In the historical paintings and drawings of Francis of Assisi he is often depicted praying in a cave with a skull resting on a stone table. Francis often frequented a natural grotto just outside of Assisi, Italy, which is now named the Eremo delle Carceri (in Latin carceres means “isolated place”).
Similarly, Qohelet finds himself in a hidden cave of crystals. The intersecting quartz columns bathed in pink, purple and blue, resemble stained glass windows in a cathedral, a sanctuary where death is often contemplated. The motif of the skull was used in vanitas still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age to “remind viewers that they would die” (in Latin, memento mori). So too, candles are a symbol for the transience of life, which at any moment can be snuffed out for each of us.
In Søren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age” he writes about how the lazy mass is foolishly amused by the reflektor, becoming mirrors imitating the pursuits of society––whether money, pleasure, or entertainment. This sentiment rings ever so true in our modern age, where the reflektor controls and distracts us from pondering the existential questions of life, until it is too late and we die.
The book of Ecclesiastes has much to say about death. Qohelet writes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die.”[i] However, in our contemporary death-adverse culture it is taboo to even mention the fact that death awaits us all. Many are obsessed with transcending human limitations, hoping in a trans-humanist future where we can upload our brains to eternal computer hard-drives (which actually sounds like hell to me). Yet, with all our medical advancements, there is wisdom in accepting that death is part of the natural order. It is still one of the surest things in life (that, and taxes, of course!). From a Jungian perspective, Qohelet experiences a decentering of his ego and a realignment with the self, making space for communion with God. [ii]
Qohelet muses, “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” [iii] Death is the great leveler. Both the wicked and the wise meet their same demise. Admittedly macabre, Qohelet looks death square in the face, peering beyond the smoke and mirrors. While he has enjoyed and made the most of his present life, he is not neglecting to prepare for the life to come. Will we?
[i] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
[ii] Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 505.
[iii] Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
Memento Mori is a new work from Vanitas and Viriditas, which will debut at Rehs Contemporary Gallery NYC from April 28 - May 26, 2023. For purchase inquiry, please contact the gallery.