Page 1

INTRODUCTION

TOPOGRAPHY OF THE AFTERLIFE

In Christian European and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the image of death is often a graphic motivator to act virtuously in life. Otherwise, unimaginable horrors await. Death is depicted as the great social equalizer that comes for everyone who must, all too soon, face judgment for his deeds on earth. Such jarring images are meant to startle the viewer out of apathy, urge him to contemplate mortality, and inspire him to diligently use the short time in this life to secure a desirable place in the afterlife.

The topography of the afterlife is where the differences in the two cultures’ approach and relationship to death are clearest, particularly in how they conceive of time and space.

What is perhaps most interesting about the art of death in these two traditions is that objects that look the same may have completely different meanings, and objects that look markedly different, in fact, convey similar underlying meanings. Remember That You Will Die explores these thoughtprovoking correspondences and asymmetries.

Christian Concept of Heaven & Hell

Tibetan Buddhist “Wheel of Existence”

The Christian conception of time is linear and its space is structured vertically, with heaven above, our human existence in the middle, and hell below. Medieval Christianity identified purgatory as an intermediary state where sins are burned away. It is sometimes depicted graphically as a mountain that must be struggled up in order to reach heaven. After the Protestant Reformation, some Christians believed in only heavan and hell with no intermediate realm. On Judgment Day, the reward or punishment for behavior in this life, once decided, is eternal.

Buddhists believe in rebirth; thus their concept of time is cyclical and is structured as a wheel. According to Buddhism, heaven and hell are but transient rebirth possibilities in a continuous cycle of birth and death (samsara). This cyclic cosmology contains six possible realms of rebirth—human reincarnation being one of many possibilities—each associated with an affliction that characterizes the subsequent rebirth. For example, a miser would find himself reborn as a hungry ghost who is constantly wanting but never able to satisfy his desires.

HEAVEN PURGATORY

God Realm

LIBERATION FROM SAMSARA

THREE HIGHER REALMS Demi-God Human Realm Realm

SAMSARA EARTH HELL

Animal Hungry Ghost Realm Realm THREE LOWER REALMS Hell Realm

cover Lord of the Charnel Grounds Dance Mask Mongolia; 19th-20th century Papier-mâché 24 1⁄2 x 15 3⁄4 in. Ian Triay Collection

left Memento Mori of General Wallenstein Bohemia; 1750-1850 Ivory, ebony, metal, semiprecious stones 7 1⁄8 x 4 in. Science Museum London A135809

This brochure is published on the occasion of the exhibition Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, organized by and presented at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from March 19 through August 9, 2010, and curated by Karl Debreczeny, Bonnie B. Lee, and Martin Brauen. © Rubin Museum of Art, 2010

For all their differences in their conceptions of the afterlife, some ideas find resonance and elaboration in both traditions. Christianity’s purgatory and Buddhism’s hell realms are places where punishments exacted are directly consequent of sins committed, and both offer the opportunity for pilgrims to be purified before continuing onto their next stage. Purgatory and the hell realms are temporary states of suffering, and while Christians can look forward to heaven as their reward, Buddhists are returned to samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth. Both traditions call for constant, active spiritual involvement from the living, whose pious actions such as prayer can reduce the duration of the dead’s suffering in those temporary states, essentially paying off their moral debt and thereby retaining an important connection to the dead.

150 W. 17th Street NYC 10011 | rmanyc.org | 212.620.5000

Death Across Cultures


INTRODUCTION

TOPOGRAPHY OF THE AFTERLIFE

In Christian European and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the image of death is often a graphic motivator to act virtuously in life. Otherwise, unimaginable horrors await. Death is depicted as the great social equalizer that comes for everyone who must, all too soon, face judgment for his deeds on earth. Such jarring images are meant to startle the viewer out of apathy, urge him to contemplate mortality, and inspire him to diligently use the short time in this life to secure a desirable place in the afterlife.

The topography of the afterlife is where the differences in the two cultures’ approach and relationship to death are clearest, particularly in how they conceive of time and space.

What is perhaps most interesting about the art of death in these two traditions is that objects that look the same may have completely different meanings, and objects that look markedly different, in fact, convey similar underlying meanings. Remember That You Will Die explores these thoughtprovoking correspondences and asymmetries.

Christian Concept of Heaven & Hell

Tibetan Buddhist “Wheel of Existence”

The Christian conception of time is linear and its space is structured vertically, with heaven above, our human existence in the middle, and hell below. Medieval Christianity identified purgatory as an intermediary state where sins are burned away. It is sometimes depicted graphically as a mountain that must be struggled up in order to reach heaven. After the Protestant Reformation, some Christians believed in only heavan and hell with no intermediate realm. On Judgment Day, the reward or punishment for behavior in this life, once decided, is eternal.

Buddhists believe in rebirth; thus their concept of time is cyclical and is structured as a wheel. According to Buddhism, heaven and hell are but transient rebirth possibilities in a continuous cycle of birth and death (samsara). This cyclic cosmology contains six possible realms of rebirth—human reincarnation being one of many possibilities—each associated with an affliction that characterizes the subsequent rebirth. For example, a miser would find himself reborn as a hungry ghost who is constantly wanting but never able to satisfy his desires.

HEAVEN PURGATORY

God Realm

LIBERATION FROM SAMSARA

THREE HIGHER REALMS Demi-God Human Realm Realm

SAMSARA EARTH HELL

Animal Hungry Ghost Realm Realm THREE LOWER REALMS Hell Realm

cover Lord of the Charnel Grounds Dance Mask Mongolia; 19th-20th century Papier-mâché 24 1⁄2 x 15 3⁄4 in. Ian Triay Collection

left Memento Mori of General Wallenstein Bohemia; 1750-1850 Ivory, ebony, metal, semiprecious stones 7 1⁄8 x 4 in. Science Museum London A135809

This brochure is published on the occasion of the exhibition Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, organized by and presented at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from March 19 through August 9, 2010, and curated by Karl Debreczeny, Bonnie B. Lee, and Martin Brauen. © Rubin Museum of Art, 2010

For all their differences in their conceptions of the afterlife, some ideas find resonance and elaboration in both traditions. Christianity’s purgatory and Buddhism’s hell realms are places where punishments exacted are directly consequent of sins committed, and both offer the opportunity for pilgrims to be purified before continuing onto their next stage. Purgatory and the hell realms are temporary states of suffering, and while Christians can look forward to heaven as their reward, Buddhists are returned to samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth. Both traditions call for constant, active spiritual involvement from the living, whose pious actions such as prayer can reduce the duration of the dead’s suffering in those temporary states, essentially paying off their moral debt and thereby retaining an important connection to the dead.

150 W. 17th Street NYC 10011 | rmanyc.org | 212.620.5000

Death Across Cultures


FORM

MEANING

The skeleton is an obvious universal symbol of death. However, as similar as these pairs of skeletons may first appear, they represent very different ideas. The European sculptures with beckoning arms (Fig. 1) are foremost sobering reminders of impending mortality. The Tibetan skeletons in joyful dance (Fig. 2) are by contrast protector deities safeguarding tantric meditators who practice in charnel grounds. One set of figures is designed to inspire fear, the other to frighten away evil. The two expertly carved wooden skeletons from sixteenth-century Germany are memento mori objects, or visual reminders that death is inevitable for all human beings. They likely represent Adam and Eve, the first sinners who brought death to humanity, or they may be personifications of Death himself. His leering, gleeful figure appears not only in religious contexts but also in art, literature, music, and various facets of everyday life in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Lords of the Charnel Grounds are also a male and female pair of skeletons, but they are not intended to represent death. Rather, they are protectors of yogis, who often confront fear of death by meditating in charnel grounds, where corpses are disposed of, and other frightening places. These deities are also associated with wealth and are specially invoked for protection against thieves.

Lords of the Charnel Grounds Tibet, 18th century Bronze 6 3⁄8 x 2 3⁄4 x 13 in. American Museum of Natural History 70.0/4698 (har 94660) 70.0/4699 (har 94661)

fig. 2

fig. 1

Death with Left Hand Raised and Death with Outstretched Right Arm Unidentified artist Upper Rhine, Germany; 17th century Lindenwood 9 13⁄16 x 4 15⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 and 10 3⁄8 x 5 3⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 in. Harvard Art Museum/Busch-Reisinger BR59.33, BR59.32

fig. 3

Death as the Great Equalizer

Death as Opportunity

Skull Pocket Watch Europe; 1701-1900 Silver; h: 7 1⁄8 in. Science Museum London A103905

Whether it is European images of the Dance of Death (Fig. 5) or Buddhist images of the judgment of the dead in the court of Yama, Lord of Death, death knows no distinctions of age or class. These reminders share a common language of visual admonitions—that death may come suddenly, and we should not waste time in frivolous pursuits.

In Tibet death is seen as an important spiritual opportunity to achieve enlightenment, and an entire meditative practice is designed around preparing for death and what follows, a concept commonly known in the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ritual specialists guide the deceased during their hazardous passage through the afterlife, if not to enlightenment then at least to a good rebirth, a tradition further explored in the exhibition Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife, currently on view on the fifth floor. (See Fig. 6 in Bardo.) While Remember That You Will Die examines popular views of death and the afterlife in both the European and Tibetan traditions, Bardo delves deeply into a complex Tibetan practice focused on death for ritual specialists. Death also offered a fortunate opportunity for European Christians; it is not merely a herald of doom and gloom. In fact, the just could be assured that the afterlife would eventually lead to heavenly bliss—an escape from a miserable existence for many humble believers.

Other objects that at first appear quite different in form, material, and function actually reflect similar underlying cultural concerns. This silver pocket watch (Fig. 3) artfully crafted in the form of a human skull is a literal reminder that time waits for no one and that our stay on this earth draws ever to a close. (Mary ≤ueen of Scots carried a large engraved skull watch while she paced the Tower of London awaiting her cousin ≤ueen Elizabeth’s decision regarding her fate.) Similarly, important Tibetan ritual objects often signify that life is impermanent and death is our constant companion. Particularly stark examples of this are the principal instruments of the yogi: a trumpet fashioned from a human shinbone and a hand drum, sometimes made of a pair of male and female skull caps or made of wood and decorated with human skulls and intestines as shown here (Fig. 4).

Les Simulachres & historiées faces de la mort autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imagines (The Images and Storied Aspects of Death, as elegantly delineated as [they are] ingeniously imagined) Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1498-1543) Lyons, France; 1538 Woodcut; 6 1⁄8 x 4 3⁄4 in. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

fig. 5

Hand Drum Tibet; 19th century Painted wood, snake skin, textile Diameter 13 in. Ian Triay Collection

fig. 4

Shinbone Trumpet Tibet; 18th-19th century Human bone, human hair, paint 11 7⁄8 x 3 1⁄8 in. Ian Triay Collection

Ratnasambhava, Ratna Heruka, and Consorts Tibet; 18th century Natural pigments on cloth 33 ¼ x 27 ½ in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.417 (har 865)

fig. 6


FORM

MEANING

The skeleton is an obvious universal symbol of death. However, as similar as these pairs of skeletons may first appear, they represent very different ideas. The European sculptures with beckoning arms (Fig. 1) are foremost sobering reminders of impending mortality. The Tibetan skeletons in joyful dance (Fig. 2) are by contrast protector deities safeguarding tantric meditators who practice in charnel grounds. One set of figures is designed to inspire fear, the other to frighten away evil. The two expertly carved wooden skeletons from sixteenth-century Germany are memento mori objects, or visual reminders that death is inevitable for all human beings. They likely represent Adam and Eve, the first sinners who brought death to humanity, or they may be personifications of Death himself. His leering, gleeful figure appears not only in religious contexts but also in art, literature, music, and various facets of everyday life in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Lords of the Charnel Grounds are also a male and female pair of skeletons, but they are not intended to represent death. Rather, they are protectors of yogis, who often confront fear of death by meditating in charnel grounds, where corpses are disposed of, and other frightening places. These deities are also associated with wealth and are specially invoked for protection against thieves.

Lords of the Charnel Grounds Tibet, 18th century Bronze 6 3⁄8 x 2 3⁄4 x 13 in. American Museum of Natural History 70.0/4698 (har 94660) 70.0/4699 (har 94661)

fig. 2

fig. 1

Death with Left Hand Raised and Death with Outstretched Right Arm Unidentified artist Upper Rhine, Germany; 17th century Lindenwood 9 13⁄16 x 4 15⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 and 10 3⁄8 x 5 3⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 in. Harvard Art Museum/Busch-Reisinger BR59.33, BR59.32

fig. 3

Death as the Great Equalizer

Death as Opportunity

Skull Pocket Watch Europe; 1701-1900 Silver; h: 7 1⁄8 in. Science Museum London A103905

Whether it is European images of the Dance of Death (Fig. 5) or Buddhist images of the judgment of the dead in the court of Yama, Lord of Death, death knows no distinctions of age or class. These reminders share a common language of visual admonitions—that death may come suddenly, and we should not waste time in frivolous pursuits.

In Tibet death is seen as an important spiritual opportunity to achieve enlightenment, and an entire meditative practice is designed around preparing for death and what follows, a concept commonly known in the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ritual specialists guide the deceased during their hazardous passage through the afterlife, if not to enlightenment then at least to a good rebirth, a tradition further explored in the exhibition Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife, currently on view on the fifth floor. (See Fig. 6 in Bardo.) While Remember That You Will Die examines popular views of death and the afterlife in both the European and Tibetan traditions, Bardo delves deeply into a complex Tibetan practice focused on death for ritual specialists. Death also offered a fortunate opportunity for European Christians; it is not merely a herald of doom and gloom. In fact, the just could be assured that the afterlife would eventually lead to heavenly bliss—an escape from a miserable existence for many humble believers.

Other objects that at first appear quite different in form, material, and function actually reflect similar underlying cultural concerns. This silver pocket watch (Fig. 3) artfully crafted in the form of a human skull is a literal reminder that time waits for no one and that our stay on this earth draws ever to a close. (Mary ≤ueen of Scots carried a large engraved skull watch while she paced the Tower of London awaiting her cousin ≤ueen Elizabeth’s decision regarding her fate.) Similarly, important Tibetan ritual objects often signify that life is impermanent and death is our constant companion. Particularly stark examples of this are the principal instruments of the yogi: a trumpet fashioned from a human shinbone and a hand drum, sometimes made of a pair of male and female skull caps or made of wood and decorated with human skulls and intestines as shown here (Fig. 4).

Les Simulachres & historiées faces de la mort autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imagines (The Images and Storied Aspects of Death, as elegantly delineated as [they are] ingeniously imagined) Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1498-1543) Lyons, France; 1538 Woodcut; 6 1⁄8 x 4 3⁄4 in. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

fig. 5

Hand Drum Tibet; 19th century Painted wood, snake skin, textile Diameter 13 in. Ian Triay Collection

fig. 4

Shinbone Trumpet Tibet; 18th-19th century Human bone, human hair, paint 11 7⁄8 x 3 1⁄8 in. Ian Triay Collection

Ratnasambhava, Ratna Heruka, and Consorts Tibet; 18th century Natural pigments on cloth 33 ¼ x 27 ½ in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.417 (har 865)

fig. 6


FORM

MEANING

The skeleton is an obvious universal symbol of death. However, as similar as these pairs of skeletons may first appear, they represent very different ideas. The European sculptures with beckoning arms (Fig. 1) are foremost sobering reminders of impending mortality. The Tibetan skeletons in joyful dance (Fig. 2) are by contrast protector deities safeguarding tantric meditators who practice in charnel grounds. One set of figures is designed to inspire fear, the other to frighten away evil. The two expertly carved wooden skeletons from sixteenth-century Germany are memento mori objects, or visual reminders that death is inevitable for all human beings. They likely represent Adam and Eve, the first sinners who brought death to humanity, or they may be personifications of Death himself. His leering, gleeful figure appears not only in religious contexts but also in art, literature, music, and various facets of everyday life in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Lords of the Charnel Grounds are also a male and female pair of skeletons, but they are not intended to represent death. Rather, they are protectors of yogis, who often confront fear of death by meditating in charnel grounds, where corpses are disposed of, and other frightening places. These deities are also associated with wealth and are specially invoked for protection against thieves.

Lords of the Charnel Grounds Tibet, 18th century Bronze 6 3⁄8 x 2 3⁄4 x 13 in. American Museum of Natural History 70.0/4698 (har 94660) 70.0/4699 (har 94661)

fig. 2

fig. 1

Death with Left Hand Raised and Death with Outstretched Right Arm Unidentified artist Upper Rhine, Germany; 17th century Lindenwood 9 13⁄16 x 4 15⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 and 10 3⁄8 x 5 3⁄16 x 3 1⁄16 in. Harvard Art Museum/Busch-Reisinger BR59.33, BR59.32

fig. 3

Death as the Great Equalizer

Death as Opportunity

Skull Pocket Watch Europe; 1701-1900 Silver; h: 7 1⁄8 in. Science Museum London A103905

Whether it is European images of the Dance of Death (Fig. 5) or Buddhist images of the judgment of the dead in the court of Yama, Lord of Death, death knows no distinctions of age or class. These reminders share a common language of visual admonitions—that death may come suddenly, and we should not waste time in frivolous pursuits.

In Tibet death is seen as an important spiritual opportunity to achieve enlightenment, and an entire meditative practice is designed around preparing for death and what follows, a concept commonly known in the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ritual specialists guide the deceased during their hazardous passage through the afterlife, if not to enlightenment then at least to a good rebirth, a tradition further explored in the exhibition Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife, currently on view on the fifth floor. (See Fig. 6 in Bardo.) While Remember That You Will Die examines popular views of death and the afterlife in both the European and Tibetan traditions, Bardo delves deeply into a complex Tibetan practice focused on death for ritual specialists. Death also offered a fortunate opportunity for European Christians; it is not merely a herald of doom and gloom. In fact, the just could be assured that the afterlife would eventually lead to heavenly bliss—an escape from a miserable existence for many humble believers.

Other objects that at first appear quite different in form, material, and function actually reflect similar underlying cultural concerns. This silver pocket watch (Fig. 3) artfully crafted in the form of a human skull is a literal reminder that time waits for no one and that our stay on this earth draws ever to a close. (Mary ≤ueen of Scots carried a large engraved skull watch while she paced the Tower of London awaiting her cousin ≤ueen Elizabeth’s decision regarding her fate.) Similarly, important Tibetan ritual objects often signify that life is impermanent and death is our constant companion. Particularly stark examples of this are the principal instruments of the yogi: a trumpet fashioned from a human shinbone and a hand drum, sometimes made of a pair of male and female skull caps or made of wood and decorated with human skulls and intestines as shown here (Fig. 4).

Les Simulachres & historiées faces de la mort autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imagines (The Images and Storied Aspects of Death, as elegantly delineated as [they are] ingeniously imagined) Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1498-1543) Lyons, France; 1538 Woodcut; 6 1⁄8 x 4 3⁄4 in. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

fig. 5

Hand Drum Tibet; 19th century Painted wood, snake skin, textile Diameter 13 in. Ian Triay Collection

fig. 4

Shinbone Trumpet Tibet; 18th-19th century Human bone, human hair, paint 11 7⁄8 x 3 1⁄8 in. Ian Triay Collection

Ratnasambhava, Ratna Heruka, and Consorts Tibet; 18th century Natural pigments on cloth 33 ¼ x 27 ½ in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.417 (har 865)

fig. 6


INTRODUCTION

TOPOGRAPHY OF THE AFTERLIFE

In Christian European and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the image of death is often a graphic motivator to act virtuously in life. Otherwise, unimaginable horrors await. Death is depicted as the great social equalizer that comes for everyone who must, all too soon, face judgment for his deeds on earth. Such jarring images are meant to startle the viewer out of apathy, urge him to contemplate mortality, and inspire him to diligently use the short time in this life to secure a desirable place in the afterlife.

The topography of the afterlife is where the differences in the two cultures’ approach and relationship to death are clearest, particularly in how they conceive of time and space.

What is perhaps most interesting about the art of death in these two traditions is that objects that look the same may have completely different meanings, and objects that look markedly different, in fact, convey similar underlying meanings. Remember That You Will Die explores these thoughtprovoking correspondences and asymmetries.

Christian Concept of Heaven & Hell

Tibetan Buddhist “Wheel of Existence”

The Christian conception of time is linear and its space is structured vertically, with heaven above, our human existence in the middle, and hell below. Medieval Christianity identified purgatory as an intermediary state where sins are burned away. It is sometimes depicted graphically as a mountain that must be struggled up in order to reach heaven. After the Protestant Reformation, some Christians believed in only heavan and hell with no intermediate realm. On Judgment Day, the reward or punishment for behavior in this life, once decided, is eternal.

Buddhists believe in rebirth; thus their concept of time is cyclical and is structured as a wheel. According to Buddhism, heaven and hell are but transient rebirth possibilities in a continuous cycle of birth and death (samsara). This cyclic cosmology contains six possible realms of rebirth—human reincarnation being one of many possibilities—each associated with an affliction that characterizes the subsequent rebirth. For example, a miser would find himself reborn as a hungry ghost who is constantly wanting but never able to satisfy his desires.

HEAVEN PURGATORY

God Realm

LIBERATION FROM SAMSARA

THREE HIGHER REALMS Demi-God Human Realm Realm

SAMSARA EARTH HELL

Animal Hungry Ghost Realm Realm THREE LOWER REALMS Hell Realm

cover Lord of the Charnel Grounds Dance Mask Mongolia; 19th-20th century Papier-mâché 24 1⁄2 x 15 3⁄4 in. Ian Triay Collection

left Memento Mori of General Wallenstein Bohemia; 1750-1850 Ivory, ebony, metal, semiprecious stones 7 1⁄8 x 4 in. Science Museum London A135809

This brochure is published on the occasion of the exhibition Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, organized by and presented at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from March 19 through August 9, 2010, and curated by Karl Debreczeny, Bonnie B. Lee, and Martin Brauen. © Rubin Museum of Art, 2010

For all their differences in their conceptions of the afterlife, some ideas find resonance and elaboration in both traditions. Christianity’s purgatory and Buddhism’s hell realms are places where punishments exacted are directly consequent of sins committed, and both offer the opportunity for pilgrims to be purified before continuing onto their next stage. Purgatory and the hell realms are temporary states of suffering, and while Christians can look forward to heaven as their reward, Buddhists are returned to samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth. Both traditions call for constant, active spiritual involvement from the living, whose pious actions such as prayer can reduce the duration of the dead’s suffering in those temporary states, essentially paying off their moral debt and thereby retaining an important connection to the dead.

150 W. 17th Street NYC 10011 | rmanyc.org | 212.620.5000

Death Across Cultures

RTYWD brochure  

Rubin Museum of Art Remember That You Will Die March 19, 2010 - August 9, 2010

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