Roman Death Mask
He liked the painting hanging on the wall, especially its strength. The bold lines etched upon the face were unambiguous. The clear creases bespoke of firmness. The size and shape of the head was harmoniously proportionate. The jaw line was the epitome of masculine but the lips sensuously full. He saw some of his father’s face in this canvas and also a likeness to an uncle on his mother’s side. The tri colours emerging from the torso: scarlet, green and gold – had, for him, biblical connotations, like some Luciferion manifestation gleaming against a black background. The whiteness of the skull like visage had echoes of some comic book super hero, or villain, from his childhood reading.
It was a painting of a Roman death mask, which was why the eyes were eyeless empty sockets; white portals into an interior expanse of unreadable blankness. His children had found it creepy. He supposed that others would also judge it to be disquieting. His brother had made reference to the fact of his recent milestone birthday, just passed, and that, perhaps, the striking image of a death mask was psychologically linked to thoughts about his own mortality. He had painted the Roman death masks because of the facial detail captured in plaster, which had inspired him to pick up his brushes after almost a year of inactivity. The copious lines on the faces of these ancient sentinels told the story of their lives, or rather, showed the impact events had had upon them. The Romans wore their lives like badges of honour, every wrinkle, and every line, was a mark of experience crying out, “I lived, I survived, I made my presence felt!”
They wiped their arses with sea sponges soaked in vinegar. He imagined how old arse holes filled with piles would react to the astringent sting. That could put lines on your face. They lived hard lives close to the ground; a race of farmers who became unbeatable soldiers marching in scarlet and always keeping time. They lived on porridge most of the time, which may have kept the piles at bay. Death was notoriously prevalent and like the seasonal slaughter of farmyard animals it was only a matter of time. It was hard not to admire this civilisation, from a safe distance of course. They wore medallions carved in the likeness of erect phalluses, even women and children. They worshipped fertility, the potency of the seed and its deliverer. Mars, the god of war, with sword and spear stood tall amongst them.
His Roman death mask painting captured some of that spirit, he thought to himself. It depicted an angry fucker staring out from history, daring anyone, or thing, to mock him. He hadn’t given him a name, though the Romans were very big on names; nomenclature – the systematic naming of things. They often had three names or nomens. The first, and least important, was the praenomen – something like Gaius or Marcus; there was only a limited number of these to choose from, so many had the same first name. The second name was called the nomen and this was the clan, or gens, you belonged to. A third name was the cognomen, which indicated the branch of the clan you belonged to. It was very important for them to address each other correctly at the appropriate occasion. He had called his painting “Roman Death Mask 1”, a much more functionally modern nomen.
I suppose, the fact that I had just returned from my best friend’s funeral, he had taken his own life, was a strong undercurrent in my choice of inspiration for this text. Thoughts about mortality, the life lived and family were uppermost in my mind. I wondered, self-reflectively, if my painting of these Roman death masks had been some intuitive leap into the reality of Andrew’s reality, as the timing of the paintings coincided with the lead-up to his suicide. We had not spoken for almost a year, something I deeply regretted in hindsight, and he had not reached out to me in those final days of his troubled existence. The creative process contains so many arbitrary decisions involving subject matter and the like; I asked myself why I had chosen to suddenly paint this material, at this time.
I think that art, the visual medium, provides a sensory stimulus to the observer, which can trigger self-reflective questioning. Lines indicating shapes on a canvas ask our brains to register meaningful forms and often these provoke personal connotations. Writing this piece allowed me to mine my responses to this image, finding linkages to family, my late father, and to childhood memories. The writing came easy, as a series of evaluations and thoughts emerged from my self-enquiry into what the painting stirred in me.
What it means to be a man, the ageing process of the body, and nomenclature are thematic issues which emerge from the piece for me. I am getting older, old friends are starting to die, and my historical studies into an extinct civilisation evoke feelings of my own mortality. The remnants of the ancient Roman culture offer powerful symbols, which ring true to me, despite the passing of hundreds of years.
In editing the piece I cleaned up any repetition and attempted to present a concise text, which progressed. The focalisation begins with a description of the painted image by the focaliser; it expands to include related responses by family; and then temporally shifts to minutiae from ancient Rome. The juxtaposition of personal response with historical fact, I hope, provides sustained interest for the reader.