SENSUALITY IN MEMORIAL ART
For several years I have been photographing memorial and cemetery art from around the world. This project explores the conscious and unconscious themes and symbolic content of the 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 I was visiting. The use of these compelling nude figures was particularly common in the cemeteries of France, Russia, and Italy. 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 powerful art form? These questions have launched an extended research project on the issue. The research continues, however to date the following information and insights have emerged. I would greatly welcome viewer comments on this work. It is my intent that this project will emerge as a book in the near future. To view more classic memorial art click here.
The female form is frequently found adorning public buildings, squares, cathedrals, museums and parks around the world. In Western tradition, the ability to master the female figure is often the mark that defines fine artistic talent. Clark observes: "We remember that the nude is after all, the most serious of all subjects in art..." 9 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.
The French poet, Paul Valery, noted that "The nude is for the artist what love is for the poet" The nude has been a wellspring of artistic creativity in European art and has acted as the visual embodiment of ideas and views about that most constant of human concerns, love, both earthly and sacred. For the Ancient Greeks, the nude epitomized perfect physical beauty of a kind immune from the depredations of time; signified the imposition of order upon the caprices of nature; and symbolized the nobility of the human spirit. It was an art form usually reserved for representations of the deities, while portraits of actual people were generally clothed. 1
THE DANCE OF DEATH
In the Great Plague of 1348-50, a third of Europe's population is thought to have perished in the Black Death. The terrible suffering and mass graves gave rise to what the French called la danse macabre. Ecclesiastical Annals from Germany describe the dance as a kind of mania, characterized by Bacchantic leaps. At Aix-la-Chapelle in 1374, the dancers held hands to form circles and whirl around until they dropped. At even greater heights of frenzy, the first fell to the ground in epileptic convulsions, gasping for air and foaming at the mouth, until they could leap up to perform the strange contortions of the dance. 25
In the French tradition, the dance's legacy is found in 14th-century poetry, frescoes and woodcuts depicting representatives from every station of life, from pope to pauper, paired with ghostly doubles who have come to summon the living partner to the other world. Death, often personified with a sickle in hand for the harvest, came to represent the great leveler of all inequality.25
The tradition did not end with the Middle Ages. Periodic outbursts of the plague in the 16th century sparked similar reactions, as shown in Hans Holbein's series of woodcuts on the Totentanz, executed in Basle (c.1523-26). Today, la danza de la muerte is still performed in Spain at festivals by single drummers with skeletal partners who circulate together around inside cavernous cathedrals.25
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
Many classical ideals were rediscovered during the Renaissance, when the general tenor of philosophy became humanist. Once again the nude became an embodiment of perfect beauty and an emblem of abstract concepts such as Beauty, Genius, Friendship, Truth and Sacred Love. 1
THE ROLE OF THE CLASSIC NUDE
The importance of the nude persisted through 17th century baroque art well into the 19th century, ... retaining its significance because of its connection with subjects of the highest cultural status, whether religious, allegorical or mythological. As such subjects tended to be favored more by aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons. The popularity of the nude was geographically uneven.. One was more likely to find nudes painted in Catholic countries, such as Italy or Flanders, or countries with a strong tradition of State patronage, such as France. 1 (The image to the right is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan Italy)
For the female figure to be accepted in public places the higher moral purpose of the work had to be convincing and beyond reproach. Cemeteries are sacred places, so work that might have been unacceptable in other settings were cast in a transcendent ambiance. Much like the public buildings and cathedrals, formal cemeteries offered a legitimate venue for the expression of the inherent beauty and symbolism of the female form. Many of the famous sculptors whose works are in the Worlds greatest museums and private collections also have work in the Pere Lachaise, Stagleino, Novodevichye, Montparnasse, Monumental, Forrest Hills and other great cemeteries. The exquisite angel to the right is in Saint Peter's Caththedral in the Vatican and the image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan. Artists, who were often dependent on the commissions for memorial art, perhaps relished the opportunity to express, their creative talents unfettered in such a noble cause.
During the medieval era, the naked body often stood for temptation and sin. In Christian theology the emphasis was not upon physical beauty but upon the inevitability of the bodys decay and the shame in nakedness which came from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. 1
THE CEMETERY REFORM MOVEMENT
Much of this work was done in a time of social transition. In Paris the Cemetery Reform Movement introduced a new respect and reverence for the deceased as an alternative to the previous perspective of the corpse as refuge. Similar movements were underway in Paris in response to horrendous sanitary conditions resulting from sewage, decaying corpses and garbage. Popular riots of 1830 and 1848 occurred against the state. Disease increasingly became tied to revolution and therefore, a well maintained sewer, it was believed, would combat both disease and revolution. As such, better sewers were seen as a political means to reduce the incentive for revolution and as an expression of the capacity and competence of government.
THE PARIS REFORM MOVEMENT
The Paris Sewer Reform Movement reached its pinnacle when the newly completed Paris sewers opened for public tours during the World Exposition of 1867. These popular tours took place in luxury sluice carts and boats piloted by white-clad sewer men. Visitors wore their fine clothes for the tour of the immaculate sewers. These modern, technological structures--no longer a source of disgust and fear--represented the government as a beacon of order and reason. Sewer tours continue to this day. In a similar fashion the new cemeteries of Paris affirmed a new vision of order, reason and respect for the deceased, a significant departure from the previous perspective of the corps as garbage. 3
As part of the cemetery reform movement, Pere Lachaise was privately developed and served as an alternative to the church cemetery for the wealthy of Paris. This private ownership removed the control and influence of the church over the content of imagery and the expression of an unfettered personal and artistic vision. The separation of municipal burial from church burial was an essential development for such creative expression to flourish. A final reality was that for health reasons, the reform movement prohibited mass burial and required individual graves, setting the stage for the increasing importance of individual memorial markers and monuments. For the middle class, commemorative tombs became a way to achieve and confirm social standing. (The image to the left is from Monumental Cemetery in Milan Italy)
Statuary expressing the female form brings together powerful forces of death and sensuality, the eternal link between Thanatos and Eros. This expression reached a high level during the romantic era of the early nineteenth century. In Romantic art, death became a metaphor not of loss, fear and horror but of love and desire. William Wordsworth explores this theme in his poem Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known. The sensuous female forms of these monuments make this association explicit.
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 t 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
In Bernini's Ludovica Albetoni, the believer is introduced into the Blessed Lady's bedroom and made a witness to her convulsions on the disordered bed. It is not merely a statue, but more like a living, gesticulating actress. In these examples, we see the sculptor's intent to create in the observer a mood of mysticism and ecstasy. 16 The sculpture thus becomes a mirror and indicator of the state of mind of the observer opening the way to salvation. 17
In the private chapel of Sanserero, Naples, is a fine example carved in 1750 by Genoese sculptor Francesco Queirolo. The work is of a naked male figure, who is draped in a net from which he is extricating himself while being aided by an angel. The sculpture is an allegorical monument to Count Antonio Sangro who took holy vows after the death of his young wife. The sculpture shows Sangro throwing off the entangling net of worldly appearances including his worldly coverings and discovering Truth. The work is thought to symbolize the purity of spiritual deliverance achieved with the help of the Holy Spirit. Of special interest in this work is the sheer brilliance of the net, finely carved out of solid marble.18
One of the skills that was applauded in the eighteenth century was the ability to render drapery and some artists indulged themselves in technical brilliance. The drapery is never so glamorous as when , instead of concealing forms, it hints at them, caressing them with the greatest of sensuality. The challenge was not only veil the body and face but to do so in a manner that enhanced the expressiveness and sensuousness of the body. One of the great examples of this work is Faith by Innocenzo. Spinazzi located in the Apse of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, Florence. Spinazzi uses the traditional prompts of Faith the chalice and Bible, however he drapes the veil over her face beneath which we can discern an expression of mystical ecstasy where Faith reveals itself in an inward gaze, which is God-given and transcends the mere senses. In Modesty, another statue of a veiled woman by Antonio Corradini, in the chapel of Sansevero, the figure is an allegory of the Virtue Modesty. Under her mourning veil she expresses grief, but the veil is so sheer as to be almost transparent; it unclothes rather than clothes her, bringing out the sensual quality of her body. 19
"The sculptors of the second half of the century were not slaves to doctrine. Before Canova, they sought chiefly to create pleasing images and they favored an iconography and style which celebrated the feminine charms that had a high place in the flirtatious society of this age when women were often treated like queens. Thus the mythological pretexts employed in the earlier part of the century acquired a new lease of life. The idea was no longer to borrow the trappings of pagan gods and goddesses, but to titillate with flirtatious, erotically suggestive scenes. Moreover, mythological motifs were in key with the period's growing reverence for Antiquity, through it sometimes seems as if they were merely an excuse for depicting delightfully sensual bodies in the nude. Psyche Abandoned, (Augustin Pajou 1790) for example, shows Psyche nude lamenting Cupid's disappearance; her flesh palpitates with distress; her despair gives her a languid pose which is not only touching but seductive." 20
"Another Method of perpetuating fame for posterity was to erect a funeral monument. This was without doubt the most highly esteemed genre in the eighteenth century. It combined portraiture (when the effigy of the departed was included in the monument) with elaborate allegorical effects, a great diversity in the area of composition, color in many cases, and mainly, reflections on man's ultimate fate and on death itself. It was an art that did not shrink from the spectacular, from staging death with all the pomp of funeral rites, with effects ranging from the grandiose to the maudlin, and at times the macabre. The magnificence of certain monuments, the sheer pride they exhibit, seems to accord ill with the teachings of Christian humility or the doctrine that all men are equal before death. But this contradiction worried no one: the point was to live on in man's memory. The belief in eternal life gave this a certain validity." 21 An excellent example of this expression is the Tomb of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale at Westminster Abby. Roubiliac composed a scene that was both moving and chilling where Lady Elizabeth is seen expiring in the arms of her husband, who is trying in vain to shield her from Death's cruel sting. 22
"Throughout the Middle Ages, breast milk and other fluids, such as the blood of Christ or the Virgin Mary's tears carried mystical connotations. Milk and blood were understood to be essentially the same substance, the former concocted from the latter to nourish the young. Many popular stories and paintings played upon the nonverbal appeal of these two fluids, some times bringing them together for miraculous effect." 23
Joseph Campbell states "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
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.
Some argue that the sensuous, beautiful young women are the embodiment of death itself. 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.
NOVODEVICHYE CEMETERY - MOSCOW
Memorial art often seeks to memorialize the life and accomplishments of the deceased. The Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow, Russia was used by the Communist elite. For these individuals, their memorial art celebrates individual careers and accomplishment and avoids any notion of spirituality or an afterlife. In Novodevichye, tank commanders are memorialized with tanks as monuments, cosmonauts are in their space suits and the Commander of the Soviet Missile Forces is depicted talking on the phone as missiles launch over his head. However, Western memorial art seeks to make persuasive arguments for life after death going beyond the validation and remembrance of a past life and historical documentation.
It is possible that these exquisite young women, as some of the most beautiful among us, convey a sense of heightened status and prestige to the deceased? Forever present, forever young and forever beautiful they convey, vitality, passion and rejuvenation. It is conceivable that these figures eternally perform a similar role to their mortal counterparts, serving as beautiful trophies at the side of successful men.
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)
Ever since the first sailing vessels were built, sailors have tried to ensure safe passage by attempting to pacify mysterious and unpredictable gods with symbols of faith. The ship's figurehead, a typical example of this tradition, took many forms over the centuries. Human figures began to appear in the late 1770s, and shortly thereafter everything from statesmen to Indians appeared on the fronts of ships. Greek figures and figures dressed in medieval uniforms and battle dress were popular as well. It wasn't long before female figures began to appear. They were used on a great number of commercial ships after 1800, and often ship owners' wives served as models.
HOOD ORNAMENTS & MASCOTS
Spirit of Ecstasy
In the 1920's and 1930's, people enjoyed all the passion and excitement of a new love affair with automobiles. During this heady period, cars proudly displayed "Mascots" or "Hood Ornaments" on the front of their vehicles. These Mascots were genuine pieces of art that made a personal statement to the world. One of the most famous hood ornaments was the Rolls Royce "Spirit of Ecstasy" designed by the English sculptor, Charles Sykes in 1911. The popularity of Hood Ornamentation continued through the 1940's with ever more diverse creations being added. A variety of Gods, Goddesses, Indians, Birds, Dogs, Lions, Elephants and other winged icons added a personal touch to the cars they adorned. Car manufacturers got into the act by adding their own line of Hood Art on production cars for the working man. The most common theme were the "Flying Ladies" often very sensual and frequently erotic representations of the female form. To view more classic hood ornaments click here.
BOMBER NOSE ART
During World War II, figurative art emerged in the form of "nose art" on thousands of bombers and fighter escorts flying missions over France, Germany, Africa and the Pacific. Nose art perhaps modeled on the "Flying Ladies" emerged as the aviator's unique calling card and as personal escorts during missions of great danger and uncertainty. The Army Air Force attempted to ban and censor nose art on many occasions. Ultimately the art prevailed for its value in boosting crew morale was unquestioned. Nose art emerged as a defining element of the era, gracing everything from war airplanes, to leather flight jackets, to the walls of barracks, huts and O-Clubs across Europe and the Pacific. In some ways, "nose art" was also memorial art, in that over half of the young men serving in bomber crews would be killed or captured during their 20 mission tours. How interesting it is to note that this art form ended with the terror of WWII, being replaced with less compelling and more politically correct imagery.
The females who cast their face into the wind as ship's figureheads, the "Flying Ladies" of classic automobiles, the women adorning WWII bombers and fighters and the beautiful ladies of the cemetery all serve a similar purpose. Each escorts a passage or a transition into the unknown, offering comfort in the face of mortality and a promise of rebirth, continuity, renewal and salvation.
The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery
of birth and death and the renewal of life...
Marija Gimbutas, 1989
The Meeting with the Goddess
"The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.
She is the paragon of all paragons of beauty, the reply to all desire, the bliss-bestowing goal of every hero’s earthly and unearthly quest. She is mother, sister, mistress, bride. Whatever in the world has lured, whatever has seemed to promise joy, has been premonitory of her existence— in the deep of sleep, if not in the cities and forests of the world. For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection; the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of its exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again: the comforting, the nourishing, the "good" mother—young and beautiful—who was known to us, and even tasted, in the remotest past. Time sealed her away, yet she is dwelling still, like one who sleeps in timelessness, at the bottom of the timeless sea.55
The mythological figure of the Universal Mother imputes to the cosmos the feminine attributes of the first, nourishing and protecting presence. The fantasy is primarily spontaneous; for there exists a close and obvious correspondence between the attitude of the young child toward its mother and that of the adult toward the surrounding material world. But there has been also, in numerous religious traditions, a consciously controlled pedagogical utilization of this archetypal image for the purpose of the purging, balancing, and initiation of the mind into the nature of the visible world.55
WOMAN AS TEMPTRESS
Joseph Campbell goes on to state: "The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, Were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father’s place."60
"Thus phrased, in extremist terms, the problem may sound remote from the affairs of normal human creatures. Nevertheless, every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late. The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. Therefore it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.
In the office of the modern psychoanalyst, the stages of the hero-adventure come to light again in the dreams and hallucinations of the patient. Depth beyond depth of self-ignorance is fathomed, with the analyst in the role of the helper, the initiatory priest. And always, after the first thrills of getting under way, the adventure develops into a journey of darkness, horror, disgust, and phantasmagoric fears.
The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else.
But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of Life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure soul.
So exclaims the great spokesman of this moment, Hamlet:
The innocent delight of Oedipus in his first possession of the queen turns to an agony of spirit when he learns who the woman is. Like Hamlet, he is beset by the moral image of the father. Like Hamlet, he turns from the fair features of the world to search the darkness for a higher kingdom than this of the incest and adultery ridden, luxurious and incorrigible mother. The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond her, surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.
Hamlet, I, ii, 129-137.
Where this Oedipus-Hamlet revulsion remains to beset the soul, there the world, the body, and woman above all, become the symbols no longer of victory but of defeat. A monastic -puritanical, world-negating ethical system then radically and immediately transfigures all the images of myth. No longer can the hero rest in innocence with the goddess of the flesh; for she is become the queen of sin.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
click on image to enlarge
"So long as a man has any regard for this corpse-like body," writes the Hindu monk Shankaracharya, "he is impure, and suffers from his enemies as well as from birth, disease and death; but when he thinks of himself as pure, as the essence of the Good, and the Immovable, he becomes free. . . . "
Only geniuses capable of the highest realization can support the full revelation of the sublimity of the goddess. For lesser men she reduces her effulgence and permits herself to appear in forms concordant with their undeveloped powers. Fully to behold her would be a terrible accident for any person not spiritually prepared: as witness the unlucky case of the lusty young buck Actaeon. No saint was he, but a sportsman unprepared for the revelation of the form that must be beheld without the normal human (i.e., infantile) over- and undertones of desire, surprise, and fear. Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world." 56
"A story, for example, is told of the five sons of the Irish king Eochaid: of how, having gone one day ahunting, they found themselves astray, shut in on every hand. Thirsty, they set off, one by one, to look for water. Fergus was the first: "and he lights on a well, over which he finds an old woman standing sentry. The fashion of the hag is this: blacker than coal every joint and segment of her was, from crown to ground; comparable to a wild horse’s tail the grey wiry mass of hair that pierced her scalp’s upper surface; with her sickle of a greenish looking tusk that was in her head, and curled till it touched her ear, she could lop the verdant branch of an oak in full bearing; blackened and smoke. bleared eyes she had; nose awry, wide-nostrilled; a wrinkled and freckled befly, variously unwholesome; warped crooked shins, garnished with massive ankles and a pair of capacious shovels; knotty knees she had and livid nails. The beldame’s whole description in fact was disgusting. ‘That’s the way it is, is it?’ said and ‘that’s the very way,’ she answered. ‘Is it guarding the Well thou art?’ he asked, and she said: ‘it is.’ ‘Dost thou licence me to take away some water?’ ‘I do,’ she consented, ‘yet only so that I have of thee one kiss on my cheek.’ ‘Not so,’ said he. ‘Then water shall not be conceded by me.’ ‘My word I give,’ he went on, ‘that sooner than give thee a kiss I would perish of thirst!’ Then the young man departed to the place where his brethren were, and told them that he had not gotten water."58
"Olioll, Brian, and Fiachra, likewise, went on the quest and equally attained to the identical well. Each solicited the old thing for water, but denied her the kiss. Finally it was Niall who went, and he came to the very well. "‘Let me have water, woman!’ he cried. ‘I will give it,’ said she, ‘and bestow on me a kiss.’ He answered: ‘forby giving thee a kiss, I will even hug thee!’ Then he bends to embrace her, and gives her a kiss. Which operation ended, and when he looked at her, in the whole world was not a young woman of gait more graceful, in universal semblance fairer than she: to be likened to the last-fallen snow lying in trenches every portion of her was, from crown to sole; plump and queenly forearms, fingers long and taper, straight legs of a lovely hue she had; two sandals of the white bronze betwixt her smooth and soft white feet and the earth; about her was an ample mantle of the choicest fleece. pure crimson, and in the garment a brooch of white silver; she had lustrous teeth of pearl, great regal eyes, mouth red as the rowanberry. ‘Here, woman, is a galaxy of charms,’ said the young man. ‘That is true indeed.’ ‘And who art thou?’ he pursued. ‘"Royal Rule" am I,’ she answered, and uttered this: "‘King of Tara! I am Royal Rule. "‘Go now,’ she said, ‘to thy brethren, and take with thee water; moreover, thine and thy children’s for ever the kingdom and supreme power shall be. . . . And as at the first thou hast seen me ugly, brutish, loathly—in the end, beautiful—even so is royal for without battles, without fierce conflict, it may not be won; but in the result, he that is king of no matter what shows comely and handsome forth."57
Such is royal rule? Such is life itself. The goddess guardian of the inexhaustible well—whether as Fergus, or as Actaeon, or as the Prince of the Lonesome Isle discovered her—requires that the hero should be endowed with what the troubadours and minesingers termed the "gentle heart." Not by the animal desire of an Actaeon, not by the fastidious revulsion of such as Fergus, can she be comprehended and rightly served, but only by gentleness: aware ("gentle sympathy") it was named in the romantic courtly poetry of tenth- to twelfth-century Japan.
Within the gentle heart Love shelters himself,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Be fore the gentle heart, in nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.
For with the sun, at once,
So sprang the light immediately; nor was
Its birth before the sun’s.
And Love hath his effect in gentleness
Of very self; even as
Within the middle fire the heat’s excess.
The meeting with the goddess who is incarnate in every woman is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love, which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity."59
Carl Jung observes "A symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or brush in hand and invented a symbol. No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and than give it "symbolic form". There are many symbols, however, that are not individual but collective in their nature and origin. These are chiefly religious images. The believer assumes that they are of divine origin - that they have been revealed to man. The skeptic says flatly that they have been invented. Both are wrong. It is true, as the skeptic notes, that religious symbols and concepts have for centuries been the object of careful and quite conscious elaboration. It is equally true, as the believer implies, that their origin is so far buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no human source. But they are in fact "collective representations," emanating from primeval dreams and creative fantasies. As such, these images are involuntary spontaneous manifestations and by no means intentional inventions." 15 The sensual images under consideration embody profound symbolic content from our "collective unconscious" and may be some of the most significant and enduring symbolic manifestations of the human experience.
These images and their associated symbols explore a collective yearning to understand the human condition, our vulnerability, our mortality, renewal, 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.
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