How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall

In the 18th century, the naval explorer was worshipped as a deity. Now his statues are being defaced across the lands he visited

In a type of neoclassical painting one might call The Apotheosis of X, the dead hero is bundled up to heaven by a host of angels, usually in a windswept tumult of robes, wings and clouds. A crowd of grieving mortals watches from below as their hero becomes divine. It’s a celestial scramble: in Rubens’ sumptuous Apotheosis of James I, heaven is chaos and James looks terrified at having arrived.

In Barralet’s Apotheosis of Washington, the dead president has his arms outstretched in a crucified pose, while Father Time and the angel of immortality bear him up to heaven. In a mid-1860s Apotheosis, a freshly assassinated Lincoln joins Washington in the sky, and clings to him in a tight hug. In Fragonard’s Apotheosis of Franklin, the new god reaches back to Earth with one hand while a stern angel, grasping his other hand, drags him upward.

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