Caravaggio — “St. Jerome in Meditation,” circa 1605 and Sarah Lucas — “Self Portrait with Skull,” 1997
While it’s certainly not necessary to become a theologian to examine art with theological import, simple observations add depth to the process. One example is the motif of skulls. They cover the invisible — they house our psychic mysterium — and yet they also offer apertures through which we, literally, see the world. They house both memory and vision. Additionally, the ground where Christ was crucified was named “Golgotha,” the place of the skull. In mythological terms, this can be construed as the new cosmic mountain or axis mundi around which everything that exists was [re]arranged.
Skulls certainly figure prominently throughout the canon of Western painting. One example among thousands is Caravaggio’s “Saint Jerome in Meditation,” ca. 1605. The Italian Baroque master painted a number of portraits of the Church Father, a contemplative hermit responsible for creating the Latin Vulgate. Caravaggio’s choice to depict the figure in chiaroscuro suggests that it is darkness that invites mystery and cultivates a meditative state. Thorough illumination is resisted because a rich “center” is constituted by something indefinite and without clear delineation. Moreover, the skull in Caravaggio’s painting reminds us that Golgotha and its concomitant stony ground is the place where things such as despair, anguish and cruelty are transmuted into a place of fecundity.
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Caravaggio’s work is brought into greater clarity when juxtaposed with work by the contemporary artist, Sarah Lucas. “Self Portrait with Skull” was produced in 1997 and shows us a woman framed by a doorway and addressing the camera. Between her blue and orange sneakers is a skull placed such that it lines up with her own head. Unlike the image of St. Jerome, she’s seated in a brightly lit room that offers an antithesis of the cave of the desert father. Her legs are spread wide and what seems to bloom between her thighs is death.
Or is it? Perhaps it’s the same sacred ground to which we’ve been alluding. It’s merely given a new context. This new world has no dim corners. It’s “enlightened.” Thus, there can be no “spooks” or gods in the room. Everything “is what it is” to use the current vernacular. The “there there” is everywhere. It’s without a tear, a rip in the fabric of the known. And, if it seems a bit leaden, maybe it’s supposed to be exactly that. It’s a new incarnation for the people willing to gaze into — and out of — gaping cranial orbits that are unblinking.
In any case, it’s certainly an interesting counterpoint to Caravaggio’s painting — and because we learn by analogy, it’s invaluable. The task of “seeing” can be woefully discomfiting. But so is the process of “dreaming forward,” of allowing myth to evolve. In fact, the work of the contemporary British artists, particularly the YBAs, remind us that the lacunae in our psyches, the places of discomfort, exhibit an accrued richness. They demand that we maintain a sense of narrative and ambiguity that we might, out of sheer intellectual lassitude, reject. Such a willingness to transcend the constricted sphere of the literal is a jarring task. But all the better. It means that what we deem “normative” is being forced to assume new shapes. And, in the process, our “pathologies” (our tendency toward fundamentalism) are delicately dismantled.
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“Nunquam enim satiatur oculus visu.” — Cusanus
“The eye, as a sense organ, is neither satiated nor limited by anything visible; for the eye can
never have too much of seeing; likewise, intellectual vision is never satisfied with a view of
the truth…. The striving for the infinite, the inability to stop at anything given or attained is
neither a fault nor a shortcoming of the mind; rather it is the seal of its divine origin and of