Saturday, February 13, 2010

MIA funerary processional

Upon completion of a standard visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, there is one final room a visitor must encounter. A whole world and thousands of years worth of art have already been experienced, but it's always good to take one last final glance before proceeding back out to take on the rest of life. The last gallery room is a single long hallway with freestanding art pieces spaced evenly along the central line of the route – a processional of sorts, set to tell a story. The gallery is duskily lit, with a weary, end of the day feel to it, and each art piece in the room is then individually lit within the room as if to imply completely separate entities; though the separation on a narrowly directed pathway still forces one piece to lead the viewer on to the next of the journey.

Sarcophagus of Prince Cheng Ching (Yuan Mi). Northern Wei dynasty. Black Limestone.


The first stop en route is the Sarcophagus of Prince Cheng Ching from the Northern Wei dynasty in China. A beautiful black limestone sarcophagus intricately carved with landscapes and ten scenes illustrating “paragons of filial piety.” The acute attention to detail in the engraving shows the care with which this Chinese prince was buried as well as the importance of honoring family and ancestors passed on before.

Cartonnage of Lady Tashat. 1085-710 BCE. Painted and varnished linen; polychromed pine coffin.


The second display seems an easy parallel to the first, the Cartonnage of Lady Tashat (1085-710 BCE) from Egypt. This cartonnage was more than simply the means of burying an Egyptian lady; this was to be the eternal home of her ka, her immortal life-force. Both the coffin and the cartonnage, therefore, bear representations of the lady's youthful face and are inscribed with hieroglyphs and images of protection, prayers, and offerings. Her elaborate and carefully thought out burial preparations were intended to provide comfort for her ka's eternal afterlife.

Grave Stele. 9th century BCE. Marble.


The third piece is a grave stele originating from Greece in the 9th century. Unlike the previous two pieces, this stele celebrates the memory of the life of the deceased rather than what their afterlife might entail. However, there is still a sense a peace within death and honor to the dead, whether that be in memory or in an eternal afterlife. The relief carving shows the couple either biding each other farewell until they may meet again in death, or perhaps greeting each other once again in death. In either case, the Greeks, like the Egyptians and the Chinese, found the passing on of a fellow human being important enough to devote their time and carefully created artwork to.

Armor. 1520 CE. Steel, leather, copper alloy.


Continuing on, the fourth piece at first seems an odd break from the first three – a suit of armor from Germany (1520 CE). The processional has moved away from the ancient, more developed cultures to a much younger European culture. And with this adjustment of time and place, so too has the focus of the art changed. The armor develops as a parallel to fashion and warefare: the new arenas for art. The armor is designed to be defensively functional, taking blows from various weapons and protecting the wearer, while simultaneously emulating the fashion of the current time to showcase the man's high level of taste. Protection is made by men to protect from other men. The value of life is of man's world, not that of the gods and the afterlife.

Smallsword w/ unicorn. 1650 CE. Steel. - Smallsword. 1770-80 CE. Silver, steel.

Smallsword w/ Messien porcelain grip. 1768-69 CE. Steel, silver-gilt, porcelain.

Smallsword. 1780-89CE. Steel, silver, gold. - Smallsword.1815 CE. Silver, steel. - Smallsword. 1800 CE. Steel.

Smallsword. 17870-80 CE. Silver, steel. - Smallsword. 1680-1700 CE.Steel, wood.


Fifth is a case of six smallswords standing upright so their silver, gold, and porcelain hilts are vividly on display. They have been collected from across Europe: the Netherlands, Portugal, France, and England and ranging in date from 1650 to 1815 CE. They are all beautifully designed with precious metals and great care; a lighter and more refined gentleman's weapon for a more “civilized” age in which dueling itself had become a fashion trend and an art form of the highest regard.

Flintlock rifle. John Bonewitz. 1790-1800 CE. Iron, maple, brass, silver.


In the sixth display two American flintlock rifles (1790-1800 CE) sit proudly in their case. Designed by John Bonewitz, they are considered to be the finest craftsmanship possible in this style of gun with elegant proportions and prized scrollwork and engraved brass butt plates. Across the ocean from Europe, in the great new country of America, art and the value fine craftsmanship has been refocused away from the civilized gentleman's smallsword to a form of weaponry even more brutal and distant – a humans connection to death is no more than the result of a simple pull of the trigger.

Funeral torch. 1720 CE. Gilded and painted wood, wrought iron.


One last piece stands alone at the end of the dusky hall, a bit more removed from the rest of the pieces so the details are not immediately noticeable. It appears to be nothing more than a tall stand, a 6 foot tall torch of sorts. Stepping closer, one finds that it is a funeral torch from Italy (1720 CE). So perhaps European world does honor their dead in their art just as the ancient cultures before them did. Except this sole indication of a European and American connection to funerary proceedings through art is not honorary, respectful, and peaceful vision of the eternal afterlife that came before them. This sole funerary torch is adorned with a macabre skeleton twisted around the wrought iron torch pole, seeming to smile or perhaps laugh down at the viewer from his perch. Amidst all the art pieces within the MIA and the various rituals and artistic celebrations of the ancient dead, this skeleton is what's left at the end of a trail of weaponry showing how the Western cultures see fit to celebrate the lives of their dead.

**All photos courtesy of Claire Marrinan. Art pieces all currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Dates and individual artwork details courtesy of the MIA didactics. 02.10.10


  1. the curve has been busted open - ladies and gentlemen - assume the expectations

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Oh - i thought that was you? Never mind.. blush...