Friday, November 28, 2008

The quest for immortality

click photo to enlarge
Is the personal quest for immortality through artefacts anything more than simple vanity? I can't see that it is. The idea that you want or need people to remember you after your death seems absurd to me. That family, friends and admirers might wish to remember a person is an entirely different matter, but naming a building after yourself, building your own marble mausoleum, having your statue cast, or writing a book with that purpose in mind, seems to me a rather pathetic act of weakness and vanity. I remember being disappointed when I read that John Keats' poetry was motivated, in large part, by his desire for fame and immortality, and that the drive that leads many to write was only a small part of his motivation. His reason for writing seemed to demean both him and his work.

This thought sometimes comes into my head as I look at the monuments and memorials in churches. Many are erected with gratitude by people who knew the deceased. But others are works commissioned by the person commemorated, and are clearly designed to portray him or her in a flattering light. Those depicting eighteenth century aristocrats in antique Roman costume, exuding classical nobility and learning, accompanied by a tablet of unctuous prose, are the ones I find particularly repugnant.

I don't know whether this fifteenth century knight of the Order of St John in the church of St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire, commissioned his own effigy, or whether it was made after his death. It is an interesting alabaster piece, and without sculpture such as this we would know much less about the armour of people of that time. However, as a commemorative piece it has failed, because, unlike many in this type of memorial, we no longer know precisely who is shown. We do know that the Order was active in Boston in the thirteenth century, that it maintained two hospitals and St John's church in the town, and that it was dissolved in 1540, but beyond that we know little. It may be connected with the family of Sir William Weston. Today we can enjoy it as a piece of sculpture, as social history, and as a tangible link to the place's past. But not as this person's stab at immortality.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 17mm (34mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/15
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On