These photos date back to 2016; they were taken in the temple of Chongfu, located on a hill in the city of Quanzhou in China, during the opening of the vase containing the mummified remains of Fu Hou, a Buddhist monk who had died in 2012 at the age of 94.
The body still sat in the lotus position and looked well-preserved; so it was washed and disinfected, wrapped in gauze, sealed in red lacquer and finally covered with gold leaves. He was dressed and placed inside a glass case, so that he could be revered by worshippers.
Mummification of those monks who are believed to have achieved a higher spiritual perfection is not unheard of: at one time a sort of “self-mummification” was even practised (I wrote about it in this old post, Italian only). And in 2015, some Dutch scholars made a CT scan of a statue belonging to the Drents Museum collection and discovered that it contained the remains of master Liquan, who died around 1100 AD.
It might seem a paradox that in the Buddhist tradition, which has made accepting impermanence (anitya) one of the cornerstones of ritual and contemplative practice, so much attention is placed on the bodies of these “holy” monks, to the extent of turning them into relics.
But veneration for such characters is probably an effect of the syncretism, which took place in China, between Buddhism and Taoism; the Buddhist concept of arhat, which indicates the person who has experienced nirvana (even without reaching the higher status of bodhisattva or true “buddhahood“), has blended with the Taoist figure of zhenren, the “True Man”, able to spontaneously conform his actions to the Tao.
In the excellent preservation of the mummies, many Buddhists see a proof that these great spiritual masters are not really dead, but simply suspended in an advanced, perfect state of meditation.
In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.
∼ 2009 ∼
I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.
In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.
I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.
∼ 2017 ∼
Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.
It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.
∼ 2018 ∼
London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.
This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.
The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.
Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.
Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people think – Leopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.
∼ Convergence ∼
Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.
In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map
Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.
I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.
There were once two animals: a dog called Tumang, and a female boar named Celeng Wayungyang. They weren’t ordinary animals, but two deities transformed into beasts because of a sin they had committed long before.
One day, in the jungle, the sow-goddess drank the urine of a king who was hunting nearby and got pregnant; being a supernatural creature, she gave birth to her daughter within a few hours. The king, who was still in the jungle, heard the baby cry, and when he found her, he adopted her.
The little girl, called Dayang Sumbi, grew up at the palace and became a skilful weaver, a beautiful girl courted by many princes and noblemen.
One day, while she was spinning on the terrace, her loom fell down to the courtyard and since, being a princess, she could not put her feet on the ground to go and get it, Dayang Sumbi promised aloud that she would marry anyone who would bring it back to her. To her great disconcert, it was Tumang the dog the one who granted her wish, and she was obliged to marry him, unaware that he was actually a demigod. As soon as the king found out about the outrageous union between his daughter and a dog, he disowned her and banished her from the palace.
The couple went to live in a hut in the jungle, where Dayang Sumbi soon discovered that on full moon nights Tumang returned to his original appearance, turning into a young and wonderful lover; together they conceived a son, and they called him Sangkuriang.
When Sangkuriang was ten years old, his mother asked him to find a deer’s liver, for which she had a taste. So the boy went hunting in the jungle with his loyal dog Tumang (he didn’t know the dog was his father).
In the forest there was no sign of deer, but the two of them bumped into a beautiful female boar, and Sangkuriang thought that maybe her liver would do anyway. However, when he tried to kill the beast, Tumang the dog – having realized it was the goddess, which means Sangkuriang’s grandmother – diverted the bow and made him miss the target. Sangkuriang was furious and aimed his arrows at Tumang, killing him. Then he brought the dog’s liver to his mother, who cooked it believing it was wild game. As soon as she discovered the trick, though, poor Dayang Sumbi flared up, realizing that she had just eaten her husband’s liver; therefore she hit her son on the head with a ladle, and the blow was so severe that the boy completely lost his memory, and ran away into the forest, terrified.
Twelve long years passed.
Sangkuriang had become a handsome, strong and attractive young man. He didn’t remember anything at all about his mother, so when one day he accidentally met her – being the daughter of a goddess, she was still young and beautiful – he fell in love with her. They decided to get married, until one day Dayang Sumbi, while she was combing her fiancé, noticed on his head the scar left by the ladle and realized Sangkurian was her son.
She tried to convince him to break off the engagement but the young man, still a victim of amnesia, didn’t believe her and insisted that the wedding should be celebrated.
Then Dayang Sumbi devised a trick, an impossible proof of love. She told Sangkuriang she would marry him only if he managed to fill the entire valley with water: furthermore, still before the cock crowed, he should build a boat so that the two of them could sail together on the newly formed lake. The woman was sure that this was going to be an impossible task.
But, to her great surprise, Sangkuriang invoked the help of heavenly spirits and made the riverbanks collapse, filling the valley with water: he had managed to create a lake!
Then he cut down a huge tree and started to carve a boat.
Dayang Sumbi realized that her son was going to succeed in the challenge, so she feverishly started to weave huge red veils; she too prayed the heavenly creatures, and they spread the big veils along the horizon. The cocks, deceived, thought that dawn had already come and began to crow. Deceived, Sangkuriang flared up and kicked the unfinished boat upside down, which turned into an enormous mountain. The splinters formed other mountaintops around the first one.
Mount Tangkuban Perahu, its profile reminiscent of a capsized boat.
This very old legend is still told nowadays by the Sundanese people of the Island of Java, and it sounds surprising not only because of its resemblance with the story of Oedipus.
This myth actually explains the creation of the Bandung basin, of Mount Tangkuban Parahu (which literally means “capsized boat”) and of the mountains nearby. But Lake Bandung, described in the legend, is dried out since no less than 16,000 years and the mountains took shape even earlier, because of a series of volcanic eruptions.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are positive that in the colourful legend of Sankguriang and of the challenges his mother threw down at him to avoid the incestuous relationship there is a kernel of historical truth: orally handed down through generations, it seems to bear the ancestral memory of the lake which disappeared thousands of years ago and of the seismic events which gave rise to the mountain range.
On the base of this myth, scholars have therefore dated the settlement of the Sundanese people in this geographical area to approximately 50,000 years ago.