“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19b
There’s nothing wrong with feeling like dirt. Well, once in a while.
For sinner-saints in need of reminding that our only contribution to salvation is sin, Ash Wednesday comes all too infrequently with its dose of humble pie. This side of heaven, we are more apt to get swept up in the latest installment of ‘Downtown Arbies’ and all the insignificant crap in our lives instead of admitting we should be swept up in a dust pan and chucked out the back door.
An artist cannot delve into sacred art without at least once confronting the reality of death and that return-to-dust-thing. Even the joys of life eternal come at a cost, and sacred artists often look a dying Christ in the face for hours at a time, while contemplating that price. Christ crucified, however, is not the only vision of death found in sacred art. Artists have obliged us in showing that man’s earthly days have a relatively short shelf life, echoing the voice of the psalmist who prays, “Teach us to number our days.”
|“The Triumph of Death,”|
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
c. 1562. (Museo del Prado, Madrid.)
Throughout history, artists have depicted this reality in different ways. The slightly macabre, but symbolically realistic views point to our natural condition and certain earthly end. Sometimes the depictions of death are only on the fringes of a piece. At other times, they are pretty much in your face.
If you really want to brighten your day, take a gander at Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death.” Mind you, the piece‘s title is about as heretical as it gets when you take into consideration Christ’s triumph over death. Still, it’s good to jar yourself out of all the concerns of soccer schedules and weekend plans on the boat, and take a peek at the alternative to everlasting life.
Bruegel‘s piece cuts to the quick. You won’t find anyone in the painting that‘s ten feet tall or bullet-proof. ALL die. The point is that some die eternally. The worm indiscriminately tunnels its way through mankind without care of position or wealth or title. The artist’s centuries-old depiction puts to shame the imagination of the Weta Workshop and its slick CG vision of ugly ork hordes. Hell is not pretty. Neither is its highway, nor its entrance ramp.
|“Totentanz” [”Dance of the Dead”],|
by Bernt Notke. c. 1463
(Originally in Marienkirche, Lübeck, Germany.
Fragment moved to St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia.)
During the Black Plague, death was seen as the great equalizer. The “Dance of Death” was a common theme that was intended as a constant reminder of death, but instead of giving it a global dimension, the individual became the target. Hence, a doctor might be shown dancing with skeletal death. So, too, a priest, as well as the Emperor. And if the joi d’vivre had not yet been sucked out of the viewer, there was also death stepping in time with a young mother. And don’t forget the two young lovers with an uninvited guest.
Bernt Notke‘s version of this was his “Totentanz.” Surely, it must have been enough to make one sit up and listen to the sermons in its original setting of Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany. Death is paired up with a seemingly endless slice of society, and if the visuals weren’t pointed enough, there was a short bit of text to drive the nail home. Here is death whispering into the ear of royalty:
“Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Scepter and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance.”
It is a bit sad that Notke‘s painting was badly damaged during a 1942 Allied bombing run, but it’s also relieving that we are spared dwelling too much on the obvious and despairing of it.
|“The Parable of the Buried Treasure,”|
by Edward Riojas. 2013.
(Collection of the artist).
Artists needn’t always get carried away with fire and brimstone. Sometimes a simple nod to death is sufficient. In one of my own pieces, “The Parable of the Buried Treasure,” Jesus Christ is unearthing His treasure out of a field of stone. I thought the headstone of that “treasure box” would be the perfect place to sign the painting. It would also be confessional. And personal. It became more so when a fellow artist somewhat jokingly informed me that the date had, um, passed. It‘s the kind of reminder that’s hard to ignore, and that‘s good. There have been other reminders, too.
When my father died, I tackled a project that most would prefer to avoid. I built his casket. It was my personal way of grieving. I lost hours of sleep to get the thing finished in time for the funeral (as if time really mattered at that point), and every inch of it forced me to face death and its reality. It is sobering when asking the funeral director for inner dimensions of a box. It is sobering to see it with a tufted, white cloth insert. It is sobering to see the same holding one’s father.
|Mourning and tired, but finishing my Father’s casket.|
(Photo courtesy of the Art Curmudgeon.)
It is likewise sobering when inquiring about a necessary size for a stillborn‘s casket, as I once made for a family friend. Handling a box with those abbreviated lines is like death set to poetry. Reciting it is heart-wrenching.
However, unlike those who have no hope, Christian artists grab the chance to point a big finger at death’s waning days through Christ’s victory over the grave. Inside the lid of my Father’s casket I painted a leaf-bearing cross and added the words, “Even so, in Christ shall all be made alive.” We might not laugh in the face of death, but Christians can‘t help but brush off the dust and let out a nearly inaudible snicker.