(Chaos,The Heroic Dragon Slayer and V.I.T.R.I.O.L: The Process Behind Painting Beowulf)
"Few good battle-men bold though they be
strongest in warfare swordmen to be feared
reckless in life-dare ready for deathday
would stand against the blast of that searing heat-breath
touch with their hands the tiniest of gems
if they found waiting there a waking moundguard
coiled in his barrow. Beowulf exchanged
those lordly treasures for his life's boundary -
king and enemy earned the end there
of their loaned earth-days."
I've always been fascinated with the dance of wordplay and imagery found in the old English poem, Beowulf (written approximately 700 A.D. by an unknown poet). The poem is exciting, passionate, frightening, heroic, and brilliant.
I wanted to paint a representation of the death scene found in the poem but hadn't been able to capture the multi-layered feeling the epic story portrays. Eventually, a reading of Frederick Rebsamen's translation of the heroic tale inspired me to paint Beowulf in an organically abstract style. I wanted to capture the last breath and heartbeat of the brave warrior. The more I delved into the story, the more I uncovered the hidden alchemy entwining the poet's words. There is a seed that germinates throughout the tale that ends up blossoming into a chaotic, yet tranformational event.
While going through my sketchbooks I discovered a microscopic image of a dandelion seed I'd sketched years ago. It had that wonderful, other-worldly, organic feel for which I'd been searching. (Note: to all aspiring artists, never get rid of your old sketchbooks, you never know what treasures they might hold for the future!) The shape of the dandelion seed was almost sexual in nature containing both the lingam and yoni imagery, representing the life force and the source of life or the Divine Union.
The dandelion image soon evolved into the abstract tree Beowulf is leaning against in the painting. The blood of both the dragon and the hero can be seen mingling and flowing into the roots of the tree and deep into the earth where the golden treasure lies buried. The dragon's fire and poison burn away both the dross and the combustible passions (in this case pride, anger and greed). I imagine their mingling is also a symbol of Divine Union.
Alchemy and Seeking Gold
In alchemy there is an acronym: V.I.T.R.I.O.L : Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which means "Visit the Interior of the Earth, in rectifying, discover the hidden stone." In this painting the blood of the dragon (lunar feminine principle) and our hero (solar masculine principle) have nourished the roots of the Tree of Life.
Their sacrificial deaths cleansed them from extraneous impurities (rectification) revealing the great, golden treasure horde in the interior of the earth. In the end, however, the real gold Beowulf discovered wasn't the actual physical trinkets and jewels, but the rebirth of his memory as a mighty hero, famous for all his good and wonderful deeds. All his conflicts coalesced into a pinpoint of perfect balance and illumination. His shining legacy was to live on forever. In this case the "gold" at the centre of the earth was the treasure of immortality.
And What of you my Wild Ones? What type of gold are you seeking in your life? What legacy to you hope to leave behind? I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
P.S. If you are interested in picking up a copy of Beowulf for yourself, you can purchase one through Book Depository (they have free international shipping) The link to the book can be found here: BEOWULF This is the version of Beowulf I own. I HIGHLY recommend reading it aloud. If you do get a chance to read this amazing poem, drop me a note and let me know what you thought of it.