HogPro Mailbag: On Death and Hogwarts Paintings

The best part of being a Potter Pundit, besides the fun I have with Travis and James on PotterCast, is meeting readers and talking with them before and after lectures. The second best part? Conversations here and in private correspondence. My books always include my email address — that’s ‘john at HogwartsProfessor dot com’ — and an invitation for feedback, the coveted comments and corrections. I have met many of my best friends in Harry Potter fandom only because they chose to accept that invitation to share their thoughts.

The mailbag feature here at HogwartsProfessor, too, owes its existence and frequent appearances to questions I receive by email. Today’s entry is about the nature of death and just what kind of being the paintings at Hogwarts really are. I received this note from an adult reader new to the series and to serious thinking about the Hogwarts Saga:

Dear John:

My wife is a great fan of the Harry Potter series and recently convinced me to read it as well.  I admit that I dismissed the series originally as a popular trend, but once I started I was hooked.

I have a bit of a question about death (but then, don’t we all).  The wife recommended I write to you, as she met you twice: once at a talk you gave in Hershey, PA, and once when you spoke for a class she attended at Princeton.  I hope you can help provide me with a little perspective.

In the series, death is one of those things that is irreversible, yet the books make it clear that the Hogwarts paintings – specifically those of the headmasters – still exhibit some measure of independent thought, intention, and action.  Phineas Nigellus very prominently provides his own opinions, sometimes independently of anyone’s invitation, and provided information about Hogwarts goings-on to Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the final book.

At the end of the sixth book, Dumbledore’s portrait appears in the headmaster’s office, but he is asleep.  Since the seventh book’s action takes us away from the school, Harry is never actually able to take advantage of the possibility of his assistance, but we should be able to assume he could choose to do so.

My question, then, in this: in light of the series’ preoccupation with life and death, what does it mean for these characters to ‘live’ in these portraits after death?



Dear Bob, if I may,

Thanks for your note — and welcome to the world of Harry Potter!

Ms. Rowling has very generously explored in at least one interview the subject of portraits and their relationship with whom they portray, a subject never explored within the seven book canon (see below). I’m not sure whether her answer is especially satisfying but it is where one needs to begin, at least.

From here, I suggest you think about what Ms. Rowling is telling us about art in general and literature specifically in her use of ‘pictures that have insight and information’ and ‘pictures as literal points of entry.’ I think this is more her meaning than anything about death per se, except to say that artists are immortal and their works open up reality for us and “speak” to us as if the writer were still with us. I discuss this at some length in The Deathly Hallows Lectures and Harry Potter’s Bookshelf.

Here is Ms. Rowling’s comment on portraits that she made at the Edinburgh Book Festival (2004):

All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?

That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death.

FYI, as a relatively new-comer to Harry Potter conversation: I found this quotation using that most valuable of online Potter resources, Accio Quotes.org. For finding out if the author has said anything on the subject of the Saga, this is the ‘first-stop’ you’ll want to make. I don’t recommend you take Ms. Rowling’s word as the final authority or the definitive answer to what her works mean, a subject we have explored here under the umbrella of “literary canon.”

Thank you for your question! Please join in the conversation at HogwartsProfessor.com when you have time. I hope to be back to Hershey soon to talk about Ring Composition and Names in Harry Potter; I look forward to seeing your wife again and meeting you at that event!



Please do share your answers to Bob’s question! Is Ms. Rowling’s treatment of plastic artwork  at Hogwarts and in the Wizarding World her statement of the immortality available through art and literature, i.e. how the dead speak to us and teach us about the “inside bigger than the outside”? Or is she saying something else that I’m missing about life and death or about a state of being somewhere along the spectrum of ghosts, poltergeists, wand echoes, and Resurrection Stone shades?


  1. I love this question. This topic is one I keep intending to spend some time thinking about but never get very far. It seems the key phrases she uses are “imprint” and “aura”; beyond those concepts I get stumped. Somehow I’ve missed the most obvious: art and literature as being immortal and ‘speaking to us’. Head slap and a great big thank you!

  2. If I am remembering correctly, the paintings throughout Hogwarts generally “respond” to comments/questions/immediate circumstances rather than initiate conversations with living beings. I have always considered painting occupants to be observant encouragers for the most part, ready to give aide when requested to those on the “outside.” Discrepancies do occur i.e. Mrs. Black, who reflects the Black family need to denegrate all who are not pure-blood. In DH, the portrait subjects followed the fighting in Hogwarts, encouraging Hogwarts’ defenders and to provide updates on battles throughout the castle.

  3. OOPS….awkward moment with a laptop…..

    Please pick up my comments here in the last sentence: “…and providing updates on battles throughout the castle. During those perilous hours the paintings were interacting with the living to preserve good and fight evil.

    My point is this: the interaction between paintings and the living seems to reflect a dependence between the two: on the paintings to be remembered and included in the present and for the living to be receptive to instruction from the past.

    Welcome, Bob, to the discussion. Some of us are much more Ravenclaw than others…we have a grand cross-section of contributors and no lack of interesting material to ponder! You asked a great question. Thank you, Professor for posting it.

  4. Just today I heard someone talking about how, when he has a problem he finds himself thinking, “what would Mike do?” Mike was his recently deceased work colleague. I see the advice-giving function of the portraits as being a dramatization of this phenomenon. Doesn’t work for the spying role though.

  5. The portraits of headmasters do seem to have special powers. However, they also seem bound by their pledge to serve the current headmaster. Rather than offer encouragement to those who visit the head’s office, they snooze unless the head includes them in the conversation. I believe that in any visit Harry might have made to the head’s office in book 7, unless the head was there, Harry would have found Dumbledore asleep. At the end, in McGonagall’s presence, Dumbledore can help her sort Harry out.

    Certainly Phineas Nigellus wouldn’t have given the terrible trio the time of day if he wasn’t spying for Headmaster Snape. Which reminds me: Where is the portrait of Headmaster Snape? Why is he left out, I wonder?

    I too am grateful for the idea of the portraits representing the immortality art and literature can provide its subjects. I like thinking that magical portrait painters have the special talent of capturing spirit.

  6. Louise M. Freeman says

    I think the subject of the painting must either cast some spell, be the target of a spell or otherwise “pre-arrange” to have their essence preserved in a specific portrait or portraits. Otherwise, any artist who painted the image of a dead person could in effect summon their spirit. Remember, no one painted DD’s picture; he simply appeared in the frame after he died.

    The cost for this type of preservation seems to be a pledge of some sort of service. The other “service portraits” we see are the ugly man’s whose job it seems to be to prepared the British Prime minister to consult with the MoM, and Mrs. Black’s. Remember that Mr. Black cast all sorts of spells to try to prevent the house from passing into undesirable’s ownership… I bet his wife’s picture was intentionally set up as type of a guard dog. (the bitch!).

    Pure speculation, but the other portraits at Hogwarts (the Fat Lady, Sir Cadagan) are more likely to be artistic representations of fictional people. (Surely the Fat lady, if real, would have insisted on her actual name being used!) They can move and talk but perhaps their personalities reflect the artist’s vision, not an imprint of any actual person? The images may agree to perform certain jobs like controlling entrances to rooms, or searching the castle for intruders but don’t seem to be bound to serve (the Fat Lady quit after being slashed by Black, Cadagan was fired from his job).

    Interesting that photos can move, but can’t manage speech.

  7. Susan…I’ve wondered about Snape’s portrait as well. Could it be that the absence of a designated Head Master (would McGonagall have automatically been moved at his death?) made the difference?

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