On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.
One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.
In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.
These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?
We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).
A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:
We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.
Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava,
in Madagascar:Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie (Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)
One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.
You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.
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.
He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
“It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.
Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.
This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.
This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.
Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
“I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.
What will we feel in the moment of death?
What will come after the initial, inevitable fear?
Shall we sense a strange familiarity with the extreme, simultaneous relaxation of every muscle?
Will the ultimate abandonment remind us of the ancient, primitive annihilation we experience during an orgasm?
Following Epicurus’ famous reasoning (which is, by the way, philosophically and ethically debatable), we should not even worry about such things because when death is present, we are not, and viceversa.
Unknowability of death: as is often said, “no one ever came back” to tell us what lies on the other side. Despite this idea, religious traditions have often described in detail the various phases the soul is bound to go through, once it has stepped over the invisible threshold.
Through the centuries, this has led to the writing of actual handbooks explaining the best way to day.
Western Ars moriendi focused on the moments right before death, while in the East the stress was more on what came after it. But eventually most spiritual philosophies share the fear that the passage might entail some concrete dangers for the spirit of the dying person: demons and visions will try to divert the soul’s attention from the correct path.
In death, one can get lost.
One of the intuitions I find most interesting can be found in Part II of the Bardo Thodol:
O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it. From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the natural sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. […] Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come — sounds, lights, or rays — are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms.
It seems to me that this idea, although described in the book in a figurative way, might in a sense resist even to a skeptical, seular gaze. If stripped of its buddhist symbolic-shamanic apparatus, it looks almost like an “objective” observation: death is essentially that natural state from which we took shape and to which we will return. Whatever we shall experience after death — if we are going to experience anything, be it little or much — is ultimately all there is to understand. In poetic terms, it is our own true face, the bottom of things, our intimate reality.
In 1978 Indian animator Ishu Patel, fascinated by these questions, decided to put into images his personal view of what lies beyond. His award-winning short movie Afterlife still offers one of the most suggestive allegorical representations of death as a voyage: a psychedelic trip, first and foremost, but also a moment of essential clarity. The consciousness, upon leaving the body, is confronted with archetypical, shape-shifting figures, and enters a non-place of the mind where nothing is certain and yet everything speaks an instantly recognizable language.
Patel’s artistic and fantastic representation depicts death as a moment when one’s whole life is reviewed, when we will be given a glimpse of the mystery of existence. A beautiful idea, albeit a bit too comforting.
Patel declared to have taken inspiration from Eastern mythologies and from near-death experience accounts (NDE), and this latter detail poses a further question: even supposing that in the moment of death we could witness similar visions, wouldn’t they actually be a mere illusion?
Of course, science tells us that NDE are perfectly coherent with the degenerative neurological processes the brain undergoes when it’s dying. Just like we are now aware of the psychophysical causes of mystic ecstasy, of auto-hypnotic states induced by repeating mantras or prayers, of visions aroused by prolonged fasting or by ingestion of psychoactive substances which are used in many shamanic rituals, etc.
But the physiological explanation of these alteration in consciousness does not undermine their symbolic force.
The sublime beauty of hallucinations lies in the fact that it does not really matter if they’re true or not; what is relevant is the meaning we bestow upon them.
Maybe, after all, only one thing can be really asserted: death still remains a white canvas. It’s up to us what we project on its blank screen. Afterlife does just that, with the enigmatic lightness of a dance; it is a touching, awe-inspiring ride to the center of all things.
Here comes the third volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, Mors pretiosa – Italian religious ossuaries, already on pre-sale at the Logos bookshop.
This book, closing an ideal trilogy about those Italian sacred spaces where a direct contact with the dead is still possible, explores three exceptional locations: the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, Rome, the hypogeum of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in via Giulia, also in Rome, and the chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan.
Our journey through these three wonderful examples of decorated charnel houses, confronts us with a question that might seems almost outrageous today: can death possess a kind of peculiar, terrible beauty?
From the press kit:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” sings Leonard Cohen, and this is ultimately the message brought by the bones that can be admired in this book; death is an eternal wound and at the same time a way out. A long way from the idea of cemetery, its atmosphere of peace and the emotions it instils, the term “ossuary” usually evokes an impression of gloomy coldness but the three places in this book are very different. The subjects in question are Italy’s most important religious ossuaries in which bones have been used with decorative ends: the Capuchin Crypt and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome, and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. Thick with the sensation of mortality and vanitas, these ossuaries are capable of performing a completely unexpected role: on the one hand they embody the memento mori as an exhortation to trust in an afterlife for which the earthly life is a mere preparation and test, on the other they represent shining examples of macabre art. They are the suggestive and emotional expression – which is at the same time compassionate – of a “high” feeling: that of the transitory, of the inexorability of detachment and the hope of Resurrection. Decorated with the same bones they are charged with safeguarding, they pursue the Greek concept of kalokagathìa, namely to make the “good death” even aesthetically beautiful, disassembling the physical body to recompose it in pleasant and splendid arrangements and thereby transcend it. The clear and in-depth texts of the book set these places in the context of the fideistic attitudes of their time and Christian theological traditions whereas the images immerse us in these sacred places charged with fear and fascination. Page after page, the patterns of skulls and bones show us death in all of its splendour, they make it mirabilis, worthy of being admired.
In the text are recounted some fascinating stories about these places, from sacred representations in which human remains were used as props, to the misadventures of corpse seekers; but mainly we discover that these bone arabesques were much more than a mere attempt to impress the viewer, while in fact they represented a sort of death encyclopedia, which was meant to be read and interpreted as a real eschatological itinerary.
As usual, the book is extensively illustrated by Carlo Vannini‘s evocative photographs.
You can pre-order your copy of Mors Pretiosa on this page, and in the Bookshop you can purchase the previous two books in the series.
The search for wonder is far more complex than simple entertainment or superstition, and it grows along with collective spirituality. Every era has its own monsters; but the modern use of monstrosity in the horror genre or in similar contexts, makes it hard for us to understand that the monster, in the past, was meant to educate, to establish a reference in the mind of the end-user of the bizarre. Dragons, Chimeras, demons or simply animals, even if they originated from the primordial repulsion for ugliness, have been functional to spirituality (in the sense of searching for the “right way to live”), especially in Catholicism. Teratology populated every possible space, not unlike advertising does nowadays.
We are not referring here to the figure of monsters in fairy tales, where popular tradition used the scare value to set moral standards; the image of the monster has a much older and richer history than the folk tale, as it was found in books and architecture alike, originating from the ancient fear of the unknown. The fact that today we use the expressions “fantastic!” or “wonderful!” almost exclusively in a positive sense, probably comes from the monster’s transition from an iconographic, artistic element to a simple legacy of a magical, child-like world. Those monsters devouring men and women on capitals and bas-reliefs, or vomiting water in monumental fountains, do not have a strong effect on us anymore, if not as a striking heritage of a time in which fantasy was powerful and morality pretty anxious. But the monster was much more than this.
The Middle Ages, on the account of a symbolic interpretation of reality (the collective imagination was not meant to entertain, but was a fundamental part of life), established an extremely inspired creative ground out of monstrous figures, as these magical creatures crowded not only tales and beliefs (those we find for instance in Boccaccio and his salacious short stories about gullible characters) but also the spaces, the objects, the walls. The monster had to admonish about powers, duties, responibilities and, of course, provide a picture of the torments of Hell.
Capital, Chauvigny, XII century.
Chimeras, gryphons, unicorns, sirens, they all come from the iconographic and classical literary heritage (one of the principal sources was the Physiologus, a compendium of animals and plants, both actual and fantastic, written in the first centuries AD and widespread in the Middle Ages) and start to appear in sculptures, frescos, and medieval bas-reliefs. This polychrome teratological repertoire of ancient times was then filtered and elaborated through the christian ethics, so that each monster, each wonder would coincide with an allegory of sin, a christological metaphore, or a diabolical form. The monkey, for instance, which was already considered the ugliest of all animals by the Greeks, became the most faithful depiction of evil and falsehood, being a (failed) image of the human being, an awkward caricature devised by the Devil; centaurs, on the other hand, were shown on the Partenone friezes as violent and belligerous barbarians — an antithesis of civil human beings — but later became a symbol of the double nature of Christ, both human and divine. Nature became a mirror for the biblical truth.
Unicorn in a bestiary.
Capital, Church of Sant’Eufemia, Piacenza, XII century.
Bestiaries are maybe the most interesting example of the medieval transfiguration of reality through a christian perspective; the fact that, in the same book, real animals are examined together with imaginary beasts (even in the XVI century the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi included in his wonderful Monstrorum historia a catalogue of bizarre humanoid monsters) clearly shows the medieval viewpoint, according to which everything is instilled with the same absolute truth, the ultimate good to which the faithful must aim.
Fear and horror were certainly among the principal vectors used by the Church to impress the believers (doctrine was no dialogue, but rather a passive fruition of iconographic knowledge according to the intents of commissioners and artistis), but probably in the sculptors’ and architects’ educational project were also included irony, wonder, laughter. The Devil, for instance, besides being horrible, often shows hilarious and vulgar behaviors, which could come from Carnival festivities of the time. The dense decorations and monstrous incisions encapsulate all the fervid life of the Middle Ages, with its anguish, its fear of death, the mortification of the flesh through which the idea of a second life was maintained and strenghtened; but in these images we also find some giggly outbursts, some jokes, some vicious humor. It’s hard to imagine how Bosch‘s works were perceived at the time; but his thick mass of rat-demons, winged toads and insectoid buffoons was the result of an inconographic tradition that predated him by centuries. The monsters, in the work of this great painter, already show some elements of caricature, exaggeration, mannerism; they are no longer scary.
Ulisse Aldrovandi, page form the Monstorum Historia.
Coppo di Marcovaldo, mosaic in the San Giovanni Baptistery (Firenze), XII century.
A splendid example of the “monstrous pedagogy” which adorned not only vast and imposing interiors but even the objects themselves, are the stalls, the seats used by cardinals during official functions. In her essay Anima e forma – studi sulle rappresentazioni dell’invisibile, professor Ave Appiani examines the stalls of the collegiate Church of Sant’Orso in Aosta, work of an anonymous sculptor under the priorate of Giorgio di Chillant (end of XV century). The seatbacks, the arms, the handrests and the misericordie (little shelves one could lean against while standing up during long ceremonies) are all finely engraved in the shape of monsters, animals, grotesque faces. Demons, turtles, snails, dragons, cloaked monks and basilisks offered a great and educated bestiary to the viewer of this symbolic pedagogy, perfectly and organically fused with the human environment. Similar decorations could also be admired, some decades earlier, inside the Aosta Cathedral.
Stalls, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.
The dragon, “misericordia”, 1469, Aosta Cathedral.
Handrest, Aosta, Sant’Orso, end of XV century.
Who knows what kind of reaction this vast and ancient teratology could arouse in the believers — if only one of horror, or also curiosity and amusement; who knows if the approach of the cultivated man who sculpted this stalls — without doubt an expert of the symbolic traditions filtered through texts and legends — was serious or humorous, as he carved these eternal shapes in the wood. What did the people think before all the gargoyles, the insects, the animals living in faraway and almost mythical lands? The lion, king of the animals, was Christ, king of mankind; the boar, dwelling in the woods, was associated with the spiritual coarseness of pagans, and thus was often hunted down in the iconography; the mouse was a voracious inhabitant of the night, symbol of diabolical greed; the unicorn, attracted by chastity, after showing up in Oriental and European legends alike, came to be depicted by the side of the Virgin Mary.
Every human being finds himself tangled up in a multitude of symbols, because Death is lurking and before him man will end his earthly existence, and right there will he measure his past and evaluate his own actions. […] These are all metaphorical scenes, little tales, and just like Aesop’s fables, profusely illustrated between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for that matter, they always show a moral which can be transcribed in terms of human actions.
(A. Appiani, Op. cit., pag. 226)
So, today, how do we feel about monsters? What instruments do we have to consider the “right way to live”, since we are ever more illiterate and anonymous in giving meaning to the shape of things? It may well be that, even if we consider ourselves free from the superstitious terror of committing sin, we still have something to learn from those distant, imaginative times, when the folk tale encountered the cultivated milieu in the effort to give fear a shape – and thus, at least temporarily, dominate it.
After exploring the Palermo Capuchin Catacombs in the first volume, now we enter another unique place, the Fontanelle Cemetery in Naples, where one of the most peculiar and fascinating devotional cults has developed.
Buried in the heart of the city, the Sanità quarter is an authentic borderland between the world of the living and the world of the dead. You only need to distance yourself from the hustle and bustle, from the megaphones of the fruit and vegetable stalls, the mopeds ridden by fearless street urchins darting between the cars, and reach the top of the area: here on the right of the church of Maria Santissima del Carmine, is the Fontanelle cemetery.
Situated within an ancient tuff quarry, the cemetery is an imposing underground cathedral, hovering between darkness and the swathes of light cutting through it.
Thousands of bones and skulls are piled up for all to see, the remains of at least 40,000 anonymous human beings. In this evocative and peaceful place, death is no longer insurmountable: the living and the souls of the deceased communicate with each other by means of the so-called capuzzelle, which embody the ancestral obsession with the skull as an icon of transcendence and the promise of eternal life.
Here the skulls are spoken to, touched, and cleaned. They are taken care of. Candles are lit, offerings are given and favours asked for in a do ut des of worship.
This is the cult of the anime pezzentelle, abandoned and anonymous souls, in need of the compassion of the living to alleviate their suffering in Purgatory. In return, they promise to be kind to the devout believer, helping out with health problems, finding a husband for young unmarried girls, solving financial issues or providing the winning lottery numbers. Although the cult is now almost completely abandoned, it still resists, and its traces are well visible in the Cemetery.
There are countless ossuaries around the world, but the suggestion of the Fontanelle Cemetery is quite specific. On one hand, the compassionate and sober disposition of the human remains shows no sign of macabre or baroque taste, introducing the visitor to a suspended quiet as if he was entering a real sanctuary; on the other hand, the devotion of the people has somewhat mitigated the memento mori effect – not just on the account of those colorful, often ironic legends and myths surrounding the skulls, but also by elaborating the cult of the souls of Purgatory in a peculiar way, through unprecedented rules and rituals. Thus, adding to the wonder of thousands of piled up bones under the immense vault, one can feel a palpable devotion, transforming the skulls from figurations of mortality to symbols of transcendence.
Carlo Vannini‘s photographs plunge us into the enchanted atmosphere of the underground cathedral, revealing its gloomy charm and bringing us so close to the capuzzelle – bare or adorned with various votive offerings such as handkerchieves, little holy pictures, coloured rosary beads etc. – that their eyeholes seem to meet our eyes with a glance which is not less alive.
De profundis, with texts in Italian and English, will be available in Italian bookstores (and online retailers worldwide) from May 18th and will be officially launched at the Turin International Book Fair, with book signing sessions on May 16 th and 17 th.
If you are not going to attend the book fair, you can order your signed copy here, which will be shipped after the book fair is over, by May 25th.