketch for it from c.1628–30 is in Tate’s collection (T12919
, fig.2). The painting was commissioned by Charles I and depicts his father being carried into the heavens. An eagle can be seen underneath the orb upon which the king is lifted, symbolising the eagle released in ancient deification ceremonies to signify the soul rising up to heaven, and which was included on the title page to the first version of Peri Hypsous
published in Britain in 1636. An eagle can also be seen next to Zeus, king of the gods (for whom it was also an attribute), in another sketch for a ceiling showing a deification, Thornhill’s The Apotheosis of Romulus
c.1710 (Tate N06200
, fig.3). The century which passed between these two artworks saw many nobles commission apotheoses to be painted on ceilings in their country houses, either of themselves or of mythical figures who they hoped to connect themselves with allegorically. The overwhelming impact of these works was intended as a kind of sublime effect.