THE HARROWING OF HELL
L. Caruana 2000
70 x 90 cm, oil & varnish on wood
THE HARROWING OF HELL
THE ORIGINAL IDEA
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.
I dreamt of a Buddhist monk peacefully meditating under a tree. He then started to levitate upwards into the branches of the tree. Suddenly, a horde of demons appeared in a burst of flames and devoured him. This shocked me out of my dream but ~ just before I woke up, I noticed that the monk had remained perfectly calm and at peace. Stranger still, he started to transform into the figure of Christ dressed as a monk.
Back in Toronto, I began sketching the image onto a prepared wooden panel. But the drawing 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 nights between his death and resurrection, descended into Hades to free the souls who were trapped there. In traditional depictions of The Harrowing of Hell, everyone from Adam and Eve to John the Baptist are liberated by Christ from the Hell-mouth.
In my painting, Christ is rising from the tomb, and the figures he liberates are not Christian souls but the forgotten gods of other cultures. At the time, I thought it was very daring of me to include these 'pagan idols' in a Christian work of art. Perhaps it was my attempt to liberate certain 'archetypes' or 'the sacred symbols' from my own unconscious.
I carried this painting with me in my wanderings through Europe. Each time a new experience transpired in my life, a new figure appeared in the swirling clouds below Christ.
THE WORK IN PROGRESS
I don't have many progress shots, but the two below of the drawing stage (digitally restored from old Kodachromes) show how it began with just Christ and Kali, accompanied by the Krishna child below. Indeed, those two made a strange couple, and I called it my "Christ and Kali painting." Kali's figure was inspired by a Bengali girlfriend of mine at the time.
The figures below them began as a variety of crayon smudges, and eventually materialized into the deities seen in the second photo (slightly obscured by the camera's flash). Only during the painting stage did I add Christ's red robes which (surrounded by Shiva's disc of golden flames) echoes the solar disc at the top.
I finished this painting in Ernst Fuchs' studio in Monaco, and exhibited it shortly thereafter. My mentor gave me some important advice, such as glazing violet over the green Quetzlecoatl figure to harmonize it and place it more in the painting. At the time, I was still working in dammar varnish and oils.
L. CARUANA NOTEBOOK
As with Christ Alchemist, so here I sketched out images and ideas, such as the sculptures that inspired some of the figures. The details may be viewed here.
The painting's iconography includes 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 rises 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.
THE GODS OF DEATH & REBIRTH
Meanwhile, in the chapel's architecture is the ram-headed scarabaeus of ancient Egypt upholding the solar disc. The scarab symbolizes the rising sun while the ram symbolizes the setting sun. This image combines them both, as the eternally-rising-and-setting sun ~ a symbol of death and rebirth. As I eventually realized, all of the gods and goddesses in this painting strive upwards towards the solar disc because all of them - including Christ - are deities of death and rebirth.
(The small images to the left and right are Mayan and Christian ~ specifically Maltese ~ images of redemption, of rising up from the underworld and its purgatorial flames).
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. I realized that the gods and goddesses of other cultures are not empty images, but life-altering symbols which may be fully experienced, once we engage them with our own lives. They become symbols of our own soul, and their myths offer us new pathways for the eternal soul journey...