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Beyond Mortality: Death Is Not the End

An Enchanting Journey Through 12 Centuries of Afterlife Exploration on view at Rubin Museum through January 14, 2024

Lords of the Charnel Ground, Smashana Adipati; Tibet; 18th century; painted terracotta; Rubin Museum of Art; C2002.36.1 (HAR 65149); photograph by David De Armas, Rubin Museum of Art, 2012

Eternal dance of souls,

Beyond the veil, life unrolls,

In cosmic embrace, transcends,

Death, a door, where spirit mends.

Mortal chains dissolve, release,

Journey to the realms of peace,

Ephemeral forms may wane,

Yet love's essence shall remain.

Spirits soar, celestial flight,

In realms of infinite light,

Beyond this world, a new birth,

Death, a passage to rebirth.

Wheel of Life; Tibet or Mongolia; 19th century; pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.131 (HAR 78)

Death Is Not the End is a thought-provoking and cross-cultural exhibition that delves into the profound notions of death and the afterlife, examining the art of both Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity. The showcase of 58 captivating artworks is thoughtfully organized around three overarching themes, each offering a unique perspective on the journey beyond mortality.

A Woman Divided into Two, Representing Life and Death; 1790–1820; oil painting; 16 5/16 × 14 in. (41.5 x 35.5 cm); Wellcome Collection, London; 45063i

The first theme, the Human Condition, leads visitors on a contemplative path, emphasizing our shared understanding of mortality and the transient nature of our existence in this world. Through evocative sculptures, paintings, and artifacts, viewers are encouraged to ponder the complexities of life and its inevitable end.

Pieter van der Heyden (Netherlandish, ca. 1525–1569); The Descent of Christ Into Limbo; Antwerp; ca. 1561; engraving; first state of two; sheet: 9 1/16 x 11 7/16 in. (23 x 29 cm); lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.41)

The second theme, States In-Between, delves into the intriguing realms of limbo, purgatory, and bardo—conceptual spaces that bridge the gap between life and the afterlife. These intermediate states are brought to life through mesmerizing visual representations, unveiling the diverse cultural interpretations surrounding the passage from one realm to another.

Sarvavid Album Leaf #53: Liberation from Hell; Inner Mongolia; 18th–19th century; pigments on paper; Collection of the City of Antwerp – MAS; AE.1977.0026.41-54; Photo: Bart Huysmans & Michel Wuyts

The third theme, (After)life, ushers visitors into a realm of transformation, resurrection, and the idea of heavenly existence. Here, vibrant artworks provide glimpses of a world beyond the earthly plane, inviting contemplation on what may await us in the vast expanses of eternity.

Memento Mori Prayer Bead; Germany or the Netherlands, 1500-1550; Ivory; 2 3/4 × 1 1/2 × 1 5/8 in. (7 × 3.8 × 4.1 cm); Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Gift of Linda and David Roth in memory of David P. Becker, 2011.26

Elena Pakhoutova's curation is masterful in its selection and arrangement, gracefully weaving together these diverse cultural perspectives on death and the afterlife. The exhibition transcends religious boundaries, prompting viewers to explore their own beliefs and perceptions surrounding the enigmatic transition from life to the unknown. Visitors navigating through the mesmerizing artworks are offered a profound and introspective experience, sparking conversations and reflections on the enduring mysteries that have captivated humanity for ages.

Sarvavid Album Leaf #24: Rainbow Light; Inner Mongolia; 18th–19th century; pigments on paper; Collection of the City of Antwerp – MAS; AE.1977.0026.36-54; Photo: Bart Huysmans & Michel Wuyts

Death Is Not the End stands as a testament to the enduring power of art in addressing the most profound aspects of the human experience. It serves as a timely reminder that, despite the uncertainties of life and the fear of the unknown, our fascination with the afterlife continues to serve as a catalyst for exploration, spirituality, and shared cultural understanding. The Rubin Museum, with its commitment to cultural dialogue and introspection, provides the perfect backdrop for this illuminating exhibition. As we navigate through the captivating pieces on display, we are invited to confront our own beliefs and perceptions, discovering a thread of connection that unites us all in the face of life's ultimate enigma.

Leg Bone Trumpet (kangling); Tibet; 18th-19th century; human bone, copper, coral, leather; Rubin Museum of Art, gift of Robert and Lois Bayils; SC2019.3.2


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