Böcklin, Arnold - The Sanctuary of Hercules 1884
Type of Spiritual Experience
The symbolism here is complex. A wall surrounds a tree. The wall represents the Earth later of the cosmic Egg – we are all bricks in the wall, although it is egg shaped in plan, Böcklin obviously could not have made it into a complete Egg otherwise the tree would not have been visible.
The Tree is the Tree of Life. And there are indications that he thought that there were parts of this Tree that were dying. Although the left part is healthy enough, the right part is definitely sick.
Leaves are souls, and the left brain right brain split is that between those who are intellectual and science based [left], and those who are in creative [right]. In a sense therefore the imagery combines both the idea that the walls of the cosmic egg have been breached, that the tree of life is being destroyed and that the losers are the creative and spiritually open, there are fallen leaves everywhere.
Those who have been given the charge to protect this sanctuary [the man standing] appear to be either unaware that there are now people looking in, or they themselves have been complicit in this endeavour.
Böcklin’s son, Carlo, co-wrote a book with Ferdinand Runkel, in 1909- after Böcklin’s death in other words, entitled Neben meiner Kunst. Flugstudien, Briefe und Persönliches von und über Arnold Böcklin. His son wrote about his father’s physical and mental health and the effort needed for him to carry on painting around about this time, it was clear that his fears and worries were having an effect on his health in general:
“…In the summer of 1880, the master’s painful afflictions precipitated a serious nervous depression. His lack of interest in working had been joined by fatigue and such a deep melancholy that those around him were seriously concerned about him. All manner of means were vainly sought to alleviate his bodily torments. …….. His heart and nerves had been adversely affected by an ample dose of salicylic acid that had become necessary. …..… As the last resort, his worried spouse hit upon the idea of a change of air, and Böcklin, who had always been a wanderer and derived his best artistic inspiration from the countryside, took up this idea with rapidly reviving spirits. ….. However, he was still with little hope on his departure, a downtrodden victim of his sufferings, and his final gloomy words to his wife were: “You will see me again in Florence either healthy or not at all.” …… Böcklin’s depressive mood at the time (was) so strong that, in his endless hours of agony, he seems often to have toyed with and considered the idea of taking his own life. The pain alone would not have disheartened this powerful man, but the rheumatic inflammation of his joints had also stricken his right shoulder, and, with his creative hand, with whose dexterity a new world had been created, Böcklin was only able to guide the brush in great pain and with great effort…”
A description of the experience