ABORIGINAL ART AND RUSSIAN ICON PAINTING
Published in: Histories of Old Ages: Essays in Honour of Rhys Jones. Canberra, 2001, pp.267-275
ARTISTIC WORLDS: FEATURES IN COMMON
Medieval Russian icon painting and Australian Aboriginal art - what
comparison could be more unexpected, more paradoxical? They belong to worlds
very different in cultural history and in art. Yet comparison and apposition are
feasible and acceptable, provided that one goes into the essence of both forms
of art. Both Russian icon painting and traditional Aboriginal art - at least to
a significant degree - belong to religious art, to religious creativity. They
are both conceptual and the notion of the sacred is central to each of them.
Their affinity, their common features are central for both - it is their place
and function in social life, their content ('sacred history') and their language
of symbol and metaphor. Their common themes indicate that they are based on
universal archetypes of consciousness.
Traditional Aboriginal art, in its sources and fundamental forms, is
religious and esoteric, although that does not imply that its content extends no
further. It performs other functions: communicative, informational, educational
and aesthetic, as well as philosophical and cognitive. However, they all are
organically interwoven, and religion plays a dominant role in this complex. For
the Aboriginal artist and the icon painter, abstract notions very often lie
behind a material visual image, the world around is a great metaphor, full of
symbols and concealed meanings. When it appears to us that the Aboriginal artist
or icon painter seeks to depict the real world, actually they are drawing a
world of meaning, a world of things, beings and happenings replete with meaning.
For them the universe is an infinite system of signs. For both, their art, in
the words of Saint Paul on faith, is 'the evidence of things not seen' (Hebrews
The philosophical, symbolic and metaphorical content of Aboriginal art,
with its religious content, also give it an affinity with icon painting. One of
the main topics of traditional Aboriginal art is the cycle of birth, life and
death. An example of this is the theme of the morning star, a symbol of the
transition of the soul from one state to another and in its final impetus
towards the land of the dead. Widespread in the myths and art of the Aborigines
is the theme of swallowing and subsequent ejection, for example of those
undergoing initiation, as a metaphor for the transition from one metaphysical
state to another and as a solution to the problem of transformation. An example
is the myth of the Wagilag sisters, reproduced in the rites and in the art of
Arnhem Land. The sisters and their children were swallowed and then vomited out
by the Great Serpent. The myth is a metaphor for transition from one level of
existence to another, for spiritual transformation. This is the inner meaning of
the form of burial, widespread in the north of Australia, which consists of two
stages separated in time. Burial is understood as the transfiguration of the
body, as the liberation of the soul and its departure for the land of the dead
(Hiatt 1975; Caruana 1993:48, 72-4, fig. 59). The same theme is developed on
another plane and by other means as one of the main themes in icon painting.
The theme of the death and resurrection of a hero is significant in
Aboriginal myths and art. An example is Laindjung, a cultural hero of Arnhem
Land, the originator of laws, customs and sacred rites. He was killed by envious
men, but was resurrected in another form. We see him murdered, speared by
enemies, in the lower part of a bark painting. In the upper part he rises from a
waterhole transfigured, with sacred emblems on his body (Alien 1975:64). The
myth and the painting which illustrates it are remarkable in a number of ways.
In the first place, we have a metaphysical transformation of the hero following
his murder by treacherous enemies; sacred signs on his body are the visible
expression of an inner, spiritual transformation. Do these signs not recall the
stigma on the body of the resurrected Christ? It is also interesting that water
appears as an element connected with resurrection to a new life in another,
spiritually transformed shape. These themes reproduce the Christian paradigm and
are evidence of the existence of a universal archetypal subject. Finally,
attention must be drawn to the combination in one painting of two episodes
occurring at different times - a device familiar in icon painting. Moreover,
death and resurrection are in a metaphysical sense just two aspects of the one
Take the symbol of the labyrinth as an image of the world of the dead, as
a reflection of ancient archetypal notions of death and resurrection to a new
life. The Museum of Victoria has a wooden board made by an Aboriginal artist and
placed on the grave of a member of his tribe who died in 1865. Men with spears
are carved in the upper part of the board. In the middle part there are emus,
kangaroos and other animals. In the lower part there are three rows of
anthropomorphic figures. The middle and lower parts of the board are totally
covered with a design in the form of a labyrinth within which the animals and
anthropomorphic figures are set. R. Brough Smyth offers the following
interpretation, based on information from Aborigines, who, he says, no longer
remembered the exact meaning of the images. The upper part of the board depicts
friends of the dead man investigating his death; the animals in the middle part
indicate that he did not die of hunger (?); below are the spirits who were the
cause of his death (Smyth 1878:288, fig. 41). This interpretation is silent on
the representation of the labyrinth, yet this latter is the key to decipher the
meaning of the whole composition. The image of the labyrinth, since Palaeolithic
times one of the most ancient and universal archetypes of human consciousness,
is a symbol of the land of the dead, to which people and animals go, and from
which they return, recalled by rites and invocations; I discuss this in more
detail elsewhere (Kabo 1966, 1972). With this meaning, the visual image of the
labyrinth is widely represented in Aboriginal art. It was in the south-east of
the continent, where the board from the grave originated, that designs in the
form of a labyrinth were carved on the trunks of trees surrounding graves, or
sites where initiation ceremonies were performed; these images were also formed
on the ground at initiation sites (McCarthy 1956:23-4, figs 10, 20). The
labyrinth design was a sacred symbol connected with initiation ceremonies and
funeral rites, both of which ritual systems are understood identically by
traditional consciousness as transfiguration, as a metaphorical passage from one
state to another. Hence I believe that the space on the board from the grave,
filled with the design of the labyrinth, indicated the home of the dead,
inhabited by the people and animals of the middle and lower parts of the board
who have departed our world. The upper part depicts members of the dead man's
tribe, witnesses to his last journey. Finally, it is significant that two rows
of the anthropomorphic figures in the lower part are limbless: they are
incomplete beings, the souls of people inhabiting the lower world, not yet born
or not resurrected to a new life, an image known in Aboriginal mythology.
The labyrinth design is extremely rare in Russian icon painting. Hence 'The
Path to Paradise', an icon dating from the seventeenth century in the Museum
of the History of Religion in St. Petersburg, is of particular interest. The
path to paradise is depicted as a labyrinth. This subject is quite atypical for
Orthodoxy, being evidently influenced by secular culture. However this may be,
the ancient symbolism of the labyrinth is transformed by the icon painter in the
spirit of Christian philosophy. Each entrance to the labyrinth bears the name of
one of the deadly sins: murder, slander, envy, fornication and so on. Beneath is
Hell in the shape of a monster with gaping, all-consuming jaws, in wait for the
straying human soul. Above is Christ radiant and enthroned, judging sinful
mankind. On the right is a sinner on his deathbed, with the devil in the shape
of a winged beast lurking to bear him off to the underworld. On the left is a
righteous man, with an angel descending to bear him away to the land of the
blessed. In the centre is a man in the Garden of Eden, where the tree of
knowledge grows; this is possibly Adam, embodying sinful mankind (the legend
above him is 'How I wish to go into the darkness'). The sense of this image and
the notion of the path to paradise as a labyrinth in which the human soul is
lost are quite clear. Nevertheless, here we have the ancient, universal image of
the road to the home of the dead and the home itself as a labyrinth - an image
connecting the picture on the Russian icon, permeated with the Christian
conception of the world, with the mythical symbolism of traditional Aboriginal
Traditional Aboriginal art and icon painting are one in their aim to
capture in their images, not the time in which the events of everyday life
occur, but a transcendental, sacred time actuated in a ritual or mystery which
reproduces events in sacred history, known by Aborigines as the Dreaming (Berndt
and Berndt 1977:228-30; Elkin 1979:210; Stanner 1972). As Elkin has put it, the
Dreaming is 'the ever-present, unseen, ground of being-of existence .... The
concept is not of a "horizontal" line extending back chronologically
through a series of pasts, but rather of a "vertical" line in which
the past underlies and is within the present' (Elkin 1969:88, 93). The same
concept of time is found in icon painting. The notion of space in the two
artistic traditions is also a dual one. Icon painting and Aboriginal art
recognise two categories of space: the space of tangible, material reality and
that of a reality spiritually visualised. The latter category includes
mythological geography, an image of the earth in its sacred dimension, sacred
history imprinted on a locality.
Sacred time and sacred space obey their own laws, their visual embodiment
requiring specific devices. Icon painting and Aboriginal art use similar devices
to convey the development of action and the movement of time. Such devices
include repeating the figure being depicted, such as representing several images
of the Virgin on one icon; or placing in one and the same space events which
take place at different times. An example in Aboriginal art is the depiction
twice on one painting of the great mythical hero Lumaluma, as a living being and
as a spirit in the form of a skeleton, both being in sacred space and emitting
radiance. The hero's wanderings, his persecution and death, and the sacred
objects given by him to his descendants are all represented in the one painting
(Ryan 1990:76, 95, 114, plate 55). The device is widespread in medieval Russian
icon painting, for example in the cycle 'The Assumption of the Virgin'. We see the body of the Virgin laid
out, her soul in the hands of the Archangel Michael standing beside her, and
then her soul born off to Heaven by angels, all in the one icon. In an icon on
the same topic, the twelve Apostles are also seen both descending on clouds and
surrounding the body of the Virgin. The fifteenth century icon 'The
Conception of John the Baptist' juxtaposes two periods of time, separated
not only by an interval of several decades, but also by a miraculous event, the
birth of the prophet. It shows the parents of Saint John meeting, rejoicing at
the news of the miracle of the advent of the prophet to be, and, beside them,
the already adult John the Baptist. The fifteenth century icon 'The
Beheading of John the Baptist' shows John, as yet unharmed, with head bowed
under the executioner's blade, and with his head, cut off, at his feet. This is
one of the most striking examples of the juxtaposition of non-contemporaneous
events in Russian icon painting. A plurality of non-contemporaneous events and
happenings filling the field of the icon is one of the most typical devices of
Russian icon painting. The icon painter, naturally, knows that the head of a
victim of execution cannot lie at his feet until the fatal blow is delivered, or
that a grown man cannot stand beside his parents as they await his birth. Yet he
knows equally that earthly laws do not apply in the world of sacred entities.
A bright light, an aura, is associated by the Aborigines with the power
of their mythical ancestors (Morphy 1991:194). The great Rainbow Serpent,
regarded in northern Australia as the most powerful of mythical beings, is
sometimes depicted in the radiance of a rainbow like the halo of a saint in icon
painting (Alien 1975:71). The most remarkable phenomena of this kind are the
representations of the Wandjina, anthropomorphic mythical beings, on the cliffs
and cave walls of the Kimberleys. Halos around their heads are typical features.
The Aborigines associate the Wandjina with rain and fertility. To renew them in
fresh, bright colours is magic contributing to restoring their strength and
bringing about the return of the rainy season. To control the rain is to control
the elements; it is the fertility of the earth, the increase of plants, animals
and humankind itself. According to the Aborigines, the halo around the head of a
Wandjina is normally taken to be a rainbow accompanying the rain or a
thunderclouds of the northwest monsoon, riven by lightning. All who have written
about Wandjinas agree on this. I would like to take up two features of these
reports. The first is the association of halos with the rainbow (Elkin 1979:224)
and lightning (Crawford 1968) - phenomena which impress by their brilliance.
Moreover, Wandjinas were the focus of a kind of cult: some rituals were
performed in conjunction with the paintings, while the paintings were regarded
as the creation of the Wandjinas themselves (Crawford 1968:31, 37). Hence I
would like to suggest that some ancient archetype underlies the paintings of
halos of Wandjinas, connecting them with the images of the saints in icon
painting. The halos around the heads of these beings, so important in Aboriginal
religion, are the same aura which surrounds the heads of the saints in Christian
and Buddhist icon painting. It is an emanation characteristic of something
numinous. The white faces of the Wandjina, mouthless and with huge, black,
hollow eyes, bring to mind human skulls. They are ancestral faces, the faces of
the creators of the world, who have left their images on the rock faces.
Rock paintings of this kind are found beyond the Kimberleys. On a cliff
in the Victoria River region there was discovered a full length drawing of an
anthropomorphic being with arms raised as in a pose of adoration, with a white,
mouthless face, large, black eye sockets, and a head surrounded by an aura
(Lewis and Rose 1988:plate 4).
In the rock paintings the dead eyes of the Wandjina are circled by red
rays; these radiate the magic, life-giving power latent within. At the opposite
end of the continent, in New South Wales, a cliff face bears a picture of the
mythical being Baiame. Like the Wandjina, he is mouthless, but with huge,
brilliant eyes in a dark face; light emanates from his sacred inner being (Godden
and Malnic 1982:plate 28).
In icon painting, halos encircling the heads of saints, apostles and
prophets are so much a tradition that more need not be said. Christ and the
Madonna appear with an aura in icons and church frescoes. Icons of the
Transfiguration show a brilliant radiance emanating from Christ, his figure
painted on the background of a circle of light. The analogy is clear; it
derives, probably, from the mysterious depths of religious consciousness, from a
perception of figures from the sacred world exuding an aura.
THEIR ORIGIN AND ESSENCE
Amongst the abstract symbols most frequently encountered in Aboriginal
art are the circle, the concentric circle and the spiral, and, derived therefrom,
the concentric arc, together with the zigzag and the wavy line. The cross is
less common. All these symbols are significant and are polysemic; each carries
multiple meanings. The most productive are, however, the circle, the concentric
circle and the spiral. The genesis of these symbols can be traced from the
Palaeolithic age: the earliest images relate to the Middle and even Early
Palaeolithic. Alexander Marshack describes a concentric arc carved on a stone
plate; the tablet is ca. 54,000 BP and originated in Quneitra in the Near East.
Marshack supposes that the Quneitra design is prompted by the rainbow and
indicates its probable connection with seasonal rites. Another set of symbolic
designs from the Middle Paleolithic are the zigzags carved on a bone fragment
from Bacho Kiro (Bulgaria) and dated to ca. 44,000 BP (Marshack 1996). The
zigzag motif, however, appeared much earlier - ca. 300,000 BP: a bone fragment
from that time from Pech de 1'Aze (France) shows perhaps the earliest carving in
the form of a zigzag or meander (Marshack 1977). Objects analogous to the tjuringa
are known in the Palaeolithic: one of such Palaeolithic tjuringa
from Predmosti (Czech Republic), made of mammoth bone, is covered with a pattern
of concentric arcs. The mysterious bone batons from the Late Palaeolithic cave
at Isturitz (France) bear a relief forming a complex system of concentric arcs
and spirals. There is a very interesting bone plate from Malta (Siberia), one
side of which is decorated with a spiral design and the other with zigzags,
possibly representing snakes (Jelinek 1976:429, fig. 683, 449, fig. 722, 451,
fig. 729, 452, figs 732, 733).
A stone disc with a carved cross was found in the Middle Palaeolithic
complex of the Tata Cave (Hungary). This is not the only representation of a
cross found in the Palaeolithic. A limestone plate with a clearly cut
four-pointed cross was found in the Middle Palaeolithic layer of the Tsona Cave
(Georgia). There are crosses carved on a bone fragment from Vilen and on a
statuette of a mammoth from Vogelherd (Germany) (Stolyar 1985:125, 127, figs 71,
91, 92, 93). Nevertheless the cross is rare in the Palaeolithic, while
concentric arcs, spirals, zigzags and similar designs are frequent; only a few
examples are given here.
Orientation in space, the ability of the mind to conceptualise space as a
whole, the notion of the centre of a space and its vectors, were all achieved by
mankind in the Palaeolithic, as primitive communities occupied territory,
constructed dwellings and settlements, went on hunting expeditions and
migrations, with the community and the individual coming more and more to feel
themselves the centre of the cosmos. The spatial organisation of social life,
from as far back as the stone age, can be expressed geometrically: basically it
is circular in form (a constructed dwelling, often on a circular plan, and the
territory occupied by the people around it) and radial (the community's movement
from its home base and back). This found graphic expression in the symbol of the
circle and concentric circle embodying the notion of the social group and the
universe around it. It was expressed also in the symbols of the wavy line, the
zigzag and the labyrinth as ideograms of movement and the occupation of space
and of wanderings in this and in another world. Finally, it was expressed in the
symbol of the cross as the centre of the universe and the four basic vectors
which made it up. All these symbols are rooted in human consciousness as its
most ancient archetypes.
Such is the age of some basic archetypal symbols which have then passed
through many millennia of the history of visual symbols and absorbed a number of
images created by mythological consciousness. These ancient archetypes and the
notions connected with them are unbelievably stable, capable of being reproduced
during the lives of many generations, in the Palaeolithic, in Aboriginal art and
even in icon painting.
Tindale (1974:38, 1978:157) states that the circle and the spiral express
in graphic form the idea of home or dwelling place. In the Western Desert,
concentric circles usually represented camping places or sanctuaries and the
lines between them the paths and tracks of Aborigines or mythological beings.
Among the Warlpiri, the circle, one of the basic symbols, most often conveys the
idea of a camp site or a waterhole in the centre of a camp. It also has the
meaning of a maternal bosom, which is one of the universal archetypes of human
culture (Munn 1973a:68, 117, 138, 1973b: 197, 213, fig. 8). In both meanings,
the circle symbolises the place where the life force is to be found.
The ancient sacred symbols of the circle and the concentric circle had
their place in the culture of the Slavs. One of the most stable forms of
Slavonic pagan sacred places were circular structures with two concentric earth
walls, in the centre of which an idol was placed (Rybakov 1987:223-5, fig. 44).
Taking their place in medieval icon painting, the circle and concentric
circle brought a rich legacy of pre-Christian notions. In icon painting, these
ancient archetypes acquired new meaning, while retaining something deep and
fundamental. In icons on 'The Assumption
of the Virgin', the Madonna risen to Heaven is frequently painted in a
concentric circle. The circle here is a symbol of Heaven as of home, a metaphor
of the soul's return to its eternal abode. In this connection, we recall the
symbol of the circle as home in Aboriginal traditional art, the symbol of the
circle as a place from whence come and whither go the heroes of the Dreaming.
The concentric circle of the icon is a symbol of sacred space, frequently
observed also in Aboriginal art. Christ as king of the world is represented in a
concentric circle as the sacred centre of the cosmos. In the sixteenth century
icon 'The Fiery Ascension of Elias the
Prophet', a concentric circle symbolises Heaven as a sacred space filled
with fire (Alpatov 1984:plates 7, 25, 64, 79).
The cross symbol can be traced through the whole history of humankind,
acquiring in Christianity a deep sacred meaning. It is possible that
Palaeolithic carvings in the form of a cross were connected with spatial or
cosmic symbolism. The symbolism of the cross is also developed in Aboriginal
art. The waninja, or thread crosses,
ritual objects, took the form of a cross in central Australia. The cross
controls the composition of many sacred works of Aboriginal art (e.g. Elkin et
al. 1950:66-67, plate 1 la; Sutton 1988:figs 36, 39, 40, 44; Ryan 1990:viii,
105, 111, plates 2, 31). The cross may be an abstract representation of sacred
ceremonial ground (Ryan 1990:25, fig. 11). One painting in traditional style
shows a composition, typical of certain icons, in the form of a cross, with a
human figure placed at each side, though in the centre, in place of the
crucifixion, is a large circle resembling the sun (Sutton 1988:fig. 43).
The Aborigines themselves may understand the cross motif differently;
their interpretation is most frequently taken from material objects around them.
This is just one of many instances when ancient archetypes and the corresponding
ideograms, through successive millennia and cultures, acquire a new meaning,
when a new, rational explanation replaces one forgotten. In some instances,
however, a composition with a cross dominant has, in addition to the overt
version, a covert one known only to the initiated (Sutton 1988:104, 118-19, fig.
144). This confirms our supposition that the cross symbol rests on a system of
notions and associations with sacred meaning accessible only to those initiated
into the secret versions of the myth.
The female figure with upraised arms, in a pose of adoration, is another
link between Aboriginal painting and icon painting. In this way. Aboriginal art
presents a woman as mythical ancestor of a clan and cultural hero - for example
in Narritjin Maymuru's painting (Ryan 1990:27, 107, plate 8).
The image of the Madonna has its source in the ancient cults of the Great
Mother, traces of which have been retained by the Slavs and date back to the
primitive farmers of Tripolye, to Neolithic Greece and Near Asia, and perhaps
even further, to the most ancient layers of human culture. There are archaic
traces of the image of the Great Mother in Aboriginal culture, not only in cults
and myths, but also in art.
CHRISTIANITY AND ANCIENT ETHNIC RELIGIONS
The current religious situation in Aboriginal society in Australia has
something in common with what happened in Kievan Russia at the time of the
adoption and spread of Christianity. When it arrived in Russia from Byzantium in
the 980s, Christianity encountered a developed, original culture with its own
mythology, pantheon of gods and popular beliefs and rites. This culture in turn
had its roots in even more ancient layers of human religious and mythological
consciousness, which, I believe, was the source also of the images and spiritual
culture of the Aborigines. Arriving in Russia, Christianity did not destroy this
culture, but absorbed and reworked it. In time there came to obtain a system of
'dual belief, a compromise between paganism and Orthodoxy.
Russian icon painting, while retaining much in common with the Byzantine,
differed from it in reflecting the syncretic nature of popular Orthodoxy. The
Christian Son of God absorbed features of the Slavonic pagan god Dazhbog the Sun
and icon painters reflected the image of Christ the Sun. Perun, another cosmic
divinity, god of thunder and fire, was transformed into the biblical prophet
Elias. Icon painters showed Elias against a background of heavenly fire,
emphasising, as it were, his fiery nature, his connection with storm and
tempest. The wheel seen on icons of Saint Elias is a symbol of the sun and of
fire. In the icon 'The Fiery Ascension of
Elias the Prophet' (see above), the wheel appears as the huge disc of the
sun drawn by horses of fire. This is the prophet's chariot, in which he drives
across a flaming sky.
The cult of the Slavonic divinity Volos (or
Veles), which may have arisen as early as the Palaeolithic as a cult of the
master of beasts and later as the patron of domestic animals, was, as
Christianity spread, transferred to Saint Vlas. Adopting the functions of Volos,
Vlas became patron of cattle and as such he appears in icons, normally
surrounded by the flocks and herds under his protection.
Features of Khors, the sun god on his horse, were transferred to Saint
George. In icons, Saint George was shown on horseback in a flying scarlet cape
reminiscent of his solar nature. At the same time George embodies the
life-giving spring, having acquired features of Yarilo, the Slavonic god of
vernal fertility. Saint George's day in Russia was celebrated in April, the
traditional day for cattle to be driven out onto the fresh grass. The horse was
the symbol of that day. Saint George's association with the horse, so striking
in icon painting, has a pre-Christian origin. In the legend Saint George appears
in combat with the serpent, vanquishing the Chtonic monster. In icons, he is
shown spearing a dragon or a serpent of fantasy. Interestingly, in Aboriginal
myths and art we see a triumphant serpent, while in Christian legend, reflected
in icon painting, the serpent is defeated and humiliated. In Aboriginal myths
and art the serpent appears as a rainbow in the sky; Saint George strikes down a
creature of the underworld. Its sad fate seems to symbolise the defeat of
paganism and the triumph of Christianity. Even where Russian icon painting is
permeated with pre-Christian, folk motifs, its bears witness to the triumph of
the new vision.
Russian popular Christianity has much in common with the popular
Christianity of the Aborigines and their work on Christian subjects. As earlier
in Kievan Russia, in Australia Christianity encountered the original and complex
culture of the native population with a history going back for many millennia.
Christianity not only absorbed the ancient, pre-Christian system of religion and
myth, but itself experienced its powerful influence. The Aborigines absorbed
Christianity, transforming it in accordance with their traditional notions,
introduced it into their own system of ideas and images and made it their
religion (for a typical manifesto of this new religious awareness see Rainbow
Spirit Elders 1997).
Modern Aboriginal art is clear evidence of the manner of their acceptance
and absorption of Christianity. It shows the Christian legend and teaching
refracted in the minds of the artists, while traditional means are put to use in
their expression, resulting finally in a remarkable organic fusion.
Let us look at how Jesus Christ's Road to Calvary is depicted by
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann in her painting 'Stations of the Cross' (Crumlin
1991:plates 20-21; see also Derrington 2000). The Daly River artist boldly
introduces into her work elements of traditional symbolism. The heads of Christ
and other characters are presented as concentric circles; the faces and bodies
of the people burying Christ are painted in ceremonial fashion. Beside Jesus
there is a huge serpent, a mystical being which plays a fateful role both in
Aboriginal myths and in the Bible, the Rainbow Serpent and the mysterious
creature of Eden. Introducing this image, the artist wished to express the idea
of the death of Christ overcoming the forces of evil. In other terms, she
attempted to convey one of the key notions of Christianity by means of
pre-Christian symbolism held in common by Aboriginal culture and the creators of
In traditional culture, the Rainbow Serpent is not only the bearer of
destruction, but also a symbol of rebirth and transfiguration, as it is in a
Yirrkala artist's painting, Mawalan Marika's 'Crucifixion' (Crumlin 1991:plate 9). In the centre is Christ
crucified; above him is the serpent; on both sides of Jesus are the robbers on
their crosses. In the upper part of the painting is another figure of Christ
ascending to Heaven on wings. In the top corner he appears in the tomb. In the
one painting we see the juxtaposition of events which take place at different
times and the combination of two dimensions - the real (Golgotha) and the
metaphysical (the soul of Jesus ascending to Heaven). As we know, this is
typical of Russian icon painting too. The serpent in the painting is the
traditional, archetypal symbol of rebirth and transfiguration. Its inclusion in
the crucifixion subject has, as in the previous painting, deep symbolic
'The Crucifixion of Jesus', a painting by Groote Eyiandt artist, Naidjiwarra Amagula, shows Christ
on the cross surrounded by an aura (Crumlin 1991:plate 10). The subject of the
death and the immortal, divine nature of Christ is dominant in the painting, a
subject close to icon painting and expressed in the same language of symbols -
the aura emanating from Christ. The same artist has a painting entitled 'The
Ascension of Jesus', but which in reality, taking the evidence of its basic
content, represents the Transfiguration (Crumlin 1991:plate 12). In the centre
is the figure of Christ surrounded by an aura, as he appears in Russian icons on
Tony Swain wrote down a Warlpiri Aborigine's account of his dreams. In
one he saw the heavenly Jerusalem and Jesus Christ seated in Heaven and
observing the world below. Red rays, 'like torches', emanated from his throne
and coloured the world red. In another the Aborigine saw the earth again
coloured red; he felt lightning strike and with it Jesus entered into him.
Christ, as the Aborigine sees him in his dream, is seated on his heavenly throne
exactly as he is depicted in Russian icons, and from his throne emanate the same
brilliant rays as in icons - symbols of Christ's divinity and power (Swain
1988:462). Christ sends this power to the Aborigine in the form of lightning
striking him, exactly as spirits penetrate the body of an Aborigine undergoing
initiation as a sorcerer, placing within him magic crystals which sparkle like
lightning. In this connection I would like to recall that certain Aboriginal
groups associate the brilliance in their art with ancestral power. For the
Yolngu, the brightness in their paintings emanates from the wangarr
beings themselves and is imbued with their essence (Jones 1990:28-9; Morphy
1996). Christianity and traditional religion are organically combined in these
dreams, reflecting some syncretic religious state typical of an adherent of
Christianity who has not yet cast off the religious legacy of his ancestors. It
is embodied in images typical of Russian icon painting, so remote in spatial
terms, yet typologically so close.
Aboriginal artists' works on Christian subjects are like waking dreams, the dreams of an Aboriginal who has only the day before become a Christian. His work and icon painting, a reflection of Russian popular Christianity, can occupy the same page in the history of art. What has been happening in Aboriginal communities in Australia in the twentieth century and what happened in Russia centuries ago are two processes, typologically identical, by which ancient ethnic religions are overcome by a new religion aimed at all people and nations equally, for which 'there is neither Greek nor Jew', a religion striving to cross ethnic, cultural and racial bounds and encompass the world. In the process specific, ethnically coloured forms of Christianity take shape. Only in these forms, perhaps, can it survive.
This paper was translated from the Russian by Rosh Ireland
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