February 2018

Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi
1998, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 48 in.

Mappa Mundi

The idea for Mappa Mundi began while reading the wonderful novel A Mapmaker's Dream by James Cowan. The book is about a 16th century Christian cartographer monk who, while cloistered in his cell, sets about creating an extraordinary map. The story sparked my imagination leading me to think about the relationship between the physical world and how it is visually represented in maps. While reading the book I thought of creating a painting depicting a large rotund Buddha-type human figure as a celestial body floating in space and covering him with tattoos that form an intricate map of the world complete with mountains, rivers, forests, cities, oceans, as well as details like fish, birds, buildings, and trees.

As the preliminary drawings for Mappa Mundi developed however the tattoos became minimal and very different as my overall focus shifted from depicting a literal map of the world to representing the idea of the renewal and continuation of life. To help realize that idea I decided to include a tattoo of a fetus on the belly of the Buddha figure and then connect it via an umbilical cord to a tattoo of a simple labyrinth the labyrinth of life. To me they together graphically form a figure eight which I associate with both infinity and the continuation of life. And to reinforce that theme I added a serpentine snake in the shape of a figure eight, which not only bites its own tail, but also entangles the figure.

Located at the center of the labyrinth is the spiritual icon symbol and sacred sound Om. To find a way through the labyrinth to the Om symbol one can use the spiral "key" located on the figure's right hand. It provides a simple solution to the labyrinth's puzzle while also alluding to map keys, which are commonly used to reference elements within maps. On the left hand I placed an eternal flame that not only helps illuminate the way to the Om symbol but also serves as the light source in the painting. These symbolic references, as well as other elements in the piece, are allusions to Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and general spiritual ideas.

Another interesting aspect of the picture is the mandorla-shaped mirror placed in front of the figure's face. The placement serves to hide the identity of the figure, thereby making the picture more timeless, while the mandorla shape references its traditional use of enclosing sacred moments which transcend time and space. In this case the mirror's reflection depicts a tranquil seascape with the all-seeing eye of God floating in the night sky instead of a moon. And the mirror itself is adorned with radiating rays of light that emanate from the eye, reinforcing the eye's glory as it watches over the sacred process of life's renewal.

Lastly, the figure takes on the traditional pose of Salvador Mundi, or Saviour of the World. In traditional iconography Salvador Mundi is depicted as Christ with his right hand raised in blessing and his left hand holding a globe, or the world, topped with a cross. In Mappa Mundi I depict the figure itself as the world and use a Buddha-type figure instead of Christ. This way of depicting the figure, as well as having it float in space with only the aid of tiny wings, are meant to add a sense of irony and humor to the piece.

- Brian Mains, 2018