"Of Flesh and Stone"
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The Northstar Gallery "Of Flesh and Stone" explores the connections between the sensuous female forms that adorn many of the great cemeteries of the world and the human form that the figures represent.
For many years I have been photographing memorial art from around the world. This project explores the conscious and unconscious themes and symbolic content of memorial art. At issue is of course man's struggle with transcendence and his own mortality. As the project progressed, I began to discover many very sensual images of beautiful young women depicted in the memorial art in the cemeteries of Paris, Rome, Milan, Genova and Moscow. Certainly sensuous figures are linked to a long tradition in Western art celebrating the female form in both secular and religious settings. However, very intriguing questions emerged around the significance of this particular art form in the cemetery. How is it that these very powerful images have come to offer solace at times of loss, what is the significance of the link between Thantos and Eros in this very compelling art form?
Cemeteries are places of infinite optimism where life everlasting takes precedence over death, loss and mortality. The focus is turned from the temporal past to: salvation, rebirth and everlasting life. Memorial art functions as both tribute and hope with these sensuous figures embracing this powerful duality. It is interesting to observe that the cemetery is the ideal venue for art dedicated to exploring this important duality. In one regard, these are surrogate mourners depicting how great the loss is and how deeply the deceased is missed. Their idealized beauty is spiritual: representing innocence, birth, rebirth, renewal, purity, fertility, commitment and passion. The greater their beauty the greater and more profound the loss and the greater the promise of eternal life. However in their dual role these women also serve as escorts in the journey ahead. As surrogate companions they stand post, watching over the deceased. Forever present and forever young, they communicate the hope for eternal youth, beauty and vitality in the life to come. 2 (The image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan)
The Egyptians held the belief that the preservation of the body was essential for eternal life, however simply preserving the body was not enough. It was believed that If the likeness of the king was also preserved, it was more certain that he would continue to live in the after life. So sculptors would chisel the person's likeness out of hard, imperishable granite, and put it in the tomb where it would reside unobserved. There it would work its spell, helping the person's soul stay alive through the image. In fact, the Egyptian word for sculptor was actually "He-who-keeps-alive’. At first these rites were reserved for kings, but soon the nobles of the royal household had their minor tombs grouped in neat rows round the mound. Gradually every upper class person had to make provision for his after-life by ordering a costly grave which would house his mummy and his likeness, and thus would be where his soul would reside for eternity.
Often it was the custom, that when a powerful man died, his wives, servants, pets and slaves would be required to accompany him into the grave. They were sacrificed so that he should arrive in the beyond with a suitable entourage. Later, this practice was considered either too cruel or too costly and images and statues replaced the living souls.
We no longer believe that the symbol becomes the object and our attraction to this art form resonates with other meanings.
There are many myths and tales of humans being turned to stone. The Medusa myth is one of the most relevant to this issue. The Gorgons were three sisters. Two of the sisters were monstrous with huge teeth, brazen claws and snakey hair. Sthenno and Eurayale were immortal, but Medusa, the third was mortal. Medusa, was a beautiful maiden who's hair was her crowning glory. She was loved by the god Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena was deeply angered and turned Medusa into a monster and changed her glorious hair into snakes. Athena made Medusa so ugly that that anyone who looked at her was instantly turned to stone. All around Medusa's cavern were stone figures of men and animals which had risked a glimpse her and had been petrified with the sight. Athena sent Perseus to slay Medusa, she lent him her shiny shield and Hermes lent him her winged shoes. Perseus approached Medusa while she slept and taking care not to look directly at her, guided by her image reflected in the bright shield, he cut off her head and gave it to Athena. In her ugliness, Medusa was the grand sculptor, a creator of stone figures, immortalizing the flesh of her victims by turning it into stone? For more images and information on gargoyles and grotesques, click here.
In Genesis 19:15-24 Lot's wife is turned to stone. With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished." ..... When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, "Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah-from out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, including all those living in the cities-and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Transformation from stone to flesh is referenced in Ezekiel chapter 36 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Zechariah, chapter 7, states "...they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets. Unlike stone, the flesh has the gift of free will, the abilty to choose, to be sinner or saint.
Some argue that the sensuous, beautiful young women cast in stone are the embodiment of death itself, the ultimate state of the flesh. The romantic notion "Sweet is death who comes as a lover" removes the sting of death and presents it as an experience to be fully embraced and welcomed.
For the Romantics, death was an important theme. For them death was experienced as exquisite emotion and the ultimate expression of love. "To die loving you is better than life itself," wrote Alferd de Musset. The Romantic era was a period of "beautiful death" in which death was perceived as a refuge, a release, a reward and a rebirth. Death was associated with rebirth, conception, birth and sexual expression. The transition from death to eternal life was seen as a rebirth and came to be symbolized by a release of sensual pleasure expressed by the "petite death". It is no accident that the expression of morning by the women in many of the works is indistinguishable from sexual ecstasy. 2 One of the best examples of this theme is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650. Bernini's work is a representation of Saint Teresa of Avila's writings in which she reports: "It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel......He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire....In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it, and he left me completely afire with a great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it - indeed a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His Goodness, to give him the same experience. Amen" 13 To the left is The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Bernini, 1650.
The moment of ecstasy corresponds to the self-annihilation spoken of by the mystics of the seventeenth century. Pierre de Berulle starts from the stage of "spiritual death" which the soul has to pass through during the "time of trials" in order to attain the "mystical marriage" with the Bridegroom. It is the Bridegroom who permeates the soul in the "abyss of greatness" and the "gulf of glory" in order to consummate the "spiritual marriage" Benoit de Canfield has written "the Bride of God (man's soul) "desires with all other creatures to be melted, liquefied, consumed, and annihilated." 16
Joseph Campbell observes "Myths of the Great Goddess teach compassion for all living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth itself, because it is the body of the Goddess.5 "And when you have a Goddess as the creator, it's her own body that is the universe. She is identical with the universe...She is the whole sphere of the life-enclosing heavens."6 Campbell goes on to state: "This is the an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die to your flesh and are born into your spirit. You identify yourself with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your consciousness with that of which the vehicle is the carrier. That is the God." 7 Within the essential experience of birth and rebirth the female embodies the totality from conception to birth and renewal. As Mother Earth she embodies fertility and rebirth and out of death, the eternal renewal of life. The greater the beauty and perhaps the more sensuous, the more powerful the identity is of "Goddess as Mother Earth." To the left is a "sarcophagus from second-century A.D. Thebes that reveals a symbolic connection with the archetypal Great Mother (the container of all life). The inside of the cover bears a portrait of the Egyptian goddess Nut; thus the goddess would "embrace" the body of the deceased." 14
It is interesting to note that the images "Of Flesh and Stone" differ from the anonymous female figures serving as surrogate mourners in much memorial art. Here the images are representations of the individual and as such are more naked than nude revealing a profound vulnerability and personal reality in their life like representations. 4 Camille observes: "Naked one came into the world and naked one left it was a cliché' of the preachers, but this lack of clothing evinced a deeper shame, going back to the invention of death at the Fall in the Garden of Eden. For it had been only at the moment of original sin that Adam and Eve saw that they were naked and were ashamed." 8 It can be considered that nudity in which there is not shame, symbolizes innocence, the time of purity before the Fall as well as redemption after death. Hiram Powers sculpted Eve Tempted in 1843. Powers wanted to depict the innocence and complete absence of shame about her nudity immediately before the Fall. In Eve Tempted Eve is in metamorphosis, not yet ".. yielding to the seduction of the serpent, disobeying God's word, and tempting Adam to join her in disobedience representing ... the irrepressibility of humankind's sinful nature ". 12 (The image to the right is from Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.)
Similarly in some works the subjects are nude or are partially clothed and the works symbolize entry into heaven. The nude imagery of the human form expresses rebirth into heaven, as well as innocence and purity, leaving the fallen material world behind. The exquisite beauty of some of the figures depicted in this work may also be an expression of Gods perfect beauty with man being created in the image of God a theme that has been expressed for millennium.
As early as 2500 BC, Egyptians used statuary, for religious purposes, to capture the essence of the individual represented and as a medium to hold the soul after death. Much of these sculptured images were nude depicting the expected rebirth from temporal life into eternity in Gods presence.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
A Death and Maiden theme emerged from a long mythological tradition. In Greek mythology the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of Hell, is an early expression of the clash between Eros and Thanatos. The young goddess Persephone gathers flowers while accompanied by carefree nymphs. When Persephone saw a pretty narcissus, she picked it and at that moment, the ground opened and Hades came out of the underworld and abducted Persephone carrying her into his underworld.
Within the Death and the Maiden Theme, a dark bound between sexuality and death is explored. In this iconography, the young girl is not involved in “the dance of death” but enters into a sensual relationship with death, which becomes increasingly erotic as time passes. Despite the sensuality of this genre, it maintained a moralistic goal for it is intended to remind us that life is short as is the exquisite beauty of a woman. The theme of Death and the maiden also serves as a moralistic pretext to depict female nudity. 24
Niklaus Manuel Deutsch completed this work in 1517. It demonstrates the transition between the Dance of Death and the theme of Death and the Maiden. Here Death, as a rotting corpse, caresses his young lover, takes her by the hand, grasps her by the neck, kisses her as she guides his hand under her dress. As his young lover she welcomes deaths touch and attention. 24 (click on image to enlarge)
MAN BECOMES GOD
In Angkor - Splendors of the Khmer Civilization, Marilla Albanese observes "The artistic perfection of the statue does not fulfill aesthetic so much as canonical and ritual requirements because manufacture in accordance with the rules induces the Deity to descend into the stone and animate it with its presence, while the beauty of its form attracts worshippers and gives them aesthetic pleasure, the first emotion that prepares them for the encounter with the sacred. The deeper the spirituality of he who contemplates, the greater his ability to go beyond the formal aspect of that specific deity, perceiving behind it the the ineffable presence of that which has no form and no name." 1. This role of the stone statue as sacred Deity transitioned to becoming the image of the King who increasingly took on the identity of the Deity in the final stage of the Khmer Civilization.
Albanese adds: "In his desire for immortality and revealed by his frenzied building campaign, Jayavarman erected statues of himself all over the country. Jayavarman identified his mother with the goddess Prajnaparamita, the mistress of supreme Buddhist knowledge, and his father with the bodhisattva Lokeshvara, of whom the Emperor considered himself the incarnation. However, it was not only the royal family who sought immortality; as if they had had a presentiment of the end, princes, dignitaries, and officials filled the temples with their own statues, hoping in this way to cheat time as Angkor began its ineluctable decline" 2 ... and flesh became stone.
In this framework one is interested to consider whether it matters if the subject of a fine art photograph is flesh or stone. Is it useful for the viewer to know the ultimate nature of the subject? There is also a fascinating dynamic, for in some venues a figurative image of a stone subject will be acceptable but not a similar image of a human subject. At some level are we repeating the Medusa myth in the transformation of beautiful women to stone? The warning of the Medusa myth is that one can lose all if one is too enamored with earthly beauty.
As the project has progressed intriguing questions about the nature of the stone figures emerge. Though they represent some of the most beautiful of young women, the marble and granite statues have none of the qualities of the flesh they represent. Yet, the stone figures communicate profound themes about mortality, renewal, birth, rebirth, salvation, transcendence and transformation. What are the perceptual qualities that allow a symbol of something to have a such a powerful transcendent message? In some ways the symbol communicates ideas that the object cannot. Is there a connection with the biblical warning "for dust you are and to dust you will return." and a realization that flesh and stone are ultimately and profoundly connected.
The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
In stone there is a reminder that all that makes flesh so different from granite and marble is profoundly transient and fleeting. The beautiful figures of the pyramids and the women of the cemetery are immune to the exquisite fragility of the flesh they represent and as such aspire to enduring themes. Yet, Auguste Rodin observed "The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that". Similarly Walt Whitman offered: "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred." These images of flesh and stone explore a collective yearning to understand the human condition, our vulnerability, our mortality, our capacity for renewal and redemption and the terror of the unknown. These are the deep issues seeking transcendence and result in a profound desire to understand the meaning of our existence. Such passion is at the foundation of the great art of the Western World and our ultimate hope that the universe is not random.
Your death is always with you and it is the most attractive part of you. When people tell you they love your eyes, Or the way you walk, It is your mortality they're seeing.
A collection of fine art photography of exploring the theme "Of Flesh and Stone".
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