Death and the Afterlife in Art From Different Eras and Civilizations
Art has a number of functions when it comes to dealing with death and the afterlife. In some cases it may be used to memorialize the deceased, to capture what he or she was like in life in a medium such as marble or clay, paint or song. In other cases, it may be used to offer suggestions about what is in store for us in general when we die -- what waits for us on the other side. Every culture has had its own views on death, with its own religious or irreligious beliefs attendant to art forms and expressions of death and the afterlife (Johnson 118). Indeed, art helps us to imagine what eternity might be like and provides a visual interpretation of the afterlife that aids in the maintenance of faith. Essentially, art addresses the unknowable by building on cultural beliefs and taking what is called the artistic license that allows the creator to elaborate on certain concepts and ideas in order to make more concrete and tangible an aspect of life that is intangible and uncertain. Art acts, therefore, as a way to "reach" that which is beyond one's "grasp" (Browning). This paper will examine five works of pre-modern art and compare and contrast them to show how art throughout the ages and civilizations has explored the meaning of death and the afterlife in different ways.
Medieval European culture certainly believed in an afterlife. The burial of the dead was performed in remembrance of the Christian burial: the Christ (the God of Christendom) was buried in a tomb in anticipation of the resurrection (the Jews along with the Christians believed that the dead would rise again on the day of Judgment and therefore respect for the corpse and a proper burial was considered an important part of the rite) (Sheen 380). Thus the Tomb Effigy of a Recumbent Knight from the Abbey of Sainte-Marie, La Genevraye, Lower Normandy in the north of France from year 1230-1240 is a perfect illustration of the culture's sense of death as repose -- a period of waiting until the day of Judgment when the body would be resurrected and reunited with the soul, wherever it should happen to be spending eternity (Heaven or Hell). The deceased knight surely would have received the last rites of the Church and so been well prepared, spiritually speaking to come before God for the immediate judgment of the soul. In consideration of this (the knight's assured devotion), the effigy is designed to reflect the peace and tranquility with which the Christian warrior goes to his eternal reward. His head is rested on a pillow, his body enclosed in the chain mail of his soldier's costume. His hands are folded over his breast in a posture of peace and prayer. Limestone is the medium of the effigy and it conveys a sense of a sturdiness and solid conviction that only the Age of Faith could effectively produce.
The knight is covered by a decorative shield that blankets him up to his torso. While the identity of the knight is uncertain, the heraldic imagery on the shield and a description of the sculpture that survives from the 17th century provides some back story as well as a suggestion as to who the personage represented in the limestone sculpture might be. It is supposed that he was a nobleman of the du Merle family named Francois, "who founded the abbey of Sainte-Marie in La Genevraye" in the mid 12th century (Tomb Effigy of a Recumbent Knight from the Abbey of Sainte-Marie, La Genevraye, Lower Normandy). Thus there is a tentative connection between the knight and the religious monastic life, a connection that indicates the high degree to which the Christian soldier placed importance on the Faith. Not interested merely in money, gold or fame, this knight wanted to establish a home for monks where they could pray and work in simplicity and devote their lives to God and the service of the Church.
Monks and other religious people surely would have seen this effigy and been inspired by the knight's faith and devotion. Thus its purpose would have been like a saint's statue, pointing the eyes of the viewer to heaven, where the real life is -- the afterlife with God. In the Christian era, there was no question about the afterlife: it was clearly spelled out in the doctrines of the Church. If you died in the state of grace, you went to Heaven; if not, you went to Hell. It was believed that the reward for such service would be happiness with God in the afterlife. The tomb effigy clearly reflects the solemnity and the assurance with which this knight must have believed in this promise of his faith. Compared to the other artistic items examined in this paper, it is perhaps the most explicit and convincing representation of a soul dedicated to being a soldier for God.
For example, the plastered Jericho skull found in Jericho, Jordan dating from the Neolithic period represents a particular belief dating from that period regarding burials and "the tradition of skull worship" (Strouhal 232). It is supposed that the deceased were venerated by the plaster skulls, which retained the memory of the ancestors typically buried beneath the house where the skull was kept. The skull of the dead would be filled with plaster of an "ochre color" and then "painted over with green varnish" (Strouhal 232). The decorated skull would serve as an embellishment or ornamented remembrance or possibly even as a decorated memento mori (reminder of death). Skulls have often been used throughout history and civilizations as reminders of man's mortality in both pre-Christian and Christian societies. Here, for instance is an example of a Neolithic society using a skull for an artistic purpose -- either as a direct link to the spiritual world (like a sacramental of some kind) or an ornamented relic of a sort. It was not uncommon to find a skull in the cell of a monk in a monastery in the Christian era, though these were typically not decorated like the Neolithic Jericho skull and the purpose was essentially to remind the monk of the transience of this life.
The Neolithic Jericho skull on the other hand bears a different significance that is artistic in its recreation of life, of the structure of the skull, and the shells used for eyes placed in the sockets. Painted, the plastered skull gives the impression of possessing life or of possessing some sort of sacred mystery. It is not as pronounced as the tomb effigy in France, which dates from a much later period when artistic skills have been refined by centuries of labor and craftsmanship and the dogma which the knight expressed in his creed had been codified in European society already for centuries. Unlike that work of art relating to death and the afterlife, the Neolithic skull represents a much smaller portion of history from a much more remote community. Its significance therefore is as mysterious as the afterlife itself. It offers few clues about what it is, what it means, what purpose it serves. It invites the modern viewer to guess at its meaning but does not give any answers.
Similarly, the Mortuary Statue in the Rome Gallery that dates from the 3rd century AD and depicts the bust of a Syrian woman in high relief limestone invites the viewer to guess at the significance of this representation. More classical in its depiction of the deceased it suggests that the artwork is emphasizing the memory of the dead woman and contains little to suggest that there is any mystical or supernatural significance to the artwork. The Jericho skull on the other hand gives the impression of having some sort of religious significance as though it were an instrument in a religious or sacred rite, an object of specific mystical purpose. The Mortuary Statue, on the other hand, more closely resembles the tomb effigy of the medieval knight in France, though it does not quite possess the stateliness of that tomb or the precision of line, form, and 3-dimensionality of that effigy. Both are made of limestone, however, so their similarity in terms of material used is obvious.
In terms of form, the Mortuary Statue is somewhere in between 2-dimensionality and 3-dimensionality. Its high relief gives it a 3-dimension impression but in comparison to the French tomb effigy it is nowhere near as full or complete. The knight's tomb effigy is also more stately in terms of conveying both a spiritual and soldierly aspect. The woman depicted in the Mortuary Statue, however, is less stately and not soldierly at all: she has a turban on her head and jewels around her neck. She was obviously wealthy. Her left arm is up and her hand holds the veil on her head. Falling from the turban is an oval pendant. The Palmyrenian tomb from…