Cultured Wednesday: The Flying Dutchman

This was a sight to chill a seaman’s heart: the Flying Dutchman, speeding before her own ghost wind and crewed by a company of the dead.  She augured death to those who spied her.

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The story of the Flying Dutchman is quite well known, I should say, and has certainly been the object of many a painting.  I picked two of them for your kind perusal.

Charles Temple DixFlying Dutchman concentrates on the ship itself for effect, and light seems to be the most prominent means to convey ghostliness.  Everything in the picture flees from the source of light, however:  It is not a promise of salvation, but portends doom and destruction.

The_Flying_Dutchman_by_Charles_Temple_Dix
The Flying Dutchman by Charles Temple Dix

Howard Pyle‘s Flying Dutchman betrays the writer and illustrator: Much like a story often relies on contrast for effect, his central character stands out in his posture – defying wind, defying danger – as well as in color – the red sash, recurring in his eyes and, to a lesser degree, in his ghostly crew.  The waves behind him could just as well be mountains.  Not the kind of fellow you wish to meet on a regular basis, this Captain Vanderdecken, or at all, Pyle stresses.

Howard Pyle The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman by Howard Pyle

Just in case the story is unfamiliar, here is what the the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica have to say on the matter:

Flying Dutchman, in European maritime legend, spectre ship doomed to sail forever; its appearance to seamen is believed to signal imminent disaster. In the most common version, the captain, Vanderdecken, gambles his salvation on a rash pledge to round the Cape of Good Hope during a storm and so is condemned to that course for eternity; it is this rendering which forms the basis of the opera Der fliegende Holländer (1843) by the German composer Richard Wagner.

Another legend depicts a Captain Falkenberg sailing forever through the North Sea, playing at dice for his soul with the devil. The dice-game motif recurs in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge; the mariner sights a phantom ship on which Death and Life in Death play dice to win him. The Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott adapted the legend in his narrative poem Rokeby (1813); murder is committed on shipboard, and plague breaks out among the crew, closing all ports to the ship.

howard pyle flying hutchman closeup
Captain Vanderdecken

Forever lashed by wind and rain, forever braced on a rolling deck, the spectral captain of the Flying Dutchman sailed his ship wherever sea roads led.

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