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Manifestations and symbolisms of mortality andimmortality in Western tradition.

a.1. Emotional states and Christian scriptures:manifesting the human psyche.

In our everyday lives we use phrases words or listen to songs to describe different emotional states. One common word that we use frequently to express some negative feelings such as hatred, dread, guilt, remorse and grief is the term hell which in christian views appear as consequences of sin and punishment. For example, when we have been through something tough in our life we usually say: I have been through hell or when we are surprised, angry or frustrated we use the question: What the hell? As we notice, hell is used to describe the condition of suffering, torture as anguish that is rooted in negative and unexpected human experiences which include dishonesty, selfishness, pride, injustice, discontentment and unfaithfulness. This usage reflects the broader cultural understanding of hell as a place of torment deeply ingrained in Christian theology. The concept of hell, commonly characterized by fire and suffering, has historical roots in Christian scriptures, though interpretations vary between denominations.


Described as fire or as prison and sometimes an open mouthed dragon this place originates from various passages in Christian scriptures, particularly in the New Testament. In texts like the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, there are vivid descriptions of hell as a place of eternal punishment for the wicked. These descriptions include imagery of fire, imprisonment, torment, and separation from God, which have contributed to the popular understanding of hell within Christian theology. Catholicism, for example, has traditionally emphasized a more concrete and literal interpretation of these passages, resulting in doctrines that include the existence of purgatory as a place of temporary punishment or purification before entering heaven. The idea of purgatory was developed to address the question of what happens to souls that are not entirely free from sin but are not condemned to eternal damnation. On the other hand, Orthodox Christianity has tended to approach these scriptures with a more symbolic and mystical interpretation, focusing less on specific details and more on the broader theological implications.


This has led to a different understanding of the afterlife, with Orthodox theology often emphasizing the concept of Hades as a temporary state of awaiting Final Judgment, rather than a place of eternal punishment akin to the Catholic concept of hell.With these said, literal influences contributed to the visual conceptualization of the afterlife.


b.1. The medieval iconography conceptualizing redemption.

These aesthetic manifestations encompass how medievalists dealt with mortality. This concept includes the realization and the fear of death while the hope for salvation or eternal punishment is reflected in various artistic interpretations and expressions across cultures and time periods through the concept of afterlife. Moreover Medieval art offers insight on the medieval conception of mortality/immortality.


In Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315

Mortality is associated with the finality of our earthly existence and death as a manifestation of evil. In this orthodox icon, Hades as a place is symbolized as the prison of mortality and death is often personified as Satan (We also notice the physical characteristics of a broken prison like lockchains, keys etc.). Jesus in this depiction steps upon Satan and wins over mortality promising to humankind immortality through resurrection leading to salvation. From then and now, the gates of Hades are open to anyone who choses to unite with God and exit the prison of Hades.

Overall the atmosphere of the picture resonates solace and hope that’s is heightened through Jesus’ reaching out to Adam and Eve and though His halo and light behind him. In that way he embraces all humanity.


The Harrowing of Hell, Petites Heures, 14th-century illuminated manuscript commissioned by John, Duke of Berry.

In comparison to orthodox depictions, catholic manuscripts intensify the conquer of death through bold conceptual antithesis. The usage of demons, fire, the hellmouth and castle adds up to the struggle of humanity between evil/good. The castle expresses the entrapment of the soul while Hell mouth symbolizes the gate of that prison guarded with demons. In that sense Jesus is highlighted as the sole savior of humanity that triumphs all evil and death. This epic portrayal reinforces and evokes awe and reverence of Christ’s victory.


b.2. Michelangelo's conception of redemption

Awe and reverence is evoked through Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judjement. Michelangelo finished this painting on 1541 under the commission of Pope Paul III. 200 years later than the frescoes and manuscripts above, he may have drawn inspiration from a variety of literal narratives and Christian medieval icons. Surely, he has been inspired from The Book of Revelation due to the direct reference of the title which is associated with the concept of the final judgment where the dead are judged according to their deeds and are drawn away from demons or angels. However his conception is likely to draw references from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. For example the torment of the damned souls and the abyss as vivid imagery symbolizes in a more detailed way the emotional states of souls associated with fear, guilt, pain and anguish. Michelangelo employs allegorically through gestures and poses this torment while the horrific bottom of Hell, called the Abyss, is placed clearly on the bottom of the the painting where all the deceased depicted with skulls and grey tones are placed for judjement from Christ along with living beings. Christ again is placed in the central axis of the painting above and down differentiated only through his light or cross. In that way, Michelangelo conceptualizes the death and resurrection of Him symbolizing antithetically the Christian human condition of mortality and immortality. What stands out as an overall sense is sharing the naturalistic view provided in the Christian eschatology.


The Last Judgement - Michelangelo

b.3. Bosch's narrative gap as a transcendence between redemption and sin.

This moral and symbolic view of mortality/immortality appears in an unconventional and detailed manner at Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s discourse in the Harrowing of Hell serves as a distinct discourse compared to Dante which influenced Western religious art through is architecture of hell. The main tome he offered to the conception of hell is the mystical and surreal nature of his imagery which defies a particular structure offering a broader theological implication. This implication navigates an allegory of innocence and corruption, temptation and consequence, and the eternal struggle between sin and salvation. These consequences of moral corruption and the enduring repercussions of one's actions in the mortal realm defines one’s afterlife. Particularly, the complexity of the human existence and struggle is weaved through his use of fantastical creatures, vivid landscapes, and symbolic motifs. His depiction of hell as a place of torment and damnation, contrasted with scenes of heavenly bliss and redemption, underscores the moral implications of human behavior and the eternal struggle between evil/good. The emphasis in grotesque and fantastical imagery applies narrative gaps which open interpretations as a case of reflecting on the complexities of sin, redemption, and the human condition.


The Garden of Earthly Delights - Hieronymus Bosch

c.1.Art as an act of transcendence to the fear of mortality.

To sum up, art or religion has attempted to confront the fear of mortality with the promise of salvation and the conception of immortality. A means of achieving that immortality is though transcendence of existence. Christianity has reflected and given its discourse into that transcendence with the case of Christ. Either somebody is Christian or not we could interpret the Harrowing of Hell as an act of transcendence. As Becker says humans are the creatures who can create symbolic identities and build timeless symbolic worlds. If so, Christian art, medieval and renaissance art has dealt with the theme of transcendence through religious symbolism that incorporates morality. In comparison to that, contemporary art deals with the theme of immortality, death and transcendence most of the times through other principles. Some paradigms involve exploring the impermanence of life, the human condition, and the search for meaning amidst mortality.As a result, they may exploit Christian scripts and artwork in order to transcend their fear of mortality arising existential questions that decontextualize theological concepts as found in christianity. This decontextualization doesn’t necessarily alienate people from theios side but could enrich its interpretations. Moreover, in our other chapter we will discuss how certain contemporary artists approach the fear of mortality though existentialism.




Cover Photo: Detail with self-portrait from Hieronymus Bosch's painting, "Hell"


Bibliography: -T.Smith (2015) The Book of Human Emotions, Profile Books, Great Britain (pages: 32-35, 85, 86,114-120, 196-198)

-Blanchard (1932) Whatever Happened to Hell?, Darlington, Co. Durham, England : Evangelical Press (pages:15, 16, 20,37-42, 82, 85, 110, 146)

-Hoffmann, Petra (2008) Infernal imagery in Anglo-Saxon charters, University of St Andrews, Scotland (pages: 143, 144)

-Papanikolaou (2008) Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr (pages: 195, 473)

-Ross, Leslie (1996) Medieval Art, Greenwood Press (page: 111)

-Philippe Aries (1981) The hour of our death, Random house, New York (page: 96)

-Kelly (1950) Early Christian Doctrines (page: 185)

-Emille, Male (1913) Religious art in France, XIII century; a study in mediaeval iconography and its sources of inspiration (pages: 253, 254)

-Izydorczyk Zbigniew (1997) The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus : texts, intertexts, and contexts in Western Europe (page: 116)

-Marcia B Hall (2002) Michelangelo : the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (pages: 116, 178, 182, 211, 218, 223)

-W.Bosing (1987) Between Heaven and Hell, Taschen (page: 22)

-H.Belting (2002) The Garden on Earthly Delights (page: 14)

-J.Hardie, Bick (2012)Transcendence, Symbolic Immortality and Evil, Human Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue, Springer (pages: 420-422)

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