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Vishnu Christ Avatar

L. Caruana 2012
65 cm x 120 cm – graphite, crayon & casein on paper


This painting was born of a profoundly mystical experience in the temples of Khajuraho, while travelling through India.
I’d been living in France for several years before that, studying the French Gothic style in its numerous cathedrals. During my Khajuraho experience, I sensed a profound link between the guilds of the Hindu and French Gothic stone masons, and this piece became my initiation into their visionary world. Ultimately, it fused not only the myths and symbols of these two traditions, but also their cultural styles.

After exploring spectral colour in my previous works, I now wanted to focus on volume and tonality in the absense of all colour. So, on a grey tonal ground I rendered with graphite and black crayon, then highlighted with white casein – continually alternating between these darks and lights to gradually build up the painting.
I began with only an outline of the architecture and main figure, then filled in this structure by ‘seeing’ the forms and drawing them in – starting from the bottom and working my way up to the top. Random stains of paint, like decalcomania, aided my visualizations, which were then refined into well-defined shapes.
Thematically, the composition moves from Genesis at the bottom to the Apocalypse at the top, with the appearance of the world-saviour (or ‘avatar’ of Vishnu-Christ) in the middle of time. Adam and Eve appear at the bottom, and she offers him fruit from a bizarre tree which is, I came to realize, the Tree of Vision. On the columns to the left and right, two makaras (Hindu gargoyles) at the base open their mouths to release a stream of maya – the world of appearances. These streams of curling vegetation ascend the evolutionary ladder from formless material (chitta) to plants, animals and humans in the form of dwarf caryatids.
The central figure has eight hands which portray various moments (or symbolic qualities) in Christ’s avatarial incarnation: praying, teaching, overcoming evil, crucifixion, rulership and the last judgement.
Behind him on the lintel is the ‘Tetramorph’ or four beasts of the evangelists (the angel of Matthew, bull of Luke, lion of Mark, and eagle of John), which also symbolize the four quarters of space and time (the cardinal directions, plus the solstices and equinoxes).
In the upper portion we behold the Archangel Shiva-Michael dancing his cataclysmic dance at the end of time while weighing the souls of the dead and overcoming the Great Beast (or makara – the source of illusion). At the base of the tympanum we see two gargoyles in the Gothic style. They too spew forth a stream of maya, but Sanskrit and Latin letters emerge over top, prophesying that the end of the world will be a revelation rather than a total annihilation. The Sanskrit text runs: I GIVE YOU MY DIVINE EYE: BEHOLD! (from The Bhagavad Gita 11:8). And the Latin text says: BEHOLD: I MAKE ALL THINGS ANEW! (from The Book of Revelation21:5).
At the very top is the Divine Eye which sends forth rays of light to illuminate the stream of maya (all in the form of the alpha and the omega).
Over the course of the seven years that it took me to complete this work, the Hindu and Gothic masons taught me many ‘sacred codes’ – by which I mean, arcane techniques of rendering form in order to manifest the Sacred. For example, it was only when I was more than halfway up the painting that I realized a recurring armature underlies all the figures – in the shape of a triangle and circle inscribed in a square (which I then carved explicitly at the base). So, beginning with the gargoyles, I used this armature more consciously.
Stranger still is the sacred code of the kirtimukha or ‘face of glory’ – the bizarre face which can be seen atop the girdle. Eventually I realized that this figure consisted of two faces in profile – joined as one face frontally. Both the Gothics and the Hindus shared this motif – rendering a face from multiple angles simultaneously. So, I transferred it to the four beasts of the evangelists.
Finally, to signify my induction into the Visionary Guild, I etched my mason’s mark into the base of the stone on the right.

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