Landscape Painting in America: Cole and the Painting of High Art
Cole painted landscapes to make a living so that he could also paint pictures that he felt would be culturally more significant. This painting is an example. It is part of a series of paintings called "The Voyage of Life," which takes a person from childhood to youth to manhood to old age. This painting symbolizes manhood.
Of course, it could also be taken as a depiction of a white water canoing adventure using prayer instead of a paddle.
Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842, National Gallery of Art