Water of Life

I recently stumbled across the following image on Seattle artist Gala Bent’s blog:

Gala Bent. Love's Labor (detail.) Installation view of wall drawing at SPU Art Center, 2008.

Gala Bent, Love's Labor (detail). Installation view of wall drawing at SPU Art Center, 2008.

This abstract form is actually a wound in the side of a wall drawing of a horse. The entire drawing, which may be viewed here, is part of Bent’s exhibition Warm Blooded, currently on view at Seattle Pacific University’s Art Center.

The detail image caught my attention immediately because of its archetypal associations.  In it, a flow of meticulously rendered “life energy” may be seen pouring forth from an oblong wound resembling the vesica piscis of sacred geometry.

Vesica Piscis

Vesica Piscis

The Vesica Piscis (literally “bladder of the fish” in Latin; also known as a mandorla in Italian) is the shape formed by overlapping two circles with the same radius in such a way that the center of each circle is a point on the circumference of the other.  The shape is ubiquitous in Christian iconography, from the Royal Portal at Chartres to the Jesus fish that graces the bumpers of countless SUVs in mall parking lots across America.  Its use as a Christian symbol is often traced to parables such as the Miraculous Draught of Fish, a story that some students of the Gospels believe to be a thinly veiled Pythagorean allegory. The symbol, foundational to the mathematics and philosophy of Pythagoras, in fact predates ancient Greece: a hieroglyph resembling a horizontal vesica piscis was used by the Egyptians to represent the concepts “mouth,” “creative word” (compare with logos), and the supreme being “Ra.”  It is also used to represent the Sanskrit yoni, the feminine “divine passage” through which the multiplicity of forms comes into being.

What does all this have to do with Gala Bent’s drawing?  Nothing, perhaps, until you consider images like these:

Miniature from the Selden Apocalypse. England, 14th century.

Miniature from the Selden Apocalypse. England, 14th century.

Detail of miniature from Trinity College, Cambridge. 13th century.

Detail of miniature from Trinity College, Cambridge. 13th century.

The image of a gushing stream of life energy from a vesica piscis is a recurring motif among medieval manuscript painters.  The visual allusion to Christ’s wounds is overt, and with it the oft-noted similarity to the form and function of female anatomy.  These examples illustrate a specific episode of the apocalyptic visions of St. John of Patmos:

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:1)

These manuscript images are both reproduced in Gilles Quispel’s Secret Book of Revelation (1979).  An expert on the “heretical” mystical branches of early Christianity now collectively known as Gnosticism, Quispel offers an alternative interpretation to the strange and overtly mystical final book of the New Testament.  Certainly there is no more surefire way to miss absolutely everything interesting about the Bible than to take it at face value, and the Book of Revelation is no exception. While countless Christians have called upon a mangled literalist reading of the book to support some of the world’s most tragically offensive doomsday politics, Quispel provides page after page of rich, glowing reasons to read it as a deeply symbolic allegory for an internal process closely related to Carl Jung’s concept of Individuation.  In this context, fostering an awareness of the “pure river of water of life” may be understood as the goal of spiritual practice.

Wounded Bison. Niaux Cave, France, c. 13,000 B.C.E.

Wounded Bison. Niaux Cave, France, c. 11,000 B.C.E.

Some of the earliest images made by human beings portray the ritual identification with hunted animals. In this painting from Niaux Cave, a neatly rendered bison bleeds from two spear wounds.  If the religious practices of the hunter-gatherers of the American Plains are any indication, this iconography represents the complex mutual respect required between the hunter and the hunted. Life-giving blood flows freely from the wounds, and the survival of the precarious dance of life and life-giving death depends upon the hunter’s ability to foster a spiritual reverence for the whole process.  Here the role of religion does not lie in the begging of personal favors from an unseen God-in-our-image. It is rather in the harnessing of the individual mind to the mysterious, capricious patterns of the physical universe.

It is the same with those gushing mandorlas. The dying and resurrecting godman archetype represented by Christ is nearly as ancient as the bison at Niaux, and the implication of a fountain of everlasting life-from-death is the true wisdom of the Apocalypse.  The lesson for the artist is an allegorical one, but no less true and every bit as crucial.

Gala Bent’s Warm Blooded is on view at Seattle Pacific University Art Center through Dec. 12.

Further reading: Robert Lawlor. Sacred Geometry: Philosophy and Practice. Thames & Hudson, 1982.

~ by emilypothast on November 29, 2008.

One Response to “Water of Life”

  1. This (and the rest of your blog!) is a fascinating read! Yes, I was inspired by medieval/pre-Renaissance depictions of wounds– especially in Christ’s side. I love the way they gush unnaturally, designed to bring attention to the action. For a while, I’ve been looking at pre-photographic images of water to understand a bit more about patterns of flow and the more elusive (and metaphysical) aspects of it. I’ve also been looking at depictions of animals that are based more on artists’ sketches or hearsay– again, to get at a different sort of seeing and documenting. These two things merged somewhat in this wall piece, and there were most certainly thoughts of sacrifice– a life being given on behalf of another. This is a daily pragmatic reality for those of us who eat meat, and it also, obviously, has religious implications. (I was also interested by the sexual undertones of the vesica piscis– having given birth twice, the image of a sacrificial wound looking like the birth canal is awesome!)

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