Death Is Not the End
The Rubin Museum of Art
125 West 17th Street
New York City
Through January 14, 2024
By Pamela A. Lewis
Of all the spirits Ebenezer Scrooge encountered during his single night of ghostly visitations in A Christmas Carol, it was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that inspired the most fear in the tale’s hard-hearted miser. Upon meeting the phantom, Scrooge acknowledges as much by saying, “Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any specter I have seen.”
Though death is a universal experience, it is the one we know least about. Whatever its quality, the life we live now is the one we know; what comes after our demise is subject either to our hopes or, not unlike Scrooge, our fears.
“Most people in the world believe in some sort of afterlife, even those who have no specific religious affiliation,” says Elena Pakhoutova, the Rubin Museum’s senior curator of Himalayan art and the organizer of Death Is Not the End. In a time of relentless global upheaval, uncertainty, and loss, this cross-cultural exhibition is an exploration of the universal human experience as understood by Tibetan Buddhism (the Rubin’s specialty) and Christianity.
It is also an invitation to contemplate life’s impermanence and the desire to exist beyond death. Drawing from the Rubin’s collection, as well as from works on loan from other major institutions, the exhibition brings together 58 objects spanning 12 centuries, displaying some of the finest examples of Tibetan and Western European art, including prints, oil paintings, bone fragments, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts.
The show is organized into three major themes: “The Human Condition,” or the shared understanding of our mortality in this world; “States In-Between,” or the concepts of limbo, purgatory, and bardo; and “(After)life,” which focuses on resurrection, ideas of transformation, and heaven. The exhibition takes visitors on a carefully organized and often colorful journey through these stages as represented by the various artworks.
Like the exhibition’s theme, the walk is circular. Tibetan and Christian objects are frequently juxtaposed, affording the viewer comparative perspectives on the given theme. The object’s size does not matter. There is a chilling, pocket-sized, and exquisitely carved ivory memento mori prayer bead, fashioned in either Germany or the Netherlands. On one side, worms slither through the handsome but decomposing face of a young man, while on the other, the worms have done their job, having reduced that face to a leering death’s head. This is no mere bauble for aesthetic contemplation, but a beautiful object meant to focus the mind on death’s power to destroy human beauty. At the other extreme, there is the imposing, yet deeply serene, Tibetan painting depicting Amitabha Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Light) in Sukhavati (paradise).
In the exhibition’s first theme, “The Human Condition,” humanity’s confrontation with its mortality is expressed and personified in various ways in both Buddhism and Christianity to describe what likely follows death. These explanations, found in religious texts and imagery, make what is feared somewhat manageable, albeit still frightening. These textual and visual objects help the human traveler come to terms with the worst possibilities.
The visually complex “Wheel of Life” represents Buddhism’s beliefs about the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, known as samsara. Human beings must strive against fixating on this life. Karma, or past actions, is the force that keeps humans trapped within this cyclic existence. The wheel’s central hub, which makes it rotate, is the ultimate cause of samsara, and at its center are three mental poisons: attachment (represented by a rooster), hatred or anger (a snake), and ignorance (a pig). These poisons propel human beings into an eternal cycle of rebirth in the six realms of existence or consciousness, contained in the wheel’s rim.
The entire wheel is contained in the maw of the terrifying Lord of Death, Yama. Regardless of whether one is born into a higher state of consciousness (light) or an afflicted state (dark), one can still be reborn in a lower realm and must, through good karma, strive to move up to the fortunate one. To be reborn as a human being is the best outcome, as only humans can learn to understand the causes of suffering, to alter their way of thinking and their environment, thereby creating positive karma. They become awakened, free, and released from the perpetual cycle of existence.
The fear of death is another aspect of the human condition, and the show includes pictorial and sculptural iconography that give shape to humankind’s deepest fears of what lies behind the afterlife’s curtain, while also serving as implied suggestions for avoiding those punishments.
“The Inferno,” an engraving executed by the Circle of Baccio Baldini around 1470-80, shares some characteristics with “The Wheel of Life,” in terms of its multilevel organization containing numerous human figures. But unlike “Wheel,” this is a grim and hopeless realm, from which there is no escape. Much of this highly detailed image is based on frescoes once located in the Campo Santa, a cemetery in the cathedral complex in Pisa, Italy, which may account in part for its graphic depictions of the tortures in hell.
The terrifying horned figure of Satan (whose body is covered with equally hellish-looking pustules), presides over his kingdom, where he ceaselessly consumes damned souls in his three mouths. Once digested, the soul is ejected through another mouth at the bottom of Satan’s stomach, only to endure the same torture all over again. Some tortures correspond to sins the person committed in life, such as one soul being forced to drink molten gold coins, a punishment for the sin of greed.
Common to both Buddhism and some versions of Christianity is the belief that the soul spends some period after death in an intermediary place before reaching the final stage of existence, which is known to Christians as limbo or purgatory and is understood in Buddhism as the bardo.
Representations of these in-between states diverge, however, such as in the “Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Bardo” (18th to 19th century), a Tibetan painting on cloth depicting the mind’s experience between death and rebirth. This colorful and well-preserved work shows multiple outcomes: the six realms of existence as gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and beings in hell. The Lord of Death presides over the judgment of karma, which affects the next birth.
In a contrasting Christian view, the illuminated manuscript “Leaf from the Book of Hours, Parliament of Heaven” (French, 1465) presents several important scenes all at once: that of heaven (yet to be populated by newly arisen souls), the Annunciation, and of the just souls in limbo, patiently waiting to be released by Christ.
Conceptions of an afterlife include resurrection, transformation, and heaven, in the exhibition’s third theme. Resurrection, the reuniting of the soul with the formerly dead body, is an essential belief in Christianity, as dramatically represented in Pietro Francavilla’s bronze relief “Resurrection of Christ” (ca. 1588), in which Christ seems to triumphantly fly out of the tomb, transformed and heavenly.
Buddhists revere those who have miraculously returned from the dead (known as delok), transformed by their experiences, and who can urge the living to be mindful of their actions’ consequences. Delok are usually ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to tell. To be reborn in the presence of a Buddha, in a Pure Realm, is the most desired rebirth, as it is the place that a Buddha creates and inhabits. “Tales of Returning from Death” (Tibet, 19th century), a work of pigments on cloth, may have served as a prop used by itinerant storytellers (manipa) to relate tales of people who died and returned to talk about the afterlife. Though now much faded and torn in places, the cloth’s narrative vivacity has not been greatly diminished.
At the end of the exhibition, visitors are invited to write on small pieces of paper their responses to a few prompts relating to the themes, such as “Tell Us Your Idea of the Perfect Afterlife” and “Why Do You Think That Death Is Not the End?” Visitors may then hang their responses on an artistic “clothesline.” This is the kind of participatory activity the Rubin has often included in its shows, which engages visitors in conversation with the show’s themes and with one another, and adds another level of reflection to the museum’s typically reflective offerings.
Death Is Not the End is not all doom and gloom; there are grinning and dancing skeletons, and quietly happy angels grouped at the feet of God waiting to welcome heaven’s new residents. Suffering and death are counterbalanced by hope and joy. Here, neither Buddhism nor Christianity claims to have the answer to the question of what comes after death. But both are very sure that something is next.
Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith.