Is it Due to a Deep Interest in the Afterlife?

I had a conversation with a friend recently that included the above question. When pulled from its context, it makes a great title for a blog post, don’t you think?

We were chatting about a work by Édouard Manet (Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, 1865) and, as the conversation meandered, we spoke of Madrid’s excellent Museo del Prado and so I revealed that I really love a lot of that explicitly religious style of medieval art that characterizes Old World collections like El Prado’s. When she pressed further on what drew me to it, I fell back to an old standby of mine, Hieronymus Bosch and his work The Garden of Earthly Delights. You likely have seen the painting; Bosch is well known for his especially creative and visually exciting depictions of religious scenes, the most popular of which are his depictions of Hell and damnation.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1450-1516

The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1450-1516

I used Bosch as a proxy to talk symbolism in artwork. For example, the Hell of Early Delights is full of musical instruments (lust incarnate) which complement the rampant (and in some cases unconventional) sex going on in the Garden of the main panel. Then — as all my discussions of medieval symbology tend to go — the talk turned to Dante and the many-leveled allegory that is The Divine Comedy. Though I had arrived at the connection between these two artists and medieval religious art in general by a figuration argument, it was here that my friend asked if my love of medieval and Renaissance art didn’t really have something to do with a deep interest in the afterlife.

It gave me pause for a minute, if maybe just because the facts I had laid out provided such a convenient conclusion, though one I had never thought of myself.

In short, the answer is probably “no,” suitable evidence be damned. At least it’s a “no” in the sense that I don’t have any day-to-day inclination to worry much about that sort of thing. I only really care about the afterlife in my art and then only since I think it makes a visually and intellectually interesting subject. Though my medieval favorites Bosch and Dante both featured the afterlife extensively, the parts I find perhaps most compelling are less the otherworldly aspects than the worldly ones. Put another way, though the scenes both artists set are not our own, the characters and situations within in some many ways are.

Recall that both artists I speak of were communicating directly to the common man. Dante’s book was the equivalent of a New York Times Bestseller. Written in the vernacular, it was filled with people and events of the day and achieved wide release and success within Dante’s lifetime. In Inferno, for example, our traveling narrator winds his way through Hell by manipulating its inhabitants, gossiping about the future and cussing out enemies, a story that would sell well even if the background weren’t the nine circles. Bosch, too, spoke to the little guy; his work was mostly public, greeting local church patrons at mass. In this case we have Bishop Steve’s same old story about “Thou shalt not commit adultery” on one side versus a picture of a flute up your ass on the other. The undercurrent to the work may be the afterlife, but the real fascination is independent of or at least complimentary to it.

The connections — those links between the human everydayness and the high concept of life after death — are really where I find the appeal. It comes back to my original explication in terms of symbolism; to be blunt about things is to be boring, but to be subtle and to couch the issues in the familiar,… that is the way that the message is delivered most effectively. [1]

Upon realizing this, the story can now return to its start. Why were we talking about this particular Manet work in the first place? The painting was recently taken off display at the Art Institute of Chicago for transport to a Paris exhibition and I was commenting not only about this work, but the suite of Manets that usually hang together in the same gallery. Jesus Mocked is explicitly religious, but when viewed alongside the others, the continuity of the painted style connects them. On either side of this work hang two larger-than-life renderings of beggars and I cannot think of a more low subject to contrast with the high concept of Christ’s final sufferings. Yet, so closely juxtaposed, we sympathize with all three though we be neither beggars nor messiahs.

Manet Composite

(Left) Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher), 1865/67; (Middle) Jesus Mocked by Soldiers, 1865; (Right) Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher), 1965/67

Curious the connections one can make, right?


[1] The same friend of this story also recently attended the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture with me at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition, if you are not familiar with it, dealt explicitly with sexual and gender identity and drew national attention when the Smithsonian chose to pull David Wojnarowicz’s work A Fire in my Belly from the show under pressure from Republican congressmen and conservative lobby groups. At the show, we arrived at a somewhat related conclusion to this story’s, though by unrelated means. The exhibition began with many contemporary works that, in general, seemed to be very forthright, explicit and (supposedly) provocative whereas the exhibition ended with older works (of the Modern era) where the artists tended to be more restrained, pushing the boundaries in subtler and (one might argue) more creative ways. The former was boring and forgettable… the latter effective and still part of our discussions after I returned to Chicago.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Is it Due to a Deep Interest in the Afterlife?

  1. Remind me to get you into Pieter Bruegel. Much more uplifting but just as clever. 😉

  2. I know Pieter Bruegel… not as well as Bosch, but a little. (Tower of Babel, yeah?) And, while I would not call Bosch “uplifting,” I hardly find him depressing. Maybe it’s since I don’t have a “deep interest in the afterlife” so I don’t take his imagery to be anything I need to worry about ever encountering, but mostly I find his stuff cheeky. Actually, he’s got such great color work and so many great faces that I think I’d have a hard time getting depressed even if I did believe it all. But… there’s room in my life for Bruegel, too!

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