I was just sitting down to write about skulls in renaissance art and what should turn up but this fine modern interpretation on the subject by Peter Grieg.
Anyway, skulls have been bumping about in my head for a while and the recent journal entry on Cathedrals prompted me to put my thoughts in order.
The subject sits, dressed in finery surrounded by the symbols of his success and there on the table is a scull, hollowly looking out. It is an image that recurs in late renaissance art, reminding the viewer that however great the earthly success it will soon be over.
(David Bailly, Self Portrait – Vanitas with a Young Painter)
It disconcerts us now. We have sanitised life and, at least at some level, dream that it is possible to forever push out the inevitable. If I spend enough time on the bike, if I wait long enough the cure will be found. The suffering and inevitability of my mortality can be faced if I ignore it. If a I am busy enough, successful enough or drunk enough the reaper will surely pass me by.
The misery is that as we chase longevity, success and celebratory champagne we rob life itself of richness. I have had the privilege of spending a number of weeks with very ill cancer patients. They almost universally remark that until they became ill they never really smelt a rose, felt the flow of water on the skin or felt the sun upon their face. Confronting their mortality, life became precious. The tension between now and the hereafter produces a transcending vitality. And in this they also find reservoirs of love and compassion for others they did not know existed.
We take the sculls from our personal paintings and we are left just with the brushes, beauties and Blackberrys. They seem so terribly important but so ultimately empty without appreciation of the grand and awesome context of our lives. If we live with this context we fill our lives with the essence of every moment. And we also find art in this.