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The Harrowing of Hell

L. Caruana 1999
70 x 90 cm, oil & varnish on wood


The key image in this painting was given to me in a dream, which I had one hot sleepless night in 1990 while staying on Malta.
Back in Toronto, I began sketching that oneiric image onto a prepared wooden panel, but it soon fell under the influence of a myth I was reading at the time: Christ’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’.
This myth appears in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and explains how Christ, during the three days and nights between his death and resurrection, descended into Hades so as to free all the souls entrapped there. In my painting, it is not Christian souls who are liberated by Christ, but the ‘pagan’ gods of elder mythologies.
This painting was carried with me in my wanderings through Europe. Each time a new experience transpired in my life, a new figure uprose from the depths of Hell.
This iconography included the Hindu Goddess Kali (left), who wields in her four hands the instruments of her cruelty and compassion. And Quetzlcoatl (right), the Mayan God who dies and arises from the open mouth of the plumed serpent.
Below them are (clockwise): the Krishna-child, the alchemical Hermaphroditus, the ancient Magna Mater, and Moses upholding the Brazen Serpent.
Meanwhile, above them in the chapel’s architecture is the ram-headed scarabaeus of ancient Egypt upholding the solar disc. As I eventually realized, all of the Gods and Goddesses in this painting strive upwards towards the solar disc because they are all – like Christ – Deities of death and rebirth.
The complex iconography in this painting caused me to delve deeper into the ways different cultural symbols may be combined in a work of art. The result was a startling discovery: I learned the more ancient manner of symbolic thinking. The Gods and Goddesses of different traditions are not merely empty images, but life-altering symbols which may be experienced and understood once we engage them with our own lives.
In the case of The Harrowing of Hell, though I had developed its composition intuitively as a result of different life-experiences, it became for me a kind of mandala, revealing life’s underlying wholeness and holiness.

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