This semester, in addition to my usual writing/editing gigs, I’m also teaching again. And I’m loving it. I have a wonderful group of students. I’m also loving that it’s reminding me about art produced by cultures that I’ve not thought much about in recent years. Take, for example, Etruscan art.
The class is a survey of Western art covering prehistory through Medieval art. As I was recently preparing my lesson on Etruscan art, I was struck–as I always am when I consider Etruscan art–by how intimate and touching it is. Most of the works that survive come from elaborately decorated tombs. Tombs often included frescoes, such as those in the so-called Tomb of the Leopards. The walls of this tomb are adorned with illusionistic images of a banquet, in which couples lounge on couches, drinking wine as musicians and dancers cavort about. It is all very cheerful and pleasant, almost allowing you to overlook its morbid context.
Other works do similar things. In the Tomb of the Reliefs, stuccoed reliefs along the walls create the illusion of a typical Etruscan domestic space. The tomb is outfitted and made comfortable for the deceased. A new home for the deceased.
Sarcophagi, too, are decorated with beautiful and often personal imagery. Take the sarcophagus lid (now in the MFA, Boston) depicting a married couple lying together in an overtly romantic embrace. They hold each other for eternity. It is touching. Sweet, even.
I suppose this all strikes a chord with me, since I suffered the loss of my own dear mother this past summer. The pain of her loss is no longer crippling, as it was in the early days. I compare my feelings now to something like a persistent toothache. I can carry on in my daily activities, but my mother’s absence throbs in the back of my mind near constantly. I feel her absence multiple times a day, from the moment I hear an interesting story on morning radio that I want to discuss with her to the moment after dinner, when I notice that the pine trees out my kitchen window are silhouetted against a deep blue twilight sky–a sight we share(d) a love of. I’m finding that she is still with me. I am still in dialogue with her, still actively loving her, even though she is gone.
Which brings me back to the Etruscans, who–it seems to me–may have been expressing that very same notion. Seeking a way to show affection and care for their loved ones, in the context of their tombs. The textbook my class is using says that the purpose of Etruscan tomb decorations “is hard to determine. They may record and perpetuate activities the deceased once enjoyed, or depict rituals observed at the funeral. . . . Or . . . they may have served as provisions for the afterlife of the deceased.” I find it curious that we need to find a concrete reason for these things. Something pragmatic. Couldn’t it just be that the Etruscans wanted to express their love for their deceased family members? That they wanted to add some gentleness and warmth to the harshness that is death? To me, tenderness and love may very well be the entire point. And I find that SO much more exciting.