Detail from The Pearl

L. Caruana 2002
50 x 80 cm, oil & varnish on wood




       I thought I would paint the Underworld in grey tones. H. R. Giger had told me that schizophrenics sometimes saw Hellish scenes that were bled of all colour, so that everything appeared a dull, drab grey. 

       After painting it that way, I wasn't terribly happy with the result. Then I had a very strange dream in which I was in a highly-charged space, magnetically circling around my polar opposite, a kind of Doppelgänger. And the space we were in was extremely dark, as if lit only by ultra-violet light. 

       After waking, I knew immediately that I needed to paint the Underworld in that strange ultra-violet light from my dream. So I changed the Underworld, also adding columns of smoke, and was quite pleased with the final result. 



       When it came time to depict the Devil in his Hell, I painfully recalled certain hallucinations I had while struggling alone in a house in Malta. At times, the Devil appeared to me in a fairly traditional manner: with horns and cloven hooves. But, a lot of the Hellish imagery also emerged at that time with a distinctively Aztec or Mayan appearance. Whenever I looked through books on Mesoamerican art, certain images would strike me with a dark resonance. That sudden feeling of 'recognition' caused me to use certain Aztec images in the underworld.

       Strangely, the Devil also acquired Hindu feature of four-handedness, holding a Yoni cup and Shiva lingam. I did all of this intuitively, but later realized that the figure bore some similarities to a very ancient image of Proto-Shiva from the Indus Valley culture. I'm still in the process of unravelling the meaning of all these images.






       As The Pearl neared completion, I viewed it under the influences of hashish. The result was an unexpected journey through its underworld imagery. I was led from image to image by my own feelings of fear ~ each image causing me to shudder in fearful recognition. The journey began with the skull surrounded by knotted two-headed serpents (obscured by smoke in the final version), then descended the stairs to the right. Crossing under those stairs into the central area, I re-ascended using the stairs on the left.



       While I'm in an altered state, the images evoke the experiences they portray. The image of a skull, for example, does not only symbolize death - it is death.

       The skull appears at the entrance to the Underworld because the only way to enter the land of the dead is through death - the (real or imagined) experience of our own demise. Such an experience, naturally, evoked in me a terrible fear. However, the serpents surrounding the skull reminded me that there is no death without rebirth (serpents, by repeatedly shedding their skin, manifest the cycle of death and rebirth).

       Around the skull are two entwined serpents, each with a head on either end (I'll explain the Aztec and Mayan two-headed serpent below...)



       The descent begins. The simple act of 'descending the stairs' evokes a whole series of childhood fears in me: fear of falling through the stairs, of what we may encounter below, of what lies beneath the stairs...
       The first image encountered is a Mayan pulque plant with a god, shaman, or saviour figure in its branches. He is holding a jar of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and has clearly lost his head. From within, a kind of vision serpent emerges.
       The Mayans were known to have used hallucinogenic mushrooms and the intoxicating pulque on their vision quests. But, in my case, the ingestion of such substances evokes a fair bit of anxiety. I fear 'losing my head', and becoming lost in the visions that emerge. Still, it is only by mastering these fears that we may descend further into the underworld.





       The descent continues. My fear of this figure is particularly intense. It evokes the earliest dream I can clearly remember - a childhood nightmare of descending the stairs to the basement because I heard a strange sound, like water streaming in the pipes. And then, as a five-year old child, I peeked into the triangular niche between the ceiling and the stairs to behold the source of the sound. I witnessed the spectacle of metallic skeletons streaming back and forth, impelled by a strange apparatus at their feet.
       Here, in this Aztec sculpture of Xolotl, I found a figure which accurately reproduces that horrific memory. He has a strange, metallic quality, and a hole where his heart should be. Only by mastering our fear of death may we descend further into the Underworld.



       Crossing under the right set of stairs, we behold the principle figure in Hell, blazing with blackened light. I last saw this figure while suffering from hallucinations, feeling myself on the brink of madness - the horned god with cloven hooves who stepped out from under the stairs...
       This image is the ultimate assemblance of my fears. Everything that Gwenn had experienced and taught me about fear, madness and death is here. Unfortunately, I'd never been so close to death - in the form of taking my own life - as I had been on that evening when the Devil appeared to me in a spontaneous hallucination. The madness in Gwenn's gaze led me there, and her disappearance from my life brought it about. This was her devil.
       The little girl trapped in the devil's grip - is it her or me? In his other two hands, the Devil holds up the Hindu yoni and lingam - symbols of male and female sexual energy. I'm not sure why Hindu iconography crept into my depiction of the Devil. But it is all there: sex, death and regeneration.


       The Devil is not committing this act with malice, but an absolute calm. Like a Bodhisattva with his shakti in his lap, he possesses stillness, symmetry, balance, harmony and repose. It is negative and fear-inspiring, yet remains a symbol of unity.
       Amid all these fear-inspiring figures, the most fearful of all, the most maddening, accepts evil and cruelty with the utmost calm, because it recognizes them as a part of the cycle, part of a higher unity. We must not fear death. Nor must we fear abuse, cruelty, or evil.

       Here, in the lower world where Satan has rule, all of these fearful things are to be encountered, experienced, accepted, and overcome.







       Tragically, there are those who have encountered such images of horror, and yet, have never accepted or overcome them. The beholder remains trapped in the underworld, gazing at horrific images with fearful fascination.
       The two acolytes before Satan have this quality: burning their incense in adoration of him. One is smiling and the other is frowning. Both are trapped in their gaze upon the greatest of horrors. Below them are two texts in ancient Greek. One text poses the disturbing question: Pothen ta kakonWhence comes evil? And the other offers in response the warning: Ton diabolon 
me phobethes ~ Do not fear the Devil.




       The journey continues up the stairs to the left, where a crouching Aztec Goddess of Birth appears, her face distorted in the agony of parturition.

       Having reached the nadir of the journey, the only way up is through rebirth ~ a complete letting go of all that has come before, and a movement toward transformation and renewal. 
       But the stairs which ascend also have railings with huge serpents - serpents which descend. The whole thing becomes a maddening game of Snakes and Ladders, in which the player that hopes to rise up may accidentally fall again.

       (As a child, I was obsessed by the simple board game of Snakes and Ladders, but for me its imagery always took on a much darker resonance).



       Avoiding the serpentine descent, the journey continues upward. This strange 'sexual plant' is not Aztec, but conjured from the depths of my own imagination. It parallels the pulque plant on the far right which is associated with intoxication.

       Perhaps its sexual imagery evokes the lost memories of our own conception. In any case, its images of insemination and fecundation remind us of the fearful cycle of death and rebirth, brought about through sex and regeneration.
       If we can but accept all of these underworld images without completely surrendering fear, then we can finally ascend the stairs, quit the dark underworld, and behold the light of the pearl above.





       Finally re-emerging into the overworld, we recognize the true meaning of the pearl: it is that which remains pure and untouched by evil. It may pass through death and rebirth, remaining unchanged. Indeed, it is the soul or atman, the seed of eternal life, and the perfect remembrance of our true oneness with the Divine.
       And yet, the threat of annihilation remains. Surrounding the pearl is the two-headed serpent or dragon. The head on the right is alive and devouring. The head on the left is a mere skull. The Mayans and Aztecs imagined that this two-headed sky serpent swallowed the sun each night. To complete its journey through the underworld, the sun required the hearts and blood of the sacrificed. In other words, its movement though the underworld was impelled by human life blood, which was offered in return for the sun's own sacrifice, it's life-giving power. Only in this manner could the sun re-emerge the next morning - renewed, reborn.
        The endless exchange of life for life, in an eternal round of death and rebirth ~ this is one of the Aztecs' and Mayans' most cruel and maddening truths. And if we accept it, then we recognize that the pearl, like the sun, may be swallowed once more...


Email: visionnaire@lcaruana.com