The text below is the excerpt from the book Art of Eternal, written by Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
— William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
The mysterious preoccupation with death and the afterlife has been constantly explored and revisited throughout time. The harsh reality of death and the aging process, act as a foundation for the belief in eternal life. Human beings in hopes of evading death, seek satisfaction in imagining a source that could grant immortality. Throughout time, symbols such as the ‘Fountain of Youth’, the ‘Holy Grail’, and the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ demonstrate both the alluring nature and popularity of this subject. As a result of nature, myth and religion, humans are continuously reminded of the impending notion of death. The stories of Sisyphus, Achilles, Icarus and a plethora of other legendary characters, act as didactic tools illustrating the impending fate that ensues when humans attempt to defy the laws and limits of the universe. Without death, humans would metaphorically undergo the fate of Sisyphus, the unfortunate task of pushing a massive stone up a perpetual hill. Earthly immortality represents an unnatural entrapment which would greatly impede the cycle of life. The seasons constantly remind us of the transient nature of the universe; the revival and return of spring is dependent upon the dismal and sombre quality of winter. Mankind cannot escape death because it is deeply ingrained in the environment that surrounds it and therefore represents an integral part of what it means to be human.
However simply acknowledging the inevitability of death, does not provide us with the ability to perceive and understand the event itself. Human beings can prepare for the causes and circumstances of death, yet there is no explanation of the inmost reality of the fatal event. The circumstances of the mortal hour are infinitely varied, yet the crux of the experience is continually the same: there are a thousand modes of dying, but there is only one ‘death’. Therefore, recognizing the possibility of an indefinable death implies the existence of an unknown, an extremely overwhelming realisation. In order to come to terms with this fact, humans shift their focus to the possibility of an afterlife, finding comfort in imagining its splendour. John Keats embraces this idea of the indefinite in his famous poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, expressing “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;” (Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, lines 11-12). Evidently, believing in an afterlife alleviates the fears often associated with death. The dying Socrates said “that he should trust his soul on the hope of a future life as upon a raft, and launch away into the unknown.” No emblem of our human state, with their mysteries, perils, threats and promises, could be more impressive than that of a vessel launched into the great deep. Thus the imagination broods over both the prophetic warnings and alluring invitations characterised by these mysterious havens of eternity.
The obsession with the Eternal is deeply embedded within history; entire civilizations and cultures have developed belief systems surrounding the prospect of life after death. Elaborate art works such as sarcophagi, tomb relics, religious paintings and even more abstract pieces, provide an excellent socio-cultural lens in which to understand specific beliefs, rituals and philosophical concepts regarding the afterlife. In addition, the juxtaposition between art and excerpts of poetry and prose creates a dynamic force, demonstrating the sheer intensity of this topic.
I. Ancient Conceptions of Death and the Afterlife
Examining Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman works of art gives invaluable insight into some of the many ways that human beings prepared for death and the journey to another realm. The majority of the works of art within this chapter are tomb relics or other forms of funerary art which often depict the deities, ceremonies, customs and beliefs surrounding death and the afterlife. Exploring these cultures and their works of art collectively illustrates several of the re-occurring themes and beliefs that existed amongst these civilisations. For example each of these religions utilised some type of judgement process to determine the fate of the deceased, yet the details and myths surrounding this process are vastly different.
II. Christian Doctrine of Death and the Afterlife
The first section outlines the dominant Christian views regarding death and the afterlife. With an emphasis on Patristic, Medieval and Modern doctrines, this exploration of the future life discusses both the components that have shaped Christianity over time, and the debates regarding the different realms of the afterlife. The second part of this chapter focuses more on the Christian symbolism integrated into artwork itself and how it relates to death and the afterlife. The cross, the serpent, and various symbols of death are extensively discussed within this chapter, providing a more comprehensive study of Christ as Martyr, the Garden of Eden and heaven and hell. The art works within this chapter encompass mural paintings from the catacombs, representations of the crucifixion, ‘Vanitas’ sculptures and paintings and a plethora of other works.
III. Visions of the Afterlife
In addition to examining ancient civilisations and interpreting the ways in which people often came to terms with the advent of death, it is equally interesting to take a more symbolic approach exploring the subjective representations associated with the following aspects of the afterlife, Purgatory and Hell, Heaven and Paradise and Reincarnation and Enlightenment. This section is intended to illustrate how artists visualise and imagine the unknown. From Islamic mosaics symbolising heaven to illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, from sculptures and paintings depicting the life of Buddha to modern interpretations of paradise, these works of art not only emphasize the obsession with death and afterlife, but also to show the ways in which art as a form lends itself to this topic. For example, Islamic artists utilised unified lines and patterns to express ultimate perfection and harmony with the divine. These works also demonstrate the human quest to illustrate the ‘unknowable’, in efforts to grapple with death and the uncertainty of the afterlife.
To get a better insight into Art of Eternal, please continue this exciting adventure by clicking on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia, Amazon Canada, Kobo, Ebook Gallery, Parkstone International, Barnes&Noble, Google, Scribd, Bookshout, Overdrive,Numilog,Ellibs, Ebooks.com