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Perspectives Religion and Spirituality

Visualizing the Afterlife

Explore how artists across time and place have contemplated the afterlife.

May 17

Reflective mirror that says EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY.

In 2021, associate curator Andrea Achi presented The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery, also known as the Byzantine Crypt. For her next installation in this unique space, Achi invited associate curator Akili Tommasino to co-curate an exhibition called Afterlives: Contemporary Art in the Byzantine Crypt which showcases objects that reflect a variety of religious and cultural traditions. While all the works deal with death, the installation is not meant to be macabre or to serve as an anthropological survey of funerary art. Instead, this collection-based presentation juxtaposes works by artists active from 1960 to the present in conversation with Byzantine Egyptian funerary art and artifacts to explore how artists across time and place have reckoned with death and visualized the afterlife.

interior shot of gallery 304 that's a brick walled series of rooms.

Installation view of Afterlives: Contemporary Art in the Byzantine Crypt in Gallery 302

Andrea Achi: The Byzantine Crypt is an intimate and enchanting space with exposed brick walls and arched portals, opened in 2000 after a renovation that reclaimed the area beneath The Met’s Grand Staircase. In Afterlives’ transhistorical presentation, the Byzantine Crypt’s religious and secular jewelry, textiles, ivory objects, vessels, and architectural sculpture from Early Christian and Coptic monastic sites are complemented and enriched by contemporary sculptures, works on paper, and installations that similarly serve memorial, reliquary, or apotropaic functions. We hope that Afterlives might make the Crypt a surprising destination to discover relationships between the past and present.

Akili Tommasino: Building on The Met’s recent cross-departmental initiatives such as Crossroads and The African Origin of Civilization, this collection-based exhibition is the result not only of our curatorial collaboration but also the collective efforts of colleagues in our respective departments as well as in the departments of Photographs and Islamic Art, who lent to the exhibition. The Met Cloisters, American Wing, and departments of Modern and Contemporary Art, European Paintings, and European Sculpture and Decorative Arts are hosting editions of Adrian Piper’s Everything #4 (2004) in an unprecedented multi-gallery installation including three new additions to The Met’s collection and three exceptional loans from the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

interior shot of gallery 304 that's a brick walled series of rooms.  

On the left Fragment of a Stela (4th century), and on the right Whitfield Lovell’s Wise Like That (2000)

Achi: Confronting death and envisioning the afterlife are topics that have intrigued and inspired artists and artisans for centuries. Grief is universal.

Tommasino: Among other themes, the pairings and groups of Byzantine and contemporary artworks similarly negotiate multiple belief systems and their manifestation in syncretic mortuary art. Rows of Byzantine tombstones under low arches evoke the simple geometry of slablike monolithic modernist sculptures like German artist Gunnar Theel’s Enibas (1992). Theel’s abstract sculptures are inspired by domestic architecture. Flanked by Byzantine tombstones of similar dimensions, Enibas evokes the notion of the grave as a home for the dead. Its simple geometry and formal balance lend it a sense of monumentality despite its small size.

interior shot of gallery 304 that's a brick walled series of rooms.

On the left Anita Huffington’s Persephone (1999), and on the right a case of seventh-century fragments of gods and goddesses

Achi: References to ancient myths about death and the afterlife like Persephone, Osiris, and Orpheus abound in works like American artist Anita Huffington’s Persephone (1999), which is in dialogue with Byzantine objects incorporating both pagan and Christian imagery. The forms and materials of the Byzantine marble fragments and Huffington’s work are so similar that the visitor might be unsure which objects are old and new. The rough, stone flesh on the thigh of Persephone, made in 1999, looks decayed, while the fourth- to seventh-century fragments of classical gods and goddesses almost shine in their case.

Tommasino: Two contemporary sculptures in the exhibition allude to vessels for remains.

Dark bronze sculpture with two round anthropomorphic portruding forms coming out symmetrically and upwards.

Louise Bourgeois (American, 1911–2010). Point of Contact, 2005. Drypoint, sheet: 13 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (34.3 x 34.3 cm); plate: 6 7/8 x 9 1/2 in. (17.5 x 24.1 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Ruth Stephan Franklin, 1973 (1973.340) © 2024 The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Through her work in various mediums, Louise Bourgeois explored and questioned the social dynamics of gender and sexuality, including their implications for art and her own inner life. Point of Contact (1967–68) is a bosom-like form that puns on the tradition of the reliquary bust, an image of a venerated saint built to hold a physical relic such as a skull. Miraculous properties were often ascribed to a particular saint’s body part, and many reliquaries show signs of wear from the repeated touch of devotees. A gendered, even erogenous memorial, Point of Contact mingles concepts of worship, gender, sex, and death.

A sleek, shiny golden vessel with a top that looks like an Egyptian statue.

Tavares Strachan (Bahamian-American, born 1979). ENOCH (display unit), 2015–17. Bronze, 24k gold, steel, radar retroreflectors, and sacred air, 14 3/8 × 3 1/2 × 4 1/8 in. (36.5 × 8.9 × 10.5 cm) blessed by Shinto priest. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (2021.385a–c) Gift of Perrotin Gallery, 2021

Tavares Strachan’s ENOCH, (display unit) (2015–17) came into the collection in 2021, the year I joined The Met. This futuristic golden vessel inspired by ancient Egyptian canopic jars honors the memory of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first Black American astronaut, who died in a flight crash in 1967. Strachan’s sculpture is a corresponding edition of a functional satellite launched into orbit in 2018. Connecting avant-garde art and technology and ancient funerary traditions, it encapsulates the range of this exhibition.

interior shot of gallery 304 that's a brick walled series of rooms.

On the left is Ana Mendieta’s Vivification of the Flesh (1981), and on the right is a case of ancient textiles

Achi: In the late antique period, bands across the chest and wrists, and roundels on the head, had apotropaic functions for their owners. They were charms, bringing good luck to their wearers. Textiles like these were wrapped around deceased bodies and were preserved by Egypt’s dry climate. Although we do not know exactly where it was found, it was likely excavated from an Egyptian cemetery in the early twentieth century. Here we place Ana Mendieta’s Vivification of the Flesh (1981) in dialogue with the textiles, which were discolored due to their contact with human remains. Mendieta’s work engages with death, memory, and the afterlife. The formal qualities of her work on paper and the textiles allow us to reflect on how makers engaged with these themes across time and space.

 On left is a mirror that says everything will be taken away and on the right is an image of the mirror installed in a stone room with dramatic lighting, four figures and a grave.

Installation view of Adrian Piper’s Everything #4 (2004) at The Met Cloisters

Tommasino: Everything #4 (2004)—an editioned wall work consisting of an oval wood-framed mirror etched with the phrase “EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY,” by conceptual artist Adrian Piper—is a central feature of the exhibition. The mirror and its text present the persistence of impermanence and compels visitors to confront the central themes of the exhibition. According to the artist, Afterlives is the first exhibition to realize Everything #4’s ideal mode of display in which the mirrors are “dispersed among widely separated spaces and rooms, so that the viewer encounters this reminder of mortality and transcendence repeatedly but unexpectedly.”

Image of a metal sculpture fused with lots of bits installed onto a red brick wall.

Melvin Edward’s Ready Now Now (Lynch Fragment) (1988) installed in Gallery 302

Achi: The axe-like implement, which has fused, protruding forms, on Mel Edward’s Ready Now Now (Lynch Fragment) (1988) evokes the damage to the chipped frieze seen in front of it. Its contorted, broken, and fused fragments appended to the wall conjure both weaponry and the mutilated bodies of the victimized. Christian architectural friezes from the Byzantine period, like the ones displayed in the Crypt, were often chipped after they were intentionally removed from sacred contexts because depictions of faces and hands on art had power that could only be controlled if they were erased. This act of destroying artworks as a way to make them inactive is called iconoclasm. The pairing of the lynch fragment with the chipped-away frieze allows us to reflect on the ways in which art can suggest violence, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Tommasino: Walid Raad’s fictional 3D-printed architectural remnant Preface to the third edition Acknowledgment (Coupe II) (2014) appears to be archaeological. Here, it commingles with the Byzantine stone corbels, capitals, and frieze fragments installed high on the walls of the Crypt. Just like Huffington’s piece paired with the Byzantine marbles, it is difficult to distinguish old from new.

interior shot of gallery 304 that's a brick walled series of rooms.

On the left is Alwar Balasubramaniam’s Body as Shell (2011–15), and on the right are ancient bone plaques

Achi: Carved from sheep and goat bones, these bone plaques were originally used as appliqués for furniture and boxes. They usually represent scenes of joy and leisure. Bone fragments like these were discovered in archeological rubbish heaps from the late antique periods. When the archaeologists discovered the heaps of bone, they remarked how the site, with hundreds of bone fragments, resembled the aftermath of a battlefield. These plaques are in the same case as Body as Shell (2011–15), a recent acquisition by the artist Alwar Balasubramaniam that presents a creative reimagining of the process of decay as shedding one’s shell. This work is installed in a case that typically houses clothing and other artifacts that were interred with the bodies of the deceased.

Tommasino: Finally, we included a sound work in the installation that creates a gravitational pull into the exhibition. The haunting, distorted voices of deceased rappers in Kevin Beasley’s I.W.M.S.B. (2011–12), the condensed recording of his 2012 MoMA performance I Want My Spot Back, in which the artist mixed ambient audio with samples of the haunting, distorted voices of deceased Black rappers. In this poignant work of sound art, the sampled songs’ brash and occasionally menacing lyrics ironically underscore the ultimate fragility of the lives of the departed. Beasley’s work confronts the dual gift and conundrum engendered by sound-recording technology that enables the voices of the dead to reverberate beyond the grave and adds a crucial sensory dynamic to the otherwise silent groupings.


Marquee: Adrian Piper (b.1948). Everything #4, 2004. Oval mirror with gold leaf engraved text in mahogany frame, 13 × 10 in. (33 × 25.4 cm). Collection of the Adrian Piper Research Archive (APRA) Foundation Berlin. © APRA Foundation.

About the contributors

Curator Andrea Myers-Achi

Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art